Study Guide

The Republic Book VIII

By Plato

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Five Kinds of Government

  • All right, so the dudes have all agreed that in the best city, people will have everything in common: women, the education of children, and the military. Soldiers will have common housing and will receive only a very small wage to cover their service to the city.
  • Now Socrates wants to return to whatever they were talking about way back when, before they got on this tangent. Glaucon reminds him that he was about to outline four types of government and four types of men that are different from what they've created but still worth discussing. This discussion will hopefully help them understand whether the best people are also happy and whether the worst are unhappy.
  • The four types of governments are: 1) the Cretan and Laconian regimes (the kind of government Sparta was famous for, where athleticism and military ability were the most important things—Socrates later invents a word and calls it a "timocracy," which means "the rule of honor"), 2) oligarchy (when a group of powerful, often wealthy people are in charge), 3) democracy, and 4) tyranny.
  • Socrates suggests that these four types are more like a general outline of common forms of government; there are actually a huge number of types of governments. There are probably as many kinds of governments as there are types of people—since, you know, people ultimately make up all kinds of government.
  • Socrates has already said the best kind of government, the kind that their republic is, is an aristocracy, and that a person who rules himself as if he were an aristocracy himself is the best kind of person.
  • Socrates then suggests that they go through each kind of regime step-by-step in order to determine what qualities each has. They'll then imagine the kind of individual who would have these qualities. This will allow them to see how justice and injustice function, and it will allow them to decide whether justice or injustice makes you happier.


  • The first regime they consider is 2) the Laconian regime, which Socrates names a "timocracy" ("a government of honor") because this kind of government is completely obsessed with honor and glory.
  • First, Socrates wants to understand how such a government comes to be. He imagines that a timocracy arises when something goes wrong in an aristocracy.
  • How? Well, even though aristocracy is the best kind of government, no one is perfect, so Socrates imagines that at some point some people will disobey the rules of the government and will have children when they shouldn't. For some very strange and weird reasons related to geometry, these children will be worse than they should be and will not govern as well.
  • Eventually, there will be a division between those who are interested in making money and having possessions and those interested in philosophy and virtue. Eventually, they will reintroduce private property, people will be enslaved, and war will consume all their energy.
  • Everyone agrees that this is how such a government would come to exist. They also agree that timocracy is the type of government that comes between aristocracy and oligarchy.
  • They next imagine that some aspects of this new government will be like aristocracy, so they will divide the duties of the city into separate roles (farming vs. military) and will engage in their meals and their athletic training all in common spaces.
  • But, unlike the previous regime, and more like an oligarchy, the timocracy won't put the wisest guys in charge of the city; they'll put the ones who are totally into war and conflict in charge. These rulers will also be into money and will try to do anything to acquire and save their own moolah while happily spending their friends' money on bad things.
  • Why are these rulers like this? Because their education was forced on them and because athletics was way more emphasized than music or philosophy.
  • They all agree that they've done a good job describing this kind of government, considering that they can't spend too much time on each. This government, they decide, will be especially characterized by its love of victory and of honor.
  • Now they need to figure out what kind of person would be most like this government.
  • Adeimantus suggests that it might be someone like Glaucon, but Socrates says that Glaucon is not stubborn enough and too good at music. Furthermore, this kind of person would love rhetoric, without actually being good at it. He would be harsh to his slaves but respectful to his equals. He would be a hunting enthusiast and would love athletics. Even though he would not be obsessed with money in his youth, he would come to like it when he grew older.
  • Because this man would not have been properly trained in both music and argumentation, he wouldn't be as devoted to virtue as he should be.
  • Everyone agrees that this sounds like a timocratic man, so Socrates goes on to explain how such a man would come to be.
  • Socrates says such a person would be the child of an idealistic father and a nagging mother. Because the father hated all the gossip and pettiness of political life, he would have left that world and tried to mind his own business.
  • As a result, his wife would always be angry with him because their family wasn't in a better position socially and financially. So the young boy would hear both these things and perceive that his father wasn't very highly esteemed in the city. He would feel divided in what he cared about. His father would appeal and cultivate the boy's sense of thoughtfulness and virtue, but the other outside influences would cultivate his spirit and his desires (the lower two parts of the soul, remember?).
  • He would therefore not be a bad kid, but he would be too arrogant and too obsessed with honor.
  • Everyone thinks Socrates has got it exactly right, and so they decide to move onto oligarchy.


