'[T]he tendency toward tyranny which Plato attributed to democracies was a consequence of their egalitarianism, moral relativism, and sexual license....'
From The American Mind
By Edward Feser, PhDPlato shows us who the real tyrants are.
Since the 2016 election, the thesis that Plato’s critique of democracy in the Republic holds the key to understanding the rise of Donald Trump has become a cliché of middlebrow left-wing commentary. It is not entirely wrong. But usually ignored is the fact that the tendency toward tyranny which Plato attributed to democracies was a consequence of their egalitarianism, moral relativism, and sexual license—not exactly right-wing causes.
It is no great feat to cherry-pick lines from Plato which, torn from context, can be made to seem applicable to some politician you dislike. A serious treatment must begin with Plato’s psychology, which formed the basis of his political philosophy. It must consider Plato’s account of the four stages by which minds can become progressively disordered, and the ways in which four increasingly corrupt types of society parallel these degrees of psychological disorder.
When that is done, it is manifest that in fact the purest contemporary realization of the tyrannical personality type Plato warned us about is the Social Justice Warrior leftist. As the woke mob comes to realize this, Plato’s statues will doubtless be toppled next—and after statues, people.
Healthy and Sick Souls
Plato distinguishes three main parts of the psyche: reason, spirit, and appetite. Naturally, appetite encompasses desires for food, drink, sex, money, and, in general, whatever brings pleasure. Such desires are a natural concomitant of our being embodied, and as such are not bad in themselves. What is bad is indulging them in a way that is contrary to reason.
Now, rationality, as modern economists understand it, entails maximizing satisfaction of whatever desires we happen to have. That is decidedly not how Plato understands it. Indeed, he would regard this conception of reason as the mark of a corrupt mind. For Plato, reason is that faculty by which we understand the natures of things—what he famously calls their Forms.
For instance, when you understand that a triangle is a closed plane figure with three straight sides, you grasp its nature or Form, and the study of geometry deepens your understanding of that nature. You learn, for example, that the sum of the internal angles of a Euclidean triangle is equal to two right angles, that the length of one of its sides is always shorter than the sum of the other two, and so on.
These are objective facts rather than artifacts of human convention. The same is true, for Plato, of the natures of other things—rocks and trees, dogs and cats, justice and piety, and human beings too. There is in each case an objective fact of the matter about what it is to be a thing of each of these types. And that entails an objective standard about what counts as a good or bad instance of each of these types of thing.
Given what it is to be a triangle, a triangle drawn with crooked sides is, as a matter of fact, a bad or defective triangle; given what it is to be a tree, a tree with damaged roots is, as a matter of objective fact, a bad or defective tree; and so on.
By the same token, given what nature puts desires into us for, there is an objective matter of fact about whether particular desires are good or bad. For example, a desire to eat dirt, stones, feces, metal, or some other non-nutritive substance (a psychological condition known as pica) would be bad insofar as it is aimed at the wrong sort of object.
A desire might also be aimed at the right sort of object, but nevertheless be bad insofar as it is indulged in an excessive way, as in overeating and drunkenness. Hence for Plato, while reason does tell us how to satisfy a desire we happen to have, the more important thing it tells us is whether we should satisfy it—or instead ought to resist it as objectively disordered.
Plato is committed, then, to a kind of essentialism. That is to say, he holds that things have, as a matter of objective fact, essences or natures. He holds that reason is capable of knowing these natures, and that since the nature of a thing determines what is good or bad for it, reason is also capable of knowing what is objectively good or bad.
He thereby rejects the relativist view that what a thing is, and what is good for it, are matters of human convention rather than matters of objective fact. He refutes, too, the skeptical position that whether or not there are objective matters of fact about these things, we cannot know them.
So, a rational human being will in Plato’s view indulge the appetite only when reason, guided by its knowledge of human nature, judges such indulgence to be good. But desires can be powerful, and reason’s judgement can seem bloodless and abstract. So how can reason exercise control over appetite?
This is where the remaining part of the psyche, spirit, comes in. There is no adequate one-word equivalent in English for the Greek word translated “spirit” (thumos). What Plato has in mind is that aspect of our nature that manifests itself in righteous anger, in the impulse to correct injustice, and in the pursuit of what is honorable and avoidance of what is shameful.
