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Democracy would seem to be our next object of inquiry. How it arises and what it is like when it does arise. Isn't the way a city changes from oligarchy to democracy something like this? Isn't it the result of their greed in pursuing the ideal they have set themselves: the requirement to become as rich as possible?I'm just going to take a guess that you need no interjection from me about how this is relevant to American life.
The reason the rulers in it are rulers I take it is because of their great wealth. So, if any of the young turn out to have no self-restraint, the rulers, predictably, are not prepared to restrain them by a law prohibiting them from spending what they own and losing it all. Their aim is to buy up the property of people like this or lend them money with the property and security and in this way become even richer and more highly respected.And in this paragraph, we have the entire history of the Baby Boomers. The oldest Baby Boomers are now 72. After a youth with no self-restraint, they turned from their revolutionary ways to supposed fiscal conservatism which was really fiscal narcissism. Leading to a country with a combined government and personal debt of 55 trillion dollars. That last line of buying property and lending them money with property and security, how can you not think of The Great Recession and the sub-prime housing bubble?!
And isn't it obvious by now in a city that a higher regard for wealth is incompatible with the posession of self-discipline on the part of the citizens? They will inevitably lose interest in one or the other.
So, through negligence, and the consistent license they give well-born individuals to behave without restraint, the rulers in oligarchies can sometimes drive them into poverty.
And these people I take it sit around armed in the city, in debt, or disfranchised, or both. They are the drones with stings, eager for revolution, they hate and plot against those who now possess their property, and the others like them.The correlation to all things Trump should be obvious here, but I'd like to instead turn back the clock of American History slightly because Plato is talking here about an oligarchy, not a democracy. You'll see more what I mean in a minute. Here's Plato again:
And presumably, the city turns into a democracy when the poor are victorious. When they kill some of their opponents, and send others into exile. Give an equal share in the constitution and public office to those who remain, and when public office in the city is allocated in the most part by lot.It's very important to think about this in the context of American history for a moment. On the one hand, again, we shouldn't view any this as having a one-to-one correlation with any period of American history. Obviously Socrates, through Plato, is referring to archetypes, or 'ideal forms' as he would probably put it. But on the other hand, whether or not we are an oligarchy in 2018, we were almost certainly still an oligarchy in 1918. It was only in 1920 that America became anything resembling a true democracy when women achieved the right to vote. African Americans could not be denied the vote by law in 1870. Even free Black men were denied the vote until 1838. And in the first Presidential election in 1788, the only Americans who could vote were those who owned property. Furthermore, it was only in 1933 that there were any number of economic programs that America could regard its economic status as anything other than oligarchical. It can be argued that until Roosevelt, America was a democracy in name only, and the founders did not even intend for America to become a democracy. They intended a republic. Just remember that famous James Madison quote from the Federalist Papers: "In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason.... Had every Athenian been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob." Imagine what James Madison would make of twitter. So if we were a democracy before 1920 or 1933, we were a piss poor one. The rich held the pursestrings over the poor, and it was never a fair fight to get them to leave the poor in anything but squalor.
What will this regime in its turn be like? How will these people live? Are they free men, for a start? Isn't it a city full of freedom and freedom of speech? Isn't there liberty in it for anyone to do anything he wants?
And where there is liberty, then obviously each person can arrange his own life within the city in whatever way pleases him?So it's important with these philosophical texts to not take every meaning literally. The power they have over us, perhaps even the dangerous power, is because they work so well as metaphor. There is no way that Plato was clairvoyant enough to see over the span of 2500 years with absolute clarity to predict the fall of American or World Democracy. There is no such thing as a philosopher who has 'solved' human nature or handed down to us truths eternal. That's the realm of math and science, of verifiable fact. Philosophy, even Wittgenstein, does not traffic in facts. Philosophy means 'love of wisdom' and wisdom is very different from knowledge. Wisdom can only be qualified, not quantified. Ascribing quantitative qualities to philosophy is no more how philosophy works than it is how any other humanistic learning does. The point is not to find the truth, but to find meanings within it that might intersect with the truth, that run parallel or perpendicular to it, or that rhyme with it or seem metaphorically comparable to the truth. And since the truth can often be a very, very troubling thing, so can a text as obviously proto-totalitarian as Plato's Republic.
