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The word democracy literally means "the government of the people" (demos). Plato, of course, is using the term to refer to the democracy of Athens, a small city-state where every adult male citizen was a member of the Assembly, and so had a voice in governmental policy. But in Athens more than half of the population were slaves or foreign residents, neither of whom had any civic rights. Hence, the defects that Plato sees in Athenian democracy are probably not the same ones he would find in such modern-day democracies as the United States or France.
The transition from oligarchy to democracy results from the ever-growing conflict between the rich and the poor, which finally erupts into a civil war. The wealthy rulers of the oligarchy weaken themselves by their failure to check the economic extremes in the state. They become increasingly degenerate. Soon the poor masses find an opportunity to overthrow the soft, undisciplined rulers.
A democracy comes to be when the poor have gained control of the government. The poor execute or exile the oligarchs and grant the remaining citizens an equal share in policy-making and office-holding. Liberty and freedom of speech become the rule of the time. Each person may do as he pleases.
Socrates describes a democracy as a "bazaar of constitutions," a place where each man can select the type of life that pleases him. No one is forced to hold office, to serve in the military, to obey anyone else; and no one is considered to be better than anyone else. Further, a man who says he loves the people can get most anything he wants. With wry sarcasm (or is it?), Socrates says that the democracy seems to be "a delightful form of government, anarchic and motley, assigning a kind of equality indiscriminately to equals and unequals alike!"
Where, then, is the defect in the democratic constitution? Why does Plato consider a democracy a degenerate society that is only slightly more preferable than a tyranny?
Socrates reveals the defect when he describes the democratic man. He begins his description by distinguishing between necessary and unnecessary appetites. Appetites that maintain life are necessary; all others, and Socrates appears to include sex, are unnecessary. Although the oligarchic man loved wealth, he was ruled by his necessary appetites. Not so his son, who does not even respect wealth. The democratic youth seeks every kind of pleasure under the sun; his desires are unbridled by any concern for moderation. He neglects his studies and all honorable pursuits. He flaunts his appetites, for he believes that one pleasure is as good as another. As a democratic man he is unable to make distinctions. His total lack of a philosophical nature makes him a comic character whose life is merely a series of disorderly, meaningless pursuits. Plato's democratic man is the dilettante, the jet setter, the playboy, the common man whose life is founded on an unending quest for pleasure. One day his pleasure may be flute playing; the next, studying philosophy.
Unlike the other constitutions, the democratic state and man are not hostile to philosophy, they are simply indifferent. Plato's democracy is a "do your own thing" society. If your thing is to read philosophy, fine; if not, that's okay, too. Is Plato suggesting that philosophy is among the unnecessary desires?
NOTE: Plato's account of democracy is the strangest of his descriptions of the four degenerate constitutions. You may be left wondering if his discussion here is more of a defense of democracy than a condemnation. Certainly he praises timocracy as an orderly form of government, but he also appears to view democracy as advantageous to individuals. After all, if you want to devote your life to philosophical pursuits, in a democracy you can do so.
Some scholars suggest that Plato, rather than being antagonistic toward democracy, is actually defending democracy from its enemies-potential tyrants (powerful rulers unlimited by the laws of the people or by any constitution). What do you think? Do you think that Plato makes democracy the third kind of degeneracy because he wants to warn Athenians that their government can, in the blink of an eye, be turned into a tyranny? In other words, is he employing shock tactics to alert the people of Athens to the danger they are in of losing their freedom?