© 1999 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated February 6, 2001
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Frequently Asked Questions
about Plato

Plato about youth and the excess of freedom

Several people have asked me the exact reference of a quotation often ascribed to Socrates and circulating in educational institutions under a more or less loose form, on the evils of children no longer respecting their parents and teachers and of the excess of freedom.

The quotation is not from Socrates, who wrote nothing, but is put in the mouth of Socrates by Plato in a dialogue called The Republic. In fact it is a whole section of a dialogue between Socrates and Adeimantus (one of Plato's own brothers) on the origin of tyranny, itself part of a broader discussion on the decay of constitutions and men alike from "aristocracy" (in the etymological sense of the "government of the best") to tyranny through "timocracy" (the "government of the famed"), "oligarchy" (the "government of the few", that is, of the rich) and "democracy" (the "government of the people"). The exact Stephanus references (the universal way of quoting Plato, available in all editions of his works) for the section including the quote are Republic, VIII, 562b-563e. In fact, this includes the larger context of the quotation to put it in perspective, but the quoted part is often limited to the lines I put in red in the text below, freely adapted to get rid of Adeimantus' answers and the traces of indirect style that are found in Plato's text, due to the fact that the whole Republic is the report made the following day in the first person by Socrates to an unnamed interlocutor of a conversation he had the night before (hence the "said I", "he replied", etc.), and often paraphrased to adapt it to our time by getting rid of what is too specific of ancient Athenian civilisation (such as the mentions of "metics", that is, resident aliens, and of slaves). Anyway, here goes my translation of it, that I tried to keep as close to the original Greek as I could (Stephanus references in the text link to the Greek original at Perseus) :

[562b] [Socrates] The proposed good, said I, through which oligarchy was established, was indeed excess of wealth, wasn't it ?
And now, didn't this same insatiate desire for wealth and the indifference toward everything else resulting from money-making ruined it ?
True, said he.
Well then ! What democracy defines as good, isn't it an insatiate desire for it that dissolves it ?
But tell me what it so defines.
Freedom, I replied. Don't you indeed hear it said that, in a democratic city,
[562c] it has the fairest share and that, for this reason, only in such a place is it fit that dwell who is by nature free.
You hear indeed, said he, that saying all over the place.
Well then, said I, as I was just now about to say, the insatiable desire of it and the indifference toward everything else is precisely what makes this constitution change and prepares it to stand in need of tyranny.
How ? said he.
When, methinks, a democratic city thirsty for freedom
[562d] happens to fall under the leadership of bad cupbearers and becomes intoxicated for having drunk far more of it unmixed than is reasonable, if its rulers are not wholly mild and don't grant it a lot of freedom, it chastises those deemed responsible, as stained and oligarchic.
They indeed behave, said he, this way.
And those, I replied, obedient to the leaders it bespatters with mud as willing slaves and nil beings, while it praises and honors leaders who are led and led who lead all the same in private as well as public matters. Isn't it necessary in such
[562e] a city that to all come the thirst for freeedom ?
How not ?
And that it pervades, said I, my dear, the privacy of homes and that in the end anarchy get implanted even into beasts ?
How, said he, do you mean that ?
In that, I said, the father accustoms himself to become like his child and fears his sons, while the son likens himself to his father, and feels neither shame nor fear in front of his parents, so he may be free ; the metic
[563a] becomes the equal of a citizen and the citizen of a metic, and similarly with the foreigner.
It indeed so happens, he said.
To these, said I, such trifles do add up: the teacher, in such a case, fears his pupils and fawns upon them, while pupils have in low esteem their teachers as well as their overseers; and, overall, the young copy the elders and contend hotly with them in words and in deeds, while the elders, lowering themselves to the level of the young, sate themselves with pleasantries
[563b] and wit, mimicking the young in order not to look unpleasant and despotic.
Most certainly, he said.
But indeed, said I, the ultimate, my dear, in the excess of freedom as it develops in such a city is reached when the men and women who have been purchased are no less free than those who have bought them... And regarding the relations of women with men and of men with women, how far equal rights and freedom have gone, we came close to almost saying nothing about that !
[563c] Why not, to quote Æschylus, he said, "say what just came to our lips" ?
For sure ! I replied, and that's how I speak. How indeed the beasts subject to men are much freer here than elsewhere, that is unbelievable to whom hasn't experienced it. For really bitches, in keeping with the proverb, do become like their mistresses and horses and asses, having become accustomed to going at all times freely and proudly, keep bumping in the streets into passers-by when they don't step aside ; and everything thus
[563d] becomes stuffed with freedom.
It's, he said, my own dream that you are telling me ! For I often suffer such mishaps when I go to the country.
And indeed, the sum total, said I, of all these added up, as you may conceive, is that they make the soul of the citizens so soft that, in the presence of the slightest suggestion of serviture, they feel irritated and can't stand it. And in the end, you know that they no longer care for laws, written or unwritten, so as no longer to have
[563e] anywhere any master.
How well, he said, I know that !
Well, then, this, said I, my dear, is the principle so beautiful and vigorous from which tyranny grows, in my opinion.

As can be seen from the context, the criticism of Plato doesn't target youth alone, but the whole society, young and old, men and women, citizens and foreigners, masters and slaves, all the way down to animals, when too much freedom is left to all.

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Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

First published May 1st, 1999 - Last updated February 6, 2001
© 1999 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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