Plato on the Fall of Ancient and Modern Greece
by Louis Markos
Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, warned us that there is nothing new under the sun. At least in terms of the current crisis in Greece, Solomon was dead right. As I look on aghast at the sense of entitlement, the lack of discipline, and the refusal to accept austerity measures that are driving Greece to the edge of ruin, I am reminded of similar attitudes that brought down the Golden Age of Greece over 2400 years ago.
Plato witnessed the late fifth century BC implosion of Athenian democracy, even as we are seeing its impending implosion in the early twenty-first century AD, and he diagnosed its causes in his most famous dialogue, theRepublic.
Plato kicked the poets out of his ideal state, an ironic decision since Plato was himself a poet at heart. That is made evident in Book VIII of theRepublic when Plato turns to political science. Like Aristotle after him, Plato maps out a political cycle by which one type of government gives way to another. However whereas Aristotle’s overview is dry and prosaic, Plato spices his up by wrapping it in the guise of a Greek tragedy.
Just as the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides often dramatized the fall of a great house (that of Atreus or Oedipus or Theseus), so Plato’s non-dramatic prose tragedy illustrates the natural cycle of political decay from aristocracy to timocracy to oligarchy to democracy to tyranny in terms of a five-generation royal family. In Plato’s telling, an aristocratic father is followed by a timocratic son, who is himself succeeded in turn by an oligarch, a democrat, and a tyrant.
Plato presents a clinical, yet vivid analysis of the corruption of the democratic state, citizen, and prince that sounds uncannily—and disturbingly—like Greece today. In a radical democracy, Plato argues, excessive freedom encourages citizens to overindulge their appetites. In time, such citizens become incapable of moral self-regulation; all discipline is lost and all resources squandered.
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