Political Philosophy – Plato’s Republic
For this lecture, read Plato’s Republic, Books I & II.
Plato (427 – 347 BCE) was long assumed to be a student of Socrates simply because Plato writes as much in many of his dialogues. As Socrates is about to die, Plato has Socrates ask where the young Plato is, to which another student replies that Plato was sick and thus could not be there at the time. Scholars now are critical of this, and think that Plato had a habit of writing himself and his family into Socrates’ circle in his dialogues. Because they are our best sources on Socrates, it is difficult to tell whether or not Plato’s older cousin Critias or Plato himself were actual students of Socrates or whether they were simply influenced by this figure who became quite famous following his trial and death.
Plato’s actual name was Aristocles, but according to the story his wrestling instructor named him Platon or “Broad” because he had a wide figure. This may be merely a story, because Plato was known to have a wide “breadth” of knowledge covering all subjects of ancient thought. Plato’s father died when he was young, and his step-father became the Athenian ambassador to the Persian royal court. The Persians, like the Egyptians, had a broad understanding of the earth and the heavens, and Plato drew upon all of this.
Long after his attempts to become an established playwright, after his dialogues about Socrates had gathered some fame, Plato founded his Academy in 385 BCE, an open area near a tree grove where he, his students and other lecturers would teach and debate matters of philosophy and cosmology. Academy in fact means “porch”, an open area in front of a building, a fact it took scholars long to understand for they believed that the Academy must have been a building itself. Scholars made a similar error looking for the famed Library of Alexandria (an Egyptian center of ancient world knowledge), when in fact the Library was a shelf that ran along a hall that connected two buildings.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates debates with others on justice and the Good. Socrates debunks several common views, then constructs an ideal model of the city. The well ordered city is compared to the well ordered soul (3 layers in their places). Thus, the Good is proper order of the elements (perfectly in accord with ancient cosmology). The Timaeus, which is supposed to be the discussion the day after the Republic, has a student of Socrates named Timaeus lecture on the cosmos, showing Plato’s particular views on cosmology. Just as the individual is a microcosm to the city, the city is a microcosm to the cosmos, and again the elements must be separated and put in their places. The cosmos is ordered in its unfolding, producing the ideal order of the soul and the city. One should order the self and order the city the way the cosmos are ordered. Both are supposed to have been written about 360 BCE.
As the Republic opens, Socrates talks to several “interlocutors” and argues against their concepts of justice at a social gathering (read: wine party). Polemarchus argues that justice is paying debts, helping friends and harming enemies. Socrates argues that in some situations, helping friends and harming enemies are wrong. Suppose one’s friend wants something unjust? In this case, it is wrong to help one’s friend. Suppose that by harming an enemy, you bring harm to yourself or your friends? In this case, it is wrong to harm one’s enemies. Socrates is particularly opposed to the view that one should seek to harm in the name of justice, as it would be much better to benefit everyone than harm enemies.
The second interlocutor, Thrasymachus, is irritated with Socrates’ incessant questioning, and demands that Socrates give his own account of what justice is. Socrates asks Thrasymachus to give his own views, and Thrasymachus argues that justice is “the good of the stronger”. Recall that Athens had been conquered and reconquered, just like the city states of Ionia, and many rulers and forms of government had come and gone. Thrasymachus, like Socrates, does not claim to know what the good is in and of itself, but argues that the powerful get to impose their own views on the people as to what is good and what is bad, practicing their own form of justice as they see fit. A third interlocutor, Glaucon, similarly argues that without threat of punishment, no one would do good, similar to Xunzi. Socrates argues that the strong will corrupt themselves if they only act for their own interests and not for the good of the whole. Just as we studied with the Confucians of ancient China, Socrates is arguing that if one is not in accord with the order of things as a good ruler or good person, you will fall.
