Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

98. The Republic, Part 2

Note: This post is the ninety-eighth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

In this post, I'm going to talk about 'The Republic' by Plato. In 'The Republic' Plato sets out his vision of the ideal state, but in this week's post, I just want to cover chapter 8, near the end of The Republic, in which Plato sets out the other types of states and how, starting in his ideal republic, states decay from one mode of government to another over time. Plato wasn't trying to say that this progression is always exactly followed and the introduction that I read was quite dismissive of the realism of Plato's proposed progression, but personally, I found his description to be quite true to the history of our own culture - which is a little worrying since he claims that democracy is followed by tyranny.

Anyway, the first alternative form of state that is first to emerge from the ideal republic is one that Plato says corresponds roughly to the Spartan model and he refers to it as Timarchy, or "the government of honour". The government of honour differs from Plato's ideal Republic in that the ruling class has begun to be corrupted by a love of money so that they maintain private stores of wealth and build castles to protect them. In addition, the state is governed by a warrior-king rather than a philosopher king and there is a near constant state of warfare.

(note: The Republic is written as a dialogue. In this book, Socrates is doing the talking and his friends Glaucon and Adeimantus are playing the role of agreeable yes-men.)

"In the honour given to rulers, in the abstinence of the warrior class from agriculture, handicrafts, and trade in general, in the institution of common meals, and in the attention paid to gymnastics and military training—in all these respects this State will resemble the former [Plato's ideal Republic].


But in the fear of admitting philosophers to power, because they are no longer to be had simple and earnest, but are made up of mixed elements; and in turning from them to passionate and less complex characters, who are by nature fitted for war rather than peace; and in the value set by them upon military stratagems and contrivances, and in the waging of everlasting wars—this State will be for the most part peculiar.


Yes, I said; and men of this stamp will be covetous of money, like those who live in oligarchies; they will have, a fierce secret longing after gold and silver, which they will hoard in dark places, having magazines and treasuries of their own for the deposit and concealment of them; also castles which are just nests for their eggs, and in which they will spend large sums on their wives, or on any others whom they please."

As he describes each state, Plato also describes the sort of person who inhabits that state, and shows how each personality type derives from the last.

"He [The man in the Timocratic state] should have more of self-assertion and be less cultivated, and yet a friend of culture; and he should be a good listener, but no speaker. Such a person is apt to be rough with slaves, unlike the educated man, who is too proud for that; and he will also be courteous to freemen, and remarkably obedient to authority; he is a lover of power and a lover of honour; claiming to be a ruler, not because he is eloquent, or on any ground of that sort, but because he is a soldier and has performed feats of arms; he is also a lover of gymnastic exercises and of the chase.

Yes, that is the type of character which answers to timocracy.

Such an one will despise riches only when he is young; but as he gets older he will be more and more attracted to them, because he has a piece of the avaricious nature in him, and is not single-minded towards virtue, having lost his best guardian.

Who was that? said Adeimantus.

Philosophy, I said, tempered with music, who comes and takes up her abode in a man, and is the only saviour of his virtue throughout life.

Good, he said.

Such, I said, is the timocratical youth, and he is like the timocratical State."

Plato's description of a society that is warlike and contentious, filled with brave men who build castles and live under a 'government of honour' certainly bears more than a passing resemblance to the medieval period and its code of chivalry.

In Plato's telling, the 'Government of Honour' eventually gives way to an Oligarchy, "A government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it."

"The accumulation of gold in the treasury of private individuals is the ruin of timocracy; they invent illegal modes of expenditure; for what do they or their wives care about the law?

Yes, indeed.

And then one, seeing another grow rich, seeks to rival him, and thus the great mass of the citizens become lovers of money.

Likely enough.

And so they grow richer and richer, and the more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue; for when riches and virtue are placed together in the scales of the balance, the one always rises as the other falls.


And in proportion as riches and rich men are honoured in the State, virtue and the virtuous are dishonoured.


And what is honoured is cultivated, and that which has no honour is neglected.

That is obvious.

And so at last, instead of loving contention and glory, men become lovers of trade and money; they honour and look up to the rich man, and make a ruler of him, and dishonour the poor man.

They do so.

They next proceed to make a law which fixes a sum of money as the qualification of citizenship; the sum is higher in one place and lower in another, as the oligarchy is more or less exclusive; and they allow no one whose property falls below the amount fixed to have any share in the government. These changes in the constitution they effect by force of arms, if intimidation has not already done their work."

Plato notes many defects of Oligarchy, including the inability of the Oligarchs to carry out a war successfully, the corruption of having the same group of people doing too many tasks - running both business and government, and the creation of class warfare between the wealthy class and the poor class.

The match isn't quite as good, but again, there is a resemblance between the oligarchy that Plato describes and the period of the Industrial revolution, the inequality described by Dickens, powerful 'robber-barons' who controlled the government, a long period with (relatively) little warfare, societies where government was reserved for those with a minimum level of wealth, and a great growth in global trade and wealth which was not particularly widely shared leading to the rise of marxism and communism.

Next Plato describes the descent from Oligarchy to Democracy. Basically, where the Oligarchy retained a level of self-discipline, as needed to allow for the accumulation of wealth, in a Democracy restraints are thrown to the winds and people can do as they please.

"And then 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; and this is the form of government in which the magistrates are commonly elected by lot.

Yes, he said, that is the nature of democracy, whether the revolution has been effected by arms, or whether fear has caused the opposite party to withdraw.

And now what is their manner of life, and what sort of a government have they? for as the government is, such will be the man.

Clearly, he said.

In the first place, are they not free; and is not the city full of freedom and frankness—a man may say and do what he likes?

