09/21/2012 01:44 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2012

The Trouble with Oligarchy: Plato's Surprising Perspective

The ancient Athenians were gravely aware that their cherished democratic form of government could all too easily deteriorate into an oligarchy. For this reason, they initiated a process of drawing lots for selecting government officials--even important officials like judges.

In November, Americans will choose their leaders not by drawing lots, but by an election. Americans will vote on an issue no less grave than the one facing the citizens of ancient Athens: whether they want a democratic form of government--the form of government painstakingly created by the Founding Fathers--or an oligarchy. Since we are on the brink of this choice, it behooves us to understand just what oligarchy meant to the ancient Athenians and why they so distrusted it. And what better way to unearth what oligarchy meant to the democracy-loving Athenians than to read what their most prominent political philosopher said on the topic? Surprisingly, Plato's descriptions of oligarchy in the Republic are so relevant to our contemporary political environment as to give new meaning to the word "classic".

Oligarchy, wrote Plato in the Republic, is government by "greedy men" who love money so much that "they are reluctant to pay taxes" for the common good (Republic VIII, 551e). Although the Greek word "oligarchy" literally means government by the few, Plato spins the word to mean the wealthy few. He thus distinguishes oligarchy from timocracy (from the Greek "timos" or honor), which was also a form of government by the few. For Plato, timocracy is government by a few virtuous men who love honor, whereas oligarchy is government by a few rich men who love money.

Oligarchs believe that the wealth of a society should be redistributed to themselves and their rich cronies, while the rest of the society is reduced to poverty. In fact, observes Plato, nearly all the citizens of an oligarchy are impoverished, except for those in the ruling class who subvert the laws to protect their own interests, leaving the majority of the populace burdened by debt and disenfranchised.

Bill Moyers and Bernard A. Wesiberger noted in a recent article on money in politics, "As in Athens then, so in America now". I don't think anyone in the United States today can doubt that the system is becoming more and more rigged in favor of the rich. The unabashedly pro-oligarchy Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court subverted the law of the land to give rich corporations more free speech than most private citizens can afford. This ruling enables the rich--who by their own words and deeds abhor paying taxes for the common good--to have the loudest voice in American elections. The Citizens United ruling is nothing but a blatant bid to transform our democracy into an oligarchy.

If there is one thing on which everyone in the United States can agree, it is that the country is polarized into two camps of people who see things very differently. Turning again to Plato, we learn that this kind of polarization is typical not of a democratic form of government but specifically of an oligarchy. An oligarchic society is deeply divided within itself, he writes; it is "not one country but two--a country of the rich and a country of the poor." And the two countries--the rich who have power, on the one hand, and the poor who have neither voice nor power, on the other--"hate and plot against one another." Plato tells us that oligarchy, by its very nature, is a breeding ground for class warfare.

Plato believed, rather poetically, that there is a similarity between a country's form of government and the moral character of the citizens of that country. Just as an oligarchic state is internally torn apart into two countries, so a member of the oligarchic class is conflicted within himself. In Plato's words, "he is not really one person, but in some way a double man." This type of person may pretend to be quite respectable, but he is not, at least in Plato's eyes, really virtuous.

Of course, Plato had his own ideas about what constitutes moral virtue. In the Laws, for example, he says that the true test of a person's moral character is how the person treats those who are weaker and less fortunate than himself. "For it is his dealings with those whom he can easily wrong which reveal a man's genuine unfeigned reverence for right and real abhorrence of wrong." In other words, caring for the well-being of the poor, (even of the very poor), and providing for them is a sign of a virtuous person and of a virtuous society.

There is little doubt that the Republicans--and especially their leader--have become the party of oligarchy. Why more Americans do not seem to notice this fact seems to indicate their disengagement from politics and a misunderstanding about exactly what they are voting for.

Quotes and references are from Paul Shorey's translation of Plato's Republic, and A.E. Taylor's translation of Plato's Laws.