Earlier this week, and in advance of the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, Andrew Sullivan produced a video for BBC Newsnight, detailing how the election campaign and Trump’s success reminded him of Socrates’ account of the rise of a tyrannical regime in the eighth book of Plato’s Republic. The video has made it into pretty heavy circulation, and as someone who has taught this particular text in part or whole just about every year since the inauguration of President Bush (43, not 41 — I’m not that old yet) I’ve been asked by a more than a few people “How accurate is Sullivan’s presentation?” and “Can we or ought we derive a different lesson from Socrates’s analysis?” This post is my reply to those questions.

Sullivan does not sufficiently stress a key component of the analysis offered by Plato: that the nature of the regime that rules the city relates to the nature of the “soul” inside each individual citizen. When we bring that component back in, I think, we can see why Trump is not the tyrant-in-waiting Sullivan sees him as, and more importantly, why we as democratic citizens are not (yet) the kind of individuals who would be sucked into that death spiral of growing tyranny.

First, how accurate is Sullivan’s portrayal? Sullivan’s picture of the would-be tyrant as Socrates paints it, in correlation with a picture of the “political milieu” of the city and citizenry in which that would-be tyrant thrives, is very accurate: freedom “to do whatever one pleases,” prizing equality above all else, kids ruling their parents and teachers fearing their pupils. The key conclusion in the text is that: “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy… — the greatest and most savage slavery out of the extreme of freedom.”

There is one important respect, though, in which Sullivan’s video seems inaccurate in retelling Socrates’s tale. He doesn’t say anything about “the drone,” a kind of a social insect/instinct that buzzes and spins around the soul of the youth brought up under the conditions of “extreme” democracy, where freedom becomes license and the equality that is prized is specifically the equality of desires. The drone stirs up a frenzy in the democratic citizen such that the very lowest desires, the ones for food, drink and sex, which Sullivan does call attention to in the video, come to be held as the very highest goods, first, for each individual citizen and, secondarily, for the would-be tyrant. In one of the most memorable images of the dialogue, Socrates describes how these desires come to rule “in the acropolis of [the youth’s] soul.” So while Sullivan gives us the impression that what matters is that the would-be tyrant (perhaps Trump, the video is saying) is ruled by the base desires, the key point in the dialogue is that each young person in the “extreme” (or “late” or “decaying”) democracy is ruled this way as well.

This point is so crucial that I would even say that this is the lesson of the Republic as a whole. The discussion Sullivan points to, then, is not so much about how a Trump can happen, as it is about how each of us living under the condition of democracy must guard “the acropolis of our soul” from its invasion and occupation by the worst — the “unnecessary” — desires.[1]

In other words, Sullivan seems right to bring us back to the “cycle of regimes” passage of the Republic in light of current events. But Trump is not the main story.[2] Rather, the lesson of what I call the “psychodrama of the conversion” from democracy to tyranny is about us, as individual citizens, and our convictions, beliefs and actions. Socrates does want us to think about the work we can do to minimize injustice in the city, but more importantly our attention is called to the task each of us has in choosing a life worth living for ourselves. The discussion of the regimes in the city is for the sake of showing his young charges — Socrates is more like their father or their coach than their “friend” as Sullivan has it — not just “that justice is stronger than injustice,” but also “what each in itself does to the one who has it that makes the one [justice] good and the other [injustice] bad.”

Sullivan has done us a tremendous favor by reminding us of the danger of an unlimited extension of the democratic impulse, especially in its majoritarian aspect. But he’s missed the psychodrama that is the true focus of the passage he refers to in the Republic. We should think about the connection between our moral psychology and the ruling powers in our societies, about how that applies to the American and the “liberal democratic” order of the past decades, and then lastly about the election of Trump, the success of Brexit, the rule of Viktor Orban in Hungary, and rise of the AfD (Alternative for Germany party), among other events. That, rather than hand-wringing about Trump’s populism and the way he and others vilify “the elite” or “the establishment,” is what stands the best chance of preserving our souls as citizens living under the conditions of (limited) democracy.

