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Have you ever wondered how tyrants arise?


Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived in the city-state of Athens. In 380 B.C., Plato wrote “The Republic,” where he described in Books 8 and 9: “States are as the men are; they grow out of human characters. … Like state, like man.”

“The Republic” is written as a collection of conversations of Plato’s teacher Socrates. It gives insights into human behavior which is amazingly similar to today. Plato described government going through five stages:

First Stage

Plato’s first stage was called “Royal” or “Aristocracy … whom we rightly call just and good.” This is government by hard-working, virtuous lovers of “truth” and “wisdom.” These responsible individuals know how to run farms and businesses, and they know how to run city government. “A ruler considers … always what is for the interest of his subject … and that alone he considers in everything which he says and does.”

Second Stage

The second stage Plato called “timocracy.” This was a government run by lovers of “honor” and “fame.” Plato wrote: “Now what man answers to this form of government. … He is a … lover of honor; claiming to be a ruler. … Busy-bodies are honored and applauded. …”

These may include a popular actor from the Greek theater, or a famous Greek Olympic athlete, or a courageous military hero, or just a political busy-body craving attention. Their desire for honor and fame leaves them susceptible to being swayed by flattery or ridicule. They enter politics with the best of intentions, but having no experience running anything, they yield to “avarice” or covetousness and begin to vote themselves favors out of the city treasury.

Plato added: “Such an one will despise riches only when he is young; but as he gets older he will be more and more attracted to them, because he has a piece of the avaricious nature in him, and is not single-minded towards virtue. … Not originally of a bad nature, but having kept bad company, is at last brought … to … contentiousness and passion, and becomes arrogant and ambitious. … Is not the passionate element wholly set on ruling … and getting fame? True. Suppose we call it the contentious or ambitious. …”

Plato added: “The love of honor turns to love of money; the conversion is instantaneous. … Because they have no means of openly acquiring the money which they prize; they will spend that which is another man’s.”

Third Stage

This turns into Plato’s third stage – an insider clique, a ruling class, called an “oligarchy.” These are lovers of “money” and “gain.” They seek money to get into office, then once elected they funnel money and favors to family, friends, constituents and supporters who in turn help them stay in power. The insider ruling class raises taxes on everyone except themselves. They pass laws, but exempt themselves.

Plato wrote: “They invent illegal modes of expenditure; for what do they or their wives care about the law? … Their fondness for money makes them unwilling to pay taxes. … And so they grow richer and richer … the less they think of virtue … and the virtuous are dishonored. … Insatiable avarice is the ruling passion of an oligarchy. …”

Oligarchical leaders do not value virtue and are not educated in how to run responsible businesses, as Plato explained: “He has had no education, or he would never have allowed the blind god of riches to lead the dance within him. … And being uneducated he will have many slavish desires, some beggarly, some knavish, breeding in his soul. … If he … has the power to defraud, he will soon prove that he is not without the will, and that his passions are only restrained by fear and not by reason. … When he is contending for prizes and other distinctions, he is afraid to incur a loss which is to be repaid only by barren honor. …”

Plato continued in his examination of an oligarchy: “And what are the defects? … Inevitable division … two states, the one of poor, the other of rich men; and they are … always conspiring against one another. … The rulers, being aware that their power rests upon their wealth, refuse to curtail … the extravagance of the spendthrift youth because they gain by their ruin. … They … gain by the ruin of extravagant youth. …”

Plato continued: “The ruling class do not want remedies; they care only for money, and are as careless of virtue as the poorest of the citizens. … Families have often been reduced to beggary … some of them owe money, some have forfeited their citizenship. … Thus men of family often lose their property or rights of citizenship; but they remain in the city, full of hatred against the new owners of their estates and ripe for revolution. … They hate and conspire against those who have got their property, and against everybody else, and are eager for revolution.”

Fourth Stage

As frustration grows, the people finally throw out the oligarchs and set up the fourth stage – “democracy.”

