Plato's Digression of Regimes and The Order of the Soul

Book VIII of the Republic of Plato is very clear in its intent. Socrates had just finished describing his ideal state in the previous book, the Aristocratic Republic. However to truly decide whether this is the best political regime in terms of the happiness of its citizens, other regimes must be analyzed in comparison. There are four regimes which, in a sense, digress from the highest regarded Aristocracy. Each of which has a subsequent individual whose dominant characteristic, or order of the soul is in direct relation to that regime. However Socrates’ will also show that it is the individual who dictates the regime, and inevitable digression into the system below it. In this essay I will assess Book VIII and show how the principal virtue of each regime (and of the individual therein) eventually becomes its principal vice and digression.

The dialogue in this book takes place mostly between Socrates and Glaucon. The objective is to consider carefully if the best political system, the Aristocracy, produces the happiest individual. “There are four forms it is worthwhile to have an account of, and whose mistakes are worth seeing; and similarly with the men who are like these regimes; so that, when we have seen them all and agreed which man is the best and which worst, we could consider whether the best man is happiest and the worst most wretched, or whether it is otherwise.” (544a, b.)1.

The four regimes post or sub-Aristocracy, in order of digression from the one with highest inherent good to least, is as follows: Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny. Each one comes attached with a human in which their character reflects in the regime. Aristocracy’s are ruled by Philosopher kings and are, as such based on reason and wisdom, its people, lovers of justice. The Timocracy differs from the Aristocracy in that it is far more militant, its people, lovers of honour. The Oligarchy places precedence in financial and material acquisition, its people, lovers of money. The Democracy is rooted in freedom of the individual, its people enjoy it through the assorted (and what Socrates will argue, unnecessary) desires it fosters. Last, and in this case least (in terms of ‘good’), is Tyranny. This regime is emphasized by lawlessness, and the skewed sense of morals due to the corruption of power.

We start with the transitional period of the decay from Aristocracy to Timocracy, what Socrates considers to be the best and least corrupt of the lesser regimes. Because the Aristocracy is the system held in highest regard, he believes that it is also the most difficult change. The only way it will digress into a Timocracy is when people start having children when they shouldn’t. The result of this overpopulation is a society harder to control, and an eventual mixing of the class systems or metals Socrates explains in the prior books. “Although they are wise, the men you educated as leaders of the city will nontheless fail to hit on the prosperous birth and barrenness of your kind with calculation aided by sensation, but it will pass them by, and they will at some time beget children when they should not.” (546b.)2. This blending of the social structure will then lead to people assuming positions of power, which, in the former system would not be qualified, essentially meaning they are not Philosopher Kings. I don’t believe the reader is meant to take this literally, and when reading this part of the book, Socrates’ excuse for the decline of his Utopia (due to over population) seems almost satirical. I believe it is meant to be taken more as a metaphor for the unpredictability of nature.

These less philosophically inclined rulers will tend to lean towards war as opposed to peace when in power. The individual, following suit with the regime he lives in will love gymnastics, hunting, and although he would despise money when he’s young, as he aged he would grow to love it more, as he no longer devotes himself to excellence. This will happen as the best guardian, the power of reasoned, educated speech, leaves him. “a lover of hearing, although he’s by no means skilled in rhetoric.” (549a.)3. It is this point which I believe differentiates him most from the Guardian class he came from, his inability for abstract, philosophic thought and argument.

It is here when a pattern arises in the transition from regime to regime. It is the children, unsatisfied with the lives of their parents, which would be the lives otherwise set out for themselves; should they not actively choose to live differently, that have the greatest impact. This rebellion is the spark of the fire which eventually burns the structures of any political regime in question.

The boy of a Timocratic man would see everything his father has. A life devoted to honour is rich in virtue, however the son would only see what that lifestyle lacks. In this case possessions. “humbled by poverty he turns greedily to money-making; and bit by bit, saving, and working, he collects money. Don’t you suppose that such a man now puts the desiring and money-loving part on the throne, and makes it the great king within himself”(553c.) 4. The more this perpetuates the more we see the societal balance tipping from virtue, in favour of wealth. “Well then, I said, from the progress in money making and the more honorable they consider it, the less honorable they consider virtue. Or isn’t virtue in tension with wealth, as though each were lying on a scale of balance, always inclining in opposite directions?” (550e.) 5. “Instead of men who love victory and honor, they finally become lovers of money-making and money; and they praise and admire the wealthy man and bring him to the ruling offices, while they dishonor the poor man.” (551a.) 6.

Once this transition is complete and it is the wealthiest men in the society who rule. The Timocracy has successfully degenerated into an Oligarchy. The Oligarchic state, and in turn Oligarchic man are fundamentally (according to Socrates) more flawed than the Timocracy and Timocrat respectively. Since the people in an Oligarchy respect wealth above all, the richest men will ascend to power, not the most qualified. “But what is the character of the regime? And what are the mistakes which we were saying it contains? First, I said, the very thing that defines a regime is one. Reflect: if a man were to choose pilots of ships in that way – on the basis of property assessments – and wouldn’t entrust one to a poor man, even if he were more skilled pilot-they would make poor sailing” (551c.) 7.

