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Friday 8 September 2017

Building Better Worlds (I)

We now resume our regular series, Pointless Commentaries on Plato. Because there definitely aren't enough of them and that's definitely what most people are here for. No ? Screw you, it's my blog and I can if I want to.

Last time I tried to summarise some of the major themes of Plato. While he was concerned with all manner of different subjects, the underlying theme of almost all his works was how to live a good life. Various answers to this question have been proposed over the centuries, some of them more credible than others.

Many of Plato's dialogues grapple with this question for individuals. But how best to arrange societies such that they can crush their enemies and hear the lamentations of their women ? He reserved most of his discussion on this for two great, very different works.

In Republic, he focuses on the leaders of society and how the most qualified people should become rulers. Everything must be subordinate to them, over and above any democratic ideals, with this principle being extended down to all levels of society : ability would override personal choice. In the rather less well-known Laws, he considers the legislation a state must enact to survive, being far less concerned about who's in charge than what they're allowed to do. Instead of the whims of the philosopher kings of the Republic, his fictional state of Magnesia would see all citizens lives governed by legislation which could only be altered with extreme effort.

If we take them both at face value, both of these are pretty stupid. No-one would ever actually want to live in either of them - both see personal choice removed to an absurdly extreme degree. But as works of philosophy, as ways to explore hypothetical possibilities, both have merits. I might even say there's wisdom in them. Yet anyone who wants to actually implement them in the real world ought probably to be shot on sight, because the proposed societies both contain large helpings of fascism and communism. Seriously, they suck.

In the last post I described how my experience of reading Republic in its proper context was radically different to my first reading of it as a standalone work. With that in mind, I strongly recommend reading that post first, but I'll try and keep this one as independent as I can.


It probably helps to realise that in Statesman, Plato describes the ideal state as one being run by a single ruler who knew the best answers to every problem. Laws would be unnecessary if there was a single wise ruler who always knew the correct course of action.

Noting that such a wise and benevolent despot - tantamount to a god - unfortunately doesn't actually exist, he proposes as the second-best solution a state where absolutely everyone is absolutely subservient to absolutely all laws, with the penalty for any disobedience being death. Because that totally makes any kind of sense.

It may therefore come as a surprise to note that Plato repeatedly professes temperance and moderation as the supreme virtues, and even more that the rest of the time he seems to try very hard indeed to follow his own advice. I'll attempt to reconcile these contradictions later.

Anyway, Republic is pretty close to Plato's preferred system of a benevolent dictatorship, and Laws to his runner-up solution. For this reason I'll begin with a look at the Republic and present the ideas of Laws as a comparison next time. Probably in some future post I'll attempt my own world-building exercise; for now, enthusiastic readers (both of them) should take a look at my analysis of Star Trek as a utopian vision. It's not nearly as sophisticated as Plato and it has some serious flaws, but as a vision of a place to actually live the Federation is infinitely better than either of Plato's efforts.

First, because context is jolly important, a little bit of background.

An Absurdly Brief Potted History of Ancient Greece

Ancient Athens is sometimes held up as a shining beacon of direct democracy, an ideal society far removed from the corruptions of our own. Certain ancient writers were of the same opinion. Herodotus describes how the ascent of democracy transformed the Athenians from an ordinary bunch of muppets into "the best fighters in the world". He held them as being principally responsible for the victory of Greece against the massive Persian invasion force, though most of his contemporaries gave the bulk of the credit to the militaristic state of Sparta.

Why would any Athenian propose an alternative sort of state given the immense liberties and undoubted (though not unrivalled) military prowess unleashed by the existing democratic system ? Surely, to live with the maximum of personal choice, where everyone has an equal vote in the political sphere, and where the state is respected by its friends and feared by its enemies comes pretty darn close to a Utopian vision ? Athens had achieved that vanishingly rare combination of peace, prosperity, security, freedom and scholarship. What more could the greedy bastards possibly want ?

For one thing, an empire. They got one. A small one to be sure, but an empire nonetheless. One way in which the Athenians differ dramatically from modern society is that they were proud to call themselves warlike - these days even despots like to pretend they have no choice, but the ancients had no such scruples when it came to military conquest. But Athenian expansion put them on a collision course with that equally and oppositely extreme society : their sometime ally, Sparta. Hubris had struck them hard.

United, the Greeks had defeated the world's largest empire in a year. Divided, thirty years of the Peloponnesian War eventually saw the democratic Athenians make a series of costly mistakes and overreach themselves. A humiliating defeat saw Sparta remove the democracy and replace it with a oligarchy of the "Thirty Tyrants". But you can't keep a good democracy down, and a year later Athens restored her democracy and even began to claw back her empire. Normal, fractious Greek politics resumed for the next sixty years until the Macedonians came along and clobbered everyone. Literally everyone, in the Greek known world at least.

