Plato, of course, was not clairvoyant. His analysis of how democracy can turn into tyranny is a complex one more keyed toward ancient societies than our own (and contains more wrinkles and eddies than I can summarize here). His disdain for democratic life was fueled in no small part by the fact that a democracy had executed his mentor, Socrates. And he would, I think, have been astonished at how American democracy has been able to thrive with unprecedented stability over the last couple of centuries even as it has brought more and more people into its embrace. It remains, in my view, a miracle of constitutional craftsmanship and cultural resilience. There is no place I would rather live. But it is not immortal, nor should we assume it is immune to the forces that have endangered democracy so many times in human history. ... Part of American democracy’s stability is owed to the fact that the Founding Fathers had read their Plato. ... Many contend, of course, that American democracy is actually in retreat, close to being destroyed by the vastly more unequal economy of the last quarter-century and the ability of the very rich to purchase political influence. This is Bernie Sanders’s core critique. But the past few presidential elections have demonstrated that, in fact, money from the ultrarich has been mostly a dud. ... The evidence suggests that direct democracy, far from being throttled, is actually intensifying its grip on American politics. ... it is precisely because of the great accomplishments of our democracy that we should be vigilant about its specific, unique vulnerability: its susceptibility, in stressful times, to the appeal of a shameless demagogue.
What Leucippus and Democritus had understood was that the world can be comprehended using reason. They had become convinced that the variety of natural phenomena must be attributable to something simple, and had tried to understand what this something might be. They had conceived of a kind of elementary substance from which everything was made. Anaximenes of Miletus had imagined this substance could compress and rarefy, thus transforming from one to another of the elements from which the world is constituted. It was a first germ of physics, rough and elementary, but in the right direction. An idea was needed, a great idea, a grand vision, to grasp the hidden order of the world. Leucippus and Democritus came up with this idea. ... The idea of Democritus’s system is extremely simple: the entire universe is made up of a boundless space in which innumerable atoms run. Space is without limits; it has neither an above nor a below; it is without a centre or a boundary. Atoms have no qualities at all, apart from their shape. They have no weight, no colour, no taste. ... Atoms are indivisible; they are the elementary grains of reality, which cannot be further subdivided, and everything is made of them. They move freely in space, colliding with one another; they hook on to and push and pull one another. Similar atoms attract one another and join. ... We know of his thought only through the quotations and references made by other ancient authors, and by their summaries of his ideas.