Plato is one of the most influential thinkers in Western culture and civilization, but one whose ideas wouldn’t really fit into the decentralized culture: his political thought has largely influenced the idea of communism, and he was one of history’s harshest critics of democracy. To him participation of the many in the decision-making process is a terrible security mistake for the state, much like Nick Szabo resents trusted third parties and deems them as security holes.
Under these considerations, it would be really easy to conclude that Plato wouldn’t like Bitcoin and think it’s an invention which undermines the authority of the polity. And while this might be a fair point to which lots of contemporary philosophers would agree, it’s also a shallow perspective which doesn’t take into consideration his classification of political regimes and his description of an ideal government.
As previously stated, Plato hated democracy and thought it was very much a like a mob rule – an establishment where the many, uneducated and poor seize the resources from the wealthy and create a political system where they make poorly-informed decisions and collapse the entire order to the point that a tyrant comes along and takes over. His opinion was based on his personal observation of the Peloponnesian war and the way it dismantled the rather fragile Athenian democracy into what we know as the Thirty Tyrants (a pro-Spartan oligarchy which governed for 8 months in 404 BCE).
However, Plato described an ideal political regime of his own: Philosopher Kings
This is the part where it gets really interesting, as a careful observer will find many similarities between the Bitcoin protocol and Plato’s proposal for an ideal polity. If you read Book VI of “The Republic”, you will discover that the famous philosopher had a strong preference for “wisdom-lovers” as leaders.
This establishment that’s governed by philosopher kings has three distinct social classes which fulfil crucial roles: the guardians (governing philosophers), the auxiliaries (soldiers who defend it), and the producers (farmers, hunters, and artisans).
But that’s very much like the Bitcoin protocol, isn’t it? You have wise coders who write BIPs and think about the future and sustainability of the system, self-interested miners and node-runners who want to make sure that the protocol operates according to their expectations, and traders who keep the volumes up and leverage the supply-demand chain. The main difference is that in Plato’s state one can’t simultaneously be an artisan and a king, whereas Bitcoin allows participants to code, support the system, and engage in trade. The division of labor is mandatory and singular in the first example, and optional and plural in the latter.
Furthermore, something Plato would appreciate and esteem is the efficiency of the Bitcoin protocol in terms of resistance to internal and external attacks. His entire cycle of political regimes (timocracy – oligarchy – democracy – tyranny) is broken by well-written code which incentivizes participants to remain faithful. It’s in everyone’s best interest to not be a Byzantine node and play along with the rules, but at the same time Bitcoin isn’t an oppressive tyranny: much like rebels were allowed to find freedom in exile, those who think differently can simply fork off from the chain or simply stop participating in the system.
Conclusion: Plato would love Bitcoin and think it’s a brilliant political system
As you engage into reading more of Plato’s books, you discover that some of his opinions change over time and his views on democracy adjust according to his real-life experiences (“The Republic” and “The Laws” are very different in this regard). And all of these changes were due to the shifting dynamics from within the Ancient Athenian society that the philosopher lived in.
Yet somebody who loves wisdom and esteems governments of careful thinkers will definitely appreciate a system where good code is more important than manipulative oratory. Bitcoin has managed to withstand a series of attacks from within, and the holy trinity of coders, node runners and traders has always punished dishonesty and defiance for the rules. When Gavin Andressen began to make use of his delegated authority for a cause which wasn’t following the spirit of Bitcoin, the community has successfully removed him and further decentralized the governance.
When Bitcoin Cash and the New York Agreement’s SegWit2X came along, the protocol has resisted these Trojan horses in a rather admirable way. And when governments of the world began to take action against Bitcoin, the community responded with inventions like Samourai Wallet’s SMS offline transactions, goTenna’s relaying service, and Nick Szabo’s and Elaine Ou’s proposal for data transmission via weak-signal high-frequency radio waves.
If Plato were to see these actions, he’d be happy that his very elitist idea is finally put into practice in a way which prevents tyrants from emerging. Even from a philosophy and political science point of view, Bitcoin is fascinating and a case study which deserves to be made just to prove the brilliance of Satoshi’s invention.
However, as Spider Man has taught us, a great power comes with equally great responsibility, so these modern-day philosopher kings must pay close attention to their actions just to make sure that the spirit of the protocol (which first and foremost promotes decentralization) is always deemed as the main priority. Up to this point, Bitcoin is a really successful financial, technological, and social experiment, but it remains to be seen how the dynamics and checks and balances influence the rules of the game.
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