Our question is: how can I rule myself by means of that which is best in me? If we attend, every day, to this question, in concert and conversation with others, Socrates tells us, then we needn’t fear the rise of the tyrant — both because the conditions of a tyrant’s success likely won’t congeal and because, if they should, the worst has no chance to destroy what is best.


[1] Socrates offers a three-part analysis, where you have “necessary” and “unnecessary” desires, the latter of which divide into two kinds. Necessary desires would be the normal desires to survive and reproduce, which are healthy enough. It’s the unnecessary desires that are really dangerous; they are either “hostile to law” but can be checked by laws or mores, or they bring one to “dare to do everything” possible with food, drink, and other bodies. It is that last kind that brings about tyranny, first and foremost in the soul of the corrupted democrat who has come to feel an “enforced equality” of all pleasures and desires, such that the pleasures of conversation (or doing mathematics) are no better or worse than, well, ANYTHING.

[2] Nor does Trump fit the image of Socrates’s “would-be tyrant,” who instead would more closely resemble Alcibiades, a leading and complicated figure in the Athens of Plato’s youth, who has long been posited as the historical inspiration for the account.

5 thoughts on “Democracy and Tyranny in the City and the Soul

  1. Thanks a lot for this informed analysis Michael and P.S. I’d like to address the Trump/Alcibiades comparison. as you say, Trump is definitely no Alcibiades. The really interesting characterization of Alcibiades is that he has all of the opportunity to become a benevolent leader (one would think), or at least an aristocratic ‘best’ leader, and then instead the Hermae incident and the Sicilian expedition bring him down and set him on the path to change sides and ‘work for the enemy’ and, in Plato’s characterisation at least, basically just serve himself (what I take from the dialogue Alcibiades I-II). But the Trump example in terms of demos-tyrannus is still fitting precisely because he isn’t anything like Alcibiades – he’s an opportunist, a savvy media operator, and ‘businessman’ (speculator and bully seems more appropriate to me). So I wonder how apt the rule your soul ethos of the past is when related to a society where technology has embedded and indeed morphed our conception of our desires? Where more ‘everything’ is possible than every before? If one side (everything is equal when desires are equal) has been extended greatly today (consumption of time through capital), ought the form of the other side (to be moderate in the rule of your soul) also change? just a very open and nonspecific reflection from someone who has also thought about this passage a lot recently (and discussed it with a Plato reading group) but also wonders if late modern conditions belie the ancient insight. Would be happy to hear any other thoughts from PS contributors or readers.

    1. But Alcibiades, too, was an opportunist and capable demagogue.

      Late-modern political economy’s (seeming?) organization around sating baser appetites and desires would, it seems to me, indicate the difference between Alcibiades and Trump: Alcibiades was, despite his manifest untrustworthiness, a tremendously charismatic figure: people wanted to trust him, and even Socrates was attracted to the possibilities in his character (dramatized in The Symposium, where we’re given to understand, as in the Charmides, that prudence (or moderation) is an active virtue—something that one does, especially when tempted). Not coincidentally, Alcibiades was also successful in generalship: an expert soldier. A louche, selfish leader, to be sure, guiding himself too often towards destructive pleasures (or by base fears)—but yet, a winner of battles. (A pet theory: Dickens was thinking of this historical character with Sydney Carton.)

      Trump’s coarseness of mind and vulgarity of sensibility are, I think, despised even by those directly using him or pretending to be his allies; he’s genuinely attractive only to people whose minds are so thick-grained and sensibilities, prone to petulance and vengeance. And Trump is a colossal know-nothing and screw-up who, by virtue of the tyranny of id over superego, has no sense of his failures and embarrassments.

  2. [I]f [the conditions of a tyrant’s success] should [congeal], the worst has no chance to destroy what is best.

