Search Menu

The Republic



Book VII

Book VIII, page 2

page 1 of 2


Now that Socrates has finished describing the just city, he returns to the interrupted task of describing the four unjust constitutions of city and man. In addition to the aristocracy that we have been discussing for the past six books, and the philosopher-king who microcosmically embodies and rules this government, Socrates identifies four other city-man pairs: there is a timocracy, and the honor-driven man who resembles and rules that sort of government; there is oligarchy, which resembles and is ruled by a man driven by his necessary appetites; there is democracy, which resembles and is ruled by a man driven by his unnecessary appetites; and there is tyranny, which resembles and is ruled by a man driven by his unlawful appetites. Each of these constitutions is worse than the other, with a tyranny being the most wretched form of government, and the tyrannical man the most wretched of men. Unfortunately, since our city is human and all human things inevitably degenerate, these four unjust constitutions are not presented as mere theoretical possibilities: they are presented as the inevitable stages of degeneration that the just city will pass through over time.

Because the rulers of the just city will rely on their fallible sense perception in choosing the next generation of rulers, they will inevitably make mistakes over time. Soon the wrong sort of people will occupy positions of power. These people will want to change things so that rulers can have private property and focus on wealth, while the good among the rulers will want to preserve the old order and focus on virtue. After some battling between these factions, the resulting constitution will be a compromise: a timocracy. To satisfy the bad faction, the rulers will distribute all the land and houses in the city as private property among themselves, and enslave the producers as serfs. They will focus all their energy on making war and guarding against the enslaved producers. The rulers will still be respected and the warring-ruling class will not take part in farming, manual labor, or other money-making ventures. They will eat communally and devote themselves to physical training and training for war. But they will be afraid to appoint wise people as rulers, choosing instead to be ruled by spirited but simple people who will be more inclined toward war than peace. Alhough they will desire money, the love of victory and honor will be predominant.

The corresponding man is a man ruled by spirit. Such a man, Socrates explains, is produced in this way: he is the son of an aristocratic man who encourages the rational part of his son’s soul. But the son is influenced by a bad mother and servants, who pull him toward the love of money. He ends up in the middle, becoming a proud and honor-loving man.

Next, the timocracy degenerates into an oligarchy. As the love of money and wealth grows, the constitution will change so that ruling is based entirely on wealth. Whoever has wealth and property above a certain amount will be allowed to take part in ruling, and whoever has less than this will have no say in government. This city has five faults according to Socrates. First, it is ruled by people who are not fit to rule. Second, it is not one city but two: one city of rich people and one of poor. These two factions do not make up a single city because they are always plotting against one another, and do not have common aims. Third, this city cannot fight a war because in order to fight, the rulers would have to arm the people, but they are even more afraid of the people—who hate them—than of outsiders. Fourth, it has no principle of specialization. The rulers also have peripheral money-making occupations. This city is the first to allow the greatest evil: people who live in the city without belonging to any class or having any role; people who are not producers, warriors, or rulers. This group includes beggars and criminals. Socrates calls these people “drones” and divides them into two sorts: harmless and dangerous, or “stinging.”

The corresponding man is a thrifty money-maker. He is a timocrat’s son, and at first emulates him. But then some disgraceful and unfair mishap befalls his father. The son, traumatized and impoverished, turns greedily toward making money and slowly amasses property again. His reason and spirit become slaves to appetite, as his only drive becomes the desire to make more money. Reason can only reason about how to make more money, while spirit only values wealth and has as its sole ambition more wealth. This man has evil inclinations but these are held in check because he is careful about his wealth; he does not want to engage in activity that would threaten him with the loss of what he has managed to build up from scratch.

Next, the oligarchy declines into a democracy. The insatiable desire to attain more money leads to a practice of lending money at high interests. Many in the city are driven to utter poverty while a few thrive. The impoverished sit idly in the city hating those with wealth and plotting revolution. The rich, in turn, pretend not to notice the dissatisfied masses. Finally, agitated by the stinging drones, the poor revolt, killing some rich, and expelling the rest. They set up a new constitution in which everyone remaining has an equal share in ruling the city. They give out positions of power pretty much by lot, with no notice of who is most fit for what role. In this city the guiding priority is freedom. Everyone is free to say what they like and to arrange their life as they please. There is complete license. We, therefore, find the greatest variety of character traits in this city. What we do not find is any order or harmony. No one occupies the appropriate roles.

More Help

Previous Next
"Understanding" is Wrong Term

by JohnUebersax, August 28, 2014

The definitions on this list are mostly helpful, but the term "Understanding" is incorrect and misleading. The highest grade of cognitive activity in Plato's fourfold epistemological scheme is, in Greek, "noesis." In English this should be called Intellection, Higher Reason, or simply Noesis. To call it Understanding badly confuses things because of the myriad unrelated meanings and senses of "understanding" in English.


9 out of 15 people found this helpful


by JohnUebersax, August 29, 2014

Similarly, what the list above calls "Reason" would be better termed ratiocination, calculation, reasoning, or lower reason. To simply call this faculty Reason confounds two distinct faculties: ratiocination (dianoia) and Higher Reason (nous or Nous). Ratiocination is somewhat like the ability that animals have to think and plan. It is the Higher Reason that is associated with mans immortal soul, and on which basis, according to Plato, man may attain "likeness to God insofar as possible."


2 out of 3 people found this helpful

Spouse Selection

by jhodder, October 25, 2015

Spouses in the republic are not drawn by lot, as is asserted in the summary for Book V. Rather, they are chosen so that 'bronze-souled' individuals will be paired off with other bronze-souled individuals, and gold-souled with other gold-souled. The idea of the lottery is a lie fabricated by the framers of the city to placate citizens.


2 out of 4 people found this helpful