The Wines of Savoie

combe de savoie

Vineyards in the Combe de Savoie, hugging the Bauges mountains.

Twenty years ago, the wines of Savoie were often thin and acidic, and good mostly for cutting through cheesy dishes such as the local fondue and raclette. On a recent ski trip to Chamonix, I was intrigued by some complex and unusual wines, and took a few days out of skiing to visit some producers and find out more.

Even before the Roman conquest, the vine was being cultivated in Savoie by the Gallic Allobroges. The region’s 2,100ha (versus 120,000ha for Bordeaux) are dispersed across four French départements: mostly Savoie and Haute Savoie, but also Ain and Isère. Ain also contains the even smaller Bugey wine region, which is fairly similar to Savoie in terms of terroir, varieties, and styles. You can see a map of the region on the Vin de Savoie website.

Although Savoie’s wine producing areas are fairly disparate, they are united by their common Alpine landscape, with the vine cultivated on sheltered south-facing slopes and along moderating water bodies such as lakes Geneva and Bourget. Stony soils provide good heat retention and water drainage, and I spotted the odd almond or apricot tree amidst the vines.


The vines of André et Michel Quenard at the foot of the Savoyarde in the Bauges. This slope was first planted by the Romans but had been abandoned in favour of higher yields.

White wine accounts for 70% of Savoie production, followed by red wine (20%), rosé (6%), and sparkling wine (4%). Only 5% of total production is exported, so the wines, though generally good value for money, are fairly hard to source.

By far the most important appellation in Savoie is Savoie AOP. The other still wine appellations are Roussette de Savoie AOP (for the crus of Frangy, Monthoux, Marestel, and Monterminod) and Seyssel AOP (for the cru of Seyssel), although it is not clear even to the producers themselves why these two appellations are not subsumed under Savoie AOP. Interestingly, in 2009 growers in Crépy had their AOP demoted to cru status to be able to market their wines as Savoie AOP. A fourth Savoie appellation was created in 2014 for Crémant de Savoie, which is becoming increasingly important. Broadly speaking, Crémant de Savoie is at least 40% Jacquère, with any remainder being Altesse and Chardonnay, although Chardonnay cannot account for more than 40% of the blend. The style is already winning medals in Paris.

The Savoie wine region counts some twenty crus, from Ripaille and Marin on Lake Geneva in the north to Apremont, Les Abymes, Chignin, Montmélian, and Arbin in the south. The heart of the region is to the south, between the Bauges and the Chartreuse mountains in the valley of the Isère, in the so-called Cluse de Chambéry and Combe de Savoie. The soils here are predominantly limestone scree from crumbling mountains, including the picturesque Savoyarde in the Bauges and Mont Granier in the Chartreuse.


Mont Granier in the Chartreuse, as pictured from the Bauges. The valley is the Combe de Savoie.

Over twenty grape varieties are cultivated, but the most important are Jacquère, Altesse (Roussette), Bergeron (Roussanne), and Chasselas for the whites, and Mondeuse and Gamay for the reds. The high-yielding Jacquère accounts for half of plantings, while Chasselas is found, as you might expect, in the north towards the Swiss border (see my article on the wines of Switzerland). The Gringet grape is only found in Ayze, where it is made into a sparkling wine. Some of Savoie’s indigenous varieties are on the verge of disappearance: there are, for example, just nine hectares of Persan left.

Jacquère wines are dry, crisp, and mineral, with notes of citrus fruits, pear, white flowers, and wet stone. Some of the best, most ‘Alpine’ expressions of Jacquère come from the aptly named crus of Apremont (‘Bitter Mountain’) and Les Abymes (‘The Abysses’), which lie on limestone scree from a 13th century landslide of Mont Granier that killed thousands of villagers.

Altesse underlies the Roussette de Savoie AOP, and is richer than Jacquère, with notes of honey, apricots, tropical fruits, and aniseed, among others. According to local lore, the variety was brought back from Cyprus as a royal dowry, whence the name ‘Altesse’ (‘Highness’). Whatever the case, Altesse is capable of serious complexity, and, unlike Jacquère, improves with age, developing notes of toast and nuts. The Seyssel AOP is reputed for its floral sparkling wines made from Altesse, Chasselas, and Molette.

