Plato’s The Republic centers on a simple question: is it better to be just than unjust? In answering this overlying question, Socrates outlines the ideal city and how justice is a virtue of that city. From there, he characterizes justice as a virtue of the soul. It is while he is discussing the soul that Socrates begins to define the different types of souls. Rather than comparing and contrasting each soul, Plato quickly jumps into contrasting the tyrannical soul with the aristocratic soul ? the most unjust with the most just.
In Book IX of Plato’s The Republic, Socrates describes a man in an awful state asserting that the worst of souls is the tyrant. This accurate assertion can be seen through the consideration of not only the tyrant’s personal characteristics but also the negative ______ he contributes to the city. In Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, the five types of people are presented in parallel to the fives types of regimes. The most inferior of the five regimes is tyranny. Correspondingly, the tyrannical soul is then the most inferior person.
Socrates examines the steady decline from one regime to the next, starting with the fall from aristocracy to timocracy when factions arise between auxiliaries and guardians. This decline comes because of injustice and the spirit of the auxiliaries not abiding by the edicts of reason. Further decline due to an excess of desire and the degradation of spirit ultimately leads to tyranny. This is the most wretched of all the regimes as the tyrant is the most wretched of souls. Book IX of The Republic begins with a story of two young men whose lives take opposite paths.
The first is raised in a home more Spartan than Athenian, born to a parsimonious father who honors the “money-making desires while despising the ones that aren’t necessary but exist for the sake of play and showing off” (572c). The son rebels against his austere upbringing, and revels in the company of subtler men who delight in the pleasures of the world (572c). However, because the young man has been brought up to abhor such worldliness, in the end he chooses a middle path ? “neither illiberal nor hostile to law” ? having become what Plato describes as a “man of the people” (572d).
This introduction is important, because Plato uses the young man previously described to contrast the second. The second man is perhaps the son of the first, raised in moderation, to appreciate both the diligence of work and the joy of pleasure. When the same influences, friends, and ideas that changed his father begin to work on him, this young man does not have the inner moral courage to chart his own path. With his father urging moderation and his friends encouraging irresponsibility, the young man is torn between the two. Herein lies the downfall of the man ?
the “dread enchanters and tyrant-makers” who espouse reckless pleasure-seeking realize that they will not win him over with continued persuasion, so they seek to make him a slave to his own desires (573a). Plato calls these desires “love,” but “lust” may be a more apt description (573b). Having now become a “drone,” the young man is imbued with desire to satisfy the temporal passions that bring momentary pleasure (573b). This desire drives him insane. He has madness as his bodyguard, and runs amuck, eliminating those whose own decency contrasts with his own lack thereof, killing them out of shame.
The tyrant is characterized as the worst of souls because of his personal attributes that are detrimental and undesirable to any man. “Drunken, erotic, and melancholic,” he lives solely to satisfy the passions and desires that run rampant in his mind (573c). This man does little good by himself or his fellowmen, and, if given the opportunity, would become the most terrible of rulers. Plato defines this man to be his “tyrant” and describes him as the most miserable person in society. Socrates and Glaucon characterize the person ruled by lawless attitudes as enslaved, having the least amount of control to what he wants.
The tyrant is full of confusion and regret, fearful and poor, with an insatiable appetite (577c-578a). To any human being, it would be least desirable to become a person as described above who is never satisfied. The greatest control an individual can obtain is control over their own thoughts and desires. Without this control, a person is miserable and relies on the outside world to fill his appetite. To illustrate the idea that a tyrant is simply one whose passions are out of control, Plato compares the tyrant to a drunken man. Just as a drunken man has a tyrannical spirit, so a man drunk on his own lustful desires has the same (573c).
The tyrannical soul is seen as enslaved because it desires satisfactions that solely depend on external circumstances. As long as these desires continue to consume the tyrant and are never completely satisfied, the tyrant is least able to do what he wants. By virtue of not being able to do what he wants, the tyrant is full of confusion and disorder. This man is in an awful state and lives only in misery. By showing the development of the tyrant from undisciplined childhood to irrational adulthood, Plato shows his reader the warning signs that accompany such a person.
He describes the despots of the ancient world for what they were: lustful men whose bodily appetites reign over their personal lives and the societies unfortunate enough to be at their command. Socrates explains that the only thing worse than the tyrannical soul is the tyrannical soul who goes public and becomes the political tyrant (578c). Socrates continues, “The man who is mad and deranged undertakes and expects to be able to rule not only over human beings but gods, too” (573c). With this phrase, Socrates begins to show why the reader should be wary of the rise of a political tyrant.
He describes how a tyrant’s rule is bad for those he rules over. Having gotten the idea that he should rule over “both men and gods,” the tyrant uses this power, once obtained, to satisfy his selfish desires. “Feasts, revels, parties, courtesans, and everything else of the sort,” are hallmarks of his reign (573d). Such living, however, rapidly depletes his income and resources, and he is then forced to obtain resources from others which consequently becomes to the city. The tyrannical man can only give so much to the people of the city.
He will therefore enlist them in “necessary” and “just” wars to continue his popularity and to account for the poor economy. These “just” wars serve to perpetuate the continual need for a tyrant. Because the tyrant’s actions displease those who helped “set him up”, he must gradually do away with them until he is left without a friend or foe. Socrates contrasts this to the work of a doctor. A doctor is seen as helpful and needed because he takes off the worst of the body and leaves the rest (567c).
However, the tyrant does the opposite, taking off the best and leaving the worst. This is a necessity for him to rule; consequently, he hurts the city. The tyrant, slave to his “love,” or personal passions, becomes a tyrant over others. He begins to find those with means and seeks to deprive them of it, usually by force. He is addicted to his desires, “racked with pains and aches” when he cannot fill them (Plato, 263). No one is immune to his wild demands. He will victimize his own parents, claiming “he deserves to get the better of his father and mother” (574a).
If they resist, they will meet the same fate as anyone else who opposes the madman. In short, his childhood of moderation has become a career of chaos. The tyrant is a slave to himself and his desires in the city. The moral of Plato’s argument is clear. Even a small minority of tyrants can cause trouble within a community. Plato suggests that in times of war, tyrants flock to the battlefront, volunteering their services to distant tyrants as mercenaries and bodyguards (Plato, 264). But in times of peace, they remain at home and comprise a class of lawless criminals.
“Thieves, burglars, cutpurses, pickpockets, temple robbers, kidnappers,” all are tyrants waiting for their chance to take power (Plato, 265). Plato’s warning to society is to teach temperance and philosophy to the rising generation, so that they do not become tyrants and lead their city into ruin. In an age where democracy was a new and rare commodity, the threat of becoming subject to a tyrant in ancient Greece was very real indeed. Philosophers like Plato tried to discover how the tyrants of the age became so, so that they could avoid coming under their power.
Having philosophically defined tyrants as evil and unjust in the realm of philosophy, Plato uses logic in Book IX of The Republic to support the assumption that totalitarian societies, like those of Athens’s neighbors, suffer under the reign of such leaders. This argument will later lead to his assertion that philosophers are the best leaders a state can have. Bound by ethics and reason, philosopher-kings would ensure that society is properly educated, supremely tolerant, and, most importantly, true to the ideal of justice that Plato holds dear.
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