Plato’s Utopian Society – Still Applicable or Outdated?

In Plato’s Republic the ideal city is split into three classes of Guardians, Auxiliaries and Producers that are all governed by virtue, the soul and their natural aptitudes. The way each class is raised and maintained revolves primarily around the main virtue, justice. Plato’s ideal city as theorised in The Republic through the voice of Socrates is one that is just not only on the grand scale but also for the individual. To find out what makes a truly just man he first looks to find a just city, this being the essence of Plato’s Republic and his constitution. This essay will explore and critique The Republic in order to gain a true understanding of Plato’s ideals and aims.

Plato’s perception of justice is complex, all that is categorically known early on is that he believes it is better to be just than unjust. This belief is first challenged by Thrasymachus, a Sophist. Plato is seen as portraying Thrasymachus as ‘unsympathetic’ as well as ‘noisy and offensive’, quite possibly in an attempt to depict his view as negative or unappealing (PLATO, 2003, Rep. 336A-B). Thrasymachus is the first to put forward the belief that the unjust man has a ‘superior life to the just’ (Rep. 347E). Not only this, but in a previous statement Thrasymachus states he believes ‘justice or right is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party’, an opinion similar to that of Machiavelli in the sense that being good does not necessarily mean the most successful governance (Rep. 338C). In the view of Harvey Mansfield, politics for Machiavelli was ‘a struggle for dominance’ with the purpose to ‘secure order rather than justice’, very similar to that of Thrasymachus (BOUCHER and KELLY, 2003, P.142). His point was so poignant in fact that Glaucon and Adeimantus, former supporters of Socrates, were not satisfied simply with his view that ‘the just man is wise and good and the unjust man is bad an ignorant’, the statement that was used to refute Thrasymachus (Rep. 350C-D). Glaucon puts forward the allegory of ‘The Ring of Gyges’ in which he believes that ‘no man is just of his own free will, but only under compulsion’ (Rep. 360C-D). This view is reached by imagining there being two rings that grant a man invisibility, if one is given to a just man and one to an unjust man Glaucon believes both will act unjustly as there will be no consequences for their actions. Adeimantus supports Glaucon by adding that Socrates must find a reason why being just is desirable in itself, ‘let us therefore hear you commending justice for the real benefits it brings its possessor, compared with the damage injustice does him, and leave it to others to dwell on rewards and reputation’ (Rep. 367D-E). This is such a profound attack on Socrates’ ethical beliefs that he cannot yet answer them, instead this inspires him to begin creating the Kallipolis or the ideal state (BOUCHER and KELLY, 2003, P.61).

From the beginning of book two onwards Plato looks to achieve his ideal city, finding success with his third attempt. However, put in terms of a Hegelianism, ‘city-1 is ‘overcome but preserved’ in city-2, and city-2 in city-3’ (BOUCHER and KELLY, 2003, P.62). The first city or the ‘healthy city’ could be in some way compared to a ‘state of nature’ like that of Enlightenment thinkers Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau due to the fact that it is not realistic but provides a base for society to be built on – ‘let us make an imaginary sketch of the origins of the state. It originates, as we have seen, from our needs.’ (Rep. 369E & PAPPAS, 1995). The first city in a sense, like the state of nature that Rousseau puts forward, is used to judge society ‘upon its contingency and how it may have been other than it is.’ (BOUCHER and KELLY, 2003, P.240). In the first city natural aptitudes through ‘specialization’ provide people with the core needs of food, shelter and clothing while containing none of the ‘aged institutions, bureaucracies and power relations that complicate our study of existing political organizations’ (PAPPAS, 1995, P.61). However, this city is developed into the second after Glaucon remarks on the ‘healthy city’ as a ‘community of pigs’, leading to the creation of the ‘luxurious city’ (Rep. 372D-E). This development is required to ‘make room for a multitude of occupations none of which is concerned with necessaries’, essentially expanding the city into one of pleasure along with requirement (Rep. 373B-C). This, Plato accepts, means war is inevitable. Socrates speaks of ‘guardians’ that will protect the city with qualities similar to that of a ‘well-bred watch-dog’ (Rep. 375A-B). This class of society was later adopted by Machiavelli in his Art of War. Yves Winter notes ‘Virtuous soldiers are forged through training.’ And sees that ‘from Plato through Xenophon, Vegetius, Frontinus, and Polybius- Machiavelli stresses the role of drill and discipline’ (WINTER, 2014). Guardians are an engineered product of the ‘education of body and mind’, an education that has been meticulously prepared to ensure guardians have ‘a philosophic disposition, high spirits, speed and strength’ (Rep. 456E & 376C).

