Plato's Republic famously describes the decay of the regimes, a process by which a society decays from the best regime, that of aristocracy, to the lowest, that of tyranny. However, the purpose of this concept of regimes is to expand upon Plato's extensive analogy of the city; he uses his "city in speech" to explain the concept of the soul (the analogy is created in section 368, Stephanus Pagination), and every regime has an analogous soul. For example, the regime of an oligarchy is analogous to a soul that values wealth over all else, and thus abandons justice.

One of the most important principles of his city in speech is as follows:

For everything that has come into being there is decay, not even a composition such as [the aristocratic city] will remain for all time. (546a)

Thus, Plato sees it as axiomatic that every regime will always decay into the next. By extension, therefore, every soul is constantly decaying. However, as with the regime, the soul too must decay to a state of tyranny; in this state, the soul has become enslaved to the beast of its desires (one of Plato's Tripartite of the Soul), and is very unhappy. As he says, the aristocrat is 729 times happier than the tyrant (587e).

However, (as far as I know) Plato does not at all suggest any way out of tyranny. It's as if the regimes are decaying constantly until they hit rock bottom—tyranny—and then there's nothing to be done; the soul or city is stuck in the horrid state of tyranny for eternity.

Now, this just doesn't seem to match the rest of Plato. If anything, he would be sure to provide a path of escape for anyone or any regime, because he wants people to be just. Much of The Republic is dedicated to arguing that the just man is happier than the unjust (the argument having begun with the Myth of Gyges), with the purpose of motivating people to act justly.

Therefore, it seems to me that even the soul of the tyrant should have a chance to recover (anti-decay?) back up the chain of regimes, so that it can be just once more. Either that, or Plato determines it to be a kind of eternal hell for those who are too careless and allow their souls to decay too quickly.

So, does Plato see tyranny as the final and permanent stage of decay, from which there is no escape? If so, does that mean he believes that older people and societies must gradually become more corrupt? If not, how does he allow for the soul not to decay, or to escape from tyranny? Perhaps here is where the city in speech breaks down as an analogy for the soul?

  • I don't have a detailed response or references, but since nobody else has responded yet after a week, I'll at least offer this much. A week ago, my professor was talking about this in class, and the way he described Plato's governments explicitly stated that the cycle repeats itself endlessly, with Tyranny transitioning into an Aristocracy via Timocracy, then to an Oligarchy from there. The order seems a bit inconsistent with what other sources seem to say (and I haven't read through that particular book yet myself), so I'm not sure entirely how accurate this is. Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 2:12

5 Answers 5


My own interpretation is that Plato actually argues that although a regime decays, the human soul is perpetually rising toward its best state. For this interpretation, I first determined that Plato thinks of the level of education in a city (or soul) as analogous to its regime. Therefore, the more education there is in a city, or the better educated a soul is, the closer that soul/city is to the top of the regimes (the aristocracy).

I think this point is fairly obvious in any reading of The Republic, so I'll skip over explaining why I think education is proportional to regime for Plato (if you would like me to explain it, please leave a comment and I'll add it in).

Regarding my interpretation that Plato sees the soul as in perpetual growth, the following quotation is very relevant:

Education is not what the professions of certain men assert it to be. They presumably assert that they put into the soul knowledge that isn’t in it, as though they were putting sight into blind eyes…but the present argument, on the other hand, indicated that this power is in the soul of each, and that the instrument with which each learns…must be turned around from that which is coming into being together with the whole soul until it is able to endure looking at…the good. 518c

The last portion is particularly important, where Plato asserts that the human soul must be educated and developed "until it is able to endure looking at... the good." Thus, unlike the decay of education in the city, which leads to a decay of regimes, the soul is actually accumulating a better education, and therefore state with time.

Why do I say that the best education is required for the best soul (the aristocratic)? Well, when discussing the oligarchic man (of the 3rd regime, that which values money), Plato comments:

I don’t suppose such a man has devoted himself to education. (554b)

Therefore, if somebody does devote themselves to education, they'll end up better than the oligarchic man, higher and closer to (if not at) an aristocracy.

So, it appears that Plato argues for the importance of constant education of the soul, and for the value of education is achieving the aristocratic mind. Crucial to my interpretation that he sees the soul as perpetually improving is the following:

’Does anyone, either god or human being, willingly make himself worse in any way at all?’‘It’s impossible’. (381c)

This is a bit of dialogue where another (I don't recall who) is actually replying to Socrates' question, and here we can see that Plato doesn't think anyone would ever make themselves worse (i.e. decay the regime of their souls). So, since they are always being educated, and education leads to a better soul, and they will never make their souls worse, the human soul must always be in a state of improvement.

