Within The Republic, Plato states that tyranny is “the most diseased” kind of society (Republic, 544c). Aristotle echoes this belief when he boldly asserts within Politics that great honours should be “bestowed… on him who kills a tyrant.” (Politics, 1267a15) From these quotes alone, it is clear that both share a disdain for tyranny.
This essay will compare and contrast Plato (the Republic) with Aristotle (the Politics) on the causes and consequences of tyranny.
In order to grasp how Plato accounts for the development of tyranny, it is important to understand how he equates the city with the soul. Within The Republic, Plato explains that the soul consists of three parts: reason (wisdom), spirit (courage/honour) and appetite (moderation/desire). The class structure of Plato’s ideal city also embodies these divisions: The guardians or “philosopher kings” represent wisdom and are entrusted to rule; the auxiliaries represent courage and serve to protect the city; the producers represent moderation and serve to provide the economic and agricultural base for the city. While, as Plato connotes in this analogy, all three parts have a place in constructing the ideal, reason is the guiding force that mediates and draws from the competing nature of these parts to produce a just city. Accordingly, since “change in every regime comes from that part of it which holds the ruling offices,” (Republic, 551d) it is the loss of reason by the ruling class which destroys the just city and provides for the eventual onset of tyranny, a state devoid of harmony amongst its parts.
In explaining how the ideal city would eventually degenerate, Plato puts forth a four-stage linear digression towards tyranny. From the ideal state, a timocracy is first born from the love of honour. As wealth becomes cherished among the citizens, timocracy gives way to oligarchy. In an oligarchic state, the desire for freedom or license leads to the rise of democracy. And finally, as the desire for freedom increases and becomes limitless, the city is said to fall into a state of tyranny. Thus, for Plato, a tyrant is a democrat who has lost all restraint. While Plato views the decay towards tyranny as a uniform digression, the presence of this widespread decay ultimately creates the conditions for one person to rise to power. (Republic, 565d)
Within this digression, reason is gradually overcome by appetite until an “insatiable desire” for freedom transforms a democracy into a tyranny. While such terms as “freedom” and “democracy” may elicit certain connotations for the contemporary reader, it is important to keep in mind that Plato views a regime that promotes freedom and license as its primary objective as a place where reason is overcome by desire. While citizens of such regimes might equate unrestricted democracy with freedom, as Plato explains, “the real tyrant is, even if he doesn’t seem so…in truth a real slave.” (Republic, 579d)
In practical terms, Plato views money and private property as the floodgate to this decay:
Whenever they’ll possess private land, houses, and currency, they’ll become… masters and enemies instead of allies of the other citizens; hating and being hated, plotting and being plotted against, they’ll lead their lives far more afraid of the enemies within than those without. Then they themselves as well as the rest of the city are already rushing towards a destruction that lies very near. (Republic, 417a)
Since in the ideal city or soul, a proper balance of its parts produces justice, tyranny, in Plato’s view, is the complete absence of justice resulting from an emphasis on the search for private property and self-gratification.
While Aristotle acknowledges that a philosopher king, as presented by Plato, should be allowed to rule, he is skeptical that such a figure could exist. He is critical of The Republic as he does not see Plato’s tripartite construction as a probable or even desirable structure. Choosing a more pragmatic lens, Aristotle approaches politics by drawing upon the existent structures of government, namely monarchy as the rule by one person, aristocracy as the rule by the few and constitutional government as the rule by the many. Outlining their negative counterparts, Aristotle refers to the rule by the many as a democracy, by the few as an oligarchy, and by the one as a tyranny. “For tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only.” (Politics, 1279b) While this list may resemble that of Plato’s, Aristotle refutes the linear digression into tyranny put forth within The Republic. (Politics, 1303a15-30) Although Aristotle advocates a mixed regime or “polity” as the best possible political system, he believes that, in certain situations, other types of government would not only be successful but also desirable. While a monarchy may more easily lend itself to despotic rule, no one regime, in its positive form, leads to the creation of a tyranny. As Aristotle states, “…while one constitution is more choiceworthy, nothing prevents a different one from being more beneficial to some.” (Politics, 1296b10)
Like Plato, Aristotle singles out excessive desire as the force that drives people to tyranny, “for desire is a wild beast, and passion perverts the minds of rulers, even when they are the best of men.” (Politics, 1287a30) He does not, however, accept Plato’s assertion that this desire is an offspring of private property. For Aristotle, private property is a means to a non-economic end. He points out that things held in common are not as valued and cared for as those things which people claim ownership and responsibility for. Used in the proper way, Aristotle argues, private property does not lead to tyranny. It is only when people live solely for wealth and private property and become “slaves of their pleasures” that tyranny flourishes.