The final change to the classes set out in Plato’s Republic is the splitting of guardians into rulers, or ‘philosopher kings’, and auxiliaries. Along with initial education, guardians deemed worthy of rule must be taught ‘literally all there is available of rational education’, gaining an intimate appreciation of mathematics, astronomy, logical, ethical and metaphysical discussion, war and ‘the holding of offices suitable to youth’ (Rep. 539E & LEVINSON, 1953, P.544) This supports Gerald Mara’s view that ‘the city’s highest purpose is to produce philosophers’, much as it is seen as the highest achievement to lead a country in modern western society (MARA, 1981). In previous books, there has been the assumption that the theory of ‘specialization’ was one that Plato supported. The view from book two that ‘no two of us are born exactly alike. We have different aptitudes, which fit us for different jobs’ was still a belief held by Plato but was one that needed to be adapted to fit the ideal state (Rep. 370B). Boucher and Kelly suggest a slightly different version called ‘quasi specialization’ was used that stated people must not attempt to move between classes (BOUCHER and KELLY, 2003, P.62). A producer cannot become an auxiliary, nor can an auxiliary become a ruler or guardian. Socrates believes such an act would spell the ‘destruction of our state’ (Rep. 434B-C). Plato’s four virtues finally come into question after his three classes have been assembled, each with a distinct purpose within the city. With justice already decided as the main virtue, the three remaining virtues of wisdom, courage and moderation must be assigned their purpose. Plato assigns wisdom to the rulers or guardians, courage to the soldiers or auxiliaries and moderation to the producers (PAPPAS, 1995). Socrates says ‘the state founded on natural principles is wise as a whole’ when virtue is handed to the knowledgeable class which ‘exercises authority over the rest’ while courage is handed to auxiliaries as only they know ‘What sort of things are to be feared’ (Rep. 426D-430C). Finally, it is imperative to hand the ‘money lovers’ the virtue of moderation but also, Socrates believes, to the rulers as only then can a city be ‘master of its pleasures and desires and of itself’, making moderation ‘a harmony between its strongest and weakest and middle elements’ (Rep. 431D-432B). The justice that is left over coupled with quasi specialisation makes the very essence of Plato’s ideal state and forms his final definition of justice in the state. Before turning back to the individual, Socrates offers the simple view that ‘justice is, in a certain sense, just this minding one’s own business’ (Rep. 433B). The concept of quasi specialization enters most prominently as previously mentioned with Socrates’ fervent belief that each class must remain in stasis (Rep. 434B-C). Finally, in terms of virtue, Nickolas Pappas sees that ‘if everyone in the city is politically just, the city as a whole will be wise, courageous and moderate’ (PAPPAS, 1995, P.77). Socrates makes a statement at the beginning of the book that society originates ‘so far as I can see, because the individual is not self-sufficient, but has many needs which he can’t supply himself’ (Rep. 369B-C). It can now be said Plato has created a state that not only satisfies the individual’s needs but in turn the needs of everyone.