However, through his regular arguments, Plato determines that the city in speech, the actual nation, is always in a state of decay. This, too, I take as apparent, so I won't cite quotations unless requested.

This, though, is just my interpretation of the difference between the soul and city for Plato, which was why I posed this question; I was (and still am) looking for other ideas and also an answer to what happens when a city bottoms out as tyranny.


Structurally speaking, the progression is from the best possible city, with the wisdom lovers at the top, and the pleasure lovers at the bottom, to the worst possible city, which is the same structure upside-down. Under the parameters Plato outlines, you literally can't get any worse than the tyranny, so in that sense, it is definitively the end of the line.

Arguably, however, the sequential order of the progression of city-states in the Republic is a pedagogical device rather than a hard-and-fast set of rules. Plato presumably knew that the real life versions of the governments he described didn't progress in that fashion 100% of the time.

It is tempting to read the Republic as an actual survey of governmental types, given the sharpness of Plato's psychological and sociological insights. But, at root, the entire sequence is presented chiefly in service of understanding the composition of the human soul. Accordingly, there are some issues that arise when you try to take it too much at face value.

Perhaps the most significant of these is the one you mention: Not only is there no way to exit the bottom of the sequence (i.e. no natural successor to the tyranny), there is no way to enter the top of the sequence (no natural predecessor to the republic, which Plato describes as produced through a set of highly unnatural and unlikely interventions). This makes it challenging or impossible to use as a blueprint for actual social reform (as Plato himself demonstrated to his own detriment).

If the progression was actually accurate, every government would degrade into a tyranny and then stay there --there would be no other governmental types in the world.


I would assume that the Tyranny would devolve into anarchy after its tyrant dies. This would most likely not be the end, though, as anarchy tends to evolve/devolve into something else. It would depend on the way the people think, and how many of them there are. I would assume that it would turn into a stratocracy, a system of governance where the military and state are one and the same. The anarchy would be a war of factions, groups who join together to fight for power, because, like Plato said, man craves power. This is seen in the beginning with the Timocracy. The strongest faction would give the image of strong and fearless, a group who can help the society rise from the ashes of tyranny and anarchy. And out of anarchy would most likely come stratocracy. i say this because, in a state of anarchy, factions would emerge, gangs if you will, and they would start to fight for control. This would soon escalate into faction wars, were only the strongest would survive. The victorious would be the new government, that of might and power, a stratocracy. But this is getting more into my own thoughts of anarchy and how it results in other forms. After a stratocracy would have many possibilities, and another aristocracy may result, due to the natural seperation of military and state. As the stratocracy devolves, the philosophers of the day would join the ranks of government, and the best would become the ruler. Eventually. But, as Plato probably knew, this isn't a 100% series of events, any number of governments could arise.



'For everything that has come into being there is decay'. This is a perfectly general statement about the physical world, held by Plato to apply well beyond the psuche and the polis. It is taken to be true of everything that does not belong to the transcendental world of Forms.


The important point to realise is that Plato is not offering a philosophy of history. It is not clear that the kallipolis, the ideal polis, outlined in the Republic is taken by Plato to be realisable. This doubt is clear from Rep. V.471c-472e. It is an ideal pattern or 'pure case'. If there were an ideal city, this is what it would be like. Plato does not claim unambiguously that the ideal pattern can be implemented.


What the account of decline in Rep. VIII-IX does is to show the relative imperfections of four kinds of defective polis as measured against the ideal city. Plato never says that he is offering an account of the actual course of history. The progression of decline is a classification of degrees of defectiveness by the standards of Plato's ideals, not a prediction of how events will go when the ideal polis (which might not ever exist) begins to decay.

Timarchy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny are each in turn further from the virtues of the kallipolis, the ideal polis. Tyranny is the most distant and the most seriously imperfect of the four; democracy is bad but not quite so bad as tyranny; oligopoly is bad but not so bad as democracy; and timarchy is bad but not so bad as oligopoly. Timarchy is imperfect but is the least imperfect of the four kinds of state; it represents the least decline from the kallipolis.


Plato does not need to find a way out from tyranny because his aim is not to predict the occurrence of this kind of polis and the terrible predicament it will land us in. Rather, his aim is only to show that tyranny is the polar opposite of the kallipolis.


