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Keeping up Appearances: A Pattern of Degeneration in Plato’s Republic

Caroline Wekselbaum, Washington University in St Louis

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Faculty Mentor: Eric Brown

This study identifies a pattern in Plato’s account of psychological and political degeneration in Books VIII and IX of the Republic. Following his discussion of the perfectly just city and its correspondingly just ruler, the philosopher-king, Plato proceeds to explain how kallipolis could degenerate in Books VIII and IX with his account of the four unjust constitutions: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. Although scholars allude to the psychological significance of this account, none have yet identified any patterns in how the unjust con- stitutions degenerate. The pattern of degeneration identified tracks the psychological degeneration of the rulers to the political degeneration of the polis. The exception to this pattern is the first degeneration, from kallipolis to timocracy. The explanation for this exception hinges upon the fact that philosophers are not corruptible while the rulers of the unjust constitutions (who are non-philosophers) can always become worse. This study argues that the pattern of degeneration is important for two main reasons: First, the exception to the pattern highlights the psychological perfection of philosophers and the political perfection of kallipolis. Second, the model is an important step towards deconstruct- ing Plato’s account of degeneration and understanding what motivates the events Plato describes. Consequently, the pattern of degeneration identified can help explain certain kinds of historical change.

From the Washington University Undergraduate Research Digest: WUURD, Volume 2, Issue 1, Fall 2006. Published by the Office of Undergraduate Research.

Henry Biggs, Director of Undergraduate Research and Associate Dean in the College of Arts & Sciences; Joy Zalis Kiefer, Undergraduate Research Coordinator, Editor, and Assistant Dean in the College of Arts & Sciences.