Chapter 2 of Book 8

How Oligarchy Arises Icon

How the Timocracts Become Oligarchs

Socrates

An oligarchic government is one resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it. The rulers are elected for their wealth.

I shall explain the transition from timocracy to oligarchy.

The accumulation of gold in private individuals is the ruin of timocracy. They invent illegal modes of expenditure because they do not care about the law. People see others growing rich and seek to rival them. Thus, the citizens become lovers of money and so they grow richer and richer.

Socrates

The more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue. When riches and virtue are placed together in the scales of the balance, the one always rises as the other falls. In proportion as riches and rich men are honoured in the State, virtue and the virtuous are dishonoured. What is honoured is cultivated. What has no honour is neglected.

And so, instead of loving contention and glory, men become lovers of trade and money. They honour and look up to the rich man, and make a ruler of him, and dishonour the poor man. They next make a law which fixes a sum of money as the qualification of citizenship. The sum is higher in one place and lower in another, as the oligarchy is more or less exclusive.

They allow no one whose property falls below the amount fixed to have any share in the government. These changes in the constitution they effect by force of arms, if intimidation has not already done their work. This is generally how oligarchy is established.

Glaucon Yes, but what are the characteristics of this government, and what are its defects?
Socrates First, consider the nature of the qualification. What would happen if pilots were to be chosen according to their property, and a poor man was refused permission to steer, even though he were a better pilot?
Glaucon There would be a shipwreck.

The Defects of Oligarchy: Inequality

Socrates

That is the first great defect of oligarchy. Its second defect is that it creates an inevitable division.

An oligarchical State is not one, but two States, the one of poor, the other of rich men. They are living on the same spot and always conspiring against one another. They will also be incapable of carrying on any war because if they arm the people, they will be more afraid of them than of the enemy. So there will be few to fight as the oligarchs are few to rule.

Their fondness for money makes them unwilling to pay taxes. Under such a constitution, the same persons have too many callings. They are husbandmen, tradesmen, warriors, all in one. It does not look well.

Socrates

The greatest evil of oligarchy is that it creates the extremes of great wealth and utter poverty.

A man may sell all that he has. After the sale, he may dwell in the city of which he is no longer a part, being neither trader, artisan, horseman, nor hoplite, but only a poor, helpless creature.

In his wealthy days, he was a member of the State’s ruling body. But he was really just a spendthrift. He is like the drone in the honeycomb. He is the plague of the city, just as the drone is the plague of the hive. God made the flying drones, all without stings. Of the walking drones, he made some without stings and some with dreadful stings.

Socrates

The stingless class end up as paupers in their old age. The stingers are the criminal class. Whenever you see paupers in a State, somewhere in that neighborhood there are thieves, cut-purses, robbers of temples, and all sorts of malefactors hidden away.

In oligarchical States, we find paupers. Nearly everybody there who is not a ruler is a pauper. There are also many criminals in them who have stings. The authorities are careful to restrain them by force. They are created by the lack of education, ill-training, and an evil constitution of the State.

The Origin of the Oligarch

Socrates

The timocratical man changes into the oligarchical.

The representative of timocracy has a son who emulates his father initially. But later, the prejudice of informers puts him on trial. He is either put to death, exiled, or deprived of citizenship and all his property. His son becomes a ruined man. His fear has taught him to pursue ambition and passion.

Humbled by poverty, he turns to money-making. He gets a fortune through hard work and by saving like a miser. Of all changes, the conversion of the ambitious youth into the avaricious one is the fastest and most sure.

Socrates

The oligarchical youth is avaricious. The oligarchs and the oligarchy resemble each other:

  • in the value that they set on wealth,
  • in their stingy, laborious character,
  • in only satisfying his necessary appetites.

He subdues his other desires thinking that they are unprofitable. Money is highly valued by him as well as by the State. He is not a man of cultivation and so he develops the dronelike desires of the pauper and rogue through his general habit.

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