The cru of Chignin-Bergeron (not to be confused with the overlapping cru of Chignin, which consists of Jacquère) is the only cru with a grape variety in its name: Bergeron, or Roussanne, as it is known in its native Rhône Valley. Chignin-Bergeron is rich and honeyed, although more fresh and mineral, and less alcoholic, than Roussanne counterparts from the Rhône. It is capable of serious finesse and complexity, as, for example, in Louis Magnien’s Grand Orgue cuvée.

grand orgue.jpg

The first century writer Columella referred to Allobrogica, which is most probably Mondeuse, as ‘the grape that ripens amidst the snow’. In 2000, there were just 200ha of Mondeuse left in France, although the variety has since recovered somewhat. Mondeuse has often been compared with, and mistaken for, the Piedmontese Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso. It is deep in colour with notes of cherry, plum, violets, and spice, crisp acidity, and substantial tannins. Like Altesse and Bergeron, Mondeuse is age-worthy, and on my trip I tasted a 1998 Mondeuse from Louis Magnin that could still be counted as fresh. The finest examples of Mondeuse are arguably from Arbin, and I also loved Fabien Trosset’s 2015 cuvée Avalanche.

20yo Mondeuse.jpg

Recommended producers: Louis Magnin, André et Michel Quenard, Fabien Trosset, Domaine Giachino, and Les Ardoisières (IGP Vin des Allobroges, just outside the Savoie AOP).

Down in the Trumps: How to Cope with the New Politics


Image: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

By Neel Burton, MD.

This is not a deliberately partisan article. My aim is not to take sides or score points, but simply to reach out to the millions of Americans and others who feel overwhelmed by the changed political landscape, or simply frightened or saddened by Mr Trump’s approach to the Presidency of the most important and influential country in the world.

So how to cope?

With perspective

The advent of Trump and the Brexit that lent him momentum are perhaps a natural backlash to the enormous social progress that has been made in our lifetimes. Just two or three decades ago, it would have seemed unthinkable for gay couples to marry or for a black man or a woman to be elected President of the United States of America. Progress never takes place in a straight line, and it is possible to conceive of Trump and Brexit as the last gasp of a dying order. In particular, young people in the US and UK voted for quite different outcomes. In the UK, a future referendum on rejoining the European Union, in say ten or twenty years’ time, seems very likely to succeed, which begs the question, why bother leaving in the first place?

With philosophy

However bad you may be feeling, you at least do not share in the emotions that you are reacting against, such as fear and resentment, which are more difficult to bear, and no basis for a flourishing life. The philosopher Plato argued that the most unjust of people is also the unhappiest because he is full of disorder and regret and unable to do what he truly desires. This is similar to Socrates’ argument that bad people are in some way unlike themselves, and just as likely to dislike other bad people as anyone else. Your sadness, even your despair, is preferable to the doubt, guilt, shame, and remorse that may be eating at others for a very long time to come.

By looking to the positives

Recent events have revealed or confirmed many people, both on the left and the right of the political spectrum, as progressives, who feel that their task, responsibility, and duty is now to keep the flame alive and move the human project forward. As well as teaching us something about ourselves, the changed political landscape has also taught us something about human nature and the frailties of our political and educational systems. In the longer term, this could lead to, for example, more robust checks and balances on elected officials, more critical thinking in schools, and, at long last, the education of the emotions (teaching teenagers how to understand resentment, how to deal with anger…).

With action

States, said Plato, are not made of oak and rock, but of people, and come to resemble the people they are made of. Be the change that you want to see. A leader cannot rise if the people will not wear him, and things may well be very different very soon. Even if they are not, the struggle will strengthen and invigorate you. There are many ways to give our self-esteem a boost, but in the longer term, the best way to actually grow our self-esteem is by bravely living up to our ideals.

So relish the fight!

If you need further advice and support, you can find it in Growing from Depression.