Enter Plato

Plato was born three years in to Peloponnesian War, at the end of the long Athenian summer. He would have grown up witnessing a turbulent period even by the standards of the time. He would have seen the bravery and strength of his fellow democrats but also their extreme folly. He watched them being misled by powerful rhetoric that caused them to make a series of costly and needless mistakes, most notably Athens huge and disastrous invasion of Sicily. He would have seen the democracy overthrown only to rise again. Five years after the end of the war, age 29, he witnessed his mentor Socrates put to death by the restored democracy on charges of impiety and corruption of the youth.

In short, Plato had very good reasons for wanting a different social order, because he'd seen first hand both how powerful and how inept a democracy can be. Had he been born earlier, his whole philosophy would have been very different : Athens did once have a golden age, but democracy alone was not enough to preserve it. In one of his supposed letters (the only works in which we hear Plato talking about himself directly), he says :
If anyone hears this and says, “Plato apparently claims to know what is good for a democracy, but though he is at liberty to speak in the assembly and give it his best advice, he has never yet stood up and said a word,” you can answer by saying, “Plato was born late in the life of his native city, and he found the demos advanced in years and habituated by former advisers to many practices incompatible with the advice he would give. Nothing would be sweeter to him than to give advice to the demos as to a father, if he did not think he would be risking danger in vain and accomplish nothing".
In others he describes his initial approval of the appointment of the Thirty Tyrants, thinking that they would restore the justice lacking under the corrupt Athenian democratic system. He hopes were dashed almost immediately as they proceeded to act as all tyrants do, and "they showed in a short time that the preceding constitution had been a precious thing". Democracy was restored, but the next lot of democrats managed to bugger things up as badly as the first, executing Socrates for saying things they didn't like but which were probably true.
At last I came to the conclusion that all existing states are badly governed and the condition of their laws practically incurable, without some miraculous remedy and the assistance of fortune; and I was forced to say, in praise of true philosophy, that from her height alone was it possible to discern what the nature of justice is, either in the state or in the individual, and that the ills of the human race would never end until either those who are sincerely and truly lovers of wisdom come into political power, or the rulers of our cities, by the grace of God, learn true philosophy.
It's often said that democracy is the worst system of government except for all the others. Plato disagreed. His first-hand experience led him to conclude that democracy just wasn't good enough : merely giving people a vote wasn't a magic bullet that could also make them wise. Something more was needed. Something radical. Democracy wasn't being threatened by the problems of rhetoric and stupidity, it was at least in part the cause of them. It didn't need saving : it needed solving.


What's It For ?

Haven't we heard enough of this already ? Not quite. See, the thing is that Republic really begins in the tiny dialogue Clitophon. The translator notes that Clitophon is markedly different from all Plato's other works, uniquely giving Socrates all the worst arguments. Why he's surprised I don't know, because it seems very clearly designed as a prelude to Republic that's pointless to read on its own.
Someone might accuse you of being in the same position with justice, that your ability to praise it so well does not make you any more knowledgeable about it... either you don’t know it, or you don’t wish to share it with me. I mean, if it had been about gymnastics that you were exhorting me... you would have proceeded to give me what comes next after such an exhortation, namely, an explanation of the nature of my body and of the particular kind of treatment this nature requires — that’s the kind of thing you should do now. What do we say is the skill which concerns the virtue of the soul ? Let’s have an answer.
Clitphon is irritated with Socrates : he admits he has an unrivalled ability to turn men to the pursuit of virtue and justice, but has hitherto been lousy at actually defining virtue and justice in the first place. He's been a right slacker and needs to shape up, pronto. Clitophon demands that Socrates explain what justice actually is if he's going to keep insisting about how awesome it is. Otherwise he's gonna spit in his eye or something, I guess.

Republic is then not just an illustration of the ideal city - it begins as a stated effort to define justice. Plato's tactic is to describe the ideal city as a way to determine all its different virtues. It is not, from the outset, seen as an angry rant in which Plato wants to put the world to rights - he just wants to define justice, as this is a convenient way to explore that issue. Not until 37 pages in does the idea of using a city to examine justice come up. Plato's Socrates likens it to using larger text to read - justice might be easier to find in a whole city than a single individual.

The group begin by considering all the basics things the citizens will need :

What they do not do is describe how the citizens will arrive in the first place, who should be chosen for their city, where it should be, or anything like that. They proceed rather as gods, choosing to set up a city that's already stable and functioning rather than working out how such a thing would ever actually come to exist. Which makes sense, because they're embarking on the quest to define justice, not to plan a real colony.

Of course, it would be a mistake to read Republic purely as an examination of justice, because it's far more broad-ranging than that. It would be too apologetic to say that Plato didn't genuinely want to implement some of the resulting policies, even the really offensive ones. But equally, it would also be a mistake to take Republic too literally, as we shall see. And so, at last, let's begin.

