Plato on Tyranny: How Democracy and Oligarchy Become Tyranny From Plato’s Republic
In his Republic, Plato examines how Democracy can lead to Tyranny in a republic. We explain Plato’s theory as it pertains to democracy and tyranny.
“[You] desired to know what is that disorder which is generated alike in oligarchy and democracy, and is the ruin of both?” – Plato’s Republic Book VIII
An Introduction to Plato’s Republic as it Pertains to Democracy and Tyranny
Specifically he explains how Monarchy/Aristocracy (a government based on wisdom) is stable, but how over time Timocracy (a government based on honor), leads to Oligarchy (a government based on wealth), leads to Democracy/Anarchy (a government based on liberty and equality), leads to Tyranny (a despotic authoritarian state devoid of liberty and law and with extreme inequality) in a Republic.
A main idea here is that unrestrained liberty and equality are corrupting, as is the unrestrained accumulation of wealth (and furthermore, what is true for a person, is true for the state).
Or, in our terms, pure oligarchy and pure democracy are bound for tyranny due to their very nature (as is timocracy).
With that in mind, another main idea is that the decent into tyranny can only be avoided via a Monarchy, Aristocracy, or what Plato calls a Kallipolis (“beautiful city” or “Ideal city;” an “ideal mixed Republic” like the U.S. which is part democracy, part oligarchy, part timocracy, and part aristocracy with each higher form restraining the lower.)
Like a chariot driver restrains his horses, or like how a sage restrains their base desires with their intellect and wisdom, a mixed-Republic restrains itself via a mix of government types (with each wiser form restraining the other more liberal form).
These more “ideal” forms avoid tyranny because they are at least in part run by the wise and thus they can provide the necessary restraints (note that Plato’s monarchy/aristocracy denotes rule by the wise; not rule by wealthy posh elite hereditary aristocrats specifically).
Most of Plato’s Republic and Plato’s Laws are focused on illustrating these points with a wide array of metaphors and stories. We won’t be able to tell each story about “stingers” and populist oligarchs who rise up as a champion of the people when the Senators become too corrupt in a democracy, but we will introduce you to the gist. See the citations, the book itself, and the videos for details! Or, see our summary of Plato’s Republic.
Why did Plato’s Socrates “Hate Democracy?” Because “the many” haven’t spent their life training to be good leaders. Like a sea captain is trained to lead a ship, and like a wise sage knows how to temper their base desires, only the wise who are trained to lead a country should be doing so (this is concept is detailed below; but it is well illustrated by the following images).
The Many Metaphors Pertaining to the Theory
As you have likely picked up on already, this theory of how democracy becomes tyranny (and how oligarchy does too) isn’t meant to be understood in isolation. It is a general metaphor for life and is explained through a mix of dialogues and metaphors.
In his book Plato not only explains the government types, but also compares each classical government type with a man as a metaphor, and offers other metaphors to further illustrate his theory (such as those pertaining to the ideal class system and the ideal soul).
Thus this page not only explains Plato’s Theory of how democracy leads to tyranny according to Plato (or more specifically, to Plato’s Socrates who is the main character of the book), will also offer insight into his related metaphors (as we have already done a bit above).
“The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery….
…And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty?” – Book VIII
“Last of all comes the tyrannical man; about whom we have once more to ask, how is he formed out of the democratical? and how does he live, in happiness or in misery?” – Book IX
Why Socrates Hated Democracy.
TIP: The reality is that large portions of Plato’s Republic and Plato’s Laws give insight into exactly what Plato is trying to illustrate. Thus, any reading of a summary of the theory should really be paired with at least a quick skim of those books and a close reading of Republic Book VIII and Book IX. Here our focus is to introduce the basics pertaining to how Democracy becomes Tyranny, not to summarize every aspect of Plato’s work pertaining to the ideal soul/city/class system etc.
Why Care About a Theory From 360 BC?
