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Plato warned of Barack Obama 2,400 years ago

Greek philosopher Plato
Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

2,400 years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato seemed to warn about President Obama. In his most popular work, “The Republic” published around B.C. 390, Plato uses his mentor, Socrates, as his protagonist, asking a series of questions about the nature of the state, or government. In Plato’s view, there are five types of government, one leading to the other. There is aristocracy, “the rule of the best”, which leads to what he terms timocracy, or timarchy, “the rule of the honorable”, which passes into oligarchy, “the rule of the rich”, which leads to democracy, “the rule of the people”, and democracy, in Plato’s view, invariably leads to tyranny, “the rule of one man”, or the rule by a tyrant. This is also called despotism.

In democracy, Plato writes, the people are free, and the country has freedom – “a man may say and do what he likes.” Plato says this “seems likely to be the fairest of States, being like an embroidered robe which is spangled with every sort of flower. … there will be no better in which to look for a government… because of the liberty which reigns there.”

However, this freedom is only momentary. Although the people are technically in power, there will still be rich and poor. This is when democracy begins to transition into tyranny.

“And does not tyranny spring from democracy?” Plato asks. “The ruin of oligarchy is the ruin of democracy; the same disease magnified and intensified by liberty overmasters democracy – the truth being that the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction; and this is the case not only in the seasons and in vegetable and animal life, but above all in forms of government… The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery… And so tyranny naturally arises out of a democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty.”

Because there is still rich and poor in a democracy, the poor begin to lust after the wealth of the rich. “They [the wealthy] are the most squeezable persons and yield the largest amount of honey to the drones [the poor]… And this is called the wealthy class, and the drones feed upon them.” In other words, because the poor have little, and the rich have much, the poor, “the drones” as Plato calls them, will essentially vote to rob the wealth of the rich. Between rich and poor, there is “a third class,” Plato writes, “consisting of those who work with their own hands; they are not politicians, and have not much to live upon. This, when assembled, is the largest and most powerful class in a democracy.” Today, we call this the middle class.

As the poor push the middle class to confiscate the wealth of the rich, hoping to get a little honey, “the persons whose property is taken from them are compelled to defend themselves before the people as best they can.” The poor and middle class charge the wealthy with “plotting against the people and being friends of oligarchy.” As tensions between rich and poor increase, the rich have to essentially become oligarchs, to protect their wealth. They seek to protect their wealth, while the “drones torments them and breeds revolution.” The poor continue to attack the wealthy as money-making enemies of the country. The tension explodes, and the rich and poor become enemies.

This is when the tyrant comes into play, and Plato seems very much to be describing Barack Obama.

“The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse them into greatness.” The poor, and even the middle class, are struggling under what they see as the power and greed of the wealthy, so they find someone to take up their fight. The poor, hoping to sock it to the wealthy, rally behind a popular leader. “This and no other,” Plato says, “is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground, he is a protector.”

The poor and middle class love him, and are sure that this champion, their protector, will take from the wealthy and give their wealth to the poor.

Plato writes about the people’s champion – their protector, who will become a tyrant. “And the protector of the people is like him; having a mob entirely at his disposal, he is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen…. And he, the protector of whom we spoke, is to be seen… himself the overthrower of many standing up in the chariot of State with the reins in his hand, no longer protector, but tyrant absolute.”

So the protector is popular, he is seen as one of the people, and a great many people adore him. They will support him no matter what he does – he can kill his own people and they will go along with him, because they believe he is on their side. When he has control, when he is in charge of government, he will not actually be the people’s protector, but their master, and he has government power in his hands.

Plato says, “At first, in the early days of his power, he is full of smiles, and he salutes every one whom he meets… liberating debtors, and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to every one!” So he appears like a great guy. “But when he has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader.”

He doesn’t want to surrender his power, so he is always looking for, or even starting, a crisis, using it as justification for him to stay in power, and to acquire more power. He jumps from crisis to crisis, using it as an excuse to increase his power.

“He has not also another object, which is that they may be impoverished by payment of taxes, and thus compelled to devote themselves to their daily wants and therefore less likely to conspire against him.”

In other words, the ‘protector’ will deliberately impoverish his own people. Although he is supported by the poor, he will actually ensure that the poor stay poor, so that they have to focus more on daily life rather than think about removing him, the tyrant, from power.

“And if any of them are suspected by him of having notions of freedom, and of resistance to his authority, he will have a good pretext for destroying them by placing them at the mercy of the enemy; and for all these reasons the tyrant must always be getting up a war.”

So if you say anything bad about the tyrant, he’ll go after you.

“Now,” Plato says about the tyrant, after all this time of being loved by the people, after he has deliberately made sure the people stay poor and after he has incited wars or emergencies, “he begins to grow unpopular.”

His approval ratings begin to slide.

Even his former allies begin to challenge the tyrant. “Then some of those who joined him in setting him up, and who are in power, speak their minds to him and to one another, and the more courageous of them cast in his teeth what is being done.”

His allies will begin to regret putting him in power, and will keep their distance from him. They realize he isn’t what they thought he would be. So the people begin to turn on the tyrant, and hope he is removed from power.

"And the tyrant, if he means to rule, must get rid of them; he can not stop while he has a friend or an enemy who is good for anything."

The tyrant will solidify his power, he will ignore any restrictions on his power, he will do whatever he can to stay in charge. But his support is waning. The people don’t love him quite like they used to, and some of his allies are turning on him. “And the more detestable his actions are to the citizens the more satellites and the greater devotion in them will he require.” In other words, the worse he does, the more he needs to ensure people remain loyal to him. But since many people are turning on him, where will he find these supporters? “And who are the devoted band, and where will he procure them? They will flock to him… of their own accord, if he pays them.”

The people are starting to rise against him, so he essentially bribes them. He offers to give them things to keep them happy. He has already, by intention, impoverished them. He has made sure the poor stay poor. So the next thing he does is to make sure they are dependent upon him – dependent upon the state. How does he get this money to bribe the people? “He will rob the citizens.” To gain more followers, the tyrant will turn to foreigners. He will take from the citizens of his own country, and will give their money to foreigners. “Here are more drones, of every sort and from every land.” The people do not want to rise against him now, because “they can not help themselves”. They have nothing; he controls all the wealth. They are depending upon him for everything. If they rise against him, he will take away their honey. “Then he is a parricide, and a cruel guarding of an aged parent; and this is real tyranny, about which there can be no longer a mistake: as the saying is, the people who would escape the smoke which is the slavery of freedom, has fallen into the fire which is the tyranny of slaves. Thus liberty, getting out of all order and reason, passes into the harshest and bitterest form of slavery.”

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