The Philosopher Kings

In the last post we saw examples of Plato's enthusiasm for objective truth, forever citing that shipbuilders are the best at building ships, farmers are the best at raising cattle and flute-players are the best at playing the flute. We saw how he praised the Athenian assembly in its wisdom for consulting the appropriate people for any particular problem : generals for military matters, doctors for issues of public health, etc., regardless of the wealth or nobility of the speaker. Only their merit and ability should determine if their advice should be followed (this is of course an idealised description of the real process, which was often deeply flawed).

But when he says that in matters of political procedures, the Athenians allow anyone a voice, "for they think that this particular virtue, political or civic virtue, is shared by all", one may detect a wry note of irony. Plato was convinced not just of objective truth regarding the physical world, but of the right way to behave. Just as any sensible fellow will listen to a scientist about climate change and a musician for writing a song, so, said Plato, will such a person listen primarily to the correct expert about political matters. He wasn't concerned about the people who disagree - that would be like listening to a UFO nut instead of a proper scientist. It would be a stupid, dangerous thing to do. You can't escape the consequences of the truth, be that physical or political truth.

Who should these experts be ? Of course, they should be the most qualified. The Republic was to be the ultimate meritocracy. Once a suitable set of rulers were properly trained according to his initial directions, they'd be able determine future rulers to appoint for themselves. I'm being slightly unfair in that he doesn't ever specify how to select the initial rulers or even who would do so, much less state that, "I, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL PLATO, DEEM THESE PEOPLE TO BE YOUR RULERS !". As mentioned, it's more of a philosophical examination of justice than it is a "Build Your Own Country In Six Easy Steps" guide. In fact, Republic is actually Plato at his laziest :
Let me, as if on a holiday, do what lazy people do who feast on their own thoughts when out for a solitary walk. Instead of finding out how something they desire might actually come about, these people pass that over, so as to avoid tiring deliberations about what’s possible and what isn’t. They assume that what they desire is available and proceed to arrange the rest, taking pleasure in thinking through everything they’ll do when they have what they want, thereby making their lazy souls even lazier.
And he really is lazy, despite the length of the work. Often he leaps to conclusions with little or no examination in a way that would never have been deemed acceptable in his other dialogues. Oh well, at least he admits his laziness, I suppose. Anyway this means Plato gets to, err, justifiably skip the question of picking the initial rulers altogether. But how, once running, do the rulers select their successors ? Who watches the watchers ? How are they going to know the best decisions, eh ? What gives them such authority over the truth ?

Plato's Truth

Sigh. This question always gets asked in any debate on who should have power to determine what's true. I - provisionally - contend that it is a bullshit question. See, we already have mechanisms for this. We feel fine in saying that scientists can be self-policied as far as their findings go, that they have the right to determine objective truth (we just don't let them have sole authority as to how to use their findings). We feel fine too in saying that laws can be enacted and enforced, that we as a society are capable of deciding what's true and what isn't, what's beneficial and what's harmful (allowing, of course, that the process is imperfect). We even feel comfortable in regulating speech - yes, we do, however much this will annoy certain readers - speech already is regulated. The judiciary already is a committee to determine truth, yet talk about regulating speech and it's all, "oh no, we can't have that, you've got to protect unpopular speech, we can't have a Ministry of Truth, blah blah blah" as though we didn't already have such a committee.  Well we do. Get over it.

Establishing a committee to determine truth isn't merely necessary for a society, it is literally unavoidable for civilisation. Our existing system does this (it says things like, "stealing things is truly bad, so don't do it"), flawed though it is, so please stop pretending it's impossible, because that's ridiculous. Of course it isn't perfect. Instead of asking "who watches the watchers ?" or "who gets to decide what's true ?", ask instead, "would this proposed system be better than the one we've got, and why ?".

Look, it's simple. Here's a handy flow chart to illustrate how every single decision in history has ever been made :

OK, the "analysis" bit can be tremendously complicated. But if you want a human being to evaluate information, you're going to have to get one or more human beings to analyse it. There is literally no way to avoid this. We have nothing by which we can say anything with truly 100% certainty. All is subject to an overarching assumption about the nature of reality and the abilities of our senses to perceive it. Only within that assumption can we establish certainty or even probability. Thus any system to oversee truth is flawed by its very nature; it's just a question of deciding which method we disagree on the least. In short, someone ALWAYS has to be the judge of the information.