Plato wrote: “Next comes democracy and the democratic man, out of … the oligarchical man. … From the least cause, or with none at all, the city falls ill and fights a battle for life or death. And democracy comes into power when the poor are the victors, killing some and exiling some, and giving equal shares in the government to all the rest. …”

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Plato continued: “The manner of life in such a state is that of democrats; there is freedom and plainness of speech, and every man does what is right in his own eyes, and has his own way of life. … Is not the city full of freedom … a man may say and do what he likes? … The great charm is, that you may do as you like; you may govern if you like, let it alone if you like; go to war and make peace if you feel disposed, and all quite irrespective of anybody else. When you condemn men to death they remain alive all the same; a gentleman is desired to go into exile, and he stalks about the streets like a hero; and nobody sees him or cares for him.”

Plato added: “The state is not one but many, like a bazaar at which you can buy anything. … Hence arise the most various developments of character; the state is like a piece of embroidery of which the colors and figures are the manners of men. … There will be the greatest variety of human natures … being an embroidered robe which is spangled with every sort of flower. … Observe, too, how grandly Democracy sets her foot upon all our fine theories of education, – how little she cares for the training of her statesmen! …”

Democracy’s key feature is that everyone becomes a lover of tolerance. Everything and everyone is tolerated equally, as Plato described: “Such is democracy; – a pleasing, lawless, various sort of government, distributing equality to equals and unequals alike. … Democracy … is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike. … Freedom … as they tell you in a democracy, is the glory of the state. …”

Plato’s student Aristotle stated: “Tolerance is the last virtue of a dying society.”

Plato warned that unrestrained freedom would eventually lead to licentiousness: “And so the young man passes … into the freedom and libertinism of useless and unnecessary pleasures. … In all of us, even in good men, there is a lawless wild-beast nature. … Unnecessary pleasures and appetites I conceive to be unlawful. … Everyone appears to have them, but in some persons they are controlled … while in … others they are stronger … and there is no conceivable folly or crime – not excepting incest or any other unnatural union … which … when he has parted company with all shame and sense, a man may not be ready to commit. …”

Plato explained further: “He was supposed from his youth upwards to have been trained under a miserly parent, who encouraged the saving appetites in him … and then he got into the company of a … licentious sort of people, and taking to all their wanton ways rushed into the opposite extreme from an abhorrence of his father’s meanness. … Neither does he receive … advice; if any one says to him that some pleasures are … of evil desires … he shakes his head. … He lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour. … His life has neither law nor order … he is all liberty and equality. …”After this manner the democrat was generated out of the oligarch. …”

Plato warned further: “Can liberty have any limit? Certainly not. … By degrees the anarchy finds a way into private houses. … The son is on a level with his father, he having no respect or reverence for either of his parents; and this is his freedom. … Citizens … chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority … they will have no one over them. … Such … is the fair and glorious beginning out of which springs tyranny. … Liberty overmasters democracy … the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction. … The excess of liberty, whether in states or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery. … And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty. … ”

Plato warned that since the people have no experience running a government, they will follow the example of preceding leaders and yield to avarice. They will vote to spread the city’s wealth around till the treasury is empty. Then they will vote to take money from the rich: “Democracy … of which the insatiable desire brings her to dissolution. … Their leaders deprive the rich of their estates and distribute them among the people; at the same time taking care to reserve the larger part for themselves. … And the persons whose property is taken from them are compelled to defend themselves before the people as they best can. … Insatiable desire … and … neglect … introduces the change in democracy, which occasions a demand for tyranny. … Does not tyranny spring from democracy. …”

Plato described how unrestrained passions lead to financial irresponsibility. With not enough money to go around, bickering and fighting result, leading to chaos and anarchy. Then people will begin to look for someone to come along and fix this mess.

Fifth Stage

And that is the fifth stage – “tyranny.” The tyrant is a lover of power.

