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


Found in Dialogues, vol. 3 - Republic, Timaeus, Critias

In Book VIII of The Republic, Plato, 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?

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”.