Politicians in a republic are not usual natural aristocrats. To get enough people to vote for you often requires a personality that is bland or that soothes local prejudices. Stand out too much and you make the voters uncomfortable. We are not governed by our finest, but our most anodyne: Babbitt not Burke.
This is a weakness of a republic and a strength. A dictator is better than his peers, but few pols in a republic are actually the brightest and best. As a result, while egos are plentiful, puncturing the pompous politicians is usually pretty easy. There are wits, think Churchill, or incarnations of the best of the people, see Lincoln, but mostly the average person elects someone better than average at going along to get along.
While this is bad news in a crisis, such politicians rarely are the cause of a crisis. They muddle along, compromise, and their vices are those of the flesh. They are too small souled to desire the world or to attract the attention of devils. Republics that survive have heroic men that when crisis comes can be found and who then save us. We deserve Horatio Gates, but somehow get Washington, Buchanan gives way to Lincoln, and FDR finds a better self after Pearl Harbor.
If not, we would not be here to discuss the Republic in this Republic of the year of our Lord 2018.
That’s the good news, but the bad news, as Plato predicted, and history proves that republics can also kick to the forefront bad men, dangerous men. Plato calls them were-men, beasts. They do not just arise in government, but in area of leadership in a republic in decline. Grant them power, fail to civilize them and make them part of the reasoned discourse of the community, and fearful results happen.
Mother Russia did not civilize Stalin and millions died as a constitutional monarchy heading toward liberty became the dictatorship of a beast-man. The non-profit who falls into the hand of the narcissistic personality given to fits of anger and self-righteous surety of his rightness is controlled by a the were-man, but let Plato describe him.
Socrates has been invited to the house of an old man who retires from discussion. The greater teacher is making some progress with the son, Polemarchus, when another teacher, a very famous man, interrupts. His name is Thrasymachus and he is the sort of person that only a dying democracy would give power or put in charge of the education of future leaders:
Thrasymachus had often tried to break into the argument but had been restrained by the others who wanted to hear it to the end. But when Polemarchus and I had reached this point in the conversation, there was a brief pause, and Thrasymachus could no longer he held back. He rose up like a beast and leaped at us as if he would tear us to pieces. Polemarchus and I recoiled in terror.
Thrasymachus is the teacher of tyrants and tyrants end liberty. Their character has not changed over the millennia. Socrates recoiled from him in terror. We should too.
The beast man is impatient with the argument.
The bad leader or teacher will not wish anyone else to steal his spotlight. He hardly can stand someone else to speak. He can handle mediocrities and syncopants, but brilliance or even a lack of attention makes him angry. Leaders like Thrasymachus are always thinking: “What about me? Don’t they know who I am? Aren’t they recognizing my position in this community? Be quiet and listen to me!”
The beast man is suave until he is angry.If you know a bad leader, a teacher of tyrants or a tyrant, then he will be charming to underlings or kind to those who need his help. Yet every so often he will snap in anger: how dare they? Thrasymachus has grown enraged by a discussion, words.
The beast man plays to win and attacks so good people often are terrified.
Thrasymachus attacks, he does not explain. We will discover he thinks power and wealth are their own justifications. If you win, the beast man is happy. He hates compromise, delay, or nuance. If the danger of a democracy is dithering, the beast man is all action. Often he does not care what he does, so long as something is being done that is doing.
A republic throws up a beast man when educators have become too decadent. Whatever their demerits as film, the Star Wars prequels get this right: a republic that cannot act throws up a strongman, Palpetine, that will. He will teach the younglings like Anakin to will power.
God save the Republic from such men. Against the beast man the Christian philosopher places Socrates and Jesus: dialog and love. Often Socrates and Jesus are killed, but being dead, they yet speak and Jesus . . . Jesus is alive. The beastial never win.
*I begin an informal summer reading of Republic using Scott/Sterling (a new translation for me). Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19
**I have no idea how much of what I know is just Professor Al Geier filtered through my eccentricity. Here is to you Al!