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Forms of state

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Table of contents
1 Ancient Theories

Ancient Theories


Plato, in his Republic, describes several regimes, starting with his ideal regime, the rule of philosopher kings, called aristocracy, or rule by the best. In this regime, philosophers have to take time out from philosophizing to rule, and then pass the burden on as soon as they can, in order to get back to interesting things, like contemplation. Below the philosophers Plato places the guardians, or warriors, and below them the workers. The philosophers and warriors live a totally communal life, with not only property but women and children in common, in order to prevent them from having a conflict between public and private interest. Plato does not made clear whether ordinary citizens would also live communally, but Aristotle (who studied under Plato) said they would, in order to keep the rulers from being envious.

Moderns tend to divide the mind (or soul; the Greek psyche means both) into the id, ego, and superego. (See Sigmund Freud.) The ancient Greeks too saw the soul as tripartite, but with only one part in common with Freud's schema. The Greeks subdivided the soul into:

  1. the desiring part (which resembles Freud's id, but without so much implication of suppressed deviant sexuality)
  2. the spirited part
  3. the reasoning part

The social classes in Plato's ideal city-state correspond to the parts of the soul; the philosophers to the reasoning part, the guardians to the spirited part, and everyone else to the desiring part. His ideal city represents the ideal soul; reason should rule spiritedness and together they should rule desire. Plato concentrates on the ordering of the soul. Debate has occurred over whether he actually meant his aristocratic regime to exist in practice and whether he even thought it could exist in practice. Plato's ideal would strike modern observers as totalitarian, resembling Fascism or the worst forms of leftism.

The ruling classes of Plato's other described regimes also match types of souls. As Socrates remarks in the Republic, as the character of the man changes so does the state with it. This process is called The Kyklos.

If the ideal state represents rule by reason, the highest part of the soul, the regimes decline as they get further away from reason and more toward desire. Next best after aristocracy comes timocracy, where the spirited part of the soul prevails. The timocrat loves victory, and runs a military regime like Sparta (which Plato, a citizen of Sparta's enemy Athens, did not mention ) or the cities of Crete. After that, the descent goes from the spirited part to the desiring part, with the oligarchic regime, a regime ruled by misers and rich men, like Medieval Venice. The oligarchic soul devotes itself to necessary pleasures, such as food, which leads an oligarchic man to save up money in case of need. Descending from necessary to unnecessary pleasures, we come to democracy. Plato's democratic man is not a commoner, but a member of the elite: easy-going, devoted to his harmless pleasures, a playboy. The pleasures here remain lawful, but when they break out into unlawful pleases the descent has reached the bottom, tyranny.

Democracy has the unique feature of including men of every type; everyone becomes his own regime. Thus we see aristocratic men, like Socrates, talking to tyrannic men (who might later try to be tyrannic in the usual sense and thereby cause political problems).


Aristotle had a regime-analysis more familiar to modern minds, without trying to describe types of souls. He divided ruling entities into the one, the few, and the many. Each was then divided into just and unjust forms.

Thus we get:

Regimes Just Unjust
The One Kingship Tyranny
The Few Aristocracy Oligarchy
The Many Republic Democracy

(What is called "republic" above is his "polity".)

(This is very incomplete. Someone should add some stuff about mixed regimes and about modern theories, not to mention practice.)

Compare: anarchism