Growing from Depression Goodreads Giveaway (UK only for now)

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Growing from Depression, Second Edition by Neel Burton

Growing from Depression, Second Edition

by Neel Burton

Giveaway ends February 01, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

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The 10 Basic Dos and Don’ts of Depression

There are a number of simple things that anyone can do to lift their mood. You may already be doing some of these things, and you certainly don’t need to be doing them all. Just do the ones that you feel most comfortable with, or that are easiest for you. As your mood begins to lift—and, believe me, sooner or later it will—you can make more and bigger changes to your routine. If you can hold on to these good habits once your mood has lifted, you will not only be feeling better, but better than ever before.

1. Spend more time with sympathetic friends and relatives. Talking to others about our feelings helps us to process them, put them into perspective, and obtain advice and support. Don’t be afraid to tell people that you need their help, or feel guilty for accepting it. If you feel uncomfortable talking to friends and relatives, or are unable to, you can phone one of the helplines listed at the back of this book. Perhaps you prefer not to talk about your feelings. Even so, spending time with sympathetic people and doing things together should help to lift your mood.

2. Don’t bite off more than you can chew: break down large tasks into smaller ones, and set yourself realistic deadlines for completing them. Try to reduce your levels of stress. Don’t blame yourself for ‘doing nothing’: you are merely giving yourself the time and space that you need to get better. Just think of it as taking a step back to jump further.

3. Spend more time doing the things that you normally enjoy, even if they no longer seem so appealing: read your favourite childhood book, go to the shops or cinema, prepare a meal, spend time with an old friend—anything that gets you out of yourself and takes your mind off negative thoughts is likely to make things better.

4. Get out of the house, even if only to buy a pint of milk or walk in the park. Bright daylight, fresh air, and the hustle bustle of everyday life can all be very helpful, as can the sights, sounds, and smells of nature. If you can, try to take some mild exercise, such as 20 minutes of brisk walking.

5. Fight off negative thoughts. Make a list of all the positive things about yourself and your situation (you may need help with this), keep it on you, and read it several times a day. However bad you may be feeling, remember that you have not always felt this way, and will not always feel this way.

6. Be realistic about your progress: improvements in mood are likely to be gradual rather than sudden, and you may even get worse before you start getting better. Once you are on the right track, there are going to be bad days as well as good days. Bad days that come after one or several good days may seem all the worse for it. Don’t blame yourself for the bad days, and don’t despair.

7. Avoid making or acting upon important decisions such as leaving your job, getting divorced, or spending a large amount of money. While in the throes of depression, thinking errors are likely to impair your judgement.

8. Get as much sleep as you can. A single good night’s sleep, or even a nice nap, can make a world of difference to your mood. To sleep better and longer, follow some of the advice in this related article.

9. Make an appointment with a health professional such as your family doctor, psychiatrist, or key worker, and enlist their advice and support. Maybe ask for some counselling and take things from there.

10. Decide whom to call in an emergency should you feel overwhelmed by negative or suicidal thoughts. This may be a relative or friend, your key worker, or a helpline. Think of a backup in case you can’t get hold of your primary support. Carry the appropriate telephone numbers on your person at all times, for example, on your phone or in your wallet.

Adapted from the new second edition of Growing from Depression.


Blind Tasting for Exams and Competitions


When it comes to blind tasting, there can be no substitute for experience and practice. Do not merely fall back on your strengths, however impressive they may be. The best way to improve is to work at your weaknesses. Attending as many tastings 
as possible can really help to bring things together, as can visiting wineries and wine regions, talking to wine people, and reading the wine press and literature. More important still is to find or form a dedicated study group. Aside from the purely social aspects, the benefits of a study group include: imposing structure and discipline, sharing knowledge and experiences, shaping and strengthening indistinct impressions, uncovering blind spots, and, last but not least, dividing expenses.

Also key is familiarity with timing, as time pressure in exams and competitions is often intense. Put yourself through timed practices that mirror the format of the real McCoy. When you blind taste, say, a Pomerol, you taste it with everything that you know about Merlot and right Bank Bordeaux, indeed, everything that you know about wine. Last minute cramming is not going to turn you into an overnight supertaster, and might even serve to confuse you. Better to spend the run-up to the exam or competition relaxing and sharpening your mind and senses.

