Zeitgeist Zero Hour: Thus spoke Socrates! Socrates’ Constitutional Paradigm Cycle
Originally published March 7, 2019 Last Revised on March 21, 2019
By Michio Suginoo
This content is a revised version of my earlier post dated on March 13, 2017, "When Democracy fails 1: Ephemeral Democracy and the road to Tyranny: in light of Socrates’ Political Cycle: A Reflection of Plato’s “the Republic”
Money (personal pursuit of wealth) could corrupt individuals, thus, impair the moral conduct among people, and ultimately, with use of violence, will ruin the entire social construct, particularly its constitutional foundation.
In general, intellectuals in antiquity saw wealth (money) in moral term and treat it with awe. They thought three primary factors—personal pursuit of wealth, moral depravation, and use of violence—interact one another and trigger paradigm shift in political (constitutional) paradigm.
To capture such paradigm shifts, Socrates (circa 470 – 399 BC) shaped a panoramic conceptual framework. He perceived a given political regime as a part of the larger process of constitutional paradigm cycle.
Cut the long story short, he stylised his political paradigm cycle (I use the two terms— ‘constitutional paradigm,’ and ‘political paradigm’—interchangeably throughout the reading) as follows: in chronological order,
‘Kingship Proper’ (‘Aristocracy Proper’);
What is the logic behind his cyclical model? Why tyranny has to come out of democracy, according to Socrates? This reading will have an overview of Socrates’ conceptual framework of constitutional paradigm cycle.
Here are some precautions.
First, despite his profound insight in the topic, we need to be aware, his model is not free from flaws. As discussed in more detail with my future writing, his cyclical model has two flaws: it is endogenous, thus it fails to consider exogenous factors; it is cyclical, thus, it fails to capture evolutionary developments. As an illustration of the first flaw, periphery states in general are under constant exogenous influences instigated by hegemon states. Thus, endogenous model cannot be used for analysing periphery states. Instead, it might be used as a guide, if not as a predicting model, to analyse hegemons: especially when they remain less vulnerable to exogenous geopolitical factors. As an illustration of the second flaw, innovation could trigger evolutionary transformations and could alter the course of such cycle, if any. These sets general limitations on any endogenous cyclical model. And Socrates’ model is not an exception. We can appreciate his discourse only when we understand its limitations. Then, we can incorporate into our thinking other measures to complement the inherent shortcomings embedded in the construct of Socrates’ conceptual framework. Despite those limitations given, nevertheless, his argument still resonates today, at least to me.
Second, Socrates’ political paradigm cycle only concerns the Western civilization. Sino civilisation, Hindus civilisation, and others are beyond the scope of Socrates’ discourse.
Third, I would like to remind the readers of a historical consensus that Socrates did not write down any of his thought. We can have only glimpses of Socrates’ thought through the writings of his disciples, Plato and Xenophon. In our discourse, when I refer to Socrates, I am referring to Plato’s fictional Socrates. Thus, often Plato and Socrates are interchangeable to a certain extent. To what extent, was Plato loyal to Socrates’ thought? Let me pretend, Plato was tautologically Platonic.
In addition, I would like to acknowledge, as a comprehensive citation clause, that this reading, unless stated otherwise, refers to Socrates' thoughts and relies on the multiple translations of Plato's ‘the Republic’ listed in the reference section at the end of this content.
As the last precaution here, but not the least one, I have no allegiance to any particular political thought. Simply put, I tend to see that every political paradigm has its own flaw(s). And as a ‘Paradox Hunter,’ my primary interest is to unveil anatomy of ‘Paradox’: in this particular case, the anatomy of ‘Cycle of Paradox’ of our political, economic, and moral reality.
Now, let’s listen to what Socrates has to say: Thus, spoke Socrates!
Thus spoke Socrates!
Now, before we begin, I would like to present my personal understanding of the format, or components and structure if you like, of Socrates’ argument.
First, in order to portray characteristics of each constitutional (political) paradigm, as the first step, Socrates plants the Soul (‘psuche’) in each paradigm. The Soul of every constitutional paradigm has own distinct internal structure that shapes own distinct moral hierarchy. And, Socrates divides the Soul into the following three components:
‘Thumos’ or/and ‘Thumoeides’ in Greek: although often translated as spirit, passion, mettle, vitality, or guts, it does not seem to have a single established consensus in its translation among our contemporary translators. It is a sort of a blanket term that encompasses pugnacity, enterprise, passion, spirit, anger, indignation, ambition, and contentiousness. (Lee, 2007, pp. 63, 140-141) For our discussion purpose, I call it interchangeably ‘Thumos’ or ‘the Third Component of the Soul’ in this reading.
