What is democracy? Since this deceptively simple question first came into my mind, I haven’t been able to shake it. We think we understand the word, but what are we really referring to when we talk about a system in which the people rule themselves?

The word democracy is all around us, invoked in almost every conceivable context: government, business, technology, education, and media. At the same time, its meaning, taken as self-evident, is rarely given much serious consideration. Though the headlines tell us democracy is in “crisis,” we don’t have a clear conception of what it is that is at risk. The significance of the democratic ideal, as well as its practical substance, is surprisingly elusive.

For most of my life, the word democracy didn’t hold much appeal. I was of course never against democracy per se, but words such as justice, equality, freedom, solidarity, socialism, and revolution resonated more deeply. Democracy struck me as mealy-mouthed, even debased. That idealistic anarchists and authoritarian leaders are equally inclined to claim “democracy” as their own only demonstrated its lack of depth. North Korea does, after all, call itself a “Democratic People’s Republic,” and Iraq was invaded by the U.S. Army in the name of bringing democracy to the Middle East. But today I no longer see the opportunistic use of the word as a sign of the idea’s vapidity. Those powers co-opt the concept of democracy because they realize that it represents a profound threat to the established order, a threat they desperately hope to contain.

After making a documentary film, What Is Democracy?, I now understand the concept’s disorienting vagueness and protean character as a source of strength; I have come to accept, and even appreciate, that there is no single definition I can stand behind that feels unconditionally conclusive. Though the practice has extensive global roots, the word democracy comes to us from ancient Greece, and it conveys a seemingly simple idea: the people (demos) rule or hold power (kratos). Democracy is the promise of the people ruling, but a promise that can never be wholly fulfilled because its implications and scope keep changing. Over centuries our conceptions of democracy have expanded and evolved, with democracy becoming more inclusive and robust in many ways, yet who counts as the people, how they rule, and where they do so remain eternally up for debate. Democracy destabilizes its own legitimacy and purpose by design, subjecting its core components to continual examination and scrutiny.

Perfect democracy, I’ve come to believe, may not in fact exist and never will, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress toward it, or that what there is of it can’t disappear. For this reason, I am more convinced than ever that the questions of what democracy is—and, more important, what it could be—are ones we must perpetually ask.

Right now, many who question democracy do so out of disillusionment, fear, and outrage. Democracy may not exist, yet it still manages to disappoint. Political gridlock, corruption, unaccountable representatives, and the lack of meaningful alternatives incense people across the ideological spectrum; their anger simmers at dehumanizing bureaucracy, blatant hypocrisy, and lack of voice. Leaders are not accountable and voters rightly feel their choices are limited, all while the rich keep getting richer and regular people scramble to survive. In advanced democracies around the world, a growing number of people aren’t even bothering to vote—a right many people fought and died for fairly recently. Most Americans will say that they live in a democracy, but few will say that they trust the government, while the state generally inspires negative reactions, ranging from frustration to contempt and suspicion. The situation calls to mind Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s observation from The Social Contract: “In a well-ordered city every man flies to the assemblies; under a bad government no one cares to stir a step to get to them. . . . As soon as any man says of the State What does it matter to me? the State may be given up for lost.”1

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A cauldron of causes generates an atmosphere of corrosive cynicism, social fragmentation, and unease, with blame too often directed downward at the most vulnerable populations. And it’s not just in the United States. Consider the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union, the decision known as Brexit; the resurgence of right-wing populism across Europe; coups and reactionary electoral victories in Brazil; and the rise of fascism in India. Plato’s warning about democracy devolving into tyranny rings chillingly prophetic. The promise of self-rule risks becoming not a promise but a curse, a self-destructive motor pushing toward destinations more volatile, divided, despotic, and mean.

But this book isn’t about the pitfalls of popular sovereignty, though it certainly has its perils. Nor is it about the shortcomings of current liberal democratic political systems or the ways they have been corrupted by money and power—though they have been. That’s a story that has been told before, and while it will be the backdrop to my inquiry it is not the focus. This book, instead, is an invitation to think about the word democracy from various angles, looking back through history and reflecting on the philosophy and practice of self-rule in hopes that a more contemplative view will shed useful light on our present predicament. My goal is not to negate the sense of alarm nor deter people from action but to remind us that we are part of a long, complex, and still-unfolding chronicle, whatever the day’s headlines might be or whoever governs the country.