The most varied of regimes, I would think, as far as human character goes.
It's probably the most attractive of the regimes, like a coat of many colors with an infinite variety of floral decoration. So, this regime will catch the eye with its infinite variety of moral decoration. Lots of people are likely to judge this regime to be the most attractive, like women or children looking at prettily painted objects.For the moment, we're going to forego that line about the 'coat of many colors' with its extremely troubling racial connotation which Andrew Sullivan's piece subtly implies is important to understanding America's predicament. Sullivan has a troubled and slightly toxic history when it comes to racial questions, as the editor of The New Republic who allowed a major American publication to print an excerpt from Charles Murray's book, The Bell Curve, which attempted to draw a correlation between a person's race and their IQ. But there will be an important point to make about it later about it, troubling in its racial connotations in a completely different way.
There's no compulsion to hold office in this city, even if you're well-qualified to hold office, nor to obey those who do hold office if you don't feel like it. Nor to go to war when the city is at war, nor to be at peace when everyone else is, unless peace is what you want. Then again, even if there's a law stopping you holding office or being a member of a jury, there's nothing to stop you holding office and being a member of a jury anyway, if that's how the mood takes you. Isn't this, in the short term, a delightful and heaven-sent way of life?So on the other hand, Plato's line about there being no compulsory service in democratic life is something that should sting us all, because it's far from a given that this all-volunteer army we have is entirely to America's benefit. I went into that quite a bit in the Machiavelli podcasts I did. On the other hand, if we had compulsory service, we would probably be a lot more circumspect about going to war, as we eventually became in Vietnam. Many countries have mandatory national civilian service. I certainly don't trust the Trump Administration to implement something like that to anybody's benefit, but imagine, if you can, what it would might do to bond Americans together to send Christian conservatives into the cities and have them develop bond with African-Americans through community service. Imagine what it would mean if teenagers from dangerous neighborhoods were sent into the country and learned profitable trades. We're all required to serve on juries, even if jury duty is relatively easy to get out of for anybody who is not the exact demographic a defense attorney wants on the jury.
And what about the relaxed attitude of those sentenced by the courts? Isn't it civilized? Or have you never seen people who have been condemned to death or exiled in a regime of this sort, who nonetheless remain in person, hanging about in the center of things and haunting the place like the spirit of the departed hero without anyone caring or noticing?Well, on the one hand, this is not exactly an American problem. It is only a problem in the oligarchical sense that when you have lots of money to throw at the courts, you can usually get away with just about anything so long as the press doesn't put any attention on you. We rarely use the death penalty, but we have the largest prison population, at least documented prison population, in the world by a multiple of two. Who knows if China isn't fudging their numbers? But apparently this authoritarian country with three-and-a-half times our population has half our number in prison. On the other hand, look at the hundreds of crimes our President has clearly gotten away with. When people say that we're still an oligarchy, or again an oligarchy, there's a lot of evidence to support their claim.
Then there's the tolerance of this city. No pedantic insistent on detail, but an utter contempt for the things we showed such respect for when we were founding our city. Our claim that only someone with an outstanding nature could ever turn out to be a good man, and only if from earliest childhood he played in the best company in the right surroundings and did all the right kinds of things, how magnificently the city tramples all this underfoot, paying no attention to what kind of life someone led before he entered political life! All anyone has to do to win favor is say he is a friend of the people.Well, I think most of the West today would be united in finding this snobbery, if not quite its own form of tyranny. Anyway, let's move on.
These and related qualities will be the ones possessed by democracy. You had expected it to be an enjoyable kind of regime. Anarchic, colorful, and granting equality of a sort to equals and unequals alike.This is a very difficult line, because whatever one thinks of equality, the question remains, how do you define inequality? How can anybody with half a brain not look at a Trump rally without thinking for at least a split-second that these people are stupid enough to vote us out of democracy forever?
In that case, that leaves us with the task of describing the most delightful of regimes, and the most delightful of individuals, tyranny and the tyrant.
Does tyranny arise out of democracy in much the same way as democracy rises out of oligarchy?