This Socrates’ three-layer architecture of the Soul is known as Plato’s [thus Socrates’] ‘Tripartite Doctrine of the Soul.’ With analogy of his version of human soul, Socrates characterizes the moral hierarchy of each political paradigm. As an example, in constructing his utopian society of Kallipolis as 'Kingship Proper’ (‘Aristocracy Proper’), he constructs his utopian best moral hierarchy of the Soul—which enshrines ‘Reason’ to govern ‘Appetite’ by equilibrating the rest of the Soul, or ‘Thumos’—and plant it in Kallipolis.
Moreover, Socrates articulates:
“[S]ince all created things must decay, even a social order of this kind cannot last for all time, but will decline.” (Plato, 2007, p. 279)
Thus, even his best political paradigm is not immortal. And, in his argument, a political paradigm vanishes because the moral hierarchy of its Soul decays and vanishes. The process of decay also shapes a new moral hierarchy of the Soul, which ultimately takes over the society. And that determines the new constitutional paradigm. With this analogy with his version of the human Soul, Socrates unfolds his discourse of ever-transforming political, economic, and moral reality.
Second, behind his argument of constitutional paradigm shift, Socrates tends to see three primary factors—moral depravation, personal pursuit for wealth, and use of violence—playing a significant role in impairing the enforcement of law, thus, ultimately in driving a paradigm shift in constitutional foundation. Ancient intellects in general had a propensity to interpret wealth in moral term. And Socrates is not an exception. Simply put, personal pursuit of wealth (money) could corrupt individuals, thus, impair the moral conduct among people, and ultimately destabilize and ruin the entire social construct, particularly its constitutional foundation: thus, it provokes collective behavioural change of a society. And in his argument, this chain reaction of the behavioural change begins from the ruling class.
Third, as another important component in his argument, Socrates defines his version of ‘Justice.’ It would take a significant part of the reading if we dig this into detail. So, I would like to paint a big picture. If we focus on social justice, his social justice places enormous constraints on the ruling class, supreme self-discipline. Socrates’ social justice can be realised when the ruling class pursue the Psychic Harmony of society with ‘Reason,’ while restraining their ‘Appetite’ and ‘Thumos’ with stringent self-control. As result, ‘happiness’ of the society is invoked as a product of ‘psychic harmony’ created by the Wisdom of the ruling class. (Lane, 2007, pp. xxv-xxvii) Psychic harmony and happiness of society—in a way, the common good— is the product of justice. That said, Socrates did not use the term ‘the common good’. In this respect, this reading will stick to ‘psychic harmony and happiness of society,’ instead of referring to ‘the common good’.
Given these points in our mind, let’s start with his first constitutional paradigm.
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For his first constitutional paradigm, Socrates architected his utopian theoretical ‘Kingship Proper’ (‘Aristocracy Proper’), Kallipolis, which literally means a ‘beautiful/excellent city.’ Kallipolis has Socrates’ utopian moral construct, which enshrines ‘Reason’ to govern ‘Appetite’ by equilibrating the elements of ‘Thumos,’ especially indignation and spirit.
Now, let me portray his Kallipolis below.
In contemplating the regime of Kallipolis—an extreme ideal model of ‘Kingship Proper’ (‘Aristocracy Proper’)—Socrates sees unity as one of its essential cornerstone. In shaping unity to craft his ideal Kingdom, Socrates further articulates, ‘Foundation Myths’ (Lee, 2007, p. 112) play a significant role. ‘Foundation Myths’ talk about the foundation of the people and the society and about heroes who saved the society from catastrophes. In a way, we may interpret, ‘Foundation Myths’ direct indignation and spirit—two elements of ‘Thumos, the third component of the Soul’—to pursue and promote ‘psychic harmony and happiness of society’, but not to satisfy individuals’ appetite. In other words, unity together with ‘Foundation Myths’ should, in his thought, organically structure the moral hierarchy of Kallipolis, which enshrines ‘Reason’ on its top to pursue ‘psychic harmony and happiness of society’. (Plato, 414-415) In a way, Socrates portrays, the 1st stage of civilisation cycle starts with the age of myth to consolidate the unity of society.
In terms of social construct, ‘unity’ contrasts to ‘diversity,’ which is a driver of a democratic society, one of whose organizing principle is freedom. Socrates’ best political regime might be potent to serve a rudimental society during the early stage of civilisation cycle; nevertheless, it would very likely to fail to qualify a constitutional foundation for a large complex society as civilisation advances.