Hence, suppose a man sees an old woman being mugged and, though fearful for his own safety, nevertheless rushes to her aid out of outrage at what is being done to her. Or suppose he is tempted to sleep with another man’s wife, but refrains from doing so because of the shame he feels at the thought of it. These would be instances of spirit in action.
Though reason tells the man to risk pain in the first case and ignore pleasure in the second, appetite might still overwhelm him if it weren’t for spirit’s counterbalancing it with the emotions associated with justice and honor. Spirit is the ally of reason in governing appetite.
A healthy psyche is one in which reason, spirit, and appetite are ordered in this hierarchical way and all properly functioning. In particular, it is evident in a human being who has a correct understanding of the natures of things, feels the right amount of approval for what reason tells it is good and the right amount of shame or disgust at what reason tells it is bad, and whose desires are natural, moderate, and indulged only in what reason judges to be the right time, place, and manner and in a way spirit feels to be honorable.
Such a human being exhibits the cardinal virtues or “excellences”: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. He is wise insofar as his intellect grasps objective reality, courageous insofar as he will not allow fear of pain or desire for pleasure to divert him from the right course of action, temperate insofar as his desires are appropriate and indulged only when fitting, and just insofar as reason, spirit, and appetite are all playing their proper role in the hierarchy.
An unhealthy psyche is one that deviates from this ordering of things, and the greater the deviation, the greater the depravity of the psyche. This brings us to Plato’s classification of types of society, which is equally a classification of types of soul, because what characterizes a society is the type of soul that dominates it.
Healthy and Sick Societies
Reason, spirit, and appetite are to be found in all human beings. But each is stronger in some human beings than in others, and which of them most characterizes a person determines which of the three social classes of Plato’s ideal society he will fall into.
The vast majority of people are appetitive. That does not mean that their appetites are ungoverned by reason and spirit, but that reason and spirit are in them primarily oriented, not toward the pursuit of wisdom and honor for their own sakes, but rather toward the pursuit of food and drink, property, marriage and family, and material goods in general. They make up the productive class in Plato’s city: farmers, merchants, laborers, and so on.
A much smaller group is primarily spirited, oriented by temperament to the pursuit of honor and justice. These make up the auxiliary class, which comprise the military and police in Plato’s ideal city.
The smallest and ruling class are the philosopher-kings, in whom reason dominates so thoroughly that pursuit of the true and the good for their own sakes is their basic orientation.
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that Plato’s idea of a philosopher is as different from what most people today think of when they hear that word as his conception of reason is different from the modern economist’s conception. He is not talking about a society run by effete middle-class college professors. Nor does he have in mind thinkers adhering to just any old philosophical system.
He is talking about Platonist philosophers, specifically, which entails (among other things) those committed to essentialism and opposed to relativism, skepticism, and allied doctrines. And he is talking about an elite drawn from the auxiliary class and held to a regimen so physically, intellectually, and morally demanding that no one inclined toward a life of tenured ease would be capable of it, or even interested in it.
Famously, the guardians of Plato’s ideal society (which comprise the auxiliary class and the philosopher-kings together) live communally and are forbidden spouses, families, and private property of their own. This is not socialism, which in the real world imposes austerity on the majority while the rulers live like capitalists. On the contrary, the majority in Plato’s city—the productive class—are permitted the freedom, material benefits, and ordinary family life the elite are denied.
Rather, the egalitarianism of the guardian classes is that of the military barracks or the monastery, imposed only on the few because only the few are capable of it. Its point is to prevent the guardians, as far as possible, from having any personal or material stake in governmental policy, so that they will be guided only by disinterested reason.
For present purposes, what matters are not the details of Plato’s ideal society but rather its idealization of a certain conception of reason, both in the individual and in the sociopolitical order. As the mid-twentieth-century philosopher John Wild argued, Plato was essentially the founder of the natural law tradition in Western ethics.
Good human beings are in Plato’s view those in whom desire is subordinated to the objective natural order of things grasped by reason, and a good society is one governed by those who best know and practice this natural law. Just as a rightly ordered psyche is one in which reason rules the appetites through the agency of spirit, so too a rightly ordered society is one in which philosopher-kings rule the productive class through the auxiliaries.
