Plato's five regimes
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Plato from The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509
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The Classical Greek philosopher Plato discusses five types of regimes. They are Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny. Plato also assigns a man to each of these regimes to illustrate what they stand for. The tyrannical man would represent Tyranny for example. These five regimes progressively degenerate starting with Aristocracy at the top and Tyranny at the bottom.
Aristocracy is the form of government (politeia) advocated in Plato's Republic. This regime is ruled by a philosopher king, and thus is grounded on wisdom and reason. The aristocratic state, and the man whose nature corresponds to it, are the objects of Plato's analyses throughout much of The Republic's books, as opposed to the other four types of states/men, that are studied primarily in Book VIII.
The aristocratic state that Plato idealizes is composed of three caste-like parts: the ruling class, made up of the aforementioned philosophers-kings (who are otherwise identified as having souls of gold); the auxiliaries of the ruling caste, made up of soldiers (whose souls are made up of silver), and whose job in the state is to force on the majority the order established by the philosophers; and the majority of the people (souls of either bronze or iron), who in contrast to the first two classes are allowed to own property and produce goods for themselves, but are also obliged to sustain with their own activities their rulers' - who are forbidden from owning property.
The aristocratic man is better represented by Plato's brand of philosopher: a man whose character and ambitions have been forged into those ideal for a just ruler through a rigorous education system designed to train intellectuals that are selfless and upright, and whose souls have been made calm and aware of the absolute Good by learning the Truth based on the Platonic Ideas. Plato envisages for this philosopher a disposition and ability that makes him the ideal governor of any state precisely because his soul knows the Truth of the Good and he is therefore not only dedicated to establishing the Good in the state but is also incapable of desiring anything but the Good, for both the state and himself. Thus this man is not tempted to abuse power for his own gain; and, through his knowledge of the true virtues, is able to establish the ideal conditions for the citizens of his state to live the Good life.
In contrast to historical aristocracies, Plato's resembles a meritocracy or proto-technocracy of sorts. In it, a big government state keeps track of the innate character and natural skills of the citizens' children, and then directs them to the education that best suits those traits. In this manner, a child with a gold soul born to parents with silver, bronze or iron souls will be educated to levels above his kin according to his golden qualities, and, conversely, from parents with gold and silver souls, a child born with a bronze or an iron soul is educated to only the level earned by his natural aptitudes.
Aristocracy degenerates into timocracy when, due to miscalculation on the part of its governed class, the next generation of guardians and auxiliaries includes persons of an inferior nature (the persons with souls made of iron or bronze, as opposed to the ideal guardians and auxiliaries, who have souls made of gold and silver).
A timocracy, in choosing its leaders, is "inclining rather to the more high-spirited and simple-minded type, who are better suited for war". The governants of timocracy value power, but they seek to attain it primarily by means of military conquest and the acquisition of honors, instead of intellectual means. Of the man who represents a timocratic state, Socrates says that his nature is primarily good: He may see in his father (who himself would correspond to an aristocractic state) a man who doesn't bother his soul with power displays and civil disputes, but instead occupies himself only with cultivating his own virtues. However, that same young man may find in other persons in his house, his mother for example, a resentment of the father's indifference to status. The future timocrat thus becomes divided in the following manner: by observing his father and listening to his reasoning, he's tempted to the flourishing of his own intellect and virtues; but influenced by his mother or other persons in his house, or city, he may become power craving. He thus assents to the intermediate portion of his soul (see Plato's tripartite theory of soul), the one that is aggressive and courageous (thus the timocracy's military character).
The young timocrat may be himself somewhat contemptuous towards money and money-making activity, but he becomes increasingly focused in saving his goods as he ages, since the virtues of his soul have not been purified by the salutary effects of reasoning activities and aesthetic experiences. The timocrat is further described as obedient towards authority, respectful to other free citizens, good at listening, and aggressive rather than contemptuous towards slaves.
Plato defines oligarchy as a system of government which distinguishes between the rich and the poor, making of the former its administrators.