Kallipolis is comprised of three classes: the ruling class, the Auxiliaries (police, soldiers, government officers (Lee, 2007, p. 112)), and businessmen. Kallipolis is governed by a ‘Philosopher King’ who possesses virtuous wisdom of reasoning and protected by his Auxiliaries who possesses ability to regulate spirited indignation (‘Thumos, the third component of the Soul); and its commerce is operated by its citizen’s desire (‘Appetite’).
At this stage, some of us might well perceive Kallipolis as a utopian political-fantasy in the territory of Neverland. Nevertheless, understanding his construct of Kallipolis would be an imperative footstep to better understand Socrates’ argument going forward.
Moreover, some of our contemporary democratic minds would still face a hindrance, when we see the architecture of Socrates’ utopian society. It is because Socrates crafted his best society, Kallipolis, in a form of totalitarian paradigm. It is not democratic at all. As a matter of fact, Karl Popper accused Plato, Socrates’ principal disciple, of founding the tradition of totalitarian dictatorship. Nevertheless, in order to avoid anachronism, we have to understand the fact: not only Socrates, but also did other ancient intellects make a clear distinction between ‘Kingship Proper’ and Tyranny.
On one hand, to Socrates, ‘Kingship Proper’ would pursue ‘psychic harmony and happiness of society,’ rather than the ruler’s sectional interest, to realise a Just society with his wisdom. On the other, Tyranny imposes injustice on the society in pursuit of the ruling class’ own sectional interest.
On one hand, a ‘King Proper’ would control himself with Wisdom (reasoning and knowledge); and this would fulfil the King with happiness. a ‘King Proper’ lives in peace and harmony. On the other hand, a Tyrant is obsessed with his/her love of honour and victory; it makes the tyrant paranoid, envious and angry, creating inner confrontations and uncertainties within himself/herself; in order to guard himself/herself from the populace, a tyrant has to surround himself/herself with his/her personal bodyguards, or his mob. (Plato, 585-587)
On one hand, a ‘King Proper’ would honour law. On the other, a Tyrant would dishonour law and reason.
Although the notion of virtuous dictatorship might be distant from our contemporary democratic consciousness, we are better of acknowledge it in order to avoid anachronism.
In addition, Socrates might cause you another hindrance, especially to some of our contemporary egalitarian minds, by presupposing a discriminative assumption that wisdom cannot be attained by all; but it is accessible to only few people who were born with congenital virtue and mastered knowledge and reasoning acquired through stringent education. Simply put, inequality of Wisdom: life is not fair. Thus, a just society is realisable only by entrusting those gifted people: or by ‘surrogate reason”. (Lane, 2007, p. xxvi)
These Socrates’ very counter-democratic and counter-egalitarian assumptions, which solidify the cornerstones of Kallipolis, percolate throughout his discourse and make Socrates’ thought very controversial in our age of democratic regime. (Lane, 2007, p. xxvi) Repeatedly, we need to be aware of the ancient notion of ‘Kingship Proper’ (‘Aristocracy Proper’) as a virtuous and non-exploitative type of dictatorship governed by highly educated rulers with his ‘Reason’ and congenitally superior virtue.
Thus, in Kallipolis, Philosopher Kings and his Auxiliaries (police, warriors, and administrations) (Plato, 414 b)—collectively called ‘Guardians’—are selected through stringent screening process: first, they are screened out of highly educated virtuous men, who have mastered truth and reasoning (philosophy), with high moral dispositions.
Here are two primary requirements among many that Socrates demands ‘Philosopher Kings’: they have to thrive through strict philosophical education; they have to prove his congenital integrity and supreme virtue under any adversary and seductive conditions. And, to the Auxiliaries, Socrates demands, they go through strict education and attain self-controlled spirited indignation to protect ‘psychic harmony and happiness of society’. In this passage, Socrates promotes gender equality: women who demonstrated excellence in merits and virtues should also participate in the Guardians of Kallipolis.
In a way, Socrates contemplates his ‘Just Society’ as a highly meritocratic paradigm, which is not hereditary at all: a very dynamic caste system of strict moral value hierarchy, or non-hereditary aristocracy which is ruled solely by their excellence in merits and virtues. In a way, Socrates portrayed Philosopher Kings as enlightened ones and most of the public as those who are cognitively too impaired to see the truth and attain wisdom. In addition, as described below, the most stringent restraints are imposed on the Guardians, both the Philosopher King’ and ‘the Auxiliaries’, but not on the ordinaries.
