Plato argued that the inevitable next step in political evolution after democracy is tyranny. Many political thinkers throughout history (e.g. Polybius, Machiavelli, John Adams) agreed with him. Were they right? That's what we try to find out in this 14th installment in our ongoing series exploring Plato's Republic.
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In the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, an interesting article went viral. Part of what made it interesting was that it discussed a topic that rarely goes viral nowadays, namely Plato’s Republic. The article was titled “America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny.” In it, the journalist Andrew Sullivan made the case that, based on what Plato had written in the Republic, especially books 8 and 9 of that work, America is showing all the hallmarks of a late stage democracy sliding towards tyranny.
Among people who don’t study the ancient world for a living – that is to say the broader public – this article was a bombshell.
While most people of course knew that ancient Athens was a democracy, they didn’t know that it was a dynamic, ever-evolving polity that had to constantly contend with factionalism, polarization, demagoguery, inequality and other issues we face today. Most people had no idea that ancient thinkers carefully analyzed these phenomena & proposed various remedies to alleviate their effects, and that miraculously those writings have survived over two millennia for us to read and potentially profit from today. They had no idea because our schools no longer teach that stuff.
And so, for many readers, this revelation felt like that scene in The Matrix 2, where Neo learns that everything he and his companions had accomplished in their struggle against the machines was a repeat of what had already happened many times before during earlier iterations of human civilization. And that in every one of those previous iterations, those struggles had ended in failure.
Similarly, Sullivan’s article implied that our democracy is heading down the same path that ancient democracies had taken, and that that path eventually ends in tyranny. He drew this conclusion from books 8 and 9 of the Republic, where Plato argues that the logical next step in political evolution after democracy is tyranny. And, as you’ll recall from episode R0, Plato, unlike anyone alive today, lived at a time when several wealthy democracies had actually collapsed and ended up being ruled by tyrants.
So, Sullivan’s piece sent shockwaves through our public sphere of political discourse. Meanwhile, in the ivory tower, classicists and historians of ancient Greece were not impressed. The word on the street, or rather the word in classics department hallways was, “Ugh, another amateur trying to draw lessons from history. Who does that anymore? That’s not scholarship!”
If you’re a new listener of this show, you may be surprised to hear that that was the reaction. But veteran listeners will recall that one of the paradoxes of modern historical scholarship is that most historians today deny that there are any significant patterns or lessons to be drawn from history.
So, for the most part, they ignored Sullivan’s article. But eventually, a journalist named Jeff Guo decided to check in with the experts and see what they think. So, he asked a few of them. And based on what they told him, he wrote a piece for the Washington Post in direct response to Sullivan in which he explained why the latter’s viral article was “fascinating – though arguably mistaken.”
To his credit, Guo didn’t just ask a few classicists and historians picked at random. If he had done that, they probably would have told him that Sullivan’s entire argument is based on a faulty premise, because, again, there are no meaningful patterns in history, and so what he’s doing is a fool’s errand. End of story. But Guo actually managed to find a tiny minority of scholars who do think that history offers patterns and practical lessons. And he asked them about Sullivan’s article. So, the scholars he quotes in his response piece are sympathetic to Sullivan’s approach. And yet they still didn’t buy his argument. Why not?
Well, because of one big problem. And that problem’s name is Plato. Sullivan, they say, made the mistake of taking Plato seriously. As they explained to Guo, Plato was “a genius political philosopher but a shoddy political scientist.”
One main reason they think that is something we talked about in episode R6.5 titled Why People Hate Plato. Namely, that Plato was, as we’ve heard time and time again, not an empirical thinker. He did his philosophizing from an armchair. Therefore, his claims about the fate of democracy are theoretical at best. As the historian David Teegarden is quoted as saying, “It's not as though Plato was trying to say something based on history. He was a philosopher.”
But there’s also a second and more concrete reason why these scholars dismiss Plato’s and, by extension, Sullivan’s claim about late-stage democracy leading to tyranny. The scholars in question claim that the actual data we have about democracies in ancient Greece refutes Plato’s model. According to this data, they say, most tyrannies back then didn’t evolve from democracies but from oligarchies. Furthermore, some of the wealthiest democracies were ruled by tyrants before they became democratic, not after, which suggests that tyranny was sometimes a stepping stone towards democracy, rather than its aftereffect. As the economist Andrew Hanssen, who studies this data, is quoted as saying in Guo’s article “If Plato had been interested in collecting data, he would have found his view to be incorrect.”
If you listened to our episode called “Why People Hate Plato,” then you’ve already heard the reasons why I don’t buy the whole “Plato was anti-empirical” argument. But what about this second point, that the empirical data in this case refutes what Plato says?
One problem with this claim is that when the aforementioned scholars talk about what the data show, they make it sound like there’s no room for debate. Like, we have this data and it clearly tells us something contrary to what Plato said. But that isn’t the case. As we’ll see further on, the data in question is messy and incomplete. And there is room for disagreement about what it actually shows.
Besides, if what Plato said was so obviously belied by the empirical evidence all around him, why didn’t any of his contemporaries or successors point that out? Why doesn’t Xenophon or Aristotle come out and say, “Oh my God, what Plato says about democracies becoming tyrannies in the Republic is so wrong it’s embarrassing.” But they don’t say that. In fact, Polybius, who is arguably the most sophisticated Greek or Roman analyst of how regimes change over time, says that most of what Plato said was not just right but obvious to anyone who cares to look at the historical record.
