February 16, 2009
How Democracies Become Tyrannies
Back in 1959 the philosopher Eric Hoffer had this to say about Americans and America:
For those who want to be left alone to realize their capacities and talents this is an ideal country.
That was then. This is now. Flash forward fifty years to the election of Barack Obama and a hard left leaning Democrat Congress. What Americans want today, apparently, is a government that has no intention of leaving any of us alone.
How could Hoffer have been so wrong about America? Why did America change so quickly? Can a free people willingly choose servitude? Is it possible for democracies to become tyrannies? How?
The answers to these questions were famously addressed in a few pages tucked within the greatest masterpiece of the classical world: Plato's Republic. On the surface, and to most reviewers of Plato's writings, the Republic is a dialogue on justice and on what constitutes the just society. But to careful readers the deeper theme of the Republic is the nature of education and the relationship between education and the survival of the state. In fact, the Republic is essentially the story of how a man (Socrates) condemned to death for "corrupting" the youth of Athens gives to posterity the most precious gift of all: the love of wisdom.
In the Republic, two young men, Glaucon and Adeimantus, accompany the much older Socrates on a journey of discovery into the nature of the individual soul and its connection to the harmony of the state. During the course of their adventure, as the two disciples demonstrate greater maturity and self-control, they are gradually exposed to deeper and more complex teachings regarding the relationship between virtue, self-sufficiency, and happiness. In short, the boys begin to realize that justice and happiness in a community rests upon the moral condition of its citizens. This is what Socrates meant when he said: "The state is man writ large."
Near the end of the Republic Socrates decides to drive this point home by showing Adeimantus what happens to a regime when its parents and educators neglect the proper moral education of its children. In the course of this chilling illustration Adeimantus comes to discover a dark and ominous secret: without proper moral conditioning a regime's "defining principle" will be the source of its ultimate destruction. For democracy, that defining principle is freedom. According to Socrates, freedom makes a democracy but freedom also eventually breaks a democracy.
For Socrates, democracy's "insatiable desire for freedom and neglect of other things" end up putting it "in need of a dictatorship." The short version of his theory is that the combination of freedom and poor education in a democracy render the citizens incapable of mastering their impulses and deferring gratification. The reckless pursuit of freedom leads the citizens to raze moral barriers, deny traditional authority, and abandon established methods of education. Eventually, this uninhibited quest for personal freedom forces the public to welcome the tyrant. Says Socrates: "Extreme freedom can't be expected to lead to anything but a change to extreme slavery, whether for a private individual or for a city."
Adeimantus wants Socrates to explain what kind of man resembles the democratic city. In other words, he wants to know how "democratic man" comes to be and what happens to make this freedom loving man eventually beg for a tyrant. Socrates clarifies that the democratic man starts out as the son of an "oligarchic" father -- a father who is thrifty and self-disciplined. The father's generation is more concerned with wealth than freedom. This first generation saves, invests, and rarely goes in for conspicuous consumption.[i]
The father's pursuit of wealth leaves him unwilling and unable to give attention to his son's moral development. The father focuses on business and finance and ignores the business of family. The son then begins to associate with "wild and dangerous creatures who can provide every variety of multicolored pleasure in every sort of way." These Athenian precursors of the hippies begin to transform the son's oligarchic nature into a democratic one. Because the young man has had no moral guidance, his excessive desire for "unnecessary pleasures" undermines "the citadel" of his soul. Because the "guardians" of the son's inner citadel -- truth, restraint, wisdom -- are absent, there is nothing within him to defend against the "false and boastful words and beliefs that rush up and occupy this part of him."
A 1960s revolution in the son's soul purges the last remaining guardians of moderation and supplants new meanings to old virtues: "anarchy" replaces freedom, "extravagance" replaces magnificence, and "shamelessness" replaces courage. The young man surrenders rule over himself "to whichever desire comes along, as if it were chosen by lot." Here Socrates notes the essential problem when a free society becomes detached from any notions of moral virtue or truth: desires are chosen by "lot" instead of by "merit" or "priority."
For the son the democratic revolution in his soul is complete. In this stage "there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but he calls it pleasant, free, blessedly happy, and he follows it for as long as he lives." Socrates gives a brief illustration of the young man's new democratic life:
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.
In short, the young man has no anchor, no set of guiding principles or convictions other than his thirst for freedom. His life is aimless, superficial, and gratuitous. The spoiled lotus-eaters of his generation have defined themselves simply by mocking all forms of propriety and prudence. What's worse, as these Athenian baby-boomers exercise their right to vote, they elect "bad cupbearers" as their leaders. The new cupbearers want to stay in office so they give the voters whatever they desire. The public, according to Socrates, "gets drunk by drinking more than it should of the unmixed wine of freedom." Conservative politicians who attempt to mix the wine of freedom with calls for self-restraint "are punished by the city and accused of being accursed oligarchs."