Overall, Socrates’ Kallipolis is a non-exploitative ‘Kingship Proper’ (‘Aristocracy Proper’) governed by excellence in merits and virtues (‘Reason’), in which the ‘psychic harmony and happiness of society’ is maintained.
Economy of Kallipolis
In terms of wealth distribution, Socrates—in order to craft the maximum integrity of the ruling class—engineered an institutional framework to remove the source of moral depravation among them. He does so by prohibiting the Philosopher King and his Auxiliaries of Kallipolis from owning properties and having private family life. Especially, the prohibition of property ownership among the ruling class reveals Socrates’ awe of private pursuit of wealth, which could lead to corruption. In this sense, in Kallipolis, the ruling class are far more severely restrained than the public. No property and no family life characterize the life of the ruling class.
Guardians are prohibited from personal possessions and required “to maintain in all circumstances both their own integrity and the principles of balance and harmony they learned in their education, and then they [are] expected to be of the great service to the community as well as to themselves.” (Plato, 2007, p. 115)
The general public are allowed to engage in commercial activities and entitled to property ownership. Nevertheless, Socrates put the limit on the economic activity among the public: Guardians prevent both extreme wealth concentration and poverty from arising in the society. (Plato, 421 c- 422 a)
Overall, economic activity in Kallipolis is unlikely expansionary but more likely stable at a rudimental stage in civilisation cycle.
There are more about Kallipolis—such as censorship. Nevertheless, that already painted its big picture for our discussion purpose.
Now, let’s see how Kallipolis—’Kingship Proper’ (‘Aristocracy Proper’)—disintegrates into the next regime, Timocracy.
Transition from ‘Kingship Proper’ (‘Aristocracy Proper’) to Timocracy:
Now, moral starts decaying from the top of the society, the ruling class.
As generations of Socrate’s utopian society, Kallipolis (‘Kingship Proper’/‘Aristocracy Proper’), pass, some of the new generation of the ruling class demonstrate antithetical motive to the moral hierarchy of the existing regime. They deny the traditional value, such as their pursuit for stringent education, the ‘psychic harmony and happiness of society,’ and ‘Justice’. They dethrone ‘Reason’ from the top of the moral hierarchy of the society. ‘Reason’ no longer regulates the rest of the Soul, namely ‘Appetite’ and ‘Thumos’. These two components of the Soul revolt against ‘Reason’. Moral depravation polarises the ruling class and split it into two directions: one into those who maintain their traditional ‘Just’ ruling to pursue the ‘psychic harmony and happiness of society’; and the other to those who pursue self-interest and abandon the traditional moral virtue, self-discipline, and educational value. Now, ‘Social Justice,’ thus, the ‘psychic harmony and happiness of society’ is at risk.
The depravity shapes arrogant, contentious, and ambitious spirits within the ruling class. They become less-educated (inarticulate), egoistic, underhanded, and greedy. They start pursuing their own personal interest at the expense of ‘psychic harmony and happiness of society’. They would not hesitate to break law, and steal and spend others’ wealth. At this stage, the legitimacy of the constitutional foundation of ‘Kingship Proper’ (‘Aristocracy Proper’) becomes impaired. And as the polarisation escalates within the ruling class, it causes civil strife, then, leads to civil war, and ultimately dethrones the constitutional foundation of ‘Kingship Proper’ (‘Aristocracy Proper’). In order to shape an order out of the chaos, they resolve violence by distributing wealth among themselves and a new regime called ‘timocracy’ emerges.
Socrates characterises ‘Timocracy’ as a transient state between ‘Kingship Proper’ (‘Aristocracy Proper’) and ‘Oligarchy.’ He portrays ‘Timocracy’ as a regime that has a bit of ‘Kingship Proper’ (‘Aristocracy Proper’) and a bit of ‘Oligarchy’ within itelf: thus it is “a mixture of good and evil.” (Plato, 2007, p. 281)
Cut the long story short, in timocracy, ‘Reason’ is no longer of primary importance in its moral hierarchy. Now, soldier-like values—victory loving spirit and honour loving indignation, both of which belongs to ‘Thumos’—as well as oligarchic money-loving ‘Appetite’ subjugate ‘Reason’ and dominate the mind of the prerogative ruling class. In timocracy, the ruling class devote themselves in waging war and reduce their populace into serfs and menials.
Economy of Socrates’ Timocracy:
Wealth is highly concentrated among the prerogative ruling class. It is hard to contemplate that this regime has an active economy. From Socrates description, it is not clear whether the economic activity in Timocracy is more active or not in comparison with Kallipolis, ‘Kingship Proper’ (‘Aristocracy Proper’). Nevertheless, it would be safe to assume that economy in Timocracy is still rudimental.
