On Despots

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3rd reflection on Plato’s Republic

In my final reflection on the Republic, I shall deal with the topic of Autocracy. This topic has been a source of castigation for Plato throughout the ages, due to his supposed love of despots. Although I will look to address this accusation in a later reflection, I think it is important to examine the case for the benign dictator – as it remains to this day a common proposition by those disgusted by the messiness of democracy or the perceived oligarchic nature of unequal societies. I believe the best way to examine the potential good or evil present in this form of government is to take it to an extreme with a paragon of virtue in the role of beniegn dictator, and then follow the evolution of the state as time progresses, potentially unearthing more unsavoury results as we continue.

In the beginning, our perfect leader is completely selfless, dedicating every aspect of their lives to the administration of the state. They will ask for no honours and relinquish all privileges in their unswerving pursuit of service. On top of this incorruptible character, the perfect leader has the highest capacity, able to foresee and act intelligently in the interests of all citizens. In those situations where they are not experts, the leader will be able to delegate effectively. An excellent judge of character, the paragon will always choose the finest person for the task, able to get the best performance from those who serve under them. The pristine nature of the natural born leader – mixed with their extraordinary capability – makes the petty red tape and checks on power seem like unnecessary fetters which only undermine their potential.

Despite these laudable virtues, the paragon must face the inevitable – the slow decline of age and the accompanying senility and mental incontinence as the senses and mind begin to fail. If the leader is lucky, they will be allowed to retire from the spotlight early, living out their autumn years in quiet contemplation. However, in a time of crisis, the mob will force unfettered power back into the paragon’s failing grasp, recalled them to the seat of command – the only steady hand capable of steering the ship of state. As the paragon decays, they will be unable to maintain the same vigour and clarity as in their youth, and the ranks of their advisors will become infected by those seeking power and prestige.

One day, the inexorable progress of death will shroud the eyes of the paragon in darkness, leaving society in mourning for the beacon which had guided them through the troubles of the past. But in their grief, they are unaware of the danger that lurks. With a vacant throne, the paragon leaves behind a position of supremacy which can be exercised free of the constraints of democracy, liberty and justice. The scions of the paragon now begin to swirl around the font of power, shadows aping the grand character of their predecessor.

If the society is lucky, another paragon will mount the throne and lead the people out of this dark time – onwards and back into the light. But with the passing of every perfect leader, the likelihood of a soul of flawed character grasping rudder increases. Thus, finally, an imperfect heir rises to the occasion, their intentions less than the selfless love of service which motivated their predecessor. With this unholy coronation, the descent into tyranny commences. This unworthy successor will at first cleave to the precepts of the paragon – but as they grow in confidence, they will begin to use their authority to fulfil their desires. If they are weak, more cunning political animals will use the poor judgement of the flawed heir to fulfil their desires, perhaps even usurping ultimate power for themselves.

Without the paragon to vet those approaching the summit of state, the absolute supremacy of the despot will act as a magnet, drawing all driven by the pursuit of power. The flawed in character who assume its mantel will buckle under the strain. Without checks and balances, the imperfect heir will degrade into the tyrant – that most miserable creature which tears and rips at the society upon which it parasitically feeds. This descent may be sudden or slow, but inevitably the society which granted unfettered power to the benign dictator will cry out under the boot of the cruel autocrat. In this sense, the benign dictator is like a benign tumor – although in and of itself not harmful to the body, it remains but a single mutation away from lethality.

Original text

Plato’s Republic


Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse, Napoleon on his Throne, 1833


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