In what Trevor Saunders describes as one of Aristotle's 'puzzlingly unsympathetic criticisms of Plato' (Aristotle, 'The Politics', London : Penguin, 1992, p.351), Plato is taken to task by Aristotle for the historical implausibility of his account of constitutional change, of the political decline described in the 'Republic'. Just how completely this misses the point is made clear in a classic article by A.E. Taylor :

Plato is not assuming, as Aristotle seems to think, either that there is some kind of fate in virtue of which a "constitution " must last for a certain given time, or that there is only one cause of " revolutions ", or that revolutions must always take place in a single direction. Aristotle himself can hardly have supposed Plato ignorant of the elementary historical examples which he produces to show that, e.g., democracy is not always the immediate precursor of "tyranny". Nor is he assuming for a moment that the ideal State, once started on its existence, must run the gamut of change exactly as he describes it. He never denies, for example, that the philosophic State might be forcibly extinguished in its " refulgent prime ", if it should be confronted by a combination of overwhelmingly numerous and warlike assailants, or if it should be exposed to such a natural calamity as that which is supposed in the Timaeus and Critias to engulf the whole body of the prehistoric warriors of Athens in the course of a single day and night. We must understand him in the Republic to be speaking of a "pure case ", which might conceivably never be realised in its complete purity. (A.E. Taylor, 'The Decline and Fall of the State in Republic, VIII', Mind, Vol. 48, No. 189 (Jan., 1939), p.26.)

Taylor's reference to a 'pure case' ties in exactly with the account given above. Plato is exercising his moral imagination and providing a moral metric, not offering a philosophy of history - let alone a predictive science of politics.


This is where religion and philosophy appear to merge. What few people realize is the fact that the new testament and the other gnostic texts are Greek documents probably written by pupils of the same greek philosophy schools of Plato and aristotle; in code as was the tradition. The similarities between Socrates and Jesus are striking.

Going by the new testament the entrapped soul appears to be the same IDEA as the binding and suffering on the cross. To this end, the teachings suggest some FORM of saviour (For the name jesus, a variant of Yeshua which in turn is a variant of Joshua, literally means "deliverer" or "rescuer") comes to rescue the tormented soul by paying its debts.

Plato also appears to suggest that these phases, extreme knowledge & happiness decaying into extreme ignorance, suffering, and helplessness only applies to the soul that has the nature of a philosopher King. For the higher one goes, the harder they fall...

Phaedrus by Plato - The first half of the book deals with this question; the Soul in transition from Love for the tyrannical (which is not really love at all but just a convenient friendship to satisfy the lusts of the appetite) to love for the philosophical and vice versa (ie. how it gets to be trapped).

After being abandoned and left literally ruined by a tyrannical lover, which as far as Plato is concerned is simply the soul being totally ruled and left to the mercy of the appetite, Plato writes this..

243c] how shameless the two speeches were, both this of mine and the one you read out of the book. For if any man of noble and gentle nature, one who was himself in love with another of the same sort, or who had ever been loved by such a one, had happened to hear us saying that lovers take up violent enmity because of small matters and are jealously disposed and harmful to the beloved, don't you think he would imagine he was listening to people brought up among low sailors, who had never seen a generous love? Would he not refuse

He goes on to describe a gentle loving natured redeemer that comes to the injured soul taking the place of the abusive Tyrant....

[255b] For it is the law of fate that evil can never be a friend to evil and that good must always be friend to good. And when the lover is thus admitted, and the privilege of conversation and intimacy has been granted him, his good will, as it shows itself in close intimacy, astonishes the beloved, who discovers that the friendship of all his other friends and relatives is as nothing when compared with that of his inspired lover.

It goes on but in typical Plato language with allusions and allegories. What is clear is that it addresses the question "where next for the soul trapped by the Tyrant"...

  • 1
    Do you have any references for "the new testament and the other gnostic texts are Greek documents probably written by pupils of the same greek philosophy schools of Plato and Aristotle"? The Roman general Sulla destroyed Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum in 86 BC. And what do you mean "in code, as was the tradition"? What tradition are you talking about? Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 15:45
  • Do a search for this youtube video, Philosopher Kings 2 - THE SECRET DOCTRINES - Energy & Form; and come to your own conclusions. As for proof the new testament was a greek document, any simple bit of research confirms the original texts were written in greek and the nag hammadi gnostic collection even contains an original slightly altered version of Plato's republic..
    – cct
    Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 16:25
  • At the end of the day regardless of sources, everything here is just individual opinions unless proven with facts. Plato's language is not the easiest to understand, and the tradition I refer to is in regards to just that. they refer to one thing when they are in fact referring to another thing. this is dialectic reasoning; All these things he spoke to the crowds in parables, and without a parable he did not speak to them, SOURCE: matthew 13.34
    – cct
    Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 17:41

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