So, what is going on here?
In this and the next episode, I want to give Plato the benefit of the doubt that maybe he did his empirical homework after all. At the very least, let’s not go into this with our minds already made up that it’s unempirical. Let’s take a look at what he says with an open mind and draw our own conclusions.
In the remainder of this episode, I want to do three things. First, to lay out what Plato actually says in books 8 and 9 in broad outline. Then to go over the main reasons why most scholars today think this section is unempirical. Finally, in response to those reasons, I’m going to share with you why I think there are strong indications that it is empirically derived and deserves our attention and consideration. And in the next episode of this series, we’ll tackle the more specific question of how exactly the transition from democracy to tyranny works according to Plato.
Full disclosure here: One reason I’m interested in this topic and have an unusual opinion about it is that I spent a few years working for a think tank that looks for historical patterns, called the Anacyclosis Institute. So, I’ve mulled over the data in question quite a bit myself. But the main reason I care, which is also the reason I joined that institute in the first place, is that I’m concerned about what’s happening to America. And I want to know whether I can expect to live under a democracy for much longer, or whether there’s a good chance I or my kids one day will live to see a monarch sitting on a throne in Washington. You can laugh. But every single premodern democracy or republic ended up being ruled by monarchs eventually. So, why would America be any different?
So, how and why does democracy lead to tyranny according to Plato? And why does that even come up in a book about an ideal republic that isn’t a democracy? Well, Plato answers that question as part of a longer narrative about the decline and fall of Kallipolis.
You see, while Kallipolis is the perfect, ideal city, if it were ever founded, it would have to be built in the material world, not in the so-called intelligibile world of ideas. Or, to use another set of Platonic terms, it would have to be built in the world of becoming, not in the realm of being. And so, as soon as it would be created (assuming it could be created) it would almost immediately start becoming something else. Nothing lasts forever in this world.
So, Plato envisions that Kallipolis, after several generations of collective flourishing and eudaimonia, would eventually transform into a different type of regime. In fact, he thinks it would undergo a series of political revolutions through various regime types in a predetermined and predictable sequence until it ultimately collapsed into tyranny. And the second-to-last stage on that journey of political evolution/revolution is democracy. Thus, the story of how democracy becomes tyranny forms the final and most riveting chapter in that long narrative that takes up books 8 and 9 of the Republic. That larger narrative can be thought of as a drama in 5 acts, each representing one regime type. Let’s go through them one by one.
Act 1: Aristocracy
When readers of the Republic get to book 8, they may be surprised to find that Plato suddenly refers to Kallipolis as an aristocracy. But that’s because the word aristocracy in ancient Greek didn’t mean what it does today, namely an elite stratum of society endowed with inherited wealth. Aristokratia in ancient Greece was a regime type. The word originally just meant “rule by the best.” And that’s what Plato’s ideal republic is all about. The best qualified, most virtuous, truth-loving, philosophically-minded citizens are in the driver’s seat.
As we discussed in earlier episodes, this aristocracy (in the ancient sense) called Kallipolis is the perfect city because it displays the four cardinal virtues. It is wise on account of its leaders. It is courageous on account of its guardians. It is temperate because the three classes of citizens work together harmoniously. And it is just, because each class and each citizen in fact does the job they are uniquely suited to and they do it well.
Back when we were describing Plato’s vision of Kallipolis in earlier episodes, I’m sure that each and every one of you had some skeptical reaction like, “That would never work in practice because of ____.” Well, now is your chance to see how your suspicions about the fate of Kallipolis compare with Plato’s own predictions of its demise.
So, how would Kallipolis get corrupted? What kind of regime would it degenerate into first? As mentioned earlier, it’s not tyranny, cause that’s the last stage. Nor is it democracy. What about oligarchy? Don’t you think Kallipolis could easily become a repressive oligarchy? I mean a lot of critics of the Republic say that it is a thinly veiled oligarchy to begin with.
But for the ancient Greek political thinkers, Kallipolis isn’t an oligarchy, nor could it immediately transition into an oligarchy, for one simple reason. You see, for the ancients, oligarchy didn’t simply mean “rule by a small elite,” which is what the word actually suggests etymologically. Oligarchia literally means “rule by a few.” But for the classical political thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius, oligarchy had acquired a more restricted meaning, which we talked about in episodes 26 & 27. It really meant rule by the rich.
The reason, then, why Kallipolis can’t immediately become an oligarchy is that there isn’t enough private wealth concentrated in the hands of a small elite. Remember, Kallipolis is a relatively egalitarian society. It’s specifically designed to have neither rich nor poor people.
So then, what kind of regime can Kallipolis turn into, if we’ve ruled out oligarchy, democracy and tyranny?
Act 2: Timocracy
There is another regime type that Plato thinks will be the first step after peak Kallipolis, which he calls timocracy. Whereas, democracy with a “d” means “people power,” timocracy with t-i-m literally means “honor power,” and Plato explains that a timocracy is ruled by people who pursue honor.
If you remember, honor played a big role in Kallipolis. The silver-souled auxiliaries, who were basically the army and police force of the city, were honor-loving people. That’s what having a silver soul means. It means that your thymos, which is the part of your soul that desires honor (among other things) holds sway over the other soul parts.