Plato’s aversion to democracy is highly pronounced in The Republic, presenting itself as the direct opposite of his utopia. Plato presents an allegory of ‘The Ship’ when confronted by Adeimantus about Socrates’ belief that philosophers are ‘useless members of society’ in democracy driven ancient Athens (Rep. 487E). He imagines a ship whose captain is ‘larger and stronger than any of the crew, but is a bit deaf and short-sighted’ with a crew who are constantly quarrelling about how to navigate ‘each thinking he ought to be at the helm’ even though neither the captain nor the crew have learned the art of navigation. Amongst the attempts of bribery and acts of killing there is a ‘star-gazer’ on board that is regarded as having no use to anyone despite his extensive knowledge of navigation and the sea (Rep. 488A-489B). For Plato, the captain represents the general public while the crew are the politicians and the star gazer is the philosopher in a democracy. Plato sees that democracy and human society has ‘refused to honour the insights of philosophy’ (PAPPAS, 1995). It is, however, in this part of Plato’s theory of social justice that he gains a great deal of his critics. Gerasimos Santas sees this partly because ‘we have witnessed the horrid excesses of some antidemocratic regimes, by comparison to which modern democracies can shine’ (SANTAS, 2007, P.70). This unfortunate fact, at least for Plato, is part of the rationale behind the belief that he was in fact a totalitarian, a view held strongly by Karl Popper in his book ‘the open society and its enemies’.  Popper, whom Ronald Levinson believes presents ‘by far the most systematic, detailed attack’ upon Plato, believes that his ‘political programme, far from being morally superior to totalitarianism, is fundamentally identical with it’ (POPPER, 1966, P.87). A highly convincing counter argument to Popper can however be found. Santas finds John Rawls, whose well-ordered society is seen as a ‘modern democratic ideal’ and John Stuart Mill somewhat support platonic ideals (SANTAS, 2007, P.78). Mill’s belief that ‘plural voting’ benefits even those with lesser votes is supported when Rawls revises Plato’s ship allegory and concludes that ‘political liberties are indeed subordinate to the other freedoms that, so to say, define the intrinsic good of the passengers. Admitting these assumptions, plural voting may be perfectly just’ (SANTAS, 2007, P.84). Furthermore, pro-democratic scholar Thad Williamson believes that ‘Plato has reached his anti-democratic conclusions about who should rule on the basis of a moral conception of leadership that is in fact attractive and widely shared’ (WILLIAMSON, 2008, P.398).  The fact that contemporary philosophers and political theorists can find merit in his constitution gives a great deal of legitimacy to Plato’s work.

After Plato completes the framework for his ideal city in book four, he turns back to justice in the individual. Professor Alfred Geier believes ‘the city they (Socrates and Glaucon) will describe does not have a political function; it has only a cognitive function’ and that Plato’s only use for The Republic and the formulation of his kallipolis was to ‘gain insight into the individual soul’ (GEIER, 2014). The tripartite soul, split into reason, spirit and appetite, was designed to mimic the three classes of the just city to make the just man. He sees the inevitable conflict between these three parts as ‘the most intrinsically important fact about human existence’ (PAPPAS, 1995, P.83). Plato is not satisfied with a just city if each inhabitant is not himself, just. Thad Williamson believes that Plato’s justly ordered soul ‘corresponds well to contemporary criticisms of the consumerist way of life characteristic of modern capitalism’, once again demonstrating Plato’s relevance in the contemporary world (WILLIAMSON, 2008, P.389). Thad goes on to explain this, seeing democracy and capitalism as encouraging a society that finds true happiness in what Plato would call ‘”appetitive” pleasures’ or material items of worth, namely money. Plato instead believes that true happiness ‘consists in having a well-ordered soul governed by reason’ (WILLIAMSON, 2008, P.401).

If this essay is to conclude with anything, it should be with the soul. In terms of the constitution for his utopian society, all decisions made about the city are in pursuit of the just soul. It could be said that the soul and Plato’s perception of it is the true constitution, and one that can be applied to any society or period of time. This is only supported by his belief that ‘our soul is immortal and never perishes’ unlike a city that is only material (Rep. 608D). Plato’s Republic makes a suggestion for an individual constitution that, if applied to government and society, would make a just and happy life.

Bibliography

BOUCHER, David & KELLY, Paul (2003) – ‘Political Thinkers’ (Oxford University Press, 5th ed.)

GEIER, Alfred (2014) – ‘Plato’s Republic: A Utopia for the Individual’ (Philosophy Now, https://philosophynow.org/issues/70/Platos_Republic_A_Utopia_For_The_Individual)

MARA, Gerald (1981) – ‘Constitutions, Virtue & Philosophy in Plato’s “Statesman” & “Republic”’ (Polity, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 355-382)

LEVINSON, Ronald B (1953) – ‘In Defense of Plato’ (Russel & Russel)

PAPPAS, Nickolas (1995) – ‘Plato and the Republic’ (Routledge)

PLATO (2003) – ‘The Republic’ (Penguin)

POPPER, K.R (1966) – ‘The Open society and its enemies. vol.1, The Spell of Plato’ (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 5th ed.)

SANTAS, Gerasimos (2007) – ‘Plato’s Criticisms of Democracy in The Republic’ (Social Philosophy & Policy, Vol. 24, No. 2, Cambridge University Press)

WILLIAMSON, Thad (2008) – ‘The Good Society and the Good Soul: Plato’s Republic on Leadership’ (The Leadership Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 4, pp. 397–408)

WINTER, Yves (2014) – ‘The Prince and His Art of War: Machiavelli’s Military Populism’ (Social Research, 81(1), pp. 165-191,270)

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