In his magnum opus, The City of God, St. Augustine wrote how people define themselves not so much by what they do, or even what they believe, but by what they love. This penetrating insight led him to develop a whole theory about how the church and state operate and what goals they pursue.
St. Augustine had a classical education and certainly Plato influenced him a great deal. In fact, Augustine may very well have had the last few books of Plato’s Republic in mind as he developed his theory. For Plato argued essentially the same thing, that every form of government results from the accumulated desires of the people it governs. In other words, every society gets the kind of government that reflects their “soul” as a nation, or every nations gets the kind of government they deserve.
Plato spends the majority of The Republic laying the groundwork for the perfect state. His vision contains much that we should admire, and other aspects we should utterly reject. He had far seeing and radical ideas for his day, ideas that would remain radical for many centuries (such as the equality of men and women, and his goal to educate women the same as men). He had others that map out a modern plan for the worst state tyrannies, such as his proposal to have the state erode the family as a vital part of the state.
Some accuse Plato of living too much in an imaginary play-world, but by the end of the dialog Plato discusses the visible imperfections of governments. We would approach the issue likely by looking at the structures of governments and the distribution of powers. Plato starts with the soul, and believes that each form of government, be it oligarchy, democracy, monarchy, or the like, has its roots in souls of the people in the state. In other words, an oligarchic state will have a preponderance of “oligarchic souls” that comprise it. I suppose Plato might say that each state gets the form of government it deserves.
He starts by discussing what he calls a “timocracy,” a state where people dedicate themselves to honor. Most of these societies (Sparta and Macedon serve as examples) find that achieving honor comes most quickly in war. Thus, their drive for honor makes them a warlike state. Socrates describes the timocratic man,
He should have more of self-assertion and be less cultivated, and yet a friend of culture; and he should be a good listener, but no speaker. Such a person is apt to be rough with slaves, unlike the educated man, who is too proud for that; and he will also be courteous to freemen, and remarkably obedient to authority; he is a lover of power and a lover of honour; claiming to be a ruler, not because he is eloquent, or on any ground of that sort, but because he is a soldier and has performed feats of arms; he is also a lover of gymnastic exercises and of the chase.
Timocracies have the main advantage of dedicating themselves to something “spiritual,” beyond mere material gratification. But, as is often the case, this kind of intense dedication and shunning the world has its consequences. First, due to the intense desire to preserve honor, powerful timocratic men will not want to “put themselves out there” for fear of failure and loss of face. More significantly, his heirs likely will not take satisfaction in his purely “spiritual pursuits.” His descendants will want honor to translate into something more tangible, and so timocracy generates into oligarchy, where the souls of men seek the accumulation of wealth. Plato penetratingly blames the avaricious nature of timocratic man — he is avaricious of honor itself — for creating the more common form of avarice in his descendants. The timocratic man cares not for the education of the soul towards eternal beauty, so he is more apt to succumb to the temptations of avarice in the first place.
The defects of the oligarchic soul, and thus the oligarchic state, are many. . .
The accumulation of gold in the treasury of private individuals is ruin the of timocracy; they invent illegal modes of expenditure; for what do they or their wives care about the law? And then one, seeing another grow rich, seeks to rival him, and thus the great mass of the citizens become lovers of money.
And so they grow richer and richer, and the more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue; for when riches and virtue are placed together in the scales of the balance, the one always rises as the other falls. And in proportion as riches and rich men are honoured in the State, virtue and the virtuous are dishonoured.
And what is honoured is cultivated, and that which has no honour is neglected. And so at last, instead of loving contention and glory, men become lovers of trade and money; they honour and look up to the rich man, and make a ruler of him, and dishonour the poor man. They next proceed to make a law which fixes a sum of money as the qualification of citizenship; the sum is higher in one place and lower in another, as the oligarchy is more or less exclusive; and they allow no one whose property falls below the amount fixed to have any share in the government. These changes in the constitution they effect by force of arms, if intimidation has not already done their work. And this, speaking generally, is the way in which oligarchy is established.
