Are We in Tyrannical Times? Has Plato’s Terrible Prediction Come True?
Okay, so Plato once predicted that all democratic governments would inevitably lead to chaos and anarchy.
And sure, he foresaw that elected leaders would try to lie to us, in attempts to placate the people. And yes, Plato deduced that the only logical result from democracy was...Tyranny; a state where lawmakers would purposely undermine the people’s needs in order to maintain power. But really, come on. It’s not like this is happening now, right? Right?
I may have just given away the ending, put my cards on the table a bit too soon, so to speak.
But to investigate whether or not you are living in a tyrannical government - an important issue to be sure - it’s best to get to the point.
So, today we are discussing ancient, political philosophy. Specifically, Plato’s political ideas found within his magnum opus, The Republic.
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I, for one, love political philosophy. This topic has allowed our society to progress over thousands of years. Without it, we would no doubt be living in the wild, killing each other with pointy sticks. Fortunately, we have definitely progressed; we now know that missiles are much more effective.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Government
Back to the point. We are discussing Book VIII of Plato’s The Republic. It is here that Socrates, along with a slew of his philosophical mates, talk about the various forms of government, including their strengths and weaknesses.
The Statue of Socrates at the Academy of Athens. Work of Leonidas Drosis (d. 1880). (C messier/CC BY SA 4.0)
They begin with “timocracy”, a system that stresses honor and military strength. You won’t be surprised to learn that timocracy was effectively used by the Spartans for centuries.
Next up is “oligarchy”, of which Socrates claims the leaders aim to acquire as much wealth as possible. Within this form of government, lawmakers are generally the richest, most affluent citizens.
But this is a serious problem. The wisest, most honorable citizens may never become lawmakers simply because they don’t have enough money. Moreover, disparity between the rich and the poor will lead to mistrust, tensions, and inevitable uprisings.
In conclusion, oligarchies never last. The poor will hate the rich so much that revolution will wash the oligarchical system away, and be replaced with, you guessed it, a democracy.
“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” –Socrates (Plato’s Republic)
While oligarchies are interested in wealth, the principle concern of democracy is freedom. Socrates continues that an abundance of freedom leads to an abundance of diversity. When people are given control over their lives, surely, they will start to think and act independently.
Plato, ancient Greek philosopher. From Thomas Stanley, (1655), ‘The history of philosophy: containing the lives, opinions, actions and Discourses of the Philosophers of every Sect, illustrated with effigies of divers of them.’ (Public Domain)
At first, democracy might just be the ideal state. Socrates describes it as “a charming sort of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to the equal and unequal alike.”
That sounds about right.
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Socrates goes on that a democracy is uniquely beautiful. Like a cloak created by innumerable distinct pieces of cloth, it is beautiful and diverse.
“This, then, seems likely to be the fairest of States, being like an embroidered robe which is spangled with every sort of flower.” –Socrates (Plato’s Republic)
This all seems rather nice. Wouldn’t you agree? Sure, we all know Democracy isn’t perfect, but it is the imperfections that make it perfect. It appears that we have finally found our ideal state. Great! We can all go home; confident that we are living in the best possible version of society.
“And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty” –Socrates (Plato’s Republic)
Wait a minute… what?! But I thought we were living in an imperfectly perfect state? Right?
Socrates, often considered to be a mouthpiece for Plato, contends that once given freedom in a democracy, we tend to become drunk off of it. We become so concerned with our liberty that we recoil at any institution that would try to limit it.
Philosopher Plato (1560s) by Paolo Veronese. (Public Domain)
The obvious result is unrest. Citizens fight against lawmakers who try to limit their freedoms. Younger generations mistreat and disrespect older generations. Even the animals attack men who may attempt to pen them.
“…all things are just ready to burst with liberty.” –Socrates (Plato’s Republic)
So how did this happen?
A Popularity Contest
Within a democracy, a leader does not need to be honorable, wise, or even intelligent. He only has to be popular.
Early on, democratic leaders will try to stay popular with the average citizen. They will fight against the wealthy, seize their land and money - all through the guise of taxes - in order to redistribute this wealth to the masses and gain favor.
In a democracy, it is common that an individual will be championed as a hero and protector. He will be brought into greatness by the people and elected to the highest office.
This leader will do away with those who seem to be an enemy of liberty, either through execution or banishment. He will be seen as a man of the people, a liberator.
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Head of Platon, Roman copy. The original was exhibited at the Academy after the death of the philosopher (348/347 BC). (Public Domain)
The Birth of Tyranny
However, he will grow unpopular, as all leaders inevitably do, and he will become desperate to preserve his power and protect himself from unrest.
His plan will be two-fold. First, he will tax the citizens excessively, so that they have to work constantly to maintain their possessions and their property.
Next the leader will get involved in foreign wars, creating enemies out of neighbors. Any citizen who criticizes this will be labeled as an unpatriotic enemy sympathizer.
Now the leader is truly a tyrant. He neglects the needs of the people in order to maintain his position. Finally, we see how democracy has led to tyranny, how our desire for liberty has brought only slavery. Sound familiar?
Top Image: Pericles' Funeral Oration, Philipp Foltz, 1877. Source: Public Domain
By Van Bryan
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