The greater the deviation from this model, the more unjust and disordered a society becomes, and the degrees of deviation parallel the degrees of depravity that can exist in an individual psyche. Indeed, for Plato, types of unjust society are defined less by their governing procedures than by the disordered character types that dominate them and are admired within them.
There are four, each one worse than its predecessor: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny.
Timocracy is the rule of the spirited part of the psyche, in which honor displaces wisdom as the highest end. The timocratic character prizes the military virtues above all others, so that the ethos of the auxiliaries pushes aside that of the philosopher-kings as the ruling ideal. Spartan severity would be the paradigm.
The appetites are kept in check in the timocratic personality type, as they are in the philosopher-king, but out of honor rather than regard for reason as such. Timocracy also involves a move away from the disinterestedness of the philosopher-king’s rationality, for timocratic man’s excessive regard for honor makes him highly competitive. For this reason, Plato thinks the timocratic personality eventually becomes unduly interested in money as a surrogate for martial accomplishment. In this way, timocracies have a tendency to give way to oligarchies.
Oligarchy is the first of three degenerate regimes in which appetite comes progressively to dominate individuals and society, but it is the least bad of them. The oligarchic personality type is one in which money becomes the dominant end. The appetites thus take the upper hand over both reason and spirit.
However, because the acquisition of wealth requires time and discipline, even oligarchic man puts some restraints on his desires. The timocratic ideals of honor and courage give way, but they are replaced by bourgeois virtues like thrift, hard work, and concern for respectability.
But there is money to be made in catering to baser desires. As if he were describing the recent history of American business, Plato tells us that oligarchs inevitably cannot resist seeking profit in catering to the frivolous and immoral wants of the young, and in taking advantage of the foolishness of those willing to incur massive debt. Their own children also come to be spoiled, soft, idle, and profligate.
“Love of money and adequate self-discipline in its citizens are two things that can’t coexist in any society,” says Plato. The rich come to have “no greater concern for excellence than the poor.” (All quotes are from the Desmond Lee translation of the Republic.) Appealing to an insect metaphor, Plato says that a class of shiftless and unruly “drones” arises in this decadence, dominated by “unnecessary desires” such as an excessive interest in sex and a taste for “a more varied and luxurious diet.” (A mashup of hooligans, swingers, and “foodies,” as it were.) In this way oligarchy tends to give way to democracy.
The Dēmos and its Demons
The first thing to keep in mind in order to understand Plato’s analysis of democracy is that he is not primarily concerned with procedural matters, such as the way in which people are elected or policies decided upon. What he cares about, again, is the character type that predominates in a society.
By “democracy” what Plato has in mind is a libertarian and egalitarian society in which “every individual is free to do as he likes.” Bourgeois restraints on appetite disappear, so that desires are checked only by competing desires rather than by reason, spirit, or even the oligarch’s middle-class stolidity. Democracy as Plato describes it is basically what American society has become in the twenty-first century—so much so that reading Plato on democracy makes one wonder whether he had access to a time machine.
Democracy on Plato’s account is characterized by the “diversity of its characters” and “treats all men as equal, whether they are equal or not.” In particular, it treats all ways of life as equal, no matter how puerile, irrational, or immoral.
The young “throw off all inhibitions” and celebrate “insolence, license, extravagance, and shamelessness.” They flit faddishly from one activity to another. At one moment they will pursue “wine, women, and song,” and at the next “water to drink and a strict diet”; a keen interest in “hard physical training” might give way to “indolence and careless ease”; today they will devote themselves to philosophical study, tomorrow politics, and the day after that business. If anyone tries to tell them that some desires are bad and should be suppressed, they “won’t listen,” but insist that “all pleasures are equal and should have equal rights.”
This licentiousness and egalitarianism become ever more extreme. Citizens care nothing about the character of their leaders, so long as they flatter the people. This yields “rulers who behave like subjects and subjects who behave like rulers.” Authority disintegrates. Fathers and sons “change places” in social status, “the father standing in awe of his son, and the son neither respecting nor fearing his parents.”
