How Do Democracies End?

Our philosophical-historical lesson for today comes from the late John H. Hallowell, the long-time professor of political science at Duke University. Among his other fine writings is The Moral Foundation of Democracy, published in 1954. In the last chapter of the book, Hallowell reflects on Socrates’s critique of democracy in Book VIII of Plato’s Republic:

The transition from democracy to tyranny is described by Plato as a process of both individual and social disintegration, and the latter is depicted as having its roots in the former. When the individual revolts against tradition and authority, when instinct and desire are exalted above reason, when intellect is subordinated to will, when all desires become lawful and no standard is left for choosing among them, then at last a master-passion, “as leader of the soul. Takes madness for the captain of its guard and breaks out in frenzy; if it can lay hold upon any thoughts or desires that are of good report and still capable of shame, it kills them or drives them forth, until it has purged the soul of all sobriety and called in the partisans of madness to fill the vacant place.” And just as a single tyrant desire takes possession of the individual who knows no restraints, so the mass of individuals in a society that knows know restraints at the last submit their wills to the will of a tyrant, in order that they might escape the tyranny of their own passions. Freedom, now having become license, becomes an intolerable burden, and they seek to escape from it by submission to the tyrant.

I’ll leave it to readers to process this analysis and apply is to our current scene as they wish. There’s a second except from this Hallowell chapter that applies a bit more clearly to our political scene today, also taken from Socrates in chapter VIII of The Republic:

Bred by the spirit of license, a class of drones emerges which takes possession of political offices, intent upon nothing more than occupying them for their own advantage. As the same time, another class is steadily bent upon the amassing of wealth. And it is this class which provides provender for the drones.

Take it away, Goldman Sachs.

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