How can Plato’s Republic help unite people?

4-26-17 Plato

To be honest, I was disappointed by Republic (amazon, wikipedia). It is incredibly speculative, authoritarian, and lacks counter-argument once it reaches the part about creating a theoretical republic. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Plato’s book is about a dialogue Socrates has at a party on the subject of justice versus injustice. Socrates decides that illustrating a perfectly just republic will best demonstrate what is just or unjust in the case of individuals. As the 2,400-year-old basis for western philosophy, I can understand its importance, but what can we learn from Republic to help unite people?

Plato writes that aristocracy is the ideal form of republic, followed by timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny, in order of most-to-least ideal/just regime. This aristocracy is ruled by a philosopher king, with no personal interest to be gained by his decisions other than doing good for his people. His position is protected, his decrees enforced, and the republic defended by a socialized guard class. The rest of the populace are workers, with limited social mobility between classes. Education, music, art, and physical training are all extremely regulated by class, and there is widespread censorship to allow only what is considered necessary to cultivate the type of citizen desired. The leader may lie to his people for the public good, but no one else is allowed to deceive.

4-26-17 Plato's regimes

The Socratic view of liberty (discussed along with democracy) seems both narrow and negative. He talks about how, democracy being based on individual freedoms, must therefore lead to anarchy, as each person declares himself free of the influence of others and not responsible to the law. That anarchy eventually will lead to tyranny as someone must restore order to the republic that lacks discipline. Socrates fails to discuss how individual liberty could exist within the framework of the law (the foundation of classical liberalism), or that there are checks in a democracy (namely that voting allows freedom as long as it works within the values of the society).

Perhaps this is because Socrates had little respect for “the multitude” choosing wisely. He declared that no lover of wisdom can ever be loved by the people, and that those who specialize in catering to the desires of the masses must do so at the expense of doing what is wise and just. This is why his philosopher king was protected by a guard class, and why he feels a tyrant arises by first being the “protector” of the people. While the dangers of mob rule and tyranny of the majority are worthy of their own post, totalitarian control and censorship by aristocrats, timocrats, or oligarchs is no ideal to me.

4-26-17 censorship

If people are going to voluntarily unite, we will want it to be just, and we will want it to be durable, but all of that must exist within the legal framework of liberty and property. My liberty ends where yours begins. You are free to choose an undisciplined life, even if I and everybody else think it would be better if you were disciplined. Deciding to join a uniting world must be the best decision for your own personal well-being, not something that comes about through coercion or the decision of some philosopher king choosing for you.

According to Julian Baggini, while Republic “was wrong on almost every point, the questions it raises and the methods it uses are essential to the western tradition of philosophy. Without it we might not have philosophy as we know it.” I will take time in the future to write about how a world republic would best operate as a federation, but we can gain value from the theoretical republic Plato wrote about. The methods may have been flawed, but the aim of building a just society from a population of just individuals is something to incorporate as we look to the future.


About Chris Fountain

Start small, but think BIG.
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