Taking a more theoretical approach to democracy’s winding, thorny path and inherently paradoxical nature can also provide solace and reassurance. Ruling ourselves has never been straightforward and never will be. Ever vexing and unpredictable, democracy is a process that involves endless reassessment and renewal, not an endpoint we reach before taking a rest (leaving us with a finished system to tweak at the margins). As such, this book is my admittedly unorthodox, idiosyncratic call to democratize society from the bottom to the top. It is also an expression of my belief that we cannot rethink democracy if we haven’t really thought about it in the first place.

One thing I’ve learned is that the people who are most averse to deepening democracy know exactly why they despise it (Plato, who helped invent political philosophy by railing against democracy, arguably began the trend.) A political science major told me that she doesn’t value democracy much. “The phrase that inspires me,” she said, “is the American dream and that ability to climb.” Opportunity mattered to her and her friends more than inclusion. I expected them to see democracy and capitalism as mutually reinforcing; instead, they perceived the two to be at odds in key respects: democratic demands, whether for progressive taxation or for liberal immigration policies, would diminish their social and economic distinction.

“In capitalism, there are going to be people at the bottom,” one young man enthused, confident of his place at the top and cognizant that his position was antidemocratic. Members of a privileged economic minority, these students recognized that impediments to popular sovereignty (such as the Electoral College, which handed two of the last five presidential elections to a candidate who had lost the popular vote) were necessary for the continued dominance of their class. (James Madison had as much in mind when he promoted the idea that the Senate should protect the “invaluable interests” of “opulent” landlords against expropriation by the more numerous masses.)

As much as I disagree with the students’ beliefs, this right-wing position is at least the consequence of sincere, if self-centered, consideration. In contrast, many people who say they value democracy have a remarkably difficult time defending the principle in a meaningful or substantive way. Platitudes routinely eclipse more profound or personal reflection: democracy amounts to “free and fair” elections, “the peaceful transfer of power,” or “freedom,” pure and simple. During the process of making my film, no one I met on the street suggested that democracy was a continuous process of egalitarian inclusion and power sharing made possible by tireless agitators, even though that’s a legitimate if long-winded way to define it. Nor did anyone respond with the classical description, that democracy is the rule of the people. (Though I did come across a number of men who, once they realized how little they actually had to say on the subject, told me, authoritatively, that thanks to the genius of the founding fathers America is not actually a democracy but a republic, as if that were enough to cease any further inquiry.)

We could conclude that people who struggle to speak about such an essential component of modern life are just ignorant or perhaps too distracted to be engaged, but I’m not sure it’s that simple. The problem stems, I believe, from that fact that democracy is something people rarely encounter in their everyday lives: certainly not during the media- and celebrity-obsessed, money-driven circus of national elections; nor at their jobs, where they are often treated like replaceable cogs in a machine and have to keep their heads down; nor at their schools or colleges, where they are encouraged to see themselves as consumers seeking a return on investment rather than as citizens preparing to participate in the common good. For all our lauded freedoms, democracy isn’t something we actually experience all that much. No wonder, then, that people can barely describe it.

Typically, democracy is considered to consist of one person, one vote, exercised in periodic elections; constitutional rights; and a market economy. On paper at least, there is no shortage of states that conform to this rather limited conception—by some estimates, eighty-one countries moved from authoritarianism to democracy between 1980 and 2002. Yet recent studies reveal that democracy, defined by the preceding attributes, has weakened worldwide over the last decade or so. According to one well-respected annual report, seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017, leading to an overall decrease in global freedom.2 In early 2018, the Economist warned, “Democracy Continues Its Disturbing Retreat”—this not long after the magazine’s yearly Democracy Index officially downgraded the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed” one.3

