4 Years of Presidential Memories: Worried About Government Cycles? Read Polybius, Not Plato

Yesterday I read a slightly disturbing piece comparing the views of Steve Bannon and Plato concerning movements in governments. Without comment on this, a friend asked me about the same basic passage from Plato, because it was discussed on the BBC:

The passage at the center of this appears to be as follows:

Plato, Republic  564a

“It is likely, I said, that tyranny emerges out of no other state except for democracy—the greatest and most savage servitude emerges, I suppose, from the greatest freedom.”

Εἰκότως τοίνυν, εἶπον, οὐκ ἐξ ἄλλης πολιτείας τυραννὶς καθίσταται ἢ ἐκ δημοκρατίας, ἐξ οἶμαι τῆς ἀκροτάτης ἐλευθερίας δουλεία πλείστη τε καὶ ἀγριωτάτη.

The problem with the discussions, however, is that Plato’s interlocutors take a very long time to get to this point: the discussion about the four types of government starts at 544a  So picking out this single passage is kind of like watching one series of the Superbowl and thinking you know the whole game (sorry Atlanta).

(And, as an aside, plucking any bit out of its context in a Platonic dialogue is a little dodgy. [And I say this with authority as someone whose hobby is taking quotations out of context.] I am not a Platonist, but I have read enough to know that each dialogue presents its own development of arguments, essentially a self-contained universe of ideas. The dialogues do interrelate, but an idea projected in one is not a universal assertion. This is especially true in the Republic.]

Much earlier in the piece, Plato starts to discuss democracy. His issue has to do with the importance of money:

Rep. 555b

“Therefore, I said, this sort of manner facilitates the change from oligarchy into democracy, through the insatiable pursuit for its proposed good, that there be as much wealth as possible?”

How’s that?

I guess I mean that when those who rule in a state rule because they possess much, they are not willing to restrain by law however many of the youth are unhindered, to prevent them from spending and wasting their own wealth, because they hope that by acquiring and lending money on their possessions, they might become even wealthier still and more honored.

Ah, alright.

Therefore it is clear in this city that it is impossible to honor wealth and obtain sufficient wisdom among the citizens at the same time, but, rather, it is necessary to care for one or the other?

Ok, he said, that seems right.”

Οὐκοῦν, ἦν δ’ ἐγώ, μεταβάλλει μὲν τρόπον τινὰ τοιόνδε ἐξ ὀλιγαρχίας εἰς δημοκρατίαν, δι’ ἀπληστίαν τοῦ προκειμένου ἀγαθοῦ, τοῦ ὡς πλουσιώτατον δεῖν γίγνεσθαι;

Πῶς δή;

῞Ατε οἶμαι ἄρχοντες ἐν αὐτῇ οἱ ἄρχοντες διὰ τὸ πολλὰ κεκτῆσθαι, οὐκ ἐθέλουσιν εἴργειν νόμῳ τῶν νέων ὅσοι ἂν ἀκόλαστοι γίγνωνται, μὴ ἐξεῖναι αὐτοῖς ἀναλίσκειν τε καὶ ἀπολλύναι τὰ αὑτῶν, ἵνα ὠνούμενοι τὰ τῶν τοιούτων καὶ εἰσδανείζοντες ἔτι πλουσιώτεροι καὶ ἐντιμότεροι γίγνωνται.

Παντός γε μᾶλλον.

Οὐκοῦν δῆλον ἤδη τοῦτο ἐν πόλει, ὅτι πλοῦτον τιμᾶν καὶ σωφροσύνην ἅμα ἱκανῶς κτᾶσθαι ἐν τοῖς πολίταις ἀδύνατον, ἀλλ’ ἀνάγκη ἢ τοῦ ἑτέρου ἀμελεῖν ἢ τοῦ ἑτέρου;

᾿Επιεικῶς, ἔφη, δῆλον.

Παραμελοῦντες δὴ ἐν ταῖς ὀλιγαρχίαις καὶ ἐφιέντες ἀκολασταίνειν οὐκ ἀγεννεῖς ἐνίοτε ἀνθρώπους πένητας ἠνάγκασαν γενέσθαι.

(It is interesting that the anti-financial aspect of this dialogue is praised by few…) Plato’s vision of political change is not merely shaped by an aristocratic prejudice against new money, but it is also conditioned by Athenian and local Greek histories. His sample sizes are not large enough! The political cycles envisioned by the later historian Polybius seem a lot more realistic and pertinent, to my taste.

