Plato Explains How Tyrants Arise

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Published on: October 11, 2014

Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived in the city-state of Athens. In 380 AD, Plato wrote The Republic, where he described in Books 8 and 9:

“States are as the men are; they grow out of human characters.”

“Like State, like man.”

The Republic is written as a collection of conversations of Plato’s teacher Socrates. It gives insights into human behavior which is amazingly similar to today.

Plato described government going through FIVE STAGES:

“The constitutions of States are five.”

“We count as one Royal and Aristocratical…”

followed by 

“Timocratical, 
Oligarchical, 
Democratical, 
Tyrannical.”

Plato’s FIRST stage was called ‘Royal’ or “Aristocracy…whom we rightly call just and good.” This is government by hard-working, virtuous LOVERS OF ‘TRUTH’ and ‘WISDOM.’ These responsible individuals know how to run farms and businesses, and they know how to run city government. 

“A ruler considers…always what is for the interest of his subject…and that alone he considers in everything which he says and does.”

The SECOND stage, Plato called “Timocracy.” This was a government run by LOVERS OF ‘HONOR’ and ‘FAME.’

Plato wrote:

“Now what man answers to this form of government… He is a…lover of honor; claiming to be a ruler…Busy-bodies are honored and applauded…”

These may include a popular actor from the Greek theater, or a famous Greek Olympic athlete, or a courageous military hero, or just a political busy-body craving attention. Their desire for honor and fame leaves them susceptible to being swayed by flattery or ridicule. They enter politics with the best of intentions, but having no experience running anything, they yield to ‘AVARICE’ or covetousness and begin to vote themselves favors out of the city treasury.

Plato added:

“Such an one will despise riches only when he is young; but as he gets older he will be more and more attracted to them, because he has a piece of the avaricious nature in him, and is not single-minded towards virtue…Not originally of a bad nature, but having kept bad company, is at last brought…to… contentiousness and passion, and becomes arrogant and ambitious…”

“Is not the passionate element wholly set on ruling…and getting fame? True. Suppose we call it the contentious or ambitious…”

Plato added:

“The love of honor turns to love of money; the conversion is instantaneous.”

“Because they have no means of openly acquiring the money which they prize; they will spend that which is another man’s.”

This turns into Plato’s THIRD stage – an insider clique, a ruling class, called an “OLIGARCHY.” These are LOVERS OF ‘MONEY’ and ‘GAIN.’ They seek money to get into office, then once elected they funnel money and favors to family, friends, constituents and supporters who in turn help them stay in power. The insider ruling class raises taxes on everyone except themselves. They pass laws, but exempt themselves.

Plato wrote:

“They invent illegal modes of expenditure; for what do they or their wives care about the law?…Their fondness for money makes them unwilling to pay taxes…And so they grow richer and richer… the less they think of virtue… and the virtuous are dishonored…”

“Insatiable avarice is the ruling passion of an oligarchy…”

Oligarchical leaders do not value virtue and are not educated in how to run responsible businesses, as Plato explained:

“He has had no education, or he would never have allowed the blind god of riches to lead the dance within him…” 

“And being uneducated he will have many slavish desires, some beggarly, some knavish, breeding in his soul…If he…has the power to defraud, he will soon prove that he is not without the will, and that his passions are only restrained by fear and not by reason… When he is contending for prizes and other distinctions, he is afraid to incur a loss which is to be repaid only by barren honor…”

Plato continued in his examination of an oligarchy:

“And what are the defects?…Inevitable division… two States, the one of poor, the other of rich men; and they are…always conspiring against one another…”

“The rulers, being aware that their power rests upon their wealth, refuse to curtail…the extravagance of the spendthrift youth because they gain by their ruin…”

“They…gain by the ruin of extravagant youth…”

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Plato continued:

“The ruling class do not want remedies; they care only for money, and are as careless of virtue as the poorest of the citizens…”

“Families have often been reduced to beggary… some of them owe money, some have forfeited their citizenship…”

“Thus men of family often lose their property or rights of citizenship; but they remain in the city, full of hatred against the new owners of their estates and ripe for revolution…”

“They hate and conspire against those who have got their property, and against everybody else, and are eager for revolution.”

As frustration grows, the people finally throw out the oligarchs and set up the FOURTH stage – “DEMOCRACY.”

Plato wrote:

“Next comes democracy and the democratic man, out of…the oligarchical man…”

“From the least cause, or with none at all, the city falls ill and fights a battle for life or death. And democracy comes into power when the poor are the victors, killing some and exiling some, and giving equal shares in the government to all the rest…”

Plato continued:

“The manner of life in such a State is that of democrats; there is freedom and plainness of speech, and every man does what is right in his own eyes, and has his own way of life.”

