Democracy with Socrates – Forms of Government

The Bema at Corinth

The Bema at Corinth (Bema – Elevated Platform for Orators in Ancient Greece) –

Google Images

In this write up, I bring you excerpts from Plato’s Republic on Democracy. As usual, this was the record of a dialogue between Socrates and his friends. I tried to include all the excerpts that will pass the message, so yes, it is a bit lengthy. While putting the excerpts together, I remembered the admonishment of Epictetus concerning copying the ideas of others. He said ideas should be copied in such a way that they come across as having been transformed by the copier, rather than simply as picture of the person being copied. In academia, to avoid the charge of plagiarism, beyond proper referencing, one needs to paraphrase and give the ideas of others their own touch. Let me say however that when it comes to philosophy, especially the dialogues of Plato, I prefer to close my ears to Epictetus and the academics, and rather follow Seneca, who said all good ideas are public property thus he will quote them as he wishes. This is not because I am lazy but because making too many additions to the dialogues of Plato seem superfluous to me; plus the risk of distorting the artistry and mastery of his work (even the great Arsitotle was accused by ancient philosophers of perverting the teachings of Plato, and having read some of Aristotles works, I see why – personally Aristotle is always a difficult read for me). Talking about Aristotle, let me add that, he said, every good idea has been found out, the problem lies in our not using them, so this further justifies my refusing to reinvent the wheel.

Beyond the artistry of the dialogue, and the general message that democracy is a disorder of the state and not the best form of government despite appearing to be the fairest and the best; I would like to emphasize a particular concept to those who will be patient enough to read the dialogue. Again, while putting this up, I began to worry about the length of the article, but thought I would rather not leave out pieces I found profound and have a lengthy article, so that those who truly love philosophy would appreciate it, than to cut it short simply so that readers will not complain. I put in so much time into this, and must realize that this cannot be for everyone, but for true lovers of philosophy who because of the enjoyment that comes from reading philosophy, would not mind a long article – such persons would have even read the complete books if they had the time. Such are the ones I write for. Back to my point about emphasizing a concept: the concept of ‘drones’. The dictionary defines drones as the male bee, which is stingless and making no honey. It is also defined as a person who lives on the labor of others; a parasitic loafer. Socrates decries how such persons abound in democracies and like the drones, only make so much noise. This is true now as it was in antiquity. They feed on the state, and make the noises the leaders want to hear, and thus remain secure. The noise they make serves as lullaby to the leaders, such that while they sleep, they drones plunder. As a matter of fact, they send both the leaders and the followers to sleep. It becomes the aspiration of the many to just become drones, as this is certainly more profitable than hard work. In case you were wondering, I am sure this issue of drones, has begun to make you see indeed, why democracy is not the best form of government, and was described as a disorder of the state by Socrates. For this reason, together with how democracy degenerates into tyranny and many more, I encourage you to read the excerpts below. Enjoy!

…“And in oligarchical States, from the general spread of carelessness and extravagance, men of good family have often been reduced to beggary?

Yes, often.

And still they remain in the city; there they are, ready to sting and fully armed, and some of them owe money, some have forfeited their citizenship; a third class are in both predicaments; and they hate and conspire against those who have got their property, and against everybody else, and are eager for revolution. 

That is true. 

On the other hand, the men of business, stooping as they walk, and pretending not even to see those whom they have already ruined, insert their sting—that is, their money—into someone else who is not on his guard against them, and recover the parent sum many times over multiplied into a family of children: and so they make drone and pauper to abound in the State.”…

Drone Bees

A Beehive – Google Images

…“And then democracy comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power; and this is the form of government in which the magistrates are commonly elected by lot.”…

…“And now what is their manner of life, and what sort of a government have they? for as the government is, such will be the man.”…

…“Then in this kind of State there will be the greatest variety of human natures?

There will.

This, then, seems likely to be the fairest of States, being like an embroidered robe which is spangled with every sort of flower. And just as women and children think a variety of colours to be of all things most charming, so there are many men to whom this State, which is spangled with the manners and characters of mankind, will appear to be the fairest of States.”…

…“And is not their humanity to the condemned in some cases quite charming? Have you not observed how, in a democracy, many persons, although they have been sentenced to death or exile, just stay where they are and walk about the world—the gentleman parades like a hero, and nobody sees or cares?