Yet democracy doesn’t retreat either of its own accord or by some organic, immutable process. It is eroded, undermined, attacked, or allowed to wither. It falls into disrepair and disrepute thanks to the actions or inaction of human beings who have lost touch with or, in some cases, sabotaged the responsibilities and possibilities that a system of self-government entails. While today it’s common to blame extremists for jeopardizing democracy, studies show that across Europe and the United States it is middle-of-the-road centrists who tend to hold the most hostile attitudes toward democratic practices, preferring strong and effective centralized decision making to messier, more inclusive processes. Less than half of Americans who identify with the political center view elections as “an essential feature of democracy” and only half of them, or 25 percent of centrists, agree that civil rights are crucial.4 Apathy, or even antipathy, toward self-government and the difficult daily work it requires is one of the stones that help pave the way to a more authoritarian society. That apathy is helped by the fact that the American system was never designed to be democratic to begin with.

As with many other liberalizing nations of the late eighteenth century, the republic did not consider the majority of its residents to be members of the polity. Enslaved and indigenous people, all women, poor white men, certain immigrants, and some religious groups were denied rights, including the most basic right of citizenship, the right to cast a ballot. These founding inequities, only fitfully and incompletely redressed, continue to shape our present. As numerous academic studies show, the national agenda is set by plutocrats and well-represented interests, while the preferences of the broad population have virtually no impact on public policy. The inequalities that plague us today are not an aberration nor the result of whichever party happens to be in power, but a plausible result of the political system’s very design, which in crucial ways was devised by a restricted and privileged class of men.

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In the fifth century BC, the celebrated statesman Pericles famously praised the political structure of Athens: “It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few.” Given the existence of slavery and the exclusion of women, Athens failed to meet the bar by modern standards. Yet as Plato and Aristotle noted, the overwhelming majority of people who made up the Athenian demos were not wealthy. Rule of the people, they observed, by definition means rule of the poor, since citizens of modest means are bound to vastly outnumber the rich.

This basic insight has been negated in our time as neoliberal capitalism and the massive financial inequities it creates dismantle hard-won democratic gains. Under a legal order where money qualifies as speech in the context of campaign spending and lobbying, the richest are able to purchase influence while everyone else struggles to be heard; in a system where the affluent can pass their assets to their offspring virtually untaxed, inherited wealth ensures the creation of an aristocratic class. If the last fifty years has demonstrated anything, it is that formal political equality, exemplified by the right to vote, is not enough to ensure democracy, as the wealthy have many avenues to exert disproportionate power. While earlier generations focused on expanding suffrage, today we face an arguably more formidable task: saving democracy from capitalism. Extending democracy from the political to the economic sphere is the great challenge of our age, and also the only way to protect political equality from the concentrated financial power that is proving to be its undoing.

A mere eight men—six of them American—hold the same amount of wealth as half the people on earth, their private fortunes built on mass penury.5 The United States, perhaps unsurprisingly, is more an oligarchy than a democracy. Year upon year, the vast majority of the income generated globally flows into the pockets of the top 1 percent of the world’s population, while the incomes of ordinary citizens have stagnated over the last four decades.6 Whereas an American born in the 1940s had a 92 percent chance of outearning his or her parents by age thirty, for those born in the 1980s, that likelihood has fallen to 50 percent; in some places in the Midwest, the odds are worse. A recent Federal Reserve survey revealed that almost half of Americans are too broke to cover a four-hundred-dollar emergency expense, and they would have to sell possessions or borrow money to do so.7

Even more shocking, given the veneration of the achievements of the civil rights movement, is that there has been no progress for black Americans with regard to unemployment, homeownership, and incarceration since the push for racial equality reached its peak fifty years ago. As the Economic Policy Institute reports, “In 2017 the black unemployment rate was 7.5 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 1968, and is still roughly twice the white unemployment rate. In 2015, the black homeownership rate was just over 40 percent, virtually unchanged since 1968, and trailing a full 30 points behind the white homeownership rate, which saw modest gains over the same period. And the share of African Americans in prison or jail almost tripled between 1968 and 2016 and is currently more than six times the white incarceration rate.”8 The financial crisis of 2008, which wiped out half the wealth of black households, contributed to this grim state of affairs.9 Yet, today, one of the few bipartisan issues uniting Democrats and Republicans in Washington involves repealing the meager Wall Street reforms passed following the crash.10 There may be elections and some safeguards of civil liberties, and we should be grateful for this, but the state is hardly run by or for the people it purports to serve.11

