PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday January 29, 2003


[8.] Degenerate Forms of Government (Republic VIII).


At the beginning of Book VIII, Socrates returns to the subject he was about to embark on at the beginning of Book V (449a-b, p.84) -- the different forms of government, and the different types of person that correspond to them.


He's already described what he takes to be the only just form of government: the monarchy/kingdom or aristocracy (as well as the corresponding person -- the individual whose reason is in control of his spirit and appetite and in whom each of those three aspects of the soul is doing its own proper job). Now he adds four other forms of government to the list:


  1. kingdom/monarchy or aristocracy (Plato's republic) -- ruled by philosopher/kings
  2. timocracy or timarchy  -- ruled by the aggressive / spirited class [Gk. time -- "honor"][1]
  3. oligarchy -- ruled by the wealthy
  4. democracy -- ruled by the people
  5. tyranny -- ruled by a single-tyrant


The point of examining these various forms of government is to discover who is happier / better off, the just man or the unjust man. Plato is still assuming that the polis is "man writ large" and that we can learn something about individuals by examining the structure of a polis. We will focus less on the sort of individual that corresponds to the various forms of regime and more on those forms of regime themselves, as well as on how one regime "devolves" to a worse one.


[8.1.] From Aristocracy to Timocracy.


·         The only way that one form of government can deteriorate to a lesser form is if the rulers begin to disagree among themselves, i.e. if "factions arise within" the ruling class. (545d, p.134)

·         The successful execution of the eugenic enterprise is necessary to keep such factions from developing: the ruling class must consist only of those with "gold" characters, the auxiliary class only of those with "silver" characters, and so forth.

·         But the eugenics program will inevitably become fouled up. As a result, people who aren't really qualified to be rulers will slip into the ruling class, and those not quite qualified to be auxiliaries will slip into the auxiliary class.

·         This failure of the eugenics program will have lots of bad consequences:

·         auxiliaries will begin to disobey the rulers

·         they won't be as diligent in their studies

·         they will be even more susceptible to mistakes when it comes to breeding, so more and more people who are less and less qualified will continue to slip in to the guardian classes. (546d - 547a, p.135)

·         these individuals, who are not truly qualified to be guardians, will begin to quarrel among themselves, thus undermining the control they wield over society.

·         The guardians are now split between those who value virtue and those who value wealth; as a sort of compromise, they agree to capture all property and enslave everyone else (those whom they formerly served)

·         Their top priority is "war and … their own protection" (547c, p.135); it will differ from the ideal republic by having "a greater turn for war than for peace, and in the value which it set upon the arts and strategems which war calls out, and in the incessant hostilities which it carries on" (547e, p.135)

·         Honor and victory are valued above all else: "owing to the preponderance of the spirited element, there is one thing in particular which it exhibits in the clearest colors, and that is its love of victory and its love of honors." (548c, p.136)


[8.2.] From Timocracy to Oligarchy.


The increasing love of wealth among the guardians continues to grow, until it supercedes even the love of honor. Whereas the philosopher-kings of the ideal republic loved virtue and goodness above all else, the oligarchs love wealth-- and these two loves are opposed to one another: "when wealth and the wealthy are honored in a city, virtue and the virtuous sink in estimation."

·         The wealthy are honored; the poor are despised.

·         The laws are revised to make possession of a certain amount of wealth a requirement for participation in government.


oligarchy: rule by the rich, or more specifically (in Plato), by property-owners: "a regime grounded upon a property qualification … in which the wealthy rule, while the poor have no part in the rule." (550c-d, p.137)


Problems with oligarchy:

1.       Possession of wealth is no indication that someone is qualified to run a polis, no more than it's an indication that someone is qualified to pilot a ship.

2.       The cohesiveness of the polis is undermined: it will split into two separate cities: one rich, the other poor.

3.       They will no longer be able to wage war: they will neither arm the poor (for fear of revolt) or fight for themselves.

4.       The division of labor has disappeared; an individual will have to engage in various pursuits in order to live.

5.       It's now possible for an individual to sell all his property and be an unemployed beggar -- and this class of person inevitably begets criminals.


[8.3.] From Oligarchy to Democracy.


The wealthy rulers refuse to restrain wasteful young men -- they continue to allow them to be prodigal, and they continue to loan them money, in the hopes of becoming even wealthier themselves.


