Democracy Or Oligarchy? A Comparative Essay
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During the Classical Age of Greece, two powerful city-states emerged, each governed by a different system. Athens was run by democracy, whereas, Sparta, a military state, was governed by oligarchy. Athens' democracy served its people better. Since all had a say in the government and everyone was included in a state was ruled by many. In Sparta, the state was controlled by a select few, kings and ephors, who had absolute power. In Athens plenty of time was spent on architecture, to ensure that Athens would forever leave behind a cultural legacy, whereas in Sparta it was believed that there was no need to build extravagant buildings, therefore leaving very little of a cultural legacy. Finally, Athenian slaves were treated very well, often paid, and had a chance to buy their freedom, unlike Sparta, where slaves were treated as though they were not people, and could be killed for any reason at all.
In Sparta slaves lead cruel lives. The number of slaves in Sparta outnumbered the amount of citizens, making Spartans constantly paranoid of a helot revolt. In order to prevent this fear, "the ephors declared war on them every year. In spite of these precautions, the Spartans frequently had to suppress helot revolts"(Davis 90). The Spartans felt this was an efficient way to keep the numbers of slaves down, and to further subdue the slaves hopes of one day being free. Since slaves were treated horribly by the Spartans they were constantly trying to escape. In Sparta a slave could be killed simply because of being suspicion of that slave being a rebel or planning to escape. In Athens most slaves were loved, respected, and often paid for their labours. They were given the opportunity to pay for their freedom. Unlike Sparta, slaves in Athens were "protected from bodliy harm by legislation"(Davis 94). Slaves were much more happy in Athens since they were not constantly in fear for their lives. In Athens slaves also had several opportunities for normal jobs, for example, a slave could be an artistan. Slaves in Athens, "often worked alongside citizens and metics in both unskilled and highly skilled jobs"(Davis 95). On the most part, slaves in Athens were happy and content, however one-fifth of the slave population was forced to live and work in the silver mines. Since slaves in Athens received better treatment and the ability for them to have jobs other than normal labours, slaves had a better life than the slaves of Sparta.
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Oligarchy Democracy Absolute Power Spartans Slaves Select Suspicion Athens Hopes
Another dividing point between these two city-states was their architecture.
In Sparta it was believed that life should be kept simple. This belief that "to successfully control their empire and defend it against their enemies, they must sacrifice their comfort and culture for a more rigid and disciplined army camp" (Davis 89). As a result Spartans left behind very little architecture and even less of a cultural legacy. Most of what can be found of Sparta now are rocks in fields. In Athens there was a great love of architecture. An example of this is the Parthenon, "an achievement of unmatched harmony and classical beauty"(Davis 86). The Parthenon is one of the most recognized building in Greece. This temple was dedicated to Athena and often used in religious celebrations such as the Panathenaea. Athens strove for a cultural legacy and admired the beauty with in their city. Pericles, a great leader, was aware of this when he said, "Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments of our empire which we have left. Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now"(Davis 93). Pericles knew that the wonderful architecture of Athens would always be admired and wondered at, leaving behind a cultural legacy that would be remembered as a strong city-state and for their culture far longer than Sparta's. This contrast in ideals can be best seen in the different systems of government of Athens and Sparta.
In Sparta the system of government was an oligarchy. In this form of government power belonged to the selected few. The most powerful men in Sparta were the ephors. They were, "elected annually, they had command over all. The ephors controlled education and both public and private moral conduct. They enforced laws through a secret police force"(Davis 90). Since the ephors had the real influence, the citizens of Sparta had very little power. They had to obey mindlessly what they were told to do by the ephors. Their ideal was complete devotion to the state. In Athens the system of government was a democracy. In this form of government power belonged to the many. In Athenian democracy it was believed that,
power is in the hands not of a minority, but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses(Davis 92).
In democracy, almost everyone was given a chance to rise to power, it didn't matter what class one belonged to and what was most important was one's willingness to fulfill the positions to the best of their ability. Also, politics in Athens was almost like a religion, they believed "that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all" (Davis 92). They had a strong belief that everyone should participate in politics since it often effected everyone in the city-state. Because of Athens democracy, most everyone (male citizens) had a chance to rise to power. Everyone got a say in what was to happen, or what law was to be passed. Since there was involvement by the Athenian citizens in their government and politics, democracy better served the Greek people than the Spartan oligarchy.
Sparta believed that oligarchy served its military state better, that rule by the few was more productive than rule by the many. Athens was governed by a democracy, a system which included all classes regardless of wealth and was ruled by the several. In Athens' government, all had a say, and all classes were included, while in Sparta, the state was ruled by a select few who had the absolute power. In Athens people strove to leave a cultural legacy, using architecture, whereas in Sparta it was believed that there was no real need to build or make anything extravagant, they did not strive for a cultural legacy. Finally, in Athens most slaves were treated very well, and thought to be quite happy and content with their lives, unlike Sparta, where slaves were treated like animals, and constantly revolted in hopes of achieving their freedom. Democracy left open many opportunities for people living under its rule, serving its people far better than the oligarchy of Sparta.