    Yes, the republic of citizens and the republic of each citizen’s soul are analogous; the guardians are each of the citizens, and each citizen is the guardian who guards the guardian, as the republic’s institutions of self-guardianship guard it.

    But in arguing that ‘the worst has no chance to destroy what is best’, (Plato’s) Socrates isn’t arguing that a democracy—say, the one in Athens—has ‘no chance’ to decay into tyranny — as the second footnote here suggests, Socrates had seen it happen (perhaps in the future, with respect to the dialogue—but certainly in the past of The Republic‘s composition and initial dissemination), with the decision-making that went into the Sicilian expedition. And Plato and his community, Athens in the first half of the fourth c. BC, saw it happen with the tyranny of the Thirty, and, eventually, the capital judgement against Socrates himself (the last, it seems to me, a vital background of all of Plato’s dialogues).

    So the worst did destroy the best: Periclean Athens, and the finest of Athenians.

    What, then, can Plato mean by having Socrates, the best who was, in a way, destroyed, argue that it’s impossible for the worst to destroy what is best?

    Here, Plato’s commitment to the immortality of the personal soul is crucial. Socrates argues (to Callicles, in The Gorgias) that if one injures him, that person hurts himself more than he can hurt Socrates. Again, in The Apology, Socrates says, unironically, that he’s not afraid to die, because he can’t die—the real ‘Socrates’, that is: his soul, and not his body (which is indeed killable).

    I don’t think appeal to the immortality of the soul is useful in resisting Trump (or the forces who’ve instrumentalized him). I prefer practical revolution (or—one step at a time!—resistance) to martyrdom and its victory in some afterlife.

    1. Thanks for the engagement. I think you are right that the best city (one would reasonably expect to see in a certain place and time) is/has been/can be destroyed by the worst. But I don’t think the relevant “the best” is the personal soul in its immortality. I think it is rather the flame of dialectic itself (in the memorable image of the Seventh Letter) as it passes from soul to soul. I believe our duty as public-facing philosophers, or whatever we are, is to preserve that flame. So long as we do, it cannot be destroyed, whatever calamities befall us. And, at the same time, we contribute to the mitigation or elimination of the calamities themselves.

      1. Sorry for the delay—haven’t looked at disqus for a while.

        That “the best” would be the flame of dialectic—as it were, reason lit and heated, but not itself burned, by passion—in immortal souls in the act of ‘logically’ kindling each other, is an excellent idea. It would point up the irony of the historical Socrates surviving in Athens, decades after his death (when the young wouldn’t have talked with him), in the form of written theatrical conversations about, say, the Forms (triply mimetic) in at least one ‘school’ where knowledge of geometry (and not $ or familial prestige) was the criterion for entrance (a democratic, or at least meritocratic, place dedicated, in a sense, to the life of a skeptic and victim of democracy amok). (—remembering the Meno, in which an illiterate slave demonstrates that he meets that criterion—by nature, according to Socrates.) It’s immediately after 344b, where Plato writes of how ἐξέλαμψε φρόνησις, ‘thinking shined out’, that he writes that a serious person only talks, and doesn’t write, of serious things, lest that person cast those things down εἰς φθόνον καὶ ἀπορίαν, ‘into envy and stupidity’ among people (344c).

        Yes, it seems to have been seeing Socrates killed for speaking of serious things among citizens that spurred Plato to devoting his intellect and literary talent (and material life) to turning his philosophical face to the public. That sounds to me exactly like practical resistance (of a physically non-violent sort), and not the passivity of spiritual otherworldliness that some associate—mistakenly, I think we agree—with ‘Platonism’.

        And yes, though Plato might’ve associated ‘the best within one’ with that person’s immortal soul, it’s not the immortality alone of the soul that makes it “best”, but rather, (one of) its active mode(s): contemplation of reality enlivened by genuine conversation with other souls.

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