And by the way, when we say honor here, we don’t mean like a Samurai dying for honor. We mean honor in the sense of prestige, recognition, status.
So, once Kallipolis’ ruling class starts to waiver in its devotion to philosophy, then the pursuit of truth ceases to be the most powerful guiding force in the society, and so the next strongest thing that takes over is the love of honor. It’s not necessarily that the honor-loving auxiliaries, aka the warrior class, overthrow the philosopher kings and queens in a coup d’état. Rather, the rulers themselves allow the honor-loving thymos in their souls to take over. As a result, the entire guardian class, consisting of both rulers and auxiliaries, becomes honor-obsessed. They care more about status, awards, and reputation than about virtue. They care more about the appearance and trappings of excellence than the thing itself.
But now, the transition to oligarchy becomes possible. Because the education system of Kallipolis and the love of truth that it taught was the single most important guardrail against economic inequality.
Remember the “noble myth”? The guardians were taught that truth is more valuable than gold, and so they don’t need gold. Well now that the ideal of truth has lost its value, there’s nothing to act as a counterweight to the pull, the allure, the temptation of money.
Just as in the individual soul it’s only when the rational part can recruit the thymos to be its ally in the pursuit of wisdom that the appetites can be held at bay. So too in the state, it’s only when the rulers can convince the warriors to be their allies in virtue that the commercial class, the people with money, don’t take over. In both cases, philosophy is the counterweight to avarice.
But now, with that counterweight gone, many of the guardians start to secretly covet money. They also no longer treat the productive commercial class benevolently, since they now secretly want what the producers have, namely money. In fact, they end up enslaving them and turning them into a kind of serf class. And so what you get is a militaristic regime ruled by a warrior elite with a subjugated productive class. That’s what Plato calls timocracy, and he gives Sparta and certain city states on the island of Crete as examples of that type of regime.
Act 3: Oligarchy
In designing Kallipolis, Plato made a deliberate effort to divorce money from power, by stripping the ruling class of all wealth and by depriving the productive economic class of direct political power. Because he knew that money and power track each other. Rich people, over time, tend to become powerful. And powerful people, over time, tend to become rich, unless you have policies in place to prevent that from happening.
But in a timocracy, where those policies have been eroded, there is little to prevent the guardians from accumulating wealth. They do it in secret at first because they still want to maintain the appearance of upholding the old constitution. But after a few generations, the need for concealment fades, because everyone knows what’s going on. The cat is out of the bag. Money talks and everyone can hear it. The once honor-loving elite of the old regime have metamorphosed into the money-loving elite of an oligarchy.
Plato says that you can tell the moment when a state becomes an oligarchy when you see the streets suddenly full of beggars and homeless people. And that’s partly because oligarchies introduce a policy which Plato calls “the greatest of evils” (Rep. VIII, 552a). Namely, they allow citizens to sell off every last bit of their property and live on the streets as dependents. As we mentioned in an earlier episode, many ancient Greek city states had protections in place that prevented people from selling off their homes, because they knew that a propertyless populace is a mob. And so you simply couldn’t sell your house for example in a lot of poleis. If you got into debt and tried to pay it by selling your house, they’d be like, “Sorry! That’s not an option. You need to find another way.” We don’t know exactly how this played out, because the surviving evidence is scarce, but we know there were such protections.
In my opinion, this could potentially offer a lesson for our times. Cause we have no such protections. And we’re seeing a terrible homelessness crisis in America right now, and it’s only getting worse.
Interestingly, Plato says that when this sort of thing happens in an oligarchy, the rulers pretend not to notice, and in fact they actively make things worse. Now why would they do that? Well, he says, because when the people use their money carelessly, irresponsibly, or extravagantly, the rich get richer. It means more opportunities for them to offer loans, collect interest, and buy up properties on the cheap. And so they refuse to do the two things that Plato thinks could actually help the situation. One being what we just mentioned: a law prohibiting people from selling off their home. And the other, which Plato calls the second best option, is a law for contracts, prescribing that it should be the money-lending party who should bear the risk in a contract, not the lessor (Rep. VIII, 556a-b)
So, for example, say you take out a loan to renovate your house, and then you’re unable to pay the loan back. Under our system, today, the bank can just take your house. Under either of Plato’s proposed measures, they can’t take your house. Under law #1 because your house is off limits. And under law #2, it's the bank that should bear the risk in the contract, not you, if things fall through. Because if you can’t pay the loan back, chances are they didn’t vet you properly to determine that you can pay it back or they didn’t care because they can just take your house if you don’t pay or, worst of all, they engaged in predatory lending and deliberately trapped you in a loan you couldn’t repay. Now, if they bore the risk, so that if a lender can’t repay a loan, they have to cut their losses and move on, they would not engage in predatory lending and wouldn’t encourage people to be careless with their money. Plato claims that with such a law in place, “lenders would be less shameless…in their pursuit of money in the city and fewer of those evils we were mentioning just now would develop.” (Rep. VIII, 556b, tr. Grube)
It should be noted that we do have something like Plato’s second best option today in America in the form of bankruptcy laws. If you’re unable to repay a loan, you can, under certain conditions, declare bankruptcy, and your debt will be erased. However, in our system, not all debt can be discharged by bankruptcy. There is something called non-dischargable debt, which includes, notoriously, student loans. It’s virtually impossible to get rid of student loan debt, even if you file for bankruptcy. So, I think Plato, if he were alive today, would take one look at our system of student loans, he’d see the 1.75 trillion dollars in student debt, and he’d say, “My friends, you’ve got an oligarchy problem. Here are two solutions that can help you. Either make every household’s primary residence off limits to creditors or make all household debt dischargeable by bankruptcy.”