  • Socrates defines oligarchy as the rule of the rich founded on an obsession with acquiring property.
  • Next, Socrates describes how a timocracy will turn into an oligarchy as people become greedier and greedier.
  • As people compete with each other to acquire more wealth, it soon becomes the case that the most honorable thing to be in the city is wealthy. Virtue is totally degraded, because wealth and virtue are always at odds, and soon no one will care about being virtuous at all. They'll just care about money... and more money.
  • Now that the city is obsessed with money, the people will select the wealthiest people in the city to be their rulers. They'll make all these laws dictating how much money you need to have in order to rule.
  • Next, Socrates describes the character of the city and the problems it has.
  • First of all, because it makes wealth the criterion for ruling, it's quite possible that the best potential leaders won't be in charge, simply because they aren't rich enough.
  • Second, because there is such a sharp divide between the rich and the poor, they will always be plotting against each other and causing problems.
  • The oligarchy will be terrible at fighting war because they won't want to arm their citizens out of fear of a rebellion. They also won't want to fight themselves. And they won't want to actually fund a war, because they love their money too much. That doesn't leave many options.
  • Also, everyone will be trying to do too many things at once—like farm, make money, and fight—so no one will do one particular thing very well.
  • Intense poverty will be a huge problem, because everyone will want more for themselves and won't care if someone else loses everything.
  • And these super-duper wealthy people... are they even helping the city out? Doing anything for it? Nope. They're just interested in their own moolah and their own private problems.
  • Just as drones (you know, bees) have either wings or stingers but are annoying either way, so will the city be filled will either beggars or troublemakers. Everyone knows that wherever you see lots of poverty, you're also sure to see lots of crime, too.
  • In fact, Socrates and friends all suspect that pretty much everyone in that kind of city will end up being poor except for the rulers.
  • All these problems come from the fact that this city will have a bad educational system, bad parenting, and a bad form of governing.
  • Next, Socrates and company need to figure out what kind of person corresponds to this government and how he comes into being.
  • Socrates imagines that the oligarchic man will be the son of a timocratic man who will at first look up to his father and emulate him. But then he will see his father fall from office due to corruption in the government, and he will watch his father lose everything.
  • Once he sees this, he'll be afraid of the same thing happening to him. So he'll decide that he doesn't care about honor; he only cares about money.
  • The oligarchic man will end up making the rational and the spirited parts of his soul subservient to the desiring part, and everything his soul will aim for will be about money.
  • They all agree that this description sounds like the oligarchic man, and now they want to characterize him.
  • He'll be intensely greedy. He'll think that money is the most important thing in life, and so he'll be totally stingy.
  • He'll be kind of a hoarder, keeping things to himself and always trying to make a profit.
  • He won't devote himself at all to education and will probably have plenty of nasty desires that he'll only keep in check because he's afraid of spending money.
  • Socrates thinks that a way to really tell what the oligarchic man is like is to watch how he cares for other people, such as orphans.
  • Because the oligarchic man's desires are never in order but are always competing for attention, he himself will be divided.
  • He will be rather graceful, but not because he is harmonious on the inside.
  • He won't be a very good member of any community, either, because he won't spend money on anything, not even to fight a war properly.
  • Everyone agrees that this pretty much sums up what an oligarchic man would be like.


  • All right. We're on to democracy. Let's find out how it came into being out of oligarchy.
  • Socrates imagines that because an oligarchy isn't very well ruled and doesn't have any kind of legal system in place to monitor and aid the poor, the poor will become very angry and bitter.
  • People become poor in the oligarchic city very easily because they can enter into contracts without any kind of potential risk to themselves.
  • Now, because this city is sick, just the smallest little thing can push it over the edge and make it completely ill. For even a small reason, the poor will rise up, cast out the wealthy rulers, and establish a democracy.
  • In this democracy, the poor will get to be the ones ruling, and they will create a system of ruling by vote.
  • A city like this will be characterized by freedom. People will have freedom of speech, and they'll have the freedom to do whatever they want. Because they can do what they want, people will tend to involve themselves in their own private business.
  • This kind of government will also produce the most diverse population. Socrates admits that there is a certain loveliness to this kind of government. It's like a cloak that is beautiful because it has so many colors.
  • In fact, because democracy is so striking and beautiful, many people become mistakenly convinced that it's the best kind of government.
  • Democracies are useful to people like Socrates and company, who are interested in studying all kinds of governments, because they contain such a variety of people and leadership styles.
  • Democracies don't provide any legal compulsion for certain people to rule or to fight wars and they tend to be compassionate toward people who have been condemned.
  • Furthermore, because of the way democracy works, it doesn't enforce rules that might determine what kind of people should be in charge; it simply rewards the person who has the most popular appeal.
  • Now to figure out the democratic man. Socrates imagines that he will be the son of a stingy, oligarchic man and will be the kind of person who thinks that any of his desires that don't lead to moneymaking are unnecessary.
  • Before describing the democratic man further, Socrates wants to quickly differentiate necessary desires from unnecessary ones.
  • Necessary desires are desires that a person cannot justly ignore, often because they are part of human nature.
  • Unnecessary desires are those that, with lots of practice, a person can free himself from and whose presence doesn't do the person any good.
  • So, an example of a necessary desire would be eating out of hunger, while overeating just for pleasure would be an unnecessary desire.
  • Socrates then compares these two kinds of desires to two attitudes towards money. He suggests that necessary desires are like making money, because they are useful and productive, while unnecessary desires are like being stingy, since they hoard without use.
  • So, they conclude that the stingy, oligarchic man will be like necessary desires while a big spender will be like the unnecessary desires.
  • Okay, so back to how the democratic man comes to exist. He's the son of a stingy, oligarchic guy, so his childhood is, well, stingy. When he gets a bit older and meets other people who are into pleasures and doing fun things, he'll follow them, since he's sick of his stingy childhood.
  • However, he's still his father's son, so he's excited by new, fun opportunities, but at the same time, he's wary of being too overindulgent. So he's constantly at war with himself, not knowing what to do and not being able to rely on the solid foundation of a good education.
  • Without this good education, arrogance and boasting will take hold of him, and in the end, he'll choose to hang out with the fun, pleasure-loving people who breed chaos, anarchy, and wastefulness.
  • For the rest of his life, the democratic man will go and back forth between greater indulgence and lesser indulgence, not understanding why either might be better or worse for him but deciding it's best to just treat them equally.
  • The democratic man will live day by day and try out whatever new and exciting thing strikes his fancy. Many people will say he lives a good life, full of variety, excitement, and freedom.


