Plato on Democracy, Tyranny, and the Ideal State

In any Greek city, there are perhaps no more than fifty good draught-players, and certainly not as many kings. —Plato, Statesman

In one of Plato’s books, the philosopher Protagoras tells a genesis story. Once upon a time, the gods moulded the animals by blending earth with fire, and asked Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus to equip each animal with its proper qualities. Taking care to prevent the extinction of any animal, Epimetheus assigned strength to some, quickness to others, wings, claws, hoofs, pelts, and hides. But by the time he got round to human beings, he had nothing left to give them. Finding human beings naked and unarmed, Prometheus gave them fire and the mechanical arts, which he stole from the gods Athena and Hephaestus. Unfortunately, Prometheus did not give them political wisdom, and so they lived in scattered isolation, at the mercy of wild animals. Each time they tried to come together for safety, they treated one another so badly that they once again dispersed.

As human beings shared in the divine nature, they gave worship to the gods. Zeus, the chief of the gods, took pity on them and asked his messenger Hermes to send them reverence and justice. Hermes asked Zeus how he should distribute these virtues: should he give them, as for the arts, to a favoured few only, or should he give them to all?

‘To all,’ said Zeus; I should like them all to have a share; for cities cannot exist, if a few only share in the virtues, as in the arts. And further, make a law by my order, that he who has no part in reverence and justice shall be put to death, for he is a plague of the state.

At the Battle of Aegospotami in 405 BC, the last major battle of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans captured the Athenian fleet. The ship carrying the news of the defeat arrived in the Athenian port of Piraeus at night, and, in the words of the historian Xenophon,

…one man passed it on to another, and a sound of wailing arose and extended first from Piraeus, then along the long walls until it reached the city. That night no one slept. They mourned for the lost, but more still for their own fate.

Mercifully, Sparta resisted calls to execute every Athenian man, sell every woman and child into slavery, and turn the site of the city into pastureland—as it had once done to the city of Plataea. However, Athens had to agree to Sparta’s terms of surrender and became a Spartan territory under Spartan control. Sparta suspended the political institutions that had been the pride and symbol of Athenian sovereignty, determined that Athens should be ruled by a pro-Spartan oligarchy, and sealed the appointment of the so-called Thirty Tyrants.

As they blamed the democrats for their defeat, the Athenians initially lent their support to the Thirty; but the oligarchy proved so brutal and oppressive as to alienate all but its most fanatic supporters. After the democratic forces in exile defeated the oligarchic forces and the allied Spartan garrison, Sparta reluctantly restored a limited form of democracy to Athens.

After the death of his uncle Critias, the first and the worst of the Thirty, Plato once again contemplated a career in politics. At first, the restraint and moderation of the restored democracy led him to believe that he could find his place in the ecclesia (the Athenian assembly), but the trial and death of his teacher Socrates put paid to any fragile illusions that he might have entertained about Athenian politics. In any case, after the fall of the Thirty, his name had turned from asset into liability: he had lost all his political friends and allies, and his background, politics, and association with Socrates all sat uncomfortably with the mood of the times.

Like Plato, Socrates had once considered becoming a politician, but his inner voice had dissuaded him from doing so on the grounds that he would soon have been killed and made of no good to anyone. At his trial, he sought to explain his lack of public involvement to the five hundred jurors:

For I am certain, O men of Athens, that if I had engaged in politics, I should have perished long ago and done no good either to you or to myself. And don’t be offended at my telling you the truth: for the truth is that no man who goes to war with you or any other multitude, honestly struggling against the commission of unrighteousness and wrong in the state, will save his life; he who will really fight for the right, if he would live even for a little while, must have a private station and not a public one.

Having experienced the limits of both tyranny and democracy, Plato sought to devise another and better system of government. In the Republic, which have been nothing more than a thought experiment, he conceived of an ideal state ruled by a small number of people selected, after close observation and rigorous testing, from a highly educated elite.

These so-called guardians would not hold any private property. Instead, they would live together in housing provided by the state, and receive from the citizens no more than their daily sustenance. In spite, or because, of these deprivations, the guardians would be the happiest of men. Were a guardian become ‘infatuated with some youthful conceit of happiness’ and seek to appropriate the state to himself, he would have to ‘learn how wisely Hesiod spoke, when he said, ‘half is more than the whole.’

