Republic By Plato Summary and Analysis Book VIII

Summary

In Book V, Socrates was about to develop his theories of injustice by arguing examples of injustice, when Polemarchus and Adeimantus asked him to continue his conversation about the Guardians. Now (in Book VIII) Socrates returns to his examples of unjust societies and unjust men.

Socrates argues that there are four main types of unjust states: timocracy, oligarchy (plutocracy), democracy, and tyranny (despotism). Socrates says that timocracy is the closest to the Ideal State that we have thus far experienced; the others descend in value as they are listed.

We have already in the conversation discovered a just man and a just state; we shall now determine four types of unjust men corresponding to four unjust states. By determining these types, we shall be able to determine why it is better to be just than unjust.

We are to imagine that our ideal (just) state is slowly decaying and falling into ruin, and that it proceeds from good to bad, worsening as it falls to the worst form of government, despotism. We may begin by examining timocracy and the timocratic man.

Socrates descries government by timocracy (from timé, honor) in Sparta and in Crete, where the military was in power (kratos) and honor and ambition were highly valued.

A given state seems always to fall into ruin because people in power disagree, quarrel among themselves, and come to violence. Theoretically, this situation might come about because a ruler could have made mistaken "marriage matches" at a state-marriage festival, thus producing inferior children with the wrong "mix" of metals flowing through their veins (see the Myth of Metals, discussed in Book III). Some of these children, although inferior, might eventually come to power as rulers, but they would lack the character aptitudes for good rule. These rulers will lack wisdom; they will become ambitious and desirous of money and property; they will prefer the comforts of private lives to the welfare of the state. Their level of intellect will decline; they will value honor and ambition over wisdom. For them, reason will no longer prevail; no matter if they be courageous, they will possess only the intellectual attributes of auxiliaries. Such rulers will be unable to secure justice for the state and its citizenry.

The timocratic man will value physical exploits, and he will be courageous and ambitious. When young, he might not care for money, but as he ages, he will become avaricious, and he will be unable to maintain his spiritual balance. He will become unreasonable and no longer in control of himself.

Oligarchy is a society in which the rich are in control; the wealthy are extremely wealthy and the poor quite poverty-stricken. The rich will not be able to sate their desire for more and more wealth; for them the love of money will overtake their desire for honor. The erstwhile timocracy thus declines to oligarchy.

In this oligarchy, the rulers will be chosen for their wealth alone. Money in and of itself does not ensure a good political atmosphere; in fact, in such a state, the gap between the rich and the poor will be so wide that the two classes (rich and poor) will be actively antagonistic to one another. Eventually, the rich will become profligate, simply getting and spending money, in no way of any service to the state; the poor will likely become beggars or criminals, an impediment to the state. Thus we perceive the second kind of unjust state.

We may imagine, Socrates says, a timocratic man, say a great general, who suffers major defeats in battle, so that when he comes home from the war he is deprived of his rights and property and is perhaps driven into exile. His son, the oligarchic man, will see what has happened to the father; the son will live in fear of the same thing happening to himself, and his great fear will be that of being penniless. He will have lost his inheritance, so he will have to work arduously for his sustenance, and money will come to dominate him. His existence will probably become miserly; he will not commit impulsive acts, and he may appear to be a reasonable person, but his respectability is predicated upon his fear of becoming impoverished. Such a man is not controlled by his reason or his spirit. The love of money drives him.

Socrates now further rehearses the decline of the ideal state by showing how an oligarchy might degenerate into a democracy. The enormously wealthy people in a declining oligarchy will probably lend out money to the poor at exorbitant rates of interest. The debtors will spend and spend; they will be encouraged to borrow and borrow. They will become bankrupt and will see the rich as their mortal enemies, and they will accomplish the violent overthrow of the government and enlist the aid of their impoverished fellows. Thus is an ancient democracy accomplished.

In such a democratic state, everyone is more or less equally free of any responsibility to anyone else, including service to the state. No one is obliged to give orders; no one is obliged to take orders; no justice can be respected or meted out. Rulers will serve at the behest of what Socrates has called the "great beast"; political platforms will become popularity contests. A kind of mob-rule becomes the order of the day.

