Political Philosophy Spring 2018

Plato on Democracy and Tyranny


We did three things

  1. Book 8 picks up the argument from where the characters left off in Book 4. I described the highlights of the intervening chapters, especially the cave.
  2. We went over Plato’s account of the degeneration of the city in Book 8.
  3. We talked about Plato’s use of the tyrant as a way of showing that the unjust life is worse than the just life.

The Degeneration of the City

Plato describes the chain of events that would lead from a just ethical aristocracy to an unjust tyranny. The first move, from the ethical aristocracy to a timarchy (honor seeking city) would happen as a result of an accident. (But an accident that is inevitable.) Every other city contains the seeds of the city that will replace it. Thus timarchy will lead to oligarchy, oligarchy will lead to democracy, and democracy to tyranny.

I find Plato’s causal stories less interesting than his mindset. He expects decay and, having read him, I realized that I expect progress. I had not appreciated the fact that I think this way; I just took took it for granted. The ability to gain a critical perspective on your own assumptions is one of the virtues of reading political philosophy from another time.

The account of the degeneration of the city also gives us some insight into how Plato thinks the parallel between the city and the soul works. In some cases, he follows what I called the predominant part rule: the city is F because the members of the ruling class are F. Thus, for example, a city is a timocracy because its rulers are timocratic or honor seeking. In other cases, he follows what I called the part-whole rule: a city is F because its citizens are F. For example, a democracy is made up of democratic people.

We have seen this kind of split before. Plato explained said that the just city is wise and courageous because it has wise and courageous people in leading roles. By contrast, he said that the city is moderate and just because these qualities are spread throughout the people who make up the city.


We talked a bit about this description of the oligarchic person.

And doesn’t this make it clear that in those other contractual obligations, where he [the oligarchic person] has a good reputation and is thought to be just, he’s forcibly holding his other evil appetites in check by means of some decent part of himself? He holds them in check, not by persuading them that it’s better not to act on them or taming them with arguments, but by compulsion and fear, trembling for his other possessions. (554d)

The oligarchic person is thus said to be not “entirely free from internal civil war” even though “generally his better desires are in control over his worse” ones (554e).

I think Erica and Gigi were right to say that this tells us something about what Plato expected the just person to be like. The just person is supposed to be wholehearted about doing the right thing without experiencing internal divisions over, say, paying a contract.

I had some questions about how realistic that is. Can’t you experience genuine conflict over whether you should do the right thing? Let’s let David Hume have the stage for a moment to illustrate the kind of thing I have in mind.

A single act of justice is frequently contrary to public interest; and were it to stand alone, without being followed by other acts, may, in itself, be very prejudicial to society. When a man of merit, of a beneficent disposition, restores a great fortune to a miser, or a seditious bigot, he has acted justly and laudably; but the public is a real sufferer. Nor is every single act of justice, considered apart, more conducive to private interest than to public; and it is easily conceived how a man may impoverish himself by a signal instance of integrity, and have reason to wish, that, with regard to that single act, the laws of justice were for a moment suspended in the universe. (Hume [1740] 1995, 3.2.2 par. 22)

Hume thinks there are advantages to doing the right thing but that they are indirect. Still, I can see how I would at least find it a struggle to pay back the seditious bigot and I don’t think I would wholeheartedly accept impoverishment as the cost of my own integrity. Maybe I have a bit of oligarch in me!

Paskalina added a point that comes from a part of the book we did not read, namely, that Plato struggles with explaining why the guardians would agree to rule the city given that doing so seems clearly worse for them than carrying on with their philosophy would be. Her suggestion was that even they would have trouble wholeheartedly accepting their role in the city.

In any event, Plato is certainly right to say that we think better of someone who does not experience doing the right thing as a struggle. Kant seems to have disagreed when he said that the person who acts justly despite having the inclination not to is the exemplar of pure moral motivation. It’s not obvious that this is what he meant but if he did, so much the worse for him.


Simon asked why it is obvious that democracy is worse than oligarchy. Plato certainly thinks it is but he does not explain why very clearly. I don’t know the answer to that. In his description of the two cities, I found the democratic one much more appealing.

Maybe the point is just that democracy leads to tyranny. If so, fair enough. Tyranny seems pretty bad.


The tyranical city is unfree and full of fear. On a superficial level, the reasons why are obvious enough: it’s ruled by a tyrant! But why is the tyrant’s rule so much worse than that of the guardians? If you’re a member of the productive class, say, how different would it really be?

Plato’s idea is that it would be much worse because the tyrant is irrational and unethical while the guardians are the opposite. OK, but why does that make life under a tyranny less free? It’s a good question.

The individual tyrant is unfree and full of fear too. He is described as a slave of his desires, afraid of his desires, and afraid of other people.

We had a too brief discussion of how the tyrant could be unfree. The story is that he does whatever he wants, so it’s at least not obvious that he lacks freedom. What else could it mean to be free?

James and Gigi gave examples that seemed to illuminate Plato’s point of view. James said that an addict gets what he desires but that in doing so he frustrates his other desires, in particular, his desire that he not act on his addictive desires. Gigi’s example involved distraction and procrastination. Instead of doing what I want to do, I lay around the house. I think they’re both on the right track. The idea is that there is a distinction between what’s best for me and what I want; the two often go together but sometimes come apart. When they come apart, you need your rational self to take charge and move you to do the thing that is best for you. That’s Plato’s idea.

After class, Remy made an observation that I liked quite a lot. He said that if you think about freedom as the ability to choose among available options, you would think that the oligarchic person is the most free. He is torn between justice and injustice. By contrast, the just person can’t imagine being unjust and the tyrant can’t imagine being honest. That is not how Plato sees it, so that tells us that Plato means something different by “free.” He seems to think that you are most free when you are most rational and that this is so even if your reason is committed to only one choice.

What About Glaucon?

Does Plato’s argument address Glaucon’s challenge? I think the answer is no. The handout has quotations that lay out the descriptions of the most unjust person given by Thrasymachus and and Glaucon. I can see how the unflattering portrayal of the tyrant in Book 9 applies to the character that Thrasymachus describes. But Glaucon’s unjust person seems less like a raving addict than someone who is coldly calculating but extremely controlled.

The handout also has very nice descriptions of why Plato thinks it is good for all the parts of the soul if the soul as a whole is just and also why it is good for all the parts of a city if the city as a whole is just.

Main Points

This is what you should know from today’s class.

  1. You should have a rough sense of how the story about the degeneration of the city goes. The details about each city are less important than the general story of decline.
  2. What Plato does not mean when he says the tyrannical city and the tyrannical person are not free.
  3. What Plato does mean when he says they are not free.
  4. What you think about whether Plato really answered Glaucon or not.


Hume, David. (1740) 1995. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. The Complete Works and Correspondence of David Hume. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.

Plato. 1997. “Republic.” In Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper, translated by G.M.A. Grube and C.D.C Reeve. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.


There was a handout for this class: 05.PlatoDemocracyTyranny.handout.pdf