In the hours leading up to the event, it can be helpful to taste a familiar benchmark such as a Rheingau Riesling to calibrate your palate. If your palate is poorly calibrated for a particular variable such as acidity, alcohol, or quality (more likely if you are ill, stressed, hungry, or dehydrated), you will be losing marks right across the board.

For competitions, if tasting in a communicating team (in which members can confer with one another), the top taster should take the lead. If there is no clear top taster, one of the stronger tasters should be designated as captain to streamline decision-making. If it becomes apparent that the captain is having an off day, he or she should immediately yield the captaincy to another strong taster. If tasting in a non-communicating team as in the Oxford and Cambridge varsity match, the team is only as strong as the sum of its parts, and gains most from the stronger tasters training up the novices.

For exams, be sure to read the questions carefully and to answer them directly and comprehensively (although not necessarily exhaustively). If short of time, choose breadth over depth, as marks are likely to be distributed across a number of domains, for instance, across several aroma groups. Elaborate only if it seems appropriate, or if you are specifically asked. If you get stuck on a particular wine, come back to it later if you can.

For many exams, it is very important to use the prescribed tasting method, including the tasting format, lexicon, and grading scales. Committing the prescribed method to memory also increases your speed while decreasing your chances of missing out key elements such as tannins or oak.

If, say, six marks are allocated to ‘nose’, be sure to write down at least six items about the nose, across all the principal domains. In particular, do not omit to comment on a defining element such as notes of honey and honeysuckle in a botrytized wine, or notes of vanilla and toast in a wine with reams of new French oak. Conversely, be careful not to imply something that is not there. For instance, ‘coconut’ is so closely associated with American oak as to imply its presence, even if you meant it in a completely other context.

When writing descriptions, use only very specific terms: instead of ‘citrus fruits’, prefer ‘lemon’, ‘lime’, ‘grapefruit’, ‘clementine’, or ‘orange’. Other cluster headings that can be elaborated upon include ‘red fruits’, ‘black fruits’, ‘green fruits’, ‘stone fruits’, ‘nuts’, and ‘spice’. Do not hedge: instead of ‘youthful’, plump for either ‘young’ or ‘developing’. Similarly, avoid broad, imprecise, subjective, or fanciful terms such as ‘mineral’, ‘fairly high’, ‘feminine’, and ‘broad shouldered’. In short, be as precise and concrete as you can. At the same time, do not fall into the opposite trap of being needlessly technical by, say, providing an estimate of the residual sugar level in grams per litre. Describe each wine in the absolute, without referencing the other wines in the flight. For instance, avoid writing that a wine is ‘more aromatic than the previous wine’ – unless specifically asked to compare the wines.

Try in as far as possible to be consistent and coherent within your tasting note. It is surprisingly easy to inadvertently contradict yourself, sometimes even within the same sentence, for example, by describing the hue as ‘deep lemon’ but the colour intensity as only ‘medium’. More broadly, if you think that a wine is obviously young, do not write down notes such as petrol or marzipan that suggest a fair bit of development.

Take care not to confuse a descriptor with a conclusion. ‘Likely fermented in stainless steel’ is a conclusion not a descriptor, and used as a descriptor is unlikely to attract a mark. Also unlikely to attract marks are negative descriptors such as ‘no sediment’, ‘no tannins’, and ‘no evidence of new oak’.

In general, when concluding, it is not nearly enough to ‘get it right’. To score full marks, you also need to back up your conclusions with evidence, explanations, and context, in proportion to the allocated number of marks. Should your conclusions prove incorrect, your reasoning could ensure that you score at least partial marks. You are unlikely to be given rare, unusual, or atypical wines, so do not stray too far off the beaten track with an Alto Adige Sylvaner, a Bío-Bío Gewurztraminer, or a Mornington Nebbiolo.

If you are also asked for a quality assessment, do not hold back from being critical. However, be sure to back up your conclusions with evidence and explanations. For instance, do not merely state that a wine ‘will not improve with age’, but argue that it is ‘lacking the concentration and structure for further ageing’. Similarly, do not merely state that a wine is ‘balanced’, but make the case that ‘the full body and high alcohol are offset by the high acidity’. Verify that your quality assessment is externally and internally coherent. If you noted further up that a probable Bordeaux has green tannins, do not conclude that it is at the level of a classed growth; and if you claim that a wine is of poor quality, do not argue that it will improve with age.

