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2,400 years ago, Plato saw democracy would give rise to a tyrannical leader filled with “false and braggart words”

A float with effigies of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US president Donald Trump is paraded through the crowd during the 134th Carnival parade in Nice, France
Reuters/Jean-Pierre Amet
Plato believed democracy really is just a prelude to tyranny.
By Olivia Goldhill
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Plato was not a fan of democracy. Many might consider this just a blip on the philosopher’s otherwise excellent political analysis. But his description of the “democratic man” does give pause for thought.

In the Republic, written in 380 BC, Plato describes such the democratic man—by which he means a democratic leader—as one of “false and braggart words and opinions” who dismisses moderation, calls “insolence ‘good breeding,’ licence ‘liberty,’ prodigality ‘magnificence,’” and “temperance they call ‘want of manhood’ and banish it with contumely.”

Remind you of anyone?

Josiah Ober, professor of political science and classics at Stanford University says the passage does read as “a particularly harsh description of the most tyrannical parts of Trump’s public personality.” Plato’s Republic, which evaluates the nature and justice of various political regimes, and examines how individuals’ moral psychologies are interlinked with the moral psychology of their state, is intended as a work of philosophy rather than a prediction of how political events would unfold. That said, Plato’s critique of democracy contains a number of aspects relevant today.

Plato believed that the key and driving feature of democracy is desire for freedom; this very trait, though, ultimately leads a state to tyranny. A democratic regime involves such a plurality of interests, he believed, that the only way anything can be achieved under it is to have strong leadership that can unite interests. “It’s not a complete portrait of modern democracy but it captures something: This desire for a strong leaders who can give guidance to diverse pluralistic uncoordinated desires,” says Oder.

Strong leaders, in Plato’s view, ultimately become demagogic tyrants. “The tyrant wants to be completely free of all constraints and yet he’s the most enslaved, because he has to surround himself with bodyguards, and yes-men, and people who will feed his ego and desires,” explains Ober.

The tyrant mistrusts both those within and outside his circle, and so essentially ends up in a sort of servitude himself.

Those around him are “necessarily slavish,” Ober adds, as “they’re willing to debase themselves to the grotesque deformed soul of the tyrant.” But the tyrant mistrusts both those within and outside his circle, and so essentially ends up in a sort of servitude himself. “He recognizes that he’s always in danger and sees plots everywhere,” says Ober. “He therefore lives a life that’s as abjectly awful as possible to live. Though he seems to be living in a glittering palace with wealth and access to all good things, in fact he lives a shrunken existence as a slave to slaves.” Paranoia and desire for sycophancy are familiar features of many contemporary democratic leaders.

In Plato’s view, each political state naturally devolves into another in systematic order. Rule by philosopher-king gives way to timocracy (rule by property owners), which gives way to oligarchy, followed by democracy and then tyranny. As democracy is preceded by rule of the rich, Plato believed that under a democratic regime, there would be considerable resentment against the wealthy; the first step of the democratic demagogue, he claimed, would be to attack these wealthy elites. “He says they’re bad people and we should prosecute them, especially in the law courts,” says Ober. Accusing the wealthy of crimes and prosecuting them is, in Plato’s view, simply the easiest way of extracting wealth from them. Contemporary politics only half fulfill this assessment: There’s certainly considerably resentment towards the elite, but there’s noticeably little criminal prosecution of the very rich, even among those who’ve committed serious crimes.

Certain aspects of the democracy Plato describes—and which we are now seeing—are not sudden, recent developments. Politicians have long been criticized for being loose with the truth or pandering to populist interests, for example. But Ober believes many modern democratic states have a declining sense of shared interests; this, in Plato’s view, makes them particularly vulnerable to tyranny. Brexit has divided Britain, he notes, Belgium is fracturing along its French and Flemish demographic lines, the United States is more partisan than ever. All these divides can lead to the decline of a functioning democratic state.

“A platonic vision of a state that’s divided against itself is vulnerable to this demagogic appeal, a tyrannical takeover,” says Ober. “I think we’re at greater risk than before.”

Can we resist tyrannical leaders? Plato believed that a constitution, which should lay out clear rules that everyone must abide by, provides some protection. It may not prevent demagoguery, but it can offer a baseline of equality under the law. He also advocated citizen responsibility: “[Citizens] have to know enough about what’s going on, to speak out and join with other citizens when there are violations,” says Ober.  They can’t wait for others to do the work for them.”

Despite these protections, Plato pessimistically believed that democracy inevitably devolves into tyranny. On this point, though, Ober disagrees. “Historically, it can,” he says. “But democracies emerge in rejection of tyranny. You get democracy by saying we refuse to be ruled by a tyrant, king, or small gang of elites. When democracies work, we remember that’s what they’re all about”

For a more optimistic interpretation of today’s political regimes, Ober suggests looking to Aristotle, who understood that true democracy is fundamentally opposed to tyranny. Contemporary politics may cause consternation, but Ober says it’s worth believing in the political regime. After all, he adds, “Democracy has to be built on hope.”

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