But - and it's a but bigger than Kim Kardashian's - Plato takes this to a ludicrous, terrifying extreme.
It would be absurd for a guardian to need a guardian.
He thought that not only physical but also political and ethical truth could be established with such accuracy that there would be no need for any checks and balances at all (e.g. in reality laws must be agreed by elected representatives and an appointed judiciary; unpopularity causes U-turns and repeals; provision is made for pardons). Merit in establishing truth was to be the deciding factor in who should rule - merit and merit alone. The rule of the philosopher kings was to be subject to no provisions by any other authorities whatsoever. Frankly, it was utterly shite.

Much like Kim Kardashian's entire "career" really.
Making those who determine truth and those who decide how to act on the truth the same people is a gargantuanly Bad Idea, for reasons I go into at length here. Essentially, the question, "who watches the watchers ?" isn't necessarily bullshit - as long as those asking understand that it's not about determining truth at all, but for preventing tyranny.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Useful Bedtime Stories

Plato goes further in his conviction that the authority of the guardians must be total :
Our rulers will have to make considerable use of falsehood and deception for the benefit of those they rule... Then if it is appropriate for anyone to use falsehoods for the good of the city, because of the actions of either enemies or citizens, it is the rulers. But everyone else must keep away from them... and if the ruler catches someone else telling falsehoods in the city — he’ll punish him for introducing something as subversive and destructive to a city as it would be to a ship.
This, dear reader, is coming after a thousand pages convincing us that the search for the truth is paramount, and that rhetoric by leaders without caring about the truth is a destructive evil. All that effort exhorting us to think for ourselves, that "a life without self-examination is not worth living"... and now we have rulers who must lie to the people, but the citizens must never be allowed to lie. Although he wasn't "on holiday" at this point, describing in detail the differences between useful and damaging lies, the idea that the rulers should lie to the people rather than educating them seems contradictory to his long denouncements of rulers peddling rhetoric to the masses.

On the other hand, it's consistent with his ideas about expertise described last time : not everyone can become a philosopher, and even fewer can become good ones (and so it is for all walks of life). But whereas previously we saw that all conclusions were provisional, here he commits to an idea utterly and with full force. This alone makes it feel extremely strange, even ironic, in context.

Nevertheless, let's say Plato's hypothesis is correct and that the rulers can both decide correctly on all truths and avoid corruption. Let's keep remembering that this is a search for justice, purely hypothetical, and so we may imagine that the rulers really are so knowledgeable and good that they would be able to tell only useful lies. The kings will still need successors, so they must have some way to test if other people are up to the challenge.

Hunting For Kings

Before we deal too harshly with the philosopher kings, we should consider that in some ways their lifestyle wouldn't be that great. While they wouldn't be subject to checks by any other people, even Plato didn't go so far as to say that they'd be wholly immune to corruption. Instead, he proposed a different mechanism for keeping them on the straight and level :
Therefore good people won’t be willing to rule for the sake of either money or honour. They don’t want to be paid wages openly for ruling and get called hired hands, nor to take them in secret from their rule and be called thieves. And they won’t rule for the sake of honour, because they aren’t ambitious honour-lovers. So, if they’re to be willing to rule, some compulsion or punishment must be brought to bear on them — perhaps that’s why it is thought shameful to seek to rule before one is compelled to.
Plato notes that philosophers primarily want to do philosophy. They don't care for the mundane cares of the "ordinary" folk much at all. Similarly in Theaetetus, he invents the popular depiction of the scientist as an aloof loner :
The scrambling of political cliques for office; social functions, dinners, parties with flute-girls — such doings never enter his head even in a dream... he has no more idea whether a fellow citizen is high-born or humble... His mind, having come to the conclusion that all these things are of little or no account, spurns them and pursues its winge´d way, as Pindar says, throughout the universe, ‘in the deeps beneath the earth’ and geometrizing its surfaces, ‘in the heights above the heaven’, astronomizing, and tracking down by every path the entire nature of each whole among the things that are, never condescending to what lies near at hand.
Things start to look a bit different if you see the rulers as ruling as a sort of punishment rather than a reward. And here we must admit that Plato is stepping from the purely theoretical into the practical. But what appropriate punishment could compel people to rule ? Back in Republic, Plato continues :
Now, the greatest punishment, if one isn’t willing to rule, is to be ruled by someone worse than oneself. And I think that it’s fear of this that makes decent people rule when they do. They approach ruling not as something good or something to be enjoyed, but as something necessary, since it can’t be entrusted to anyone better than — or even as good as — themselves. In a city of good men, if it came into being, the citizens would fight in order not to rule, just as they do now in order to rule.
Note that Plato really is "on holiday" here, because in his other dialogues he would never in a million of years have let the suggestion that one can be willing if one is compelled pass without an enormous discussion, or that someone being forced to do something could possibly be doing it well. But here he's got other fish to fry.