Ahead of the exam, it can be useful to draw up differential lists for recurring problem areas such as ‘mineral whites’ (Chablis, Muscadet, Savennières, Sancerre, Riesling…), ‘aromatic whites’ (Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Muscat, Torrontes…), ‘light reds’ (Pinot Noir, Gamay, Grenache, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo…), ‘soft reds’ (Gamay, Pinot Noir, Dolcetto, Barbera, Valpolicella…), and ‘spicy reds’ (Southern Rhône blends, Northern Rhône Syrah, Rioja, Chianti, Nebbiolo…). For each variety or style, write down the most important distinguishing features. Everyone is different, with different trouble areas, triggers, and tricks, so it is important that you draw up your own lists.

For example, this is a list for spicy reds.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Grenache dominated blend)

  • N Rhône Syrah: darker fruit, black pepper, higher acidity, lower alcohol, chewier tannins
  • Rioja: brick red, less herbal, lower alcohol, more oaked and often with American oak
  • Chianti: brighter with higher acidity, higher and firmer tannins, drier finish
  • Nebbiolo: rust-red tinge, more floral, higher acidity, much higher tannins

You can then rejig the list to put it in terms of another variety or style.


  • Nebbiolo: rust-red tinge, more floral, higher acidity, much higher tannins
  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape: garrigue, less cherry fruit, lower acidity, lower and softer tannins
  • Rioja: brick red, less bright, lower acidity, softer tannins, more oaked and often with American oak

Here are some more differential lists to get you started. Try, with the help of your peers, to formulate such lists in your blind tasting practices. Start with just a couple of varieties or styles, and then, over several tastings, gradually extend and refine the list.


  • Muscadet: paler, slight effervescence, lees character, lighter body, lower acidity and alcohol, less mineral
  • Savennières: more aromatic, fuller body, higher alcohol, bitter afternote
  • Sancerre: more aromatic, notes of gooseberry and grass
  • Riesling: much more aromatic, petrol, possible residual sugar


  • Viognier: no pink tinge, more stone fruit, less exotic, often less oily, dry, lacks bitter finish
  • Pinot Gris: pear or stone fruit, no lychee, often less oily, higher acidity, greater structure
  • Muscat: grapey, orange blossom, lighter body, lower alcohol, often drier
  • Torrontes: lacks lychee note, less oily, more mineral


  • Pinot Noir: no blue tinge or estery notes, higher acidity, alcohol, and tannins, often oaked
  • Dolcetto: darker colour, more ‘Italian’ cherries and bitter almonds, lower acidity, higher alcohol and tannins, drier finish
  • Barbera: more cherry than strawberry, higher acidity, more often oaked, drier finish
  • Valpolicella: sour cherry note, higher acidity

Pinot Noir

  • Gamay: blue tinge, estery notes, lower acidity, alcohol, and tannins, rarely oaked
  • Grenache: spicier, higher alcohol, lower acidity
  • Tempranillo: brick red, less finely etched fruit, lower acidity, often oaked with American oak
  • Nebbiolo: rust-red tinge, fuller body, much higher tannins

Cabernet Sauvignon (e.g. Left Bank Bordeaux)

  • Merlot: plums, no cassis or green pepper, more earth and less gravel, lower acidity, higher alcohol, softer tannins
  • Syrah: black pepper, no cassis or green pepper, lower acidity, less structured
  • Cabernet Franc: more aromatic, lighter fruit, lesser structure and tannins
  • Cahors: inkier, earthy mineral notes, higher tannins
  • Argentine Malbec: fuller body, higher alcohol, lower acidity, softer tannins

Adapted from the new edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.

Concise Guide to Wine 2e

The Dangers of Dehumanisation, Or, Why Trump’s Rhetoric Is More Than Just Wrong.


Dehumanisation is a kind of deception—of the self, of others, or both—that paints other people as less than human, so as not to have to think about them and/or feel guilty for overlooking or abusing them.

