Skip to comments.How Democracies Become Tyrannies
Posted on 02/16/2009 9:46:22 AM PST by Tolik
Back in 1959 the philosopher Eric Hoffer had this to say about Americans and America:
For those who want to be left alone to realize their capacities and talents this is an ideal country.
That was then. This is now. Flash forward fifty years to the election of Barack Obama and a hard left leaning Democrat Congress. What Americans want today, apparently, is a government that has no intention of leaving any of us alone.
How could Hoffer have been so wrong about America? Why did America change so quickly? Can a free people willingly choose servitude? Is it possible for democracies to become tyrannies? How?
The answers to these questions were famously addressed in a few pages tucked within the greatest masterpiece of the classical world: Plato's Republic. On the surface, and to most reviewers of Plato's writings, the Republic is a dialogue on justice and on what constitutes the just society. But to careful readers the deeper theme of the Republic is the nature of education and the relationship between education and the survival of the state. In fact, the Republic is essentially the story of how a man (Socrates) condemned to death for "corrupting" the youth of Athens gives to posterity the most precious gift of all: the love of wisdom.
In the Republic, two young men, Glaucon and Adeimantus, accompany the much older Socrates on a journey of discovery into the nature of the individual soul and its connection to the harmony of the state. During the course of their adventure, as the two disciples demonstrate greater maturity and self-control, they are gradually exposed to deeper and more complex teachings regarding the relationship between virtue, self-sufficiency, and happiness. In short, the boys begin to realize that justice and happiness in a community rests upon the moral condition of its citizens. This is what Socrates meant when he said: "The state is man writ large."
Near the end of the Republic Socrates decides to drive this point home by showing Adeimantus what happens to a regime when its parents and educators neglect the proper moral education of its children. In the course of this chilling illustration Adeimantus comes to discover a dark and ominous secret: without proper moral conditioning a regime's "defining principle" will be the source of its ultimate destruction. For democracy, that defining principle is freedom. According to Socrates, freedom makes a democracy but freedom also eventually breaks a democracy.
For Socrates, democracy's "insatiable desire for freedom and neglect of other things" end up putting it "in need of a dictatorship." The short version of his theory is that the combination of freedom and poor education in a democracy render the citizens incapable of mastering their impulses and deferring gratification. The reckless pursuit of freedom leads the citizens to raze moral barriers, deny traditional authority, and abandon established methods of education. Eventually, this uninhibited quest for personal freedom forces the public to welcome the tyrant. Says Socrates: "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."
Adeimantus wants Socrates to explain what kind of man resembles the democratic city. In other words, he wants to know how "democratic man" comes to be and what happens to make this freedom loving man eventually beg for a tyrant. Socrates clarifies that the democratic man starts out as the son of an "oligarchic" father -- a father who is thrifty and self-disciplined. The father's generation is more concerned with wealth than freedom. This first generation saves, invests, and rarely goes in for conspicuous consumption.[i]
The father's pursuit of wealth leaves him unwilling and unable to give attention to his son's moral development. The father focuses on business and finance and ignores the business of family. The son then begins to associate with "wild and dangerous creatures who can provide every variety of multicolored pleasure in every sort of way." These Athenian precursors of the hippies begin to transform the son's oligarchic nature into a democratic one. Because the young man has had no moral guidance, his excessive desire for "unnecessary pleasures" undermines "the citadel" of his soul. Because the "guardians" of the son's inner citadel -- truth, restraint, wisdom -- are absent, there is nothing within him to defend against the "false and boastful words and beliefs that rush up and occupy this part of him."
A 1960s revolution in the son's soul purges the last remaining guardians of moderation and supplants new meanings to old virtues: "anarchy" replaces freedom, "extravagance" replaces magnificence, and "shamelessness" replaces courage. The young man surrenders rule over himself "to whichever desire comes along, as if it were chosen by lot." Here Socrates notes the essential problem when a free society becomes detached from any notions of moral virtue or truth: desires are chosen by "lot" instead of by "merit" or "priority."
For the son the democratic revolution in his soul is complete. In this stage "there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but he calls it pleasant, free, blessedly happy, and he follows it for as long as he lives." Socrates gives a brief illustration of the young man's new democratic life:
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 one.
In short, the young man has no anchor, no set of guiding principles or convictions other than his thirst for freedom. His life is aimless, superficial, and gratuitous. The spoiled lotus-eaters of his generation have defined themselves simply by mocking all forms of propriety and prudence. What's worse, as these Athenian baby-boomers exercise their right to vote, they elect "bad cupbearers" as their leaders. The new cupbearers want to stay in office so they give the voters whatever they desire. The public, according to Socrates, "gets drunk by drinking more than it should of the unmixed wine of freedom." Conservative politicians who attempt to mix the wine of freedom with calls for self-restraint "are punished by the city and accused of being accursed oligarchs."
As conservative politicians court suspicion so do conservative teachers and academics who stubbornly hold on to objective measurements of performance: "A teacher in such a community is afraid of his students and flatters them, while the students despise their teachers or tutors." Conservatism becomes unpopular just about everywhere, to a point at which even the elderly "stoop to the level of the young and are full of play and pleasantry, imitating the young for fear of appearing disagreeable and authoritarian."
