Political Philosophy Spring 2024

Democracy and Tyranny


We are going to do three things.

  1. 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 readings.)

  2. We will go over Plato’s account of the degeneration of the city in Book 8.

  3. 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 are talking about are not 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. You can read about the cave 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 is not true since they know what is real. Or, at least, they know the limits of the senses.

But it raises a problem. Why would the philosophers want to go back into the cave and run things? 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 cannot 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 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 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 will call 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 will call 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 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.

Rule Virtues Cities
Predominant part wisdom, courage timocracy, oligarchy, tyranny
Part-whole moderation, justice democracy

This is a case where the analogy between the city and the soul drives Plato to say some things that do not really make much sense. He says that a democratic person is like a democratic city: full of variety and change.

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 is not the way it works. A diverse, dynamic city is not made up of people whose lives are constantly changing. The collective is diverse, but the individual members can lead stable, even dull, lives. They do not 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 is so bad. It is the second to last city so it should be the second worst. But the way he describes it makes it sound pretty good.

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 is 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 city? (562e)

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)

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 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)

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 is no.

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 injustice. (344a-c)

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 is right about that. Plato also assumes that the constraints have to be ethical constraints. That is more questionable, in my opinion.

Summary Statements

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)

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.