Socrates on Oligarchy and Democracy

The Republic is a monumental work of philosophy and political theory, written by Plato around 380 BC. In this sophisticated and fascinating tractate of ten books, Socrates – the pivotal character of The Republic – conducts his famous dialogues with Athenians, deliberating mainly on essence and aspects of justice. In Book VIII, Socrates discusses with Glaucon (Plato’s older brother) various regimes: Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny. Independently and without any assumed connection to the germane recent events in Europe and the US, these paragraphs on oligarchy and democracy resonate now as they did about 2,400 years ago.

One, seeing another grow rich, seeks to rival him, and thus the great mass of the citizens become lovers of money.
Likely enough.
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.
That is obvious.
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 do so.
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.
Very true.
And this, speaking generally, is the way in which oligarchy is established.
How does the change from oligarchy into democracy arise? Is it not on this wise? — The good at which such a State alms is to become as rich as possible, a desire which is insatiable?
What then?
The rulers, being aware that their power rests upon their wealth, refuse to curtail by law the extravagance of the spendthrift youth because they gain by their ruin; they take interest from them and buy up their estates and thus increase their own wealth and importance?
To be sure.
There can be no doubt that the love of wealth and the spirit of moderation cannot exist together in citizens of the same State to any considerable extent; one or the other will be disregarded.
That is tolerably clear.
And in oligarchical States, from the general spread of carelessness and extravagance, men of good family have often been reduced to beggary?
Yes, often.
And still they remain in the city; there they are, ready to sting and fully armed, and some of them owe money, some have forfeited their citizenship; a third class are in both predicaments; and they hate and conspire against those who have got their property, and against everybody else, and are eager for revolution.
That is true.
On the other hand, the men of business, stooping as they walk, and pretending not even to see those whom they have already ruined, insert their sting — that is, their money — into some one else who is not on his guard against them, and recover the parent sum many times over multiplied into a family of children: and so they make drone and pauper to abound in the State.
Yes, he said, there are plenty of them — that is certain.
The evil blazes up like a fire; and they will not extinguish it, either by restricting a man’s use of his own property, or by another remedy:
What other?
One which is the next best, and has the advantage of compelling the citizens to look to their characters: — Let there be a general rule that every one shall enter into voluntary contracts at his own risk, and there will be less of this scandalous money-making, and the evils of which we were speaking will be greatly lessened in the State.
Yes, they will be greatly lessened.
At present the governors, induced by the motives which I have named, treat their subjects badly; while they and their adherents, especially the young men of the governing class, are habituated to lead a life of luxury and idleness both of body and mind; they do nothing, and are incapable of resisting either pleasure or pain.
Very true.
They themselves care only for making money, and are as indifferent as the pauper to the cultivation of virtue.
Yes, quite as indifferent.
Such is the state of affairs which prevails among them. And often rulers and their subjects may come in one another’s way, whether on a pilgrimage or a march, as fellow-soldiers or fellow-sailors; aye, and they may observe the behaviour of each other in the very moment of danger — for where danger is, there is no fear that the poor will be despised by the rich — and very likely the wiry sunburnt poor man may be placed in battle at the side of a wealthy one who has never spoilt his complexion and has plenty of superfluous flesh — when he sees such an one puffing and at his wit’s end, how can he avoid drawing the conclusion that men like him are only rich because no one has the courage to despoil them? And when they meet in private will not people be saying to one another “Our warriors are not good for much”?
Yes, he said, I am quite aware that this is their way of talking.
And, as in a body which is diseased the addition of a touch from without may bring on illness, and sometimes even when there is no external provocation a commotion may arise within — in the same way wherever there is weakness in the State there is also likely to be illness, of which the occasions may be very slight, the one party introducing from without their oligarchical, the other their democratical allies, and then the State falls sick, and is at war with herself; and may be at times distracted, even when there is no external cause.
Yes, surely.
And then democracy comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power; and this is the form of government in which the magistrates are commonly elected by lot.

Plato Socrates

Statues of Plato (left) and Socrates (right) in front of the Academy of Athens- Greece’s national academy

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One Response to Socrates on Oligarchy and Democracy

  1. Interesting quotations by Plato “The Republic”, it is undoubted that Plato and Socrates were the first thinkers who criticised their own political establishment, their were pioneers in the invention of the
    sociological and political concepts of Democracy, Oligarchy, two antithesis conceptions under the scrutiny of two methods of thinking, which four hundred BC, contributed to the advances of the
    Social Theory, phenomenology and aesthetic. Equally Platon and Socrates contributed to the
    humanity and civilisation in the understanding and social role of the education in society. A
    universal legacy for the mankind and its evolution to build a better social environment rule
    under civilised principles.

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