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Plato on the Origins of Freedom Fetishism in Athens

René de Nicolay

Princeton University

Plato’s diagnosis of the pathologies of political freedom in Athens has sparked renewed interest, in classical scholarship (Fissel 2011; Arruzza 2018; Jordovic 2019) and beyond (Honneth 2015). These analyses have focused on one of the most visual passages in Plato: the description of democracy’s fall into servitude in book 8 of the Republic (557a2-570c8). The passage explicitly traces democracy’s doom to its excessive love of freedom (562b9-c3). But the concrete workings of this phenomenon remain unclear. How does it fit within the psychological theory of book 8? What is the role of democratic practices and institutions in its unfolding? How can love of freedom blind citizens to the danger of subjection?

The paper argues that the pivot of the passage is a problem Plato identifies in Athenian ideology. The problem, which I propose to call ‘freedom fetishism,’ is that a regime that prides itself on freedom, like Athens, ends up bringing its citizens to cherish freedom for itself, regardless of the consequences. This makes freedom a catch-word, ready to be used by would-be tyrants to pursue their private ends.   

The paper argues that freedom fetishism in Republic 8 can be located precisely (562c8-563e1), and that it is necessary to account for a clear shift in the citizens’ psychology. Before the shift, democratic citizens behave to maximize the satisfaction of the desires that rule their souls, namely non-necessary desires (552c6-d10, 559c7-d2). Non-necessary desires are appetites for objects that bring pleasure without benefitting health (559a3-6, analyzed in Scott 2000 and Schofield 2005). These citizens set up democratic institutions to promote the enjoyment of their non-necessary desires: political coercion (ἀρχἠ) is reduced to a minimum and disobedience is allowed (557e2-558c6). Political freedom, conceived as the limitation of political coercion, is thus adopted as a means to the goal of appetitive enjoyment.

At some point in the life of democracy, however, citizens come to value political freedom not as a means anymore, but as an end. This shift, though clearly indicated in the text, has not been noticed by interpreters. It starts when citizens come to desire the maximization of freedom and the minimization of coercion in every sphere of human life, in ways that directly hinder the enjoyment of non-necessary desires (562c8-563e1). Slaves and beasts, for instance, are given free rein, instead of being exploited for the citizens’ appetitive enjoyment (563b4-d1). This looks to us like a welcome development, but for Plato it spells doom for Athenian democracy: a blind love of freedom can now be manipulated by the demagogue to establish his own supremacy. 

The paper ends by suggesting two causes of the shift. The first is psychological: Plato elsewhere recognizes that means (money for instance) can with time come to be valued as ends (Lorenz 2006; Schriefl 2013). The second is political: Plato is well aware of the rhetorical misuses democratic slogans, like freedom, can be put to (560d8-561a4), and sees there a powerful tool for demagogues.

Session/Panel Title

New Perspectives on Plato’s Internal Critique of the Athenian Politeia

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