BMCR 2019.11.39

A Wolf in the City: Tyranny and the Tyrant in Plato’s Republic

Cinzia Arruzza, A Wolf in the City: Tyranny and the Tyrant in Plato's Republic. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. xi, 296. ISBN 9780190678852 £47.99.


Arruzza opens the book with considerations about the topic ( skopos) of the Republic. She agrees with Proclus that the book is about both forms of government and individual moral psychology. Therefore, there is one subject matter, and not two (p. 2). Arruzza does not discuss these two aspects together but carefully distinguishes them, treating the political aspect in the first part of her book and moral psychology in the second part.

Arruzza observes that “Plato’s critique of tyranny is not a critique of actual tyrannical regimes but, rather, should be understood as a key part of his critique of democracy” (p. 7). According to her, Plato’s “treatment of tyranny is meant to show that popular rule ‘naturally’ breeds tyranny and creates tyrannical figures in the form of democratic leaders, both because of the corrupt ethos of the demos and because of the institutional mechanisms of democracy” (p. 253). That assertion sets her interpretation apart from interpretations that try to picture Plato as a hidden pro-democrat (she distances herself from these interpretations at the beginning of chapter 3). Yet could it not be a critique of the actual tyrannical regimes as well ? And, if the Republic is not about actual tyrannical regimes, how much is it about actual democratic regimes?

In the first chapter Arruzza contends that the tyrannical tropos in literature served to underline the weakness of democracy. For Plato, according to her, tyranny is not a counterexample to democracy but actually its most natural outcome. This detailed literary and historical contextualization of the Republic is extremely useful and interesting. The second and third chapter continue in a similar vein. Arruzza argues that Plato uses the anti-tyrannical arguments to show tyranny’s close relation to democracy. As she summarizes at page 63:

Plato’s tyrant is the child of two main aspects of Athenian democracy. The first consists of the institutional mechanisms proper to democracy conferring, in the name of political equality, supreme political authority on the demos and its opinions. This makes political leaders subaltern to the democratic ethos, forcing them to become assimilated to it, rather than playing an educational role vis-à-vis the masses. The second is the content of this democratic ethos, which Plato takes to consist of appetitive and hedonistic self-interest conjoined with the identification of freedom with license.

In this part of the book, Arruzza discusses the historical framework of the Republic, including its speakers and possible targets, such as Critias or most importantly Alcibiades. History is an important aspect of interpretation that should not be neglected.3 Arruzza discusses pleonexia at pp. 105-108 and then refers to her discussion of greed in chapter 4, which deals with the tyrant’s psychology. A longer account of pleonexia, which plays such an important role in the discussion of justice and injustice in the first book of the Republic and insinuates much about later discussion in the following books, would allow the author to articulate the social and political aspects of pleonexia more fully.4

The second part of the book (chapters 4-6) focuses on the moral psychology of the tyrant. Arruzza goes through the three parts of the soul and carefully analyses their roles in the formation of the tyrant’s character and his actions. Chapter 4 is devoted to the tyrant’s appetite and eros. Chapter 5 is reserved for the treatment of spirit, and chapter 6 shows the perversion of the tyrant’s reason itself. The entire second half is a careful and detailed analysis of Plato’s text. I have only two critical points: her analyses of the tyrant’s eros and appetites (especially pp. 174-183) might be amplified by a discussion of resentment, which seems to be suggested by Plato in the formation of the oligarch (553a-b) and then the tyrant (572d-573a).6 Second, despite her claims about the unity of the Republic ’s skopos, there are not many links between the two parts of the book. One example is Arruzza’s claim that the “main source of corruption identified by Socrates in this discussion is the political life of the city” (pp. 248). This is certainly true, and an explanation of the process of corruption could help to unify the book.

Arruzza’s book is a fine and entirely commendable book on Plato’s Republic. It provokes many questions and thoughts in interpreting Plato’s political philosophy from a refreshingly new angle.


1. For earlier reviews see Richard Kraut at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews or Carter, J. W., ‘A Wolf in the City: Tyranny and the Tyrant in Plato’s Republic’, The Philosophical Quarterly (2019).

2. Richard Kraut in his review mentioned above claims that the discussion of the city is for the sake of clarifying psychological points.

3. Cf. Strauss, Leo. The City and Man. University of Chicago Press, 1978 (1 st ed. 1964), esp. pp. 63-73.

4. Cf. Algra, K., ‘Observations on Plato’s Thrasymachus: The Case for Pleonexia ’, in K. Algra, D. T. Runia, P. van der Horst (eds.), Polyhistor, Brill, 1996.

5. See Krastev, Ivan, and Stephen Holmes. “Explaining Eastern Europe: Imitation and Its Discontents,” Journal of Democracy, no. 3 (2018): 117-28.

6. See her discussion of frustration coming from the enslavement to the appetites at pp. 199-200.

7. One does not have to agree with Lilla’s point about college education, but Plato’s description of democracy and its failures in the Book eight (esp. see 557e-558a) corresponds to the situation of a state without civic awareness and identity as a citizen, which is substituted by particular interests and identities; cf. Lilla, Mark. The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, Harper, 2017.