But, he says, the rich won’t allow either of those measures to be enacted. They refuse to put out the fire of poverty even as it blazes all around them. In fact, he says, they encourage it and multiply the poverty-stricken portion of the population until it grows into a full-fledged mob.
While the downfall of timocracy was the irresistible allure of money and the creeping rise of inequality. The downfall of oligarchy is largely due to disunity. As Plato explains, the problem with oligarchies is that they are, in effect, two cities in one. The city of the rich and the city of the poor.
These two parts are held together in a very unstable equilibrium because the masses could easily overthrow the elites, if only they could organize and arm themselves, but the elites control all the means of organization and all the weapons.
Normally, in an oligarchy, the elites keep the commoners unarmed. But what happens if there’s an external threat? They may need to arm them to face that threat. And then what do you do once the external threat is gone and you have an armed populace?
As you can imagine, oligarchs need to devise elaborate tricks to keep the populace afraid or distracted and prevent them from ever assembling in large groups or realizing how few and weak the rulers really are.
Obviously, this state of affairs is too unstable to last forever. At some point, stasis will erupt, and eventually some charismatic leader will mobilize the masses against the oligarchs, and thus democracy is born.
Act 4: Democracy
It’s almost a cliché today that Plato was an anti-democratic thinker. But I don’t buy that. I think he was a harsh critic of democracy. And there’s a big difference. I can be a harsh critic of myself. I’m not anti-myself. I can be a harsh critic of my favorite football team. I’m not anti-my-favorite football team.
Plato saw a lot of good in democracy. I think he was aware that his entire philosophical outlook, and work, and the school that he founded, could only have arisen in a democracy. He couldn’t have built the Academy in Sparta or Thebes or Persia. So, I think he recognized a lot of positive things about democracy.
As he writes, in a democracy, “The city is bursting with liberty and freedom of speech and permits everyone to do whatever he wants.” “Each citizen will arrange his own life privately, however he pleases.” “This regime will produce a multifarious variety of people. Like a variegated cloak splashed with every color, democracy is embellished with every personality and may appear the most gorgeous…”
So, that all sounds fantastic. What, then, is Plato’s beef with democracy?
Remember, Plato lived through the catastrophic fall of Athenian democracy and a few years later he witnessed the unjust trial and execution of Socrates under the new democracy that was established – Athenian democracy 2.0. Through these experiences and others, Plato came to believe that democracy, with all its many pleasures and blessings, is ultimately unsustainable.
After describing democracy in book 8 he has Socrates remark, “Isn’t that way of life divinely sweet in the short run?” The emphasis is clearly on those final words “in the short run.”
In parallel with the divinely sweet aspects of democracy, Plato claims that you can observe certain ugly and disturbing trends emerging. First of all, there’s still the homelessness problem that carries over from the oligarchic phase, since the elites still refuse to do anything meaningful about it. And Plato thinks this is exacerbated in a democracy by a rise in crime and a failure to punish criminals. “In a democracy criminals condemned to death or to exile remain at large and haunt the streets.”
Another thing that carries over from the oligarchic phase into democracy is the obsession with money. But in a democracy this materialism is combined with a new resentment towards all things that used to be considered noble and beautiful by the old regime.
Thus, Plato thinks that in a democracy the people develop a disdain for high culture. They think it’s pretentious. There’s nothing that makes, say, Beethoven superior to top 40. It’s just a matter of taste. Different folks, different strokes.
The ideal of beauty ceases to be a cornerstone of education. In a democracy, people hate the idea that Plato very strongly believed in, that one needs an education suffused with beauty in order to become a good person and a good leader. “They don’t care what pursuits a man has gone through to get into politics. They’ll honor him if only he says he’s a friend of the people.” In other words, you can be an ex-criminal or a confirmed con-artist. As long as you write in your Twitter bio that you’re “pro democracy,” you have a chance in politics.
Act 5: Tyranny
The obsession with freedom and equality that takes hold in a democracy leads to the dismantling or inversion of all hierarchies. Here’s how Sullivan summarizes what happens next. It’s a pretty long quote but I think it’s worth reading in full. Here’s Sullivan:
[Democracy], Plato argues, is, for many people, the fairest of regimes... But it is inherently unstable. As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.
The very rich come under attack, as inequality becomes increasingly intolerable. Patriarchy is also dismantled… Family hierarchies are inverted: “A father habituates himself to be like his child…and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before…his parents.” In classrooms, “as the teacher ... is frightened of the pupils and fawns on them, so the students make light of their teachers.” Animals are regarded as equal to humans; the rich mingle freely with the poor in the streets and try to blend in. The foreigner is equal to the citizen.
And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment.
