Kim asked:

Most features of Plato’s justification for his ideal republic are unappealing or even repulsive to citizens of modern democracies. Why? Do you find anything correct in his account?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

Plato asked an absolutely basic question: Why do we need governments? Why can’t we just run our own lives as we see fit? The answer is obvious, of course: If we were all completely free, we would soon run into conflicts and society would disintegrate. Second: all societies need services to be available to the public; and these are usually too extensive and expensive for private citizens to meet. Finally, any society might be attacked at some stage and needs to defend itself.

So his plan was: (1) Install some people as rulers, but those people must not be self-interested; they must only be interested in the welfare of the State. (2) Install a defence force. These people must be trained for war. It is not a good idea to have the citizens leaving their jobs and families, because society would break down while a war goes on. (3) Install institutions for society, like schools, so that everyone has an equal opportunity for self-development.

Now if you look around the world today, you’ll find all three of these plans realised in many states. We have governments, we have armed forces and we have civil service institutions. Of course the details differ from what Plato had in mind. But the question is, if the citizens in modern societies are truly better off than in Plato’s state. For example, the Greeks believed in democracy, Plato thought this was foolish. We believe in democracy today, but in actual fact our democracies suffer from too many vested interests all exerting social and political power, and a lot of this is very unhealthy. Plato knew this, because it was happening in his own society too. So the problem you are asking about, concerns his method of dealing with the unwelcome side effects of democracy.

According to Plato the basic argument is that ruling (governing) is a skill. Plato proves this by appealing to common sense; if one possesses knowledge he will not make a mistake. Some men have a greater skill to rule than others. Plato points out, that only those who are fit and trained properly should be the rulers. And they must be incorruptible. That’s the ideal.

In our democratic society, just as in ancient Greece, anyone can be elected to Parliament. How many of those do you think are fit to govern? What training did they have? Probably very little, if any.

Is that a good way to run a society? Especially when modern societies are so big and complex? Doesn’t it make sense for Plato to say, rulers should be educated in ruling, in governing? After all, you can’t become an officer in the army without an officer’s training. Yet the government of a country is so much more important.

Effectively, therefore, we today are saying, Plato is wrong. In a democracy, the ideal is self-government by all. But consider that we must elect representatives. We assume, sight unseen, that these people we elect have the skills needed for government. Actually, most of them are doctors or lawyers, farmers or union officials. And we never ask them to show their credentials as Parliamentarians before they stand for election.

Now the point of this is not that rulers, the people who govern the country, should be aristocrats. In ancient Athens, the only people trained in politics were in fact aristocrats. But this does not mean that Plato actually supported them against the democratic spirit. In fact, if you read Plato carefully (which many people don’t do) you will find that he has school inspectors with responsibility for finding boys and girls with talent of that kind. They are then put into a special school to be trained in the art of government. No mention of aristocrats here!

Accordingly anyone who wishes to criticise Plato for arguing that philosopher-kings are the answer to the problem of government, should bear in mind that these philosopher-kings start their career as ordinary schoolboys and schoolgirls.

Plato argues further that there are good ethical values and high standards of goodness, and philosopher-kings learn what these are. Because ruling according to him is not imposing personal standards on the other members of society, but to make laws that are fair and just for everyone.

The same school inspectors also find boys and girls with the appropriate talent for organising a defence force for the state.

Both the governors of the state and the military are separated from the people in Plato’s state. They are totally dedicated to their tasks and do not interfere with the people’s lives. That’s one of the criticisms that are levelled against Plato. He wants to assume that the governors, because they are philosopher-kings, will never be tempted or corrupted. He also assumes that the military is so dedicated they will never turn against their own people. We might agree that this is a naive point of view, and certainly idealises the power of philosophy over their minds.

It follows from this separation of the rulers from the people that making laws involves restraints on the personal liberty of the people. On one hand, none of us today is completely free to do what we like. On the other hand, the way Plato frames the legislative process, it restricts all forms of personal expression. We all know that he wanted to banish most of the free arts because he thought they corrupt the population. This is definitely one of the issues where we totally disagree with Plato.

A different issue is that Plato does not want people to chase after unrealisable goals. He will not let you choose a profession that you are not cut out for. Let’s say you want to be a opera singer, but you have difficulty learning the notes. This shows it’s not your metier, but no-one will stop you, and you might still find some people who will want to listen to you. Plato would not allow this. He would say, you’re wasting resources. And again, we disagree with him on this score. We all waste a lot of energy, and mostly it does no harm, but it can actually be very useful. For example, Aristotle thought (against Plato) that sports events and theatre are good because the people can left off steam. In fact, Aristotle says something like, it’s good therapy to let people enjoy the tragic misfortunes on stage. We purify our emotions that way (which he calls catharsis).

Back to Plato. His point of view is, that everyone should strive for the good of the whole society. For him, the health of society is more important than the interests of individuals. This is a precarious balance, of course. It is probably an exaggerated point of view; but the other side of it is, that we can become too dependent on the state, and that leaves the door open for all sorts of corruption.

Modern democratic theories hold that no man is infallible; and if no one is infallible, it is pointless to have someone else making mistakes for you. That’s a pretty good rebuttal of Plato, who seemed strongly to believe that philosopher-kings cannot make mistakes.
We all make mistakes. It’s unavoidable. But we hope that we learn from our mistakes. This is not something you will read in Plato. He was a bit idealistic and ambivalent about this. So e.g. in the matter of the arts, he never considered (like Aristotle) the possibility that people can learn from watching tragedies and become better persons as a result.

But having said all this, and acknowledged that Plato tended towards a very hard and Spartan politics, nevertheless there are many points on which he was undoubtedly correct, like some that I mentioned earlier. Some of those we just don’t like, because we feel uncomfortable about having our freedom curtailed. But perhaps we already have so much freedom, that we don’t know what to do with it. How come we in this democratic world give so much evidence of unhappiness?

In the end, Plato wanted to ensure that the people in his state lived happily. To you and I it can give the impression that he is saying, ‘If necessary, I am going to force you to be happy!’ Well, he ends up by admitting that his ‘Beautiful City’ (Kallipolis) is only a dream; but says also, if anyone were to take just one of his ideas on board, that society would improve.

In a word: I think it is wrong to assume that Plato really wanted such a state to exist. He gave a model or paradigm, as he called it. And he was hoping that we, his readers, would learn some important lessons about politics and ethics and not take these things lightly or for granted. The historical fact is that many societies adopted a few or many of his principles. For example the Catholic Church was a Platonic state for many centuries and still is to some extent. Even modern democracies took many of his ideas and realised them in their laws and politics. So it’s not that repulsive after all. It’s only when we take his paradigm as a whole, that we find it unpalatable.