Were Plato to have witnessed the surprising rise of Donald Trump from celebrity businessman to potential President, he would probably have seen this as yet another vindication of his suspicion of democracy, in particular, his insight that democracy suffers from a dangerous potential to collapse into tyranny, a weakness which he vividly discussed in The Republic.
Before I begin my discussion of Plato’s argument for the inherent weakness of democracy, I first have to clarify what is meant by “democracy” in the context of The Republic. By “democracy” Plato was not referring to modern democracy, a political system which he would have perceived as alien, nor was he referring to the actually-existing democracy of Athens. In The Republic, Plato characterizes democracy as being “the extreme of popular liberty,” where “slaves — male and female — have the same liberty as their owners” and where there is “complete equality and liberty in the relations between the sexes” (563b). Democracy as the “extreme of popular liberty” is further described in The Republic as follows:
“Then in democracy,” I went on, “there’s no compulsion either to exercise authority if you are capable of it, or to submit to authority if you don’t want to; you needn’t fight if there’s a war, or you can wage a private war in peacetime if you don’t like peace; and if there’s any law that debars you from political or judicial office, you will none the less take either if they come your way. It’s a wonderfully pleasant way of carrying on in the short run, isn’t it?
“In the short run perhaps.”
“‘And isn’t there something rather charming about the good temper of those who’ve been sentenced in court? You must have noticed that in a democracy men sentenced to death or exile stay on, none the less, and go about among their fellows, with no more notice taken of their comings and goings than if they were invisible spirits.” (557e-558a)
Annas (1981) notes that this depiction of “the extreme of popular liberty” in democracy conspicuously fails to match the absence of it in actually-existing Athenian democracy:
“Plato presents democracy as defined by tolerant pluralism, but Athens was a populist democracy, with a clearly defined way of life separating those with power from those without, and about as tolerant of openly expressed nonconformity as McCarthyite America. Plato knew that Athenians were not free to disobey the law (Socrates could hardly ignore his death sentence!); that Athens was one of the worst cities in the Greek world as far as concerned equal freedoms for men and women. (563b is absurd if Athens is in view); and that not only were foreigners like Protagoras and Anaxagoras driven out for expressing unpopular views, but even citizens who, like Euripides, publicly held unorthodox opinions had life made so miserable for them by public vilification that they often left Athens to escape the pressures.” (p. 300)
Barker (1951) notes that what Plato describes as democracy in The Republic is what we would recognize today as anarchy (pp. 254-255). This is clear from Plato’s account of democracy’s extreme executive weakness, as manifest in, for example, its inability to execute its judicial judgements. Has Plato committed the fallacy of irrelevance by presenting a case against anarchy in his purported argument against democracy? By the principle of charity, I suggest that in The Republic Plato was arguing against what he understood to be the Form of Democracy rather than any existing instance of it. But it is clear that while his argument against democracy was not referring to Athenian democracy but perhaps instead to the Form of Democracy, Plato’s motivation for constructing an argument against democracy stemmed from his negative experience of Athenian democracy:
“Greek democracy, as is well known, bore little resemblance to modern representative government, because it was based on the direct and personal executive and judicial control of all the citizens in the Assembly, and in the absence of a leader like Pericles Greek politics suffered from the disease of chronic revolution. Majority rule, excluding slaves and resident aliens, meant the triumph of greed and ignorance, and the war policy of men like Cleon. Is it any wonder then, that Plato, who was of noble birth, whose youth was passed in the ferment of the Peloponnesian War, and whose mentor was put to death by the friends of democracy, should have concluded that the salvation of a city can be secured only if absolute authority in religion and politics is placed in the hands of those who are by nature fitted to exercise it?” (Chance, 1928, p. 114)
Plato’s argument for the inherent weakness of democracy in its potential to collapse into tyranny is strongly linked to his metaphysics, in particular his Theory of Forms. In Plato’s ideal city the rulers are the Philosopher Kings who have undergone the education sufficient for them to gain access to the Form of the Good, which allows them to know what justice is and hence to be able to rule the city justly (479e-484e). Since it is only philosophers who have access to the Form of the Good, non-philosophers lack access to the Form of the Good and hence cannot know what justice is. And since non-philosophers cannot know what justice is, they cannot rule the city justly. This explains the interpretation of the Theory of Forms as “not a democratic philosophy,” and this also accounts for what Finley observes as “Plato’s persistent objection to the role of shoemakers and shopkeepers in political decision making” (Cross & Woozley, 1964, p. 199; Finley, 1973, p. 97). Zeitlin (1993) notes that in Laws 659a-b, Plato argues that:
“Whether it is a matter of art, music or politics, it is only the ‘best men’ who are capable of true judgement. The true judge must not allow himself to be influenced by the gallery nor intimidated by the clamour of the multitude. Nothing must compel him to hand down a verdict that belies his own convictions. It is his duty to teach the multitude and not to learn from them.” (p. 165)
In Plato’s view, these “best men” are capable of true judgement precisely because they have access to the Forms which allow them to gain knowledge of their respective fields. (It should be noted at this point that one common criticism of Plato is based on a gross textual misreading of The Republic. This criticism claims that Plato’s perfectly just city is undemocratic because it is an aristocracy of the hereditary caste of Philosopher Kings. But this is fallacious since The Republic clearly asserts that all citizens who satisfy the educational requirements — including women and members of the working masses — will be able to become rulers, and hence the Philosopher Kings do not constitute a hereditary caste. Plato’s perfectly just society “is not a caste society” (Wild, 1953, pp. 48-49).)
