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  • The Democratic Individual: Dewey’s Back to Plato Movement
  • Jeff Jackson

In his most distinctly political book, The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey describes a never-ending process of achieving democratic governance, in which obstacles to such governance inevitably emerge, and are progressively overcome. However, even in that evidently political work, Dewey still emphasizes that there is a “distinction between democracy as a social idea and political democracy as a system of government. . . . The idea of democracy is a wider and fuller idea than can be exemplified in the state even at its best” (143). The typical political bodies that exercise legislative, executive, administrative, and judicial power are not the only institutions that significantly impact how individuals live their lives. Political institutions could be deemed as meeting democratic standards, while “non-political” associations at the societal level (such as family, work, or religion) are substantially hindering the possibilities for individuals to exercise autonomous control over their own growth. Dewey’s vision of democratic possibilities ultimately comes down to the individual level, and an individual’s social relations define the course of her life to an even greater degree than her political institutions.1 As he puts it, “democracy cannot now depend upon or be expressed in political institutions alone . . . for democracy is expressed in the attitudes of human beings and is measured by consequences produced in their lives” (Freedom and Culture 125).

On Dewey’s terms, then, a democratic theory must not satisfy itself with anything less than an inquiry into individual disposition—thus Dewey’s famous remark that “democracy is a personal way of individual life. . . . [I]t signifies the possession and continual use of certain attitudes, forming personal character and determining desire and purpose in all the relations of life” (“Creative Democracy” 241). Dewey’s theory is indeed founded on its notion [End Page 14] of a democratic individual way of life, for it is this exhibition of democratic behavior by individuals that is meant to be our primary standard for evaluating the presence of democracy.

In this article, I seek to elucidate the meaning of Dewey’s democratic individual way of life by exploring his philosophical relationship to Plato. Dewey conveys his admiration for Plato when he declares that “[n]othing could be more helpful to present philosophizing than a ‘Back to Plato’ movement” (“From Absolutism to Experimentalism” 21). This veneration may be puzzling—given Plato’s status as an evident anti-democrat—but, as I will argue below, the great insight that Dewey sees in Plato is the latter’s goal (sought most famously in The Republic) of “such a development of man’s nature as brings him into complete harmony with the universe of spiritual relations, or, in Platonic language, the state” (EW 1:241). In The Republic, Plato depicts five different states and the corresponding five types of individuals, with the aim of demonstrating the superiority of his ideal aristocratic state and aristocratic individual. For Dewey, we can no longer reasonably hold to the assumptions underlying Plato’s “universe of spiritual relations”2—we can no longer cling to a notion of a static, eternal truth that only a select few are capable of grasping, nor to the idea that human relations are so ordered that individuals may be placed in strictly defined classes and narrow functional roles. In Dewey’s view, human (especially, scientific) advancements have progressively knocked down claims to any type of unchanging knowledge, making the pursuit of knowledge a continuous, never-ending task that can only be tackled through full engagement with the utterly transient qualities of ordinary human experience. And, “a new age of human relations” has emerged that is primarily characterized by disorder, for scientific and economic changes have so thoroughly intertwined the peoples of the world such that all individuals are impacted by “indirect consequences” caused by remote forces beyond their immediate control (Public and Its Problems 96–109).

In The Republic, Plato describes the democratic state as one where virtually nothing is held to be unchanging and sacred, and where diverse individuals from different corners of society interact with each other and neglect to stay within their limits. He similarly condemns the democratic individual as...


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pp. 14-38
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