Transition from Timocracy to Oligarchy:
If the top of the moral hierarchy in Timocracy was indignation and spirit, both of which belong to ‘the Third component of the Soul (Thumos),’ the top of moral hierarchy in Oligarchy is ‘love for money,’ one element of ‘Appetite.’ Nevertheless, in Oligarchy ‘Appetite’ does not exert its quality in a full-fledged manner. Since the type of oligarchic rulers tend to hoard their wealth rather than spend it. ‘Appetite’ exerts its maximum quality in greed for earning wealth. Overall, ‘Appetite’ for accumulation of wealth comes on the top of the moral hierarchy of the political paradigm.
And, repeatedly, Socrates tends to see that moral starts decaying from the top of the society, the ruling class, in every constitutional paradigm shift. In other words, indignation and spirit, ‘Thumos,’ falls from the top of the moral hierarchy to end the age of Timocracy, and ‘love for money’ thrives to the top to shape the new moral regime of Oligarchy.
New generation see their previous generation—who learned to be ‘victory and honour loving’ military type—falling prey to the new evolving moral reality, ‘love for money’: some of them get victimised by loan shark and lose their property. In the mind of the new generation, grows enmity towards the previous regime’s moral and value system. In defiance of any old principal values—moral and education for aristocracy, and victory and honour for timocracy—the new generation enshrines wealth, thus ‘Appetite,’ on top of their value system.
At the same time, some of them indulge themselves in luxuries. They refuse to take any responsibility in the society. As a result, they end up disposing their assets to successful wealthy ordinaries to continue their indulgence. The depravity among the ruling class gradually transform the economic and social structure of the society. Now, the new class, the wealthy, emerges out of the ordinary and gradually gain power based on wealth.
As time goes by, the Wealthy demands, possibly with use of violence and/or use of terror, a new constitutional framework which would grant them political licences based on wealth. And when they gain power, the new regime, Oligarchy, emerges.
In timocracy, political licence and wealth were concentrated among the prerogative hereditary few (on birth), or depraved descendants of aristocracy. Now, the time has changed. And a typical constitutional characteristic of the new regime, Oligarchy, is ‘property qualifications’ for office. The new constitution sets property qualifications to enfranchise the Wealthy, solely based on wealth, disregarding other qualifications such as virtue, merit, and birth. Naturally, the majority Poor, failing to meet the property qualification, have no share in political licence in Oligarchy.
The new regime brings the age of relentless pursuit for wealth by a few successful men. The rich, while being hard working to build up wealth, is stingy on his own money and would not hesitate to illicitly use others’ money for own benefit. The ruling class, thus, would be apt to dishonesty and criminal impulse.
As wealth gap widens, it divides a society into two parts: ‘the Wealthy, the few’ and ‘the Poor, the multitude.’ Since the Poor outnumbers overwhelmingly the Wealthy, the Wealthy constantly fears the Poor’s revolt against them. In this context, Oligarchy tends to be hesitant to arm the population to engage wars against other foreign states. They fear their own people more than foreign enemies. On the top of that, Socrates argues, the Wealthy, because of their ‘love of money,’ typically would hesitate to spend money to engage wars. In my personal opinion, Socrates lacked diligence in this particular remark: it would depend on the net expected return of the war, but not solely its cost. Nevertheless, we can find some milestone historical precedence to support Socrates’ characterisation of war-hesitant Oligarchy.
The most problematic of all is the living condition of the Poor. They are so impoverished and become either beggars or thieves.
Another feature of Oligarchy is the emergence of the new class of sole squanderer of inheritance, who only consume by disposing fragments of a massive wealth of their inheritance. They indulge themselves in extravagant life style by monetising their accumulated wealth and refused to play any role in the society. Socrates call them ‘Drone.’ They gradually become either beggars or criminals. Above all, the population, except ‘the ruling Wealthy, the few,’ is reduced to either beggars or criminals. This ultimately destabilises the construct of Oligarchy.
Economy of Socrates’ Oligarchy
From Socrates’ descriptions of Oligarchy, we can pick up some economic characteristics of the regime:
Oligarchic rulers having two behaviours: money-making and frugal on spending;
‘Drone’ selling off their inheritance to indulge themselves in luxurious life;
Ever-widening wealth gap impoverishes the ordinaries and make them beggars and/or thieves.
Overall, Socrates’ Oligarchy would shape a specialised market of luxury for Drone and money-making market operated by the Wealthy (e.g. debt market for loan shark) to enslave the mass, but does not appear to expand further than that since the ruling class is frugal and the ordinaries are in poverty. Wealth inequality widens; and the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.