Plato wrote: “Last of all comes … the tyrant. … In the early days of his power, he is full of smiles, and he salutes every one whom he meets … making promises in public and also in private, liberating debtors, and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to every one. … This … is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector. … Hinting at the abolition of debts and partition of lands … he … begins to make a party against the rich. … that they may be impoverished by payment of taxes, and thus compelled to devote themselves to their daily wants and therefore less likely to conspire against him? … And when a man who is wealthy and is also accused of being an enemy of the people sees … he flees … and is not ashamed to be a coward. …”

Plato explained that “the protector” then yields to avarice and uses his newly-acquired power to target his political opponents: “And the protector of the people … having a mob entirely at his disposal, he is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; by the favorite method of false accusation he brings them into court and murders them, making the life of man to disappear, and with unholy tongue and lips tasting the blood of his fellow citizen. … And if any of them are suspected by him of having notions of freedom, and of resistance to his authority, he will have a good pretext for destroying them. …”

Plato continued: “How then does a protector begin to change into a tyrant? … He begins to grow unpopular. … Then comes the famous request for a bodyguard, which is the device of all those who have got thus far in their tyrannical career – ‘Let not the people’s friend,’ as they say, ‘be lost to them.’ … The people readily assent; all their fears are for him – they have none for themselves. … And … the protector of whom we spoke, is to be seen … the overthrower of many, standing up in the chariot of state with the reins in his hand, no longer protector, but tyrant absolute. … The lion and serpent element in them disproportionately grows and gains strength. …”

Plato described how the tyrant would keep power: “The tyrant must be always getting up a war. … He is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader. …”

James Madison warned of this at the Constitutional Convention, June 29, 1787 (Max Farrand’s “Records of the Federal Convention of 1787,” vol. I (1911, p. 465): “In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive Magistrate. Constant apprehension of War, has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”

James Madison wrote in “Federalist No. 47” (Jan. 30, 1788): “The accumulation of all powers, Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

Plato described what happens when a tyrant loses popularity: “Then some of those who joined in setting him up, and who are in power, speak their minds to him and to one another, and the more courageous of them cast in his teeth what is being done. … And the tyrant, if he means to rule, must get rid of them; he cannot stop while he has a friend or an enemy who is good for anything. … Some he kills and others he banishes. … Must he not either perish at the hands of his enemies, or from being a man become a wolf – that is, a tyrant? … He who has tasted the entrails of a single human victim … is destined to become a wolf. … And therefore he must look about him and see who is valiant, who is high-minded, who is wise, who is wealthy; happy man, he is the enemy of them all, and must seek occasion against them whether he will or no, until he has made a purgation of the state. … Yes, I said, not the sort of purgation which the physicians make of the body; for they take away the worse and leave the better part, but he does the reverse. …

“And the more detestable his actions are to the citizens the more satellites and the greater devotion in them will he require? … And who are the devoted band, and where will he procure them? … He will rob the citizens of their slaves; he will then set them free and enroll them in his bodyguard. To be sure … he will be able to trust them best of all. What a blessed creature … must this tyrant be; he has put to death the others and has these for his trusted friends. … These are the new citizens whom he has called into existence, who admire him and are his companions, while the good hate and avoid him. … But they will … attract mobs, and hire voices fair and loud and persuasive, and draw the cities over to tyrannies. … Moreover, they are paid for this and receive honor – the greatest honor, as might be expected, from tyrants. … Poets … are the eulogists of tyranny. … He also praises tyranny as godlike. … But the higher they ascend our constitution hill, the more their reputation fails, and seems unable from shortness of breath to proceed further. …”

Plato added: “Let us … inquire how the tyrant will maintain that … ever-changing army of his. If, he said, there are sacred treasures in the city, he will confiscate and spend them. … By heaven … the parent will discover what a monster he has been fostering in his bosom; and, when he wants to drive him out, he will find that he is weak and his son strong. Why, you do not mean to say that the tyrant will use violence? What! beat his father if he opposes him? Yes, he will, having first disarmed him. Then he is a parricide, and a cruel guardian of an aged parent; and this is real tyranny … as the saying is, the people who would escape the smoke which is the slavery of freemen, has fallen into the fire which is the tyranny of slaves.

“Thus liberty, getting out of all order and reason, passes into the harshest and bitterest form of slavery. … May we not rightly say that we have sufficiently discussed … the manner of the transition from democracy to tyranny? Yes, quite enough, he said. … A tyranny is the wretchedest form of government … the longer he lives the more of a tyrant he becomes. …”

Plato’s predicted government would go from:

To read the rest of Bill Federer’s breakdown on Plato’s sage predictions and their bearing on America, click here.

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