Did Plato’s Republic Predict the Rise of Donald Trump?: A Chilling Animated Video Narrated by Andrew Sullivan

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why Socrates Hat­ed Democ­ra­cies: An Ani­mat­ed Case for Why Self-Gov­ern­ment Requires Wis­dom & Edu­ca­tion

Intro­duc­tion to Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy: A Free Yale Course 

Phi­los­o­phy Bites: Pod­cast­ing Ideas From Pla­to to Sin­gu­lar­i­ty Since 2007

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (9)
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  • Jonathan Collins says:

    Just curi­ous, when does the end of the world start? Can you please let me know? Thanks in advance!

  • Jason haley says:

    Are you f‑n kid­ding me?!? A tyrant?!? Let’s see, the writer and musi­cian (and Repub­li­can troll) a prob­lem with our PRESIDENT ELECT…imagine that!! I’d say it’s a bit ear­ly on to speak of these things. Call­ing you a Repub­li­can troll is PRECISELY the same as assum­ing Trump is a tyrant… “One small brain in a man, one GIANT leap of assump­tion for all Demo­c­ra­t­ic kind.”

  • Vince Noir says:


  • Gianluca Zaffino says:

    The left is final­ly giv­ing up democ­ra­cy in order to embrace open­ly one of the most reac­tionary philo­soph­i­cal thought of all times. Trump has def­i­nite­ly messed you up.

  • anon says:

    When the major­i­ty aggre­gate civ­i­liza­tion ratio­nal­izes the choice of tak­ing action against the greater good, it deserves the kar­ma that is paid in return.

  • Bill W. says:


  • Dylan from that one latin class says:

    RIP Amer­i­ca

  • GregH says:

    “Trump has def­i­nite­ly messed you up.”

    It’s amaz­ing that vari­ants of this com­ment make up 90% of the com­men­tary from Turmp sup­port­ers. Talk about an OBEDIENT MOB!

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