Book VIII starts with a useful summary of the Republic Socrates has envisioned: wives are to be held in common, children should be educated in common, and all citizens must hold a common way of life. Also, the kings are to be "those among them who have proved to be the best, both in philosophy and in warfare". Since I have been reading Liberal Fascism, I note here that Socrates has envisioned a proto-fascist State. The term totalitarian, now almost exclusively pejorative, was coined by Mussolini to describe his own regime, that is, a society in which every citizen had his place and no one existed outside the state The term also applies rather well to the Republic. I mention this again because, while Socrates does an admirable job outlining the problems inherent in other constitutions, we should not allow ourselves to the implicit tyranny in his supposed aristocracy.
Socrates then returns to his discussion of the four types of constitution, which he had mentioned in an earlier book. These are: timocracy or Spartan, praised by most and elsewhere described as "victory and honor-loving"; oligarchy, filled with a host of evils; democracy, antagonistic to oligarchy; and genuine tyranny. To this we add the already discussed aristocracy, "which is rightly said to be good and just." He then proceeds to examine the constitutions and the type of people they are likely to produce.
But first he offers an explanation as to how aristocracy decays into timocracy. Inferior babies are born of the guardians; these cleave toward "money-making and the acquisition of land, houses, gold, and silver" while the aristocracy continues to pursue the old, honorable ways. As when Thomas Cromwell looted the monasteries and scattered the wealth among the nobles, the inferior types set about destroying the old older, erecting a new constitution in its stead. This new constitution is halfway between the aristocracy and oligarchy: timocracy, which spends its time making war. (Here the historical parallel to the English Reformation breaks down, though it is instructive to a point.) The timocratic citizen is eager for honor and victory, but lacks the refinement of a true aristocrat. He is also too fond of money. Socrates also suggests that a timocratic child may become militant if his father is unmanly. I see shades of Hegel's dialectic here, which I invite PJ to expound upon.
Next, oligarchy is examined. Perhaps plutocracy is a better name for it, because it is the rule of the rich. I would argue that our present Government is basically of this type. As a further aside, if my premonition is correct, and if Plato's argument is valid, will we next emerge into a... democracy? Or, because our oligarchy is part democracy, would the next step for us be tyranny? The practical application of Plato's theory is very intriguing.
Anyway, a timocracy easily morphs into an oligarchy as the decadent rich forget the aristocratic traditions and value money above all else. Socrates offers that wealth and virtue are inversely related; extolling the latter deprecates the former. Moreover, we can tell what citizens value by what they practice; or as Jesus Christ might put it, "By their fruits you shall know them."
Socrates suggests that the oligarchs would put laws into place that refuse political office to those who haven't sufficient wealth. In practice, governments have seldom found that necessary. In 2006, for instance, fully half of U.S. Senators were millionaires.
The first fault of the oligarchy is that mere possession of wealth does not necessarily make one fit to rule. The second fault is that there grows a chasm between the oligarchs and the citizenry, until there are effectively two cities. Along this divide forms the next civil war, which will bring us to the next constitution. Further, the oligarchs will not divide labor so that farmers farm, and merchants sell, and so on. Nor will they be able to fight effectively, being afraid, and loving money too much to use mercenaries. But their fear of the mob will also leave them reluctant to use them to fight their battles. Worst of all, there will be citizens so poor that they have no real place in the city, something Socrates's totalitarian city would never tolerate. These will have no choice but to beg for their sustenance. In addition to beggars, there will also be robbers, thieves, and similar evil-doers in an oligarchy.
Socrates hearkens back to his conception of the soul in perfect harmony as the ideal of justice. Every citizen of a non-ideal constitution will have lost this balance in his soul, just as the city itself has lost its balance in the way that its citizens relate to each other.
Democracy is the next constitution to emerge. Eventually the poor have had enough of the oppression under their merchant masters, and unite, like good Marxian proletarians, to overthrow the oligarchy. The best historical parallel here, I think, is the French Revolution, which will also come in handy again when we consider how a democracy becomes a tyranny.
When the poor overthrow the rich, they will have grown to a significant proportion of the population. They will thus decide that the rule of the government should go to whoever has the sanction of the majority: democracy is thus formed. The democrats, being free to do as they please, will be variant. The city will be the most beautiful for this variety; so too will its constitution since democratic citizens may enact whichever legislation they so choose. The drawback is that the rulers will be drawn from the mob: they will lack the refinement of the aristocrats. Still, it is a bit difficult to see why democracy is rated below oligarchy, save that it follows upon it, and that it leads to tyranny. Since I am not a particular fan of democracy, but I recall that PJ is, I invite him to put forth any disagreements he has with Socrates on the subject of democracy.
Socrates briefly examines desires which are necessary and which are unnecessary--though the latter is not held to be at all times harmful. Necessary desires include: "the desire to eat to the point of health", while unnecessary ones include: the desire for sex. Methinks Socrates would have made a good monk, though Xanthippe may have objected. The problem with the democratic man is that he confuses licence for the good. Lacking a proper upbringing, he is unable to restrain himself from seeking to fulfill unnecessary desires.
The democratic man "declares that all pleasures are equal and must be valued equally." This is magnificently said. Ethical concerns have largely been stripped away in many modern American debates. For instance, whatever one thinks of abortion, the dilemma regards the nature of the fetus; it has nothing to do with the woman's choice, which cannot be considered an objective good in itself. Socrates absolutely crushes this one.
He does well in the next paragraph, too. "Sometimes [the democratic citizen] drinks heavily while listening to the flute; at other times he drinks only water and is on a diet; sometimes he goes in for physical training; at other times, he's idle and neglects everything; and sometimes he even occupies himself with what he takes to be philosophy." I don't think variety of means is to be condemned so long as all are ultimately subjected to the pursuit of the good. I'm guessing that the contradictory nature of the tasks undertaken implies that the good being pursued it itself in flux, which would be problematic.
Evolving from democracy, last we have tyranny and the tyrannical man, "the finest constitution and the finest man." (Is Socrates sarcastically mocking lovers of tyranny here, such as Euripides? Otherwise, I'm not sure I follow.) Just as an insatiable appetite for money leads to the decay of the oligarchy, a preponderance of freedom--really license, since freedom requires some measure of law--leads to democracy's demise. Indeed, in the paroxysms of license during the French Revolution, the dictator Robespierre eventually lost his own head, as had other revolutionaries, such as Danton, before him. The democratic revolution eats its own.
When once the mob has run wild, Napoleon--a more effective tyrant than Robespierre--must march in to dismiss them with a whiff of grapeshot, and tyranny is established. "Extreme freedom can't be expected to lead to anything but a change to extreme slavery." A leader emerges who has the ear of the mob, or can at least effectively manipulate it. Tired of freedom, the masses long for the order which only his iron rule can bring. Once in power, "the first thing he does is stir up a war, so that the people will continue to feel the need of a leader." Thus Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, and Hitler Poland.
"But also so that they'll become poor through having to pay war taxes, for that way they'll have to concern themselves with their daily needs and be less likely to plot against him." Here we have a common sense critique of Keynes' theory that you can spend your way out of recession, or that war could somehow be good for the economy. We can forgive him for failing to take into account the Federal Bank, which allows the tyrants to spend as much as they wish, while the people, continually impoverished, remain ignorant as to the means of their impoverishment.
Well done, again, Socrates. All in all an excellent book, certainly my favorite of those covered so far.