The thing they held up as an ideal, the thing which formed the basis of oligarchy, was wealth, wasn't it?
It was the insatiable longing for wealth and the neglect of everything else and the pursuit of profit which destroyed oligarchy.
And is it the insatiable longing for what it defines as good which destroys democracy too in its turn?
What is it you define as good? Freedom. This is the thing I imagine which in a democratic state you will hear described as its finest attribute, and what makes it for any free spirit the only place worth living in.There is so much to unpack in that last sentence that I won't even try. I only have to remind you of so much that's happened in the last one-hundred years. From Wilson's famous quote when he asked congress to Declare War in World War I that 'the world must be made safe for democracy,' to the famous John Kennedy quote from his inaugural. To George W. Bush's many, many, many quotes about the necessity of pursuing freedom everywhere. (until 1:55) From H. L. Mencken's quote: "I believe in only one thing and that thing is human liberty. If ever a man is to achieve anything like dignity, it can happen only if superior men are given absolute freedom to think what they want to think and say what they want to say. I am against any man and any organization which seeks to limit or deny that freedom ... the superior man can only be sure of freedom only if it is given to all men." to Francis Fukuyama's declaration that the end point of mankind's ideological evolution is the universal of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
Well then, as I was saying just now, is it the insatiable longing for this good, and the neglect of everything else which brings about a change in this regime too and creates the need for tyranny?
How does that happen? I imagine that when a democracy, in its thirst for the wine of freedom, finds the wine being poured by unscrupulous cupbearers, and when it drinks more deeply when it should of pure, unmixed freedom. Then, if its magistrates are not totally easygoing, and do not offer it that freedom in large quantities, it accuses them of being filthy oligarchs and punishes them.How do you even begin to unpack the meanings manifold meanings implicit in this? On the one hand, we do accuse many of our magistrates of being filthy oligarchs, and personally, I think that it's pretty well-warranted. Let's just take the most obvious recent example: whatever one thinks of Brett Kavanaugh's treatment of women, there's a much more quantifiable measure of his bad judgement. For six of his twelve years on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, he's reported credit card debts exceeding 15,000 dollars per year over three credit cards, which total up to 150,000 dollars in total debt. Apparently $60,000 of these debts were in baseball tickets for the Washington Nationals procured for himself and his friends, another source of this debt is country club fees. The Chevy Chase Country Club, which requires 92,000 dollars to join and another $9,000 in yearly fees to retain membership. A house in Bethesda worth 1.2 million dollars.
Those who obey the rulers are heaped with insults. They are regarded as servile non-entities. Praise and respect, whether in private or in public life, go to rulers for behaving like those they rule, and to those they rule for behaving like rulers. Isn't the desire for freedom for a city in this type bound to run to extremes?I need very little comment there. Ever since Bill Clinton, no one in American life has been more disrespected than whomever our President has been. The 'dignity of office' seems like such an old-fashioned concept that there is no longer any deference to authority unless the authority comes is 'one of our own,' who comes from our own faction, or perhaps our own faction-within-our-faction. At times, progressives hated Bill Clinton nearly as vituperatively as conservatives did. But so long as the President was 'one of us', whether Clinton, or Bush, or Obama, or Trump, no one was more loved within their own faction. George W. Bush was praised by his own party for being 'a President you could have a beer with.' Donald Trump is 'the voice of the forgotten American.' Obama was the President for the marginalized. And the reason for this is that we in America have most certainly run much further to extremes both ideological and cultural. We no longer recognize ourselves in at least a hundred million other people in the same country. This is probably where Plato missed something that perhaps should have been rather obvious even 2500 years ago. Freedom means very different things to very different people, and people of different temperaments and character who have the ability to pursue their freedoms will inevitably see each other as impediments to greater freedom. And the greater their proximity to one another, the more they seem impediments to one another, and in that sense, Plato hit it on the nose.