In general, the young set themselves against their elders, while elders fear being thought “disagreeable or strict” and are reduced to pathetically “aping the young and mixing with them on terms of easy fellowship.” The teacher “fears and panders to his pupils” but the pupils despise him anyway. Democratic man insists on “complete equality and liberty in the relations between the sexes,” and on drawing “no distinction between alien and citizen and foreigner.” Plato tells us that license is extended even to domestic animals, who freely roam the streets of the democratic city.
The end result is that “the minds of the citizens become so sensitive that the least vestige of restraint is resented as intolerable.” In the end, “in their determination to have no master,” the citizens of a democracy “disregard all laws, written or unwritten.”
This democratic lawlessness, Plato tells us, is “the root from which tyranny springs.” It is crucial to understand that this is not merely because of the chaos that results when laws and mores are no longer respected, which leads people to opt for a strongman to restore order. It has to do with the deep irrationalism of egalitarian societies. They are dominated not by reason, not by spirit, not even by the more governable appetites of the oligarch, but by the lower and unruly appetites for sex, food, drink, and sensual pleasure in general, which are most prone to blinding reason. The very idea of a natural order of things that determines that some desires are disordered and forbidden by reason becomes hateful to democratic man.
This is the significance of Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave. The cave dwellers are chained in such a way that they can see nothing but shadowy images on the wall cast by statues and flickering flames. The statues are representations of everyday objects outside the cave (dogs, cats, trees, and so on). When a cave dweller escapes and makes his way outside the cave, he finds that what he and his fellows had thought to be reality is really only faint and distorted images of copies of real things. He returns to the cave and tries to explain this to them, but they judge him to be crazy, and are so offended by his criticism of their false beliefs that they seek to kill him.
Now, the cave dwellers in this allegory stand for the citizens of a democracy like the Athens of Plato’s day, and the shadows on the wall represent the illusory belief system of democratic psyches, which are dominated by appetite and swayed by the rhetoric of the sophists and demagogues who flatter them and help rationalize their disordered desires. Plato characterizes their delusions as “dead weights” that are “fastened on them by sensual indulgences like gluttony, which twist their minds’ vision to lower things.”
The man who escapes is the Platonic philosopher, for whom Plato’s model is Socrates. The objects in the ordinary world outside the cave represent the Forms or natures of things, as understood in light of Plato’s essentialism. The sun that illuminates these objects corresponds to what Plato calls “the Form of the Good,” which is the divine source of the Forms. The hostility of the cave dwellers to the escapee represents the hostility of citizens of a democracy to the philosopher who exposes their egalitarian delusions—such as Socrates, who was murdered by democratic Athens.
Plato warns that art and music characterized by “ugliness of form and bad rhythm and disharmony,” and a popular culture that glorifies “bad character, ill-discipline, meanness, or ugliness,” do “cumulative psychological damage,” corrupting moral sensibilities and capacity for rational argument.
The same is true, he says, of a preoccupation with pleasure seeking, which inclines a soul toward “frenzy and excess” and “violence and indiscipline,” and he warns that this is especially true of sexual pleasure. The culture of a healthy society must accordingly celebrate reason, beauty, goodness, and restraint. The improper formation of character yields what Plato calls “misology” or hatred of rational discourse, generating citizens with “no use for reasoned discussion, and an animal addiction to settle everything by brute force.”
The applicability to modern American pop culture is obvious, and only the details need updating. The walls of Plato’s cave have been replaced with cell phones streaming Netflix and pornography, and misology now manifests itself in Twitter mobs and “cancel culture” rather than the executioner’s hemlock (for the moment, anyway).
Enter Tyranny, Stage Left
Plato proposes a mechanism by which democracy finally mutates into tyranny. He tells us that the parasitic “drone” class that builds up under late oligarchy and democracy can be divided into two subclasses, the drones with “stings” and those without. Those without are the passive hangers on, whereas the “stinging” drones are the nastier bunch, aggressive and inclined to stir the rest up to sedition. Think of the upper middle-class wokester, saddled in debt for a useless college degree in grievance studies, whose idea of finally doing something with his life is signing up with Antifa or the Bernie Bros.
A second group playing a role in the transition to tyranny, Plato tells us, are the rich, who are terrified of being accused of “plotting against the people and being reactionaries and oligarchs.” As a consequence, they pay off the drone class. Think of corporate groveling to political correctness and the writing of check after check to fund various left-wing causes. A third, last, and largest group are the masses, who don’t pay much attention to politics but are happy to take a share of whatever the drones extract from the rich.