Anyway, threatening philosophers that, "you'll be ruled by that angry bunch of pitchfork-wielding yokels if you don't step up, mate !" wasn't enough. If it was, philosophers would have been in charge of Athens anyway. No no, they must be compelled to - and compelled to from a young age :
No parent will know his own offspring or any child his parent.
The future rulers would be selected from the masses by the ruling kings, after being discovered to be eligible through the schooling process. It was to be decided strictly on merit (so strictly that there was not even to be the merest possibility of establishing ruling dynastic families), as with everything else in the Republic. While it's a provocative question as to whether there's a better system for choosing rulers than a completely free democratic system, this "solution" is surely worse than the problem.

I've been asked on multiple occasions by ignorant foreigners whether I went to boarding school, because - and this is absolutely true - Harry Potter has given them the idea that it's a common British phenomenon. Well, it isn't and I didn't. Even boarding school is seen as a step too far for most people, but Plato's idea was infinitely more extreme (deliberately so). Who should be a painter ? The best artists. Who should build ships ? The best shipwrights. Who should rule ? The ones who are most skilled at ruling. Who should raise children ? The best teachers. Personal choice ? Good lord no, that would ruin everything. For, you see, the Republic is a meritocracy gone mad. Edited to remove the question-answer format :
Which of these same people will rule and which be ruled ? It's obvious that the rulers must be older and the ruled younger. And the rulers must also be the best of them. As the rulers must be the best of the guardians, they must be the ones who are best at guarding the city... we must choose from among our guardians those men who, upon examination, seem most of all to believe throughout their lives that they must eagerly pursue what is advantageous to the city and be wholly unwilling to do the opposite. 
[Plato's obviously on holiday again here if he thinks that it's "obvious" the rulers should be older; in another dialogue (apologies that I can't remember which one) he suggests that old people tend to go senile; elsewhere in Republic he refers to men and women being in their prime when of a certain age.]
The guardians of the city were to be selected strictly based on ability. The Republic was to have a strict class system of sorts, but it was to have equally strict social mobility. Since children were to be raised communally without knowing who their parents were, it wouldn't matter if they were the son (or indeed daughter, more next time) of a cobbler or a solider - they'd get the same education and the same opportunity of success. It was to be merging or fascism and communism not by natural evolution (the latter turning into the former all too easily) but by design. Plato imagines one of his useful lies that will be told for the citizens to help accept this bizarre system :
For the most part you will produce children like yourselves, but, because you are all related, a silver child will occasionally be born from a golden parent, and vice versa, and all the others from each other... If an offspring of theirs should be found to have a mixture of iron or bronze, they must not pity him in any way, but give him the rank appropriate to his nature and drive him out to join the craftsmen and farmers. But if an offspring of these people is found to have a mixture of gold or silver, they will honour him and take him up to join the guardians or the auxiliaries.
There's an apparent contradiction here. If the children are to be raised communally, why is there a need to tell the commoners that their children's social status could be variable ? What would be the point, given the extreme lengths proposed - even that when mothers visit the "nursing pen" the nurses take care that they don't spend to long there - to ensure that no mother knows who her own child is ? Most likely because Plato isn't designing a real world, he's exploring hypothetical possibilities and this explanation is solely for the reader's benefit.

Grow Your Own King

Few would take issue with social mobility, though the idea that the rulers are "better" than the ruled... well, it gets worse. Much worse.
It follows from our previous agreements, first, that the best men must have sex with the best women as frequently as possible, while the opposite is true of the most inferior men and women, and, second, that if our herd is to be of the highest possible quality, the former’s offspring must be reared but not the latter’s.
This is merit-based eugenics. There's no class system as we understand it today, but one based entirely on ability. He even talks about keeping the guardian breed (not class, breed) "pure" and that children of "inferior parents" or who are "born defective" should be taken to "hide in a secret and unknown place". Children born without the sanction of the rulers will be considered, "illegitimate, unauthorised, and unallowed".

I did tell you parts of this were monstrous. Eugenics was practised at the time in Sparta and the full horrors that it would eventually unleash were not yet known. But endorsing eugenics is an unforgivable sin from someone whose clarity of thinking was normally second to none. And that's the key point about the Republic : instead of making people's lives better, Plato tried to make the people better. It was a rather crude approach; instead of encouraging them to practise philosophy and exhorting them to self-examination, instead the people were to be manipulated, cajoled and ultimately forced into being moderate and good to lead good and moderate lives. They were to be moulded into Plato's idea of noble citizens by any means necessary.

But what you have to consider is that Plato is not necessarily considering how real people would behave in this scenario. He's considering eugenics as a way to breed the fairest rulers - quite different to the Star Trek version in which superior intellect goes hand in hand with superior ambition. The "lower orders" (quite why he often treats farmers and craftsmen with such disdain is beyond me) would recognise and accept their betters and understand their decisions were in their best interests.

