One of the reasons Plato is still read1 is that his work remains surprisingly relevant to today’s political problems. I discovered that myself while reading Book VIII of Plato’s Republic,2 which sees Socrates and Glaucon describing four different types or classes of regimes. I say four because they have already spent seven out of the ten books of the Republic describing the fifth, which is Plato’s ideal form of government.3 These other regimes he terms timocracy4 (the pursuit of honour or ambition), democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny. What struck me in reading his critiques of these regimes is how relevant they would be to someone critiquing a modern capitalist democracy.5 In this essay, I want to let Plato’s words speak for themselves. I’ll put some quotes from Book VIII below; imagine he is talking to a modern audience, and when he (through Socrates and Glaucon) refers to oligarchy and democracy, pretend he means a modern capitalist democracy. You’ll see that you won’t have to squint too hard to recognize the regimes he critiques as having some echoes in our own system of governance today.
“And what manner of of government do you term oligarchy?
A government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it…[where] one, seeing another grow rich, seeks to rival him, and thus the great mass of the citizens become lovers of money…and so they grow richer and richer, and the more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue…and in proportion as riches and rich men are honoured in the state, virtue and the virtuous are dishonoured….
The good at which such a State aims is to become as rich as possible, a desire which is insatiable…there can be no doubt that the love of wealth and the spirit of moderation cannot exist together in citizens of the same State to any considerable extent; one or the other will be disregarded…
And so at last…men become lovers of trade and money; they honour and look up to the rich man, and make a ruler of him, and dishonour the poor man…[the people are compelled] to think only of how lesser sums may be turned into larger ones…and to only worship and admire only riches and rich men, and to be ambitious [only] to the acquisition of wealth and the means of acquiring it…
The men of the governing class, are habituated to lead a life of luxury and idleness of both body and mind…they themselves care only for making money, and are as indifferent as the pauper to the cultivation of virtue...and at the same time their fondness for money makes them unwilling to pay taxes….
Yes, he said; but what are the characteristics of this form of government, and what are the defects of which we were speaking?
First of all, I said, consider the nature of the qualification. Just think what would happen if pilots were to be chosen according to their property, and a poor man were refused permission to steer, even though he were a better pilot?
…And here is another defect which is quite as bad.
The inevitable division: such a State is not one, but two States, the one of poor, the other of rich men; and they are living on the same spot and always conspiring against one another…for oligarchies have both the extremes of great wealth and utter poverty…and [because of this wealth disparity] there are also many criminals to be found in them, rogues who have stings, and whom the authorities are careful to restrain by force…the existence of such persons is to be attributed to want of education, ill-training, and an evil constitution of the State.”
Plato posits that democracy develops naturally from oligarchy. An oligarchical state will succeed in creating great wealth, at least for some of the citizens, but the great disparity of wealth will lead the poor to “hate and conspire against [the rich] and [to be] eager for revolution…and then democracy comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents.”
“And now what is their manner of life, and what sort of government have they?
…In the first place, are they not free? And is not the city full of freedom and frankness–a man may say and do what he likes?
‘Tis said so, he replied.
And where freedom is, the individual is clearly able to order for himself his own life as he pleases?
…And so [the typical citizen] returns into the country of the lotus-eaters…into the freedoms and libertinism of useless and unnecessary pleasures…after this he lives on, spending his money and labour and time on unnecessary pleasures quite as much as on necessary ones…he lives from days to day indulging in the appetite of the hour…and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom; and so he goes on.
Yes, he replied, he is all liberty and equality…
[In terms of politics he is accustomed to] putting the government of himself into the hands of the one which comes first and wins the turn; and when he has had enough of that, then into the hands of another…he shakes his head and says they are all alike, and that one is as good as another….[other times] he is busy with politics, and starts to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head…
These and other kindred characteristics are proper to democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike…how much greater is the liberty which the animals who are under the dominion of man have in a democracy than in any other State: for truly, the she-dogs, as the proverb says, are as good as their she-mistresses, and the horses and asses have a way of marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen; and they will run at anybody who comes in their way if he does not leave the road clear for them: and all things are just ready to burst with liberty….
