Plato on Democracy

“So tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny out of the most extreme form of liberty? (Plato’s Republic, 380-350 B.C.) With apparent declining interest in my concerns about our democracy, in this post, I defer to Plato. John I.


Plato, in his classic Republic, described five “inferior” forms of government: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny – in addition to his idealized philosophical aristocracy. More than 2300 years ago, he wrote of a natural tendency for the oligarchy to devolve into democracy and democracy to devolve into tyranny. In the absence of an effective means of moderating the accumulation of wealth and power, oligarchies naturally emerge from human societies. Some people in any society will always have greater abilities and opportunities to become rich and powerful than others. Democracies emerge when the people revolt against the intolerable concentration of wealth and power in oligarchies. However, the quest for ever greater individual freedom in democracies allows the temporary reemergence of oligarchy. Rather than restoring democracy, Plato believed that people in democracies turn to tyrants to depose the oligarchs.


He believed democracy to be the worst form of government because democracies lead to the worst form of tyranny. He wrote, “the ruin of oligarchy is the ruin of democracy; the same disease magnifies and intensifies liberty overmasters of democracy—the truth being that the excessive increase in anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction.” “The insatiable desire of wealth and neglect of all other things for the sake of money-getting are the ruin of oligarchy.” In a democracy, he wrote, the love of freedom is the “glory of the State.” “The insatiable desire of [freedom] and the neglect of other things introduce the change in democracy, which occasions the demand for tyranny.” “So, tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny out of the most extreme form of liberty.”


Plato believed that insatiable public demands for ever-greater independence and freedom from government restraint eventually would lead to a loss of acceptance and respect for the government. Governance would then be misdirected to promoting prosperity rather than restraining individual liberties in order to ensure social justice. In the absence of restraint, a new class of oligarchs would emerge—along with a class of “spendthrifts” who feed off of their wealth. He used the term “drones” to refer to “the class of idle spendthrifts, of whom the most courageous are the leaders and the more timid are the followers.” In democracies, the idle spendthrifts “are almost the entire ruling power, and while the keener sort speaks and act, the rest buzzing around [them].” This is the process by which Plato believed unbridled freedom inevitably leads to the concentration of wealth and power and the decline of governance.


In oligarchies, when drones gain positions of power in government, they are soon removed by the oligarchs who want to retain power for themselves. However, the drones in democracies are able to retain their power by championing the government as the ultimate protector of individual liberty. Consequently, the economic disparity between the people and the oligarchs grow ever greater until the people eventually become frustrated with democracy susceptible to the lure of the tyrant. The tyrant promises to solve the dilemma of growing economic disparity through even greater individual freedoms.


Plato wrote, “The people have always some champion who they set over them and nurse into greatness.” He describes the characteristics of a tyrant: “In the early days he is full of smiles, and salutes every one whom he meets; he is to be called a tyrant, who is making promises in public and also in private… and wanting to be so kind and good to everyone! But, when he has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some way or another, in order that the people may require a leader.”


“Some of those who joined in setting him up, and who are in power, speak their minds to him and to one another, and the more courageous of them cast in his teeth what is being done. The tyrant, if he means to rule, must get rid of them and cannot stop while he has a friend or an enemy who is good for anything. If he is to rule, I suppose he cannot help himself.” “He has to be master of others when he is not master of himself: he is like a diseased or paralytic man who is compelled to pass his life, not in retirement, but fighting and combating with other men.”


Plato believed that all efforts to depose a tyrant peacefully ultimately would be futile. Modern tyrannies have continued until the exile or death of the tyrant—natural or otherwise. In our American democracy, we the people still have the power to recognize our interdependence as well as our independence—our “self-interest rightly understood.” We still have the power to balance social equity and justice with individual liberty and freedom. We have a constitutional means of finding common ground upon which we can rebuild and sustain our democracy—before it is too late. After 2,300 years of human progress, we hopefully have the power to protect our democracy from its tendency toward tyranny.

John Ikerd


Note: All quotes from Plato, Republic, Books 8 & 9, 1871 translation by B. Jowett, (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2004).