The underclass, including beggars and criminals, continues to grow.


The ruling rich become softer and lazier, and thus more susceptible to revolt -- and that's exactly what happens:


            Democracy, then, I think, arises, whenever the poor win the day, killing some of the opposite party, expelling others, and admitting the remainder to an equal participation in civic rights and offices, and most commonly the offices in such a city are given by lot. (557a, p.142)


Here Plato has in mind, not a representative democracy akin to contemporary America, but a direct democracy in which every citizen is allowed to participate directly in law-making, as in the Assembly in Athens.


·         Diversity reigns -- individuals are allowed to do and live as they see fit, so there is a great "diversity of character" (557c, p.143)

·         You need not participate in law-making, even if you are suited to do so

·         You need not fight in wars during wartime, or even refrain from fighting in wars during times of peace.

·         As Plato describes this regime, individuals are allowed to do basically whatever they want, even violate the law! Here we're getting very close to anarchy:


…it will be, in all likelihood, an agreeable, anarchic, many-colored regime, dealing with all alike on a footing of equality, whether they be really equal or not. (558c, p.143)


[8.4.] From Democracy to Tyranny.


Democracy is destroyed by its "insatiable craving" for freedom. (562b, p.146)


Individuals become so enamored of freedom that rulers and laws are entirely disregarded. The anarchic streak grows even further, making tyranny possible:


…to do anything in excess seldom fails to provoke a violent reaction to the opposite extreme … especially in regimes. [2]

            … Thus, excessive freedom is unlikely to pass into anything but excessive slavery, in the case of cities as well as individuals. (563e-564a, p.147)


·         A champion will arise to defend the interests of the poor against the wealthy.

·         The taste of power which this champion experiences will eventually transform him into a tyrant.

·         He will surround himself with bodyguards and kill all his enemies; he will be constantly prepared for war to defend his regime.

·         His citizens begin to hate him more and more.

·         The bravest and wisest criticize him, and he is compelled to eliminate them -- thus removing from the polis the best people and leaving behind the worst:


…he is bound in the chains of a delightful necessity, which orders him either to live amongst persons the majority of whom are good for nothing, and to live hated by them, or else to cease to exist. (567c-d, p.150)


·         Eventually his citizens will try to expel him-- but find that they are far weaker than the force he has built to protect himself and his power.



[9.] Summary of Plato's View of the Ideal Polis.


Most people are held to be incapable of knowing what the good for them really is, so they must be ruled by the few who have this knowledge. This is why Plato criticized democracy, in which the art of ruling is in the hands of a mob that has no knowledge.


Plato's solution is to wrest control of the state from the ignorant, emotional many and put it in the hands of the rational few who can control both themselves and the many. The virtues of temperance and courage must be instilled in the many by means of government regulation. The result is a planned, regimented society, and it is to start with the control of breeding and education. Only those with requisite talent are to be given a "real" education and trained for ruler status. Those who cannot grasp intellectual concepts are to be educated differently. Since they can't understand the organic nature of the state and the function of each citizen in it, they must be trained to act in accord with these ideals.


In the selection of careers, a person would be tested to see what work he was best fitted for; he would then be assigned to the proper job. Capacity or ability is the only criterion for specialized training. Only the producing class would own property. The guardian class would live in communal groups without familial ties, living together like soldiers in a camp, handling neither gold nor silver. Only the best of the guardian class would be chosen to join the ruling class (they must be over 50). The remainder of the class consists of the auxiliaries, who support the decisions of the rulers. Women are on equal footing in the larger guardian class. Marriages are arranged by the ruling class on eugenic principles, to keep the guardians "pure."


The wisdom of the state resides in the ruling class, courage in the guardians, and temperance in the subordination of the governed to the governors. The justice of the state resides in everyone doing his own business without interfering with anyone else's. Political injustice results when one class interferes with the business of another class (note the difference between Plato's justice and justice involving equality and respect for individual views).



[1] "Timocracy" has another meaning: a form of government in which property-ownership is a necessary condition for participation in government.

[2] This idea was echoed by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid: "That men should rush with violence from one extreme, without going more or less into the contrary extreme, is not to be expected from the weakness of human nature." Essays on the Intellectual Powers (1785), II, 4, xvi.

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