In comparison with the preceding political paradigms, namely ‘Kingship Proper’ (‘Aristocracy Proper’) and Timocracy, Socrates’ Oligarchic economy appears to be more active.
Transition from Oligarchy to Democracy:
Moral depravation among the ruling class is perverse
throughout Oligarchy and further deteriorates as time goes by. The Wealthy,
amassed with enormous wealth, would never be satisfied with their level of
wealth. With their insatiable pursuit for wealth, they flood the society with toxic
excess lending, victimising those who lack education and self-discipline among
the ordinaries with poisonous borrowing. Those highly indebted are stripped off
their properties that went under pledge of the poisonous loans that they
recklessly took. As a result, they are reduced to poverty.
As result of such rampant ruthless Zero-Sum games, the
expansion of toxic loans multiplies the ‘Drones’ and beggars. Toward the end of
Oligarchy, some of new generations of thrifty rich start indulging themselves
in spendthrift and become reduced to drones. They live in extravagance openly,
while the poor suffer from their abusive economic conditions. As the
ever-widening wealth gap escalates the tension between the ruling classes and
the subjects, it progressively destabilises the society: it nurtures the
psychological conditions among the poor to wage revolt against the ruling
class. As the tension culminates, it leads to violent responses such as civil
war or revolution. When the poor defeats the wealthy ruling class through
either execution or proscription, democracy emerges.
In portraying democracy, Socrates contemplates the Athenian democracy, which is direct democracy. On the other hand, most of our contemporary democracy are indirect democracy, which are operated through representative systems—such as ‘presidency representative system’ and ‘parliamentary representative system’. Thus, there is a gap between Socrates’ democracy and our contemporary democratic reality. We need to keep it mind in order to avoid anachronism.
In principle, the ruling class of democracy is whoever shapes the majority, since the majority ruling dictates the decision-making process of democracy.
Democracy enshrines freedom and equality—in other words, a fully bloomed ‘Appetite’—on the top of its moral hierarchy. On one hand, Socrates describes democracy as the most attractive of all political regimes because of “liberty and freedom in plenty,” and “the diversity of its characters” (Plato, 2007, pp. 292-293); on the other, he also criticizes it as “an agreeable anarchic form of society, with plenty of variety, which treats all men equal, whether they are equal or not.” (Plato, 2007, p. 294) Socrates profiles democracy as a regime comprising of three classes:
the rich, the few;
the working class, the majority;
and those who spend other people’s wealth—Socrates calls it ‘Drone’: politicians and their auxiliaries.
Within the last class, ‘Drone,’ some of them actively engage in politics and others support these politicians. All of them suck the wealth of the rich, take the lion share of the gain for themselves and redistribute the small remaining share to the working class. As time goes by, some of the rich become compelled to gather and organize themselves in defence of their wealth; as a result, some astute Wealthy, despite no willingness to overturn democracy into oligarchy, ends up shaping an oligarchy under the democratic regime.
Socrates articulates that the third class—politicians and their auxiliaries, the drones—fan the flare of animosity between the rich and the working class. The working class are easily deceived by them due to their lack of knowledge. Some politicians and their auxiliaries accuse the rich of exploiting the working class for the sake of their profit.
I would interpret, and expand, his views into our contemporary context as follows: Politicians and their supporters (e.g. lobbyist and corrupted partisan journalists and intellects) ignite and amplify the flares of conflict among social classes—especially between the multitude working class and the rich—positioning themselves near the logistic of the redistribution system. They are divided into two directions: one to the side of the Wealthy, the other to the multitude working class. Some politicians are successful in hijacking the government in order to do favours for the Wealthy (‘Regulatory Capture’). Partisan supporters on both sides craft ‘Fake News’ to deceive their enemies on the other side. In one way or another, all of them engage in spreading misinformation and disinformation to escalate the tension between the two classes. To Socrates, democracy must have appeared the age of misinformation/disinformation and the age of degradation of knowledge.
As a historical irony, Socrates himself fell prey to Fake News in the twilight of Athenian democracy. Due to his distorted public image which had been crafted by a comedy play, ‘the Clouds,’ of a prominent poet of his time, Aristophanes, Socrates faced a trial based on groundless accusations. As result, with two charges—of corrupting the youths of the Athens; and of blasphemy against Greek Gods—he was sentenced to death. The giant of supreme Wisdom (knowledge and reason), Socrates, in a way succumbed to the ignorance of democracy. His death symbolises the wicked curse of cognitively impaired democratic knowledge, which is crafted based on distorted public consensus, but not based on ‘Reason’ or truth.