Thrasymachus leaves, angered and unconvinced by Socrates’ arguments. This is the end of Book 1 of the Republic. Nothing has been resolved, and everyone, including Socrates, is unsatisfied with the results of the debate so far. Starting with Book 2 of the Republic, Socrates now begins to argue for ideas which many believe to be those of Plato himself. Glaucon challenges Socrates to prove that justice is better than injustice. Because injustice seems so attractive to so many, why would people do what is just if they could do injustice without punishment? If a mighty warrior, as Thrasymachus has argued, could capture a city and do whatever he liked without fear, why would he not grab everything for himself rather than help others and improve the entire city? Socrates has committed himself to the position that such a tyrant, of which Athens had seen many, would corrupt and thus destroy himself, but he has not, to his own satisfaction or to anyone else’s, given reasons why this is so.
Socrates argues that first they must construct the ideal or just city, and this will show how the ideal or just individual should be. Essentially, the just city is a three-fold caste system, identical in many ways to the Hindu caste system of India. There are many similarities between metaphors and teachings of the Republic and Indian thought, due to the cosmology of ancient Egypt, Iraq and Persia. Socrates first asks us to imagine a city ruled by desire, but devoid of courage or wisdom. Clearly, this would not be a just place, and everyone would grab for themselves and the city would fall to destruction. Socrates adds the police (also translated as ‘guardians’, but because the Greek word for city is polis, these guardians are quite literally the ‘police’). The police must keep their own desires in check, and be courageous. However, mere courage is not enough for the just ruling of a city. Lastly, Socrates adds the philosophers (also intellectuals and scientists), to provide the wisdom to lead the police, who keep the common people safe from outsiders as well as themselves.
This threefold division corresponds to the physical human being and the cosmic being. The head is fire as an element, reason, thought and consciousness in the individual, and the ruling philosopher kings in the city. The heart or chest is air as an element, spirit, breath and courage in the individual, and the police or guardians in the city. The hands and stomach is earth as an element, desire, craving and thirst in the individual, and workers, farmers and craftspeople in the city. The individual, city and cosmos form a continuum, a set of Russian dolls. Notice that authority and the good come from above, evil and chaos to be ordered from below.
Socrates also frames this in terms of the individual person. If one was thirsty for water, but one would lose honor or be poisoned by drinking, one’s courage or wisdom would be right to keep the desire in check. Similarly, if one wanted to go to war to gain honor, but it was unwise, one’s wisdom would be right in keeping one’s courage in check. Just as the head tells the heart and lungs what to do, and these regulate the rest of the body, in the good individual wisdom and reason rule over courage and spirit, which regulates desire and hunger.
Plato and Aristotle were not fans of democracy. Not only were they aristocrats and connected to royal courts like the educated were in ancient Athens, Socrates was condemned to death by the Athenian assembly for thinking and questioning too much. The Athenian assembly was clearly not composed of philosophers, or they would not have executed Socrates for practicing philosophy. Plato and Aristotle thought much higher of the royal dynasties of Egypt and Persia than they did of the brief period of Athenian democracy. Just as Plato praised Sparta for elevating the great courageous warriors over the common people, much like his police of the republic, Plato praised the Egyptians for elevating the priests, who were equivalent to philosophers and scientists, and setting them safely over the common masses.
Socrates argues that, in the good and just city, all is sacrificed for the common good. There is to be no private property or partners or children, for the police or philosophers. While Plato does not explicitly say that the common people must similarly share all in common, this may be because he is largely unconcerned with the common people as he is with the courage of the police and the wisdom of the philosophers. Socrates argues that the ruler who grabs for themselves will not be happy, filled with “horrid pains and pangs”, and will physically and mentally fall apart. This tyrant will never “taste true freedom or friendship”. Because this is not the order of the cosmos, it will not stick and will fall apart just like many tyrants have recently in ancient Athens. Similarly, if everyone shares everything in common, there will be greater justice and less selfishness, similar to Mozi’s view of partiality. This is Socrates’ ultimate and definite answer to Glaucon’s challenge. Glaucon and Adeimantus are both entirely convinced, and proclaim Socrates to have indeed given us the recipe for the just city as well as the good individual.
