In Books VIII and IX of The Republic, dedicated to imperfect societies, Socrates undertakes a systematic political and psychological survey of the forms of government following the demise of his perfect state, doomed to extinction like all human creations. It is gradually replaced by a new regime, inspired by Sparta’s principles of ‘honour’ and ‘worth’ (or ‘time’ in Ancient Greek), in which war becomes the main preoccupation of rulers chosen among ‘the simpler, hearty types’ instead of the intelligent Guardians who, once, ran the state, unchallenged, for the best interest of the whole community. What happened then?
The timarchic regime is, in its turn, brought down by the accumulation of wealth in a few hands and for this reason, is soon given the name of ‘oligarchy’ or ‘rule by the few’. In reality, Socrates’ oligarchy is akin to a ‘plutocracy’ or rule by the rich when the ‘timarchic’ leaders ‘find ways to become extravagant, and for this reason pervert the law and disobey it, and the women follow their example.’ [550d] The unity of the state is jeopardized as the desire for money becomes the key incentive as opposed to the search for the good or honour as in the philosophic and timarchic states. Everyone becomes interested in their self-aggrandizement and the virtue shown by good men is despised, if not ridiculed. Both reason and spirit are no longer of any use since the oligarchic society is driven by the desire for the acquisition of material goods at the expense of any long-term happiness.
Once the principle of specialization has been abandoned, social harmony is lost and money, not natural talent, becomes the essential qualification for office. Socrates asks his companions to imagine the drastic consequences of a ship’s captain chosen on account of his wealth and not his expert knowledge of navigation. The same situation seems to apply to oligarchic politics where authority is entrusted to the wrong hands with a vast majority of the population being simply ignored and left out of the political process. In Socrates’ description of oligarchy, the lack of political legitimacy of the rulers, coupled with blatant social injustice, introduces a dangerous and potentially violent split between rich and poor.
In fact, Plato does not hesitate to talk about two factions, living side by side, within the same city. The city of the rich and the city of the poor coexist and the oligarchs in power fear the wrath of the populace so much that they are afraid to provide them with military weapons in case the latter are used against them. This open selfishness, on the part of the rulers, may eventually weaken the city as it could be left poorly defended and liable to external attacks. Socrates paints a very pessimistic picture of the common man’s life under oligarchic rule. His situation may become so precarious that he may lose his property and be reduced to extreme poverty and homelessness. Plato laments the fate of men who, despite their status of citizen, are deprived of any ‘real function’ in the city. These marginalized men are no longer serving a purpose and one cannot help thinking, here, of the millions of American and European unemployed who have fallen on hard times simply because of the irresponsible financial decisions of a tiny minority.
Socrates is even more scathing in his description of what he calls ‘drones’, meaning those who do not produce anything and are considered as parasites of society. The stingless drones are just harmless beggars but those with sting are of the criminal kind and must be controlled by force. For Socrates, ‘most people [in an oligarchic regime] are beggars except the ruling class.’ [552d] Obviously, such a society has lost its moral bearings and Socrates ascribes the existence of such a criminal underclass to ‘lack of education, bad upbringing and a bad form of government’, [552e] three evils unknown in Plato’s philosophic state. The oligarchic regime finds an echo in modern philosophy with the controversial figure of the Russian-American social theorist, Ayn Rand, who supported American laissez-faire capitalism and its inevitable social inequalities in the name of rational self-interest and the survival of the smartest in a competitive market.