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Table of Contents
An oligarchy, which literally means "government by the few," is a regime, Socrates says, based on a property qualification: The rich hold office and the poor are excluded. Because the timocratic rulers are secret lovers of wealth, they began accumulating treasure houses of gold and, eventually, wealth becomes the most honored thing in the state. Having a certain amount of money becomes the condition for holding political office; having an excellent character becomes a secondary consideration at best. Socrates compares the oligarchic state to a ship whose pilot is chosen on the basis of his wealth and not on his ability to navigate. Glaucon exclaims that a voyage on this ship would be a sorry one indeed!
The oligarchic state is divided against itself. It is, in effect, two cities-a city of the rich and a city of the poor. These two factions are constantly plotting against each other. Further, the citizens no longer know what their proper functions are in the state; they become meddlers and jacks-of-all-trades. Worse yet, after they have squandered their wealth they become either beggars (which Socrates compares to stingless bees) or criminals (stinger bees). The oligarchic state, thus, is marked by a lack of unity by dysfunction, and by crime.
The oligarchic youth is the son of a timocratic father who was mistreated by the people ("shipwrecked" Socrates says). The youth saw his father, a good man, lose his wealth and position in the state, perhaps even put to death, because of the deceit or excessive greed of other men. The son grows timid, loses his ambition, and, humbled by poverty, turns his efforts to the accumulation of wealth. He becomes stingy, unwilling to invest in things that could win him fame and honor. He hoards his money and soon finds himself rich. He is not a high-spirited man ruled by the emotion of conviction; rather, he is ruled by the love of money and the fear of losing his money. But he strives to maintain an honorable reputation and so becomes the man who seems just but is not altogether just (similar to Glaucon's Gyges in Book II). Yet he is not an unjust man either. Like the oligarchic state, the oligarchic man is plagued with internal dissension, he is constantly at war with himself. He is haunted by the spectre of poverty, and attracted to the glitter of gold.