The forces of oligarchy have been enabled, in part, by our tendency to accept a highly proscribed notion of democracy, one that limits popular power to the field of electoral politics, ignoring the other institutions and structures (workplaces, prisons, schools, hospitals, the environment, and the economy itself) that shape people’s lives. This is a mistake. To be substantive and strong, democracy cannot be something that happens only in capitol buildings; self-rule has to be far more widespread. If we believe that democracy should serve all of society, how can we call ourselves democratic when workers juggle multiple jobs as record-breaking profits flow to owners and investors? When millions of people, disproportionately poor and people of color, are locked behind bars? When access to learning and lifesaving treatments are denied to those who can’t pay? When the planet may be rendered uninhabitable so that a small number of companies can maximize revenues from fossil fuels? When the global 1 percent are on track to control two-thirds of the world’s wealth by 2030?12 We can view these issues as distinct and unrelated, or we can understand them as fundamentally interconnected, as joint symptoms of the fact that those with money, not “the many,” rule.

When we to stop to ask what democracy means, we’ll notice that a good number of the practical and philosophical problems plaguing us are not exactly novel; they are as old as democracy itself. The challenges are timeless: Is democracy a means or an end, a process or a set of finite outcomes? What if those outcomes, whatever they may be (peace, prosperity, sustainability, equality, liberty, an engaged citizenry), can be achieved by nondemocratic means? If democracy means rule by the people, what is the nature and extent of that rule and who counts as “the people”? We may think we are on the cutting edge, charting a socially unprecedented course, but the fight for justice, freedom, and self-rule (and the profound difficulties of realizing these democratic ideals) necessarily entails grappling with age-old dilemmas anew.

Democracy, the classicist Danielle Allen told me, is “intellectually hard.” If you live in a monarchy, you can point to a picture of the king or queen and know that that is the person who rules. But if you live in a democracy, there’s nothing to point to, in a concrete way, that conveys the idea that the people are in charge. “The very notion of a democratic people is an abstract conceptualization,” Allen explained. “You have to understand what is this ‘people’? How can you have justice when you have something making decisions that doesn’t seem to quite exist?” Democracy demands everyone wrestle with these abstract questions and concepts.

This demand itself explains why democracy and political philosophy emerged at the same time in ancient Greece: in the absence of a powerful tyrant or a cabal of aristocrats making decisions from on high, democracy requires that people reason and reflect. Thus, Athens’s massive open-air assemblies obliged citizens to ask the great Socratic question “How should I live?” collectively. In these remarkable gatherings, thousands of ordinary people, the demos, were expected to consider what kind of society they wanted to live in and why. They would contemplate, discuss, and decide on laws, punishment, and whether to go to war. In conditions of a democracy, the onus is on citizens to be inquisitive and to question their own system of government. The political order became an object of intensive speculation and critique. (Democracy, in other words, made Plato’s antidemocratic musings possible.)13 But what makes democracy so compelling is that it is not just abstraction and intellectualization but also action. To be understood, self-rule must be enacted—it is thought and conduct, theory and practice, noun and verb in equal measure.

These seeming oppositions are foundational to democracy, which encompasses politics that are both unified and diverse, individualistic and collective, that mix egalitarianism with hierarchy and autonomy with constraint. More than oppositions, these are paradoxes, contradictory elements that, while liable to clash, must coexist. The most famous paradox of all, the product of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is of the chicken-or-egg variety, addressing the problem of creating democratic subjects, people who incline toward and are capable of democracy. “For an emerging people to be capable of appreciating the sound maxims of politics and to follow the fundamental rules of statecraft, the effect would have to become the cause,” Rousseau mused. “The social spirit which ought to be the work of that institution, would have to preside over the institution itself.”14 Put more plainly, the question is what comes first: the society and institutions that mold democratic citizens, cultivating and educating them, or citizens who are able to create such a society and institutions? The paradox is that democracy appears to require, in advance, the very structures and sensibilities on which it needs to rely in order to emerge, persist, and thrive.