The Soviet Union and America funded scholarship during the cold war that argued each was more like Athens than the other. The Soviet Union pointed out that they were much more like Plato’s ideal republic Republic than America, fueled by individual consumption and private property much like Socrates’ first failed city of desire. American scholars pointed out that Aristotle was critical of Plato and argued there should be a balance of public and private property and Plato’s ideal city was impossible in the real world, while using the language of ‘West’ and ‘East’ to separate Russia from the ‘true’ Western tradition. I myself would like more of a balance today between the public and private, but to many this is very socialist like Soviet Russia and thus un-Western. All sides agree the situation is quite unbalanced.
Socrates argues that in the ideal republic each person is best suited to one thing, and should be assigned this one job. If people do more than one job, they will not be able to do this one job as best as they can. He argues that we will lie to the people, tell them the ‘noble lie’ of a Phoenician story, that people were born from the earth and there are three races of people because the metals of gold, silver and bronze flow in their veins. Note that these are the three metals of the Olympic games, gold as first place, silver as second, and bronze as third.
While people will raise all children in common, they will be tested from early ages to see whether they can be athletic and educated. Those who cannot be athletic will be workers. Those who can be athletic but can’t study will be police. Those who are both athletic and educated are the philosophers, educators and rulers. Note that this fits the speech of Pericles, who told the Athenian assembly that the Athenians had learned scholarship, but in spite of this had not lost their manliness. Strangely, in our own culture we view intellectuals much as Pericles must have viewed the magi of Persia, as scientists who had failed to first become athletes. Why tell the lie, that there are gold, silver, and bronze people, if we are striving for ideal good and justice? Because the common people will not understand and grab for themselves, very much Plato’s opinion of the brief period of Athenian democracy when the rich each grabbed for themselves in the absence of a powerful and just king. Plato’s cave, which we will discuss, reinforces this point. If you tell the truth to everyone, they will not believe you and try to destroy you as the assembly did Socrates when he asked them to put their desires in check with wisdom.
Socrates argues (and the interlocutors naively agree as simple yes men) that if they separate out the police and educate them as best as can be, and then take the philosophers out of the police and educate them as best as can be, no injustice will be possible. There is the simple belief that the order itself will generate justice throughout the whole. The police and philosophers will thus never be greedy or unjust to the people below. Plato elsewhere argues that this is how the Egyptians in Thebes did it: elevating priests as a class- he also says to imitate Sparta as well separating out the warriors. Socrates suggests banning all art (music, poetry and theater) that is counterproductive to the good of the city, everything that isn’t impressing the highest good and order. Plato seems to want to replace Homeric Greek culture with a solar monotheism similar to that of Akhenaten of Egypt and Zarathustra of Persia. The youth are to be taught that they must improve themselves for the good of the state, and that the gods are never drawn to injustice or desire.
After being questioned about lying for the purpose of the good and justice, Socrates says that this is best explained with an analogy, the famous Allegory of the Cave. Imagine, Socrates asks, that everyone is chained in a dark cave, watching shadows of puppets carried before a fire at the mouth of the cave. The people think that the shadows are reality, the real things. The one who escapes, breaking the bondage of appetites and earthly things, first sees that the shadows are shadows of puppets, and sees the fire that casts the shadows. This draws the seeker to the mouth of the cave. Coming out of the cave and past the small fire, the seeker is at first blinded by the sunlight, but then sees real things outside of the cave and realizes that the puppets were just poor copies of the real things casting shadows that were shaped like real things. The seeker now has knowledge and the wisdom to see the difference between opinion (the shadows) and knowledge (the real things that the shadows imitate).
While many read the Allegory of the Cave in philosophy classes today, emphasis is often placed on the enlightenment of the one who breaks the chains rather than the conclusion, which is quite authoritarian. Plato, like Confucius, was critical of aristocracy but wanted to replace it with meritocracy, not democracy. Socrates asks his interlocutors what would happen if the one or few who break their chains went back down into the cave and told the people they were enslaved and looking at shadows, and the answer is that they would kill him, as the Athenian democratic assembly will later kill Socrates himself. This is why we tell the Phoenician lie, because most people are not good enough to take part in the system, and thus remain enslaved down in the cave. The cave people are not asked to vote for their favorite chain-breaking betters.