Book 8 Summary and Analysis
1. Introduction to the Four Imperfect Societies and Their Characteristic Individuals (543–545c)
After recapitulating the elements of the ideal state, Socrates names the four imperfect states. The first and best is the Cretan or Spartan type (called “timarchy”); the second is oligarchy; the third, democracy; and the fourth and worst is tyranny. Socrates says that there are also five sorts of men: the best, corresponding to the aristocratic regime of the city in speech, and one for each of the degenerate regimes. Socrates describes these five men as falling on a descending scale of justice. He leaves until later the question of their varying degrees of happiness.
Plato here establishes the pattern the rest of this book will follow: a description of a less-than-perfect state is followed by a description of the person who corresponds to this state. He will continue the previously used parallel between the city and the individual character, including the arrangement of the three elements of each, except that the arrangement will now show the origin of different social and psychological ills.
2. Timarchy (545d–550c)
The degeneration of the ideal state starts when disagreement arises within the ruling class. Using a complex mathematical formula derived from Pythagorean theory and Greek numerology, Socrates explains that the problems arise from disharmonious breeding. The resultant children are less capable than their predecessors were. Their degeneration leads to a mixing of metals, which is responsible for the rise of hatred and war within the ruling class as silver and gold personalities battle with the more materialistic iron and bronze ones.
The result of this conflict is that private property is introduced for the rulers, and the lower classes of society are enslaved. While the new society will have many of the elements of the old, it will differ in its fear of intelligence, its love of money, and its excess of ambition.
The timarchic character is initially caught between the good nature of his father and the ambition and hunger of the rest of society. He chooses to follow a middle road, allowing his spirited element to rule him. He will be competitive, somewhat ignorant, and violent toward his slaves. As he gets older he will become avaricious.
According to Allan Bloom, Plato’s description of the five regimes treats the regime as identical with the kind of men who rule. The regime determines every other political fact, including “the character of law, education, property, marriage, and the family” (Bloom, 1991:414). Bloom finds the historical descriptions historically impossible and fanciful at best. He claims that Plato chose to have the city ruled by philosophers as the ancestral city so that “the quest for wisdom [does] not appear to be in conflict with the political prejudice in favor of the ancestral” (Bloom, 1991:416).
While the city in speech was similar to Sparta, the timocratic state is identical to it. Plato acknowledges the shortcomings of Sparta in this passage; specifically, its fear of intellectuals, the undercurrent of avarice, and its abuse of the helots. This is important to remember when examining the construction of the city in speech. It is not just based on Athens’ shortcomings, but Sparta’s as well and many of its more obscure recommendations make sense when Sparta is kept in mind.
3. Oligarchy (550c–555b)
Socrates defines an oligarchy as a society “in which the rich rule and the poor man has no part in ruling office” (550d). This regime arises because of the hoarding of wealth that begins during the timocratic regime. As time passes, wealth becomes more valued than virtue, and the society changes from a state of honor-seeking warriors to one of money-grubbing businessmen.
Oligarchic society exacerbates the divisions between rich and poor. The rich become drones, mere consumers adding nothing to their society. If these drones become poor, they join the...
(The entire section is 1,523 words.)