An oligarchy is originated by extending tendencies already evident in a timocracy. In contrast to platonic aristocrats, timocrats are allowed by their constitution to own property and thus to both accumulate and waste money. Because of the pleasures derived from it, money is valued over virtue, and the leaders of the state seek to alter the law to give way and accommodate to the materialistic lust of its citizens. As a result of this new found appreciation for money, the governors rework the constitution to restrict political power to the rich only. That is how a timocracy becomes an oligarchy.
Plato gives a detailed account of the problems usually faced by the oligarchies of his days, which he considered as significantly more troubled than the former system, that of timocracy. The following are examples of such problems:
- the very distribution of political power in an oligarchy, which prevents wise and virtuous, but poor, men from influencing public life, whilst opening such possibility to the rich but incompetent ones;
- an oligarchy is invariably divided, in the one hand, between very rich men, its governors; and, on the other hand, very poor men. The income disparities emerge mostly because of bad policy on the part of the state, which doesn't prevent citizens from enriching through exploitive contracts, or from becoming poor by wasting around their money and goods. The poor ones become either beggars or thugs imbued with anger at their condition and a revolutionary spirit which threatens the internal stability of the state;
- an oligarchy will usually perform poorly in military campaigns because the rich men, who are few, will make a small army, and they are afraid to give weapons to the majority (the poor) due to fears of a revolution. If a revolution does ensue, and the poor ones become victorious over the rich, the former expel the latter from the city, or kill them, and then they divide their properties and political power between one another. That is how a democracy is established.
As to the man whose character reflects that of an oligarchy, Plato says that he might have been the child of a timocratic man: The son initially emulates the father, and is ambitious and craves for fame and honor. When, however, he witnesses the problems his father faces due to those timocratic tendencies - say, he wastes public goods in a military campaign, and then is brought before the court, losing his properties after trial -, the future oligarch becomes poor. He then rejects the ambitions he had in his soul, which he now sees as harmful, and puts in their place craving for money, instead of honor, and a parsimonious cautiousness. Such men, the oligarchs, live only to enrich themselves, and through their private means they seek to fulfill only their most urgent needs. However when in charge of public goods they become quite 'generous'.
Oligarchs do, however, value at least one virtue, that of temperance and moderation - not out of an ethical principle or spiritual concern, but because by dominating wasteful tendencies they succeed in accumulating money. Thus even though he has bad desires - which Plato compares to the anarchic tendencies of the poor people in oligarchies -, by virtue of temperance the oligarch managed to establish a fragile order in his soul. Thus the oligarch may seem, at least in appearance, superior to the majority.
Oligarchy then degenerates into democracy where freedom is the supreme good but freedom is also slavery. In democracy, the lower class grows bigger and bigger. The poor become the winners. Diversity is supreme. People are free to do what they want and live how they want. People can even break the law if they so chose. This appears to be very similar to anarchy.
Plato uses the "democratic man" to represent democracy. The democratic man is the son of the oligarchic man. Unlike his father, the democratic man is consumed with unnecessary desires. Plato describes necessary desires as desires that we have out of instinct or desires that we have in order to survive. Unnecessary desires are desires we can teach ourselves to resist such as the desire for riches. The democratic man takes great interest in all the things he can buy with his money. He does whatever he wants whenever he wants to do it. His life has no order or priority.
Democracy then degenerates into tyranny where no one has discipline and society exists in chaos. Democracy is taken over by the longing for freedom. Power must be seized to maintain order. A champion will come along and experience power, which will cause him to become a tyrant. The people will start to hate him and eventually try to remove him but will realize they are not able.
The tyrannical man is the son of the democratic man. He is the worst form of man. He is consumed by lawless desires which cause him to do many terrible things such as murdering someone unjustly. He comes closest to complete lawlessness. The idea of moderation does not exist to him. He is consumed by the pleasures in life. He spends all of his money and becomes poor and leads a miserable life.
When Plato says the tyrant is a prisoner to the lawless master he means that if the tyrant should lose his power for any reason his life and the life of his family would be in great danger. The tyrant always runs the risk of being killed in revenge for all the unjust things he has done. He becomes afraid to leave his own home and becomes trapped inside. Therefore his lawless behavior leads to his own self-imprisonment.
- Rep. 8.547e
- Cahn, Steven M. Classics of Political and Moral Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 01951140915