The principle of Plato’s cycle of regimes

1.) Plato calls the perfect regime aristocracy, and he gives four regimes that fall away from it: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny.

2.) The regime reflects the character of the persons composing it. The five regimes are really just five relations to the perfect good: one which attains it and four that fall away from it by degrees.

3.) Character is determine by behavior and there are three sources of human behavior:

a.) Reason,

b.) spirit,

c.) appetite.

4.) In Aristocracy, (a) rules over (b) and (c). In living according to reason its actions are chosen as things good in themselves and in accordance with reality.

5.) In timocracy, (b) rules over (a) and (c). The highest goods are the goods of the spirit, sc. honors, glory, the respect and esteem of others, etc. The paradigm was elf this is military glory, though it is more familiar to students through grades and other academic honors. Goods of the spirit are higher than goods of appetite (one can’t buy grades or glory, for example) and spirit keeps strict control over appetite (Achilles is very disciplined and in shape, after all) but for all that the ultimate goal is glory and reputation in the eyes of others, not the value of things in themselves.

6.) In oligarchy, (c) rules over (a) and (b). The highest goods in oligarchy are those that can be bought with money, and so are lower than the goods of timocracy, but the oligarch still makes essential use of reason and spirit. He lives an ordered and disciplined life: getting up every morning to work, saving his money, budgeting, etc. He has a strong moral code that condemns wastefulness, laziness, dependence, leeching off of others…

7.) In democracy, (c) rules over (b) and makes essential use of it, but (a) no longer influences behavior. In democracy things are no longer right or wrong, acceptable or condemned, but everyone is free to do what he wants and define the good as seems right to him. This leads to a profusion of creativity, softheartedness, and praise for the acceptance of others. The rational principle is no longer active, promoting some ways of life as good and others as evil, but nevertheless one value remains beyond appetite, sc. the praise of freedom and equality. The only activities that are condemned are those that restrict freedom or attempt to set up higher and lower ways of life.

8.) In Tyranny, only (c) remains and (b) and (a) no longer contribute anything to life and choice. Even the spirited good of freedom falls away and the tyrant is left only with the fact of his desire. In alienation from reason he can’t do what he wants, and all of his actions are the least free. Release from this way of life is no longer possible by moving up to the middle ways of life. He has to see that any life apart from reason, as such, is miserable. In this sense one can only go from Tyranny to Aristocracy, even if one obviously can’t just leap up to the perfect command of reason.

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