The Cycle of Decline of Regimes in Plato’s Republic

Part of my college essays series: This is one of the essays I wrote during the political theory general exam for my PhD. The exam was an approximately 15-hour marathon session, involving 6 out of 12 essay questions, for a final total of 33 double-spaced pages written without access to any notes or sources.

The cycle of decline from the best regime to the worst is an important aspect of Plato’s Republic, and not merely for the mundane purposes of history and political science. In elaborating the logic of this decline, Plato couples his discussion of the rank order and decline of the five regimes with five corresponding types of man. For this reason it is necessary to understand the philosophical anthropology underlying Plato’s political philosophy as well as the anthropological principle, i.e., that the city is man writ large. Additionally, and perhaps of equal importance as a clue to Plato’s primary purpose in writing the Republic, we are shown (purposefully?) in the discussion of the cycle of decline the utopian nature of Plato’s “city in speech.”

The five regimes in order of best to worst are kingship or aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. The corresponding types of man are the kingly or aristocratic man, the timocratic man, the oligarchic man, the democratic man, and the tyrant or tyrannical man. Before delving into the cycle of decline and the natures of these different types of regimes and men, it is necessary to briefly explicate Plato’s philosophical anthropology.

Plato identifies three parts of the ideal polis — the guardians (rulers and auxiliaries) and the general populace — and three corresponding parts of the individual soul: reasoning, spirited, and desiring. Plato also identifies four virtues pertaining to the various parts of the city/soul and the city/soul as a whole, which have come to be known in the classical tradition as the cardinal virtues: wisdom (seemingly sophia for subsequent Platonists and phronesis for Aristotelians), courage, moderation, and justice. Plato argues that a certain group should rule in the city and the reasoning part should rule in the soul; the virtue that pertains specifically to this function of ruling is wisdom, or knowledge of the Good (Agathon). The auxiliaries or soldiers, and the spirited part in the soul, also have a virtue peculiar to them: courage. The general populace of the city and the desiring part of the soul do not have a particular virtue assigned to them, but the virtue of moderation allows all parts of the city/soul to exist in concord and harmony. It is the virtue of justice, however, that makes the virtue of moderation and therefore concord and harmony possible, allows the rulers (rational part) to exercise their (its) wisdom over the other parts, and keeps the courage of the auxiliaries (spirited part) in check. Justice is each part doing and minding its own business. A just city/soul is one in which the part that should rule (the philosopher-king(s)/rational part) does so and the other parts perform their own special functions without attempting to usurp or interfere with the functions of the other parts.

Thus, kingship or aristocracy is the regime in which the philosopher-king or kings rule, and the kingly or aristocratic man is one whose rational part rules his soul, according to the Good. It becomes evident in the beginning of Plato’s discussion of the cycle of decline that the existence of the best regime is dependent on an historical fluke. It depends upon the fortuitous confluence of complex and interdependent historical factors. In order for the best regime to come about a philosopher must gain power of the polis, or a king or aristocracy must become philosophers (or bend his/their ear(s) to a philosopher). Moreover, the conditions must be ripe for the populace to listen to and obey the new philosopher-king and he would nevertheless have to contend with existing traditions and institutions. Moreover, even if the best regime were ever to come about, Plato makes it clear that all things, even the best regime, must inevitably degenerate. This tempts one to speculate that Plato’s Republic is not primarily about the best regime but about justice and the well-ordered soul of a philosopher.

In any case, the discussion of the cycle of decline of regimes and their corresponding types of man is also interesting for more practical political analysis and the philosophical analysis of human psychology. To understand the four imperfect regimes and types of man, it is important to point out that only the best regime and the philosopher are unequivocally oriented toward the Good (or the highest good or summum bonnum). The others are oriented toward a lesser good or, to be more precise, something that might be a good in their proper place in light of the Good if they weren’t made to usurp the place of the Good as the telos of the polis/soul. In the case of a timocracy and the timocratic man, this is honor; of oligarchy and the oligarchic man, wealth; of democracy and the democratic man, freedom; and of tyranny and the tyrannical man, power.

The decline of the best regime begins when the philosopher-kings cease to be identified at a young age correctly and educated properly. Those who would have been better suited to the ranks of the auxiliaries might be given an education and responsibility beyond their abilities or the quality of education of the philosopher kings might deteriorate. The spirited part of the city could become dominant, thus changing the constitution of the city with their love of honor and the value they place on courage and victory in war. In addition to honor, courage, and victory, timocratic man values discipline, manliness, fame and good reputation, etc.

With victory in war comes spoils and with spoils comes wealth. A timocracy can degenerate into an oligarchy as those in power become more enamored with the acquisition of wealth than with honor. The oligarchic man is characterized by his love of wealth and the attendant virtues that make its acquisition more likely (especially in pre-capitalist societies): greed, caution, frugality, discipline, managerial skill, and so forth.

An oligarchy might change to democracy as the son of oligarchic man grows up resenting his father’s single-minded obsession with wealth and all the attendant traits that go along with that obsession. Or he might grow up with an easy life, everything provided for him, but perhaps neglected by his oligarchic father, and possess all the traits necessary for spending his father’s wealth but none of the traits necessary for acquiring and maintaining it. The poor, too, are likely to become resentful of their wealthy masters and also lack the traits necessary for acquiring and maintaining wealth but nevertheless possess the desire to have it and all the benefits it can bring. Thus can an oligarchy degenerate into a democracy as the democratic man rises to power, either peacefully or violently or through a combination thereof.

Democratic man loves freedom; the desiring part rules his soul yet there is nothing but desire to distinguish which objects of desire to pursue and nothing to keep desire in check. The freedom that initially accompanies democracy makes it a possible home for all types of men, even philosophers, but according to Plato this very unrestrained freedom inevitably degenerates into mob rule and rampant license, a condition ripe for tyrannical man to step in as a demagogue promising order and change. Tyrannical man is the logical conclusion of this decline in the soul as he is completely a slave to his passions and projects his lack of self-mastery or self-control onto the world as a blind need to control others and satisfy his insatiable appetite.

Geoffrey is an Aristotelian-Libertarian political philosopher, writer, editor, and web designer. He is the founder of the Libertarian Fiction Authors Association. His academic work has appeared in Libertarian Papers, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, the Journal of Value Inquiry, and Transformers and Philosophy. He lives in Greenville, NC.