Democracy and Tyranny
We are going to do three things.
Our reading starts in Book 8 where the characters pick up the
argument from where they had left it in Book 4. I will describe the
highlights of the intervening chapters, especially the allegory of the
cave. (The part about the cave is included in the optional
We will go over Plato’s account of the degeneration of the city
in Book 8.
We will talk about Plato’s use of the tyrant as a way of showing
that the unjust life is worse than the just life.
What Happened Between Books 4 and 8?
The characters note at the beginning of book 8 that they are picking
up where they left off in book 4 (543c).
What happened in between?
Socrates maintained that the best city would be ruled by
philosophers. Philosophers love knowledge; they want to know how things
really are. This led to a digression (for the purposes of political
philosophy) into epistemology, the study of knowledge, and metaphysics,
the study of ultimate reality.
Socrates’s idea is that we cannot understand reality through the use
of our senses. What we see, feel, hear, taste, and touch are only
shadows of the real things in the world. Examples from mathematics are
his best case: when we’re talking about numbers, the things we’re
talking about aren’t accessible through the senses, but they are quite
real. The genuinely real things are what Plato calls forms. The
philosophers would study the the forms and, if they come to know
something about them, their knowledge would be superior in kind to what
everyone else has. This is where the story of the cave comes in. If you
haven’t heard it, you can read it in the optional reading 514-517; it’s
only a few pages.
The story about the cave does a nice job of explaining the difference
between philosophers and non-philosophers. The non-philosophers think
the things they see are real, the philosophers know this isn’t true
since they know what is real. Or, at least, they know the limits of the
But it raises a problem. Why would the philosophers want to go back
into the cave and run things? Why wouldn’t they prefer to spend their
time outside the cave, contemplating the forms?
There is one other thing hanging over all of this. Plato is
assuming that the philosophers will come to have superior
ethical knowledge that is similar to mathematical knowledge. But he
can’t prove that this is so.
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
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 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.
||timocracy, oligarchy, tyranny
This is a case where the analogy between the city and the soul drives
Plato to say some things that don’t really make much sense. He says that
a democratic person is like a democratic city: full of variety and
so he lives, always surrendering rule over himself to whichever
desire comes along, as if it were chosen by lot. And when that is
satisfied, he surrenders the rule to another, not disdaining any but
satisfying them all equally. That’s right. And he doesn’t admit
any word of truth into the guardhouse, for if someone tells him that
some pleasures belong to fine and good desires and others to evil ones
and that he must pursue and value the former and restrain and enslave
the latter, he denies all this and declares that all pleasures are equal
and must be valued equally. That’s just what someone in that
condition would do. And so he lives on, yielding day by day to the
desire at hand. Sometimes he drinks heavily while listening to the
flute; at other times, he drinks only water and is on a diet; sometimes
he goes in for physical training; at other times, he’s idle and neglects
everything; and sometimes he even occupies himself with what he takes to
be philosophy. He often engages in politics, leaping up from his seat
and saying and doing whatever comes into his mind. If he happens to
admire soldiers, he’s carried in that direction, if money-makers, in
that one. There’s neither order nor necessity in his life, but he calls
it pleasant, free, and blessedly happy, and he follows it for as long as
he lives. You’ve perfectly described the life of a man who believes
in legal equality. I also suppose that he’s a complex man, full of
all sorts of characters, fine and multicolored, just like the democratic
city, and that many men and women might envy his life, since it contains
the most models of constitutions and ways of living. That’s
right. Then shall we set this man beside democracy as one who is
rightly called democratic? Let’s do so. (561b-562a)
But that’s not really the way it works. A diverse, dynamic city is
not made up of people whose lives are constantly changing. It is
diverse, but its members lead, or can lead, stable lives. They don’t
have to replicate the diversity and dynamism of the city inside their
own lives. Plato says the opposite because he is trying to show that
each kind of city is made up of a particular kind of members and that
these members parallel the features of the city in their own lives.
