Democracy and Lord of the Flies (1 of 2)

Unknown.jpegRich in metaphors, thrills, and controversies, William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies remains a well-read book, and its enthusiasts are met with equal passion from opposing critics who denounce it for its disturbing themes, among other things. The common theme every reader picks up on—man’s natural savagery and inherent darkness—permeates the book; anyone who recalls Lord of the Flies will inevitably think of savagery, and vice versa, for the two are inseparable, synonymous even. How a group of young English boys ends up on an island, descending into deranged rituals and questionable behavior, has piqued readers for years. In this post I will be looking at the philosophy of the book. No one can write about Lord of the Flies and philosophy without mentioning Hobbes, as his ethical and political theories are perfectly pertinent; but in this series of posts I will also be discussing Plato and the failure of democracy, Hobbes of course, and Nietzsche and his Will to Power.

Right away Golding makes his view of government clear, contrasting the two classic types of ruling: democracy and tyranny. While Golding himself idealized democracy, thinking it the best form of government, I have interpreted it conversely, using the book to explain, alongside Plato, why democracy—direct democracy, that is—never works. Direct democracy is unlike representative democracy in that the people themselves vote for their leader, not for representatives who then vote for the leader; nowhere in direct democracy is there a middleman, just the masses and he who is elected. The first thing the boys do in the book is hold an informal election (perhaps Golding suggesting that democracy is the most natural government), with no ballot, no parties, clean, efficient. We learn, though, that Ralph, who is elected chief, was selected not for his merit nor his character, but for his position, namely as the holder of the conch, a shell that is granted the power of calling impromptu assemblies. Obviously this is not a meritocracy, based on skill, nor is it an aristocracy, based on those with the best character, but a plain democracy—therein we find the first danger, which is the fact that elections done entirely by the people are international_day_of_democracy.jpgunreliable. What if Jack had the conch, or Simon? Certainly they would be chief. In fact, anyone, including the Littluns, if they had the conch, could have been the chief. From that point on there is an evident power struggle between Ralph and the antagonist Jack, who is conceived as a natural leader, who is displeased with the whole concept of voting, questioning the legitimacy of it: “‘Who are you, anyway? Sitting there telling people what to do. You can’t hunt, you can’t sing—… Why should choosing make any difference? Just giving orders that don’t make sense—’” (Golding  86). Jack has a point here, for Ralph, despite being one of the most sensible characters, is not the brightest, admitting himself that he is not as smart as Piggy, whom he judges a better, more rational leader than he (Golding 73). Because Ralph cannot manage the crowd by himself, he relies on the conch to get his point across and get the others’ attention. But since he has invested all of his power and the entire foundation of order in the shell, it becomes an easy target. Get rid of the shell, get rid of Ralph. Simple as that. Jack starts to undermine the conch’s authority, repeatedly declaring it useless on certain parts of the island and completely dismissing it altogether: “‘We don’t need the conch anymore. We know who ought to say things’” (Golding 97). As the assemblies go on, Ralph notices the vanity of the democratic process: the constant shouting out, the neglect of taking turns, and the incessant tomfoolery that Piggy calls “‘[J]us’ talk without deciding’” (Golding 168) that punctuates the meetings.

We need an assembly. Not for fun. Not for laughing and falling off the log… not for these things. But to put things straight…. We have lots of assemblies. Everybody enjoys speaking and being together. We decide things. But they never get done (Golding 74).

Despite the many assemblies the boys have, despite all the viable plans they make, the boys get absolutely nothing done. The Littluns play around, too weak to do anything, and the Bigguns are lazy and will do no work. There is no productivity, no follow-up, no progress. When Ralph says they must all build huts so they can be warm, comfortable, and safe, nobody helps him, except Samneric and Simon. And the hunters, whom he put in charge of the signal fire, the fire that could potentially get them off the island, neglect their job, instead leaving their post to track and hunt a pig. Democracy thus may be an ideal, but it is neither an achievable nor a workable one that can be made a reality. Soon after, talk of a beast circulates, and the entire assembly descends into chaos:

In a moment the platform was full of arguing, gesticulating shadows. To Ralph, seated, this seemed the breaking up of sanity. Fear, beasts, no general agreement that the fire was all-important: and when one tried to get the thing straight the argument sheered off, bringing up fresh, unpleasant matter (Golding 83-4).