Yes, he replied, many and many a one.

See too, I said, the forgiving spirit of democracy, and the ‘don’t care’ about trifles, and the disregard which she shows of all the fine principles which we solemnly laid down at the foundation of the city—as when we said that, except in the case of some rarely gifted nature, there never will be a good man who has not from his childhood been used to play amid things of beauty and make of them a joy and a study—how grandly does she trample all these fine notions of ours under her feet, never giving a thought to the pursuits which make a statesman, and promoting to honour any one who professes to be the people’s friend. 

Yes, she is of a noble spirit.

These and other kindred characteristics are proper to democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.”…

…“And when they have emptied and swept clean the soul of him who is now in their power and who is being initiated by them in great mysteries, the next thing is to bring back to their house insolence and anarchy and waste and impudence in bright array having garlands on their heads, and a great company with them, hymning their praises and calling them by sweet names; insolence they term breeding, and anarchy liberty, and waste magnificence, and impudence courage. And so the young man passes out of his original nature, which was trained in the school of necessity, into the freedom and libertinism of useless and unnecessary pleasures.”…

…“Yes, I said, he lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics; sometimes idling and neglecting everything, then once more living the life of a philosopher; often he is busy with politics, and starts to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head; and, if he is emulous of any one who is a warrior, off he is in that direction, or of men of business, once more in that. His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom; and so he goes on.”…

…“Say then, my friend, In what manner does tyranny arise?—that it has a democratic origin is evident.”…

…“And democracy has her own good, of which the insatiable desire brings her to dissolution?

What good?

Freedom, I replied; which, as they tell you in a democracy, is the glory of the State—and that therefore in a democracy alone will the freeman of nature deign to dwell.”…

…“When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cup-bearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them, and says that they are cursed oligarchs.

Yes, he replied, a very common occurrence.

Yes, I said; and loyal citizens are insultingly termed by her slaves who hug their chains and men of naught; she would have subjects who are like rulers, and rulers who are like subjects: these are men after her own heart, whom she praises and honours both in private and public. Now, in such a State, can liberty have any limit?”…

…“I mean that the father grows accustomed to descend to the level of his sons and to fear them, and 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, and the metic is equal with the citizen and the citizen with the metic, and the stranger is quite as good as either.

Yes, he said, that is the way.

And these are not the only evils, I said—there are several lesser ones: In such a state of society the master fears and flatters his scholars, and the scholars despise their masters and tutors; young and old are all alike; and the young man is on a level with the old, and is ready to compete with him in word or deed; and old men condescend to the young and are full of pleasantry and gaiety; they are loth to be thought morose and authoritative, and therefore they adopt the manners of the young.”…

…“The ruin of oligarchy is the ruin of democracy; the same disease magnified and intensified by liberty overmasters democracy—the truth being that the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction; and this is the case not only in the seasons and in vegetable and animal life, but above all in forms of government.


The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.

Yes, the natural order.

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?”…

…“Then, in order that we may see clearly what we are doing, let us imagine democracy to be divided, as indeed it is, into three classes; for in the first place freedom creates rather more drones in the democratic than there were in the oligarchical State.

That is true.

And in the democracy they are certainly more intensified.

How so?

Because in the oligarchical State they are disqualified and driven from office, and therefore they cannot train or gather strength; whereas in a democracy they are almost the entire ruling power, and while the keener sort speak and act, the rest keep buzzing about the bema and do not suffer a word to be said on the other side; hence in democracies almost everything is managed by the drones.”…

…“The people are a third class, consisting of those who work with their own hands; they are not politicians, and have not much to live upon. This, when assembled, is the largest and most powerful class in a democracy.”…

…“The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness.

Yes, that is their way.

This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector.

Yes, that is quite clear.

How then does a protector begin to change into a tyrant?”

Excerpts From: Plato. “The Republic.” iBooks.

For the answer to the last question, on how the “democratic man” becomes a tyrant, look out for the article on Tyranny.

Dr Ande Elisha

The Amateur Philosopher