And above all, I said, and as the result of all, see how sensitive the citizens become; they chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority and at length, as you known, they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten, they will have no one over them.”
Plato goes on to say that the natural outcome and successor to democracy is tyranny:
“And democracy has her own good, of which the insatiable desire brings her to dissolution?
Freedom, I replied; which, as they tell you in a democracy, is the glory of the State…
Yes, the saying is in everybody’s mouth…
The ruin of oligarchy is the ruin of democracy; the same disease magnified and intensified by liberty overmasters democracy–the truth being that the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction…the excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery. "
He goes on to explain exactly how this “excess of liberty” causes the demise of democracies. That is, that the poorer segment of society will be the most populous, and will use their liberty to vote to “deprive the rich of their estates and distribute them among the people”, and these rich will respond by defending themselves by backing a tyrant who will protect them from this loss of wealth and property (p.617-618).
Although we do not strictly live in either an Athenian-style democracy or an oligarchy, Plato’s critiques ring true because there are certainly elements of both in our modern capitalist democracy. The oligarchical state Plato describes sounds remarkably similar to any capitalist democracy. Citizens often seem to desire wealth above all, and the great majority of human life, effort, and time spent in such a system is to increase one’s income. Not only does this lead to the respect and admiration from fellow-citizens that Plato describes, but also the ability to carry out the life of luxury that that money can buy.
He also accurately pinpoints that the value of government in a state like this is for the State and for its members to become as wealthy as possible. That is how capitalism works, it focuses on the individual’s unbridled pursuit of their own material self-interest, and a government exists to allow for that pursuit to happen. And, of course, as Plato points out, this pursuit is inevitably going to lead to differences in material outcomes, which over the course of time are going to result in a huge chasm of difference between the wealthiest and the poorest. The poorest, in these circumstances, will resort to criminal activity, and the wealthier segment of society will lean harder and harder on repressing the criminal poor to protect themselves. This will only exacerbate this divide. Sound familiar?
And likewise for democracy, Plato identifies the values of such a system as individual freedom and equality. But freedom in such a state is hardly a virtue according to Plato. He calls it the freedom of the lotus eaters; to pursue material pleasures through rampant consumerism. He is equally dismissive of equality, opining that democracy forces a sort of equality on people who should not have equal say in the running of the government. This is because he thinks some citizens are more fit to rule than others, because of their general virtue, reverence for the rule of law, and because of the attention they pay to politics. Plato asks why we would give everyone the same right to participate when they are so unequal in these three respects?
His description of the average citizen’s dilemma in a democracy sounds equally applicable to 2023: “putting the government of himself into the hands of the one…and when he has had enough of that, then into the hands of another…he shakes his head and says they are all alike, and that one is as good as another.” You try the Republicans, and then the Democrats, but no matter who you choose things continue badly enough that you throw up your hands and conclude that they’re all the same, and you may as well stop paying attention to politics and just watch television.
The ideal regime that Plato describes in the Republic is his remedy to these two regimes. At its core is the idea that governance should be left to rulers who are more knowledgeable and virtuous than the rest of the citizens. This would maximize peace, justice, and welfare among the citizens. Those are the values he thinks government should be expressing. Whether or not you agree that these should be the preeminent values, it is hard not to feel that his critiques of oligarchy and democracy still apply to our own liberal democratic system of governance in 2023.
Part of the reason his work still feels so relevant is that the context in which he was writing had some echoes with our situation today. Plato grew up in a set of self-governing, free city states who had in the not too distant past managed to band together to defeat a huge empire. In the aftermath, the freedom and trade between the cities had led to an influx of wealth, especially in Athens. Eventually Athens started trying to control the rest of Greece, ostensibly to better protect trade routes from piracy, and get tribute from the other cities, which led to war. Despite being the wealthiest and most powerful city state, the war went unexpectedly disastrously, and people started to blame each other and the government they had created. There was a feeling that democracy had somehow gone horribly wrong. It was eventually overthrown by oligarchs, but of course that just made things worse. So this was the context of his thought, a feeling that his homeland had reached these incredible heights, but was now inexorably slipping into moral decline. Sounds pretty familiar, right?