He is usually of the elite but has a nature in tune with the time — given over to random pleasures and whims, feasting on plenty of food and sex, and reveling in the nonjudgment that is democracy’s civil religion. He makes his move by “taking over a particularly obedient mob” and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt. If not stopped quickly, his appetite for attacking the rich on behalf of the people swells further. He is a traitor to his class — and soon, his elite enemies, shorn of popular legitimacy, find a way to appease him or are forced to flee. Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. It’s as if he were offering the addled, distracted, and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities. He rides a backlash to excess…and offers himself as the personified answer to the internal conflicts of the democratic mess. He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.
Part 2: What to Make of Plato's Argument
That is the full sequence Plato outlines of political revolution through all the archetypal regimes beginning with the ideal republic and culminating with tyranny. Sullivan and a few others have taken the final chapter in that story as a warning for our times. But what about the larger narrative? Is it possible that it reflects some truth about how regimes tend to evolve over time? I mean, obviously not all democracies evolved from oligarchies, and not all tyrannies from democracies. Plato knew that. His own city of Athens was a counterexample to that sequence, since it had been a tyranny before it became a democracy.
But is it possible that statistically speaking, most timocratic regimes tend to become oligarchies, as Plato suggests, and most oligarchies tend to evolve into democracies, and most democracies into tyrannies? In other words, could it be that what Plato is giving us here is a generalized, historical model outlining the most probable sequence that certain polities will go through if allowed to develop naturally over time?
When I first read the Republic back in college, that thought never occurred to me. I just thought it was a story – perhaps a philosophically rich one – but a story no less about moral and political decline. And no professor of mine ever suggested otherwise. However, by the time I started working on this series, I had discovered that several significant political thinkers throughout history, beginning with the historian Polybius, had concluded that Plato’s sequence was not just a story, but a historical model, and a pretty decent one to boot.
At the same time, I discovered that in academia today it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that no one thinks Plato is offering a valid historical model. And I can say that with some confidence because I tried to find someone – anyone – to come on the show and discuss the pros and cons of Plato’s model. What did he get right and where did he go wrong? But I couldn’t find a single classicist, historian, or philosopher who even entertained the possibility that what Plato writes in Republic 8-9 might be historically valid, or historically sourced.
So why is that? Why were there figures in the past – smart people – who came to the conclusion that Plato had encapsulated some very real historical trends in his model? And yet now there’s almost a uniform, consensus view in academia that there’s nothing there of any historical basis. Plato was just doing the old armchair philosophy thing.
Now, it’s already been two years since I started looking for guests for this series, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about this and to ask other scholars why they dismiss Plato’s model. And I think I’ve identified the main reasons. Now, this is of course my own conclusion about what the reasons are, because there’s no article out there called “Why Plato’s historical model in books 8-9 is wrong.” Scholars kind of just agree it’s wrong and carry on. So, just like in the Why People Hate Plato episode I gave you my subjective take and offered five reasons, so too in the remainder of this episode, I give you what I think are the five main reasons people don’t believe Plato.
Objection 1: "It’s all hypothetical"
Perhaps the most common reason I’ve heard from scholars as to why they don’t believe that Plato’s sequence is a generalized historical model based on empirical research goes something like this:
Kallipolis, they say, is an ideal state that Plato admits has never actually existed. And the narrative of fall and decline in books 8 and 9, describe what would happen should Kallipolis ever come into existence. But since it hasn’t, there’s no way to know if Plato’s prediction is right. It is simply beyond the realm of what can be discussed empirically.
As mentioned previously, that was my assumption too for many years. But over time, I was compelled to reevaluate. And here’s why. First, towards the end of my graduate career, I happened to read an author whom hardly anyone reads anymore – Polybius. And in Polybius’s Histories, I discovered a model of political evolution very similar to the one Plato offered, explained in a more approachable manner and using more familiar terminology. And I thought, “huh, that’s really interesting!” Because Polybius, writing in around 150 BC, had 200 additional years of historical data to work with than Plato had, and yet he still agreed fundamentally with Plato’s model!
That made a lasting impression. Fast forward another year or so, I learned that the Founding Fathers of the United States were obsessed with Polybius and actually designed the US constitution with his updated version of Plato’s model in mind. Eventually, I also discovered that Cicero, Macchiavelli, John Adams and a host of other great historical and political thinkers all thought that the Platonic-Polybian model was broadly-speaking correct.
So, with the weight of so many thinkers effectively testifying in Plato’s favor, I started to think maybe Plato’s sequence isn’t just a prediction about what might happen to an ideal republic but rather a distillation or encapsulation of what has happened time and time again.
Now, even if it’s true that Plato based his model on empirical research, that doesn’t mean it was good empirical research, which brings us to the second reason many scholars today dismiss Plato’s model.
Objection 2: "Small Sample Size"
Another reason why a lot of scholars today don’t take Plato’s model seriously is that they believe he didn’t have access to good data. They think that even if Plato tried to base his model on empirical research, he was relying on just the local history of a handful of neighboring poleis.
As one classics blog wrote in response to the controversy sparked by Sullivan, “Plato’s vision of political change is…conditioned by Athenian and local Greek histories. His sample sizes are not large enough!”
