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In his Republic, Plato enlivens the character of Socrates with his own views of how a just and virtuous city would grow into existence. In describing his ideal city-state, a society ruled by an aristocratic Philosopher-king, Plato also makes note of the four other possible constitutions: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. In spite of living in a democracy, he theorizes that democracy is too faulty in its inherent development to be considered a perfect living environment. Rule by the people depends on its citizens’ collective greed to establish laws, which implies that the entire city is ruled by the third and most barbaric aspect of the soul, the appetite. While Plato dismisses a democracy as a breeding ground for mediocrity, there is no denying that the freedoms presented by such a constitution enable the creation of political forums that allow for philosophers to outline their views on the ideal state. Plato’s arguments labeling democratic citizens as lazy and luxurious gain strength through his explanation of the soul, but he severely understates the role of freedom in creating the virtuous and happy people of an aristocracy.
Plato’s main critique of democracy lies within his definition of an ideal state as one wherein the ruler rules only by reason, the soul of the city is properly arranged and the people are happy as a result of them each performing their craft to the best of their ability. This is his aristocracy, the one constitution that completely allows for a Philosopher-king’s education. A democracy evolves from an aristocracy, but slowly, and only after a timocracy has divided the city and an oligarchy has started the transformation from rule by reason to rule by spirit and appetite. As the oligarchy is torn apart by corrupt factions and internal strife, the poor overthrow the rich money-lovers who have become too lazy to defend their power. They institute a political structure where leaders, elected by lot, abuse their power to become as rich as possible by taxing the poor. These new leaders therefore contribute to the degeneration of Plato’s ideal character in two ways: they are themselves being ruled by the appetitive third of the soul, while also increasing poverty. People who are too poor to contribute to society hold no value, which, according to Plato, is the worst of all possible evils.
Once a democracy has been established, all of Plato’s recommendations about the foundation of ruling are abandoned. The philosopher’s education is forgotten, leaving positions of power open to the under- and over-educated- people who either “have no experience of the truth” or who would “refuse to act, thinking that they had settled while still alive in the faraway Isle of the Blessed,” respectively (191). Rulers without the proper education will rule by spirit and appetite, or anger and desire, not as a Philosopher-king would rule with reason. Spirit would lead to irrational decisions and a lack of restrictions on unnecessary appetites that are dangerous to a stable society. Without laws, people feel no need to restrain themselves and there is a lack of moderation in regards to wealth. People no longer distinguish between the necessary appetites such as hunger and unnecessary appetite that is the desire for wealth. Democratic lifestyles will be devoted to amassing wealth, resulting in people who shouldn’t be in poverty to be so at the hands of outrageous taxes.
Finally, Plato sees a democracy as the ultimate creator of mediocrity, a city in which people have no discipline, no commitment and no follow-through. As a society that is tolerant of all actions, the individual is free to do as she wishes without restriction. This leads to a constant stream of changes, as people avoid development of skills and crafts by walking away from any situation where a problem occurs. Unlike Plato’s aristocracy, where a person is confined to their craft until death, in a democracy people have the freedom to move as they wish from craft to craft. When they become bored or frustrated with one task, they leave it uncompleted, resulting in a class of soft and idle money-lovers who cannot withstand the sometimes agonizing pains of creation. Without commitment to a goal, these people jump around, satisfying their desires without discerning between the good pleasures and the evil. In response to an aristocratic questioning of their pleasure seeking, they “declare that all pleasures are equal and must be valued equally” (231). This justification represents the nail in the coffin for Socrates as he evaluates the democratic constitution, leaving him little trouble in calling a democracy fourth best. While the democracy advocates that all people are equal, Plato’s definition of an aristocracy, or a perfect city, places a clear emphasis on the fact that all people are not born equal. The only way to obtain happiness for the entire city is for individuals to realize their place and perform their role to the best of their ability.
Although Plato’s critique of a democratic constitution is properly constructed in relation to his perfect aristocracy, he routinely and conveniently forgets to praise the aspects of democracy that allow him to state his views in Republic. A democracy, a “city full of freedom,” that gives every citizen a “license to do what he wants”, may give rise to the appetitive part of the soul, money-loving and idleness, but freedoms such as the freedom of speech allow for individual expression that when left to grow, can result in a happier society for all (227). Plato sees a democracy as fourth best, but in aristocracies, timocracies, and oligarchies, the right to say as you wish is regulated by the limited allowance of social mobility. In effect, a citizen would never suggest a different way of government because they have no forum in which to do so.
A more fitting justification of placing democracy as fourth best would be to admit that although the aristocracy is the most ideal of all constitutions, it cannot come into existence without the help of a democratic set of principals. In order for the Philosopher-king to develop as Plato wishes, he must receive a moderate and censored education in music and poetry, along with physical training and other scholarly subjects. Only in a democracy would this type of learning be able to occur, as in a timocracy or an oligarchy the people in power would never sanction a program that has as its primary goal the establishment of a new and more perfect leadership. Democracies have “no requirement to rule,” enabling any person to step up and onto the throne of power, from which he or she can debate their ideas and eventually put them into place (228). This process alone among Plato’s four other constitutions seems like the only viable way to create the education needed for a Philosopher-king (228). If Plato would have stated that the aristocracy comes about through the work of a democracy, or that there is a dependent relationship of some sort between the democratic ways and the development of an aristocracy, his critique of democracy would have left little room for doubt.
Plato does give credit to the democratic constitution, but only as an environment where citizens are able to judge for themselves which way of living is the most beautiful and proper. In his conversation with Adeimantus, Socrates praises a democracy as “a convenient place to look for a constitution…on account of the license it gives its citizens” (228). Although this may seem like the exact statement of the aristocracy’s dependence on democracy that Plato was missing, it still leaves out the reasoning behind labeling a democracy as the fourth best of all constitutions. If a democracy is necessary for the creation of the ideal state, that alone should catapult it to second best on the list of possible constitutions. Even though the majority of people in a democracy are either money-lovers too lazy to contribute to their own well-being, or poor citizens too wretched to even work, the few who do exercise their right to freedom are the rightful parents to Plato’s aristocracy and Philosopher-king.
In Plato’s discussion of democracy and the democratic ruler he emphasizes that the people of such a constitution will be soft, lazy and without the commitment necessary to become part of a complete and virtuous society. Although the people of a democracy may not be truly virtuous, and therefore will not achieve full happiness, they deserve better than to be cast off as the fourth best of constitutions. A democratic society may breed mediocrity and lead to the honoring of unnecessary appetites, but at the same time the freedoms at the heart of a democracy are the ultimate birthplace of the concepts that lead to Plato’s Philosopher-king and aristocracy.
Note: All quotations Plato’s “Republic”, translated by G.M.A. Grube and revised by C.D.C. Reeve, copyright 1992 by Hackett Publishing Company Inc., Indianapolis.
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