Progenitors Of Modern Tyranny Or Democracy? Competent Political Decision Making According To Rousseau And Plato

Barry Gilheany discusses the work of Plato and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 

In this article, I compare the criteria for good political decision-making prescribed by two towering figures in political theory – Plato and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I look at the approaches towards good government that both enunciate in their respective classic political tracts: The Republic and The Social Contract. The points of departure for my analysis of their discussions of good law-making are quotes from each author: in the case of Plato “Philosophers make the best rulers” and for Rousseau “The People being subject to the laws ought to be their author”. I enquire whether their respective philosophies of political leadership are reducible to these maxims. Plato and Rousseau are often accused of laying out blueprints for the totalitarian regimes which blighted 20th century history and politics. I examine these claims, drawing on extensive use of both texts, and conclude that both bodies of doctrine are considerably more nuanced than that.

To start with Plato first, The Republic is commonly regarded as the culminating achievement of Plato as a philosopher and writer. An academic discipline has developed around readings of the book with specialist chapters on philosophy, religion and literature (Blackburn, 2006). It was written around 375BC when Plato was in his early fifties.

The Republic proceeds as a dialogue led by Socrates, who was Plato’s teacher. Across ten books Socrates responds with potent logic to the questions and counter-arguments posed by Glaucon and Adeimantus, older brothers of Plato, and Polemarchus whose home in Piraeus (the port of Athens) is where the dialogue occurs. Other interlocutors include Thrasymachus, an orator, Polemarchus’ brothers Lysias and Euthydemus and Cephalus, his father (Butler-Bowdon, 2012).

Plato’s ideal state is society as characterised by wisdom, courage, self-discipline and justice; qualities that a well-balanced person should also develop. Conversely his discussion of reason, spirit and desire (the “three parts of the soul”) shows how personal mental harmony is not just good for the individual, making them “just” but good for their communities too As a sort of early behavioural psychologist Plato believed that environment is the main shaper of people, and therefore the question of what is just could not simply be a private one, but was necessarily political (Butler-Bowden: p.xii).

Plato arrived at his ideal Republic through his critiques of the other forms of government of his time: Timarchy (essentially a military dictatorship which prevailed in ancient Sparta), Oligarchy, Democracy and Tyranny. In relation to his criticisms of Democracy, it is important to acknowledge that Democracies in Plato’s time were not the representative governments of our current age. His problem with the Athenian mode of direct democracy in which a popular assembly of free male citizens met regularly to vote on particular issues and devolved administration to a Council of Five Hundred was that it invariably generated poor decision-making. Complex issues to do with economics or foreign policy were subject to the irrational whims of the day and there was little long-term strategic thinking to guide the state because membership of the Council was restricted to a year and also no citizen could be a member no more than twice. The “freedom and plainness of speech” which democracy facilitated led to “…a pleasing, lawless, various sort of government, distributing equality to equals and unequals alike” (Butler-Bowdon: pp. xiii-xiv).

This disenchantment with existing political systems forms the background to Plato’s ideal state and his veneration of “philosopher kings” whose sole purpose is to work for the good of the state. A state can only be run properly by those who have the best general overview of what constitutes the good in society. Plato enunciates in reply to Glaucon that:

Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, … and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day (Plato: Book V pp.199-200).

Thus, only the properly educated generalist, trained over many years in abstract subjects can govern well. The basic condition of superiority and fitness to govern is knowledge of the essential spiritual Forms of Justice, the Good, Beauty, Temperance, which manifest themselves in actual circumstances. “In as much as philosophers only are able to grasp the eternal and unchangeable, and those who wander in the region of the many and variable are not philosophers”, Plato asks Glaucon the rhetorical question “which of the two classes should be the rulers of our State?” (Plato: Book VI: p.212).

So, the just state is divided into two; Guardians and Workers. The ruling class of Guardians is comprised of the afore-mentioned philosopher-rulers, and a military class called “auxiliaries” which defend the state and implement the administrative functions mandated by the rulers. The working class keeps the state going in a material way (Butler-Bowdon: pp.xiii-xv).

