I’ve been re-reading Plato’s Republic, his most well-known and arguably most influential work of philosophy and political thought.
It makes for interesting reading in today’s political climate.
Of particular interest is book VIII. In this, he discusses four constitutions: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. He argues that a society will pass through each government in succession, eventually becoming a tyranny, the most unjust regime of all.
The example Plato offers is as follows.
The starting point is an imagined, alternate Aristocracy (ruled by a philosopher-king); a just government dominated by the wisdom-loving element.
When its social structure breaks down and enters a civil war, it is replaced by Timocracy – where only those with property, or those who meet some other arbitrary criteria, have power. The Timocratic government is dominated by the spirited element, with a ruling class of property-owners consisting of warriors or generals (Ancient Sparta is an example).
As the emphasis on honour is compromised by wealth accumulation, Timocracy degrades into Oligarchy. The Oligarchic government is dominated by the desiring element, in which the rich are the ruling class (most medieval European civilisations fit this description – the nobility only ruled because they could call upon, and fund, the largest armies).
The gap between rich and poor widens, culminating in a revolt by the underclass majority, establishing a Democracy. Democracy emphasizes maximum freedom, so power is distributed evenly. It is also dominated by the desiring element, but in an undisciplined, unrestrained and volatile way.
The Tyrant’s Ascendancy
Here, he says something pretty shocking.
Tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.
In The Republic, democracy was defined as a political system that works to maximise two things: freedom and equality. Everyone is equal, and everyone can do whatever he or she likes.
And the longer a democracy lasts, the more democratic it becomes.
Its freedoms multiply, until it becomes “a many-coloured cloak decorated in all hues”. Men are interchangeable with women, and all their natural differences are forgotten. Animals have rights. Foreigners can come and work just as citizens. Children boss their parents around. Teachers are afraid of their students. The rich try to look just like the poor.
Soon, every kind of inequality is despised. The wealthy are particularly loathed. And elites, in general, are treated as suspect, perpetuating inequality and representing injustice.
It’s when a democracy has evolved into this, Plato argues, that a would-be-tyrant will often seize his moment. He is usually of the elite, but is in tune with the time, given over to random pleasures and whims, feasting on food and, especially, sex. He makes his move by “taking over a particularly obedient mob” and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt.
He’s a traitor to his class – and soon, his elite enemies have to find a way to appease him or are forced to flee. Eventually, he stands alone, offering the addled, distracted and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities. He rides a backlash to excess – “too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery” – and offers himself as the personified answer, to all problems, to replace the elites, and rule alone on behalf of the masses. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy madly, willingly, impetuously, repeals itself.
In simpler language, the populism of a democratic government leads to ‘mob rule’, fueled by fear of a return to oligarchy, which a clever demagogue can exploit to take power and establish a tyranny.
In a Tyrannical government, the nation is enslaved to the tyrant, who uses his armies to remove the best social elements and individuals in order to retain power (since they pose a threat), while leaving the worst. He will also provoke warfare to consolidate his position as leader. In this way, tyranny is the most unjust regime of all.
Now, let’s think about President Trump.
- He’s a wealthy man, undeniably part of the elite, yet he spent his campaign attacking his fellows as corrupt and degenerate (and what can we see so-called “Crooked Hillary” as, other than one of the wealthy elite).
- He seems to believe he has the answer to everything. A kind of solution, as it were.
- He’s certainly given over to random pleasures and whims, especially those of a carnal nature.
- He presents his own beliefs as undeniable fact (and anything else is ‘fake news’ to be dismissed).
- And, given his bellicose, chest-poundingly jingoistic attitudes to North Korea and Iran, amongst other places, I think it’s fair to say that he’s ticked the ‘Provoke Warfare’ criterion.
The Freedom Trap: Democracy’s Revenge
Back to Plato. Book VIII now. In it, Plato suggests that, because of (or in spite of) these points made above, that it is still better to be just than unjust.
First, he describes how a tyrannical man develops from a democratic household. The democratic man is torn between tyrannical passions and oligarchic discipline, and ends up in the middle ground: valuing all desires, both good and bad. The tyrant will be tempted in the same way as the democrat, but without an upbringing in discipline or moderation to restrain him. Therefore, his most base desires and wildest passions overwhelm him, and he becomes driven by lust, using force and fraud to take whatever he wants. The tyrant is both a slave to his lusts, and a master to whomever he can enslave.
Concurrently, tyranny is the regime with the least freedom and happiness, but the tyrant is most unhappy of all, since the regime and the soul correspond. His desires are never truly fulfilled, and he always must live in fear of his victims. Because the tyrant can only think in terms of servant and master, he has no equals whom he can befriend, and with no friends the tyrant is robbed of freedom. This is the first proof that it is better to be just than unjust.
The second proof is derived from the tripartite theory of the soul, which Plato subscribed to. The wisdom-loving soul is best equipped to judge what is best through reason, and the wise individual determines wisdom to be best, then honour, then desire. This, Plato argues, is the just proportion for a city or a soul, and stands opposite to tyranny, which is entirely satiated on base desires.
The third proof follows from this. He describes how the soul can be misled into experiencing false pleasure: for example, a lack of pain can seem pleasurable by comparison to a worse state. True pleasure is had by being fulfilled by things that fit one’s nature. Wisdom is the most fulfilling and is the best guide, so the only way for the three drives of the soul to function properly and experience the truest pleasure is by allowing wisdom to lead. To conclude the third proof, the wisdom element is best at providing pleasure, while tyranny is worst because it is furthest removed from wisdom.
I’m not going to attempt to guess what happens next. I won’t postulate on whether or not Trump can maintain his following and take the White House again in 2020. A lot can happen between now and then. What I will say is that, if we take Plato to be right on the evolution of political systems and the birth of tyranny, then we might also assume that he was right for the second time, and that, right now, some part of President Trump is wishing he never ran for office at all. He, like Plato’s imagined tyrant, is alone, bereft of friends, in fear of loss, and doomed never to be truly content.