It’s easier to dehumanise a person or group if they’re already marked out as different, perhaps by gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability, or even a different manner of speaking or dressing. For example, it’s all too common to witness people in uniform, such as waiters, cleaners, bus drivers, and police officers, being treated as mere automatons without human attributes such as feelings or families.

In April 2011, riots broke out in Bristol, England over the opening of a new supermarket. During the riots, one Benjamin Cyster dropped a five stone concrete block from the top of a building onto an advancing line of police officers. The block caught PC Nicholas Fry square on the shoulder, crushing him to the ground. Instead of expressing anguish or remorse, Cyster continued rioting, and even exclaimed, “I want to find that copper I hit on the head. I want to do it again.”

Diane Davies, a 62-year-old grandmother of nine from Anglesey in Wales, was holidaying in one of the most exclusive areas of Barbados. One day, in broad daylight, she was brutally raped by a complete stranger. One year on, in November 2011, she decided to talk about her ordeal in a national newspaper. She felt certain that she would have been killed, had she not remembered reading that a victim of attempted rape should talk to the rapist so that he might see her as a person rather than an object of gratification. “So I told him I was a 61-year-old grandmother with four children and nine grandchildren and felt he slightly softened. I think talking to him saved my life.” Similarly, in the UK Brexit referendum, areas that voted for Remain tended to have a much higher level of immigration than areas than voted for Leave.

Unfortunately, dehumanisation is not limited to thugs and rapists, and may also be used by politicians and other so-called decent, middle class people. For example, it is commonly used by healthcare professionals to cope with distress at loss, grief, disease, and death, with patients referred to by their diagnosis rather than their name (“the stroke in bed number 6”, “the fractured hip in the ER”…), or just being thought of in terms of a long line of faceless ‘patients’.

One notable politician who regularly engages in dehumanisation is, of course, Donald Trump. He tends to divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’, splitting off the American “we” from “these people”; and to refer to minority groups by using the definite article ‘the’, as in, “I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks”, or “I love the Muslims.” Other, less subtle, ways in which Trump dehumanises people is by stereotyping, belittling, or even objectifying them. Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition, he said, “You’re not going to support me, because I don’t want your money. You want to control your own politician.” Of Mexicans, he said, “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Of women, he said, “You know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of ass.” Of grief-stricken Gold Star mother Ghazala Khan, who stood by her husband Khizr as he criticized Trump, he said, “She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.” He has questioned the competence of a federal judge on the grounds of his Mexican heritage; called his opponent Hillary Clinton a criminal who should be jailed or perhaps even killed; and even questioned the citizenship, and hence the legitimacy, of America’s first black president.

Dehumanisation is more than just wrong. It quickly becomes normalised, serving to undermine morality and the rule of law, and incite and endorse discrimination and violence. In the early 1970s, psychologist Philip Zimbardo set up a mock prison with hidden cameras and microphones in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building. The researchers selected 24 undergraduates, mostly white, middle class men, and randomly assigned them to the roles of either prisoner or guard. The ‘prisoners’ were to remain in the mock prison round the clock, while the ‘guards’ were to ‘work’ in three-men teams over eight-hour shifts. The experiment had been scheduled to run for 14 days, but had to be stopped after just six days owing to the aggressive and abusive behaviour of the ‘guards’ and the extreme adverse psychological reactions of the ‘prisoners’. Even Zimbardo, who had been acting as the prison warden, overlooked the dehumanising behaviour of the guards until a graduate student voiced objections. In his book, The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo wrote candidly that, ‘Only a few people were able to resist the situational temptations to yield to power and dominance while maintaining some semblance of morality and decency; obviously I was not among that noble class.’

Dehumanisation is often witnessed during times of crisis or war. If certain people or groups can be seen as less than human, they become dispensable, and any atrocity can be justified. Josef Goebbels, the Minister of ‘Public Enlightenment and Propaganda’ in Hitler’s Nazi regime, exploited all contemporary methods of propaganda to inflame anti-Jewish sentiment. By pinning the blame for all the economic and social ills of the time on the Jewish people and then lampooning them as an ‘inferior race’, he prepared the ground for the progressive elimination of their rights and freedoms and, one thing leading to the next, for the mass genocide of the Holocaust.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the EmotionsHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, and other books.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook

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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