Political Philosophy Spring 2019

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 that is, sadly, 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.


I have gotten interested in the question of what Plato means when he says that the tyrannical city and the tyrannical person are not free. So we talked a lot about that question.

Here are some of the things that we noted.

First, Plato describes the guardians as going “to rule as something compulsory” (520e) when they agree to return to the metaphorical cave and take up the drudgery of ruling even at the cost of spending their lives in the pursuit of truth and knowledge. What Plato means by compulsion here is persuasion. They are persuaded by arguments and reasoning that they should play their role in ruling the city. No one makes them do it. By analogy, once you know the rules of grammar, you know how to form a sentence properly. No one makes you do it but you know what you’re supposed to do.

By comparison, here’s 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).

The oligarch is compelled by fear to do the right thing. That’s a different meaning of “compulsion” than the one Plato was using to describe the philosophers.

People in a democracy are described as being free.

What do you think it [a democracy or democratic city - mjg] defines as the good? Freedom: Surely you’d hear a democratic city say that this is the finest thing it has, so that as a result it is the only city worth living in for someone who is by nature free. (562c)

isn’t it inevitable that freedom should go to all lengths in such a city? (562e)

Freedom seems to have something to do with a lack of social hierarchy in these passages.

the son behaves like a father, feeling neither shame nor fear in front of his parents, in order to be free. A resident alien or a foreign visitor is made equal to a citizen (562e)

The utmost freedom for the majority is reached in such a city when bought slaves, both male and female, are no less free than those who bought them. And I almost forgot to mention the extent of the legal equality of men and women and of the freedom in relations between them. (563b)

This flattening of social hierarchies extends even to non-human animals. (I assume he’s joking.)

No one who hasn’t experienced it would believe how much freer domestic animals are in a democratic city than anywhere else. As the proverb says, dogs become like their mistresses; horses and donkeys are accustomed to roam freely and proudly along the streets, bumping into anyone who doesn’t get out of their way; and all the rest are equally full of freedom. (563c)

And when we get to the tyrannical city and the tyrannical person, we find that they both lack freedom.

First, speaking of the city, would you say that a tyrannical city is free or enslaved? It is as enslaved as it is possible to be. (577c)

Then, if man and city are alike, mustn’t the same structure be in him too? And mustn’t his soul be full of slavery and unfreedom, with the most decent parts enslaved and with a small part, the maddest and most vicious, as their master? It must. What will you say about such a soul then? Is it free or slave? Slave, of course. And isn’t the enslaved and tyrannical city least likely to do what it wants? Certainly. (577d)

It’s not easy to see what the common idea is that runs through all these uses of “freedom.”

The description of the tyrant is paradoxical. In one way, the tyrant does do whatever he wants. That’s his problem: he lacks all restraint! So why does Plato say the tyrant does not do what he wants? I suppose he is assuming that the tyrant’s real interests lie in doing what reason tells him to do when what he is actually doing is following his desires. More broadly, Plato describes the tyrant as lacking self-control and perpetually unsatisfied. He will always want more, no matter what he has. And he always has to do better than everyone else, so he cannot be satisfied with his life so long as others are improving theirs.

As Bex pointed out, the members of a democracy are free in ways that you would think the tyrant is also free. They are not blocked from doing what they want and they do not acknowledge any social superiors. The fact that Plato describes the members of a democracy as free and the tyrant unfree suggests to me that he has different things in mind in describing the two cases. But I can’t put my finger on exactly what they are.

There is also the oddity that Jasper pointed out, namely, that the members in the ethical aristocracy are not described as being free despite the fact that their lives should be the opposite of the lives of people who live in a tyranny. When it comes to comparing the freedom of the different states, democracy and tyranny are opposites. When it comes to comparing the overall quality of life in the different states, ethical aristocracy and tyranny are opposites. But what is apparently the worst feature of tyranny is its lack of freedom: its people are slaves to the ruler and the ruler is a slave to his own fears and desires.

So why does Plato make such a big deal out of the tyrant’s lack of freedom, given that the point of bringing him up is to compare the tyrant’s life with the life of a just person (such as a guardian in an ethical aristocracy, I assume)? I don’t know the answer.

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.


Agnes said that Plato describes democracy as anarchy. I denied it. I was wrong: he does! You can just search for the word “anarchy” in the reading. I’m not sure how literally to take him, but he definitely says it. Sorry Agnes!

I also posted the section on the cave. It’s only seven pages long and, well, it’s like the Eiffel Tower: as long as you’re there, you really ought to see it.

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 means when he says the tyrannical city and the tyrannical person are not free.
  3. What you think about whether Plato really answered Glaucon or not.


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: 06.PlatoDemocracyTyranny.handout.pdf