From Democracy to Dictatorship – A 2400-year-old recipe coming to realisation
In men’s conversations, topics such as women, business, and politics are common. This is not only true today, but it was also true in the time of our fathers and grandfathers, and probably always has been. Around 410-420 BC, 2400 years ago, this was also the case when
Socrates visited his old friend Kephalos’ house in Piraeus.
He was accompanied by a few young students, including Plato, who later wrote down the entire conversation in his work “The Republic“. He undoubtedly polished it, corrected it, and added his own thoughts, but the final result still rests on the foundation of that conversation. The conversation, which according to the record initially focused on money and women, included questions such as “are you still the man you were?”.
Then the conversation shifted to ideas, ideals, and after realizing that
the ideal person can only be raised in an ideal environment, an ideal state,
they began to develop what the ideal state would be like. They not only developed this (an impossible form of state), but also how lower forms of states come into being from this ideal state, as a result of the degeneration of people and relationships.
The lowest-ranking member of this series of five is dictatorship, in Greek tyranny.
Since the Latin-origin term “dictatorship” is commonly used today, we will use this term in the following. In Socrates-Plato’s recipe for the emergence of dictatorship, we can read about circumstances that are terrifyingly familiar.
Let’s start with the fact that, according to the observation 2400 years ago, dictatorship
emerges from democracy,
the penultimate form of state. It is not for the purpose of this article to judge whether democracy is indeed a lower form of government than the three Platonic categories of government that are superior to it. What we want to focus on here is the transition, and the description which necessarily derives this transition from certain characteristics and weaknesses of democracy. This is because these are the characteristics that we can still observe in many places around us today.
Let us now turn the floor over to Socrates and Plato,
Here are some details! The original work is in dialogue form, but here, for the sake of readability, the dialogue elements have been modified, the verbosity has been reduced and only Socrates’ words have been arranged in narrative form. But they are unchanged, starting with the description of democracy:
What is such a constitution like? … First, citizens are free,
the state is full of freedom and free expression, and anyone can do what they want. …
As if this were the most beautiful form of government! Like a robe strewn with flowers of all kinds, … And surely many people do feel it is the most beautiful, like children and women when they gaze at the finery of the fancy …
In this state, no one forces you to be a leader, however capable you may be, nor to obey if you don’t want to, nor to live in peace if others live like you but you don’t desire peace; …. democracy, disregarding what occupations one may take up in running the state, honours everyone, but only to circulate that he has good will towards the masses.
Let us see, my dear friend, in what way tyranny arises. It is almost clear that it arises from democracy.
Is not democracy itself disintegrated by the overworking of what it judges to be the highest good?
Freedom. For in a democratic state you hear nothing but that it is the most beautiful thing in the world, and that only in a free state is true free nature worth living.
… is it not the very insatiability in liberty and neglect of other values that transforms this state and makes it desire tyranny?
When democracy becomes thirsty for liberty, and by accident bad wine-bottlers come to dominate it, and it becomes drunk with more pure wine than it needs, it chastises the leaders who do not flatter it and do not give it full liberty, accusing them of being wrongdoers and oligarchs.
Is it not inevitable that in such a state everyone wants freedom?
And, my dear, unruliness creeps into the family, and eventually even into the animals.
The father becomes accustomed to be equal to his sons, even afraid of them, and the son is not afraid, will not even marry his parents, just to be free; thus the newcomer becomes equal to the native and vice versa, and the stranger to the stranger.
In such circumstances the teacher fears his tutors, and flatters them; the pupils despise their tutors, and even their tutor; the young generally measure themselves by the old, and seek to rival them in word and deed; and the old seek to associate with the young, and cannot fail to wit and flatter them, imitating them at all costs, lest they should be thought surly and tyrannical.
It is not from any other constitution, but from democracy that tyranny is born, and from unbridled freedom arises the ultimate and most exuberant servitude.
What is the disease that rises in democracy as much as in oligarchy, and gives birth to slavery?
I am thinking of the kind of useless and profligate people. The most manly of these become the leaders and the most petty of these become their subjects;
We have likened all of them to testicles: the manly ones are the stinging testicles, the pipsqueaks the stingless ones.
In a democracy, with few exceptions, it is almost this group that occupies the chief place, and it is the most fierce of them who are the ones who agitate and act, and the rest who sit around the pulpit and dong, and do not give a voice to those who want to speak otherwise; in such a constitution, with few exceptions, they do almost everything.
The common people, the two-handed toilers, who care nothing for public affairs, and have, so to speak, nothing of wealth;
Of course, in a democracy, this is the most populous class, and when they are united, they have the deciding vote.
The ringleaders can seize wealth from the rich and distribute it to the common people, of course, saving most of it for themselves.
Then come the denunciations, lawsuits and infighting.
… The people are looking for a leader …
the people always lift someone over their head and support them, fatten them up …
It is clear that when tyranny grows up, it is always rooted in the leadership of the people, it springs from it.
What then is the beginning of the change from leader to tyrant?
The leader of the people, who, dragging along the masses who follow him without reason, does not restrain himself from shedding the blood of his own tribe, but summons them before the judges on false charges, as is his custom, defiling himself with blood, killing men, tasting his kinsman with his unholy tongue and mouth, banishing and murdering men, insidiously promising debt forgiveness and land division – whether such a one will not be doomed to devour his adversary, or become a tyrant – a wolf from man.
In the first days and times, he smiles at everyone he meets, greets them with a gentle welcome, does not hesitate to say that he is not a tyrant; as a private man and officially promises to give grass and wood, forgives debts, distributes land to the people and their sycophants, and pretends to be pious and gentle.
Then, when, I suppose, he is reconciled to some of his external adversaries, and slyly slays others, so that he may be at rest from them, he first of all keeps on making wars, so that the people may depend on him as their leader.
And I suppose, since he is suspicious of some, that in their love of liberty they cannot suffer his rule, that he may on some pretext excuse them – playing them into the hands of the enemy – is he not for all these reasons compelled to stir up war continually?
At this, more and more of those who have helped him to power – themselves powerful – do not put a lid on it, and begin to criticise his dealings before him and among themselves, of course, the most courageous of them.
If he wishes to remain in power, he must remove or destroy them all, till he has neither friend nor foe left worth anything.
These are the words of the Greek sage 2400 years ago. After a while, democracy goes beyond ‘free for all’, and the ‘ugly’ one will be the one who doesn’t like it. Meanwhile, counter-selected leaders steal from the coffers, eventually the people get fed up and help someone into power who promises to clean up the mess. This someone then punishes “whoever needs to be punished”, wreaks carnage, and in the process, wipes out his fellow combatants. And anyone else who is dangerous.
The dictatorship is complete.
All this frightens today’s observant thinker, because it seems that the old recipe is coming to an end. It is very ugly now for those who don’t like the great freedom, it is very stealing of the people’s money by the undeserving, it is very much the kind of conditions that Socrates described and Plato described as the precursor of dictatorship.
At the time of the conversation, the Peloponnesian War was already under way, which ended in the defeat of Athens and its allies, democracy had failed in Athens and a tyrant had seized power. Cephalus fell victim to the tyrant. Socrates was condemned to suicide by democratic vote in the new democracy that was restored after the fall of tyranny. Plato, later, with experience, wrote the State around 375 BC, which fortunately survived, to the edification of all.
And we just stand there, marveling at the coincidences, seeing history really repeating itself, calculating how long democracy will continue to rage with symptoms of collapse, while we watch cautiously out of the corner of our eye to see where the leader of the people promising order will appear.