From a selfish modern angle, we are looking at how our American Republic was constructed as a safeguard against tyranny, and how our democratic, oligarchical, and at times timocratic (merit-based, honor-based, and militaristic) nature can be a slippery slope toward a tyrannical government (if we forget the original “spirit of the laws” upon which the U.S. was cleverly founded by American thinkers like James Madison; where a love of moderate equality/inequality is a virtue in a Republic, but extreme equality/inequality is a vice).
That said, before we can do any of that, we need to better frame Plato’s argument and explain his masterwork. I suggest watching the following two videos and checking out our summary of Plato’s Republic, the better you get the gist, the more sense the line of arguments will make.
SUMMARY: To quickly re-sum the above, this page explains Plato’s Republic in general, but specifically his five regimes and ideal state, and specifically how oligarchy and democracy become tyranny. Why? Because, in Greek Terms, the U.S. is a Kallipolis/”ideal Republic” (a mixed constitutional government of aristocracy, oligarchy, and democracy meant to balance and separate the powers).
Plato: The Republic – Book 8 Summary and Analysis. Summary and analysis of Book 8 of Plato’s Republic. Also, a discussion of Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny. No one is going to really be able to explain to you how prophetic and insightful Plato’s Republic is, but this video and our page should give you a taste.
Plato: The Republic – Book 9 Summary and Analysis. The core argument for democracy becoming tyranny is in the later half of Book 8, but to get the full argument one should read all of Book 8 and at least the first bit of part 9, the sections all flow together.
NOTE: One could see the American revolution as the revolution Plato predicts that Oligarchy ends by. Or, one could see that as the end of King George’s Timocracy and the start of American oligarchy. Or, is it that George was a Monarch and the U.S. founded as a Timocracy? Maybe what we see now is democracy becoming tyranny (certainly the U.S. has become more democratic over time)? Although, perhaps what we are seeing is the start of oligarchy becoming democracy? In all cases, our mixed system is going to cause some complexity over this. The point here is gaining insight, not finger pointing. This isn’t about judgement calls of what part of the cycle we are in, it is about expanding one’s mind to these concepts so we all have a clear understanding of “what not to do” and “how to safeguard the republic“.
IMPORTANT: This is all a metaphor for the soul and an answer to the question “what is justice”. It is an answer to the question “what is the importance of ethics?” It is, a metaphorical theory of [almost] everything pertaining to our humanity from one of the most important and prophetic works of philosophy in history. Be wary of shallow readings.
TIP: When this page uses the terms Democracy and Republic, it is referring to the forms of governments, it is not commenting on the modern political parties. Democrats and Republicans got their names from the Greeks, but their modern ruling style in practice has little to nothing to do with the conversation.
A Basic Overview of Plato’s Republic and How it Pertains to Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny
For Plato, his ideal beautiful city aside, the only non-ideal forms of government that can breed the virtues needed to avoid Tyranny are Monarchy and Aristocracy (a kingdom ruled by the one or few wise). Since both these forms are “ruled by the wise,” Plato considers them together.
All other forms (timocracy, oligarchy, democracy) devolve into tyrannical rule by their nature, including (for this conversation) democracy (everyone rules) and oligarchy (an aristocracy where those with wealth and power rule instead of those with the best minds).
Here we should note that not only does Plato consider Monarchy and Aristocracy as one, he also considers Democracy and Anarchy as one (after-all in both forms “the many” rule and all have total liberty and equality). Thus, in a way, what Plato is really going to describe is how Democracy, becomes a Tyrannical Democracy (Anarchy), becomes a Tyrannical Oligarchy.
The key to understanding this is understanding that democracy and oligarchy both breed the vice of excess “greed” in people because democracy is too liberal and equal (which allows for the vice of excess due to its lack of restraints), and oligarchy is based on the accumulation of wealth and power (it is too focused on the vice of excess).
See this Golden Mean chart for example (note that democracy and oligarchy are both based on vices of excess; they need to be retrained by true virtues like wisdom, honor, and duty):
|Sphere of Action||Vice of Deficiency||Golden Mean||Vice of Excess|
|Wealth||Poverty||Wealth as a Virtue||Greed|
To Plato, wealth was the most corrupting of all things (it wasn’t a vice, it was an emblem of the path toward vice). It was the means by which humans could obtain all other vices.