“Is not the city full of freedom…a man may say and do what he likes?…”

“The great charm is, that you may do as you like; you may govern if you like, let it alone if you like; go to war and make peace if you feel disposed, and all quite irrespective of anybody else. When you condemn men to death they remain alive all the same; a gentleman is desired to go into exile, and he stalks about the streets like a hero; and nobody sees him or cares for him.”

Plato added:

“The State is not one but many, like a bazaar at which you can buy anything.”

“Hence arise the most various developments of character; the State is like a piece of embroidery of which the colors and figures are the manners of men…” 

“There will be the greatest variety of human natures…being an embroidered robe which is spangled with every sort of flower…”

“Observe, too, how grandly Democracy sets her foot upon all our fine theories of education,–how little she cares for the training of her statesmen!…”

DEMOCRACY’S key feature is that everyone becomes a LOVER OF TOLERANCE.

Everything and everyone is tolerated equally, as Plato described:

“Such is democracy; –a pleasing, lawless, various sort of government, distributing equality to equals and unequals alike…”

“Democracy…is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike…”

“Freedom…as they tell you in a democracy, is the glory of the State…”

Plato’s student Aristotle stated: “Tolerance is the last virtue of a dying society.”

Plato warned that unrestrained freedom would eventually lead to licentiousness:

“And so the young man passes…into the freedom and libertinism of useless and unnecessary pleasures…”

“In all of us, even in good men, there is a lawless wild-beast nature…”

“Unnecessary pleasures and appetites I conceive to be unlawful…”

“Everyone appears to have them, but in some persons they are controlled… while in…others they are stronger…and there is no conceivable folly or crime –not excepting incest or any other unnatural union… which… when he has parted company with all shame and sense, a man may not be ready to commit…”

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Plato explained further:

“He was supposed from his youth upwards to have been trained under a miserly parent, who encouraged the saving appetites in him… and then he got into the company of a…licentious sort of people, and taking to all their wanton ways rushed into the opposite extreme from an abhorrence of his father’s meanness…”

“Neither does he receive…advice; if any one says to him that some pleasures are…of evil desires…he shakes his head…”

“He lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour…”

“His life has neither law nor order…he is all liberty and equality…”

“After this manner the democrat was generated out of the oligarch…”

Plato warned further:

“Can liberty have any limit? Certainly not…By degrees the anarchy finds a way into private houses…The son is on a level with his father, he having no respect or reverence for either of his parents; and this is his freedom…Citizens…chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority… they will have no one over them…Such…is the fair and glorious beginning out of which springs tyranny…Liberty overmasters democracy…the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction…The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery…And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty… “

Plato warned that since the people have no experience running a government, they will follow the example of preceding leaders and yield to AVARICE. They will vote to spread the city’s wealth around till the treasury is empty. Then they will vote to take money from the rich:

“Democracy…of which the insatiable desire brings her to dissolution…”

“Their leaders deprive the rich of their estates and distribute them among the people; at the same time taking care to reserve the larger part for themselves…And the persons whose property is taken from them are compelled to defend themselves before the people as they best can…”

“Insatiable desire… and… neglect… introduces the change in democracy, which occasions a demand for tyranny…”

“Does not tyranny spring from democracy…”

Plato described how unrestrained passions lead to financial irresponsibility. With not enough money to go around, bickering and fighting result, leading to chaos and anarchy. Then people will begin to look for someone to come along and fix this mess?

And that is the FIFTH stage – “TYRANNY.”

The TYRANT is a LOVER OF POWER.

Plato wrote:

“Last of all comes…the tyrant…In the early days of his power, he is full of smiles, and he salutes every one whom he meets…making promises in public and also in private, liberating debtors, and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to every one…This…is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector…Hinting at the abolition of debts and partition of lands… he…begins to make a party against the rich…”

“…that they may be impoverished by payment of taxes, and thus compelled to devote themselves to their daily wants and therefore less likely to conspire against him?…”

“And when a man who is wealthy and is also accused of being an enemy of the people sees…he flees…and is not ashamed to be a coward…”

Plato explained that “the protector” then yields to AVARICE and uses his newly acquired power to target his political opponents:

“And the protector of the people…having a mob entirely at his disposal, he is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; by the favorite method of false accusation he brings them into court and murders them, making the life of man to disappear, and with unholy tongue and lips tasting the blood of his fellow citizen…”

“And if any of them are suspected by him of having notions of freedom, and of resistance to his authority, he will have a good pretext for destroying them…”

Plato continued:

“How then does a protector begin to change into a tyrant?…”

“He begins to grow unpopular…”