In what could be interpreted as a “blank slate” analogy, when asked “how will they [the philosopher-kings] will draw out the plan of which you are speaking?”, Plato replies that:

They will begin by taking the State and the manners of men, from which, as from a tablet, they will rub out the picture, and leave a clean surface … no easy task … but… herein will lie the difference between them and very other legislator, - they will have nothing to do either with individual or State, and will inscribe no laws, until they have either found, or themselves, made clean surface. (Plato: Book VI: p.233).

To summarise, in accordance with Plato’s beliefs in the specialization of vocational functions, the:
guardians, setting aside every other business, are to dedicate themselves wholly to the maintenance of freedom in the State, making this their craft, and engaging in no work which does not bear on this end… they should imitate from youth upward only those characters which are suitable for their profession – the courageous, temperate, holy, free and the like.. (Plato: Book III; p.96).

The most serious charge against The Republic and its schema for leadership is that it embodies a totalitarian vision of how societies should be governed. This view was most famously articulated by Karl Popper in his The Open Society and its Enemies published in 1945. He reads off Plato the same type of subordination of the individual to the collective that characterised Nazism and Stalinism. Popper also sees him as a dangerous utopian social engineer, whose blueprints for improvement disregard the messy and rebellious nature of the human material with which he has to work. (Blackburn: p.54).

To assess the justice or otherwise of Popper’s charge-sheet, it is useful to look at how the Plato scholar Christopher Taylor approaches the issue of totalitarianism in The Republic. He identifies three types of totalitarianism: in the first kind the purposes and well-being of individuals are totally subordinated to the state; in the second ideological kind, the good of the individual is identified is their contribution to the state, the individual is essentially part of an organic social unity and the third type is a paternalistic one in which the aim and function of the state is simply to promote the welfare of its citizens and citizens are subjected to totalitarian authority for their own good due to their inability, whether individual or collective, to attain this good for themselves. (Taylor, 1999).

Although Popper does not specifically allude to this typology, for Taylor it is clear that he regards Plato as a totalitarian of the first type due to what he sees as his basic anti-humanism. He asserts that for Plato ‘The criterion of morality is the interest of the state’ (his italics), that the interest of the state is ‘to arrest all change, by the maintenance of a rigid class division’ and that ‘the individual is nothing but a cog [sc. In the state machine]’ (Taylor: pp.284-85). It is noteworthy that Popper does not refer directly to any single passage in The Republic to support his case.

Taylor refutes the extreme totalitarian interpretation of Plato’s work by arguing that the whole structure of his theory requires that the polis is an organisation devised with the paramount aim of promoting individual eudaimonia; a concept which at its most basic level is to be understood as a materially tolerable life and which develops into psychic harmony i.e. of the fully worthwhile life as consisting in the integration of the personality in the pursuit of the most intrinsically desirable goals (Taylor: p.290). Plato’s theory is best seen as paternalist as he makes no serious attempt to show that an adequate conception of a good life includes any substantial measure of autonomy. He does at least in intention subordinate the perfectly organised state of to the happy community. But arguably Plato is no more successful than his successors in distinguishing paternalism from tyranny (Taylor: pp.295-96).

Finally, in relation to Plato, he never poses the problem of who should govern, nor does he name regimes by reference to one person who wields power. In the Republic political competence is determined finally, and teleologically, by its function. The leaders of the city must be chosen from amongst the guardians who must prove themselves, through trial and error, to be the most ‘useful’ to the city (Pradeau, 2002).

On the surface, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s conceptions of political leadership as laid out in Of The Social Contract stand in polar opposite to the philosopher-kings of Plato’s fancy. He is often cited as an archetypal theorist of direct participation in politics (Qvortrup, 2003) because of his advocacy of plebiscitary mechanisms.

His central aim in The Social Contract is to explain how the freedom of the individual can be reconciled with the authority of the state and the concept with which he attempts this reconciliation is the general will (Bertram, ed., 2012) However lack of clarity around this concept has led his critics to accuse him, like Plato, of being a forerunner of totalitarianism.

Rousseau believes that freedom is essential to our nature and is a condition of our having moral responsibility (in contrast to the paternalism of The Republic). He argues that citizens who live in a state governed by the general will obey only themselves: freedom and obedience to law are thereby combined. In one interpretation of the general will, it is simply what a people, voting as a body of sovereign legislators in their assembly, decides the law to be. The general will is thus the expression of popular sovereignty, of collective democratic choice. Yet at other times Rousseau seems to adhere to a view whereby the general will corresponds to a fact of the matter concerning where the common interest lies, which may diverge from what the citizenry actually believe or decide. This latter interpretation has been used as ammunition by those who claim than Rousseau gave carte-blanche for dictatorial elites to speak in the name of the people (Bertram, ed. xxiii-xxiv).

