The Republic – Book VIII

Plato returns to his discussion of the city and man constitutions in book VIII. Previously he described the ideal philosopher-king/queen and the kallipolis, now he sheds light on four other types of government and people that can result from a city. He also expands on the idea that “everything that comes into being must decay,” including the kallipolis (216). Plato explores why a city decays in the first place, concluding it happens when its citizens have less consideration for music, poetry and physical training, resulting in civil war and intermixing of the metal classes (217).

From the aristocracy evolves a timocracy, mainly concerned with honour, courage and military victory. In the individual it is the spirited part of the soul which rules. The timocratic city or individual secretly adores money and neglects the study of music and poetry.

Then the city decays into an oligarchy, a society that values money and wealth over everything. Therefore they appoint the rich as rulers, rather than the most educated or rational. This city is also strongly divided into rich and poor and it is ravished by crime and poverty.

Next it decays into a democracy (note the negative connotation of decay) when the poor manage to overtake the rulers and divide the powers of the rulers equally amongst each themselves. They are governed by freedom and have no control over their appetites.

Finally, the city becomes a tyranny when a single leader arises from an opposing facet. Once in power, this man or woman feels no restraint and kills both enemies and friends that might be a threat, until he or she is all alone. The city is a slave to its ruler and so is the tyrant, ruled by his or her insatiable appetites.

Plato plays equal emphasis on the city and the individual. Throughout the entire book, he never looses sight of the parallels between city and man. In particular, I liked how he condenses the entire process of decay into four generations, each father being one kind of constitution. I think it points out how much a city is responsible for your upbringing. The way each son is raised is compared to a generational movement in a city, their ideals and the kind of atmosphere they grow up in. It is as if the city were the father and the citizens its children. It makes the cities seem much more close-knitted and passionate.

I was intrigued by why Plato would present an “ideal” city and individual that eventually decays. However by mentioning the process of decay, Plato might also be pointing out the true nature of humans and how both his argument and city are inevitably flawed. Although the concession or acceptance that his models are not perfect technically weaken his argument, I do think it defends it against anyone claiming he is an idealist. By pointing out the flaws of his argument, he is paying attention to both sides (flaws and strengths) and presenting a much more balanced, rational and moderated claim.

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