And isn't the anarchy bound to make its way, my friend, into private households? Can we give an example of that? A father, for example, gets used to being like a child, and being afraid of his sons. A son gets used to being like his father. He feels no respect or fear for his parents. All he wants is to be free. Immigrants are put on a par with citizens, and citizens with immigrants, and the same with visiting foreigners.That last sentence would make any left-of-center person extremely uncomfortable. But I will make one observation: so many of the countries of North-West Europe whose welfare programs socialists hold out hope can be enacted here, how is the populace convinced to have such programs? It's because the population of each country is so very stable and homogenous. The moment mass immigration becomes a possibility, each of these countries grows an enormous far-right party which deeply resents paying for newcomers as though they've been long-term citizens of this social democracy. One could interpret Plato in such a way that he means that mass immigration is equally deleterious in how it warps the compassion of the native-born as it warps civic spirit. It's a very charitable interpretation of Plato, but great texts always allow for new meanings. If Plato saw the extreme interconnectedness of the modern world, I'm relatively certain that the idea of foreign aid and nation building would hold some appeal for him, because a stronger nation elsewhere will less tempt people to immigrate elsewhere to places whose laws and customs they don't understand innately.
That, plus a few more trivial examples of the same kind, in a society of this sort; teachers are afraid of their pupils and curry favor with them. Pupils have an equal contempt for their teachers and their attendants. In general, the young are the image of their elders and challenge them in everything they say and do. The old descend to the level of the young. They pepper everything with wit and humor, trying to be like the young, because they don't want to be thought harsh or dictatorial.David Brooks would have a field day with this paragraph. For all I know he's based dozens of columns on it. In it we see the academic accountability of student review, which so bothers conservatives. We see his famous concept of the Bobos, Bourgeois Bohemians, Baby Boomers who try to remain perpetually young and plan on being fully individuated rather than community minded all through their dotage. The tendency of Americans, particularly Baby Boomers, to be fully cognizant of their rights rather than their responsibilities, the unwillingness to save for their future, and the belief that questioning authority is a virtue in of itself. But then comes the moment in Plato when things go deeply uncomfortable for a Brooksian conservative (and jeez, David Brooks doesn't merit his own ideological designation), and I daresay, would make anybody uncomfortable who's to the left of Donald Trump:
But the extreme limit of freedom in a city of this kind comes when those who have been bought as slaves, whether male or female, are every bit as free as those who bought them. As for the relationship of women to men and men to women, I all but forgot to mention the extent of the legal equality and liberty between them. To generalize from all these collected observations, have you noticed how sensitive it makes the souls of the citizens, so that if anyone seeks to impose the slightest degree of slavery, they grow angry and cannot tolerate it. In the end, as I imagine you are aware, they take notice even of the laws, written or unwritten, in their determination that no one should be master over them, in any way at all.Oh those horrible slaves and women who demand freedom. This is really disgusting from a modern perspective. So why don't I leave this answer to a contemporary celebrity who is now thought of as disgusting even though, just a year ago, he was thought by a number of people the single most important and influential cultural phenomenon of our time (whole thing up to 4:25). This is what I meant by the racial connotation I mentioned earlier. The fact is, this country was, to an enormous extent, built by the labor of slaves and indentured servants. China is, to an enormous extent, built by wage slavery. Rome and Greece and Egypt and the Mughals and Imperial China and Japan were exactly the same. So was every feudal power in the Middle Ages who built itself into a nation-state by peasant labor. In human history, there is no precedent yet for a country which has first built itself up into a place in which existence is anything but tragic without doing so on the backs of a labor horror show. It can almost seem as though any semblance of human dignity is a privilege and not a right. Furthermore, how were people shepherded into adulthood all throughout recorded history so far? The answer is almost obvious, it's because in the vast majority of cultures, we subordinated, and probably intimidated, a gender which on average was weaker in body and tied down by pregnancy into subservient domesticity.
This is the form of government, my friend, so attractive and so headstrong, from which I believe tyranny is born.
What is the next step? We mentioned the class of idle and extravagant men. The most courageous element leading, the least courageous element following. We compared them to drones. The leaders to drones with stings, the followers to drones without stings.Well, I think the comparison to drones is pretty obvious when you look at a Trump rally. Some of us would say the same about Bernie Sanders rallies, but that is another podcast for another day... Back to Plato:
Very well, let's make a theoretical division of the democratic city into three parts. After all, this is how it is, in fact, composed. This class of drones, I imagine, is one part. And because of the absence of restrictions, it grows as freely in a democracy as in an oligarchy.
