This is the document that lent its name and initial ideology to American Republicanism. As Madison and Jefferson (and most Founders) repeatedly referenced, their definition of "republicanism" was a safeguard against tyranny and oligarchy while establishing the best of democratic freedoms while also protecting against the extremes of democracy which can lead to disrepair. Written about 2,400 years ago, The Republic is one of the finest and most sophisticated discussions on what is and isn't best for society.
According to Plato, every society will begin with Aristocracy, meaning the literal force of the word "aristocracy" (rule by the best), not our modern use of it which can be synonymous with rule by a few.
Then, after these justice-loving founders have set in motion the workings of the new society, it will tend to degrade into civil war. Out of that is borne Timocracy (rule by honor).
In time, however, the natural tendency of wealthy individuals to accumulate more wealth and power supplants Timocracy. Thus rises Oligarchy (rule by the few; unfortunately modern usage of the word "aristocracy" is put in place of oligarchy quite often). Oligarchy amplifies the power of the rich and in turn widens the gap between rich and poor.
All the while, public unrest grows and revolt of the people against the elites becomes Democracy (rule by the people). Democracy's emphasis on unrestrained freedom and liberty to do whatever anyone pleases leads to loss of discipline and structure. Self-restraint is no longer seen as a quality so much as an external imposition. Infinite choices under the guise of liberty actually undoes itself.
Soon, an undisciplined and structureless public, having dug themselves into a hole, are vulnerable to a wealthy Oligarch promising to save them. Tyranny is established. The Tyrant capitalizes on the fear of the people, claiming he will re-establish structures which have indeed degraded through excessive personal liberty. Once the people have gifted rule of their society over to the Tyrant, they enslave themselves to him, since he will attack, remove or war with any threats to his power and/or to distract from his power grab. He removes the very elements of the society which make it function, make it good, and make it just.
The society ends. Start the cycle over.
Plato lays the blame not necessarily at the Tyrant, who, though unjust, is in some ways simply an opportunist. Each system has costs and benefits. Ultimately, causally, the argument could easily be taken that the blame most soundly falls on two fronts: 1.) enabling excess wealth accumulation; 2.) exploring the edges of personal liberty through attempts by the people to destroy all roles, rites of passage, and reverence, such that there are no longer stable societal structures.
What I find interesting is that two equally destructive forces erupt from the evolution of a society, each with a legitimate gripe. On the one side, there are those who try to limit consolidation of money and power. That is smart. But they tend to hold this up while readily destroying the bedrock structure which holds everything together. Likewise, the opposition aims to retain structures which make the society work; but all the while they enable the consolidation of money and power into fewer and fewer people. Both sides are right. Both sides are wrong. Everybody loses except for a few powerful wealth holders.
It’s easy to see how this is indeed predictive for the trends of most societies. Modern governments have tried to buck the inevitable trend by creating blended structures where nothing is totally aristocratic, totally democratic, totally oligarchic, or totally tyrannical. Instead, the hope is we can borrow some of the best from each one while limiting the worst of each one. But you can still see waves of pressure to move more firmly into a pure tyranny, or a pure oligarchy, or a pure democracy.
Moreover, I would encourage the reader to look at Plato’s Republic as a handbook on how your internal governance and internal dialogue unravel over the course of your own life. There are some very intriguing parallels. People will vacillate between strictness in how they manage themselves and unrestrained gluttony. Wavering back and forth between an autocratic tyranny and a liberal democracy inside their own heads and hearts, people falter a lot in personal management. But it doesn’t work. It evolves and devolves just like societal trajectory. “Anything goes” is categorically bad management. And punitive self-discipline does not have staying power. Unbridled “tolerance” is not good or productive. It has no anchor. Holier-than-thou judgmental conservatism begets extremist abuse. Both depart into immoral nihilism. What people end up accepting in order for their side “to win” is an atrocity.
Thus, we can apply The Republic in how we treat ourselves, in our healthy behaviors, in our fitness efforts, in our mental health, in our spiritual journey. Without guiding principles, we are lost. Anything does not go. Without flexibility, we are enslaved to dogma. Rigor is helpful only to a point. This is a tough sell, because our minds are wired to entrench in a hardline “side.” But the fact of the matter is the best in life is somewhere in the middle.
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