Plato's Laws IV, 3

Now to return to the Laws, which is our proper inquiry at this time. 

Plato's Athenian now begins to ask after what the best form of government for the new colony shall be. He begins this in a surprising place, which is by asking what form of government would provide the best beginning for an eventual transition to the truly best form of government. You have to start somewhere, after all, so that the legislation can be put into place for the government you wish to have. You don't start with the legislation already in place, but with a form for creating the legislation that is to follow. 

We don't see this insight often in political philosophy. We tend to think about the ideal as something like the construction of our own Constitution, which was created by legislators before it was enacted. But Plato is right: before the Constitution was crafted by the Founders, there was a time when they had only the Declaration of Independence. This provided no laws, only a statement of principles that ought to guide the construction of laws. After that, they tried to establish a system under the Articles of Confederation, which did not work out. There was a long debate -- the Federalist Papers are still read -- under the prior system about how to revise it towards a better system. 

The Athenian argues that the best origin point will be a tyranny -- provided, that is, that the tyrant is the right kind of man. If that is not so, a tyranny will produce disaster. But fortunately, the Athenian thinks he can say exactly which man is the right one:

Ath. "Give me a state which is governed by a tyrant, and let the tyrant be young and have a good memory; let him be quick at learning, and of a courageous and noble nature; let him have that quality which, as I said before, is the inseparable companion of all the other parts of virtue, if there is to be any good in them."

Cle. I suppose, Megillus, that this companion virtue of which the Stranger speaks, must be temperance?

Ath. Yes, Cleinias, temperance... 

Cle. You would assume, as you say, a tyrant who was young, temperate, quick at learning, having a good memory, courageous, of a noble nature?

Ath. Yes; and you must add fortunate; and his good fortune must be that he is the contemporary of a great legislator, and that some happy chance brings them together. When this has been accomplished, God has done all that he ever does for a state which he desires to be eminently prosperous.

So notice that's two men, not one: a tyrant who is young, temperate, quick, good memory, brave, noble, and fortunate; and also a legislator who is presumably older and wiser, and ready to inform the active young man who has the energy to enact the older man's wiser designs. 

There's a brief debate here about the order in which other forms of government are inferior to the 'good tyranny' as a starting point. Democracy is not at the very bottom, but it is close. The problem is that the more centers of real power there are, the harder it will be for the legislator's designs to be realized. A tyrant can just force everyone to obey the new laws. If there are two competing power centers, however, their competition may weaken the purity of realization of the new laws. Three is worse than two, etc. An oligarchy, in which several centers of power exist, is thus the worst one of all -- it will be very hard for the legislator to persuade them all to cooperate.

Democracy is not quite as bad as an oligarchy because no one actually has any power as an individual. The majority is the only power center, though it is made up of many people. Thus it is harder to persuade the majority than it is to persuade the single excellent tyrant, or a couple of noble co-kings (as Sparta had multiple kings). But it is easier to persuade 50%+1 voter than to get several competing power centers to work together, each of whom is powerful enough to be a problem. 

There's a similar discussion in Aristotle's Politics about which governments are best, but Aristotle wisely contrasts his discussions of potential best government with a discussion of which forms are most dangerous. A good tyranny may indeed have the greatest potential for goodness, Aristotle finds, but tyranny is also the most dangerous sort of government: should the tyrant not be this ideal character, the tyranny can produce an awful situation very rapidly. Democracy has much less potential for good, but somewhat less potential for harm because you have to convince a majority to go along with the harm (although Aristotle expects them to do so eventually, usually over the issue of voting themselves access to the minority's wealth).

Government by an aristocracy of nobles, whose class values aspire to proofs of virtue, has most of the potential of a good tyranny but with little of the downside from getting a single bad actor in the bunch. But the safest of all governments, Aristotle decides, is government by the "middle class," that is, people who have property but are not rich. These people will not want to accept the principle that private property should be taken away by the government, because that would mean their property was endangered too. But they also will not want to spend much time governing, because they aren't rich enough to waste time on it:  they'll want to get back to minding their own business as quickly as possible. They need to be minding it, to ensure they don't lose what they have.

Plato's Athenian gives little thought, here, to the dangers of government. Having established that it would be best to start with a good tyranny, he then goes into a series of mythic arguments about how it would be best for men to be ruled by gods, as it is better for oxen to be ruled by men (rather than by other oxen); and by reference to Cronos, the old god, setting spirits over men to govern them and provide for their every need. We seem to be getting a picture of human happiness in which we would be happiest if managed carefully by those wiser than ourselves; cared for, like herd animals, rather than free. 

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