Democracy and Freedom
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
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.
One specific question I have concerns the ways in which people in a
democracy are free. I think it’s worth talking about that in class. Here
are some passages to chew over.
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
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.
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)
(I assume the last one, about the dogs and horses, is a joke.)
Tyranny and Freedom
The members of the tyrannical city is not free: its members are ruled
by a tyrant, after all. Plato says that the tyrant is also not
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)
Why does the tyrant lack freedom? As with democracy, this is
something I would like to discuss.
What About Glaucon?
Does Plato’s argument address Glaucon’s challenge? I think the answer
Here is how Thrasymachus describes as an unjust person.
Consider him [a person of great power] if you want to figure out how
much more advantageous it is for the individual to be just rather than
unjust. You’ll understand this most easily if you turn your thoughts to
the most complete injustice, the one that makes the doer of injustice
happiest and the sufferers of it, who are unwilling to do injustice,
most wretched. This is tyranny, which through stealth or force
appropriates the property of others, whether sacred or profane, public
or private, not little by little, but all at once. If someone commits
only one part of injustice and is caught, he’s punished and greatly
reproached — such partly unjust people are called temple-robbers,
kidnappers, housebreakers, robbers, and thieves when they commit these
crimes. But when someone, in addition to appropriating their
possessions, kidnaps and enslaves the citizens as well, instead of these
shameful names he is called happy and blessed, not only by the citizens
themselves, but by all who learn that he has done the whole of
And here is Glaucon’s unjust person.
we must suppose that an unjust person will act as clever craftsmen
do: A first-rate captain or doctor, for example, knows the difference
between what his craft can and cannot do. He attempts the first but lets
the second go by …. In the same way, an unjust person’s successful
attempts at injustice must remain undetected, if he is to be fully
unjust. Anyone who is caught should be thought inept, for the extreme of
injustice is to be believed to be just without being just. And our
completely unjust person must be given complete injustice …. We must
allow that, while doing the greatest injustice, he has nonetheless
provided himself with the greatest reputation for justice. … If any of
his unjust activities should be discovered, he must be able to speak
persuasively or to use force. And if force is needed he must have the
help of courage and strength and of the substantial wealth and friends
he has provided himself with. (360e-361a)
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
These passages do a nice job of stating Plato’s beliefs.
Here is one on the good life for an individual.
Then can’t we confidently assert that those desires of even the
money-loving and honor-loving parts that follow knowledge and argument
and pursue with their help those pleasures that reason approves will
attain the truest pleasures possible for them, because they follow
truth, and the ones that are most their own, if indeed what is best for
each thing is most its own? … Therefore, when the entire soul follows
the philosophic part, and there is no civil war in it, each part of it
does its own work exclusively and is just, and in particular it enjoys
its own pleasures, the best and truest pleasures possible for it. … But
when one of the other parts gains control, it won’t be able to secure
its own pleasure and will compel the other parts to pursue an alien and
untrue pleasure. (586d-e)
This one is about what a good city is like.
it isn’t the law’s concern to make any one class in the city
outstandingly happy but to contrive to spread happiness throughout the
city by bringing the citizens into harmony with each other through
persuasion or compulsion and by making them share with each other the
benefits that each class can confer on the community. The law produces
such people [guardians] in the city, not in order to allow them to turn
in whatever direction they want, but to make use of them to bind the
city together. (519e-520a)
Finally, we have an implausibly precise claim.
if someone wants to say how far a king’s pleasure is from a tyrant’s,
he’ll find, if he completes the calculation, that a king lives seven
hundred and twenty-nine times more pleasantly than a tyrant and that a
tyrant is the same number of times more wretched. (587e)
This is what you should know from today’s class.
- 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.
- What Plato means when he says the tyrannical city and the tyrannical
person are not free.
- What you think about whether Plato really answered Glaucon or
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.