The Misery of Tyrants – a short reading from Plato’s Republic

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“He who is the real tyrant, whatever men may think, is the real slave, and is obliged to practise the greatest adulation and servility, and to be the flatterer of the vilest of mankind.”

In this passage from book nine of Plato’s Republic, Socrates finally responds to the challenge set by Glaucon in book two; speaking as devil’s advocate, Glaucon claimed that people want nothing to restrict their desire for more and more of everything. If anyone could profit from acting unjustly and guarantee that they could get away with it, then they would act unjustly. And any man who has the power to do whatever he likes will be the happiest of men (359b – 362c). Socrates sets out to refute this thesis and show that justice is good for it’s own sake and that anyone who commits injustice is harming themselves, even if they do not realize it.

The first step in meeting this challenge is to understand what justice is. Earlier in the Republic, Socrates claimed that it is easier to see justice and injustice if we look at it on a large scale, such as in a city. Once we understand the nature of injustice in a city, we can use this as a model to understand the nature of justice and injustice in an individual (368d–369a).

We can see injustice in a city most clearly when a tyrant reigns. The tyrant lacks the wisdom to know what is good for society as a whole and is not honourable enough to act in the citizens’ best interest. He acts only to satisfy his own selfish desires. Any wise and honourable citizens become slaves to the unjust desires of the tyrant. A city ruled by a tyrant quickly becomes disordered and full of misery.

Using the unjust city as a model, we can more clearly understand the nature of justice in an individual. The unjust individual lacks the wisdom to understand what is truly good and is not honourable enough to do what is right. The wise and honourable parts of his soul or psyche are enslaved by his insatiable desires. He does not control his desires, his desires control him, and he will commit any act in order to satisfy them. The soul of an unjust individual is like a city ruled by a tyrant; in each case wisdom and honour are overwhelmed by unchecked desires. And like the unjust city, the unjust individual will be full of psychological conflict and misery.

Reading

The following passage is from section 576d – 580a of Plato’s Republic, translation by Benjanmin Jowett. You can also listen to an audio version of the reading on Youtube.

[Socrates:] Then comparing our original city, which was under a king, and the city which is under a tyrant, how do they stand as to virtue?

[Glaucon:] They are the opposite extremes, he said, for one is the very best and the other is the very worst.

There can be no mistake, I said, as to which is which, and therefore I will at once enquire whether you would arrive at a similar decision about their relative happiness and misery…

[Socrates:] Beginning with the State, I replied, would you say that a city which is governed by a tyrant is free or enslaved?

[Glaucon:] No city, he said, can be more completely enslaved.

And yet, as you see, there are freemen as well as masters in such a State?

Yes, he said, I see that there are—a few; but the people, speaking generally, and the best of them are miserably degraded and enslaved.

Then if the man is like the State, I said, must not the same rule prevail? his soul is full of meanness and vulgarity—the best elements in him are enslaved; and there is a small ruling part, which is also the worst and maddest.

Inevitably.

And would you say that the soul of such an one is the soul of a freeman, or of a slave?

He has the soul of a slave, in my opinion.

And the State which is enslaved under a tyrant is utterly incapable of acting voluntarily?

Utterly incapable.

And also the soul which is under a tyrant (I am speaking of the soul taken as a whole) is least capable of doing what she desires; there is a gadfly which goads her, and she is full of trouble and remorse?

Certainly.

And is the city which is under a tyrant rich or poor?

Poor.

And the tyrannical soul must be always poor and insatiable?

True.

And must not such a State and such a man be always full of fear?

Yes, indeed.

Is there any State in which you will find more of lamentation and sorrow and groaning and pain?

Certainly not.

And is there any man in whom you will find more of this sort of misery than in the tyrannical man, who is in a fury of passions and desires?

Impossible.

Reflecting upon these and similar evils, you held the tyrannical State to be the most miserable of States?

And I was right, he said.

Certainly, I said. And when you see the same evils in the tyrannical man, what do you say of him?

I say that he is by far the most miserable of all men.

There, I said, I think that you are beginning to go wrong.

What do you mean?

I do not think that he has as yet reached the utmost extreme of misery.

Then who is more miserable?

One of whom I am about to speak.

Who is that?

He who is of a tyrannical nature, and instead of leading a private life has been cursed with the further misfortune of being a public tyrant.

From what has been said, I gather that you are right.

Yes, I replied, but in this high argument you should be a little more certain, and should not conjecture only; for of all questions, this respecting good and evil is the greatest.

Very true, he said.

Let me then offer you an illustration, which may, I think, throw a light upon this subject.

What is your illustration?

The case of rich individuals in cities who possess many slaves: from them you may form an idea of the tyrant’s condition, for they both have slaves; the only difference is that he has more slaves.

Yes, that is the difference.

You know that they live securely and have nothing to apprehend from their servants?

What should they fear?

Nothing. But do you observe the reason of this?

Yes; the reason is, that the whole city is leagued together for the protection of each individual.

Very true, I said. But imagine one of these owners, the master say of some fifty slaves, together with his family and property and slaves, carried off by a god into the wilderness, where there are no freemen to help him—will he not be in an agony of fear lest he and his wife and children should be put to death by his slaves?

Yes, he said, he will be in the utmost fear.

The time has arrived when he will be compelled to flatter divers of his slaves, and make many promises to them of freedom and other things, much against his will—he will have to cajole his own servants.

Yes, he said, that will be the only way of saving himself.

And suppose the same god, who carried him away, to surround him with neighbours who will not suffer one man to be the master of another, and who, if they could catch the offender, would take his life?

His case will be still worse, if you suppose him to be everywhere surrounded and watched by enemies.

And is not this the sort of prison in which the tyrant will be bound—he who being by nature such as we have described, is full of all sorts of fears and lusts? His soul is dainty and greedy, and yet alone, of all men in the city, he is never allowed to go on a journey, or to see the things which other freemen desire to see, but he lives in his hole like a woman hidden in the house, and is jealous of any other citizen who goes into foreign parts and sees anything of interest.

Very true, he said.

And amid evils such as these will not he who is ill-governed in his own person—the tyrannical man, I mean—whom you just now decided to be the most miserable of all—will not he be yet more miserable when, instead of leading a private life, he is constrained by fortune to be a public tyrant? He has to be master of others when he is not master of himself: he is like a diseased or paralytic man who is compelled to pass his life, not in retirement, but fighting and combating with other men.

Yes, he said, the similitude is most exact.

Is not his case utterly miserable? and does not the actual tyrant lead a worse life than he whose life you determined to be the worst?

Certainly.

He who is the real tyrant, whatever men may think, is the real slave, and is obliged to practise the greatest adulation and servility, and to be the flatterer of the vilest of mankind. He has desires which he is utterly unable to satisfy, and has more wants than any one, and is truly poor, if you know how to inspect the whole soul of him: all his life long he is beset with fear and is full of convulsions and distractions, even as the State which he resembles: and surely the resemblance holds?

Very true, he said.

Moreover, as we were saying before, he grows worse from having power: he becomes and is of necessity more jealous, more faithless, more unjust, more friendless, more impious, than he was at first; he is the purveyor and cherisher of every sort of vice, and the consequence is that he is supremely miserable, and that he makes everybody else as miserable as himself.

Further Reading

To learn more about Plato’s theory of justice:

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