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Plato warns of the people’s protector who, once having tasted blood, turns into a wolf and a tyrant (340s BC)

In Book VIII of The Republic, in a dialogue with Glaucon, there is a discussion of how democracy turns into tyranny. In one section there is this exchange concerning the way the protector of the people changes into a tyrant wolf by using the courts to destroy his enemies:

And the protector of the people is like him; having a mob entirely at his disposal, he is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; by the favourite method of false accusation he brings them into court and murders them, making the life of man to disappear, and with unholy tongue and lips tasting the blood of his fellow citizens; some he kills and others he banishes, at the same time hinting at the abolition of debts and partition of lands: and after this, what will be his destiny? Must he not either perish at the hands of his enemies, or from being a man become a wolf—that is, a tyrant?

The people have a protector who, when once he tastes blood, is converted into a tyrant. The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness.

Yes, that is their way.

This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector.

Yes, that is quite clear.

How then does a protector begin to change into a tyrant? Clearly when he does what the man is said to do in the tale of the Arcadian temple of Lycaean Zeus.

What tale?

The tale is that he who has tasted the entrails of a single human victim minced up with the entrails of other victims is destined to become a wolf. Did you never hear it?

O yes.

And the protector of the people is like him; having a mob entirely at his disposal, he is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; by the favourite method of false accusation he brings them into court and murders them, making the life of man to disappear, and with unholy tongue and lips tasting the blood of his fellow citizens; some he kills and others he banishes, at the same time hinting at the abolition of debts and partition of lands: and after this, what will be his destiny? Must he not either perish at the hands of his enemies, or from being a man become a wolf—that is, a tyrant?

Inevitably.

About this Quotation:

Here is yet another warning about the problem of “who guards the guardians who guard us?” This time Plato in The Republic cloaks the story in the graphic imagery of a man who tasted the entrails of one of his victims and is turned into a wolf. Plato argues that the same thing happens to the “protector” of the people. Once he has “tasted blood”, often by means of making false accusations against his opponents and then using the court system to have them unjustly eliminated, he turns into a wolf or a tyrant. Compare Plato’s wolf analogy with that used by John Stuart Mill, who called the protector-turned-tyrant a “vulture”.

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