There is something which the members of an oligarchy have come to accept as good, and which is the raison d’êtra of oligarchy… an insatiable greed for wealth – being too busy making money to pay attention to anything else – which causes its downfall.
So what I’m wondering is whether democracy’s downfall is also brought about by insatiable greed for what it defines as good…
Freedom! I’m sure you’ve been in a community with a democratic government and heard them claim that there is nothing finer than freedom, and that this is why democracy is the only suitable environment for a free man… In its thirst for freedom, a democratically governed community might get leaders who aren’t any good at serving wine. It gets drunk on excessive quantities of undiluted freedom, and then I suppose, unless the rulers are very lenient and keep it provided with plenty of freedom, it accuses them of being foul oligarchs and punishes them.
Then those who obey authority have abuse heaped on them, and are described as voluntary slaves, non-entities; admiration and respect are given to people, who, in both their private life and in public, behave like subjects if they’re rulers, and behave like rulers if they’re subjects. Isn’t it inevitable that a community of this kind will take freedom as far as it can go?
Equally inevitable… lawlessness seeps into everyone’s homes; ultimately, even animals are infected… the pursuit of freedom makes it increasingly normal for fathers and sons to swap places: fathers are afraid of their sons, and sons no longer feel shame before their parents or stand in awe of them. And it starts to make no difference whether one is a citizen or a resident foreigner, or even a visitor from abroad: everyone is at the same level.
…In these circumstances, teachers are afraid of their pupils and curry favour with them, while pupils despise their teachers and their attendants as well. In short, the younger generation starts to look like the older generation, and they turn any conversation or action into a trial of strength with their elders; meanwhile, the older members of the community adapt themselves to the younger ones, ooze frivolity and charm, and model their behaviour on that of the young, because they don’t want to be thought disagreeable tyrants.
…If you hadn’t seen it, you’d never believe how much more freedom pets have in this community compared to any other. The dogs really do start to resemble their mistresses, as the proverb goes, but so do horses and donkeys as well, in the way they learn to strut about with absolute freedom, bumping into anyone they meet on the road who doesn’t get out of the way. And everything else is just as saturated with freedom.
…The long and short of it is that the minds of the citizens of a democracy become so sensitive that they get angry and annoyed at the slightest hint of enslavement… and so worried about the possibility of anyone having authority over them that they end up, as I’m sure you’re aware, taking no notice of the laws either, whether written or unwritten.
…So there, I think, you have the fine vigorous shoot from which dictatorship grows.
…The same sickness that infected oligarchy and caused its demise erupts in democracy too, but in a more widespread and virulent form, because of its openness, and reduces it to slavery.
In fact its a general principle that overdoing anything leads to a huge compensatory shift towards the opposite: seasons, plants, and bodily health are all subject to this principle, and political systems are particularly good examples of it.
…In other words, it’s plausible to claim that excessive freedom, at both the individual and the political level, can only change into excessive slavery…
… It makes sense, then, to say that dictatorship is bound to arise out of democracy – from what, I take it, is the peak of freedom to the most severe and savage form of slavery.
Adapted extract from Plato: Republic – A new translation by Robin Waterford (Oxford World’s Classics)