The Prelude to Tyranny

I’ve been reading Plato’s Republic and I was struck by this passage in Part IX. Plato argues that democracy rises out of oligarchy which leads eventually to tyranny. This doesn’t quite fit wit what we are living through today which seems more like oligarchy arising out of democracy. Or perhaps, democracy was always an illusion and oligarchy has been the norm for all of the modern period. These quibbles aren’t important though as the portion I have bolded strongly correlate with our experiences today. There are indeed a number of other passages that also fit but this section is particularly prescient considering how long ago it was written.

‘[Democracy] goes on to abuse as servile and contemptible those who obey the authorities and reserves its approval, in private life as well as public, for rules who behave like subjects and subjects who behave like rulers. In such a society the principle of liberty is bound to go to extremes – it will permeate private life, and in the end infect even the domestic animals with anarchy.’
How do you mean ?’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘it becomes the thing for father and son to change places, the father standing in awe of his son, and the son neither respecting nor fearing his parents, in order to assert his independence; and there’s no distinction between citizen and alien and foreigner. And there are other more trivial things. The teacher fears and panders to his pupils, who in turn despise their teachers and attendants; and the young as a whole imitate their elders, argue with them and set themselves up against them, while their elders try to avoid the reputation of being disagreeable or strict by aping the young and mixing with them on terms of easy good fellowship. The extreme of popular liberty is reached when slaves – male and female – have the same liberty as their owners – not to mention the complete equality and liberty in the relations between the sexes generally.’
‘Let’s have the whole story while we’re at it, as Aeschylus says.’
‘Right,’ I said; ‘you shall. You would never believe – unless you had seen it for yourself – how much more liberty the domestic animals have in a democracy. Love me love my dog, as the proverb has it, and the same is true of the horses and donkeys as well. They walk about the streets with a fine freedom, and bump into people they meet if they don’t get out of their way. Everything is full of this spirit of liberty.’
‘You’re telling me’ he said. I’ve often suffered from it on my way out of town.’
‘What it all comes to is this I said, ‘that the minds of the citizens become so sensitive that the least vestige of restraint is resented as intolerable, till finally, as you know, in their determination to have no master they disregard all laws, written or unwritten.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘Well, this is the root from which tyranny springs,’ I said; ‘a promising beginning.’
‘Yes, but what happens next?’ he asked.
‘The same disease which afflicted and finally destroyed oligarchy, afflicts democracy, in which it has more scope, still more virulently and enslaves it. Indeed, any extreme is liable to produce a violent reaction; this is as true of the weather and plants and animals as of political societies.’
‘It’s what one would expect.’
‘‘So from an extreme of liberty one is likely to get, in the individual and in society, a reaction to an extreme of subjection. And if that is so, we should expect tyranny to result from democracy, the most savage subjection from an excess of liberty.”

Plato’s Republic, Part IX [Book VIII] – Tyranny

I’m sure I’m very far from the first to notice this but it is always fun to discover these things on your own. On the book in general, this latter part has been far more enjoyable than the rest. It has me wondering how many people actually know the kind of society Socrates advocated? He is usually presented as a great philosopher that was martyred for his beliefs but given what he was advocating, I think I sympathise more with the rulers of the time.

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