OWS: Plato Bets on Tyranny

Ed Kaitz
It might be worth everyone's while in these troubled times to set aside an evening in order to carefully read Book VIII of Plato's Republic.  The dialogue is nothing less than chilling in its illustration of what happens in a popular government when corrupt politicians inflame the vices of undisciplined citizens in order to destroy the business class and establish a tyranny.

Here's a link to Book VIII.  Plato's objective is to show how highly self-disciplined regimes gradually devolve into more inferior and immoderate governments.  Socrates begins the discussion showing how Aristocracies (rule of the wisest) devolve into Timocracies (rule of the military) which then descend into Oligarchies (rule of the wealthy).  Oligarchies descend into Democracies (rule of the people) which in turn become Tyrannies.

Pay attention to the final section: how a Democracy becomes a Tyranny.  The process starts back when the rulers are Oligarchs.  A kind of Government/Business nexus (think Fannie Mae) figures out that certain undisciplined borrowers will be unable to pay back their loans.  The lenders acquire the property and recoup their losses with some kind of bailout.  Socrates says none of this crazy lending would have happened if the lenders had had to risk their own funds:

"For if it be enacted that voluntary contracts be as a general rule entered into at the proper risk of the contractor, people will be less shameless in their money-dealings in the city, and such ills as we have now described will be less common."

Democracy arises when those thrown out of their homes discover that the rich Oligarchs and their kids are soft and lazy.  They rebel and set up popular rule.  The people want freedom more than anything else, so they are highly sensitive to any kind of "master" including objective standards of behavior, merit, and manners.  Therefore, the people's desire for freedom makes anyone in a position of authority highly suspect. 

For example, politicians who urge self-restraint, thrift, and balanced-budgets are punished and cursed while those politicians who promise whatever the people want in "copious draughts" are rewarded.  Parents are afraid to discipline their kids, and teachers begin flattering their students (grade inflation, extra credit, etc.).  Authority figures are afraid to establish boundaries since this would violate the people's "freedom."  Even national boundaries are no longer respected: "resident aliens, and foreigners, are all perfectly equal."

Politicians find it prudent to play the underdog and join with the people in their condemnation of those whose success is a product of frugality and self-discipline.  Certain "wicked-wine bearers" promise the voters "the unmixed wine of liberty far beyond due measure" and begin attacking the business class.  Businessmen are in turn accused of plotting against the people.

A "special leader" arises who promises even more: cancelling all debts and redistributing the land.  The special leader "stirs up faction against the propertied class" but protects himself with a special bodyguard.   He starts unnecessary wars to divert attention, becomes unpopular, and then aligns himself more closely with foreigners.  To protect himself even further he takes away the people's weapons.  The special leader is now a Tyrant.

Plato's Republic is about 2,400 years old but Plato's profound observation of human nature still stands:  those who cannot master themselves will cry out for someone to master them.  Eric Hoffer offered a similar conclusion much more recently:

"People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them."

It might be worth everyone's while in these troubled times to set aside an evening in order to carefully read Book VIII of Plato's Republic.  The dialogue is nothing less than chilling in its illustration of what happens in a popular government when corrupt politicians inflame the vices of undisciplined citizens in order to destroy the business class and establish a tyranny.

Here's a link to Book VIII.  Plato's objective is to show how highly self-disciplined regimes gradually devolve into more inferior and immoderate governments.  Socrates begins the discussion showing how Aristocracies (rule of the wisest) devolve into Timocracies (rule of the military) which then descend into Oligarchies (rule of the wealthy).  Oligarchies descend into Democracies (rule of the people) which in turn become Tyrannies.

Pay attention to the final section: how a Democracy becomes a Tyranny.  The process starts back when the rulers are Oligarchs.  A kind of Government/Business nexus (think Fannie Mae) figures out that certain undisciplined borrowers will be unable to pay back their loans.  The lenders acquire the property and recoup their losses with some kind of bailout.  Socrates says none of this crazy lending would have happened if the lenders had had to risk their own funds:

"For if it be enacted that voluntary contracts be as a general rule entered into at the proper risk of the contractor, people will be less shameless in their money-dealings in the city, and such ills as we have now described will be less common."

Democracy arises when those thrown out of their homes discover that the rich Oligarchs and their kids are soft and lazy.  They rebel and set up popular rule.  The people want freedom more than anything else, so they are highly sensitive to any kind of "master" including objective standards of behavior, merit, and manners.  Therefore, the people's desire for freedom makes anyone in a position of authority highly suspect. 

For example, politicians who urge self-restraint, thrift, and balanced-budgets are punished and cursed while those politicians who promise whatever the people want in "copious draughts" are rewarded.  Parents are afraid to discipline their kids, and teachers begin flattering their students (grade inflation, extra credit, etc.).  Authority figures are afraid to establish boundaries since this would violate the people's "freedom."  Even national boundaries are no longer respected: "resident aliens, and foreigners, are all perfectly equal."

Politicians find it prudent to play the underdog and join with the people in their condemnation of those whose success is a product of frugality and self-discipline.  Certain "wicked-wine bearers" promise the voters "the unmixed wine of liberty far beyond due measure" and begin attacking the business class.  Businessmen are in turn accused of plotting against the people.

A "special leader" arises who promises even more: cancelling all debts and redistributing the land.  The special leader "stirs up faction against the propertied class" but protects himself with a special bodyguard.   He starts unnecessary wars to divert attention, becomes unpopular, and then aligns himself more closely with foreigners.  To protect himself even further he takes away the people's weapons.  The special leader is now a Tyrant.

Plato's Republic is about 2,400 years old but Plato's profound observation of human nature still stands:  those who cannot master themselves will cry out for someone to master them.  Eric Hoffer offered a similar conclusion much more recently:

"People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them."