Although wealth is the most corrupting of the virtues (when it becomes greed), it actually has a few perks over pure liberty and equality (which become extreme quickly as mob rule sets in), as at least oligarchy has some semblance of order and restraints.
To illustrate this lack of order and restraints Plato through allegory, compares each type with an ideal class, compares each government type with a man, and compares each to an aspect of human nature. In all cases, the aristocratic and wise man, aspect of our human nature, and class provides the necessary restraints.
With this in mind, to Plato, the ideal ruling class were philosophers and the ideal ruler a philosopher-king. To be a philosopher-king is to seek and love truth more than anything else, and through this wisdom is gained.
Meanwhile, one who seeks wealth at the expense of ethics is pretty far from this ideal ruler.
Thus, all forms in which wealth and seekers of wealth are allowed to rule the other classes is on a slippery path toward tyranny. This is less a judgement call and more a truism of human nature… according to Plato at least (Plato notes how excesses naturally cause paradoxical reactions in all things).
With that said, we know (like Plato knew) that not everyone is this virtuous or inclined to be virtuous, but that is why Plato strongly advocates for his class system (which is also a metaphor for the soul, in both cases balance of powers is key to the theory). This way some can be driven by truth, some honor, and some the vices… each fulfilling a necessary role in the state.
By allowing this “specialization” via a state-fostered class system, we allow all aspects of the human condition the liberty to arise, but ensure a balance of traits in society by, for example, ensuring that those who seek truth, not vice, run the state, while those who seek wealth, but not truth, in turn rule their sphere of business and trade.
The problem with democracy and oligarchy is that they promote vices to all people (liberty is not a restraining force!).
In a democracy, one who should be a philosopher-king spends their youth seeking vice, a warrior amasses wealth where they should focus only on honor (like a timocrat or aristocrat) and a defense of the values of the state, a popular artist thinks themselves a politician, and a oligarch or warrior may be lifted up by the people to the status of God-King (but without the wisdom to rule justly), etc.
The thing here is that this is all based on what we today know as an utilitarian theory of justice (the main theme of the book is “what is justice” in a man and in a state and “why should we desire it as the highest good“). The goal is to create the ideal state in which the most people are the happiest, and due to human nature, that means the order or aristocracy and monarchy is needed.
We know people are naturally greedy, but for Plato, it is the “producer” class (not everyone) that is meant to have the mantra “Greed is Good”. This class is meant to be separate from government, separate from military, and even separate from the other vice-based sub-class of “producer”, “the luxury and artist” class.
The philosopher knows greed, they known honor, they know sensual vices, they know vices of wealth, but for them truth is the highest good and happiness (they have been trained for this and are naturally this way).
The philosopher and warrior have the restraint needed to ward off vice, in fact they take pleasure in this “highest good”, so they are best suited to rule and defend the nation (as both are rather thankless jobs less one loves good in itself).
The producer and artist are free to seek vice, a perfect liberty afforded to them, but because of this, they should not rule (so yes, Plato is a bit of an authoritarian and conservative and doesn’t extend this liberty in his Republic like a democracy would).
Plato’s perfect state is a collective of specialized individuals. There is capitalism, liberty, and some equality… but law and order hold together the society and the philosopher king and honorable warriors always defend the virtues of the state.
For Plato, the Republic does a much better job of allowing this state of true liberty and equality to thrive. Oligarchy and Democracy do not do this! Instead, these forms actually incentivize greed and fail to imbue virtues of moderation and truth seeking in their people and thus they begin the slippery slope toward the rise of a tyrant (explained in more detailed below).
If one is driven to greed, then let them fill their cup, in their own class. When all in a society “have drunken too deep of the wine”… then the state itself becomes corrupt and this is the fertile ground from which a tyrant grows.