In the first two books of the Social Contract, Rousseau is principally concerned with the ideas of sovereignty, law and the general will. He expounds on the need for the figure of the Legislator, necessarily: an extraordinary man in the State… by virtue of his intelligence, and ... just as much by virtue of his function’” (Rousseau, Book II p.43) in order to lead to “the union of understanding and will in the social body, leading to exact cooperation of the parts and ultimately the greatest strength of the whole” (Rousseau, p.41). This function “is not magistracy, nor is it sovereignty (Rousseau, p.43). For Rome degenerated into Tyranny “because she had united legislative authority and sovereign power on the same brows”. One of the most convincing rebuttals to the allegation that Roussean governance would facilitate tyranny is his quotation from the Decemvirs or the ten-man decemvirate set up in 452BC to draw up a code of administration for Rome: Romans, be yourselves the authors of the laws that are to ensure your happiness (Rousseau, p.43).

It is in Book III that Rousseau lays down his rubric for government. Government is:

an intermediary body established between the subjects and the Sovereign for their mutual correspondence, charged with the execution of laws and with the maintenance of liberty, both civil and political… The members of this body are called Magistrates or Kings, in other words Governors, and the whole body bears the name of Prince. (III: p.58).

Rousseau advocated an ‘aristocratic system’ in which the representatives should propose the laws; merely another name for parliamentary or representative government. (Qvortrup: p.58). He writes “There are three kinds of Aristocracy: natural, elective and hereditary. The first suits only simple peoples; the third is the worst of all Governments. The second is the best: it is Aristocracy in the proper sense” (III: p.68)

Rousseau wanted these aristocrats to be elected by the people.

For in popular Government all Citizens are born as magistrates, but this system limits them to a small number, and they become so only through election; a means through which probity, enlightenment, experience and all the other reasons for preference and public esteem are so many new guarantees that you will be governed wisely (Book III: p.69). 

In his proposals for Corsica, he recommended “a mixed government, where the people assemble by sections rather than whole and where the repositories of its power are changed at frequent intervals” (Qvortrup: p.59).

In all his political writings he emphasised that the power of any political institution should be constrained. He had an interest in policy failures derived from the epistemological view, which stresses the fallibility of human knowledge and, consequently, the most unplatonic view that no one has access to the general will. Contrary to the claim that Rousseau’s political philosophy would sow the seeds of authoritarianism (as the rulers would claim exclusive access to the general will while the ordinary citizen should be ‘forced to be free’ by the benevolent, yet autocratic rulers), he flagged up this danger by stating that ‘any man can carve tablets of stone, or bribe an oracle, or whisper in his ear, or discover some vulgar means of imposing himself on the people.” He thus foresaw the Hitlers, Stalins and the Pol Pots of the 20th century. (Qvortrup: p.59). Unfortunately, not all of his followers have understood this, most notoriously Maximilian Robespierre who invoked the general will to justify his Terror regime which developed out of the French Revolution (Qvortrup: pp.14-15).

Contrary to much received wisdom, Rousseau’s political theory can be read as a contribution to constitutionalism. The constitutional tradition rests on the widespread assumption that no group or individual should have absolute power. This view is founded on the epistemological dictum that no one has access to the truth – in the Popperian, essentialist meaning of the term – so no one entity should be entrusted with absolute power. This article has shown two consistent themes in Rousseau’s political works: the necessity of placing limits on executive power and the impossibility of direct legislation by the people. (Qvortrup: pp.50-57). In his Discourses on Inequality he pointed to how “self-interested and ill-conceived projects… as finally ruined the Athenians” as the reason why “each man should not be at liberty to propose new laws at pleasure… “and why “… that right should exclusively belong to the magistrates” (Qvortrup: p.57).

