Oligarchy and Democracy (Part 2)

Plato regards the descent of political regimes into tyranny as a gradual process in which each type of government is transformed into an even more unjust or imperfect state. The oligarchic man is the son of the timarchic man who has lost his reputation and fortune ‘in some political disaster’. Reduced to poverty, his son neglects the dialectic power of reason which he uses instead to further his selfish materialistic ends. In his craving for money, the oligarchic man ‘is never at peace with himself, but has a dual personality, in which the better desires on the whole master the worse.’ [554d/e]

Socrates draws the usual parallel between the regime under consideration and its corresponding psychological type. Just as the oligarchic society is divided between rich and poor, the oligarchic man is himself divided between his main desire for money and his other desires, forcibly held in check. For Plato, such a man lives like the shadow of himself since money-making has become the very motive for his existence. By denying himself, both the pleasures and benefits of a truly rational life, the oligarchic man cuts a very sad figure. He may cultivate a feigned honesty which serves him well as he enjoys a good reputation as a business man, but deep down the oligarchic man lives in fear of being exposed for what he is, a man with ‘no moral conviction’ struggling to keep his lowest desires at bay.

One of the essential provisions of Plato’s perfect state is the absence of private property and even money in the life of the philosopher-Guardians. One of the direct consequences of oligarchy is the pauperization of a vast majority of the population which may also bring the downfall of oligarchic men falling victim to their own speculating fever. Socrates has sobering words about the moral corruption at the heart of the money-driven regime: ‘love of money and adequate self-discipline in its citizens are two things that can’t coexist in any society; one or the other must be neglected.’ [555c/d] By lending money at a prohibitive rate, the oligarchs maintain their grip on society while enjoying a life of pleasure and luxury. In this immoral and unjust society where the rich become richer and the number of destitute keeps rising, it comes as no surprise that ‘some disfranchised [men] plot against those who have deprived them of their property and against the rest of society and long for revolution.’ [555d/e]

Oligarchy turns the city into a community of strangers where rich and poor have no respect for each other and no solidarity is to be expected from anyone. In such an atmosphere of mistrust and uncertainty, the oligarchic state is about to vanish and be replaced by democracy ‘when the poor win, kill or exile their opponents, and give the rest equal civil rights and opportunities of office, appointment to office being as a rule by lot.’ [557a] Plato is at pains to reject some aspects of democracy such as individual freedom and equal political participation. It is also, Socrates remarks, ‘the most attractive of all societies. The diversity of its characters, like the different colours in a patterned dress, makes it look very attractive.’ [557c] The alluring character of democracy can be deceptive as it offers a motley range of lifestyles and constitutions. The absence of compulsion to do anything is certainly to be admired, but there is a price to pay for this licentiousness as democratic societies reject the principle of specialization regarded as incompatible with individual freedom. This general ‘do as you please’, free-for-all attitude also applies to politics as, contrary to Plato’s perfect state, no special training is required in a society where proclaiming oneself ‘the people’s friend’ is the surest way of gaining their suffrage. All in all, democracy is, for Plato, ‘an agreeable anarchic form of society, with plenty of variety, which treats all men as equal, whether they are equal or not.’ [558c]

We can see, here, the prejudice attached to a form of government which lacks social order and political purpose but also treats all citizens born in the city as equals. Plato does not believe in any kind of natural equality as he is convinced that individuals are inherently different and must stick to what they can do best, irrespective of their personal ambition. Above all, he resents the tolerant pluralism represented by the democratic regime even though the Athens of his days was far less open-minded that his description suggests.

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