The Republic

The Republic Summary and Analysis of Book VIII

"Four Forms of Government"

Summary: Book VIII

The discourse begins with Socrates heralding their need to backtrack a little. Now that the true State and true human have been clearly illustrated, the philosophers can revive the thread introduced earlier in the dialogue: that on the nature of corrupt forms of government and individual. They begin with government, of which there are principally four defective forms.

Taking the ideal aristocratic State as a starting point, Socrates describes its disintegration into timocracy, the first and least unjust form of corrupt government. The timocratic man then, reflects the State in that he is contentious and ambitious. Oligarchy comes next and is a government ruled by the wealthy property owner who, in terms of individual men, is the avaricious son of the timocrat.

The democratic State arises when a third‹a middle‹class forms between the very rich and the very poor, and, through and alliance with the poor, sparks a revolution, overthrowing the complacent rulers. Afterward, Socrates says, magistrates are normally elected by lots from among the most varied population of any State. Democracy is presented as a sort of blissfully depraved and disordered State, and its representative is a man ruled by unbridled appetites tamed only by an enfeebled moral sense.

Socrates, slowly closing the door on democracy, shows how each State's central quality engenders its dissolution. Therefore, Socrates tells his auditors, the insatiable desire for freedom evolves democracy into tyranny. The tyrant, as result of ruthlessness during his ascendancy, must invariably either kill or be killed. He chooses to kill, and continues killing until all opposition, good or bad, is annihilated. In the end the tyrant enslaves the entire state upon threat of death or expulsion; and thus excessive freedom becomes the harshest slavery.

Analysis: Book VIII

The timocratic State (or government of honor) arises from the ideal when there is discord. Socrates creates a suitable discord in their State by projecting a future mistake in population control. But this mistake is treated satirically, not seriously; and Plato is, perhaps mendaciously, protecting his investment. The problem of controlling nature, duly acknowledged by Plato in the passage, is, in fact, a very real‹and insurmountable‹obstacle the State faces in practice. By satirizing it, Plato degrades the difficulty unfairly.

Timocracy is the result of the intermixing of races (gold and silver with iron and brass, etc.) and the unbalancing of education in favor of gymnasium over music. Plato provides a delightful and credible psycho-social portrayal of the timocratic man as torn between a father of philosophic and noble temperament and a mother and society moving more and more toward materialistic ends.

Oligarchy (wealth and property) is the tipping of the balance over into abject greed and materialism. Class division between rich and poor immediately appear; and for Plato, any division is negative and a sign of injustice. The oligarchic man's chief concern is acquisition; only vanity and regard for his status in the community prevent him from roguery.

The final blow to the security of the fattened democratic rulers is the perception by the middle or poor man that his governor is a coward. The rulers of a democracy tend toward extravagance and thus are softened physically and mentally. All that needs happen, Plato writes, is for enough of the underclass to see the debility of their Œsuperiors' in action; or, alternatively, an outside force‹a new party, for example‹may do the same incendiary work..

Plato's critique of democracy is highly ironic at first. Then the moral is exposed. What democracy theoretically stands for: freedom, variety, Œindividuality,' is, in reality, an equality of unequals. It is based on the presumption that, in modern terms, Œall men are created equalŠ' Plato has throughout the entire book rejected this as a premise. Instead of supposing every man is innately good, Plato holds that every man has a right to pursue the good.

Because the democratic man forfeits the leadership of both reason and soul, he is subject to the caprices of the appetites. He is scattered‹the opposite of the uniformly integrated man, the man under rule of reason, the philosopher.

How freedom engenders tyranny is rather complicated, and hinges on intrigue, deception, and misunderstanding. Since the rulers are neither rich nor poor (nor competent), they are forced to constantly switch allegiances between their two benefactors, of which the rich are, obviously, the more financially valuable, while the poor are the more quantitatively valuable. As a result of some misunderstanding, the magistrates are variously accused and, eventually, overthrown by the poor. The poor then chooses a champion who promises the abolition of debts, etc. This champion inevitably realizes his power, the angry mob, and uses it for personal ends‹namely, power and wealth; thus is born the tyrant.

The tyrant utterly abuses his position; in fact, he must abuse it or face pain of death. He enters a race against his opponents; he enters wars so that he may have a reason to lead; he taxes; he surrounds himself with guardians; and, finally, he robs the elders of the State, who have conserved their money in the oligarchic fashion. The lesson of the tyrant, as it comes from Plato, is that the illusion of unlimited freedom in a democracy makes the slavish limitation of tyranny possible. Having no moral restraints, no conception of the good, the tyrant need not obey laws nor any other formal or public injunctions against his behavior. Unlimited freedom, as Dostoyevsky warns, means "everything is permitted."