After describing the economic/political/social leveling that follows the transition from oligarchy to democracy, Plato outlines seemingly positive as well as negative characteristics specific to the democratic constitution. After the poor are victorious and put some of their opponents to death and exile and others and give those left an equal share of the state and its government, he describes a state where people are free, the state “abounds in freedom and freedom of speech,” and there is “a means to do whatever one wishes.”
Such freedom attracts outsiders. Socrates says, “Then, to be sure, a wide variety of people would come to live under this constitution.” Socrates clearly bemoans the lack of education in the democratic society; as one of the failures of the oligarchic state, this accelerates the young oligarch’s transition from a thrifty disposition to one where the nonessential desires “capture the acropolis of the young man’s soul which they see is empty of both understanding and good habits and true reasoning, which are the best guardians and protectors in the minds of men loved by God.”
The democratic constitution and soul are unable to make distinctions between good, bad, right, wrong, and true. Also, untrue because all the nonessential and essential desires are equally valid. Without a finely attuned right reason, no matter how brightly “embroidered” the democratic society is on the outside, there is no longer a brake on the democratic soul from pursuing what he wants when and how he wants it; all of this prevents right living in accordance with justice and the good.
The transition from democracy to tyranny begins with the excess of freedom. Freedom, in this context, I would call it “license” – not only releases the individual to pursue his own ends but releases him from any attachments formerly identified as good. “A Father gets into the habit of becoming like a child and is afraid of his sons; a son becomes like his father and neither respects nor fears his parents, just in order to be free.” Furthermore, freedom as the end in itself makes anything restricting that freedom, including law and denunciation. The discord that follows from the political equality afforded to all interests and appetites results, necessarily for Socrates, in the people “habitually appointing someone outstanding to take charge of them, nurturing him and making him great,” i.e., the tyrant. Empowering the tyrant is symptomatic of the defect in a democracy of an excess of license and dearth of standards for good living.
I find Socrates’ appraisal of democracy interesting as an American because it is axiomatic in our culture that democracy is a good thing. Socrates would wholeheartedly disagree with the notion that “all men are created equal,” the superiority of aristocracy is that it enshrines the natural inequalities in human beings into a hierarchy in conformity to a standard of justice outside of the human will. Liberalism releases individuals from this hierarchy. I think Socrates would argue that such a release empowers the worst appetites in our soul and a polity while precluding the reasonable and higher aspects of our nature and culture from cultivating what he would call the good life.
Michael Deel lives in Fort Smith, AR, and currently attends Johns Hopkins University in the Master of Arts in Government program. He can be reached on Twitter @MDeel2022 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.