Summary: Book VIII
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.
In order to describe the corresponding man, Socrates must explain the difference between necessary and unnecessary desires. Necessary desires are those we cannot train ourselves to overcome, the ones that indicate true human needs (e.g. the desire for enough sustenance to survive). Unnecessary desires are those which we can train ourselves to overcome (e.g., desire for luxurious items and a decadent lifestyle). The oligarchic man is ruled by his necessary desires, but his son, the democratic man, is soon overcome by unnecessary desires. Whereas the father was a miser who only wanted to hoard his money, the son comes to appreciate all the lavish pleasures that money can buy. Manipulated by bad associates, he abandons reverence and moderation and begins to regard anarchy as freedom, extravagance as magnificence, and shamelessness as courage. When he is older, though, some of his virtues return and he is sometimes pulled toward moderation. Yet he thinks all pleasures (those of moderation and of indulgence) are equal, and he yields to whichever one strikes his fancy at the moment. There is no order or necessity to his life.
In the last stage of degeneration, democracy, the most free city, descends into tyranny, the most enslaved. The insatiable desire for freedom causes the city to neglect the necessities of proper ruling. The drones stir up trouble again. In the democracy, this class is even fiercer than in the oligarchy because they usually end up becoming the dominant political figures. There are two other classes in the democracy other than the drones: there are those who are most naturally organized and so become wealthy, and then there are those who work with their hands and take little part in politics. The drones deceive both these other classes, inciting them against each other. They try to convince the poor that the rich are oligarchs, and they try to convince the rich that the poor are going to revolt. In their fear, the rich try to limit the freedoms of the poor and in so doing come to resemble oligarchs. In response, the poor revolt. The leader of this revolt—the drone who stirs up the people—becomes the tyrant when the poor people triumph. He kills all the good people for fear that they will supplant him, then enslaves everyone else so that he can steal from them to support his lavish and extravagant life-style. He also needs to constantly make war, to distract people from what he is doing. He must pander to the worst segments of society—the other drones—to make them his bodyguards.
Socrates ends Book VIII without giving us the portrait of the corresponding man. This long psychological portrait is saved for the next book.
Analysis: Book VIII
Plato’s critique of democracy is insightful and thought-provoking. His description of democracy’s single-minded pursuit of freedom at the expense of other goods, and of the sort of men who tend to gain power in such a system, should give us pause. We must take these criticisms seriously when considering just how we want to judge Plato’s own system. Is the loss of personal freedom really beyond sacrifice? Or might we actually be better off giving up freedom to gain order and harmony in return? In either case, we now know what Plato would say to us when he saw our terror at giving up our sacred liberties: he would tell us that we only cling desperately to our personal freedoms because our soul is disordered and unhealthy, our priorities skewed. We shrink from the idea of living in Plato’s Republic because we are driven by the wrong desires—by the desire for money, physical pleasure, and honor. He would add that if we were driven by the correct desires, the desire for truth, order, harmony, and the good of our society as a whole, we would be more open to adopting Plato’s system of government.
Read more about how a just system pays off for society and the individual.
Explaining why the just city must inevitably degenerate over time Plato appeals to a myth. He calculates a number which he calls the “human number” and explains that this number controls better and worse births. Since the rulers will not be perfectly aware of the mathematics involves in calculating this number, they will inevitably make mistakes and mate at the wrong time. The next generation will be inferior to the previous, and rulers will be lacking.
Read more about appetite and reason.
The human number is probably supposed to represent the human good, the Form of the Good as applied to human beings. The Forms and the laws of the universe are mathematical. Just as there are mathematical formulae that describe the movement of the planets and stars, there are also mathematical formulae that describe all the aspects of man. Plato recognizes that there is no one actual number in the case of man or of the cosmos that perfectly sums up all these formulae. He believes that all aspects of reality can be expressed mathematically, and that this mathematical expression of man, space, and time is at least one part of the absolute, transcendent reality of the Form of the Good.
Read more about the Form of the Good.