In conclusion, both Plato and Rousseau conceptualise political leadership as specialized competencies despite their seemingly contrasting visions of what constitutes the ideal polity; in the case of Rousseau unity of the social body through the general will and Plato’s analogy between justice in an individual soul and justice in a city (Fine, 1999). Both saw rule by the philosopher kings and magistrates respectively as a way of providing a firewall against fanciful and intemperate decision-making by the populace at large, or, more crudely, the ‘tyranny of the mob’. Both agreed that the people ‘lacked the necessary experience to judge what constitutes good law’ and that the task of the legislator involved finding a representational mode through which to communicate ‘a thousand kinds of ideas’ impossible to translate into popular language (Inston, 2010). Possession of polymath-type, if not esoteric-type knowledge by both Guardians and Aristocrats was seemingly essential. Both Plato and Rousseau have been unfairly accused of detailing chronicles of totalitarianism foretold but neither were advocates of 21st century style Western liberal democracy. Plato’s philosopher king state represented an authoritarian vision but in a positive paternal sense (Butler-Bowdon: p.xv).

Rousseau had a constitutionalist vision closer to that of Locke and Montesquieu than the revolutionaries who later adopted him as their talisman. To read off the writings of both Plato and Rousseau as blueprints of modern tyranny is, in my opinion, as unfair as attributing the ravages of Thatcherist/neo-liberal models of government (most grotesquely in Pinochet’s Chile) to the works of Adam Smith or the horrors of 20th century Marxist-Leninist utopias to the writings of Karl Marx. For the ideologues and demagogues who drew on such philosophical texts to legitimise their absurd and monstrous schemas did so with little or no understanding of the nuances of those texts and the historical context in which they were written. The constant invocation of the Will Of The People by the winners of the UK in-out EU referendum in 2016 and their media allies to support a “Hard Brexit” regardless of the will of the Enemies of the People i.e. Parliament, “unelected” judges, Remain supporters and campaigners shows that such perversions of democratic theory do not reside merely in the tombs of 20th century tyrannies but are present in 21st century democracies.


Fine, G Introduction pp.1-34 in Fine G. (ed.) (1999) Plato 2. Ethics, Politics, Religion and the Soul Oxford Readings in Philosophy Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Inston, K (2010) Rousseau and Radical Democracy. Continuum Studies in Philosophy. London: Continuum.
Plato The Republic of Plato (1908) Translated by Benjamin Jowett with an Introduction by Tom Butler-Bowdon (2012) Chichester, West Sussex: Capstone Publishing Ltd.
Pradeau, J. (2002) Plato and the City. A New Introduction to Plato’s Political Thought Translated by Janet Lloyd. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.
Qvortrup, M. (2003) The Political Philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Impossibility of Reason. Manchester: Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Rousseau, J.J. (2012) Of The Social Contract and Other Political Writings Edited by Christopher Bertram, Translated by Quintin Hoare. Penguin Classics. London; Penguin.
Taylor, C. Plato’s Totalitarianism pp.280-296 in Fine, G (ed.) (1999) Plato 2 Ethics, Politics, Religion and the Soul. Oxford Readings in Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

➽ Barry Gilheany is the author of a PhD thesis Post-Eighth Abortion Politics in the Republic of Ireland from Essex University, Department of Government. He is also the author of The Discursive Construction of Abortion in Georgina Waylen & Vicky Randall (Eds) Gender, The State and Politics Routledge, 1998.


  1. Barry,

    Me thinks you paint with too broad a brush here:

    “To read off the writings of both Plato and Rousseau as blueprints of modern tyranny is, in my opinion, as unfair as attributing the ravages of Thatcherist/neo-liberal models of government (most grotesquely in Pinochet’s Chile) to the works of Adam Smith or the horrors of 20th century Marxist-Leninist utopias to the writings of Karl Marx.” --- says Barry Gilheany


    The Trial of Socrates
    by I. F. Stone (Author)

    “An old muckraker sheds fresh light on the 2,500-year-old mystery and reveals some Athenian political realities that Plato did his best to hide.”

    By Williamson M. Evers
    Department of Political Science, Stanford University

  2. Eoghan

    Thanks for your comment.

    I am not sure what point you are trying to make.

  3. Barry, these two writers, Stone & Evers, give fair criticism of the writings of both Plato and Rousseau as blueprints of modern tyranny. And I.F. Stone could read Plato in Greek.