Plato on How Democracy Degenerates into Tyranny
Plato's insights are still relevant today.
This is an edited version of an essay I submitted for a mid-term on early western political thought. Libertarians tend to view Plato negatively, viewing his Republic as a blueprint for totalitarianism. Be that as it may, Plato had many interesting insights and this is one of the first perceptive critiques of democracy. He was so opposed to democracy because it was the democratic government of Athens that condemned his mentor Socrates to death for corrupting the youth of Athens. I used Francis Cornford's translation for the most part but occasionally quoted from a translation by George Grube.
In Plato’s Republic, Book 8 he writes about the decline of the ideal state. He describes how it declines first to timocracy, the “state in which the ambitious man’s love of honour, the motive of the ‘spirited’ part, usurps the rule of reason.” (Cornford) Then it declines further to oligarchy or rule of the few, in particular, rule of the wealthy or plutocracy. That is one of the reasons Plato did not want the guardians to own private property.
Oligarchy then further degenerates to democracy when, in Cornford’s words, the excesses of the wealthy “so weakens itself that the poor see their opportunity to wrest power from the degenerate rich.”
The most interesting section and the one I will focus on is the emergence of despotism from democracy. This is a theme that has continued to crop up even in modern times.
How does democracy degenerate? Here is Plato’s account as put forward by Socrates. He starts by stating that democracy leads to widespread permissiveness. This sets up an opposite reaction. “So excessive liberty, whether in the individual or the state, is likely to change to excessive servitude and nothing else”.
Basically, he argues that the egalitarian spirit of liberty leads to children disrespecting parents, pupils disrespecting their teachers, and strangers from abroad and resident aliens seeing themselves on the same footing as citizens. “Generally speaking, the young copy their elders, argue with them, and will not do as they are told; while the old, anxious not to be thought disagreeable tyrants, imitate the young and condescend to enter into their jokes and amusements.”
“The citizens become so sensitive that they resent the slightest application of control as intolerable tyranny,” he continues.
In other words, too much liberty leads to license. Three types of people emerge - idle spendthrifts, the industrious wealthy, and the common man.
Socrates in a comparison to bees, calls the ambitious of the first group drones with stings who become the rulers and who usurp the second group’s honey to redistribute it to the third group.
The rich then agitate to protect themselves and are accused of being reactionaries. This leads to “impeachments and trials in which each party arraigns the other.” Ultimately the people (meaning the third group) put forward a single champion of their own interests, whom they nurse to greatness.” (or “they nurture him and make him great” as Grube puts it.)
This champion turns into a dictator. In very colorful language from the Cornford translation we find the following: ”The people’s champion, finding himself in full control of the mob, may not scruple to shed a brother’s blood; dragging him before a tribunal with the usual unjust charges, he may foully murder him, blotting out a man’s life and tasting kindred blood with unhallowed tongue and lips; he may send men to death or exile with hinted promises of debts to be cancelled and estates to be redistributed. Is it not thenceforth his inevitable fate either to be destroyed by his enemies or to seize absolute power and be transformed from a human being into a wolf?”
Wow! It makes the blood curdle.
But Socrates goes on to argue that this despot must provoke war “so that the people shall feel the need of a leader” and this is followed by purges of the former insiders who may depose him.
The relevance for contemporary history is profound. Beginning with the French Revolution, a revolution that parallels that described by Plato, Robespierre and the Jacobins became a virtual dictatorship that ruthlessly purged its own. Moderates like Danton went to the guillotine. Ruthless functionaries like Jean-Baptiste Carrier in Nantes became mass murderers.
These champions of the people became the very dictators that Plato predicted. They had “not scruple to shed a brother’s blood, dragging him before a tribunal with the usual unjust charges” so they could “foully murder him” all in the name of the law. Robespierre famously said that “terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible.”
The Russian Revolution was also a revolt of the people led by a champion. It too became a dictatorship complete with ruthless bloodshed including purges of suspected counter-revolutionaries. Even the exiled Trotsky was hunted down and murdered in Mexico by an agent of the NKVD on direct orders from Stalin himself.
It is well known that Hitler was democratically elected but ruthlessly seized total control of the government. Bloodshed including purges were part of his rule as well.