This is radically different to the modern notion that freedom itself is the desirable end goal for societies. Plato is here considering that justice and goodness are what is desirable and sets out to achieve them without any concern about such petty details as "ethics". This isn't that radical in concept, it's just taken to a radical extreme. Even those people today who want more freedom usually have some limit : they'd say it's right that there should be a law prohibiting people from killing whoever they wished, if not as a deterrent then certainly as a punishment. Even those extremists who say there shouldn't be any laws would say there would, and should, still be consequences of one form or another.

All Plato does is take this basic, common-sense idea and run it to its absolute limit. Instead of using laws to control behaviour, he uses rulers. "Freedom to" allows for unjustice, so the Republic has virtually none of that (more in a minute). Instead, it has a complete and total "freedom from" injustice  - he's using very big letters indeed in an attempt to find justice. This mirrors the technique used in Philebus, in which he considers knowledge and pleasure as if the one did not permit the other, which is obviously impossible in the real world (how could you have pleasure if you didn't know it was enjoyable ?). It is, perhaps, an exploration of purely conceptual ideas rather than practical techniques.

At least that's a charitable interpretation - likely too charitable, as we shall see. In any case, there's one final point we must look at before we move on the the Great Unwashed.

It's Good To Be The King ?

Plato's kings wouldn't exactly having been sitting on comfy thrones all day shouting, "off with his head !". No, after being identified early in life and raised to be rulers, while in some ways they would have absolute power in others they'd have none at all. Material rewards were strictly to be a big fat nope. These are again intrusions of practical methods that defy the notion that Republic is intended to be purely theoretical, even if it has some obvious flaws.

The intention is for the leaders of the Republic to remain purely virtuous and wise. And since they are purely virtuous and wise, their power can't be held in check by anyone else - that would miss the whole point of their wisdom, which must be used to the maximum benefit possible. But as throughout his other works, Plato considers that power can both corrupt and attract the corruptible : the two are far from mutually exclusive. So one could just about salvage the idea of the Republic as a theoretical exploration, as even in the extreme case presented, there would still be a need to prevent corruption, but more on that later.

Plato's techniques to keeping the kings in the condition of ideal rulers extends beyond their initial selection and education. Even if some people are morally "better" by nature than others, this does not wholly guard them from corruption - nor does someone who is initially regarded as "worse" prevented from improvement. Justice, as we saw last time, is a teaching aid. In Gorgias :
The second best thing after being just [by nature] is to become just by paying one’s due, by being disciplined.
And in Republic :
Is excessive pleasure compatible with moderation ? How can it be, since it drives one mad just as much as pain does ? Is it compatible with violence and licentiousness ?
In particular, while he accepts that it would a good man should be wealthy because he can use his wealth to do good for others, and vice-versa a bad man should be poor and powerless to avoid doing harm to others, he also frequently explores how wealth and an excess of pleasure - the traditional trappings of power - aren't just desired by the corrupt, but are themselves directly the cause of corruption. Thus the rulers must be protected from these vices. Their lives were not to be completely austere, as we shall see, but they would be very different from what we traditionally associate with monarchs :
We said that our prospective guardians must avoid drunkenness, for it is less appropriate for a guardian to be drunk and not to know where on earth he is than it is for anyone else.
Also to be forbidden were "Corinthian girlfriends" (those Corthinians, eh ? Amiright ?) and "Attic pastries". More radically :
None of them should possess any private property beyond what is wholly necessary. Second, none of them should have a house or storeroom that isn’t open for all to enter at will. Third, whatever sustenance moderate and courageous warrior-athletes require in order to have neither shortfall nor surplus in a given year they’ll receive by taxation on the other citizens as a salary for their guardianship. Fourth, they’ll have common messes and live together like soldiers in a camp. 
Common meals become something of an obsessive point for the rulers in Laws but here he concentrates more on their wealth and possessions, such as they are. Their "salary" was presumably to be paid directly in the form of what they needed rather than money and to be their only form of income :
For them alone among the city’s population, it is unlawful to touch or handle gold or silver. They mustn’t be under the same roof as it, wear it as jewellery, or drink from gold or silver goblets. 
One topic on which Plato is entirely consistent throughout his entire mighty corpus is that he's far more concerned with preventing an excess of wealth than too little wealth. The deleterious effects of extreme poverty are treated almost as self-evident and only rarely discussed (the idea that people with less wealth are somehow intrinsically worse, as certain politicians today think, is never mentioned). Far more important to correct his fellow citizens on the opposite case : instead of being a desirable state of affairs, as everyone else seemed to think, having as much money as possible was something to be avoided rather than sought after.

Of course, having lots of money doesn't automatically guarantee corruption - as evidenced by Plato's statements that it would be better for the just and virtuous to have more control and power than the evil and stupid. He seems to view it more of a causal factor, one that it would be safer to guard against.

