Plato's Republic, Book VIII


In Book VIII of Plato's RepublicSocrates compares five different political constitutions, and he explains why each of them is inherently unstable.


Literally, rule by the best (from “aristos” = the best, and “kratia” = power).  Socrates views this as the ideal form of government; those who rule are both wise and morally sound, so their policies are intended to serve the interests of the whole society, not just their own interests.

 Although he sees aristocracy is also the most stable form of government, he accepts that nothing last forever.  Eventually, he supposes, the ruling class (the guardians) will produce some inferior offspring. These will mix with the lower classes, and eventually tensions will arise, leading to civil strife.


This is where the honor-loving warrior class are in power.  Initially, their love of honor means that they are respected, and fairly trustworthy.  Eventually, though, love of honor gives way to love of money.  Once this latter motive comes to dominate, timocracy gives way to oligarchy.


The term comes from “oligos” = few, and “arkheim = to rule.  This kind of government emerges when a wealth qualification is introduced for anyone wishing to be a ruler.  Since many different sorts of people can become wealthy–artisans, merchants, soldiers, politicians–the social classes become further mixed.

  There also arises a class of people who sell up their wealth and live without a real function in the city.  Socrates calls this sort “drones;”  the “stingless” drones become beggars, while the drones with stings become criminals.  The wealthiest class become lazy and soft, and they pass these vices on to their children.

  Eventually, the poor realize that since they vastly outnumber the wealthy few they can seize power, a move which leads to democracy.


The root of the word "democracy" is the Greek word “demos” = the people.  Today, in modern Western societies, democracy is almost universally regarded as a good thing.  Hardly any serious politician or political theorist argues that we should make our political system less democratic.  Yet both Socrates and Plato, although both citizens of Athens, a democratic city state, were highly critical of democracy.

As Socrates describes it here, in a democracy people from different social groups are relatively equal and enjoy a great deal of freedom.  Consequently, one finds a lot of decadence, anarchy, insolence, extravagance, and shamelessness.  Interestingly, Socrates argues that what destroys democracy is precisely why many are attracted to it–namely, people’s insatiable desire for freedom.  The love of and praise for freedom leads to disorderliness.  Rulers behave like subjects, subjects like rulers.  Parents lose their authority over their children.  Teachers fear their students, while students despise their teachers.  These rebellious attitudes extend to slaves, and even to animals!

  In the end, no-one can tolerate having someone in authority over them.  Things break down completely when the masses are incited to attack the wealthy.  The mob seize power, but inevitably end up setting up one man as their leader.  This demagogue then becomes a tyrant, since tasting absolute power brings out the worst in him.


At first the tyrant gives the mob what they want.  But his overriding  concern is with his own interests, not with theirs.  He will provoke wars, for instance, simply a people at war will feel they need a strong leader.  He will get rid of anyone who criticizes him, or who he perceives as a rival.  As he becomes more fearful of enemies, he will increase his bodyguard and spend public money to pay the soldiers well so that he can be sure of their loyalty.  When the people who are responsible for his ascent to power complain, he will turn on them with brutality.

 Tyranny is presented in the Republic as the very worst system of government, although democracy is also painted in very unappealing terms.  Although today the word "tyrant" is understood to mean something like "brutal dictator," in ancient Greek the word "tyrannos" meant something like "king" or "ruler," and did not necessarily have such negative connotation.  So it is somewhat surprising that Socrates does not consider the possibility of what one might call an enlightened tyranny–that is, rule by a single individual who is not a slave to his appetites but who genuinely seeks to use power wisely in the interests of everyone.  In his life, though, Plato hoped that Dionysus, the ruler of Syracuse, might be a “tyrant” of this sort, and served for a time as his advisor.  The arrangement did not work out, though.  According to some accounts, Dionysus eventually became so annoyed with Palto that he had him sold into slavery!

Related links

Plato's Republic, Book VII