Republic (Plato)

Read this summary of Plato's Republic. Pay particular attention to the summary of Books 6,7, and 8; the Theory of Universals; to the definition of justice; and to the Ideal City. What are the four types of government which Plato rejects, and why does he reject them?

Socrates discusses four unjust constitutions: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. He argues that a society will decay and pass through each government in succession, eventually becoming a tyranny, the most unjust regime of all.

The starting point is an imagined, alternate aristocracy (ruled by a philosopher-king); a just government dominated by the wisdom-loving element. When its social structure breaks down and enters civil war, it is replaced by timocracy. The timocratic government is dominated by the spirited element, with a ruling class of property-owners consisting of warriors or generals (Ancient Sparta is an example). As the emphasis on honor is compromised by wealth accumulation, it is replaced by oligarchy. The oligarchic government is dominated by the desiring element, in which the rich are the ruling class. The gap between rich and poor widens, culminating in a revolt by the underclass majority, establishing a democracy. Democracy emphasizes maximum freedom, so power is distributed evenly. It is also dominated by the desiring element, but in an undisciplined, unrestrained way. The populism of the democratic government leads to mob rule, fueled by fear of oligarchy, which a clever demagogue can exploit to take power and establish tyranny. In a tyrannical government, the city is enslaved to the tyrant, who uses his guards to remove the best social elements and individuals from the city to retain power (since they pose a threat), while leaving the worst. He will also provoke warfare to consolidate his position as leader. In this way, tyranny is the most unjust regime of all.

In parallel to this, Socrates considers the individual or soul that corresponds to each of these regimes. He describes how an aristocrat may become weak or detached from political and material affluence, and how his son will respond to this by becoming overly ambitious. The timocrat in turn may be defeated by the courts or vested interests; his son responds by accumulating wealth in order to gain power in society and defend himself against the same predicament, thereby becoming an oligarch. The oligarch's son will grow up with wealth without having to practice thrift or stinginess, and will be tempted and overwhelmed by his desires, so that he becomes democratic, valuing freedom above all.