Democracy is rife with these sorts of occasionally discordant yet indivisible dualities: it always has to balance freedom and equality, conflict and consensus, inclusion and exclusion, coercion and choice, spontaneity and structure, expertise and mass opinion, the local and the global, and the present and the future. There can be no unambiguous resolution on one or the other side of the binary.

What follows is an inquiry into democracy as a balance of paradoxes, an exploration of opposites, a framework I’ve chosen in hopes of jolting us out of more well-worn paradigms. No doubt I’ve failed to include some important paradoxes; by design, this book could never be conclusive; as philosophy, it asks more questions than it answers. But one absence in particular is worth mentioning: the rich versus the poor. I see no reason to accept the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the owning class and the laboring class, as an inherently necessary paradox or an insurmountable fact of society, especially given our technological capabilities and productive capacities.

This brings us to a definition of contradiction: for Karl Marx, a contradiction is a conflict within capitalism (the antagonism between private property and common wealth, for example) destined, at some date, to be resolved in such a way as to usher in a new economic regime. Marx saw democracy as “the solved riddle of all constitutions” because in a democracy, “the constitution appears as what it is, the free product of men.”15 In contrast, the paradoxes I’ve identified do not stand in opposition in a Marxist sense, because they are necessary and irresolvable facets of democratic life. Though I believe that the process of democratization involves moving toward an equitable distribution of power and resources (what some call socialism), I doubt all riddles will ever be perfectly solved. I aim to show that existing economic inequality intensifies certain sides of the paradoxes I’ve highlighted, increasing instability and suffering. Still, it is my view that even without capitalist exploitation, democracy would remain messy and conflicted, full of what Plato called “variety and disorder” (which, despite being democracy’s first and most acute critic, he regarded as part of its charm).16 Should we ever achieve a fully economically and socially egalitarian society, we’ll still have to strive to balance spontaneity and structure, for example, or grapple with how best to weigh our present-day desires against future needs.

By teasing out these conflicts, we might gain better insight into why the challenge of self-rule is so great. Indeed, what motivated me to undertake this project was an urge to understand why democratic principles are so difficult to put into practice, a quandary my work as an activist makes me intimately familiar with. Democracy cannot be reduced to a system of laws to abide, a set of “indicators” to meet, or a ten-point proposal to enact but is instead something more emergent and experimental, a combination of order and flux rooted in both procedure and principle, modes of production (how we organize the creation of goods necessary for our survival) and popular sentiment. As we shall see, for democracy to continue and transform, the two poles represented by the paradoxes explored in these pages must be held in thoughtful, delicate tension.

Tension—that’s the key word. Consider democracy’s dark history, from slavery and colonialism to facilitating the emergence of fascism, from the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation to the danger posed by climate change. Think of all the bad decisions made by democratic humanity: the disastrous referendums, the selfish attachment to bigoted beliefs, the stubborn refusal to evolve even when our lives depended on it. All this makes democracy a “leap of faith,” as the philosopher Cornel West calls it, one that requires “living in the tension,” the tension of paradoxes unresolved and arguably irresolvable. The history of democracy is one of oppression, exploitation, demagoguery, dispossesion, domination, horror, and abuse. But it is also a history of cooperation, solidarity, deliberation, emancipation, justice, and empathy. Which side do we fall on, where should the emphasis land? In the final hour, is democracy a lost cause or our last hope?

“There’s always going to be mountains of evidence to convince you that you must be losing your mind if you believe this demos is going to make good decisions,” West told me. “But on the other hand, you say, lo and behold, so many of the best ideas about how you treat human beings, best ideas about justice, often come from the very folk you thought you had no grounds for trusting in their ability to think and reflect. Cuts both ways. Living in the tension. I think that’s the key.”