Polybius, Histories 6.4

“The proof that what I have said is true comes from the following. It must not be asserted that every well-made government is a principality, but only the government which is assented to voluntarily and which is governed by reason rather than fear and force. Nor should we consider every oligarchy to be an aristocracy: the latter emerges only when men rule because they are the most just and the most prudent. In a similar way, a true democracy is not that in which the majority has the power to do whatever it wants, but what counts is if the will of the majority enforces observance of its traditional laws, honor to the customary laws, duty to parents, respect to elders, obedience to the laws—then it is right to call a state a democracy.

From this, we can isolate six types of government: the three I have just mentioned and three additional, related forms, monarchy, oligarchy, and mob rule. The first of these, monarchy, arises naturally, and without machination. The second follows it and develops from it with preparation and adjustment. Once this has transformed into the evil form akin to it, tyranny, and aristocracy develops from the dissolution of both. When aristocracy devolves into oligarchy as is natural, and the people turn into rage over the injustice of their leaders, democracy emerges. Over time, mob-rule develops from outrage and illegality. Anyone can understand clearly from this pattern that the things I am saying now are true, based on the nature of each government in its origins and its evolution.”


ὅτι δ᾽ ἀληθές ἐστι τὸ λεγόμενον ἐκ τούτων συμφανές. [2] οὔτε γὰρ πᾶσαν δήπου μοναρχίαν εὐθέως βασιλείαν ῥητέον, ἀλλὰ μόνην τὴν ἐξ ἑκόντων συγχωρουμένην καὶ τῇ γνώμῃ τὸ πλεῖον ἢ φόβῳ καὶ βίᾳ κυβερνωμένην: [3] οὐδὲ μὴν πᾶσαν ὀλιγαρχίαν ἀριστοκρατίαν νομιστέον, ἀλλὰ ταύτην, ἥτις ἂν κατ᾽ ἐκλογὴν ὑπὸ τῶν δικαιοτάτων καὶ φρονιμωτάτων ἀνδρῶν βραβεύηται. [4] παραπλησίως οὐδὲ δημοκρατίαν, ἐν ᾗ πᾶν πλῆθος κύριόν ἐστι ποιεῖν ὅ, [5] τι ποτ᾽ ἂν αὐτὸ βουληθῇ καὶ πρόθηται παρὰ δ᾽ ᾧ πάτριόν ἐστι καὶ σύνηθες θεοὺς σέβεσθαι, γονεῖς θεραπεύειν, πρεσβυτέρους αἰδεῖσθαι, νόμοις πείθεσθαι, παρὰ τοῖς τοιούτοις συστήμασιν ὅταν τὸ τοῖς πλείοσι δόξαν νικᾷ, τοῦτο καλεῖν δεῖ δημοκρατίαν. διὸ καὶ γένη μὲν ἓξ εἶναι ῥητέον πολιτειῶν, [6] τρία μὲν ἃ πάντες θρυλοῦσι καὶ νῦν προείρηται, τρία δὲ τὰ τούτοις συμφυῆ, λέγω δὲ μοναρχίαν, ὀλιγαρχίαν, ὀχλοκρατίαν. [7] πρώτη μὲν οὖν ἀκατασκεύως καὶ φυσικῶς συνίσταται μοναρχία, ταύτῃ δ᾽ ἕπεται καὶ ἐκ ταύτης γεννᾶται μετὰ κατασκευῆς καὶ διορθώσεως βασιλεία. [8] μεταβαλλούσης δὲ ταύτης εἰς τὰ συμφυῆ κακά, λέγω δ᾽ εἰς τυραννίδ᾽, αὖθις ἐκ τῆς τούτων καταλύσεως ἀριστοκρατία φύεται. [9] καὶ μὴν ταύτης εἰς ὀλιγαρχίαν ἐκτραπείσης κατὰ φύσιν, τοῦ δὲ πλήθους ὀργῇ μετελθόντος τὰς τῶν προεστώτων ἀδικίας, γεννᾶται δῆμος. [10] ἐκ δὲ τῆς τούτου πάλιν ὕβρεως καὶ παρανομίας ἀποπληροῦται σὺν χρόνοις ὀχλοκρατία. [11] γνοίη δ᾽ ἄν τις σαφέστατα περὶ τούτων ὡς ἀληθῶς ἐστιν οἷα δὴ νῦν εἶπον, ἐπὶ τὰς ἑκάστων κατὰ φύσιν ἀρχὰς καὶ γενέσεις καὶ μεταβολὰς ἐπιστήσας.


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