Yes, he said; but what are the characteristics of this form of government, and what are the defects of which we were speaking?
First of all, I said, consider the nature of the qualification just think what would happen if pilots were to be chosen according to their property, and a poor man were refused permission to steer, even though he were a better pilot?
You mean that they would shipwreck?
Yes; and is not this true of the government of anything?
I should imagine so.
Except a city? –or would you include a city?
Nay, he said, the case of a city is the strongest of all, inasmuch as the rule of a city is the greatest and most difficult of all.
And here is another defect which is quite as bad, namely, the inevitable division: such a State is not one, but two States, the one of poor, the other of rich men; and they are living on the same spot and always conspiring against one another.
That, surely, is at least as bad.
Another discreditable feature is, that, for a like reason, they are incapable of carrying on any war. Either they arm the multitude, and then they are more afraid of them than of the enemy; or, if they do not call them out in the hour of battle, they are oligarchs indeed, few to fight as they are few to rule. And at the same time their fondness for money makes them unwilling to pay taxes.
It is the lack of harmony, the lack of balance (which carries us back to our discussion about music), which brings down the oligarchic state. The pursuit of money leads to grossly top-heavy state with no guiding principle other than the accumulation of property.
The timocratical soul loves honor, the oligarchic loves money, and the democratical soul loves the empowerment of choice. The oligarchic soul fails to pursue wisdom, so he passes no guiding principle down to his children to help them govern the desires his own accumulative practices enflamed. He despised the poor, so he never bothered to train them either. The door now stands wide open for democratical man. Plato writes,
And then, again, after the old desires have been driven out, fresh ones spring up, which are akin to them, and because he, their father, does not know how to educate them, wax fierce and numerous.
Though Plato has some praise for democracy, he believes that democratical soul may be the poorest of all, for in the end he pursues nothing outside of himself, nothing outside of whatever he desires at a given moment. It is this passion for choice that Plato believes guides democratic man — a passion ultimately for “the freedom and libertinism of useless and unnecessary pleasures.” He writes,
Yes, I said, he lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics; sometimes idling and neglecting everything, then once more living the life of a philosopher; often he-is busy with politics, and starts to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head; and, if he is emulous of any one who is a warrior, off he is in that direction, or of men of business, once more in that. His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom; and so he goes on.
The democratic state, then, can have no harmony, because democratic man himself has no internal harmony. He pursues many things, but none of them well, none with any depth. The virtues of patience, moderation, and deliberation stand as enemies to “Choice” — they impede choice because they slow down “Choice.” Thus, democratic man eventually dispenses with them, and with him the state. Finally the disharmony and competition engendered by “Choice” becomes unmanageable. At this point, we crave the end result of choice, self-gratification, more than what attained us this gratification, which was Choice itself. We will then want a tyrant to control the conflict and make sure we can still attain the life of pleasure that Choice brought us.
Plato’s harsh critique of democracy should give us pause and have us consider a few points. A quick glance seems to show that the decline of the Church in the west has brought about the rise of the god “Choice.” We spend much time, money, and resources developing technology to enhance our seemingly limitless ability to choose. Policies like abortion and homosexual marriage receive their justification from the concept of choice itself: we chose it, and that fact trumps all others. Christians may rightly object to such practices, but must realize that “Choice” stands as a fundamentally different god. Death has also come under the dominion of Choice, as some states now legalize assisted suicide, which allows for us to exit this life on our terms.
Our founders certainly had awareness of this problem. In the Federalist #10 Madison ingeniously turned Plato’s argument somewhat on its head. He claimed that the multiplicity of choice would create a multiplicity of factions. So long as none gained too much of a majority they would cancel each other out, and preserve liberty thereby. Whether this has proven true in the long run remains to be seen. Plato would surely argue that a government with disharmony actually built into the system (as opposed to it being a by-product in timocracies and oligarchies) could never have any real stability. Without this stability, tyranny could not be far away.
We will have to wait until later to consider a defense of democracy. For now, I hope that Plato’s critique will sink in to the students and help them see the strengths and weaknesses of democracy more clearly.