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In Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, Socrates details the degenerative process of regime change, which transitions from kingship to timocracy to oligarchy to democracy to tyranny. Each regime has its analogue in the soul of man, which is structured in the same manner as the various classes in the regime. The tyrannical regime and the soul of the tyrant are particularly troubling given their democratic origins and the inevitability with which Socrates describes their development. Through dialogue with his interlocutors, Socrates will illuminate the injustice and wretchedness of the tyrant, arguing that justice and happiness can only be attained through the subordination of the appetitive and spirited parts of the soul to the rational part of the soul. Likewise, justice and happiness in a polity can only be realized when the classes of citizens most guided by their rational faculties rule over those citizens who are driven by the soul’s lower functions of desire and spiritedness. In doing so, Socrates successfully supports his earlier claim in Book V that no regime can establish justice unless “political power and philosophy coincide” (473d).
Socrates claims that tyranny is established “out of no other regime than democracy… the greatest and most savage slavery out of the extreme of freedom” (564a). The tyrant leads a revolution in the democratic regime, inciting “faction against those who have wealth” and claiming to act in the best interests of the people (566a). He asks the citizens for bodyguards to preserve him against his enemies and they provide these drones to him, as he is now considered the people’s defender. The tyrant kills all the virtuous and able citizens out of fear that they will supplant him, and he then enslaves everyone else so that he can steal from them to support the lavish and extravagant life style that his passions demand. He also maintains a constant state of war in order to distract his citizens from his unjust actions in the city. It is through this process that “too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery, both for the private man and city” (564a).
Socrates details the analogue to the tyrannical regime, found in the soul of the tyrant, and offers his interlocutors a warning against the danger accompanying desire’s rule in the soul. When the desire for absolute freedom leads the son of the democratic ruler to develop the emotion of love, a powerful drone is implanted in his soul. Eventually, the “leader of the soul takes madness for its armed guards and is stung to frenzy” (573a). It is for this reason that “love has from old been called a tyrant” (573b) because it corrupts the spirit and turns it against the rational part of the soul. Once the drone-like appetitive part of the soul is allied with the spirited part, rationality is usurped and love rules as a tyrant.
The life of a tyrant, however, is most wretched. Socrates claims that tyrants “live their whole life without ever being friends of anyone, always one man’s master or another’s slave. The tyrannic nature never has a taste of freedom or true friendship” (576a) because the tyrant must act as a slave to the masses in order to preserve public support and as a master over any powerful citizens who may dare to oppose his rule. After Socrates’ initial frightening image of the tyrannical life, Adeimantus and Glaucon are prepared to agree that no life could be more miserable. Still, Socrates presses further and provides his interlocutors with a second argument that the just life is the most pleasant and that the unjust tyrannical life is the most base. There are three sorts of people in the world, according to Socrates’ argument: truth-loving, honor-loving, and profit-loving (581a-b). Each one of these classes of people takes the greatest amount of pleasure in whichever object they most value and thinks that the best life is the life that affords the most of this specific kind of pleasure. In order to determine which of these pleasures is truly the most valuable, the interlocutors must rely on “experience, prudence and argument” (582a). The lover of truth has experienced all categories of pleasure, whereas the lovers of profit and honor have never experienced the pleasure of truth. Additionally, only the lover of truth will have gained his experience in the company of prudence (582d). Finally, because arguments are the instrument of philosophers, Socrates demonstrates that the lover of truth pursues the most valuable pleasure: only the philosopher is qualified to judge the value of pleasures, as he has achieved the highest level of perfection in experience, prudence and argument. As was previously demonstrated, the tyrant is ruled by the basest part of his soul and, as a result, pursues the most squalid form of pleasure.
In “Olympic fashion,” Socrates argues a third time for the wretchedness of the tyrant and the blessedness of the philosopher (583b). In his final argument, Socrates seeks to demonstrate that the pleasure of the philosopher is the only real pleasure and that all other pleasures merely provide temporary relief from pain. The pleasure derived from the fulfillment of the lowest bodily desires or from honor is fleeting. Through their satisfaction, all one does is briefly and incompletely displace the pain and unhappiness existing within their soul. Only the philosophical pleasure is a real pleasure in itself, because only the truth is an end in itself and is everlasting in nature (586e). Because the tyrant’s soul is dominated by the lowest bodily desires–especially love– “the tyrant will be most distant from a pleasure that is true and is properly his own” (587b). In jest, Socrates calculates that the philosopher lives “729 times more pleasantly, while the tyrant lives more disagreeably by the same distance” (587e).
Socrates reveals that the tyrant’s wretchedness is present in the composition of his soul, the conduct of his personal life, and the constitution of his regime. In addition to describing the despicable behavior of the tyrant and his consequent unhappiness, Socrates demonstrates the tyrant’s wretchedness through a more theoretical lens. In illustrating the tyrant’s inability to identify and pursue the highest types of pleasure, as well as his inability to identify real pleasures at all, Socrates demonstrates that the soul of a tyrant and the tyrannical regime are entirely inadequate. In both the soul and the regime, this inadequacy is the result of the philosophical part’s subordination to the desiring part. This understanding is what leads Socrates to claim at the end of Book IX that “it’s better for all to be ruled by what is divine and prudent, especially when one has it as his own within himself; but, if not, set over one from outside, so that insofar as possible all will be alike and friends, piloted by the same thing” (590d). Given that Socrates demonstrates how external influences are responsible for the corruption of the tyrant’s soul, it is appropriate that Socrates argues that the opposite can and must occur: the ruling classes whose souls are perfectly ordered must influence and structure the lower classes in society to ensure that the city and the souls of all of its citizens are arranged in accordance with justice. Therefore, for the realization of a perfectly just city that satisfies the most noble pleasures, the philosophical must rule the spirited and appetitive.
Plato, The Republic of Plato, 2nd ed. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1991.
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