By making the city analogous with the soul, Plato presents the decay towards tyranny as a series of homogenous changes within the attitudes of both the ruled and the rulers. Alternatively, Aristotle views the onset of tyranny as primarily originating from one individual. This trickledown view of tyranny promotes tyranny as the ability of an individual to indoctrinate the masses, “for only a great soul can live in the midst of trouble and wrong without itself committing any base act.” (Politics, 1253a31)
Although Plato and Aristotle disagree as to the origin of tyranny, both conclude that in end a despotic ruler will come to power. Turning from the analysis of the causes of tyranny, we find that both philosophers share some important points on its consequences.
To ensure that the citizens would not constitute a threat to the tyrant, both philosophers surmise that a tyrant must divert the attention of the masses. To this end, they point to war as a diversionary tactic taken on by the tyrant. (Republic, 566e and Politics, 1308a28) As history has shown us, by providing the public with the pressing issues of war, a tyrant can forge and fortify his regime in the name of national security.
By diverting the public’s attention, as Plato states, tyrants will “force [the public] to attend to earning their daily bread rather than to plot against him.” (Republic, 567a) By structuring society so that citizens are caught up in their private affairs, the tyrant ensures that there is little or no time to focus on other issues. This is a particularly important point for Aristotle who, unlike Plato, sees a value in public political participation. Within the “polity” put forth by Aristotle, citizens enter into politics (to the best of their ability) only after they have managed to put their economic necessities or “household” into order. (Politics, 1328b37) It is only when citizens are free from having to focus on the necessities of their private lives that they can find the leisure to participate in politics. Since Aristotle defines citizens as “only those who are freed from necessary services,” (Politics, 1278a10) a city under the rule of a tyrant, in Aristotle’s view, does not have citizens. While both philosophers acknowledge that tyrants need to occupy the public’s attention, in noting Plato’s distaste for public participation in politics, it is Aristotle who extends the notion that tyrannies depoliticize the public. Plato suggests that since the public is not aware of their political environment, the tyrant will present himself as a “gracious and gentle” leader to further pacify them. (Republic, 560e)
To further protect his rule, Aristotle believes that the tyrant will sow mistrust among the citizens, “for a tyranny will not be overthrown until some people trust each other.” (Politics, 1314a15) By promoting distrust within the state, the citizens, who are already busy with their own work and personal lives, will be discourage from publicly expressing any condescending view on the political regime. Moreover, by encouraging citizens to be wary of their neigbours, the people themselves could serve as an extended type of police.
As both authors connote, deceit alone will not secure a tyrant’s power. Once the tyrant has succeeded in becoming ruler, he must eliminate anyone that might threaten his rule. As Plato states, “[a tyrant] must keep a sharp eye out for men of courage or vision or intelligence or wealth… until he has purged them from the state.” (Republic, 567b) Aristotle agrees, saying “the tyrant should lop off the heads of those who are too high and he must put to death men of spirit.” (Politics, 1284a29) By ridding the city of other potential leaders, the tyrant promotes a type of mediocrity amongst the citizens. As a result, scientists, philosophers, and others whose talents or wealth might be perceived by the tyrant as a threat will either meet with strong oppression or death.
Since such violence will likely result in some sort of discontent – for even within such an obsessed and self-serving public depicted by Plato, the loss of one’s father or brother will not occur without some form of disapproval – a tyrant will be forced to make provisions for his personal safety. To this end, both Plato and Aristotle state that tyrants are compelled to have bodyguards. Both thinkers see the tyrants drawing their protectors from the same outside pool: Aristotle states that while legitimate rulers “have bodyguards drawn from the citizens… [tyrants] have their bodyguards to protect them against the citizens” (Politics, 1285a25) while Plato believes that the tyrant will not draw his bodyguards from the citizenry, but rather from the slaves (who are not considered citizens) (Republic, 567e). In turn these devoted bodyguards will protect the tyrant and prevent any popular discontent, much like contemporary tyrants have done through the use of their armies or national guard.
Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics provide us with some of the earliest documented theories of tyranny. While many scholars are critical of some of these insights, the two thousand years since their release have demonstrated the relevance of many of the key ideas. The contribution of these two philosophers in this and many other fields merits recognition. As Issac Newton once said, it is “only by standing on the shoulders of giants” that we have come this far.