This payoff arrangement is unstable, and awaits the rise of a stinging drone ruthless enough to go the whole hog and wage “class war against the owners of property.” This is the tyrant, and the tyrannical personality type is an extension of the democratic personality type, bringing its characteristic lawlessness to full fruition.
Plato describes him as a complete libertine who “combines the characteristics of drunkenness, lust, and madness” and is given over to criminality and “extravagant feasts and orgies and sex and so on.” He governs by “exiles, executions, hints of cancellation of debts and redistribution of land.” The key to his character is that the last weak restraints on democratic man’s appetites entirely disappear. The tyrant, says Plato, is “lost to all sense and shame” so that there is “nothing, no taboo, no murder, however terrible, from which he will shrink,” and he is prone to a “terribly bestial and immoral type of desire, which manifests itself particularly in dreams,” such as “attempting intercourse…with a mother or anyone else, man, beast, or god.”
His criminality will not be checked even by filial reverence, so that he is a “parricide” who will even loot and tyrannize over his own parents. Indeed, if the people will not submit to him, “he’ll punish his country, if he can, just as he punished his parents.” Plato describes him as the “unhappiest of all men,” who is “envious, untrustworthy, unjust, friendless, and godless.” He has no true companions but only alliances with similar criminal types.
For all Trump’s vulgarity and egotism, even if populism and eroding decorum obviously factored into his rise, it is ludicrous to see in him a Platonic tyrant. A tyrant would welcome the COVID-19 lockdown as a means of securing greater control over the people rather than resisting it; he would have reacted to riots by imposing martial law rather than taking to Twitter.
No, where we see the tyrannical personality type as Plato understands it—the bitter revolutionary given over to libertinism, contemptuous of reason, bent on class war and the expropriation of the rich, with no loyalty to the heritage of his parents or country—is, quite obviously, on the side of Trump’s most vociferous enemies, the woke mob.
While Trump confines his “tyranny” to trash talk, SJW leftists make war on the police, burn down businesses, topple monuments, take over city blocks, bully dissenters into silence where they can, and ruthlessly destroy the reputations and livelihoods of those they cannot, all in the name of an “intersectional” program of socialism and radical sexual liberation.
But having a tyrannical personality type is one thing, and actually imposing a tyranny is another. What remains to be seen is whether there is, among the woke hordes, anyone with the combination of talent and ruthlessness actually to take over the apparatus of government, and whether the mass of society has gone too far beyond the threshold of decadence to resist. Even now the prospect of an American tyrant in the Platonic mold appears far-fetched—but, like so many other things in these bizarre times, not quite as far-fetched as it seemed just a few years ago.
Plato’s classification of personality types and regimes is an idealization. He did not think all real-world societies exactly match any of his categories. Actual societies tend to be mixtures of the tendencies he describes, though one tendency or another often tends to predominate. Nor is the transition from one kind of society to a more degenerate kind inevitable. Perhaps we are not as close to the brink as it seems; perhaps, even if we are close to it, we can still retreat.
But doing so would require a revival of the embers of reason, and they are weak. Plato described the philosophers of his own day as mostly “useless” and “rogues,” corrupted by sophistry and the pressure of egalitarian public opinion.
Intimidated by the most aggressive elements of the mob, the intellectual in a democratic society is “swamped by the flood of popular praise and blame, and carried away with the stream till he finds himself agreeing with popular ideas of what is admirable or disgraceful, behaving like the crowd and becoming one of them.” As if in fulfillment of this Platonic prophecy, a radical and intolerant egalitarianism has swept the American intelligentsia—the academy, journalism, the arts, and popular culture—its leaders routinely bullied into submission by even the most groundless accusations of bigotry.
Plato says it would take a “miracle” or “divine providence” to keep philosophers from being corrupted under such circumstances, and that even then only a “very small remnant” will resist. As Socrates’ execution indicates, this resistance might even seem futile in the short run. But its long-term effects are what matter. Today, no one but a few scholars knows the names of Socrates’ persecutors. It is his greatest student, Plato himself, whom we remember.