“Then comes the famous request for a bodyguard, which is the device of all those who have got thus far in their tyrannical career -‘Let not the people’s friend,’ as they say, ‘be lost to them.’… The people readily assent; all their fears are for him –they have none for themselves…And…the protector of whom we spoke, is to be seen…the overthrower of many, standing up in the chariot of State with the reins in his hand, no longer protector, but tyrant absolute…”

“The lion and serpent element in them disproportionately grows and gains strength…”

Plato described how the tyrant would keep power:

“The tyrant must be always getting up a war…”

“He is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader…”

James Madison warned of this at the Constitutional Convention, June 29, 1787 (Max Farrand’s Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, vol. I (1911, p. 465):

“In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive Magistrate.  Constant apprehension of War, has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty.  The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended.  Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”

James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 47 (January 30, 1788):

“The accumulation of all powers, Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

Plato described what happens when a tyrant loses popularity:

“Then some of those who joined in setting him up, and who are in power, speak their minds to him and to one another, and the more courageous of them cast in his teeth what is being done…And the tyrant, if he means to rule, must get rid of them; he cannot stop while he has a friend or an enemy who is good for anything…”

“Some he kills and others he banishes…”

“Must he not either perish at the hands of his enemies, or from being a man become a wolf –that is, a tyrant?…”

“He who has tasted the entrails of a single human victim…is destined to become a wolf…”

“And therefore he must look about him and see who is valiant, who is high-minded, who is wise, who is wealthy; happy man, he is the enemy of them all, and must seek occasion against them whether he will or no, until he has made a purgation of the State…Yes, I said, not the sort of purgation which the physicians make of the body; for they take away the worse and leave the better part, but he does the reverse…And the more detestable his actions are to the citizens the more satellites and the greater devotion in them will he require?…And who are the devoted band, and where will he procure them?…He will rob the citizens of their slaves; he will then set them free and enroll them in his bodyguard. To be sure…he will be able to trust them best of all. What a blessed creature…must this tyrant be; he has put to death the others and has these for his trusted friends…”

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“These are the new citizens whom he has called into existence, who admire him and are his companions, while the good hate and avoid him…”

“But they will…attract mobs, and hire voices fair and loud and persuasive, and draw the cities over to tyrannies…Moreover, they are paid for this and receive honor –the greatest honor, as might be expected, from tyrants…”

“Poets…are the eulogists of tyranny…”

“He also praises tyranny as godlike…”

“But the higher they ascend our constitution hill, the more their reputation fails, and seems unable from shortness of breath to proceed further…”

Plato added:

“Let us…inquire how the tyrant will maintain that…ever-changing army of his. If, he said, there are sacred treasures in the city, he will confiscate and spend them…”

“By heaven…the parent will discover what a monster he has been fostering in his bosom; and, when he wants to drive him out, he will find that he is weak and his son strong. Why, you do not mean to say that the tyrant will use violence? What! beat his father if he opposes him? Yes, he will, having first disarmed him. Then he is a parricide, and a cruel guardian of an aged parent; and this is real tyranny… as the saying is, the people who would escape the smoke which is the slavery of freemen, has fallen into the fire which is the tyranny of slaves. Thus liberty, getting out of all order and reason, passes into the harshest and bitterest form of slavery…May we not rightly say that we have sufficiently discussed…the manner of the transition from democracy to tyranny? Yes, quite enough, he said.”

“A tyranny is the wretchedest form of government…”

“…the longer he lives the more of a tyrant he becomes…”

Plato’s predicted government would go from:

  • Aristocracy – rule of the capable and virtuous; to
  • Timocracy – rule of the famous who love to be honored; to
  • Oligarchy – rule by a cliché of insiders; to
  • Democracy – rule by the people, but without virtue and self-control this ends in chaos;
  • out of which a Tyrant would arise.

For commentary on what Plato observed, listen to what these men said.

Britain’s Lord Thomas MacCauley wrote to Henry S. Randall, the Democrat Secretary of State for New York, May 23, 1857:

“Institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty, or civilization, or both…France is an example…a pure Democracy was established there. During a short time there was…
a general spoliation, a national bankruptcy, a new partition of the soil, a maximum of prices, a ruinous load of taxation laid on the rich for the purpose of supporting the poor in idleness… You may think that your country enjoys an exemption from these evils…I am of a very different opinion. Your fate I believe to be certain, though it is deferred…”

Lord MacCauley continued:

“The time will come when…distress everywhere makes the laborer mutinous and discontented, and inclines him to listen with eagerness to agitators who tell him that it is a monstrous iniquity that one man should have a million while another cannot get a full meal. In bad years there is plenty of grumbling…and sometimes a little rioting…Your Government will never be able to restrain a distressed and discontented majority… The day will come when, in the State of New York, a multitude of people, none of whom has had more than half a breakfast, or expects to have more than half a dinner, will choose a Legislature…On one side is a statesman preaching patience, respect for vested rights, strict observance of public faith.