I gotta tell you. It really amazes me how widespread this view remains that ancient Greece was just a handful of city states even within Classics departments today, despite current archaeological knowledge to the contrary. I mean, if someone had written that 100 years ago, that would have been fully in line with the archaeological knowledge of the time. In fact, that is what people were saying back then. In 1891 the scholar H. E. Malden wrote, “It does not of course follow that what Plato drew from his knowledge of a small circle of specially constituted and peculiar Greek cities is universally true of all states at all times.” (Malden, H. E. “The Sequence of Forms of Government in Plato’s ‘Republic’ Compared with the Actual History of Greek Cities.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol. 5, 1891, p. 55)
But since then, we’ve discovered that there were over a thousand Greek city states across the entire ancient Mediterranean and Black Sea regions. That means hundreds of democracies, hundreds of oligarchies, and hundreds of tyrannies. And even though we have hardly any information about like 90% of them, that doesn’t mean Plato didn’t have information about them.
Athens was the most vibrant hub in this far-ranging ecosystem of Greek poleis. People and ideas were constantly coming in from as far away as modern day Spain and Ukraine. And Plato himself traveled far and wide. And even if he hadn’t traveled, he still would have had access to plenty of data because there were hundreds of poleis in the Athenian alliance alone.
We know that Plato’s student Aristotle tasked his students with studying the histories and constitutions of 158 states. Why couldn’t Plato have done something similar, at a smaller scale?
In terms of the number of states he could have studied, Plato had access to a larger data set than we do today. Granted, those states were much smaller and less technologically advanced than modern states. So, it’s conceivable that even if Plato had analyzed his data perfectly, his conclusions wouldn’t apply to modern states. But that is a separate issue.
The point is, Plato had access to a phenomenal data set. Perhaps the best such data set that ever existed. Maybe that’s why the Greeks produced so much political philosophy by the way. Because they had so many states to study. The ancient mediterranean was a giant, vibrant laboratory of political experimentation the likes of which has never existed before or after, to our knowledge.
So much for small sample sizes.
Objection 3: "A self-conscious fiction"
I don’t want to give the impression here that the common academic view that books 8 and 9 are hypothetical or speculative is an unreasonable one, or that scholars who have that view are ignoring obvious signs to the contrary. Because they can point to several things in the text that seem to support their view. More specifically, they claim that Plato offers us clear indications that what he is giving us is highly speculative if not outright fictional.
For one, Plato begins the narrative of decline in books 8 and 9 by invoking the muses and parodying Homer. Just as Homer begins the Iliad by asking the muse to recount how strife first erupted among the leaders of the Greeks encamped outside the walls of Troy, Plato begins his narrative with Socrates saying, “Shall we, like Homer, invoke the Muses to tell how civil strife first fell upon [Kallipolis]”? (Rep. VIII, 545e)
Isn’t that a clear signal to us readers that what follows is going to be about as historically reliable as Homer’s fantastical tales? I mean, Plato just spent the majority of book 3 attacking Homer. In other dialogues as well, he criticizes poets, saying that they tell high-falutin tales that sound really profound. But if you ask them, “hey, what does that actually mean? And is it true?” They can’t answer. They say, “I don’t know. These things come to me through inspiration from the muses.” And Plato thinks that’s problematic. And yet now, he’s making Socrates joke about channeling the narrative of Kallipolis’ decline from the Muses in “mock-serious tragic style.” That’s pretty striking.
And if that’s not enough to make you doubt the veracity of what comes next, the ensuing narrative in books 8 and 9 corresponds so symmetrically to books 2 and 3, it looks too perfect to be the result of objective empirical research. Remember that ring structure we’ve talked about several times that characterizes the whole of the Republic? How the second half of the work structurally looks like a mirror image of the first part? Well, we can see that right here. While books 2 and 3 built up the ideal city piece by piece, books 8 and 9 show it unraveling, bit by bit. Furthermore, the city-soul analogy that was introduced in book 2 is now brought back to the forefront. You see, in parallel to the successive transformations of Kallipolis, Plato also describes analogous transformations in the psychology of its citizens. The constitution of their souls also changes in parallel to the regime. And when you see that perfect, ring structure, together with that perfect-looking city-soul analogy it may be tempting to conclude that in writing this, Plato was more concerned with achieving that literary and philosophical structure than with following the data dispassionately wherever it might lead.
And that is what a lot of scholars conclude: that Plato made up the sequence of regimes in order to bolster, once again, the city-soul analogy by showing the city and the soul following similar trajectories. If you remember, we already saw this kind of thinking in our discussion of book 4, where we talked about how some scholars similarly dismiss Plato’s tripartite soul model as being “driven by the [city-soul] analogy.” In other words, they think Plato made up the tripartite model to make it fit his political model.
In both of these cases, the scholars in question have made a judgment not to take Plato’s argument seriously based on what they think his motivations were in making it. To be fair, inferring what an author’s motivations are can be an important interpretive tool, especially if you have no other tools available. Like, if someone tells you, “hey, it’s raining outside,” and for some reason you have no way of getting to a window to check for yourself, then you’re probably going to decide whether to believe that statement based on what you know of this person and whether they have any potential motivation for lying to you. But, if you do have access to a window, then you’re not going to spend time speculating about that person’s motivations. You’re just going to go check.
