Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Plato on Democracy’s Transition to Tyranny

Perfectly describing our age?:

Come then, tell me, dear friend, how tyranny arises. That it is an outgrowth of
democracy is fairly plain.

Yes, plain.

Is it, then, in a sense, in the same way in which democracy arises out of oligarchy that tyranny arises from democracy?

How is that?

The good that they proposed to themselves and that was the cause of the establishment of oligarchy--it was wealth, was it not?


Well, then, the insatiate lust for wealth and the neglect of everything else for the sake of money-making were the cause of its undoing.

True, he said.

And is not the avidity of democracy for that which is its definition and criterion of good the thing which dissolves it too?

What do you say its criterion to be?

Liberty, I replied, for you may hear it said that this is best managed in a democratic city, and for this reason that is the only city in which a man of free spirit will care to live.

Why, yes, he replied, you hear that saying everywhere.

Then, as I was about to observe, is it not the excess and greed of this and the neglect of all other things that revolutionizes this constitution too and prepares the way for the necessity of a dictatorship?

How? he said.

Why, when a democratic city athirst for liberty gets bad cupbearers for its leaders and is intoxicated by drinking too deep of that unmixed wine, and then, if its so-called governors are not extremely mild and gentle with it and do not dispense the liberty unstintedly, it chastises them and accuses them of being accursed oligarchs.

Yes, that is what they do, he replied.

But those who obey the rulers, I said, it reviles as willing slaves and men of nought, but it commends and honors in public and private rulers who resemble subjects and subjects who are like rulers. Is it not inevitable that in such a state the spirit of liberty should go to all lengths?

Of course.

And this anarchic temper, said I, my friend, must penetrate into private homes and finally enter into the very animals.

Just what do we mean by that? he said.

Why, I said, the father habitually tries to resemble the child and is afraid of his sons, and the son likens himself to the father and feels no awe or fear of his parents, so that he may be forsooth a free man. And the resident alien feels himself equal to the citizen and the citizen to him, and the foreigner likewise.

Yes, these things do happen, he said.

They do, said I, and such other trifles as these. The teacher in such case fears and fawns upon the pupils, and the pupils pay no heed to the teacher or to their overseers either. And in general the young ape their elders and vie with them in speech and action, while the old, accommodating themselves to the young, are full of pleasantry and graciousness, imitating the young for fear they may be thought disagreeable and authoritative.

By all means, he said.

And the climax of popular liberty, my friend, I said, is attained in such a city when the purchased slaves, male and female, are no less free than the owners who paid for them. And I almost forgot to mention the spirit of freedom and equal rights in the relation of men to women and women to men.

Shall we not, then, said he, in Aeschylean phrase, say 'whatever rises to our lips'?


And do you note that the sum total of all these items when footed up is that they render the souls of the citizens so sensitive that they chafe at the slightest suggestion of servitude and will not endure it? For you are aware that they finally pay no heed even to the laws written or unwritten, so that forsooth they may have no master anywhere over them.

I know it very well, said he.

This, then, my friend, said I, is the fine and vigorous root from which tyranny grows, in my opinion.

Vigorous indeed, he said, but what next?

The same malady, I said, that, arising in oligarchy, destroyed it, this more widely diffused and more violent as a result of this license, enslaves democracy. And in truth, any excess is wont to bring about a corresponding reaction to the opposite in the seasons, in plants, in animal bodies, and most especially in political societies.

Probably, he said.

And so the probable outcome of too much freedom is only too much slavery in the individual and the state.

Yes, that is probable.

Probably, then, tyranny develops out of no other constitution than democracy--from the height of liberty, I take it, the fiercest extreme of servitude.

That is reasonable, he said.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You'll want to add a facebook button to your blog. I just bookmarked this article, although I had to complete it manually. Simply my $.02 :)

- Robson