In a Democracy, a would-be philosopher turns to pleasure seeking and vice, and a wealthy would-be oligarchy who is charming and amasses fortunes is revered as a success story and is allowed to rise to the top. The should-be-producer/but-now-tyrant-in-training rises to the top, crushing other oligarchs as a champion of the punch-drunk people. The philosopher who should have ruled is laughed at for valuing truth more than money and pleasures, the man who is full of vice is looked at through these metaphorical “beer googles”.
Simply, this can all be summed up as: excesses of liberty and equality create a fertile ground for vice-seeking, and because people naturally seek vice for happiness (they naturally seek a low form of pleasure, and can only be taught to seek truth as the highest happiness if the state plays its role as educator of virtues and culture).
Anyway, that is the gist, there is a lot more ground to cover below. For everything else, I suggest you read the mind-blowing Republic. It is the sort of book that is only properly summarized in more words than are contained in the book in the first place.
Reiterating Why We Care
Why are we talking about a book from 300’s BC? Well, because it is the basis of modern philosophy and modern government.
Oh, that and we live in a state that is becoming increasingly democratic and oligarchical despite its Republican roots. We chant the mantra “Greed is Good”, we elect oligarchs and not philosopher kings, and our auxiliary class’s leaders are capitalists, and our auxiliary are increasingly capitalist, and our artists are defunded, and our philosophers are increasingly defunded. Our rich cherished more than schools, spirituality tossed aside for liberal vice seeking.
Look, I love liberty and equality as much as the next one… but, so did Plato and so did the founders. Our “mixed constitution” was purposefully structured to ensure American virtues via the law. Valuing lower order vices is a slippery slope. Greed is good, but in moderation. Moderation, temperance, or whatever you want to call it, is perhaps the highest virtue of the state (its arete). There is real danger in extremes. This has been known since before the 300’s BC, and since Athens and Rome have fallen.
Every nation thinks it is perfect, but every drunk thinks themselves to be infallible. A sober thinker, like any of our founding fathers, would not be so quick is to declare anything a good man did as perfect. Plato’s theory is about perfecting the state and perfecting the soul. The goal is happiness for all. Taking his words and warnings seriously isn’t unpatriotic, it is as patriotic as one can be.
Why Plato Hated Pure Direct Democracy; Like Most Philosophers
Thus, with all this said, examining this bit of Plato’s theory will help us to understand why our American founders weren’t just being cute when they created a Republic. They were well aware of the government types defined by Plato and Aristotle and they, wisely, neither trusted the minority or majority not to be tyrannical or act on behalf of a special interest. In fact, they expressed constant concern over special interest and pure democracy in documents like the Federalist papers, constantly seeking to safeguard the Republic.
Not trusting the people to avoid the election of a tyrant, they created a system in which representatives picked the President and Senate and the people picked state and local officials (a “representative” democracy with a separation of powers in a “mixed Republic”).
America has since cast off the old ways and embraced direct voting on Senators via the 17th Amendment and a popular state-based “winner-take-all” voting system that favors the minority via state based law and custom…
…Even though this more Democratic approach might seem like a good idea, hardly any thinker, from Plato to Madison, thought it was from a historical perspective. The problem being that liberty in an extreme is just as corrupting as extreme authority, with the same being true for equality and inequality.
Sure, Oligarchy (which to the Greeks implies not just power by wealth, but also the orderly and conservative virtues of aristocracy) can also lead to tyranny, and a monarchy can become tyrannical as well, but what of a mixed-Republic that allows for both oligarchs and democracy due to its liberal and democratic values?
Well, it isn’t that there is no hope, it is just that any form of government comes with a cautionary tale as Plato notes as he writes down a conversation between Socrates and a man named Glaucon have in the Republic (Book VIII).
When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them, and says that they are cursed oligarchs. – Plato’s Socrates
NOTE: Plato is the author of wrote down the dialogues of Socrates. Socrates was Plato’s teacher, Plato Aristotle’s, Aristotle Alexander the Great’s.
