In modern society, the majority of the world is a democratic. After seeing what fell upon Germany with fascism, and Russia with communism, we seem to have concluded that democracy, although not a perfect system, is the best one we’ve got.
However, Plato, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, and a student of Socrates would strongly disagree. In one of his most famous work titled “The Republic”, he lays out his ideas of an ideal state. He condemns the pursuit of freedom because he believes it simply leads to indulgence. Instead, society should be focused on cultivating temperance, patience, and courage. He believes in a class system consisting of the producers, guardians, and rulers. In this society, everyone works in the profession they are most gifted in.
All of this sounds a lot like communism to me. Although Plato’s ideas are contrary to many of the core beliefs of modern political theory, I think there are some important concepts here we can learn from.
The Ideal State
Plato was one of the first utopians. He wanted to create a society and form of government which would allow everyone to reach a state he refers to as eudaimonia, which basically means human flourishing or prosperity. It’s the ideal state of a human being. In “The Republic”, he explains what this would look like.
The state would have a lot of control over its citizens. There would be strict censorship of art, poetry and literature which did not align with the state’s goals. For example, the hero of any narrative should always act as an ideal citizen should. Money and power should not be considered desirable. The ultimate goal is to cultivate virtue and wisdom, which is achieved through the acquisition of knowledge.
Unlike most thinkers of his time, Plato believed that women should have an equal role in society as men. He argues that because women have the same capability as men, they can become soldiers, blacksmiths, and rulers.
Society would be divided into three classes, the producers, the guardians, and the rules.
The producers are the commoners. They are the merchants, farmers, blacksmiths, etc. They provide for the basic necessities of society, which allow it to function properly. The producers are the only people allowed to own private property or wealth, however they hold no power. Plato’s rationale behind this was that by severing the relationship between money and power, the ruler would not become greedy.
Guardians are the protectors of society. Their goal is to defend society against both internal and external threats. Guardians live an extremely disciplined life. Their diet and exercise are regulated, they’re forbidden from owning property or wealth. They can’t even touch gold or silver. The songs, stories, and poems they’re exposed to are censored, so they’re only exposed to good influences. They’re also not allowed to be in exclusive sexual relationships, and their children are taken away from them immediately at birth and raised as a collective. This is done so guardians don’t get attached to sexual partners, and so that they don’t favour one child over another.
Young children who are deemed to have the potential to become great rulers are chosen to be guardians. Then the rulers, or “philosopher kings” are chosen from the best guardians.
The Philosopher Kings
Plato believed that ruling is a skill, and just like painting or dancing, it must be trained. The guardians are trained both in the art of warfare, as well as cultivating virtue and knowledge so that they may become rulers. The best guardian is chosen as the philosopher-king. The king has the ultimate power in society. Plato argues that because the kings are philosophers, the power will not tempt them, and they will act for the benefit of society. Philosophers are the enlightened ones, with a duty to spread their knowledge and wisdom to the masses, who know very little.
The Allegory of the Cave
This is an analogy Plato uses to demonstrated that we don’t know anything (I’m sure his inspiration came from Socrates. “All I know is I know nothing” — Socrates ). He compares life to prisoners chained up looking at a wall with a fire behind them. There is a pathway in between the fire and prisoners, where people walk by, holding up objects like dogs, books, and stones. The prisoners have been chained up their whole life, and think that the shadows cast by the objects are the real objects.
Then suddenly a prisoner becomes free! He goes outside and observes the world for what it really is. When he returns and tells his friends about what he saw, they think he’s crazy!
Plato says that freeing oneself from the cave is like becoming a philosopher. Through reason and thought philosophers can see things for what they really are, and come to ultimate truth, which is why only philosophers should be rulers.
The Devolving of Society
Another concept which Plato talks about is the devolving of government. From a philosopher-king to tyranny. It starts with the ideal society he layed out, or an aristocracy. Then someone mispicks a guardian, so that instead of pursuing knowledge, they’re driven by honour. Society then devolves into a timocracy. Next, the ruling class becomes greedy and desires money. They create policy which ensures their wealth, and society becomes an oligarchy. Eventually, the people become dissatisfied with the rulers and revolt. Society devolves into a democracy. Yikes, democracy is three stages devolved from Plato’s ideal society! Plato believed that because policy is dictated by the masses, society would become lawless. People would overindulge. They would buy luxurious items, have sex all the time, and crave for power. He believed that society would fall into chaos, and eventually, a tyrant would take control, leading to tyranny.
Thinking about this I’m not sure if Plato’s right or wrong. We definitely don’t live in a lawless society, however power and money are considered desirable, and people would indulge if there weren’t any consequences.
I definitely do think that Plato’s aristocracy wouldn’t function in practice, however there are some concepts here like the most knowledgeable and wise people being rulers and the allegory of the cave which are worth some thought.