16 August 2017

Plato on democracy, tyranny and freedom

‘Does tyranny come from democracy in about the same manner as democracy from oligarchy?’


‘The good that they proposed for themselves,’ I [Socrates] said, ‘and for the sake of which oligarchy was established, was wealth, wasn’t it?’


‘And then the greediness for wealth and the neglect of the rest [of the people] for the sake of money-making destroyed it.’

‘True,’ [Adeimantus] said.

‘And does the greediness for what democracy defines as good also dissolve it?’

‘What do you say it defines that good to be?’

‘Freedom,’ I said. ‘For surely in a city under a democracy you would hear that this is the finest thing it has, and that for this reason it is the only
régime worth living in for anyone who is by nature free.’

‘Yes indeed,’ he said, 'that’s an often repeated phrase.’

‘Then,’ I said, 'as I was going to say just now, does the insatiable desire of this [freedom] and the neglect of the rest [of moderation, shame, order] change this
régime and prepare a need for tyranny?’

‘How?’ he said.

‘I suppose that when a democratic city, once it’s thirsted for freedom, gets bad winebearers as its leaders and gets more drunk than it should on this unmixed draught, then, unless the rulers are very gentle and provide a great deal of freedom, it punishes them, charging them with being polluted and oligarchs.’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that’s what they do.’

‘And it spatters with mud those who are obedient, alleging that they are willing slaves of the rulers and nothings,’ I said, 'while it praises and honours—both in private and in public—the rulers who are like the ruled and the ruled who are like the rulers. Isn’t it necessary in such a city that freedom spread to everything?’

‘How could it be otherwise?’

‘And, my friend,’ I said, ‘for it to filter down to the private houses and end up by anarchy’s being planted in the very beasts?’

‘How do we mean that?’

‘That a father,’ I said, ‘habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents—that’s so he may be free; and metic is on an equal level with townsman and townsman with metic, and similarly with the foreigner.’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that’s what happens.’

‘These and other small things of the following kind come to pass,’ I said. ‘As the teacher in such a situation is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers, as well as of their attendants. And, generally, the young copy their elders and compete with them in speeches and deeds while the old come down to the level of the young; imitating the young, they are overflowing with faculty and charm, and that’s so that they won’t seem to be overbearing and despotic.’

‘Most certainly,’ he said.


‘Then, summing all of these things together,’ I said, ‘do you notice how tender they make the citizens’ soul, so that if someone proposes anything that smacks in any way of slavery, they are irritated and can’t stand it? And they end up, as you well know, paying no attention to the laws, written or unwritten, in order that they may avoid having any master at all.’

‘Of course, I know it,’ he said.

‘Well then, my friend,’ I said, ‘this is the beginning, so fair and heady, from which tyranny in my opinion naturally grows.’

‘It surely is a heady beginning,’ he said, ‘but what’s next?’

‘The same disease,’ I said, ‘as that which arose in the oligarchy and destroyed it, arises also in this
régime—but bigger and stronger as a result of the licence—and enslaves democracy. And really, anything that is done to excess is likely to provoke a correspondingly great change in the opposite direction—in seasons, in plants, in bodies, and, in particular, not least in régimes.’
- Plato, The Republic (562a-e, 563d-564a)

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