'Tis said so, he replied.

And where freedom is, the individual is clearly able to order for himself his own life as he pleases?


Then in this kind of State there will be the greatest variety of human natures?

There will.

This, then, seems likely to be the fairest of States, being like an embroidered robe which is spangled with every sort of flower. And just as women and children think a variety of colours to be of all things most charming, so there are many men to whom this State, which is spangled with the manners and characters of mankind, will appear to be the fairest of States."

Again, Plato's description of democracy bears a strong resemblance to our current society that emerged from the World Wars of the early 20th century. Plato notes that the primary characteristics of Democracy are freedom and liberty. So much so that even slaves, women and eventually animals are given the same liberty that is normally reserved for men. But Plato believes that the primacy of liberty and the accompanying unwillingness to allow for any restraint is what sets the stage for tyranny to emerge from democracy.

"By degrees the anarchy finds a way into private houses, and ends by getting among the animals and infecting them.

How do you mean?

I mean that 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 this is his freedom, and the metic is equal with the citizen and the citizen with the metic, and the stranger is quite as good as either.

Yes, he said, that is the way.

And these are not the only evils, I said—there are several lesser ones: In such a state of society the master fears and flatters his scholars, and the scholars despise their masters and tutors; young and old are all alike; and the young man is on a level with the old, and is ready to compete with him in word or deed; and old men condescend to the young and are full of pleasantry and gaiety; they are loth to be thought morose and authoritative, and therefore they adopt the manners of the young.

Quite true, he said.

The last extreme of popular liberty is when the slave bought with money, whether male or female, is just as free as his or her purchaser; nor must I forget to tell of the liberty and equality of the two sexes in relation to each other.

Why not, as Aeschylus says, utter the word which rises to our lips?

That is what I am doing, I replied; and I must add that no one who does not know would believe, how much greater is the liberty which the animals who are under the dominion of man have in a democracy than in any other State: for truly, the she-dogs, as the proverb says, are as good as their she-mistresses, and the horses and asses have a way of marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen; and they will run at any body who comes in their way if he does not leave the road clear for them: and all things are just ready to burst with liberty.

When I take a country walk, he said, I often experience what you describe. You and I have dreamed the same thing.

And above all, I said, and as the result of all, see how sensitive the citizens become; they 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.

Yes, he said, I know it too well.

Such, my friend, I said, is the fair and glorious beginning out of which springs tyranny."

Plato describes how idle spendthrifts, who are unwelcome in most states, but "in a democracy they are almost the entire ruling power" come to try and squeeze the wealthy class for their money, leading the wealthy to fight back and become more like oligarchs, leading to an escalating battle until finally the people back a champion who takes their cause against the wealthy and the spendthrifts and this champion is able to seize power under the mantle of serving the people, who don't realize until it is too late how their champion will turn upon them and become a tyrant.

One of the most compelling parts of the chapter is where Plato describes how the tyrant is driven by necessity into a more and more depraved existence, forced to drive out all the best and brightest from society since they will be seen as rivals to his power.

"At first, in the early days of his power, he is full of smiles, and he salutes every one whom he meets;—he to be called a tyrant, who is making promises in public and also in private! liberating debtors, and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to every one!

Of course, he said.

But when he has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader.

To be sure.

Has he not also another object, which is that they may be impoverished by payment of taxes, and thus compelled to devote themselves to their daily wants and therefore less likely to conspire against him?


And if any of them are suspected by him of having notions of freedom, and of resistance to his authority, he will have a good pretext for destroying them by placing them at the mercy of the enemy; and for all these reasons the tyrant must be always getting up a war.

He must.

Now he begins to grow unpopular.

A necessary result.

Then some of those who joined in setting him up, and who are in power, speak their minds to him and to one another, and the more courageous of them cast in his teeth what is being done.

Yes, that may be expected.

And the tyrant, if he means to rule, must get rid of them; he cannot stop while he has a friend or an enemy who is good for anything.

He cannot.

And therefore he must look about him and see who is valiant, who is high-minded, who is wise, who is wealthy; happy man, he is the enemy of them all, and must seek occasion against them whether he will or no, until he has made a purgation of the State.

Yes, he said, and a rare purgation.

Yes, I said, not the sort of purgation which the physicians make of the body; for they take away the worse and leave the better part, but he does the reverse.

If he is to rule, I suppose that he cannot help himself.

What a blessed alternative, I said:—to be compelled to dwell only with the many bad, and to be by them hated, or not to live at all!

Yes, that is the alternative.

And the more detestable his actions are to the citizens the more satellites and the greater devotion in them will he require?


And who are the devoted band, and where will he procure them?

They will flock to him, he said, of their own accord, if he pays them.

By the dog! I said, here are more drones, of every sort and from every land.

Yes, he said, there are.

But will he not desire to get them on the spot?

How do you mean?

He will rob the citizens of their slaves; he will then set them free and enrol them in his body-guard.

To be sure, he said; and he will be able to trust them best of all.

What a blessed creature, I said, must this tyrant be; he has put to death the others and has these for his trusted friends."

In book 9, Plato goes on to describe the miserable existence of the tyrannical man, a mirror of the miserable state that he governs. The miserable life of the tyrant is Plato's final answer to the question of whether it is better to live a life of virtue or vice, since it is vice that leads to tyranny, and tyranny leads to the misery of the one who practices it (obviously I'm oversimplifying here), but that is not the main point in this post. In this post, I just wanted to highlight the prescience of Plato's description of the succession of states and how well it seems to correspond to our own pro(re)gression. We can only hope that he was wrong about tyranny following democracy, or at least that it will follow on sometime in the future after we have passed on ourselves.

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