Plato’s Republic, American Democracy, and Donald Trump

By: Dr. Ivan Spencer

From ancient times to the present, anarchy turns people to stern leaders who will restore order, peace, and prosperity. Democracies naturally create instabilities that invite tyranny.

Whatever your opinion of Trump’s rise to popularity, this phenomenon commands attention and provokes a response. How could someone with his traits and history persuade teeming masses of Americans? Plato explained this 2,400 years ago in his magnum opus, The Republic. Plato explored the three basic forms of rule and their aberrations. The central issue in the work concerns what a just person will be like by finding out what a just state is like. If a just state embraces a republic, ruled by a wise council, so a just person embraces reasoning and intellect over his base drives and emotions. Unfortunately, the rarity of just people and just states reminds us of our desperation, our longing for justice.

Viewed through the lens of Plato’s timeless political analysis, this moment in American politics fits into a recurring pattern of political regression that he predicts. How so? He recognizes three basic forms of human organization. Rule by one is usually tyranny. Rule by a few is aristocracy, or if corrupt, oligarchy. Rule by all is democracy, or if corrupt, anarchy. These forms often intermingle and cause corruption. A republic, the highest form of government, rules with wisdom through an aristocracy of highly trained, disciplined, and vetted leaders. Plato explains the regression that occurs when a republic descends through inferior forms: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, anarchy, and finally, tyranny. While this analysis isn’t precisely true in every scenario, the general pattern rings true. I’ll skip timocracy (rule by military honor) because it isn’t relevant. Plato understood that some steps might be skipped on the way down to tyranny.

And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty?[1]

When virtuous leaders of a republic begin to seek wealth, an oligarchy (or plutocracy) emerges. As concentrated wealth becomes the central power in a society, the wealthy overpower not only the poorer classes, but also each other. When an oligarchy obtains most of the money, the best place to get more money is from overthrowing another oligarch. The oligarchs shrink in number, and the poor get poorer. Eventually, there are so many poor people that they decide to band together to overthrow the super-rich oligarchs. In case you are wondering, this isn’t Marxism. Plato observed and explained class struggle 2,200 years before Marx. Make of that what you will. Many of Marx’s ideas are not original.

When the poor overthrow the rich, they determine to make everyone equal. They establish a new kind of government: democracy. Let all be equal. Let each person rule. Democracy emerged in ancient Greece, though not on a scale, depth, or level of sophistication close to America. Democratic peoples promote two things: freedom and equality. The quest for these values can excite the population to extreme levels of freedom leading to instability. When a society teeters on the edge anarchy, drunk with excessive freedom, anarchy comes in shades. It isn’t just mayhem gone viral, but begins when angry people think and feel that there isn’t any rationale to the system and all is a sham. Signs of chaos arise in various quarters: behavior, crime, economics, etc. Thus the rational order of society begins to unravel, whether locally, nationally, or globally. When fear takes over, people huddle because there’s too much risk. Want and need set in. People clamor for a return to order. Finally, in desperation the people welcome a harsh and overpowering leader who determines to forcefully restore order. People applaud this leader who seems heroic, tenacious, and courageous to set things right. Order creates security, and security can bring prosperity as people openly risk their self, money, and time by investing in their society. At first, the leader enforces order, but eventually turns tyrannical toward all the people. Accustomed to dealing with people brutishly, the leader expands those brutal powers in like fashion upon all. Tyranny emerges. Tyranny? It comes in a hundred flavors, and the pages of history running back five thousand years give countless examples. The French Revolution endures as one of the most infamous.

Consider the perceptions of the upset masses at this moment. Many feel that we are either in semi-anarchical state or teetering on the edge of anarchy just a slip away. Take your pick. Will that slip occur due to ISIS, or uncontrolled illegal immigration, or racial rioting, or economic turmoil caused by countless factors including $10T in new debt in the past seven years, or the Mid East, or rampant identity theft, or cyber attacks, or a hopelessly flawed tax system, or a rusting infrastructure, or a train-wrecked healthcare system, or a dwindling military, or burdensome bureaucratic regulations, or a bankrupt entitlement system of lies, or a refugee crises of epic proportions, or rogue nuclear states, or an incredibly expensive and failed education system? All of these and more keep Americans awake and they fear impending doom. No alarm intended. Maybe we face no open anarchy yet, but many feel it looms. In our fast-paced world, tragedy can come quickly, and we remind ourselves of this yearly on September 11.

Commonplace voices daily echo that anger drives people to Trump. One might say the same for Sanders. Is Trump the tyrant many dread? Perhaps it is someone else? That’s your call. Choose, but know and understand why the underclasses now support leaders with the tenacity and will to extinguish many impending disasters. Not choosing risks the worst. If the conditions driving us toward anarchy worsen, another leader will arise who is more aggressive. Leaders gain mass support with a ferocious image. Voices of moderation be cursed. Whatever you believe, know that from ancient times to the present, democratic societies experience times of great volatility that can lapse into tyranny. Times may change, but collective human nature remains unchanged.

[1] Plato, The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett, Third Edition., vol. 3 (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1892), 272 (Book VIII).

Dr. Ivan Spencer is Professor of History and Philosophy at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and The College at Southeastern

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