As conservative politicians court suspicion so do conservative teachers and academics who stubbornly hold on to objective measurements of performance: "A teacher in such a community is afraid of his students and flatters them, while the students despise their teachers or tutors." Conservatism becomes unpopular just about everywhere, to a point at which even the elderly "stoop to the level of the young and are full of play and pleasantry, imitating the young for fear of appearing disagreeable and authoritarian."
The explosion of boundaries and limits extends even to national identity itself, so that resident aliens and foreigners "are made equal to a citizen."
The citizens' souls become so infected with freedom that they become excessively paranoid about any hint of slavery. But slavery comes to mean being under any kind of master or limit including the law itself. Says Socrates: "They take no notice of the laws, whether written or unwritten, in order to avoid having any master at all." That is, any kind of "hierarchy" in a democracy is rejected as "authoritarian." But this extreme freedom, according to Socrates, eventually enslaves democracy.
As the progressive politicians and intellectuals come to dominate the democratic city, its "fiercest members do all the talking and acting, while the rest settle near the speakers platform and buzz and refuse to tolerate the opposition of another speaker." There are "impeachments, judgments and trials on both sides." The politicians heat up the crowds by vilifying business and wealth and by promising to spread the wealth around. The people then "set up one man as their special champion" and begin "nurturing him and making him great."
The people's "special champion" however transforms from leader to tyrant. He "drops hints about the cancellation of debts and the redistribution of land" and continues to "stir up civil wars against the rich." All who have reached this stage, says Socrates, "soon discover the famous request of a tyrant, namely, that the people give him a bodyguard to keep their defender safe for them." The people give him this new security force, "because they are afraid for his safety but aren't worried at all about their own."
Socrates describes the early weeks of the new leader's reign:
"Won't he smile in welcome at anyone he meets, saying that he's no tyrant, making all sorts of promises both in public and in private, freeing the people from debt, redistributing land to them, and to his followers, and pretending to be gracious and gentle to all?"
After a series of unpopular actions, including stirring up a war in order to generate popular support, the leader begins to alienate some of his closest and most ardent advisers who begin to voice their misgivings in private. Following a purge of these advisors the tyrant attracts some of the worst elements of the city to help him rule. As the citizens grow weary of his tenure the tyrant chooses to attract foreigners to resupply his dwindling national bodyguard. The citizens finally decide they've had enough and begin to discuss rebellion.
At this point in the dialogue Adeimantus asks Socrates incredulously: "What do you mean? Will the tyrant dare to use violence against [the people] or to hit [them] if [they] don't obey? Socrates answers:
"Yes - once he's taken away [the people's] weapons."
Thus ends Book VIII of Plato's Republic. I won't spoil the marvelous ending (Books IX and X) but I would like to spend a few moments drawing some conclusions about the overall message of this fascinating text and its relevance for 21st century Americans.
First, those of us who are incapable of self-mastery will always shamefully prostrate ourselves before messianic political leaders. The progressive left in America has spent countless generations destroying the guardians of our inner citadel: religion, family, parents, and tradition - in short, conservatism and limits. When we exhaust the financial and moral capital of previous generations (and future ones, as with the current stimulus bill) we will dutifully line up at the public trough, on our knees. Citizens capable of self-mastery will always choose to be left alone. In other words, they'll always choose limited government.
Second, freedom without limits paves the way to tyranny by undermining respect for the law. When politicians play fast and loose with the law it becomes easier for them and for the people to see special champions as alternative sources of rule. Today in America the objective basis for law is being attacked on campuses and even in law schools as too authoritarian and too insensitive to the subjective experiences and personal narratives of criminals. The SAT exam has also been under assault for the same reasons. As Socrates warned: extreme freedom will instill a paranoia about any kind of "master" including objective measurements of right and wrong, and of merit based forms of achievement. But when the citizens become enslaved to their vices they'll dutifully cry out for another kind of master.
Third, is the crucial role of education, which is the underlying theme of Plato's Republic. The ethos of American education has been for many decades saturated with a simple mantra: choice. What's worse, those few remaining educators who chant the old, Socratic mantra of "judgment" are vilified and harassed by the modern day lotus-eaters as hateful conservatives. Socrates predicted that all of this would happen in a democracy. But it is judgment not choice that enables a young person to erect a citadel in the soul. This eliminates the need for tyrants, and for bailouts too.
Finally, there is a question on the minds of many conservatives today: How does one convince the younger generations of Americans to distrust the growth of the State? Is it possible for Americans to recover the desire to be left alone in order "to realize our capacities and talents" as Eric Hoffer says?
I've read that in Iran, many young people chafe at the pervasive despotism there, but when the burning desire for freedom threatens to boil over, the government in Tehran eases its restrictions on the use of personal satellite dishes. Electronic Soma for the digital age.
Hat tip: Larrey Anderson