But it is much fiercer in a democracy than in an oligarchy.
In an oligarchy, it is treated as of no value, and excluded from power. So, it gets no exercise and does not develop its strength. In a democracy, by contrast, barring a few individuals, it is the dominant influence in the state. The fiercest element in this class does the talking and acting, the remainder sit around the rostrum, buzzing, and refusing to allow the expression of any other view. The result is that in a regime of this kind, everything, with very few exceptions, is run by the class of drones.This seems to be what's happening all over, in America, in Brazil now with the election of Jair Bolsonaro, it happened in Palestine in 2006 when Hamas was elected and there was no election ever since, it's what happened so many places of consequence elsewhere in extremely solid form, when the electorate clearly voted itself out of democracy and knowingly did so. When democracy gets too democratic, it can vote itself out of liberal rule of law, and an ironclad liberal rule of law is, clearly, the only way democracy is possible. Perhaps this means that liberal rule of law is not a consequence of democracy, but, rather, something that paradoxically has to be guaranteed by a more authoritarian system before democracy is possible. This is why democracy happened so seldom in human history, why it took so long to catch on, and why democracies in the classical world were so unstable. Back to Plato:
Then there's a second class which always separates itself off from the majority.
When everyone is engaged in making money, presumably it is those with the most disciplined temperament who generally become the richest.
They provide a plentiful supply of honey for the drones, I imagine, and an easy source from which to extract it.The Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Robert Mercer, Peter Thiel. Thousands of mere hundred millionaires rather than billionaires whose politics I'm sure other people work just as hard and disciplined, but this is the moneyed class which works to extract money from the very people to whom they provide the crumbs. Plato again:
After all, they can't extract much from those who haven't got much. They're called 'the rich', these people we're talking about. The drones feeding ground.
The general populace would be the third class. Manual laborers with little interest in politics and very little property of their own. This is the most numerous and powerful class in a democracy, but only when it is assembled together.
But isn't it getting some share of the honey, it is reluctant to assemble very often. That's why it always does get a share of it, if it's leaders have anything to do with it. They take it away from those who possess property and distribute it among the people, keeping only the lion's share for themselves.
Those whose property is taken away are presumably compelled to defend themselves by speaking in the assembly, and taking whatever other action they can.
Even if they have no desire at all for revolution, they are accused by the others of plotting against the people, and being oligarchs.
In the end, when they see the people attempting to injure them, not maliciously but out of ignorance, mislead by their opponents; at that point, whether they like it or not, the rich really do become oligarchs, but not from choice. This too is an evil implanted in them by the stings of the drone we were talking about.
Then you get impeachments, litigation and lawsuits between the two classes.
And isn't there a universal tendency for the people to set up one single individual who is their own particular champion? Don't they feed him up and make him mighty?
So, when we look at the growth of a tyrant, one thing at least is clear: this position of champion is the sole root from which the tyrant springs.
In that case, what prompts the change from champion to tyrant?
Isn't it pretty obvious when it happens when the champion of the people starts acting like the character in the story in the temple of Zeus, the wolf-god in Arcadia.
That there is one piece of human innards chopped up among all the pieces of the other sacrificial offerings, and that anyone who tastes it will inevitably turn into a wolf. Or haven't you heard that story?
Isn't the same with the champion of the people? Once he really wins the mob over, the blood of his kinsmen is no bar to him. He accuses someone falsely as such people do. He brings him to trial and murders him. And as he rubs out a man's life, his unholy mouth and lips taste the blood of a butchered kinsman. He drives people into exile or kills them, hinting at a cancellation of debts and the redistribution of land. What is the inevitable and predestined next step for someone like this? Doesn't he either have to be destroyed by his enemies or else become tyrant? Turning from man into wolf.
He becomes the architect of civil war against those who own property.
Well then, if he's sent into exile, but returns despite his enemies doesn't he return as an out-and-out tyrant?
And if his enemies are unable to drive him to exile by kill him by attacking him publicly, then they start plotting to kill him secretly, by assassination.
