Having given us an overview of the historical development of government, the Athenian now either moves on to two new kinds of constitution or gives us two new ways of analyzing all governments (at this point in the text, it is somewhat unclear). The two basic types of constitution are: democracy and monarchy. These are the roots, the “mother constitutions,” out of which all others grow (693d).
It is absolutely vital for a political system to combine them, if… it is to enjoy freedom and friendship allied with good judgment. (693e)
The examples of states which miss this political middle when they overemphasize one at the total expense of the other are Athens (democracy) and Persia (monarchy). So an analysis of each of these states will be helpful in understanding how the best type of government is the sort of balance struck reasonably well at Sparta and Crete.
Persia got its start under Cyrus as a well-constructed monarchy with good laws and a just system. And yet, on his death, it immediately collapsed into immorality and tyranny under the leadership of his son, Cambyses. Following the tyranny of Cambyses, however, Darius restored order and brought good government, freedom, and equality back to Persia. Darius’s son Xerxes, however, followed in the tyrannical footsteps of Cambyses. What are we to make of this back-and-forth in the Persian system? If they have good laws, why is their government all over the place?
The problem, the Athenian argues, is a failure of education. This failure of education, in turn, is a failure in the laws to properly account for virtue. It is the job of the educational system, as we’ve repeatedly seen, to raise the next generation in virtue. Specifically, education ought to teach the appropriate hierarchy of virtues:
…the proper basis is to put spiritual goods at the top of the list and hold them—provided the soul exercises self-control—in the highest esteem; bodily goods and advantages should come second, and third those said to be provided by property and wealth. (697b)
The Persians not only bungled this order in the highest ranks of society through the miseducation of the children of the king, they also failed to teach these virtues to the common people. As they increasingly failed to understand and properly teach virtue, authority began to take its place. While authority and virtue might have looked similar at the beginning when the former was in the hands of someone who also had the latter (as with Cyrus), eventually virtue would fail and the state would be left with nothing but a naked exercise of power. To add to these maladies, the Persians had created no institutions to offset this tyranny:
…they were too strict in depriving the people of liberty and too energetic in introducing authoritarian government, so that they destroyed all friendship and community of spirit in the state. And with that gone, the policy of rulers is framed not in the interests of their subjects the people, but to support their own authority. (697d)
And so now Persia is an empire of slaves with a monarchy that doesn’t know how to rule, an army that doesn’t know how to fight, and a citizen body that cares nothing for the survival of their own state. Which is not to say that Athens is much better off.
Despite being a loose sort-of democracy even in its early days, Athens avoided the problems that come from anarchy when it voluntarily embraced a moderate rule of law in the face of massive Persian invasions. “Modesty” was the rule of the day, since anything other than cooperative unity under the guidance of good laws working together for a common goal would have meant the utter destruction of the state by the invading superpower. The lesson here, the Athenian argues, is that “people who aspire to be good must be its [modesty’s] slave” (699c). The irony is that the freedom of the Athenians was preserved by their voluntary slavery to virtue.
As with Persia, however, a good beginning is no guarantee of a good end. When Athens had submitted to the law, it had in a sense ceased being a democracy:
When the old laws applied… the people were not in control: on the contrary, they lived in a kind of “voluntary slavery” to the laws. (700a)
Once the danger from Persia disappeared, so too did this voluntary servitude of deference to the laws. In its place, a sort of proto-postmodernism began to infect the state. We see this in the example of the collapse of music:
Unintentionally, in their idiotic way, they misrepresented their art, claiming that in music there are no standards of right and wrong at all, but that the most “correct” criterion is the pleasure of a man who enjoyed the performance, whether he is a good man or not. (700e)
The result is not good music—or, by extension, good government—but rather an acceleration of the decline and collapse of the state.
Consequently they gave the ordinary man not only a taste for breaking the laws of music but the arrogance to set himself up as a capable judge. (701a)
This was not limited to music but was merely a reflection of a rot seeping through the whole state:
…music proved to be the starting-point of everyone’s conviction that he was an authority on everything, and of a general disregard for the law. Complete licence was not far behind. The conviction that they knew made them unafraid, and assurance engendered effrontery. (701b)
From there, resistance to all forms of authority became the norm rather than the punished exception. And once rebellion to the rules became the new rule, the Athenians were as much slaves as the Persians—albeit slaves of a much more vicious and uncompromising tyrant: themselves.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.