On the other is a demagogue ranting about the tyranny of capitalists and usurers, and asking why anybody should be permitted to drink champagne and to ride in a carriage, while thousands of honest folks are in want of necessaries. Which of the two candidates is likely to be preferred by a working man who hears his children cry for more bread? I seriously apprehend that you will, in some such season of adversity… devour all the seed-corn, and thus make the next year, a year not of scarcity, but of absolute famine…When a society has entered on this downward progress, either civilization or liberty must perish. Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reins of government with a strong hand.”

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Did America’s founders understand Plato’s warning that democracy without virtue would end in chaos out of which a tyrant would arise?

Benjamin Franklin wrote April 17, 1787:

“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”

Massachusetts Governor Samuel Adams wrote February 12, 1779:

“A general dissolution of the principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but once they lose their virtue, they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader. If we would enjoy this gift of Heaven, let us become a virtuous people.”

Harry S Truman stated April 3, 1951:

“Without a firm moral foundation, freedom degenerates quickly into selfishness and…anarchy. Then there will be freedom only for the rapacious and those who are stronger and more unscrupulous than the rank and file of the people.”

Massachusetts’ Constitution, 1780, drafted by John Adams, is the world’s oldest functioning written constitution. It stated in PART 1, ART. 3:

“Good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality… The legislature shall… require… suitable provision… for the institution of the public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality.”

New Hampshire’s Constitution, 1784, stated (Part 1, Article 6):

“As morality and piety, rightly grounded on evangelical principles will give the best and greatest security to government…The people of this state…empower the legislature…to make adequate provision…for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality.”

Vermont’s Constitution, 1777, stated (Chp. 2, Sec. 41):

“Laws for the encouragement of virtue and prevention of vice and immorality, shall be made and constantly kept in force…All religious societies…incorporated…for the advancement of religion and learning, or for other pious and charitable purposes, shall be encouraged and protected in the enjoyment of the privileges.”

New York’s Supreme Court stated in People v. Ruggles, 1811:

“We stand equally in need, now as formerly, of all the moral discipline, and of those principles of virtue, which help to bind society together. The people of this State, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity, as the rule of their faith and practice; and to scandalize the Author of these doctrines…is a gross violation of decency and good order. Nothing could be more injurious to the tender morals of the young.”

New York’s Legislature stated in 1838:

“Our Government depends for its being on the virtue of the people, – on that virtue that has its foundation in the morality of the Christian religion; and that religion is the common and prevailing faith of the people.”

South Carolina’s Supreme Court stated in City of Charleston v. S.A. Benjamin, 1846:

“Christianity is a part of the common law of the land, with liberty of conscience to all. It has always been so recognized…Christianity has reference to the principles of right and wrong…It is the foundation of those morals and manners upon which our society is formed…Remove this and they would fall.”

Thomas Jefferson, as Virginia’s Governor, November 11, 1779, proclaimed a day for:

“Prayer to Almighty God…that He would establish the independence of these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue.”

Calvin Coolidge stated October 15, 1924:

“The government of a country never gets ahead of the religion of a country. There is no way by which we can substitute the authority of law for the virtue of man.”

John Bouvier’s Law Dictionary, 1856, stated:

“In the state, the REPUBLIC is the proper governmental form, and VIRTUE is the mainspring (support).”

George Washington stated in his Farewell Address, September 19, 1796:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great Pillars…Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government… Can it be, that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its virtue?”

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Dr. Benjamin Rush, who signed the Declaration, wrote in Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, 1786:

“The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid on the foundation of religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments… The religion I mean to recommend in this place is that of the New Testament… All its doctrines and precepts are calculated to promote the happiness of society and the safety and well-being of civil government.”

Noah Webster wrote in A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary and Moral Subjects (New York, 1843):

“The virtue which is necessary to preserve a just administration and render a government stable, is Christian virtue, which consists in the uniform practice of moral and religious duties, in conformity with the laws of both of God and man.”

U.S. Speaker of the House Robert Winthrop stated, May 28, 1849:

“Men, in a word, must be controlled either by a power within them, or a power without them; either by the word of God, or by the strong arm of man; either by the Bible or by the bayonet.”

Samuel Adams wrote to John Scollay, April 30, 1776:

“Public liberty will not long survive the total extinction of morals. ‘The Roman Empire,’ says the historian, ‘must have sunk, though the Goths had not invaded it. Why? Because the Roman virtue was sunk.'”

John Adams warned OCTOBER 11, 1798, in his address to the 1st Brigade, 3rd Division of Massachusetts’ Militia:

“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net… Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

British Statesman Edmund Burke told the National Assembly, 1791:

“What is liberty without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils…madness without restraint. Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”

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