Tyranny evolves from democracy – the most severe and cruel slavery from the utmost freedom
Republic, Book VIII, 564a
Out of nowhere Donald Trump has emerged as the man most likely to succeed Barack Obama as occupant of the White House. Last year, Trump represented a joke but as of time of writing he is the clear favourite for the highest office in the world. What has really focused attention on Trump, however, is not his ‘comeback kid’ rise through the polls but his authoritarianism. Trump has made it clear in no uncertain terms that he will not be bound by any legal or customary impediments and even many Republicans are aghast at his theatrics.
At the same time as he is proclaiming the benefits of authoritarianism, Trump talks repeatedly of freedom to the point where he makes freedom sound like a form of repression. For many, this is obviously confusing. Isn’t freedom supposed to be for everyone and not just for those who Trump decides are entitled to have freedom? Trump further compounds his authoritarian image by inciting the mob and openly targeting minorities, something the US says it opposes in any country around the world.
The US itself has opened up greatly and is far more liberal than it was 100 years, or perhaps even 50 years, ago. So shouldn’t this openness invite more benevolent leaders?
About two and a half milennia ago, Plato answered this question in the negative. In The Republic Plato told us that is natural for tyranny to emerge from a democratic system of government. The information he gives is contained in book VIII of The Republic.
Now, the democracy that Plato speaks of is in some regards unlike modern democracies because the enfranchised members are poor but rule by rotation (557a). However people do not have to rule and they can opt of politics (557e). Whatever the similarities or differences in the precise expression of government, there are many attributes of the democracy that make it alarmingly similar to today’s democracies. The people live and speak freely, engaging in licence of all kind. People have the freedom to live the life they please to live. This gives the city a beautiful look because there is so much variety (557b-c)
…this is the finest or most beautiful of the constitutions, for, like a coat embroidered with every kind of ornament, this city, embroidered with every kind of character type, would seem to be the most beautiful. And many people would judge it to be so. (557c)
Criminals live a pleasant life, the city is extremely tolerant and someone can enter public life even if they lived a life of dissolution previously (558b-c). The democratic man cannot be told that some things are bad and some things are good and the democrat “declares that all pleasures are equal and must be valued equally” (561b-c).
… he [the democratic man] lives on, yielding day by day to the desire at hand. Sometimes he drinks heavily while listening to the flute; at other times, he drinks only water and is on a diet; sometimes he goes in for physical training; at other times, he’s idle and neglects everything; and sometimes he even occupies himself with what he takes to be philosophy. He often engages in politics, leaping up from his seat and saying and doing whatever comes into his mind. If he happens to admire soldiers, he’s carried in that direction, if money-makers, in that direction. There’s neither order nor necessity in his life, but he calls it pleasant, free, and blessedly happy, and he follows it for as long as he lives (561c-d).
He is a man who lives by the doctrine of legal equality (561d).
Plato then turns the mood around and introduces the idea that tyranny will evolve from this perfect, liberal system. Freedom, which the democracy cultivates, is also that which seduces it into tyranny (562a-c)
… doesn’t the insatiable desire for freedom and the neglect of all other things change this constitution and put it in need of a dictatorship? (562c)
Rulers of the city are not chosen for their goodness but whether they yield to the demands of the democratic members. Those who are good natured and obedient are condemned. Even animals become prone to anarchy. Fathers are afraid of their sons and foreigners are made equal to citizens. Teachers fear their pupils. It becomes impossible to impose any laws that restrict freedom even if these laws are supposed to be beneficial (562c-563e).
Plato then sounds this warning:
Extreme freedom can’t be expected to lead to anything but a change to extreme slavery, whether for a private individual or for a city (564a).
Plato goes into the dynamics of democratic revolution and tyranny but from what has been cited it is clear that freedom fosters an insatiable demand for order, an order that has equality as a principle. Tendencies that Plato described are in evidence today and in fact the American Founding Fathers opposed democracy because of the disorder that it brought in its train. Plato has often been accused of promoting totalitarianism, e.g. by Karl Popper, but if anything he was the philosopher who understood how tyranny emerged.