The tyrant's response to this is the famous request which everyone who has reached this stage discovers. He asks the people for a personal bodyguard to guarantee the safety of their people's champion.
And they give him one. More worried about his safety than their own, presumably.
Shall we then describe the happiness of this man and of the city where such a creature comes into being?
To start with, in the early days, doesn't he have a smile and a friendly word for everyone he meets. He says he's no tyrant and is full of promises both to individuals and to the state. Wouldn't he have freed them from their debts and divided up the land among the people and among his supporters? Doesn't he pretend to be universally kind and gentle?
But I imagine that once he feels safe from his enemies in exile, being reconciled with some and destroying others, his first concern is to be constantly starting wars so that the people will stand in need of a leader.
And, perhaps, with the further intention that their contributions to the war will impoverish them, compel them to concentrate on their daily occupations, and make them less likely to plot against him.
And if there are some independent minded people whom he suspects of challenging his rule, doesn't he try to find a good excuse for handing them over to the enemy and destroying them? For all these reasons isn't a tyrant always bound to be stirring up war?
Doesn't this tend to make him increasingly unpopular with the citizens?
Then the boldest of those who hoped to make him tyrant and who are now in positions of power start to speak their minds freely, don't they? Both to him, and to one another, criticizing what is going on.
So the tyrant, if he wants to go on ruling, must be prepared to remove all these people until he is left with no one who is any use, whether friend or enemy.
He will need a sharp pair of eyes then, he needs to pick out the brave, the noble, the wise, and the rich, since it is his unavoidable good fortune, whether he likes it or not, to be the enemy of all of them. He must plot their downfall until he has got the city clean.
Yes, the exact opposite of what doctors do to the body. They remove what is worst and leave what is best. With the tyrant, it is the other way round. That's what he has to do apparently if he is to go on ruling, in which case, he is firmly and inevitably impaled on the horns of a delightful dilemma, which requires him either to spend his life with the worthless mob and be hated by them into the bargain, or not to live at all.
And the more hated by the citizens his behavior makes him, the larger and more reliable a bodyguard he will need, won't he?
Who are these reliable people then? Where can he send to for them? They'll come winging their way of their own accord, any number of them, as long as he pays the going rate.
Dogs, teeth, drones again, foreign ones, all kinds of them...
And from the city itself, might he not bring himself... to deprive the citizens of their slaves, set the slaves free, and make them part of his bodyguard?
They are, after all, the most reliable he can find. What a wonderful thing you make a tyrant out to be, if these are the people he has as his friends, the people he can trust, once he destroys the friends he started with.
So, while he enjoys the admiration of these friends and the company of these new citizens, do decent people hate him? And avoid him?
We have strayed form the point, however. Let's return to that army the tyrant has. That fine, large, varied, and ever-changing army, and ask how it is going to be maintained?
Well, obviously if there's money in the city's temples, then as long as it lasts, he will spend that, plus the money of his victims, allowing him to exact smaller contributions from the people.
But what happens when these run out? He will use his father's money, obviously, to support himself, his drinking companions, and his male and female friends.
You mean, the people who spawned the tyrant, will support him and his friends.
It will have no choice.
What if the people resent this? It is not right, they might say for a start, for a grown up son to be supported by his father, quite the reverse in fact, a father should be supported by his son. What is more, the reason we fathered you and put you in power was not so that we could ourselves become slaves to our own slaves. As soon as you became powerful, and support you and them and the rest of your collection of human flotsam. We order you to leave the city now, you and your friends. What do you think would happen then?
Then the people really will find out what they are and what kind of offspring they have fathered, taken to their hearts and allowed to grow.
Will the tyrant use force against his parent? Will he beat him if he disobeys?
Yes! Once he has taken away his weapons. A parricide then, this tyrant you are describing. A cruel guardian for man's old age. At this point, it seems, the thing is an acknowledged tyranny. The people have jumped out of the proverbial frying pan into the fire, from their enslavement to free men, to a despotism of slaves.
Will there be any objection, then, to our saying that we have given an adequate of the way tyranny evolves out of democracy, and of what it is like when it has done so?