  • Finally, it's time to talk about tyranny, which, you won't be at all surprised to hear, is born out of democracy.
  • Just as oligarchy collapsed under its own obsession with wealth, so, too, will democracy collapse under its own obsession with freedom.
  • If a ruler doesn't grant enough freedom, or if he tries to punish his citizens, he—and any of his followers—will be condemned as compromising freedom.
  • Anarchy will be a part of every aspect of the city, since even animals will model themselves on the example of their government.
  • Instead of people fearing their elders and those in positions of authority, the opposite will happen: people in authority will fear the people and so flatter and placate them.
  • Disorder will be everywhere, and people will become so protective of the idea of their freedom that they will stop obeying the law altogether.
  • So this is the kind of climate that ends up producing tyranny, a climate cursed with the same disease as oligarchy. It's a disease that makes them both fail, since an excessive amount of anything tends to lead to its opposite excess: too much freedom in democracy leads to slavery under tyranny.
  • Adeimantus wants to know what exactly this disease is that's plagued both oligarchy and democracy. Socrates responds that it's having a class of opinionated, lazy, and extravagant people who have a bunch of tedious followers.
  • Socrates says this metaphorical disease is what both doctors and rulers need to be the most diligent about preventing.
  • To explain this disease in democracy further, Socrates goes on to say that in a democracy there are three distinct categories of people.
  • First, there are 1) these lazy extravagant people. They're also the fiercest: because they're not given any actual positions of power in the city, so they're always having to fight to be heard.
  • Next, there are 2) the wealthy, who are also the most powerful.
  • Finally, there are 3) your average citizens who work, don't have much, and are very interested in participating in government.
  • The leaders of a democracy realize this, and so they strategically keep giving money to the poor as a way to actually keep the majority of it for themselves.
  • Now, when someone is in trouble and might have his property taken, he has to plead with the public in order to defend himself.
  • It's also usually the case in a democracy that certain men grow very popular and are supported and groomed as future leaders. Socrates sees this as the very beginning of tyranny.
  • A leader becomes a tyrant when he's fighting against the crowd and becomes vicious, for example by executing someone for no reason.
  • Now that he's shed blood, this ruler will become ruthless and will either be killed or become a tyrant.
  • Once he survives as a tyrant, he will forget any promises of legal change he's made.
  • He'll lead an attack on the wealthy of the city and will cause resentment to build up against him. He'll then require the help of bodyguards from the city.
  • The typical trajectory of a tyrant's reign begins on a good note: he's friendly, delivers on his promises, and feeds the poor to keep them quiet.
  • Then he stirs up a war as a way to eliminate some of his internal enemies, and he starts to become less and less liked.
  • When his trusted advisors offer him any kind of criticism, he'll kill them, too. He'll start to kill anyone who seems too impressive and who might be a challenger.
  • Naturally, the people will hate him more and more, so he'll need even more security and more companions. He'll either get them from abroad or by freeing the slaves of some his citizens, making them his personal bodyguards.
  • Socrates imagines that among these companions will be some wise men, since Euripides, a tragic poet, said that tyrants often surround themselves with the wise. For praising tyranny in this way, it's obvious yet again that poets won't be allowed in Socrates's city.
  • In fact, poets are known to go around spreading praise for both tyranny and democracy, because both those regimes—but especially tyranny—offer poets the most support.
  • Anyway, back to tyrants. Adeimantus suggests that a tyrant will get his money from spending the sacred money of the city and from all the property he's confiscated from his enemies.
  • Once this runs out, the tyrant will rely on his friends, then on the parents of his friends, then even on his own parents, not at all respecting the idea that adults should take care of their parents.
  • In fact, if the tyrant's father refuses to support his son, the tyrant will probably kill him.
  • Well, now Socrates and the gang have seen how a government can change from being totally free to totally enslaving.

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