The explosion of boundaries and limits extends even to national identity itself, so that resident aliens and foreigners "are made equal to a citizen."
The citizens' souls become so infected with freedom that they become excessively paranoid about any hint of slavery. But slavery comes to mean being under any kind of master or limit including the law itself. Says Socrates: "They take no notice of the laws, whether written or unwritten, in order to avoid having any master at all." That is, any kind of "hierarchy" in a democracy is rejected as "authoritarian." But this extreme freedom, according to Socrates, eventually enslaves democracy.
As the progressive politicians and intellectuals come to dominate the democratic city, its "fiercest members do all the talking and acting, while the rest settle near the speakers platform and buzz and refuse to tolerate the opposition of another speaker." There are "impeachments, judgments and trials on both sides." The politicians heat up the crowds by vilifying business and wealth and by promising to spread the wealth around. The people then "set up one man as their special champion" and begin "nurturing him and making him great."
The people's "special champion" however transforms from leader to tyrant. He "drops hints about the cancellation of debts and the redistribution of land" and continues to "stir up civil wars against the rich." All who have reached this stage, says Socrates, "soon discover the famous request of a tyrant, namely, that the people give him a bodyguard to keep their defender safe for them." The people give him this new security force, "because they are afraid for his safety but aren't worried at all about their own."
Socrates describes the early weeks of the new leader's reign:
"Won't he smile in welcome at anyone he meets, saying that he's no tyrant, making all sorts of promises both in public and in private, freeing the people from debt, redistributing land to them, and to his followers, and pretending to be gracious and gentle to all?"
After a series of unpopular actions, including stirring up a war in order to generate popular support, the leader begins to alienate some of his closest and most ardent advisers who begin to voice their misgivings in private. Following a purge of these advisors the tyrant attracts some of the worst elements of the city to help him rule. As the citizens grow weary of his tenure the tyrant chooses to attract foreigners to resupply his dwindling national bodyguard. The citizens finally decide they've had enough and begin to discuss rebellion.
At this point in the dialogue Adeimantus asks Socrates incredulously: "What do you mean? Will the tyrant dare to use violence against [the people] or to hit [them] if [they] don't obey? Socrates answers:
"Yes - once he's taken away [the people's] weapons."
Thus ends Book VIII of Plato's Republic. I won't spoil the marvelous ending (Books IX and X) but I would like to spend a few moments drawing some conclusions about the overall message of this fascinating text and its relevance for 21st century Americans.
First, those of us who are incapable of self-mastery will always shamefully prostrate ourselves before messianic political leaders. The progressive left in America has spent countless generations destroying the guardians of our inner citadel: religion, family, parents, and tradition - in short, conservatism and limits. When we exhaust the financial and moral capital of previous generations (and future ones, as with the current stimulus bill) we will dutifully line up at the public trough, on our knees. Citizens capable of self-mastery will always choose to be left alone. In other words, they'll always choose limited government.
Second, freedom without limits paves the way to tyranny by undermining respect for the law. When politicians play fast and loose with the law it becomes easier for them and for the people to see special champions as alternative sources of rule. Today in America the objective basis for law is being attacked on campuses and even in law schools as too authoritarian and too insensitive to the subjective experiences and personal narratives of criminals. The SAT exam has also been under assault for the same reasons. As Socrates warned: extreme freedom will instill a paranoia about any kind of "master" including objective measurements of right and wrong, and of merit based forms of achievement. But when the citizens become enslaved to their vices they'll dutifully cry out for another kind of master.
Third, is the crucial role of education, which is the underlying theme of Plato's Republic. The ethos of American education has been for many decades saturated with a simple mantra: choice. What's worse, those few remaining educators who chant the old, Socratic mantra of "judgment" are vilified and harassed by the modern day lotus-eaters as hateful conservatives. Socrates predicted that all of this would happen in a democracy. But it is judgment not choice that enables a young person to erect a citadel in the soul. This eliminates the need for tyrants, and for bailouts too.
Finally, there is a question on the minds of many conservatives today: How does one convince the younger generations of Americans to distrust the growth of the State? Is it possible for Americans to recover the desire to be left alone in order "to realize our capacities and talents" as Eric Hoffer says?
I've read that in Iran, many young people chafe at the pervasive despotism there, but when the burning desire for freedom threatens to boil over, the government in Tehran eases its restrictions on the use of personal satellite dishes. Electronic Soma for the digital age.
Hat tip: Larrey Anderson
[i] As Max Weber noted in his classic work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the men who built America were guided by deferred gratification and a sense of limits, not by reckless notions of vanity, pride, and display.
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And that is exactly what has happened to the USA, all of western society actually. Scarier still, is that vaccums do not stay vaccums for long. Islam is fast filling that void.
How Democrats Become Tyrants.
We have allowed the liberal left to plant the seeds of our own destruction, especially the public "education" system.
Re The Right To Be Left Alone....
Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.
