We stand, perhaps, at the threshold of the singularity, that great event when machine intelligence overtakes our own. The writhing of late capitalism may in fact be the death throes of Western modernity and, for both good and ill, much of its Enlightenment legacy. Institutions like the press and the polling industry have stumbled badly. No amount of denialism will stop the climate crisis. Something entirely new seems poised for its emergence into the world, though what it might be no one seems fully equipped to say. Why, then, should we look back to Plato to explain our epoch, a philosopher who had no familiarity with modern weaponry, artificial intelligence, or information systems?
Perhaps a better question is: do we and should we still value the contributions of European philosophy in contemporary life? If so, then we must allow that Plato may be perpetually relevant to learned discourse. Alfred North Whitehead famously characterized “the European philosophical tradition” as “a series of footnotes to Plato.” Suggesting his agreement with the sentiment, Massimo Pigliucci titled his regular column at The Philosopher’s Magazine, “Footnotes to Plato.” Though he did not invent his mode of inquiry, and often got it very wrong, Plato, he writes, “is a towering figure for an entire way of thinking about fundamental questions.”
There may be few questions more fundamental than those we now ask in the U.S. about tyranny, its origins and remedy—about how we arrived at where we are and what ethical and practical matters lie in the hands of the citizenry. These questions were central to the thought of Socrates, Plato’s mentor and primary character in his dialogues, who had some surprisingly contrarian ideas on the matter in The Republic. Here, as Andrew Sullivan tells us in the BBC Newsnight video above, Socrates theorizes that “Tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.”
The statement shocks us, but it also ran counter to the Athenian sentiments of Plato’s day. The picture Socrates paints of democracy’s ills finds its echo in the contemporary conservative’s worldview, but we should point out that Sullivan misrepresents the text he reads as one continuous passage, when it is actually a series of excerpted quotations. And as always, we should be careful not to try and see our own partisan divides in ancient thought. Socrates also had many other things to say the modern right finds truly objectionable.
The problem with democracy, Socrates thought, was too much freedom. Its “freedoms multiply,” he says,
until it becomes a many-colored clock decorated in all hues. Men are interchangeable with women, and all their natural differences forgotten. Animals have rights. Foreigners can come and work just like citizens. Children boss their parents around. Teachers are afraid of their students. The rich try to look just like the poor.
Soon every kind of inequality is despised. The wealthy are particularly loathed. And elites in general are treated as suspect, perpetuating inequality and representing injustice.
Under such presumably decadent conditions, “a would-be tyrant would seize his moment”:
He is usually of the elite but is in tune with the time. Given over to random pleasures and whims. Feasting on food, and especially sex.
He makes his move by taking over a particularly obedient mob, and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt. He is a traitor to his class, and soon his elite enemies find a way to appease him or are forced to flee.
Eventually he stands alone, offering the addled, distracted, self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy's endless choices and insecurities.
He rides a backlash to success. Too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery. He offers himself as the personified answer to all problems. To replace the elites, and rule alone on behalf of the masses. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, impetuously, repeals itself.
The grim, dramatic animated video that accompanies Sullivan’s narration of this chillingly prescient ancient text is not subtle about the modern parallels. We can heartily debate the diagnosis of “too much freedom” as the cause of democracy’s yielding to tyranny. But whatever democracy's failings, the effects Plato describes above are as evident today as they were almost 2300 years ago, though we may flatter ourselves in thinking that the mechanics of our political systems have evolved since then. In any case, our technological evolution means that unlike in Plato's day, the rise of a tyrant like Donald Trump, as Sullivan wrote last year, may be “an extinction-level event.”