Did Plato prove that democracy will lead inevitably to tyranny?
The last days of democracy as Plato describes them are not days of democracy but of anarchy. Man would have to be more than just ignorant to let a state come to such. The reason given for every imperfect state to collapse is essentially the states’ ‘mistaken good. ‘ This is the false conception the masses have of what the cornerstone of society (money, liberty etc) should be. For this reason Plato depicts the multitude as the ‘great beast,’ for their ideals always deteriorate into the excessive indulgences that are the fall of the state.
However, to attempt to judge the effects of inherent tendencies in human nature is dangerous ground, especially without expertise in psychology at least. True, the people Plato knew and saw daily were more or less the same, but to say they were in effect a wondering herd all liable to move in the same direction is a theory easier to question than to laud. We have the benefit today of realizing that the diversity of the current human population is infinitely wider than the population known to Plato.
The philosopher I suspect thought the human race would go through the ages remaining as an ignorant flock and thus its diversity would be eternally small. It is widely acknowledged to Plato’s defence that today’s democracy is different to that of Athenian times, but Greek democracy was also nothing like Plato’s description. A striking example is the death of Socrates. Democracy was strong enough to execute a popular and mythical member of Athens and Socrates couldn’t simply disobey his sentence as Plato more or less suggests can be done in a democracy.
There has never been or it is likely ever will be, a democracy of the nature Plato describes. It is in essence anarchy and while many societies have experienced anarchic periods, it has never been as a form of government. What then is Plato describing? It is a form of democracy and the description is that of its purest structure. Plato does not distinguish between different variants and degrees of democracy, and it is for this reason that his whole argument falls apart. Historical prediction cannot be accurately pursued without factual foundation.
Plato did not choose a truthful or in fact realistic democracy from which to speculate its future and downfall, but the 20th Century has given us examples of democracies falling to tyranny. 1930’s Germany by no means followed the exact path Plato described, but parallels are easy to see. The Weimar Republic as a democracy was weak and the social unrest that arose out of economic problems led to the masses championing a hero. This hero (perhaps the one time Adolf Hitler can be called such) through bloody measures usurped power and became a tyrant.
These sequences of events are grossly simplified but the cycle is historically accurate and strongly resembles Plato’s theory of the demise of democracy. Plato was proved right (bar the inconceivable abandonment of laws) more than two thousand years after his prediction. This is an impressive achievement, but could Plato have only been describing the descent of an evil state? R. Nettleship argued Plato’s series of imperfect societies were purely what would happen if man’s ‘capacity for evil were realized gradually but without any abatement’ (Nettleship 1968: 295).
However, books VIII and IX do not appear to be written specutively and while we can never be exactly sure in what context or frame of mind Plato was writing these particular books, it certainly appears that he is writing about Forms of rule truthfully in his opinion not specutively. Nettleship argues they are an ‘ideal history of evil,’ but since Plato holds such a low opinion of man as a whole, he surely thinks they will ultimately succumb to evil rather than rise to good (Nettleship 1968: 295).
To put The Republic into context one has to appreciate Plato was ultimately a romantic of eternity. Bertrand Russell’s assessment of the Athenian was that ‘he wanted an eternal world, and could not believe in the ultimate reality of the temporal flux’ (Russell 1979: 751). Plato wanted to create timeless works; not something that would fade with time. With such an approach it is not surprising that Plato was proved to be inaccurate. Time in fact was something it appears Plato had little respect for, since he ignored it as an important factor in the political evolution of man.
Again, Plato could be defended by citing the ancient age he wrote in, but as he was so far ahead of his time, he is to be judged against the backdrop of all political philosophy, not ancient Athens. Forecasting cycles of rule has been notoriously difficult for many a philosopher to predict and even Karl Marx (whose ideas actually became the basis of powerful states, making him arguably the most influential political philosopher ever) wrongly foresaw the demise of democracy. Thus it comes as no surprise that a man writing over 2000 years ago was proven to be mistaken.
Plato’s flaw in my view comes a great deal from his endless metaphors and analogies. They were helpful to him in understanding his arguments, but they fall a long way short of being scientific evidence. Commanding a ship for instance is simply not equal to running a state. Skill is needed to run both but that is as far as the parallel can go. Grandiose claims of the like Plato gave have to be able to stand on their own feet. Metaphors are not good enough to withhold the inevitable questioning of its merits, as Books VIII and IX have ultimately proven. The attack on democracy cannot (and possibly should not) be taken at serious face value.
What Plato’s intentions were with the publication of Books VIII and IX will never be fully known but they rightly receive less attention than other books simply because Plato did not appear to put as much time into them. The respective passages on each society are short and concise, and I would imagine they were not written to be disputed over for centuries to come. They appear as side issues to the more important matters addressed elsewhere. They are briefly stated probably just for Socrates to explain why the Kalipolis would be a superior society, possibly explaining the hyperbole that appears in the nature of democracy for instance.