Plato’s five regimes are, in this order, aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. Of these, Plato favored aristocracy in his ideal state and branded the other four as imperfect societies.
The Greek philosopher Plato is one of the most famous philosophers of all time and forms part of the great trio of classical Greek philosophy. The others were his mentor Socrates and his student, Aristotle. He mostly wrote in dialogues and dialectics and put his ideas into the mouths of others – primarily Socrates. It is difficult to disentangle his ideas from those of others.
What is a regime?
A regime is a government or leadership which sets and enforces rules for a society or group. Usually this is another word for a government. Previously this meant any kind of government but current usage tends to sway towards a negative connotation such as an authoritarian government or one another group dislikes.
In this article and in Plato’s book, the focus is on types of regimes rather than necessarily specific ones. This article will look at Plato’s ideas on different ways governments could be organized and where power over the people falls within that. This is not an article on all regimes or the philosophy of regimes overall.
Where did Plato outline his five regimes?
Plato outlined his ideas on the five regimes in Book VIII of The Republic. This book is lumped together in the Penguin classic edition edited by Betty Radice and translated by Sir Desmond Lee, with Book IX under the section heading Imperfect Societies.
It’s worth noting that rather than covering 5 actual regimes, this section covers the 4 imperfect societies with a recapitulation of Plato’s ideal society – an aristocracy. On a side note, there’s a similar recap at the beginning of Plato’s incomplete work – Timaeus and Critias.
What is an Aristocracy?
An aristocracy is where political power is restricted to a small segment of society. However, this is not by accident of birth or by sheer identity, but a rule by the best qualified to rule. This is the regime favored by Plato in The Republic.
For Plato this meant a rule by philosophers presided over by a Philosopher King. There are some slight changes in his Timaeus and Critias. The philosophers would ensure a strong education system in order to perpetuate the aristocracy.
Plato divided his ideal society into three castes:
- The Ruling Class
- The Auxiliaries (military)
- Everyone Else
These castes are interesting in some respects and not just because they differentiate power levels. The ruling class’ actions are implemented by the auxiliaries. We’ve seen this in regimes the world over and throughout time; especially by military forces or these days, by police forces.
The different factor is not just the fact that the ruling class is supported by everyone else – taxes are leveraged to prop up all kinds of states and regimes, but that the ruling elite were not allowed to own anything. This idea, in theory, meant the ruling class would rule for the good and not for personal interest.
In modern parlance, a Platonic Aristocracy would be a kind of meritocracy or some kind of proto-technocracy. We could also call it “Rule by Experts,” but of course the question is who appoints the experts and what happens if they spout nothing but lies? For some, power is enough of a motive.
What is a Timocracy?
The first of the failed societies is a timocracy. No, this is not rule by people called Tim. Instead, Plato believed a failed aristocracy would degenerate into rule by the lower classes. This is to say a timocracy is rule by property owners.
As noted above, the ruling class and their auxiliaries could not own property, but everyone else could. If the tops ran out of power, those with land would take over. Feudal systems which took over Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire could be considered timocracies.
Plato believed the motivating factor for the new elites will be the pursuit of power. This can be attained through the acquisition of property, a focus on individual interests, and through warfare – the conquest of other peoples and states.
He did not see timocracies as purely evil, but a mixture of good and bad. There is some pursuit of virtue, but this is mitigated by the inferior nature of lower people – his idea. Eventually a timocracy will sift people into rich and poor categories.
What is an Oligarchy?
An oligarchy is the separation of rich and poor people where the rich hold power over the poor. Again, feudal systems are formed by and entrench oligarchies. They do this by removing individual and political power from those lower down the system.
Now capable people are prevented from rising to power and doing good in society. By the same token, bad rich people are entrenched in their positions continue to make poor decisions over the lives of others.
Furthermore, Plato believed while warfare was natural to the oligarchy, they would be poor at such combat because their armies would be too small. This comes about on account of the fact they fear arming the majority of the people lest they be overthrown.
What is a Democracy?
Over time the size of the oligarchy shrinks while the size of the impoverished class rises until a tipping point is hit and freedom becomes supreme. At its base level, according to Plato, democracy is where people can do whatever they want and give in to their desires – a form of anarchy.
However, a democracy is where all the people of the state vote on all of the laws – they decide the regime and it may change often. People vote for wants and desires, but their needs and a good framework is voted down.
Not only that, but in time, the political equality of a democracy will attract power-seeking peoples. Where before virtue got people into power, or property, or wealth, now it is the ability to manipulate the masses. Such people are susceptible to corruption and democratic governments are unstable. It also leads to groups being set against one another.
What is a Tyranny?
Finally, the imperfections in the democratic society will lead to tyranny. The longing for freedom consumes democracy and the world is anarchic. Among this chaos arises a strong man who gives order to society, but who is consumed by his own desires.
Nothing is too much or too bad for the tyrant who does anything and everything either to perpetuate power or to satisfy his base desires. He steals, he murders, he controls, but he is not free because he is slave to his wants.
The tyrant is also ruled by fear because of all the evil things he does to get and maintain power. He lives scared of being killed in revenge for his bad acts.
Are there only 5 types of regimes?
Plato ties the 5 types of regimes together in a sequence. According to him one will degenerate into the next and so on. He assumes if society breaks down due to a tyrant, the people will build his ideal aristocracy. This is not the case.
In the world right now there are a wide range of regimes. There were property-based democracies or republics where representatives are voted for, constitutional monarchies, monarchies which differentiate themselves from tyrannies. There are also Marxist states (communist, socialist, and fascist) where the aim is for the government to own everything and distribute resources to the lower castes. There are also semi-theocratic governments based on quasi-religious laws and dictats.
In short, it’s an interesting theory and one very much based in classical Greek society, but it’s just that – a theory. There are not five types of regimes, but a great many of them. Regimes come and go, they evolve, are imposed, and degenerate. It doesn’t matter how good the laws are, there are always those who want to seize power and destroy the virtuous. No perfect regime has ever been designed and may never.
Plato, The Republic, Book VIII