Summary: Book IX, 571a-580a

Under the tyranny of erotic love he has permanently become while awake what he used to become occasionally while asleep.

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Book IX opens with a long and psychologically insightful description of the tyrannical man. The tyrannical man is a man ruled by his lawless desires. Lawless desires draw men toward all sorts of ghastly, shameless, criminal things. Socrates’s examples of lawless desires are the desires to sleep with one’s mother and to commit a foul murder. All of us have lawless desires, Socrates claims. The proof is that these desires occasionally come out at night, in our dreams, when the rational part of us is not on guard. But only the tyrannical man allows these desires to emerge in his waking hours.

The tyrannical man is the son of the democratic man. His father is not lawless, but he does indulge unnecessary desires. Just like the father, the son is exposed to drones, men with lawless desires. But whereas the father had his own oligarchic father’s thriftiness to pull him toward the middle road of democracy, this son, brought up on the democratic ethos, moves further toward lawlessness. The father and entire household try to win him back, but the ultimate triumph of the lawless is inevitable. The winning move of the drones is to implant an strong erotic love in the son: this love itself acts as a drone, and incites him to all manner of lawlessness. It makes him frenzied and mad, and banishes all sense of shame and moderation.

This man now lives for feasts, revelries, luxuries, and girlfriends. He spends so much money that he soon runs through all he has and needs to begin borrowing. Then, when no one will lend him any more, he resorts to deceit and force. We see him running the whole gamut of typically unjust acts in his insatiable need to quench his erotic lusts. First, he tries to get money out of his parents in all sorts of awful ways, then he starts breaking into houses, robbing temples, and finally committing murders. He has become while awake what he used to be only while asleep; he is living a nightmare. Erotic love drives this nightmare, keeping him lost in complete anarchy and lawlessness. He will dare to do anything to keep feeding the desires that erotic love produces. Soon he cannot trust anyone, and has no friends. The most decent parts of his soul are enslaved to the most vicious part, and so his entire soul is full of disorder and regret and is least free to do what it really wants. He is continually poor and unsatisfied, and he lives in fear.

After this frightening image of the tyrannical life, everyone is ready to agree that no life could be more wretched. Socrates, however, disagrees; there is one sort of life even worse than this one. That is the life of a man who is not only a private tyrant, but who becomes an actual political tyrant. To make us see that this life is even worse, he asks us to imagine what would happen if this private tyrant, along with his entire family and all his slaves, were moved to a deserted island. Without the law to protect him from his mistreated slaves, would not the tyrant fear terribly for his life and the life of his family? And what if he were then surrounded by people who did not look kindly on those who abused their slaves? Would he not then be in even greater danger? But this is just what it is like to be an actual tyrant. The tyrant is in continual danger of being killed in revenge for all the crimes he committed against his subjects, whom he has made into slaves. He cannot leave his own house for fear of all his enemies. He becomes a captive and lives in terror. The real tyrant is also in a better position to indulge all his awful whims and to sink further into degeneracy.

The tyrant, who is also the most unjust man, is the least happy. The aristocrat, the most just man, is the most happy. So we were wrong in Book II to conclude the opposite. This is the first of our proofs that it pays to be just.

Analysis: Book IX, 571a-580a

In his lifetime, Plato had only ever seen tyrants driven by lust and greed. We might wonder if his diagnosis of the tyrannical psyche would have been the same if he had lived to see the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. His portrait of the tyrant is a brilliant and astute analysis of the Greek despot, but it seems less successful at capturing the psyche of a Hitler, a Stalin, or a Pol Pot. Were these men really driven by their appetites, or were they driven instead by reason gone horribly wrong? Plato never considers the possibility that reason itself can lead us toward evil, and perhaps he would try to maintain his position even in the face of recent history. He might argue that even in the case of these tyrants, the true driving force was a greed for money and power, and that reason, though playing a tremendous part in their deeds, was only instrumental reason, serving the ends of a nightmarish, lawless appetite. He might even be able to make a plausible case for this claim, pointing to the high honor and splendorous wealth these men achieved. Yet it is difficult to completely dismiss the suspicion that the real motivating force behind at least some of these regimes was a perverse idea and not an insatiable appetite.