The inherent flaw in democracy is precisely that the masses who do not have access to the Form of the Good are in possession of political power in the city, for what appears as equality in democracy is “the negation of social order and social hierarchy,” and what appears as liberty in democracy is “the negation of social type and social training.” Since Plato regards the perfectly just city as possessing social order, social hierarchy, social type and social training, democracy is “the negation of justice.” Hence in The Republic Plato in his classification of unjust societies classifies democracy as being worse than timarchy and oligarchy, and only being better than tyranny (580a-c). It is in this condition of injustice that tyranny arises with ease from democracy (Barker, 1951, p. 256).
The following is Plato’s genealogical account of democracy’s collapse into tyranny. Democracy, which is afflicted with economic inequality, consists of three social classes: the unemployed, whom Plato calls the drones, the rich, and the working masses (Levinson, 1953, p. 415). The drones form the source of democracy’s leadership, and these leaders proceed to “rob the rich, keep as much proceeds as they can for themselves, and distribute the rest to the poor.” The rich attempt to defend themselves but are falsely accused of treason. In retaliation they do attempt treason and a period of political unrest follows. In this period of unrest, the masses “put forward a single popular leader, whom they nurse to greatness,” and it is this popular leader who is “the root from which tyranny invariably springs.” (While Plato does have a poor impression of the masses, in that they have a large number of false moral beliefs, often commit immoral actions, and are unable to provide a proper moral education for their children, he actually “hates the demagogue rather than the demos” (Barker, 1959, p. 183; Kraut, 1984, pp. 196-197).) This popular leader plunders the rich, and provokes civil war by exiling or executing the rich and promising land redistribution and debt cancellation to the masses. If this popular leader is exiled by the rich, he will return in conquest as a tyrant. If the rich are unable to exile him he will demand a bodyguard and become a tyrant. Democracy hence collapses into tyranny (564d-566d).
Plato’s account of the collapse of democracy into tyranny can be generalized as follows. In a democracy with gross economic inequality, social unrest can arise, and in this unrest a popular hero may emerge, and it is this hero who may become a tyrant. History has shown that democracies can indeed collapse in precisely this manner, with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany through popular election being the clearest example. Indeed, Donald Trump’s recent political ascendance, which rests on the astonishing ability of his populist demagoguery to excite the economic frustrations of his followers, closely follows this model (Zheng, 2016). History also provides examples of democracies which collapsed into tyranny through alternative processes.
In a democracy with gross economic inequality, social unrest can arise, and in this unrest a popular hero may emerge, and it is this hero who may become a tyrant.
For instance, the rise of anti-Communist military juntas across the Third World during and after the Cold War are cases of democracies which collapsed into tyrannies due to armed intervention by tyrannical military leaders supported not by the masses but by the rich (Klein, 2008; Ungpakorn, 2007). Indeed, the collapse of modern democracies into modern tyrannies shows that modern democracy with its institutional checks and balances cannot guarantee that it will never collapse into tyranny. Plato’s sharp insight was that states consist of individuals, and how individuals act depends on their character. A modern democracy’s protective institutions may fail to prevent its collapse into tyranny should the individuals in office at the time be corrupted, threatened, or otherwise cajoled into giving free rein to the tyrant to assume power.
While Plato’s insight into the inherent potential of democracy to collapse into tyranny is indeed sharp, I don’t share his low opinion of democracy. First, it is not only democracy which has the potential to collapse into a less perfect political system, for Plato noted that even the perfectly just state of The Republic possessed the potential to collapse into imperfect timarchy by virtue of the fallibility of the Philosopher Kings (546a-547c). Second, in The Republic Plato fails to be sensitive to the fact that democracies have different degrees of potential for collapse. A democracy with strong institutional checks and balances is less likely to collapse into tyranny than a democracy with weaker institutions. While Plato does not distinguish between different types of democracy in The Republic, in his later Statesman and Laws he does distinguish between lawless and law-abiding types of democracy, and ranks both as being better than oligarchy though inferior to aristocracy (Barker, 1951, p. 258). Aristocracy was ranked higher than democracy because “in a democracy an unanimity of purpose would be hard to come by and, consequently, effective political action would be difficult,” while democracy was ranked higher than oligarchy and tyranny since the “greater numbers of the democracy … would make democratic action for evil in the lawless constitution more ineffective,” while such evil actions “could be realised more effectively in the oligarchy or the tyranny” (Hall, 1981, p. 87). Plato’s later sophisticated view of democracy underscores The Republic’s insensitivity to the rich variety of democracies.
While Plato is indeed correct in his insight that the inherent weakness of democracy lies in its potential to collapse into tyranny, he has failed to recognize that this weakness can be minimized. Even in the alarmingly plausible scenario of Donald Trump being elected the 45th President of the United States, it would still be an open question whether this event will see the collapse of American democracy into a Trumpian tyranny, or whether the beleaguered American political system will be robust enough to contain the damage.
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