I don’t believe democracy exists; indeed, it never has. Instead, the ideal of self-rule is exactly that, an ideal, a principle that always occupies a distant and retreating horizon, something we must continue to reach toward yet fail to grasp. The promise of democracy is not the one made and betrayed by the powerful; it is a promise that can be kept only by regular people through vigilance, invention, and struggle. Through theory and practice, organization and open rebellion, protecting past gains and demanding new entitlements, the inspiring potential of self-rule manifests, but it remains fragmentary and fragile, forever partial and imperiled. In the end, living in the tension, embracing the incongruities and possibilities of democracy without giving up, is the message of this book.


1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right (1762), book 3, chap. 15.

2. For a full account read Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World 2018” report, available at https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/free

3. This is based on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, which rates 167 countries scored on a scale of zero to ten based on sixty indicators. See “Democracy Continues Its Disturbing Retreat,” Economist, January 31, 2018.

4. David Adler, “Centrists Are the Most Hostile to Democracy, Not Extremists,” New York Times, May 23, 2018.

5. Oxfam International, “Just 8 Men Own Same Wealth as Half the World,” January 16, 2017, https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2017-01-16/just-8-men-own-same-wealth-half-world.

6. Oxfam International, “Richest 1 Percent Bagged 82 Percent of Wealth Created Last Year—Poorest Half of Humanity Got Nothing,” January 22, 2018, https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2018-01-22/richest-1-percent-bagged-82-percent-wealth-created-last-year. A report from the Economic Policy Institute has data on stagnating wages: Lawrence Mishel, Elise Gould, and Josh Bivens, “Wage Stagnation in Nine Charts,” Economic Policy Institute, January 6, 2015, available at https://www.epi.org/publication/charting-wage-stagnation/.

7. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, “Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2015,” May 2016, https://www.federalreserve.gov/2015-report-economic-well-being-us-households-201605.pdf.

8. Janelle Jones, John Schmitt, and Valerie Wilson, “50 Years After the Kerner Commission,” Economic Policy Institute Report, February 26, 2018, https://www.epi.org/publication/50-years-after-the-kerner-commission/.

9. The fact-checking website Politifact verified these statistics after presidential candidate Bernie Sanders mentioned them during the PBS Democratic debate. Linda Qiu, “Sanders: African-Americans Lost Half Their Wealth Because of Wall Street Collapse,” February 11, 2016, available at http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/feb/11/bernie-s/sanders-african-american-lost-half-their-wealth-be/.

10. David Dayen, “Revenge of the Stadium Banks: Instead of Taking on Gun Control, Democrats Are Teaming with Republicans for a Stealth Attack on Wall Street Reform,” Intercept, March 2, 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/03/02/crapo-instead-of-taking-on-gun-control-democrats-are-teaming-with-republicans-for-a-stealth-attack-on-wall-street-reform/.

11. War and national security are other areas where there is quite a lot of bipartisan collaboration. Perhaps one of the strongest arguments against America’s claim to be a democracy is the president’s unilateral authority to launch nuclear warheads, a problem that long precedes Trump’s boasting about his supersize “nuclear button.” In 1976, the New York Times reported that two years prior, a drunken Nixon had boasted to two congressmen, “At any moment I could go into the next room, push a button, and twenty minutes later sixty million people would be dead.” Terrifyingly, he wasn’t wrong. That a solitary individual holds such enormous, sublime, and murderous power dispels any notion that we live in something resembling a democratic society.

12. Michael Savage, “Richest 1{068cdbfab37e4f27da76d005a9c3d7cc8b4ae1429371040bf09b1dfe920189b4} on Target to Own Two-thirds of All Wealth by 2030,” Guardian, April 7, 2018.

13. I recommend Ellen Meiksins Wood’s work on this topic for those who want to learn more, particularly the first chapter of Citizens to Lords (Ellen Meiksins Wood, Citizens to Lords: A Social History of Western Political Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages [London: Verso Books, 2008]).

14. Rousseau, The Social Contract, book 2, chap. 7.

15. Karl Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right,’ ” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers Co., 2005), p. 29.

16. “Democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike” Plato has Socrates say in book 8 of The Republic in Benjamin Jowett’s translation. The whole text is available at the MIT Internet Classics Archive at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html.

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