- Ben Franklin
Great post. The only problem I have with the author’s take is that it doesn’t go far enough in its explanation. The U.S. had a ‘hard Left’ for a long time. Two major things happened in the 1960’s, and one in 1989-91, that put us on the path to where we are today.
The first has many causes and many perspectives, but the fact that it happened and it’s effect on voting patterns and public policy are clear: the permanent radicalization of the black minority. Whether used consciously or not, overtly talked about or nervously hushed-up, race is now a huge dividing line in American politics and the Republican party is largely the White party. Again, opinions on how, why, and what to do about it are many - but it is the situation.
Second, beginning in the 60’s the nation’s culture, much of its press and its academia were taken over by Marxist and anti-capitalist, anti-traditionalist, anti-Christian and anti-white groupthink. Even then, there were times when the majority of americans could revolt against that, notably in Reagan’s era. The rallying point seemed to be the patriotism and moral clarity of the Cold War and the evil spectre of the USSR.
Third, the fall of the Soviet Union. We all thought that was a signal of victory and the end of Marxism as legitimate political theory and practice. I think it seems to have removed the example we all could point to of the utter failure and utter evil of Marxism. It also removed the term ‘communist’ and even ‘Marxist’ as effective ridicule. Somehow being an actual Nazi, or at least being thought of as one, is instant death to someone’s political, academic or cultural career (and for good reason.) But being a communist/Marxist is both able to be fashionable and somehow shielded from receiving an accurate label. Those, like us here at FR, who call people Marxists are seen as ‘nuts’ or ‘divisive’ while actual Marxists are seen as cool and ‘progressive.’ Because there’s no USSR for them to claim allegiance to or publicly back (and reveal their anti-Americanness) they are never called out as hating America in the general public.
Just my three cents worth...
Very good, thanks!
Our house of cards has collapsed; and no one wants to make any changes, that makes them change too.
It is a reality that every generation must learn from history; and for the current one, it seems that is too much trouble. So they/we are lemmings.
When is it too late to turn around? Does Plato say anything about that?
It seems like it is way past that tipping point to me; most conservatives seem to be old codgers, like me and most others on FR, while nearly all youth are libs.
Wow! Terrific homepage. Loads of great back articles, etc.,
I intend to return to it often.
The problem will be that certain classes of people with have their freedoms limited by the iron hand of the government. We see it already. Liberals want a retirn of the Fairness Doctrine. of course what this will mean is that they will go after people like Rush and Hannity while NPR and the rest are expanded.
We saw articles posted last week from Daily Kos(saks) how they believe its time to do away with the Republican Party. Thats how we get to dictatorship. One segment of society gets power and uses that power to surpress the other segment of society and that circle of power tightens as oppressions expands to more and more.
It is a pattern that has been oft repeated and appears to be repeating again, right here at home.
Now, the tipping point question is valid. The USA as it stands is probably too far gone at this point from transforming itself into a workers paradise without drastic action that we cannot discuss on this forum. But that does not mean the concept of self - government is over. Far from it.
Thanks for the ping. Yes, the guy is singing my song.
Sustainable freedom is self-government, and self-government is always a moral quality. Only people who are capable of governing themselves are capable of being free. All the rest will be, must be, governed by others.
When the numbers of people within a society who are incapable of ruling themselves reaches critical mass, the society itself ceases to be free.
And how are the moral underpinnings of a free society, any society for that matter, passed from generation to generation? They are passed first and formost by the family, by the church, and in the schools. Its not necessary that everyone internalize the principles in the same way, but it is necessary that enough people internalize them by whatever means so as to keep the society on track.
The break-up of families strikes right at the heart of this. The corruption of churches does too. And the corruption of the schools is the final nail in the coffin. When only a few people still understand the guiding moral principles that allow men to govern themselves and to live free the society itself will reject freedom as a burden that they can no longer bear. They will reject it as an illusion, a fraud that some men use to make other men do their will. They will gladly throw their freedom away in an unholy alliance between the ones who want to be cared for and the ones who think they are uniquely qualified to rule the masses.
And there will never be peace, because there are always many more resentful souls who think they are uniquely qualified to rule than there are openings for rulers. And the people who expect to be cared for are never going to be satisfied with the quality of the crumbs that fall within their reach. So the result is not only slavery but endless violence and repression.
I am more optimistic.
Kids almost always are more lib and rebellious. Until they grow up and get kids of their own and HAVE TO become more responsible. Some never do, of course.
I see 2 trends in different directions.
One is that taxation moves in direction of more than 50% of population paying NO federal income tax (they still pay FICA, sale taxes, gas, etc). Its dangerous because creates a situation when you can vote somebody else “for dinner”.
An opposite trend is that Internet generation get used to more choices. Tyranny limits choices. The Internet generation is conservatives’ ally in fight for liberty.
Also, its not mentioned enough, but in personal life, raising kids, etc lots of people who vote habitually Dem are more conservative than they themselves realize. A Reagan-type communication is needed to win them over. We badly losing info-war, but Reagan did not have help of Internet freedom, and he was able to win over so many people!