Transition from Democracy to Tyranny:
Again, moral depravity deepens at the ruling class. And the ruling class of democracy is the majority, whatever it might be; but, here we make the general assumption that the majority is the working class.
Socrates raises the issue of widening inequality. That said, inequality existed even in worse forms in previous regimes—timocracy and oligarchy. In this sense, Socrates implies something beyond inequality. Something has changed since the emergence of democracy. It is due to change in the moral hierarchy. Now, the ‘Appetite’ of democracy, insatiable Freedom and Equality, rises on the top of its moral hierarchy. An extreme freedom would take the society to perfect anarchy and lawlessness. Paradoxically, relentless pursuit for freedom among the working class, Socrates articulates, ultimately evokes an inevitable reaction of reversal to its contrary notion on the opposite end, extreme servitude. (Plato, 563 e).
In this asymmetric backdrop, the animosity between the wealthy and the working class intensifies. Now, a new kind of leader emerges, by crafting his political capital in a unique sort of way. The new leader behaves in disguise of a Messiah of the working class, by attacking the oligarchs as the common enemy for the largest class of the society. Basically, the new leader is a demagogue, although Socrates does not use the term in his dialogue: simply put, the new leader’s political capital is common enemies of the mass (Common Enemy). The majority elect a single political representative as their champion and provide him/her bodyguards as well as overwhelming support. (Plato, 565 c, 566 b).
In early days of the demagogue, he/she smiles at the working class, pretending to act as their champion and making hints of populist policies, such as debt relief and subsidies (wealth redistribution). (Plato, 566 d-e)
As the champion attacks on the wealthy and domesticates the minds of his constituents, the demagogue commits a series of unconstitutional and unlawful acts: to bring someone to trial on false charges and politically and/or physically purges him. He expels his enemies and kills some, otherwise manages to convert surviving enemies into his/her allies. (Plato, 565 e, 566 a).
If no attempt to eliminate the champion were successful, the wicked politician would purge all relevant enemies. At this stage, the champion, unrestrained without any relevant enemy, now is about to become a tyrant to enslave his pupils. (Plato, 566 a-d)
Once the demagogue eliminates his enemies in his own society, the demagogue now loses his political capital, the legitimacy over his own political supporters. Remember, the demagogues’ primary political capital is ‘Common Enemy,’ common enemies of the majority. Therefore, having purged all the domestic ‘Common Enemy,’ the psychopath needs to seek ‘Common Enemy’ abroad and starts waging wars for his own self-preservation. Here, Socrates implies a tendency of imperialism in the craft of a tyrant. This summarises Socrates’ illustration of the transformation from Democracy to a Tyrant.
The ruling class of Tyranny is its tyrant. A tyrant is driven by impulse, passion, and fear: in a way, unrestrained ‘Appetite’ and ‘Thumos’ (the Third Element of the Soul) dictate his/her Soul, subjugating ‘Reason’. His/her Soul is perfect freedom without constraint; in other words, perfect anarchy and perfect lawlessness. And the Soul of the political paradigm has the same structure as well as characters. In portraying Tyranny, Socrates makes a conspicuous contrast with the other one-man rule, ‘Kallipolis, the Kingship Proper.’ Kallipolis was ruled by the Wisdom of the ruler to pursue ‘psychic harmony and happiness of society’. These two dictatorships are contrary, positioning at the opposite ends of the spectrum of morality and justice. And more interestingly, Socrates begins his cycle with the best one-man rule and ends with the worst one-man rule.
Now, it seems, the transformation of the Soul—starting from the best one that enshrines ‘Reason’ to the worst one that enslaves ‘Reason’ in pursuit of ‘Appetite’ with unrestrained ‘Thumos’—completes. Now it transforms the society into a constant state of chaos.
As the champion reveals his self-centred motivations, some of his/her ex-supporters start expressing their dissatisfaction on the outcome, thus, deep remorse in their past endorsement in raising this imposter. The imposter becomes paranoid of upsurge of dissidents. As a result, in order to eliminate the cause of his/her paranoia, the psychopath starts purging some of his/her ex-supporters: especially those who possess potentiality to pose threats to him/her. The imposter can only reinforce remorse among them. Now, the desperate paranoid starts demanding further reinforcement of his/her private army to protect him from the citizen. This time, the paranoid, unable to trust any of his/her citizens, seeks the security reinforcement out of foreigners within his society—in Socrates’ epoch, slaves. The psychopath would offer all kinds of favour, such as provision of citizenship, to foreign-residents to assemble his new mob members.