With liberty and justice for all

I don't know why The Simspons has so many scenes relevant to Plato's Republic, but it does.

Thus far I've concentrated on the rulers and mentioned the ruled only in passing. That's because, in a way, the Republic would be strangely egalitarian : the rulers and the ruled would live extremely similar lives, just fulfilling different functions. So by examining the rulers, we've almost examined the ruled already.

The rulers were to be chosen by a committee from among their existing members, based on merit. This extends down to every level of society to the absolute extreme : the best way to be the best at your job is to do nothing else at all until you die :
The result, then, is that more plentiful and better-quality goods are more easily produced if each person does one thing for which he is naturally suited, does it at the right time, and is released from having to do any of the others... a farmer won’t make his own plough, not if it’s to be a good one, nor his hoe, nor any of his other farming tools... It’s impossible for a single person to practice many crafts or professions well....
Does he really mean this ? Extremely doubtful, given that Socrates is elsewhere lauded as a brave soldier as well as a philosopher, and Plato himself speculates not only on pure philosophy but also on on mathematics, cosmology, theology, rhetoric and ethics - employing observational analogies from everyday life that make it clear he himself must have had a wide breadth of knowledge. More likely, this statement simply isn't meant to be taken literally. Rather, he probably means that in the theoretical extreme someone could become best at a profession by practising it and nothing else, but it's pretty clear that even Plato himself could never confine himself to a single discipline.

Moreover, the great paradox which is barely discussed is that the common people must be extreme specialists whereas the rulers have to be consummate generalists. Everyone else must have a single skill, yet the rulers must somehow acquire a great many and be superb at all of them. In Rival Lovers, Plato considers the notion of philosophy as a sort of extreme general knowledge and firmly rejects it. In that notion, he says, a philosopher could never outdo a true specialist or even a lowly tradesman - so as long as they're around, which they always will be, philosophers would be useless.
“Well then, on a ship in stormy weather, to whom would you rather entrust you and your possessions, the pilot or the philosopher?”
“I would prefer the pilot.”
“And isn’t it the same in every other case, that as long as there’s a tradesman, the philosopher is of no use ?"
“So it appears,” he said.
Plato then considers that philosophy is different from simply being a generalist : it is itself a more specific technique of analysis. It is a knowledge of justice and political skill, of how to properly discipline people. These are hardly Plato's only thoughts on what philosophy is, but certainly it can't simply be a matter of knowing a little bit about everything.

Yet the rulers of the Republic would have to be different : they would have to have practical knowledge to run a state. This whacking great discrepancy as to how theory-based philosophers are to have the practical understanding necessary to work out what's best for everyone is nowhere satisfactorily (or even at all) discussed (even more oddly, he goes off on one about how the path to true knowledge lies through pure reasoning because our senses are so flawed).

But suppose they do. The the people's lives would mirror that of the rulers : their vocations determined by merit and committee. Again, the Republic was to be a meritocracy gone mad, the ultimate expression of freedom from rather than freedom to, extending to the level of giving the people "freedom from" making their own mistakes. What's that ? You think maybe they might quite enjoy making their own mistakes from time to time, hmmm ?


The Republic was to be a meritocracy and it was also to have social mobility, but it was not to be an aspirational society : citizens weren't supposed to want to climb the ladder. The whole point was that each and every one of them should be doing what they were best at as much as possible. The idea that they might enjoy doing things they weren't good at, or not enjoy doing the things they were best at, doesn't really get much of a discussion. This was explicitly not a search for utopia, it was a search for pure justice.
We know how to settle our potters on couches by the fire, feasting and passing the wine around, with their wheel beside them for whenever they want to make pots. And we can make all the others happy in the same way, so that the whole city is happy. Don’t urge us to do this, however, for if we do, a farmer wouldn’t be a farmer, nor a potter a potter, and none of the others would keep to the patterns of work that give rise to a city... we must leave it to nature to provide each group with its share of happiness.
Happiness and material joys are far from entirely absent though. As in most of Plato's dialogues, a certain provision was made for base needs. In Phaedo :
Do you think it is the part of a philosopher to be concerned with such so-called pleasures as those of food and drink ? What about the pleasures of sex ? Do you think he values these or despises them, except in so far as one cannot do without them ? [My emphasis]
That little provision that basic needs must be satiated is important. In Republic Plato re-iterates the need to satisfy basic bodily desires; abstinence is taken as being almost as bad as excessive indulgence. Plato considers that the various aspects of man - bodily needs, emotional desires, and rational judgement - must all be in harmony for justice. Rationality should rule the other two, but he doesn't ever seem to incline towards trying to destroy the others utterly :
One who is just does not allow any part of himself to do the work of another part or allow the various classes within him to meddle with each other. He regulates well what is really his own and rules himself... Only then does he act. And when he does anything, whether acquiring wealth, taking care of his body, engaging in politics, or in private contracts — in all of these, he believes that the action is just and fine that preserves this inner harmony and helps achieve it, and calls it so, and regards as wisdom the knowledge that oversees such actions... And aren’t these the most important aspects of moderation for the majority of people, namely, to obey the rulers and to rule the pleasures of drink, sex, and food for themselves ?
People should have control over their desires, not suppress them entirely. Elsewhere Plato is more explicit that both the guardians and citizens of the Republic would actually enjoy worldly pleasures, albeit, of course, in moderation :
They’ll put their honest cakes and loaves on reeds or clean leaves, and, reclining on beds strewn with yew and myrtle, they’ll feast with their children, drink their wine, and, crowned with wreaths, hymn the gods. They’ll enjoy sex with one another but bear no more children than their resources allow, lest they fall into either poverty or war... And among other prizes and rewards the young men who are good in war or other things must be given permission to have sex with the women more often...
It should be noted that attitudes to pleasure vary somewhat throughout Republic, however, sometimes being somewhat liberal and at other times leaning more towards self-discipline. But it stops far short of proclaiming that anyone should withhold entirely from physical pleasures; "nothing in excess" (as the Delphic oracle put it) does not mean "nothing". Having total self-control was a laudable notion, but there's little here that suggests people should never indulge themselves at all. Indeed, a certain amount was considered necessary to avoid the body driving them to distraction.