But democracy was incipient in revolutionary France and pre-Communist Russia. It was weak and subject to overthrow by demagoguery. Pre-Nazi Germany had only a loose allegiance to democracy and it too was easily subverted.
What about modern times and modern Western democracies?
It is interesting to note what several notable people have said about the danger of democracy.
C.S. Lewis (in The Screwtape Letters describing how a devil can use democracy to advantage): “Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose. Of course it is connected with the political ideal that men should be equally treated. You then make a stealthy transition in their minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men are equal. Especially the man you are working on. As a result you can use the word Democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading (and also the least enjoyable) of all human feelings. I'm as good as you!”
Lewis goes on to argue that this perversion of democracy leads to suppression of the exceptional: “The moral was plain. Let no pre-eminence among your subjects. Let no man live who is wiser, or better, or more famous, or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level; all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals. Thus tyrants could practice, in a sense, 'democracy'. But now 'democracy' can do the same work without any other tyranny than her own.”
Ayn Rand: “‘Democratic’ in its original meaning [refers to] unlimited majority rule . . . a social system in which one’s work, one’s property, one’s mind, and one’s life are at the mercy of any gang that may muster the vote of a majority at any moment for any purpose.”
H.L. Mencken: "As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." The Mencken quote was widely circulated when George W. Bush ran for President and again with Obama and with Trump.
The American Republic is supposedly built on a series of checks and balances designed to prevent the takeover by a potential dictator. But could a demagogue lead the country into a fascist dictatorship?
In his 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis describes the rise of a fascist dictatorship in America. Here is a short description from Wikipedia.
“In 1936 Senator Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a charismatic and power-hungry politician, wins the election as President of the United States on a populist platform, promising to restore the country to prosperity and greatness, and promising each citizen $5,000 a year. Portraying himself as a champion of traditional U.S. values, Windrip defeats President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Democratic convention, then easily beats his Republican opponent, Senator Walt Trowbridge, in the November election.”
Wikipedia notes that "Reviewers at the time, and literary critics ever since, have emphasized the connection with Louisiana politician Huey Long, who was preparing to run for president in the 1936 election when he was assassinated in 1935 just prior to the novel's publication."
In the novel, Windrip has published a book called Zero Hour which outlines his vision. It includes a diatribe against the press: “I KNOW the Press only too well. Almost all editors hide away in spider-dens, men without thought of Family or Public Interest or the humble delights of jaunts out-of-doors, plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good and who are vulnerable because they stand out in the fierce Light that beats around the Throne.”
Here’s another relevant quote from Windrip’s Zero Hour:
“I want to stand up on my hind legs and not just admit but frankly holler right out that we've got to change our system a lot, maybe even change the whole Constitution... The Executive has got to have a freer hand and be able to move quick in an emergency, and not be tied down by a lot of dumb shyster-lawyer congressmen taking months to shoot off their mouths in debates.”
Windrip brings in his own paramilitary branch, subverts the Constitution and becomes a dictator.
That colorful quote from the Republic, hopefully, won't ever materialize in America. Hopefully we won’t have a mob without the “scruple to shed a brother’s blood” or to drag alleged political enemies “before a tribunal with the usual unjust charges”. But these are dangerous times. The events of the last few weeks are witness to that. We did see people foully murdered. We did see a maniac “tasting kindred blood with unhallowed tongue and lips”. (I wrote this shortly after some lunatic shot up a synagogue in Pittsburgh killing eleven and wounding seven.)
The polarization of politics is creating a powder keg that may explode with unexpected consequences. Hopefully voices of peace, tolerance and moderation will prevail.
Postscript: For a contrary view supporting the idea of democracy see my other essay – An Alternate View of Democracy. While it might seem contradictory to argue against democracy in one essay and for democracy in another, they are not. But the rationale for democracy I present is not what you might expect.
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If you would like to read more of my philosophical and/or political articles, check out the following:
- Book Review: Fatherland by Robert Harris
- The Joy of Reading
- An Alternate View of Democracy
- Life and Death in Ocean Reef
- Songs About Propaganda
- Propaganda and the Political Cartoon
- Complete Index of my Writing on Vocal (including short stories and poems)