The second major problem with the Oligarchy is that it will create a great class distinction between the rich and the poor. Once again the very thing that defines the regime and the people in it is inevitably its downfall. The gap in material possessions between classes leads to poorer class to revolt. “The poor are now in no wise despised by the rich. Rather it is often the case that a lean, tanned poor man is ranged in battle next to a rich man, reared in the shade, surrounded by a great deal of alien flesh, and sees him panting and full of perplexity. Don’t you suppose he believes that it is due to the vice of the poor that such men are rich, and when the poor meet in private, one passes the word to the other: ‘Those men are ours. For they are nothing” (556d, e.) 8.

A Democracy would then come into being when the poor revolt and share office with the rich who are left. And also again the children come into play here. Their fathers, obsessed with making money, would also be reluctant to spend it since they love it so much. “I suppose a son would be born to that stingy, Oligarchic man, a son reared by his father, in his dispositions. ‘Of course’. Now, this son too, forcibly ruling all the pleasures in himself that are spendthrifty and do not conduce to money-making, those ones that are called unnecessary.” (558b, d) 9. What Socrates means here, is the children of the Oligarchs would eventually inherit their father’s wealth. And because they did not have to work for it, would be much more partial to spend it. This unnecessary spending would in turn lead to unnecessary desires. And in turn a Democracy is born.

Democracies, which some might find rather low on the list, is not surprisingly for anyone who has read the Republic thoroughly up to this point. In describing Socrates’ ideal state you soon find that he does not believe all men are created equal. Everyone in his society is important, specific to where they fall under his class system, but to assume an Auxiliary is equal to a Guardian would defeat the purpose of class systems and the Noble Lie. In a Democracy all men are equal and free to indulge in whatever desires they please. Because the democratic individual is so inclined to such (what Socrates would say are trivial, or even dangerous) desires. The reason in his soul is severely lacking, hence why Democracy is only succeeded by Tyranny. Although it may appear that the Democratic man would be very happy, it seems as though his happiness is superficial and clouded by his ignorance and Socrates would never be quoted as saying ‘ignorance is bliss’.

“The ultimate in freedom of the multitude, my friend, I said, occurs in such a city when the purchased slaves, male and female, are no less free than those who have bought them.” (563b) 10. What Socrates is saying here is that eventually the idea of freedom will become so extreme that everyone will be equal, including slaves and their masters. And because of this the rulers of the regime would be questioned as to why they are held in higher regard than the citizens. This questioning of power would lead to the masses claiming the rulers were in fact Oligarchs, and un-democratic. Socrates believes that when you have something so extreme in one direction (in this case freedom) it will inevitably swing in another direction, causing an extreme of the exact opposite. “And, really anything that is done to excess is likely to provoke a correspondingly great change in the opposite direction-in seasons, plants, bodies, and, in particular, not least in regimes. Too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery, both for private man and city.” (563e – 564a) 11.

As the majority questions the democratic rule, and the ‘oligarchic’ leaders, one person will take charge in the revolt. This man will easily ascend quickly to be a leader of the masses, who have become soft, caring only for their desires. “Aren’t the people always accustomed to set of one man as their special leader and to foster him and make him grow great? Yes they are accustomed to do that. It’s plain therefore , I said, that when a tyrant grows naturally, he sprouts from a root of leadership and from nowhere else.” (565c, d) 12. And this is how a Tyranny is born out of a decaying democracy. Just as every regime prior, the very “virtue” the system is based on is the primary reason for its digression.

A Tyranny, the worst regime according to Socrates, has the least inherent good, and thus, least happiness for its people. The tyrant will abuse his position and constantly wage wars against other states so that he has a reason and unquestioned purpose to lead, and tax the public. Its people become slaves only because they let themselves, allowing and even enforcing the Tyrant into power. The unlimited freedom of the democracy has made this transition easy and inevitable.

So what can be learned by book 8? Socrates stresses the power of the individual and how he is ultimately responsible for the society and regime he lives in. Once more the individual’s soul is reflected in the regime, and vice versa. The Aristocracy, and those who live in it, has the perfect balance of the soul, with reason, logic and intelligence paramount. Next, the Timocracy, is praised for its honour based society and individuals who hold honour above all else, however it lacks the integral philosophic leadership of its preceding system, and thus falls short in terms of ideal, and the best possible happiness for its people. Following Timocracy, comes the Oligarchy. It is this transition I see as the start of real decay, both in the sense of the regime and in the individual. While honour can be praised, Love of something tangible, like money, seems to blind the regime and individual alike. If it were not for his greed and obsession with status, he would be a rogue within the state. After which comes democracy which although at first might seem like a virtuous society, holding the freedoms of individuals above all else, self implodes. The individual becomes so lost in his desires; he is unaware and uncaring of what is happening around him. He does not care for intelligence and reason and has a soul filled with excess. His ignorance makes it easy for his regime to be transformed and taken over by a Tyrant, the worst of all, whose power hungry lust will create a slave like society unable to do anything. The Tyrant’s soul is as broken as the regime he looks over. Aristocracy > Timocracy > Oligarchy > Democracy > Tyranny are intrinsically linked to Reason > Honour > Money > Freedom > Power. By finding which characteristic of the soul is most dominant in that individual, you can label the regime as such.

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