Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, warned us that there is nothing new under the sun. At least in terms of the current crisis in Greece, Solomon was dead right. As I look on aghast at the sense of entitlement, the lack of discipline, and the refusal to accept austerity measures that are driving Greece to the edge of ruin, I am reminded of similar attitudes that brought down the Golden Age of Greece over 2400 years ago.
Plato witnessed the late fifth century BC implosion of Athenian democracy, even as we are seeing its impending implosion in the early twenty-first century AD, and he diagnosed its causes in his most famous dialogue, the Republic.
Plato kicked the poets out of his ideal state, an ironic decision since Plato was himself a poet at heart. That is made evident in Book VIII of the Republic when Plato turns to political science. Like Aristotle after him, Plato maps out a political cycle by which one type of government gives way to another. However whereas Aristotle’s overview is dry and prosaic, Plato spices his up by wrapping it in the guise of a Greek tragedy.
Just as the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides often dramatized the fall of a great house (that of Atreus or Oedipus or Theseus), so Plato’s non-dramatic prose tragedy illustrates the natural cycle of political decay from aristocracy to timocracy to oligarchy to democracy to tyranny in terms of a five-generation royal family. In Plato’s telling, an aristocratic father is followed by a timocratic son, who is himself succeeded in turn by an oligarch, a democrat, and a tyrant.
Plato presents a clinical, yet vivid analysis of the corruption of the democratic state, citizen, and prince that sounds uncannily—and disturbingly—like Greece today. In a radical democracy, Plato argues, excessive freedom encourages citizens to overindulge their appetites. In time, such citizens become incapable of moral self-regulation; all discipline is lost and all resources squandered.
This moral, spiritual, economic, and political anarchy leads to two outcomes that might at first seem contradictory. First, the citizens “chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority and at length . . . they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten; they will have no one over them” (563e).
In time, however, their lack of personal discipline—of self-imposed austerity—compels them to put a tyrant over themselves so that they will be assured, so they think, of a steady stream of pleasures and delights. Thus, Plato concludes, an “excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery” (564a).
As it is with the democratic masses, so it is with the democratic prince. In reaction against what he perceives as the “money-grubbing” of his oligarchic father, he adopts an undisciplined, self-indulgent lifestyle that causes him to reject his earlier training and surrender to “insolence and anarchy and waste and impudence” (560e).
This internal imbalance leads to chaos in his daily life:
he lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics. . . . His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom. (561c-d)
It’s not just that the prince becomes lazy; his capacity for reason and virtue becomes exhausted and overwhelmed by a disordered life that swings violently from joyless hedonism to amoral asceticism. His life, Plato writes, “is motley and manifold” (561e); there is in him no stability, no sense of proper order, value, or hierarchy.
Though the democratic prince may be able to resist a complete slide into anarchy, his son will not. Without reason or virtue to guide him, the son’s appetites will eventually grow perverse, paving the way for tyranny. In the opening of Book IX, Plato, with the same clinical precision, shows the kind of behavior that the democratic king will breed in his tyrannical prince:
then the wild beast within us, gorged with meat or drink, starts up and having shaken off sleep, goes forth to satisfy his desires; and there is no conceivable folly or crime—not excepting incest or any other unnatural union, or parricide, or the eating of forbidden food—which at such a time, when he has parted company with all shame and sense, a man may not be ready to commit. (571c-d)
As far back as Homer, the Greeks understood that an internal sense of shame (aidos in Greek) was one of our chief safeguards against chaos and cruelty. One of the clearest markers that democracy is morphing into tyranny is when our political leaders see nothing wrong in indulging their lusts. This loss of aidos at the top quickly passes down to the masses, who increasingly refuse, with great pride, any measure that might injure their self-esteem.
This refusal manifests itself in a kind of social topsy-turvydom that Plato, yet again, dissects and defines exactly:
I mean that the father grows accustomed to descend to the level of his sons and to fear them, and the son is on a level with his father, he having no respect or reverence for either of his parents . . . the master fears and flatters his scholars, and the scholars despise their masters and tutors; young and old are all alike; and the young man is on a level with the old, and is ready to compete with him in word or deed; and old men condescend to the young and are full of pleasantry and gaiety; they are loth to be thought morose and authoritative, and therefore they adopt the manners of the young. (562e-563b)
An admirable quality of the Greeks, both then and now, is their commitment to university education. Unfortunately, when such education breeds arrogance in the young and a craven sense of inferiority in the old, it hastens the collapse of democratic society.
Ancient Athens lost her sense of respect, shame, decorum, and proportion, and it led to her dissolution. She became her own worst enemy, her own executioner. The parallels between Plato’s analysis in Book VIII of the Republic and what has been playing out in Greece today are disturbing indeed.
What is more disturbing is that we can see the beginning of the same process of social-political decay in our own country.
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