Although the oligarchic man is able to control himself to the degree that he can maintain an aura of respectability, he is still driven by money, and he will be unable to raise his son, the democratic man, well, instilling in him the proper moral values. Although the son may not even respect money, he will probably not respect anything else; he will become shiftless, kind of a reed in the wind, unable to control his desires, which will probably fluctuate wildly. Lacking any ability to discern differences in appetite, he will probably live solely for the moment, and he will be rudderless. His will be a life without order.

If oligarchy is greedy for money, so is democracy greedy for absolute freedom; it recognizes no authority whatever, neither familial nor militaristic nor academic. How does a tyranny come about? The erstwhile democrats in power will continue to placate the great beast of the populace, and they will, as is their wont, rob all the rich folk. The rich will complain in the Assembly; the democrats will charge them with being oligarchs and reactionaries. Then the great beast will elect a popular and violent leader to do something, and he will start killing people, and he will become feared and extremely powerful. And he will become fearful, require bodyguards, build a private army, and tax the citizenry to fund his standing army. He will trust no one, certainly not men of reason or compassion. He will surround himself with criminals, and he will finally do criminal acts against the very democrats who elected him. The tyrant will despotically rule his unhappy and fearful state.

The democrat is desirous of all things and treats all, good and bad, equally; if his son, the tyrannical man, falls into bad company — and he will — then he will be governed entirely by the bad and the desire for the bad. He will be driven by lust, and his lust will drive him completely out of control. He will eventually become something like a wild beast, his lust will become bestial, and he will do terrible things to get what he wants. No longer able to discern right from wrong, good from bad, he will turn against every man and will earn and deserve every man's hatred and scorn. His life will be miserable.

Analysis

We have now heard Socrates explain the decline of the state and the individual. Of course all of us are familiar with other types of states and individuals and shades of varieties of each. Plato does not mean here that his are the only types, or that each state would necessarily fall in the sequence that he describes; Plato is not guilty here of a reductive fallacy (that is, he is not arguing a fallacious either-or argument). Plato sees the conditions Socrates describes as being symptomatic of the decline and fall of governments and men. Plato's point is that, once a given state or a given man begins to decline morally, his fall will become somehow inexorable, the plummet to ruin inevitable. Power, Plato would agree, corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Moreover, Plato knows what he is talking about: He witnessed it in his own day. He saw the timocracies of Crete and Sparta; he lived through the oligarchy of his beloved Athens; he saw the democrats kill Socrates; he barely escaped the tyranny of Syracuse. Plato was not a stranger to robbers and cutthroats and murderers of various criminal hues. Plato the wrestler and athlete saw the degeneracy of his corpulent fellow-citizens; Plato the thinker did not countenance fools and hypocrites gladly. Indeed, the Republic stands today as his fearless rebuke of his own times. His criticism of the states he saw about him is simply that they are ruled by unjust men practicing injustice upon their citizenry.

Plato's hypothetical general dramatized in the timocratic man is quite close to what we know of the Athenian general, Thucydides, who wrote his History of the Peloponnesian War as he himself witnessed it. And, had Plato lived to read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, he would not have been surprised at the inexorable direction either tyranny took in visiting its evils upon the citizens of the world.

We are ready now in the conversation to follow the career of the unjust man and to consider why it is better for a man to be just than unjust. We are ready, now, for the major question posed by the Republic.

Glossary

magazines places of storage, as a warehouse, storehouse, or military supply depot.

"made a blind god director of his chorus . . . ." i.e., avarice; the chorus is a group in Greek drama that speaks for the ordinary citizens of the society, and the Choragos was its "director" or spokesman. Socrates' figure seems to mean that the oligarchic man, having no cultivation, will have allowed this "blind god"—greed or the love of money and possessions—to direct his life and speak for him.

"the country of the lotus-eaters . . . ." one of the mythical lands Odysseus visited on his voyage home from Troy, the country of the lotus-eaters was populated with people who were drugged and lethargic, lacking in ambition; here, Socrates uses the phrase figuratively to describe the state of being of the democratic man who is a slave to physical appetites and useless, degrading pleasures.

"becomes a water-drinker . . . ." i.e., stops using alcohol.

anarchy the complete absence of government; a state without rule of any kind; a chaotic state.

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