PLATO: The Republic [Book VIII]

In Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, Socrates moves from the discussion of the ideal State of aristocracy to a discussion of the four unjust types of States – timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. Because the natures of States resemble the natures of the men that comprise them, an examination of unjust States will illuminate the natures of unjust men. We can then compare the happiness of the just man to the happiness of the unjust man. “And we shall know whether we ought to pursue injustice, as Thrasymachus advises, or to prefer justice.”

Socrates first considers a timocracy. A timocracy is “a form of government in which the rulers are motivated by ambition or a love of honor.” Socrates admits that a timocracy will naturally arise from his ideal State of aristocracy. He foresees that the guardians will not be able to prevent the mixture of classes; and therefore, the quality of citizens will decline. This degradation will foster a toxic environment in which children will receive an undesirable education. The public will teach children to abandon their rational principles and cultivate their passionate and appetitive aspects, resulting in a population of arrogant and ambitious citizens, who will seek wars against their neighbors and even against one another because of their ambition and love of glory.

Next, Socrates discusses an oligarchy. An oligarchy is “a government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it.” There is a natural transition from a timocracy to an oligarchy. In a timocracy, the citizens are ambitious and proud. When they see their fellow citizens amass wealth, they seek to rival them. “And thus the great mass of the citizens become lovers of money. And so they grow richer and richer, and the more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue.”

Besides the citizens’ disregard for virtue, the problems of vagrants and criminals also develop in an oligarchy. Socrates compares vagrants and criminals with drones in a bee hive. Some drones have stings, others do not. “Of the stingless class are those who in their old age end as paupers; of the stingers come all the criminal class. Clearly then, whenever you see paupers in a State, somewhere in that neighborhood there are hidden away thieves, and cut-purses and robbers of temples, and all sorts of malefactors. The existence of such persons is to be attributed to want of education, ill-training, and an evil constitution of the State.”

Socrates now moves the conversation to the topic of democracy. A democracy is “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state.” A democracy, according to Socrates, naturally arises from an oligarchy. The rulers of an oligarchy do not check the luxurious spending of their subjects because the rulers gain by their subjects’ ruin. This reckless spending reduces men to poverty. “They hate and conspire against those who have got their property, and against everybody else, and are eager for revolution. On the other hand, the men of business pretend to not even see those whom they have already ruined.”

This type of situation is ripe for bloody revolution, and Socrates concludes that “democracy comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power.” The violent French and American revolutions, which replaced an oligarchical government with a democratic government, are two excellent examples that support Socrates’ conclusion.

Upon first glance, democracy seems to be a just and desirable form of government. The citizens are free and may order their lives as they please. But this same freedom is the downfall of democracy. Once men have tasted freedom, they will gradually be unable to tolerate any type of authority. “In such a state of society the teacher fears and flatters his scholars, and the scholars despise their teachers; the young man is on a level with the old, and is ready to compete with him in word or deed; the father grows accustomed to descend to the level of his sons and to fear them, and the son is on a level with his father, he having no respect or reverence for either of his parents. And above all, see how sensitive the citizens become; they chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority, and at length they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten; they will have no one over them.”

Finally, Socrates examines tyranny. Tyranny is “rule by one who has absolute power.” A tyranny emerges from a democracy when a clever demagogue exploits the citizens’ fear of an oligarchy. A tyrant assumes power by promising the citizens of a democracy that he will evenly distribute wealth and land to everyone. Society will be classless, and everyone will enjoy the abundant goods of life. However, once a tyrant gains rule of the population, he consolidates his position by eliminating all citizens who pose a threat to him. In the majority of cases, the citizens who pose a threat to a tyrant are the most intelligent, virtuous, and politically savvy citizens within the State. Thus, a tyrant rids the State of its best elements, and preserves the worst elements.

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