For Plato, if a person is to give good advice on the highest affairs of state, he or she must have expertise in justice, which is a part of virtue and self-knowledge. The person who rushes into politics without having found self-knowledge falls into error and makes himself and everyone else miserable. He who is not wise cannot be happy, and it is better for such a person to be commanded by a superior in wisdom.

The tyrant, who is the most unjust of people, is also the unhappiest. The tyrant is constantly overcome by lawless desires which lead him to commit all manner of heinous act. His soul is full of disorder and regret, and is incapable of doing what it truly desires. The life of the political tyrant is even more wretched than that of the private tyrant, first, because the political tyrant is in a better position to feed his desires, and, second, because he is everywhere surrounded and watched by his enemies, and becomes at first their prisoner and at last their victim.

The best and most just of all rulers are those who are most reluctant to govern, while the worst and most unjust those who are most eager. Therefore, if the state is to be well ordered, it must offer another and better life than that of ruler, for only then will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life. And the only life that looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of true philosophy.

The ideal state is an aristocracy in which rule is exercised by one or more distinguished people. Unfortunately, owing to human nature, the ideal state is unstable and liable to degenerate into timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and, finally, tyranny. States are not made of oak and rock, but of people, and so come to resemble the people that they are made of. Aristocracies are made of just and good people; timocracies of proud and honour-loving people; oligarchies of misers and money-makers; democracies of people who are overcome by unnecessary desires; and tyrannies of people who are overcome by harmful desires.

Plato provides a detailed account of the degeneration of the state from aristocracy to tyranny via timocracy, oligarchy, and democracy. Democracy in particular arises from the revolt of the disenfranchised in an oligarchy. The state is ‘full of freedom and frankness’ and every citizen is able to live as he pleases.

These and other kindred characteristics are proper to democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.

However, citizens are overcome by so many unnecessary desires that they are ever spending and never producing, and are ‘void of all accomplishments and fair pursuits and true words.’ As a result, the state is ruled by people who are unfit to rule.

In a later book, the Statesman, Plato contends that there are three forms of government other than true government: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. Each of these further divides into two according to the criteria of voluntary and involuntary, poverty and riches, and law and lawlessness. Monarchy divides into royalty and tyranny, oligarchy divides into aristocracy and plutocracy, and democracy may be with or without law.

In ideal circumstances, the king rules above the law, because the law is an ignorant tyrant who ‘does not perfectly comprehend what is noblest and most just for all, and therefore cannot enforce what is best’. The differences of man and actions, and the endless irregular movements of human things, do not admit of any universal and simple rule, and no art can lay down a rule which will last for all time.

So why make laws at all? The trainer has a general rule of diet and exercise that is suited to the constitutions of the majority, and the same is true of the lawgiver, who cannot ‘sit at every man’s side all through his life’. As only very few people are able to attain to the science of government, the general political principle is to assert the inviolability of the law, which, though not ideal, is second best, and best for the imperfect condition of man.

If the multitudes decided to regulate the arts and sciences and to indict anyone who sought to upset the status quo, ‘all the arts would utterly perish, and could never be recovered… And human life, which is bad enough already, would then become utterly unbearable.’ However, things would be even worse if the multitudes appointed as guardian of the law someone who was both ignorant and interested, and who sought to pervert the law. If a guardian or some other person tried to improve the law, he would be acting in the spirit of the lawgiver, but lawgivers are few and far between, and in their absence the next best thing is to obey the law and preserve customs and traditions.

Given this, which of the six forms of government other than true government is the least bad? The government of one is the best and the worst, the government of few is less good and less bad, and the government of many is the least good and the least bad. In other words, democracy is the worst of all lawful governments, and the best of all lawless ones, ‘in every respect weak and unable to do any great good or any great evil’. The rulers in all six states, unless they be wise, are mere maintainers of idols, and no better than imitators and sophists.

What would Plato have to say about today’s democracies? Perhaps that their laws must underwrite sufficient safeguards, or repositories of true aristocracy, to prevent and arrest the rise of an eventual tyrant.

Neel Burton is author of Plato’s Shadow and Plato: Letters to my Son.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook.

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