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The Republic | Book 8 | Summary

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Summary

At the beginning of Book 8 Socrates summarizes the main features of the perfect state, and Glaucon recalls Socrates had previously promised the company to discuss the four principal forms of defective, or less-than-perfect, states. In Book 8 Socrates discusses these forms, or political constitutions, in turn. They are timocracy (rule for the sake of honor), oligarchy (rule of the few), democracy (majority rule of the people), and tyranny (rule by a despot). Socrates agrees to characterize these forms of government in order, supplementing each discussion with a description of the typical individual citizen in each kind of state. Hence the discussion proceeds from the timocratic state to the timocratic man, from the oligarchic state to the oligarchic man, and so forth. Throughout Socrates describes how one flawed constitution in the series naturally and inevitably gives rise to another flawed successor.

In the first phase of the analysis, the comparatively unobjectionable forms of monarchy and aristocracy yield to timocracy, or rule for honor's sake. In this flawed form of government, money and the status it confers are the principal villains. The spirit of contention and ambition is rife in such a form of government. Ego and greed characterize the timocratic individual. In his soul, while he grows up, the rational element yields to passion and appetite. (Readers should recall here Socrates's earlier division of the soul into three parts.)

In oligarchic states the rich hold power and the poor are deprived of it. In timocratic states the great mass of citizens become lovers of money, while virtue is steadily more and more dishonored. Eventually laws are passed that make a sum of money the qualification for citizenship, and the state transitions into oligarchy. Such a qualification, says Socrates, is as senseless as if the certification of a ship's pilot were dependent on his amount of property. Furthermore, an oligarchy suffers from fragmentation: it is really not one state but two, divided between the rich and the poor. The inhabitants of an oligarchy are incapable of warfare and unwilling to pay taxes. Nearly everybody who is not a ruler is a pauper.

Next in the series of flawed forms of government, says Socrates, is democracy. This constitution of the state comes into being when the poor rise up against the rich and conquer them, slaughtering some and banishing the remainder from power. Socrates acknowledges the appeal of the democratic state, comparing it in a striking simile to an embroidered robe that is spangled with every sort of flower. Yet despite the superficial appeal of every kind of liberty, the variety and disorder of democracy are likely to trample the finer principles of virtue and good government, and the democratic man becomes the prey of myriad desires. In an allusion to Homer's Odyssey Socrates compares such a man to the idle and purposeless lotus eaters, who cast aside all modesty and temperance, terming these virtues silliness and unmanliness. Law and order, in short, are sacrificed to liberty and equality.

In a harshly critical tone Socrates finally comes to tyranny, which he sarcastically calls "the most beautiful" of all constitutions. Tyranny arises from democracy when the latter "has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom." As Socrates says in an apparent paradox: "The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery." When the people set a champion and protector over them and nurse him into greatness, a tyrant is born. In a foreshadowing of Book 10, Socrates says tragic playwrights like Euripides, who seem to praise tyranny, will have to be excluded from the ideal State.

Analysis

The discussion of the flawed forms of government in Book 8 should be read in historical context. Readers must bear in mind within Plato's lifetime Athens had experienced sudden and violent shifts from democracy to oligarchy to tyranny and back again to democracy. Furthermore, the city-states of ancient Greece exhibited a wide range of forms and styles in government. Finally, Athenian democracy in the late fifth century BCE was direct democracy, rather than republican, representative government, as in the United States.

Plato presents a two-part scrutiny of flawed forms of government, in which Socrates first examines a constitution and then describes an individual typifying it. This presentation closely parallels the two-part approach in the first half of the Republic in which justice is first identified in the state and then in the individual.

The word timocracy may seem unfamiliar to modern readers. However, it would have resonated with the ancient Greeks, especially considering their well-near universal familiarity with Homeric epic. The Greek chieftains in the Iliad, led by Achilles and Agamemnon, are royal leaders who preside over monarchies, but they are also timocratic figures. Their wealth and possessions are visible, and highly valued, signs of honor (timē in Greek). Thus Plato's allusion to the opening lines of Homer's Iliad at the start of his discussion of timocracy is scarcely accidental. His readers would know discord first broke out among the Greeks during the siege at Troy with a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon over the woman Briseis, who was a war captive and thus a symbol of timē for her captor. Agamemnon's decision to take her from Achilles sets the plot of the entire epic in motion.

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