The Littluns are fearful and vulnerable, the active majority; Jack is manipulative, exploiting the minorities; and Ralph, trying desperately to keep order, cannot appease both parties at the same time without angering either. One can almost think of a congressional or bureaucratic meeting where there is nothing but bickering, insanity, and utter unproductivity; Ralph even thinks it the “breaking up of sanity” because it gets so intense, like a black hole of irrationality that sucks up all things sensible, leaving behind madness and torpor. Plato wrote close to home:

When a democracy… has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom,… they [the people] chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority and at length, as you know, they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten; they will have no one over them.[1]

Once the notion of freedom and control is taken up by democracy, it empowers the people almost intoxicatingly. Plato writes of the inebriation of freedom, the desire for absolute liberty to do whatsoever one desires without fear of punishment, of reprimand, of punity. In Lord of the Flies, too, the boys are overcome with overwhelming freedom, and they realize this, take advantage of it, and use it to wreck havoc on the island. Sure the boys “‘have ‘Hands up’ like at school’” (Golding 28), allowing for one person to speak at a time, but there is no punishment, nothing to discourage them from not speaking in turn, nothing to instil fear in them. There is no way to keep the boys in check, therefore, without having strict rules, lest the boys get out of control, as they naturally do. Even the simple rules are not followed. Jack says in the beginning, “‘We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages’” (Golding 38). However, he later goes back on this, abolishing the rules later on. Another danger Plato wrote of was the degeneration from democracy to tyranny, of which he says:

[H]aving a mob entirely at his disposal, he [the tyrant] is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; by favorite method of false accusation he brings them into court and murders them, making the life of man to disappear, and with unholy tongue and lips tasting the blood of his fellow citizens.[2]

Jack fortunately does not go so far as to invite Ralph to his court and then proceed to slaughter him, although he does come close. Several times. During one of the assemblies Jack seizes his opportunity, taking advantage of his time with the conch to turn the rest of images.jpegthe boys against Ralph, putting words into his mouth, making false accusations, and calling him a coward, even attempting to depose him in hopes of getting elected himself (Golding 122-4). His coup does not succeed, so he runs off, having been publicly humiliated, only for some of the boys to later leave Ralph and join Jack, leading to a polarization between the two groups, creating a dangerous “us vs. them” complex, with Jack’s tribe carrying out secret operations to sabotage, raid, and ambush Ralph and his people. Finally, Plato, in Machiavellian fashion, writes, “[T]he tyrant, if he means to rule, must get rid of [his enemies]…. Therefore he must look about him and see who is valiant, who is high-minded, who is wise.”[3] In other words, if a tyrant wants to gain power and keep his power, he must get rid of all opposition, especially those who are brave, have morals, and are wise, for they are most capable of dispelling him. We saw already that Jack sought to remove Ralph from the chieftain, but he also takes out his wrath upon Piggy, the smartest on the island. Piggy is knowledgeable, he knows science, he knows what he is doing. The others do not. Hence having a critical thinker on the island poses a threat to Jack, so he must eliminate Piggy. When Piggy asks for extras during dinner (he is a little on the heavy side), Jack sees this as vulnerability and “had meant to leave him in doubt, as an assertion of power; but Piggy by advertising his omission made more cruelty necessary” (Golding 69). Jack constantly derides Piggy, calls him “Fatty,” knocks him down, and steals his glasses, all in an effort to bring him down, to keep his power as long as possible, to remove all threats to his throne. Jack will stop at nothing to bring down the democracy for which Ralph fought so hard in an attempt to usher in a new rule… sorta like Trump.


[1] Plato, The Republic, VIII, 562a-563d
[2] Id., 565a
[3] Id., 567d


For further reading: The Republic by Plato (1990)
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (2011)


2 thoughts on “Democracy and Lord of the Flies (1 of 2)

    • Thank you! I absolutely agree with you—not enough consideration is taken when reading Golding, despite his realism, which is really a shame, for he truly depicts the human condition, albeit at its lowest depths. On Monday I will be talking about Hobbes and Nietzsche, and I am still researching Freud for a future post.



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