Where am I going with this? I don’t think we should rely on presumptions about Plato’s motivations, when we can actually test his model against real historical data. Even if he seems to be giving us clear signals about his intentions, we can never be 100% sure that our interpretation is correct. Take, for example, the joke about channeling the muses. Sure, it could potentially mean he’s admitting that his model is concocted. But it could just as well be self-deprecating humor meant to show that he, in true Socratic fashion, is aware of the limits of his knowledge. Plato will often have Socrates finish some elaborate argument, only to have him say, “God only knows if that’s true.” But that’s not an admission that the argument is false. It’s an admission that human reason is fallible. Good scientists are usually very skeptical and suspicious of their own results. That doesn’t mean their results are bad.
In sum, the third main reason a lot of scholars dismiss Plato’s model as unempical is itself unempirical, as are the first two reasons. The only solid way to debunk or corroborate Plato’s sequence would be to perform a statistical analysis of the ancient data on regime change. And amazingly, as far as I know, no one has attempted to do that in a thorough and comprehensive manner. However, there is one statistical study I’m aware of that claims to refute at least a piece of Plato’s model, and that brings us to the next objection.
Objection 4: "Plato got it backwards"
One of the academics mentioned in Guo’s Washington Post article written in response to Sullivan’s piece was Andrew Hanssen, an economist at Clemson University in South Carolina. Hanssen and his colleague Robert Fleck, also an economist, have been doing some interesting work analyzing the data we have on ancient regimes and studying, in particular, the relationship between tyranny and democracy. They’ve tried to explain how, in some cases, a period of tyrannical rule actually preceded and paved the way for the rise of democracy. This happened, most famously, in Athens, which was ruled by tyrants in the sixth century BC until the so-called Cleisthenic revolution turned Athens into a democracy about 140 years before Plato penned the Republic. This research that they’ve done has led Hanssen to believe that Plato was wrong about at least the final chapter in his sequence.
In Guo’s article, Hanssen is quoted as saying, “Plato was a theorist — but he wasn’t much for testing his theories.” “If Plato had been interested in collecting data, he would have found his view to be incorrect.”
In other words, Hanssen is claiming that if you look at the historical data, you’ll see that tyrannies are not most likely to emerge from democracies à la Plato, but rather from oligarchies. And furthermore, tyranny is sometimes a stepping stone towards democracy rather than the other way around. Therefore, Plato was wrong and probably never looked at the data to begin with.
One question is, What is this data that Hanssen and Fleck have been studying? Well, the data is contained in the so-called Polis Inventory, which is a truly incredible resource. It was the result of an impressive 10-year research project sponsored by the Copenhagen Polis Center in Denmark and undertaken by many scholars working together to collect every bit of evidence they possibly could on over 1000 ancient Greece cities of the ancient Mediterranean and Black Sea regions, and to catalog which type of government each polis (for which we have data) had at which points in history.
Again, it is one of the most ground-breaking research projects to be conducted in the fields of classics and ancient history in the past century. And if you look at that data, what Hanssen and Fleck say seems correct. But there’s a few problems here.
First, the data is very incomplete. As mentioned earlier, we know very little about most of the 1035 poleis identified in the Inventory. Of the estimated 300 or so poleis that experienced democracy at some point in the classical period, and which Plato could have known about, we only have reliable data on 54 of them (these numbers were provided to me by Eric Robinson, an expert on ancient democracies). And in some of those cases, we don’t have much more than a simple report that such-and-such polis was a democracy at such-and-such time.
Now, 54 is still a pretty decent sample size. But here’s the second problem with the data. How much weight do you give to each of these data points? Do you treat them all equally? Like, if tyranny preceded democracy in 30 cases, and followed it in 24, does that mean Hanssen and Fleck are right and Plato wrong?
Not necessarily. You see, with his sequence, Plato is trying to lay out the most probable developments that will naturally occur to a polity over time. But in the real world, most states don’t have the luxury of developing organically for long periods of time without getting conquered or aggressively interfered with by foreign powers. It’s very likely that a huge percentage of regime changes in history were not the result of domestic politics but of foreign meddling. But, then, those data points, where there was foreign meddling, shouldn’t be included in a study that seeks to map out a kind of natural life-cycle of political bodies.
Let’s take a modern example. Throughout the Cold War, there were many regime changes that happened all over the world. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a single one of those coups that happened without interference from either the US or the Soviet Union or both. So, most of this data tells you very little about the natural evolution of a state over time, since those coups were driven by outside forces way more powerful than any internal political factors.
To get back to the ancient data, when we see in the Inventory that a polis underwent a change of regime, how do we know if it was the result of internal politics or of foreign interference? Well, usually we don’t know, because oftentimes that information doesn’t survive. But Plato had access to a lot more of that information than we do. So, if he was doing empirical research, he would have been able to filter the data in ways that we can’t. He could have, for example, focused only on cases where there seemed to be minimal outside interference. And that might yield different results than an analysis today that gives each polis equal weight.
Despite these caveats about the data, as well as other problems with it that I’m not going to get into right now, it’s still possible that Hanssen and Fleck are right, and Plato is wrong about the last part of his sequence.
But let’s get precise about what exactly they are claiming Plato got wrong. The final chapter in Plato’s sequence, namely the transition from democracy to tyranny, seems to imply two separate things. First, that most democracies will eventually become tyrannies. And second, that most tyrannies were previously democracies. What Hanssen and Fleck are claiming the data shows is that the second point is wrong. Most tyrannies in the inventory were not previously democracies. And for the record, I think they are right about that. I think Plato got that one specific point wrong.
