Political Philosophy Fall 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 allegory of 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.


One question that I have about Plato’s description of democracy is why he thinks it’s so bad. It’s the second to last city so it should be the second worst. But the way he describes it makes it sound pretty good.

Tony suggested that it isn’t bad itself but rather it’s bad because it leads to tyranny, which is definitely bad. Maybe that’s right, but I would have expected it to be worse than that, given that it doesn’t have its wise part ruling, its courageous part providing defense, and so on.

Liam thought that Plato would hold that democracy is bad because people in it do not play their roles and so they do not stick to what they do best. I think that’s definitely an implication of his theory and it also follows from some of the things he says about people in a democracy. I’m just surprised that he didn’t come right out and say it.

I continue to be perplexed by this part of the book. Democracy, as Plato describes it, seems pretty good even though, by Plato’s lights, it should be pretty bad.

Democracy and Freedom

One specific question concerned the ways in which people in a democracy are free.

Following Brian, I think that one thing they are free from is hierarchy. No one is in charge and everyone has the same social and political status.

Note that this is not necessarily great for the individual. If the majority wants to torment you, the fact that you are the equal of each member of the majority isn’t going to help you. So I suppose we should say there is no hierarchy among individuals.

Ruben said that Plato describes them as being free from moral obligations or rules. I think he’s definitely right about what Plato says. At the same time, I don’t think Plato thought this through. Surely there are rules in a democracy. You can’t have freedom and equality unless there are rules that force everyone to respect one another’s freedom and equality.

Tyranny and Freedom

The tyrannical city is not free: its members are ruled by a tyrant, after all. Plato says that the tyrant is also not free.

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)

Gabriel suggested that the tyrant lacks freedom for two reasons. First, he fears others. Second, he lacks self-control, like an addict does.

At the same time, the tyrant seems to me to be free in at least some of the ways that the members of the democratic city are. There is no hierarchy above they tyrant and he is free from the internal constraints that come with thinking that some desires are good and others are bad.

That doesn’t really help me to understand what Plato thinks the word “free” means, but it might move me towards understanding what he thinks is wrong with democracy.

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.

To put it another way, Plato’s claim about the tyrant is that you need some sort of constraints in order to live a good life. I think he’s probably right about that. Plato also assumes that the constraints have to be ethical ones. That is more questionable, in my opinion.

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 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: 05.PlatoDemocracyTyranny.handout.pdf