The tyrant openly portrays himself/herself ‘the wise’ and ‘godlike,’ saying something like “tyrants are wise […] by keeping wise men’s company.” (Plato, 2012, p. 307)
Now, with his newly enfranchised foreign-born citizens, the pathological narcist wages civil war against his/her own native citizens, those who had supported him/her during his/her time of demagogue. Now, they wake up from the fantasy-dream. They, Socrates articulates, regret that they supported the imposter out of delusion, their own insatiable desire for unguaranteed freedom and unguaranteed equality.
Economy of Tyranny:
The ruler would spend without limit at his will in order to constantly improvise his piecemeal reactionary tactless maneuverers without any strategy. The tyrant will exhaust the treasury of the state and recklessly sustain his momentum by borrowing. As the ruler wages wars against foreign land, the further borrowing will burden the economy. The economy might well stagnate.
I would argue, Socrates is not diligent enough at this particular remark. He should have argued the net-return of war, rather than the cost of war: if war brings a massive amount of booty beyond its cost, the tyrant might be able to restore his legitimacy and trust in the society and might be able to establish a reasonably sustainable dynasty for a couple of generations.
In Socrates’ discourse, three primary factors—moral depravation, personal pursuit for wealth, and use of violence—play a significant role in impairing the enforcement of law, thus, ultimately in driving a paradigm shift in constitutional foundation. Ancient intellects in general had a propensity to interpret wealth in moral term. Simply put, personal pursuit of wealth (money) could corrupt individuals, thus, impair the moral conduct among people, and ultimately ruin the entire social construct, particularly its constitutional foundation: thus, it provokes collective behavioural change of a society.
Socrates constructed his best political regime, Kallipolis, on the basis of unity. As civilization progresses, it demands complexity and diversity. Unity cannot be assumed in a sophisticated advanced society. In this sense, his best political paradigm, even if it ever existed, would unlikely provide a viable solution to a complex society with diversity at an advanced stage of civilization: instead, Socrates’ best regime might best serve at a rudimentary stage of civilization.
And, more interestingly, in his architecture of ‘political paradigm cycle,’ Socrates starts with his utopian Neverland and ends with the worst possible one. And both ends form one-man rule. In other words, he starts the cycle with a virtuous one-man rule, ‘Kingship Proper’ as the best political paradigm, and ends with a vicious one, Tyranny, as the worst possible one. And all other political paradigms in between them —Timocracy, Oligarchy, and Democracy—constitute the process of decay.
In addition, Socrates illustrated that every political regime has own particular flaws and becomes inherently unstable after some generations. Can we craft a better stable constitutional structure?
Let’s look at history to contemplate this question. How about Sparta and Roman Republic? They sustained their constitutions for generations. What kind of constitutional structure did they have? They provide us a hint: a mixed regime, in which aristocracy, oligarchy, and democracy co-exist and check and balance one another. Such a mixed regime might have compensated for, to a great extent, its each components’ inherent flaws among one another. As a matter of fact, Aristotle proposed as an institutional solution for the question a mixed regime, which he calls ‘polity, in which oligarchy and democracy co-exist and check and balance one another. Of course, these forms are not free from decay: Roman Republic imploded from within despite well-crafted check and balance in her institutional and constitutional framework. Nevertheless, they provide a best possible practical solution to the human problem. In this sense, Aristotle’s polity provides a more robust institutional and constitutional framework to serve an advanced complex society.
Now, after having travelled through Socrates’ cycle, we can contemplate our democratic reality in the following frame: how democracy arrived; what democracy can be like; in which direction democracy can journey to. If we want to preserve our democratic paradigm, what shall we do? We might be able to find some grains of truth from Socrates’ caveat about democracy’s flaws.
Jowett, B. (1988). The dialogues of Plato. Chicago: Encyclodepia Britannica, Inc.
Lane, M. (2007). Introduction. In Plato, Plato, the Republic (pp. xi-li). London: Penguin Books, Ltd.
Lee, D. (2007). Plato, the Republic (Opening Notes). In Plato, Plato, the Republic. London: Penguin Books, Ltd.
Morrison, D. (2013). The common good. In M. Deslauriers, & P. Destree (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Aristotle’s Politics. (pp. 176-198). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Plato. (1997). The Republic. In J. M. Cooper, Plato Complete Works (G. Grube, & C. Reeve, Trans., pp. 971-1123). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Plato. (2007). Plato, the Republic. (D. Lee, & M. Lane, Trans.) London: Penguin Books, Ltd.
Plato. (2012). Plato, The Republic. (T. Griffith, Trans.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
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