TIP: Plato insinuates that things seek balance. Therefore, extreme equality leads to extreme inequality, extreme liberty, that leads to extreme tyranny and despotism. The concept can be explained as a “paradoxical effect“.
Tyranny Born of Democracy – Socrates. A land of liberty is a land without restraint, without regulation. If one comes along with no self restraint, no one is prepared to restrain them. This is the one who becomes a tyrant. Add in the fact that those who think themselves equal lose a tolerance for inequality and we have a cluster fuss. Plato makes countless great points and every single one is just flat our eery to anyone who knows the basics of history and modern western society.
TIP: Plato’s theory inspired many including Buchanan, Montesquie, Marx, and other thinkers who understood that each government type had “virtues” and was subject to “cycles”. To avoid the fall of a Republic and the rise of a Caesar, a society must avoid extremes (such as the extreme corruption of the Roman Senate or the extreme economic inequality of the Weimar Republic. Or rather, even just perception of wealth inequality and a corrupt senate is enough if a populist base is rabid enough and a leader charismatic enough. Don’t worry, couldn’t happen here, we are much greater than Greece and Rome, and just look around, we are getting even greater).
“You know the proverb, ‘the people is a monster of many heads.’ You are sensible, undoubtedly, of their great rashness and great inconstancy.” – George Buchanan on why pure democracy isn’t always as good as it sounds on paper. Who are populists like Caesar or Hitler if not charismatic leaders of the beast of many heads that had become enraged by inequality and the corruption of the ruling class aristocracy in a democratic Republic? But to our point, Plato predicted this all back in 300’s BC. So let’s turn to his guidance.
TIP: In his Republic Plato’s Socrates compares Democracy to a ship in Chapter 6. The following quote questions whether one would put an expert navigator in charge of navigation, or would let everyone on the ship navigate. This is an argument for a government ruled by the wise rather than the many.
I perceive, I said, that you are vastly amused at having plunged me into such a hopeless discussion; but now hear the parable, and then you will be still more amused at the meagreness of my imagination: for the manner in which the best men are treated in their own States is so grievous that no single thing on earth is comparable to it; and therefore, if I am to plead their cause, I must have recourse to fiction, and put together a figure made up of many things, like the fabulous unions of goats and stags which are found in pictures. Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarrelling with one another about the steering –every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary. They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain’s senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly aids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain’s hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer’s art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling. Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?
Democracy, Oligarchy, and the Rise of Tyrants
In his Republic Plato was foreshadowing the rise of tyrants like Caesar and Hitler by showing how extremes of liberty and equality lead to an intolerance of inequality and corruption, and how a populist tyrant arises as a champion of the people to destroy the “corrupt elite class”.
Literally, that is all there is to it. People become excessively free and equal in a democracy, they grow accustomed to the liberty. This is amazing and great, but it allows for corruption. The oligarchy and the elite rise and there is inequality.
The inequality frustrates a faction within the whole body politic. A limb of the body arises when a tyrant, ceasing on the opportunity, realizes that the frustration can be turned into a battering stick with which to best his political and class rivals. The Tyrant-in-training fights the elite on behalf of the faction, but the power is corrupting and soon [speaking metaphorically] the early socialist aspects of the NAZI platform become concentration camps and nationalist imperialism.
If and when the war is won, and all opponents crushed, do those who are left really think they won’t be next? Those who fell in line behind the tyrant so easily would be foolish to expect that a Tyrant can ever really find peace. No, a Tyrant must have opposition to thrive, there is always another head on the chopping block.
This is Marx in action, this is a faction within the proletariat rising up against the elite class under the banner of an elite who turns against the bourgeoisie “establishment”. This is the story of figures like Napoleon, Caesar, and Hitler.
This isn’t a jab at a modern figure, this is a part of the human condition as it applies to government and the city state manifesting with Solon in Athens, Manifesting with Caesar in Rome, and destined to manifest again if we don’t safeguard the Republic as the Federalist Papers instruct.
