I’m forcing myself to read The Republic. I have to force myself because it’s painful. Apologists have been accepting this lie without hesitation for 2500 years and they would like to continue for another 2500 years. In this article I’ll talk about Melissa Lane’s 2007 introduction for the Penquin Classics edition. Although she begins by mentioning Karl Popper’s conviction that Plato is to blame for Western society’s totalitarian ideas of fascism and communism, she gives him a positive spin, although you get the feeling she was just doing her job. As it turns out the introduction is full of ammunition for critics of Plato.
Thirty years before Plato wrote The Republic, his city-state, Athens, had been conquered by Sparta, a militaristic oligarchy. The coup occurred in 404 BC. In 399 BC the restored democracy executed Plato’s teacher, Socrates. The Athenians knew what they were doing. However Lane states that this series of events taught Plato that neither democracy nor oligarchy nor any other existing order, could achieve happiness or political stability for its citizens, because all of them were founded on the inherently corrupting desire for power. It is difficult to see how Plato arrived at this conclusion. Socrates favored Sparta, Athens’ enemy, and he was teaching the youth of Athens to do the same. He was executed for treason. Therefore, there is nothing in Socrates’ death that condemns Athenian democracy!
After the defeat by Sparta the democracy of Athens was restored and it flourished for seventy years more, a period in which Plato wrote The Republic. It finally ended with the conquests of Alexander the Great. Of course, Alexander was taught by Plato’s student, Aristotle. It seems that from the time of Socrates this cadre of men never wavered in its enmity toward Athens. This information is necessary to put The Republic in its proper perspective.
In this treatise, Plato argued that a system where every citizen had the right to speak brought tension between the few rich and the many poor. His sympathies were obviously with the rich–he claimed that since the common people were numerically and ideologically dominant it generated ‘tension with the elite’. He even blamed Athenian democracy for the establishment of an empire abroad, although as we have seen it is not the common people who are responsible for that tendency.
We shouldn’t be surprised therefore, to learn that Plato is a member of the elite. His uncle, Critias, and his cousin, Charmides, were would-be oligarchs who thought oligarchy was the solution. In fact, it was Critias who connived with the Spartans in 404 BC to install himself and his cronies as a junta called ‘the Thirty’. While in power they used their power to murder and expropriate, and excluded the vast majority of Athenians from citizenship.
Naturally, the ever philosophical Plato begged to differ with them, at least on paper. Oh, he thought Athens should be an oligarchy too, but he invented a form of it that no one had ever seen up until that time, and no one has seen it since. He invented an oligarchy governed by philosopher kings! And surprise of surprises—it was to look very much like Sparta.
“In Sparta, however, where oligarchical rule was longer-lasting and ingrained in the customs and way of life, Plato did find one clue to political health. This was the unity of the Spartan ruling class, maintained through strict discipline, including common meals, demanding military training and what we have come to call a ‘spartan’ (materially austere) lifestyle. But the Spartan elite used the power of their unity to oppress and terrorize the ‘helots’ – the serfs who did all their manual labour – and they were notoriously hostile to culture and philosophy. Nevertheless, the Republic adapts a version of the Spartan idea of a ruling class unified through austerity and collective living. By choosing only philosophers as rulers, it seeks to ensure that the power of the ruling elite will be used not to oppress (as in Sparta) but to benefit the common people, so establishing the regime of expertise, unity and happiness that Plato found wanting in the polities of his own day.”
Okay, so Plato was proposing a Spartan government, but with proper philosopher kings at its head! He probably didn’t advertise this plan in the market square. He would most certainly have shared the fate of Socrates. And now begins Plato’s foray into psychobabble—a perpetual wheedling away at the sensibilities of the common people. For example, there is his claim that only psychic justice is self-sustaining. Psychic justice is, of course, beyond the capabilities of most people because even when they perform just actions they do it for the wrong reasons. So they are not really just at all! No, no, no! Because wisdom is a matter of expertise.
This naturally led to the necessity for a radical surgery on existing methods and content of Greek education and culture. Plato was directly contradicting Athenian democratic principles when he taught that people need to be ruled. Only through surrogates could the common people have access to reason.
In addition he challenged existing understandings of human psychology. The Athenians exalted indignation and anger as key to the demand for legitimate equality of respect. The Republic is all about restraining indignation and anger.
Plato was also developing a new, radical account of the soul, made possible by articulating a parallel account of the city. Among other things, this allowed him to posit that souls have parts, like cities. Or rather, like Plato’s definition of cities.
In Plato’s time it was controversial as to which elements a city should have. There were rich and poor but the rich had financial obligations to the poor and there was no separate ruling elite or military caste. All male citizens could occupy the major positions of power, speak in Assembly, and speak and vote in the law court. And they all fought in the city’s battles. Socrates, however, proposed a division of political labor.
At first the division depends merely on a specialization of roles. He began by saying that there should be a class of guards to protect luxury. But then he slipped in a crucial move: he subdivided the guards into two parts: the younger guards would be military supporters or auxiliaries; the older guards would be ruling ‘guardians’ who would later be Identified as philosophers. And again, he claimed this division had a parallel with the soul: The guardians represent reason; the auxiliaries represent indignation and anger; and the workers, merchants and doctors represent bodily appetites.
You are probably wondering what there is to deter the abuses of the rulers. According to Plato, Socrates envisioned an institutional deterrent, like the one found among Sparta’s elite. But Athens’ would have an additional deterrent. Athens’ rulers would be natural philosophers who had no material desires. Other than that, the ideal city had all the Spartan high points: girls exercising naked with boys; qualified women as warriors and guardians; deprivation of property, for guardians that is, meaning that the common people would have to support them; families and children held in common; and selective breeding.
Last but not least, although Socrates/Plato felt that education is important it will never make a philosopher out of a common man. Philosophers are born, not made.
Not only is this a direct contradiction of Athenian democracy, it is a direct contradiction of religion—especially the Christian religion. Strange isn’t it, how the organized church has virtually enshrined the Greek philosophers as founding fathers of Christianity?