Apparently, according to Socrates, “everything that comes into being must decay” – no matter how perfect a constitution is, “dissolution” is an inevitable event that will occur. In Book VIII, Socrates takes us through the degradation of aristocracy by paralleling the four types of (bad) constitutions with four corresponding individual characteristics:
1. Timocracy: the first stage in the devolution of aristocracy, the mid-point between aristocracy and oligarchy; a “mixture of good and bad”, due to the “predominance of the spirited element” (which is the love of victory and the love of honor). This constitution inclines towards “money-making and the acquisition of land, houses”, etc, but the overall structure remains similar to that of aristocracy. The difference is that “wise people” will be less likely to be appointed as rulers. Timocracy corresponds with a person who is secretly “money-loving”, “proud and honor-loving”.
2. Oligarchy: a constitution “based on property assessment”, meaning that the rich dominates and the poor have no right to be involved in ruling. This occurs because the aforementioned honor-loving and victory-loving people become attracted to money-making to the extent that “money-lovers” – those that are rich – are revered while the poor is oppressed. In an oligarchic city, people other than the rulers are mostly beggars, which reflects the extreme disparity between the rich and the poor. Oligarchy results from the deterioration of timocracy.
3. Democracy: in which everyone in the city has an equal share in ruling the city, but this is a faulty constitution, as power tends to fall into the hand of those without the knowledge of politics and of ruling for the benefit of the others; of course, in this system, the majority thrives. Democracy corresponds with a man who is overwhelmed by unnecessary desires.
4. Tyranny: the constitution Socrates deems worst of all, which results from democracy degenerating in terms of the effectiveness of laws. The rulers of tyranny are driven by lawless and unnecessary appetites, subduing their people through dictatorship. The citizens are oppressed and are likely to detest the rulers, for they would unflinchingly deploy violence and brutality. Tyranny is the ultimate stage of the entire devolution from aristocracy.
Last week, there was a question regarding why people should bother to create an ideal constitution when it is bound to deteriorate. I believe that as human beings, we will always strive for the better, for perfection, for invincibility. Unfortunately, a part of humans, no matter how small, is corrupted and malicious. This reminded me of a Chinese philosopher (Xunzi) who argued that people are born evil and corrupted – it is through education that we develop our morals and learn to restrain our innate evilness. In an environment in which justice prevails, malice grows in the darkness, easily slipping through our scruples, for in the height of stability, people are more likely to succumb to their inner darkness. And with the accumulation of individual darkness, the city as a whole degrades, as the corruption of a soul is contagious.