Davis, M. Dale. Civilizations in History. Canada: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Plato thought political regimes followed a predictable evolutionary course, from oligarchy to democracy to tyranny. Oligarchies give way to democracies when the elites fail, when they become spoiled, lazy, profligate, and when they develop interests apart from those they rule.
Democracies give way to tyrannies when mob passion overwhelms political wisdom and a populist autocrat seizes the masses. But the tyrant is not quite a tyrant at first. On the contrary, in a democracy the would-be tyrant offers himself as the people’s champion. He’s the ultimate simplifier, the one man who can make everything whole again.
With Trump, we have a glimpse of what this sort of evolution looks like: A vulgar right-wing populism emerges out of a whirlwind of anti-establishment hysteria; a strongman fascist promises to stick it to the elites and says only he can make the country great again; he gives the people a familiar boogeyman, some alien other, on whom they can dump their resentment.
For a fractured and embittered citizenry, this is a rhetorical balm, and, according to Plato, just the sort of thing that sends the city over a cliff.
The American founders were skeptical of democratic rule for all the reasons Plato spelled out. They created a firewall against the tyranny of the majority, which is why we have a republic instead of a direct democracy.
Trump is the firebrand they feared.
You might see his political existence as our democracy's response to its own decay. People no longer believe in the authority of public institutions, which amounts to a loss of faith in constitutional democracy. That Trump made it this far proves that the country can be whipped into a frenzy and that fascism is only an election away.
If Trump fails, it won’t be because he was too illiberal or too anti-democratic but because he self-sabotaged, because he was too incompetent to execute his half-baked vision. But it’s easy to imagine a future Trump, a candidate who shares his tyrannical nature but is skilled enough to capture a plurality.
Perhaps we’ll survive this time, but we walked right up to the edge of the abyss. Next time we may tumble into it.
What Plato said
“Democracy is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.” — Plato
Whether Donald Trump wins or loses, he did the country at least one service: He revealed the rot at the core of our politics. His success shows just how vulnerable we are to demagogic shocks.
Earlier this year, Andrew Sullivan wrote an essay for New York magazinein which he argued that America is ripe for tyranny. With Plato as his lodestar, Sullivan lamented the excesses of democracies and warned how easily they devolve into dictatorships.
Trump, he argued, is an “extinction-level” threat.
There’s much to disagree with in Sullivan’s piece, but his diagnosis was largely right: The very possibility of a Trump presidency constitutes a crisis for our democracy.
What’s happening in this election cycle isn’t new or incomprehensible. The character of Trump and the reasons for his rise are explained in remarkably prescient terms by Plato over two thousand years ago in his most famous book, The Republic.
TheRepublic is a series of dialogues about damn near everything: justice, human nature, education, virtue. Among the most important is a conversation between Socrates and friends about the nature of regimes and why one is superior to another.
Socrates says: “Let us place the most just regime side by side the most unjust, and when we see them we shall be able to compare…” Though it’s not the aim, what we get at the end of the dialogue is a theory of regime decline, with Socrates explaining why governments sink from higher to lower forms.
Oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny, in that order, are said to be the worst forms of government, and they are defined more or less in modern terms.
An oligarchy is a regime in which the rich have power and the poor are deprived of it. A democracy is a system of maximal freedom in which the people hold sway. And tyranny is rule by one man, who is both unjust and unqualified.
Oligarchies become democracies for predictable reasons: “As the rich grow richer and richer, the more they think of making a fortune and the less they think of virtue.” The inequality and corruption spread like a disease. “Democracy comes into power,” Socrates says, “when the poor are the victors, killing some and exiling some, and giving equal shares in the government to all the rest.”
Democracy, for all its charms, is said to be a poor substitute for oligarchy. It’s an “agreeable form of anarchy,” Socrates tells us. Like every other regime, a democracy collapses of its own contradictions. It’s full of freedom and spangled with every kind of liberty imaginable.
Over time, though, this boundless freedom degenerates into herd hysteria. Belief in authority atrophies. A spirit of excess takes hold and, eventually, “the state falls sick, and is at war with herself.”
Tyranny springs from democracy in the same manner democracy springs from oligarchy. Just as the blind pursuit of wealth occasions a thirst for equality, so “the insatiable desire for freedom occasions a demand for tyranny.”
There’s a logic to this dynamic, a kind of political physics. Each regime succeeds the previous one as its opposite and as a reaction to it.
So the shift from democracy to tyranny is simple enough: A surplus of freedom produces an excess of factions and a multiplicity of perspectives, most of which are blinkered by narrow interests. To get elected, those factions have to be flattered, their passions indulged. This is fertile soil for the demagogue, who manipulates the masses to “overmaster democracy,” as Plato put it.
In this way, it’s the very freedom of democracy that opens the way to tyranny. The love of tolerance devolves into a kind of unraveling licentiousness. Communal bonds wither. When things get bad, as they always do, the people grow restless and yield to a swindling demagogue who cultivates their fears and positions himself as the protector.
