Plato on the Evils of a “Government Resting on a Valuation of Property”

Hi. Here is a very interesting and timely exchange between Socrates and Adeimantus in Plato’s The Republic, ~360 BCE, Book 8:

ADEIMANTUS: And what manner of government do you term oligarchy?

SOCRATES: A government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it.

ADEIMANTUS: I understand, he replied.

SOCRATES: Ought I not to begin by describing how the change from timocracy [government of honor] to oligarchy arises?

ADEIMANTUS: Yes.

SOCRATES: Well, I said, no eyes are required in order to see how the one passes into the other.

ADEIMANTUS: How?

SOCRATES: The accumulation of gold in the treasury of private individuals is ruin the of timocracy; they invent illegal modes of expenditure; for what do they or their wives care about the law?

ADEIMANTUS: Yes, indeed.

SOCRATES: And then one, seeing another grow rich, seeks to rival him, and thus the great mass of the citizens become lovers of money.

ADEIMANTUS: Likely enough.

SOCRATES: And so they grow richer and richer, and the more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue; for when riches and virtue are placed together in the scales of the balance, the one always rises as the other falls.

ADEIMANTUS: True.

SOCRATES: And in proportion as riches and rich men are honoured in the State, virtue and the virtuous are dishonoured.

ADEIMANTUS: Clearly.

SOCRATES: And what is honoured is cultivated, and that which has no honour is neglected.

ADEIMANTUS: That is obvious.

SOCRATES: And so at last, instead of loving contention and glory, men become lovers of trade and money; they honour and look up to the rich man, and make a ruler of him, and dishonour the poor man.

ADEIMANTUS: They do so.

SOCRATES: They next proceed to make a law which fixes a sum of money as the qualification of citizenship; the sum is higher in one place and lower in another, as the oligarchy is more or less exclusive; and they allow no one whose property falls below the amount fixed to have any share in the government. These changes in the constitution they effect by force of arms, if intimidation has not already done their work.

ADEIMANTUS: Very true.

SOCRATES: And this, speaking generally, is the way in which oligarchy is established.

ADEIMANTUS: Yes, he said; but what are the characteristics of this form of government, and what are the defects of which we were speaking?

SOCRATES: First of all, I said, consider the nature of the qualification just think what would happen if pilots were to be chosen according to their property, and a poor man were refused permission to steer, even though he were a better pilot?

ADEIMANTUS: You mean that they would shipwreck?

SOCRATES: Yes; and is not this true of the government of anything?

ADEIMANTUS: I should imagine so.

SOCRATES: Except a city? –or would you include a city?

ADEIMANTUS: Nay, he said, the case of a city is the strongest of all, inasmuch as the rule of a city is the greatest and most difficult of all.

SOCRATES: This, then, will be the first great defect of oligarchy?

ADEIMANTUS: Clearly.

SOCRATES: And here is another defect which is quite as bad.

ADEIMANTUS: What defect?

SOCRATES: The inevitable division: such a State is not one, but two States, the one of poor, the other of rich men; and they are living on the same spot and always conspiring against one another.

ADEIMANTUS: That, surely, is at least as bad.

SOCRATES: Another discreditable feature is, that, for a like reason, they are incapable of carrying on any war. Either they arm the multitude, and then they are more afraid of them than of the enemy; or, if they do not call them out in the hour of battle, they are oligarchs indeed, few to fight as they are few to rule. And at the same time their fondness for money makes them unwilling to pay taxes.

ADEIMANTUS: How discreditable!

SOCRATES: And, as we said before, under such a constitution the same persons have too many callings — they are husbandmen, tradesmen, warriors, all in one. Does that look well?

ADEIMANTUS: Anything but well.

SOCRATES: There is another evil which is, perhaps, the greatest of all, and to which this State first begins to be liable.

ADEIMANTUS: What evil?

SOCRATES: A man may sell all that he has, and another may acquire his property; yet after the sale he may dwell in the city of which he is no longer a part, being neither trader, nor artisan, nor horseman, nor hoplite, but only a poor, helpless creature.

ADEIMANTUS: Yes, that is an evil which also first begins in this State.

SOCRATES: The evil is certainly not prevented there; for oligarchies have both the extremes of great wealth and utter poverty.

ADEIMANTUS: True.

SOCRATES: But think again: In his wealthy days, while he was spending his money, was a man of this sort a whit more good to the State for the purposes of citizenship? Or did he only seem to be a member of the ruling body, although in truth he was neither ruler nor subject, but just a spendthrift?

ADEIMANTUS: As you say, he seemed to be a ruler, but was only a spendthrift.

SOCRATES: May we not say that this is the drone in the house who is like the drone in the honeycomb, and that the one is the plague of the city as the other is of the hive?

ADEIMANTUS: Just so, Socrates.

SOCRATES: And God has made the flying drones, Adeimantus, all without stings, whereas of the walking drones he has made some without stings but others have dreadful stings; of the stingless class are those who in their old age end as paupers; of the stingers come all the criminal class, as they are termed.

ADEIMANTUS: Most true, he said.

SOCRATES: Clearly then, whenever you see paupers in a State, somewhere in that neighborhood there are hidden away thieves, and cutpurses and robbers of temples, and all sorts of malefactors.

ADEIMANTUS: Clearly.

SOCRATES: Well, I said, and in oligarchical States do you not find paupers?

ADEIMANTUS: Yes, he said; nearly everybody is a pauper who is not a ruler.

SOCRATES: And may we be so bold as to affirm that there are also many criminals to be found in them, rogues who have stings, and whom the authorities are careful to restrain by force?

ADEIMANTUS: Certainly, we may be so bold.

SOCRATES: The existence of such persons is to be attributed to want of education, ill-training, and an evil constitution of the State?

ADEIMANTUS: True.

SOCRATES: Such, then, is the form and such are the evils of oligarchy; and there may be many other evils.

ADEIMANTUS: Very likely.

SOCRATES: Then oligarchy, or the form of government in which the rulers are elected for their wealth, may now be dismissed.

….

In summary, Plato [through Socrates] warned that as the love of money and wealth grows, the constitution will change so that ruling is based entirely on wealth. Plato called this type of government an Oligarchy. In this City/State, whoever has wealth and property above a certain amount will be allowed to take part in ruling, and whoever has less than this will have no say in government. This type of City/State has several faults:

  1. It is ruled by people who are not fit to rule.
  2. It is not one city but two: one city of rich people and one of poor. These two factions do not make up a single city because they are always plotting against one another, and do not have common aims.
  3. The oligarchs will try to avoid paying taxes.
  4. Oligarchies produce paupers — persons without any means of support who depends on aid for survival. That is, very poor persons.

Things that make you go hmmm…

Thanks for reading,

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