But that says nothing about the first point, which is the real bombshell claim Plato is making, and the oneSullivan relies on, that most democracies will become tyrannies. The fact that most tyrannies you find did not emerge from democracies does not mean that most democracies are not going to suffer a tyrannical fate. Just like the fact that most expired items in your fridge are not milk does not mean that the milk in your fridge is not going to expire. Plato could still be right about the fate of democracy. No one has argued that the data debunks him on that point.
Interestingly, when Polybius updated Plato’s model 200 years later, the one major correction he made was exactly on the point Hanssen and Fleck objected to. He moved tyranny earlier in the cycle. We can talk more about Polybius’ version in a subsequent episode. But here’s the kicker, he still kept the ending of the cycle in line with Plato’s. In other words, he agreed with Plato that after democracy, tyranny would inevitably strike back.
To recap, the only empirical argument against Plato’s model I’m aware of doesn’t actually refute his claim that democracy leads to tyranny and it only disputes one minor point in the cycle, which Polybius later corrected. I don’t know about you but that, to me, is very striking. I mean, you’d think that people would have found some more serious flaws by now if these models were as laughable as most scholars now claim.
For all the confident talk that Plato is obviously wrong and unempirical, where are the empirical arguments debunking him? I’d love to see some. I’d love to see someone take not Plato’s but Polybius’ model, the more perfected of the two, and test it against the data very carefully and thoroughly. And if the conclusion is that it is wrong, great! At least we’ll know empirically. But that hasn’t happened yet.
Objection 5: "History isn’t cyclical"
There is one more reason that I think might explain a lot of the current dismissive attitude towards Plato’s model. And this one actually doesn’t just pertain to Plato. I think it also explains a broader fault line that divides our modern way of thinking from the worldviews of not just the ancient Greeks, but also the ancient Indians and Chinese. And that is that we see history as a linear process, while they saw it as cyclical.
We like to believe today that our society is making progress in every direction. Sure, there are setbacks, even catastrophes. But in the end, progress always wins, humanity gets back on its feet, picks up from where it left off, and continues its course towards a better, more peaceful, enlightened, and technologically advanced future.
Whereas one of the implications of Plato’s model, which becomes more explicit in his later dialogues, and is also emphasized by Polybius, is that the sequence repeats again and again indefinitely. This view is not unlike the traditional Chinese conception of history. For thousands of years, Chinese historians believed that there was a civilizational cycle, going from warring states, to the rise of one dynasty, to the establishment of an empire, which eventually becomes decadent, falls apart, and then the whole thing starts afresh. A similarly cyclical view of history was proposed by the Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun in the 1300’s.
I remember in school when we learned about the Chinese view of history, the students and teachers basically laughed at it. Like, “oh, look at those silly, premodern people with their silly views. We obviously aren’t beholden to any cycle. We’ve made uninterrupted progress for hundreds of years. We put a literal man on the literal moon. We have AI chips and robotic dogs. Obviously, if Plato or Khaldun or any Chinese historian saw us today, they’d realize how wrong they were.”
But here’s something to think about. Plato, and even more so Polybius, also lived at a time of unprecedented progress. When Polybius was writing in the 100’s BC, the Mediterranean world had seen uninterrupted technological advances for 800 years. They were building complex machines like the Antikythera Mechanism, which humans wouldn’t be able to build again for 1500 years. There were also major political and constitutional advances that were made during that time frame. Many states and political thinkers considered monarchy to be a primitive system they had left behind them. The Roman Republic thought it was going to free the world from Kings and Tyrants forever. Instead, it stamped out democracy and destroyed its own republican system. And self-government was not seen again in Europe for over a thousand years.
So, when we look back at the amazing progress we’ve witnessed over the past 500 years, it’s tempting to conclude that that’s the new normal, and it will go on forever. But how do we know we’re not living at a moment like the one Polybius lived in. Maybe we’re not decades away from a technological singularity, but from a great political reset.
To get back to the question which motivated this whole discussion, Does democracy lead to tyranny? Well, there’s obviously more ground we need to cover before we can offer a verdict. But the point of this episode was not to answer that question. It was to defend it as a legitimate question that we should be thinking about; to revive the discussion that Sullivan himself rekindled, but which was then put out and extinguished by arguments which, I think we’ve seen today, are not very convincing.
It is not the case that, as Guo writes in his piece, “Sullivan's argument veered off-track the moment it mistook Plato’s musings for actual political science.” The truth is that Sullivan made use of an incredibly valuable resource – one which, in all likelihood, Plato derived empirically from a rich data set, which we no longer have in its entirety. To ignore Plato’s findings and warnings without solid empirical evidence contradicting them doesn’t seem like a wise thing to do.
I sincerely hope that in the coming years, scholars will finally undertake a comprehensive analysis of not just the Polis Inventory but also other historical data that we have on democracies and try to answer this most pressing of questions: What comes after democracy? ‘Cause if we want to safeguard our own, we need to know what to guard it against.
In the next episode we will look at Polybius’ updated version of Plato’s model. And in the episode following that, we will discuss how exactly Plato thinks the transition from democracy to tyranny often takes place and what we can do about it.