This is how democracy passes into despotism.
Trump as the people’s tyrant
“States are as the men are; they grow out of human characters.” — Plato
Plato insists that it takes a particular kind of person to win over a democratic mob.
The Republic is based on an assumption of a parallelism between the city and the soul. It’s difficult to summarize, but Plato held that for every kind of government there existed a corresponding kind of man. This is what he means when he writes that states “grow out of human characters,” and this is what Socrates means when he says that “the city is the soul writ large.”
In TheRepublic, systems of government are defined by the end they most pursue. Oligarchies, for instance, esteem wealth. In democracies, freedom is the highest good. In tyrannies, it’s the will of the tyrant.
There are five regime types for Plato and thus five kinds of human characters, each following the other in corresponding order. Describing them all is beyond the scope of this article, so instead let’s focus on the most relevant: the tyrant.
A tyrant, for Plato, wasn’t just someone who ruled over others; a tyrant is someone who can’t rule over himself. He’s Eros incarnate — pure impulse. He’s always in the thrall of his own lusts and passions.
Plato likens the tyrant to a drunken man, in whom there is a constant “succession of passions, and the new gets the better of the old and takes away their rights.” Because he can’t get along without domineering or being served, moreover, he “never tastes of true freedom or friendship.”
Trump is the tyrannical soul par excellence. His instinct is always to stifle dissent. The examples here are endless. He has threatened to “open up” federal libel laws and partially repeal the First Amendment in order to sue newspapers for the crime of challenging him.
During one of the presidential debates, he vowed to jail his political opponent for imagined non-offenses. “I’ll tell you what,” Trump said, “I didn’t think I’d say this … and I hate to say it: If I win, I’m going to instruct the attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.” He then warned Clinton that, if he were president, “You’d be in jail.”
Almost everything we know about Trump testifies to this need to punish and humiliate. Consider this revealing Politico report about Richard Branson’s memorable encounter with Trump several years ago. Here’s how Branson recalls it:
“Some years ago, Mr. Trump invited me to lunch for a one-to-one meeting at his apartment in Manhattan. We had not met before and I accepted … Even before the starters arrived he began telling me about how he had asked a number of people for help after his latest bankruptcy and how five of them were unwilling to help. He told me he was going to spend the rest of his life destroying these five people.”
Branson later said that Trump’s “vindictive streak” would “be so dangerous if he got into the White House.”
This emotional incontinence is what sets Trump apart as a uniquely tyrannical figure. To watch him on stage is to witness a frenzied parade of inner consciousness. He’s simply incapable of restraining himself, and all of his “handlers” have learned this the hard way.
He has very few actual friends because other people are ornaments for him. He treats women as playthings. He mocks the disabled. He encourages supporters to “knock the crap” out of protesters. He even withdrew medical benefits for his nephew’s infant child as retaliation for a dispute over his father’s estate.
Pathology is the only term for this kind of behavior.
As Plato predicted, Trump’s tyrannical psyche manifests in his political views. He has proposed killing the family members of terrorists; waterboarding suspects because “they deserve it anyway”; refused to accept the results of a free and fair election; toyed with deploying nuclear weapons in regional conflicts; suggested banning all Muslims from the country; and said a federal judge’s Mexican heritage disqualifies him from office. This list hardly captures all of Trump fascistic musings, but the point is obvious enough.
This is a man with no respect for democratic norms, no understanding of compromise, no sense of inclusiveness, and, worst of all, no self-awareness. His burning ignorance is matched only by his baseless confidence. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” he said during his convention speech, “which is why I alone can fix it.” [Emphasis mine.]
The tyrannical drive cannot be distilled any better than that.
Indeed, with Trump we see the transition from democracy to tyranny in real time. And his message resonates for reasons familiar to Plato: Trump is a reflection of the people to whom he appeals. What distinguishes him from his followers is wealth and celebrity, but it’s his ingratiating crudity that does the real work.
A democratic tyrant slips into power by dint of deception: He is usually rich, but he carries himself as a commoner. “In the early days of his power,” Plato writes, “he is full of smiles, and he salutes every one whom he meets … making promises in public and also in private, liberating debtors, and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to everyone.”
But the honeymoon is brief. The populist begins as the people’s champion; later, having tasted power, he becomes their tyrant.
Plato wasn’t a prophet. His critique of democracy is wildly exaggerated, and there’s a streak of illiberalism in his thought that ought to offend the modern reader. But his analysis is valuable nevertheless.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Elbridge Gerry, who later served as the fifth vice president under James Madison, declared the chaos in state governments a result of an “excess of democracy.” “The people do not want virtue; but are dupes of pretended patriots,” Gerry said, “and are misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men.”
Trump is a designing man, and his political existence is a warning. He let loose something dark in this country, and whatever happens on Tuesday, the fact remains: Trump put fascism on the ballot this year, and millions of people said “yes.”