Degeneration of the just city

We talked about Plato’s account of the degeneration of the city in book 8. Plato believed that some predictable errors would lead to the decay of his ideal city, the ethical aristocracy. That starts a chain of actions and reactions that lead through four increasingly degenerate kinds of city: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny.

In broad strokes, each defective city will cause at least some of its members to act in ways that lead to that city’s downfall. The succeeding city, in turn, will reflect the personality of those who brought down its predecessor.

What is surprising about this

When we read books from a culture that is distant from our own, we will often encounter material that seems, well, weird. When that happens, it’s worth asking why. Sometimes, you learn something about assumptions you were not aware of having made.

In the case of book 8, my reactions partly reflect something that Helena said. I expected Plato to say that the just city would be self-sustaining and as permanent as anything can be, baring external calamity. But instead we get a story of inevitable decay.

Ethical aristocracy is different from the other kinds of city in that it does not contain the seeds of its own destruction. It falls apart because people make mistakes. This is just a fact about us that no city, no matter how perfectly designed, can overcome. The other cities, by contrast, are structured in ways that produce the people who have the motivation and means to destroy them.

One additional thing that struck me was that I expect continual progress. That is a little different than achieving permanent perfection. I expect societies to change, but I expect that it will always be for the better. That is something I realized about myself when I thought about why I find book 8 odd. I found out why I think by reading someone who had a very different perspective on the course of history. That’s great!

One more thing on this topic. Semassa asked if Plato had a cyclical or linear understanding of history. I do not know. Book 8 tells a linear story: the course of history is straight down. But it is hard to believe that tyranny, as Plato describes it, is sustainable. So you would expect that it would turn into something else as well. Plato may well have believed that it would do that, but if he did, that was not part of the story that he chose to tell. That’s a pity: I would have liked to know what he thought about Semassa’s question.

Why isn’t Plato right?

I’m guessing that no one in the class agrees with Plato that the kind of city he has described really would be the best one. But here is a question: why not? What could be better than a city run by the people who know what is best and whose are indifferent to the normal sources of corruption (like money and power)?

I had expected two kinds of response. First, I expected someone to point out that it is no easy task to identify these incredibly wise and incorruptible people, if any exist at all. Second, I thought someone might talk about the rights of the people. That is, I expected someone to articulate the view that there is a human right to participate in government that is respected only in democracies.

What I got instead was unexpected but really quite interesting. Max said he disagreed with Plato’s assumption that there was anything for the guardians to know. He did not think there is anything that is best for the city and, consequently, there cannot be a special class who know what is best for the city. I think Max’s point marks a significant difference between Plato and our next author, Hobbes. Keep it in mind.

City and soul again

In the account of the degeneration of the city, Plato relies on parallels between the city and the soul again. For every kind of city there is a corresponding kind of person and the characters of the people who make up the city determine the character of the city. Constitutions are “from the characters of the people who live in the cities governed by them … if there are five forms of the city, there must be five forms of the soul.” (544d-e)

I said that Plato switches between two models of the relationship between individual character and the character of the city.

  1. The part-whole rule: a city is F if and only if its citizens are F.
  2. The predominant part rule: a city is F if and only if the members of the ruling class are F.

The ideal city is a good example of the problem. On the one hand, Plato wants to say that it is just because all of the people in it are just: they all play their roles. On the other hand, he wants to say it is an ethical aristocracy because the people in charge are ethical aristocrats, namely, the guardians.

The predominant part rule is clearly what is used for the timocratic, oligarchic, and tyrannical cities. A timocracy is “spirited” because its rulers (the successors of the auxiliaries) are spirited, not because everyone is. The same goes for oligarchy and tyranny.

Democracy presents another tough case for Plato. The democratic city is filled with an array of diverse pursuits, meaning its members all pursue different lives and values. Following the parallel, he asserts that the democratic individual is also filled with an array of diverse pursuits.

In other words, when he’s describing the democratic city, Plato describes the individuals who live in it as having coherent aims for their lives. It’s just that different people do different things. When he describes the individual, he switches the story and describes democratic individuals as having a shifting set of aims for their lives.


I said that you really ought to read the account of the cave (514-518, pp. 186–90). I know that we did not have it on the syllabus, but reading the Republic without the cave is like going to Istanbul and not seeing the Hagia Sophia.

Blake asked about what Plato thought about his own city, Athens. It’s a complicated question that I do not feel competent to answer. I think your best start would be in paying close attention to the part of Book 8 about democracy. I also recommended looking at the part of the Seventh Letter that the editor published in his Introduction (pp. viii-x). It gives what is apparently Plato’s description of his attitudes towards Athens. I said “apparently” because there is some dispute about whether Plato wrote it. But Reeve thought it was worth publishing as Plato’s own words and that’s good enough for me.

Key concepts

  1. The relationship between city and soul in the account of the degeneration of the city.
  2. Plato’s criticism of democracy.
  3. What you think about ethical aristocracy.