Plato on the Demise of Democracy

Is it, then, in a sense, in the same way in which democracy arises out of oligarchy that tyranny arises from democracy?

The good that they proposed to themselves and that was the cause of the establishment of oligarchy – it was wealth was it not?

Well, then, the insatiate lust for wealth and the neglect of everything else for the sake of money-making were the cause of its undoing.

And is not the avidity of democracy for that which is its definition and criterion for good the thing which dissolves it too?

[Its criterion is] liberty… for you may hear it said that this is best managed in a democratic city, and for this reason that is the only city in which a man of free spirit will care to live…

But those who obey the rulers, I said, it reviles as willing slaves and men of nought, but it commends and honors in public and private rulers who resemble subjects and subjects who are like rulers.  Is it not inevitable that in such a state the spirit of liberty should go to all lengths?

And this anarchic temper, said I, my friend, must penetrate into private homes…

And do you note that the sum total of all these items when footed up is that they render the souls of the citizens so sensitive that they chafe at the slightest suggestion of servitude and will not endure it? For you are aware that they finally pay no heed even to the laws written or unwritten, so that forsooth they may have no master anywhere over them.

This, then, my friend, said I, is the fine and vigorous root from which tyranny grows, in my opinion…

And is it not always the way of a demos to put forward one man as its special champion and protector and cherish and magnify him?

This, then, is plain, said I, that when a tyrant arises he sprouts from a protectorate root and from nothing else…

And is it not true that in like manner a leader of the people who getting control of a docile mob, does not withhold his hand from the shedding of tribal blood, but by the customary unjust accusations brings a citizen into court and assassinates him, blotting out a human life, and with unhallowed tongue and lips that have tasted kindred blood, banishes and slays and hints at the abolition of debts and the partition of lands – is it not the inevitable consequence and a decree of fate that such a one be either slain by his enemies or become a tyrant and be transformed from a man into a wolf?

He it is, I said, who becomes the leader of faction…

(Republic, VIII:562-566)

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An End to Imprisonment

The line sounds impossible.  How could we ever do without imprisoning offenders? Surely, we would be overrun by criminals unchecked by even a non-violent punishment such as incarceration.  We have become a society formed by repression, repression of our fears and our prejudices and our wounds.  We fear the criminal.  We hate the other, especially those we see as part of another race or class (or, even more disturbingly, we hate the other who is part of the class we believe we should no longer be a part of).  We destroy ourselves with drugs and alcohol, abuse of our loved ones, and medically destructive life styles.  So we incarcerate and repress.

The practice we have adopted is pathological.  We currently hold either the 1st or 2nd place in the world in terms of the percentage of our population held in custody, depending on whose numbers you read.  Freedom is not a value in the United States of America.  Only if we ignore the fact that many of our criminals are non-violent offenders, medically and psychologically in need rather than a threat to you or me, do we have even the shadow of a chance of grounding our penal practice.  The fact is that as a nation we are very sick.  We destroy lives rather than listen and cooperate to see all our members flourish.  We are more like a viral infection than a citizenry.

Incarceration is a crime.  It has no rehabilitative value in almost all cases.  Dehumanizing a woman because of, in many, if not most, cases, psychological disorder is hateful.  And literally millions are being dehumanized via forced confinement in the United States.  If this issue is not the most pressing issue of our time, it certainly reaches to the top of the list.  Our nation must reform.  Not to do so is to risk a guilty blindness to a political and moral tragedy playing out on our own land.  Imagination and tolerance and science are our only way forward.