For, as Plato, Montesquie, Marx, Madison, Hamilton, and others knew too well, a government like a Democracy can be corrupted by extreme equality and extreme inequality and collapse into a tyrannical government just as easily as an aristocracy can become an oligarchy (see also: how inequality corrupts democracy).
Luckily, Aristotle and the other thinkers like America’s founders gave us the tools we need to avoid such unfortunate events. So then, we’ll examine not only Plato’s types of governments, but also the virtues and vices of the type and some tips for defending the Republic.
22. Democracy and Majority Rule (I).
How to Stop a Would-Be Tyrant
Stopping a tyrant after they have ceased total power illegally takes a war or natural death, exile is often tried, but it is often just met with the return of Napoleon or Lenin (historically it is too weak an answer, humanist, but weak…).
Castro was not stopped, his brother now runs Cuba. The North Korean Kim family were not stopped, they rule a nation so equal we no longer call it democracy, we call it despotism. In any nation, in any era, when a Tyrant has ceased power, the cycle is perpetuated. And while each new phase gives another round of hope, history doesn’t show us many peaceful ends to tyranny (outside our American revolution).
For those who don’t want to be subjected to decades of rule with glimpses of hope, action must be taken sooner.
The best way to stop a tyrant is to stop the source of the frustration (to stop the “spirit” which causes the decent into the next form)… Deal with inequality now, don’t exploit the loophole and wait. Address valid fears of your opponents, don’t make them your enemy. Embrace the aspect of mixed government which says “no, we don’t always follow the will of the majority or minority, we follow logic and reason”. Be willing to take some pain now for stability down the road. Sure, we all want to deregulate and see some boom now, but sometimes you just need 10% interest rates and a little unhappiness. Tell people the truth, a lie may be expedient, but it won’t always have the best results, you can loose trust. Use criminal virtue, but don’t be a criminal.
Educate the young to be honorable and virtuous, not to value wealth most or to think themselves equals of our greats out of the gate. Greatness is earned, and it is only equatable to wealth for the producer class, greatness of a solider or a politician is a thing of honor or virtue, not wealth.
But most of all. Set term limits, uphold just law, uphold the separation of powers, and uphold human rights.
With that in mind, luckily, in America we have a mixed Constitution that does all this by its intent.
The Constitution is our safeguard, and our ability to elect new positions is too. Although it wasn’t the case with Caesar, most tyrants take more than 4-8 years to fully turn a democracy into a tyrannical state, #thanksfounders.
With that said, narrowly avoiding tyrants isn’t the name of the game here. The name of the game is education and striving toward centered politics in an effort to make our mixed American Republic outlive ancient Greece and Rome and go down in the history books as THE example of a nation that got the balance of liberty and equality right.
Plato’s Police State. A police state! Well that is unconstitutional…. yet detainment camps in WWII, right? So the defense of the Republic is the defense of our values and the Constitution. This remains true even in trying times.
NOTE: The start of Book 8 is important and discusses timorchy and its descent into oligarchy. The whole of Book 9, especially the first part is equally as important to the conversation, as this is the main place where the difference between the “democratical” and “tyrannical” man are described.
The Republic by Plato – Book VIII – Part 1 of 2. You can read/listen to the first part of Book VIII here. I do suggest reading all of the Republic, but be wary it goes into many different tangents and not every book is about types of governments (mostly VIII and IX are, the surrounding chapters are more about the class system in the government, which is key to fully understanding the total argument).
TIP: The idea here is to treat a city-state (a nation or state, as described in Nicomachean Ethics) as an entity and compare it to a person. A person has virtues and vices, and so does a state. Here it is described how the vices of a state lead to tyranny (and generally how oligarchy turns into democracy which turns into tyranny; thus, both oligarchy and democracy have potentially to turn into tyranny under the following conditions).
"How Democracy Leads to Tyranny From Plato’s Republic" is tagged with: Economic Inequality, Ethics, Left–right Politics, Liberalism, Liberty, Morality, Plato. Aristotle. and Other Greek Philosophers, Types of Governments