Santul Nerkar

Democracy is unstable. There is a natural tendency in American discourse to promote the current system of rule as the most just, safe, and effective form of government, but there is evidence to suggest that “backsliding,” or a rise of illiberal elements in a flourishing democracy, illuminates a clear and present danger to the fabric of modern ruling systems. In the seminal dialectical work The Republic, Plato explores five forms of government and makes a claim for each one’s quality. Specifically, he views democracy as an unstable form of government and as one step away from tyranny. Plato posits that democracy comes about as a result of discontent with oligarchy and will lead to tyranny once thirst for complete freedom devolves into autocratic rule. While democracy today is held as the most enlightened form of governance, Plato views democracy as the penultimate step in the inevitable descent into tyranny for societies undergoing political decay. Plato makes a powerful and coherent contention that democracies are susceptible to “tyranny of the majority” and rule by demagoguery. However, Plato’s argument that the appearance of democracy is necessarily followed by the onset of tyranny is not as convincing, and it fails to account for why democracies have flourished in recent history.

To better understand Plato’s critique of democracy, it is important to outline his analogy between the soul and the city. He introduces this parallel in Book II, with “…let us first inquire into the nature of justice and injustice in the city…”[1] The most just form of governance, the aristocracy, is joined with the philosopher-king who has the necessary qualities to rule a just society. The coupling of the city and the soul is key to understanding Plato’s pairings of each form of governance, ranging from the honor-motivated man who represents timocracy, the wealth-loving man who represents oligarchy, the man ruled by unnecessary appetites and freedom who represents democracy, and finally the man ruled by completely unjust appetites who demonstrates tyranny.[2]

According to Plato, aristocracy inevitably gives way to a lesser form of governance due to the fallibility of human nature. One faction is “Iron and bronze,” who are drawn to the accumulation of wealth. The other is “Gold and silver,” who try in vain to bring the “opposition back to virtue and the inherited order.”[3] The factionalism represents a move to timocracy, a compromise between aristocracy and oligarchy. Timocracy resembles the previous aristocracy in many ways, but also shows qualities of oligarchy in its “greed for wealth” and “a secret lust for gold and silver…”[4] Timocracy and the honor-loving soul embody the nobility of the aristocracy, but cannot prevent the lust for wealth from overpowering the system to turn towards a full-on oligarchy. And so, “the lovers of victory and honor finally become lovers of money and profit.”[5] The greatest good, which was wisdom under aristocratic rule, has now become the pursuit of wealth under the guise of the oligarchic soul. Oligarchy then transitions to democracy, as the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few sows discontent in an expanding underclass of citizenry. The “many” are described as “hating those who acquired their estates and plotting against them and the rest of the citizens as well, they thirst for revolution.”[6] Plato describes democracy’s inception as “either by force of arms or by the use of terror which compels the opposition to withdraw.”[7] The subsequent paramount freedoms that democracy upholds serve to damage the city, as the “permissiveness” of the democratic city enables the manifestation of tyranny.[8] The democratic city, Plato says, “cares nothing for the past behavior of the man who enters public life. He need only proclaim himself a friend of the people, and he will be honored.”[9] Plato sees democracy as more dangerous than oligarchy because although the two share the same damaging characteristics, the democratic city “has embraced anarchy,” and the “drone class,” or the class of people that motivates the poor against the wealthy rulers, is dominant.[10] Finally, the descent into tyranny is marked by the entrance of the aforementioned demagogue, who benefits from democracy’s “propensity to elevate and glorify one man as the people’s protector and champion.”[11]

Plato’s critique of democracy is that democracy does not place a premium on wisdom and knowledge seeking as an inherent good, much like timocracy and oligarchy. Instead, democracy suffers from the failures of the aforementioned systems insofar as it prioritizes wealth and property accumulation as the highest good. Even worse, democracy embraces total freedom (which Plato calls “anarchy”) and unnecessary “appetites,” which crowd out the ruler’s responsibilities of virtuous governance, control the democratic soul.[12]

Recent political movements in countries such as the United States, France, and Germany, show that Plato’s critique of democracy’s tendency to harbor tyrannical elements is particularly salient. Cultural divisions during the 2016 election in the United States mirrored those Plato articulated as signs of descent into tyranny, with demagoguery as the winning candidate’s favorite tactic. The winning candidate’s goals also appear to be the wealth accumulation for a select few, which Plato decries as an eventuality of democracy. A central tenet of American democracy is that the people will make the most just choice in their vote, yet it now appears that Plato’s concerns with the system’s overt freedoms were valid.

However, Plato’s assertion that the valuation of wealth necessarily leads to tyranny is problematic. On one hand, it fails to address why the United States and many other democracies around the world have elected virtuous leaders. The descent into tyranny has not occurred in spite of the undeniable relationship between American identity and capitalism. Plato’s portrayal of democracy accounts neither for virtuous governance nor why individuals eschew lucrative private lives for scrutinized public ones. The idea that virtuous leadership is only possible under an aristocratic elite does not meet many modern-day findings. Furthermore, Plato’s characterization of democracy as unable to control unnecessary appetites ignores the role of political institutions in providing checks and balances on power. Plato criticizes democracy for failing to establish requirements for its rulers when, in fact, democracies today are governed by constitutions that set parameters for who can rule. Even in the presence of a demagogue, democracy remains entrenched.

Plato also provides a murky characterization of why the just city must devolve into tyranny. He calls to “a geometrical figure (that) decides when begetting will be seasonable and when not,” and that mistaking this magic number leads to rulers with poor fortunes.[13] If the just nature of a city is built on the conception of magic number, then how can it be more effective in providing justice than a society governed by equality? This also raises questions about the nature of philosopher-kings, who choose flawed individuals to become their successors.

Plato’s critique of democracy provides an interesting insight into the successes and failures of modern governance. Lessons from his warnings about the potential for demagoguery and the dangers of wealth-seeking are relevant as ever in today’s political climate. However, it is important to push back on parts of the Platonic critique of democracy; namely, his assertions about the inevitability of tyranny and the lack of virtue in democratic leaders are uncharitable, especially in view of the characteristics of modern democracies.

Footnotes:

[1] Plato, Richard W. Sterling, and William C. Scott. “Book II.” The Republic. New York: Norton, 1996. 64. Print.

[2] Plato, Richard W. Sterling, and William C. Scott. “Book VII.” The Republic. New York: Norton, 1996. 235-261. Print.

[3] Ibid., 238.

[4] Ibid., 239.

[5] Ibid., 242.

[6] Ibid., 245-248.

[7] Ibid., 248.

[8] Ibid., 249.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 255.

[11] Ibid., 257.

[12] Ibid., 251.

[13] Ibid., 238.

Citations

Plato, Richard W. Sterling, and William C. Scott. The Republic. New York: Norton, 1996. Print.