The word democracy literally means "the government of the people" (demos). Plato, of course, is using the
term to refer to the democracy of Athens, a small city-state where every adult male citizen was a member
of the Assembly, and so had a voice in governmental policy. But in Athens more than half of the
population were slaves or foreign residents, neither of whom had any civic rights. Hence, the defects that
Plato sees in Athenian democracy are probably not the same ones he would find in such modern-day
democracies as the United States or France.
The transition from oligarchy to democracy results from the ever-growing conflict between the rich and
the poor, which finally erupts into a civil war. The wealthy rulers of the oligarchy weaken themselves by
their failure to check the economic extremes in the state. They become increasingly degenerate. Soon the
poor masses find an opportunity to overthrow the soft, undisciplined rulers.
A democracy comes to be when the poor have gained control of the government. The poor execute or
exile the oligarchs and grant the remaining citizens an equal share in policy-making and office-holding.
Liberty and freedom of speech become the rule of the time. Each person may do as he pleases.
Socrates describes a democracy as a "bazaar of constitutions," a place where each man can select the
type of life that pleases him. No one is forced to hold office, to serve in the military, to obey anyone else;
and no one is considered to be better than anyone else. Further, a man who says he loves the people can
get most anything he wants. With wry sarcasm (or is it?), Socrates says that the democracy seems to be
"a delightful form of government, anarchic and motley, assigning a kind of equality indiscriminately to
equals and unequals alike!"
Where, then, is the defect in the democratic constitution? Why does Plato consider a democracy a
degenerate society that is only slightly more preferable than a tyranny?
Socrates reveals the defect when he describes the democratic man. He begins his description by
distinguishing between necessary and unnecessary appetites. Appetites that maintain life are necessary;...