As well as being meritocratic in the extreme, the Republic would also be moderate in the extreme. It was vitally important that the citizens do "nothing in excess", but equally that they shouldn't do too little. They had to do just the right amount of everything, which fits in perfectly with an underlying theme of Plato that there was a correct and proper way of doing every action; everything was viewed as objective, though not necessarily fixed and absolute. Even the size of the city-state was to be controlled : its purpose was not to grow and certainly not to conquer, but to remain just and appropriate :
Then, we’ll give our guardians this further order, namely, to guard in every way against the city’s being either small or great in reputation instead of being sufficient in size and one in number.
Plato's method of ensuring this moderation is, as discussed, wholly perverse. If moderation was a virtue, then that virtue must be enforced by any and all means necessarily : lies, manipulation, and finally compulsion. If morality had a strong relative component to it, it being appropriate to have different standards for different people because of their natures, then it was still objective. Sufficiently wise people could still reliably determine what that standard would be for each individual. So in a purely just society, leaders should not shirk form being interfering moral busybodies - in fact it would be their duty. The apparent paradox where justice is "minding one's own business" yet the rulers have to mind other people's business is resolved : everyone has to do what they're best at, including managing other people. And so this enforced, objective but relative morality leads to a just society which practises the murder of babies.

It helps to emphasise this point even more. Citizens of the Republic would be living a lie : Plato insisting that there be strict controls over the stories, plays and especially music (he's obsessed with finding the right sort of music) they were allowed to enjoy - anything which went contrary to the notion that justice leads to goodness was to be strictly banned :
We’ll select their stories whenever they are fine or beautiful and reject them when they aren’t. When a story gives a bad image of what the gods and heroes are like.. they shouldn’t be told in our city. We mustn’t allow any stories about gods warring, fighting, or plotting against one another, for they aren’t true. The young can’t distinguish what is allegorical from what isn’t, and the opinions they absorb at that age are hard to erase and apt to become unalterable. 
Here he doesn't mean that the citizens should be forbidden from fiction entirely, only that fiction should imitate reality (as he sees it) in its important aspects. Stories about the gods doing ungodly things were to be a big no-no*. Until Republic, Plato has nothing but gushing praise for the ancient poets, and it feels extremely odd when he now criticises them sharply and repeatedly.

* Plato's theology was complex to say the least, and I rather doubt he saw divine matters in a similar way to most of his fellow citizens.

The idea of censorship being a vice doesn't occur here; it is seen simply as necessary, in complete contrast to the modern concept where censorship and evil have become synonymous. Two contrary points need to be remembered : 1) our modern obsession with "free speech" as being somehow always a virtue in every situation is, frankly, utterly shite and has been taken to a ludicrously absurd extreme; 2) Plato himself requires free speech to promote his ideas, having tested the limits of Athenian tolerance in many other dialogues. Yet these ideas are developed at length and in very specific details - it's hard to believe he was only trying to explore a theoretical construct here. After expounding for many pages on the precise sorts of rhythms that should be permitted and the sorts of stories that must be censored, he concludes :
And, by the dog, without being aware of it, we’ve been purifying the city we recently said was luxurious. That’s because we’re being moderate.
Once again we see a truly perverse idea of moderation indeed, enforcing moderation by strict thought control. It's a far cry from the downright raunchy scenes of the Symposium, where excessive drinking and rampant homosexuality are the order of the day. Plato was clearly a worldly sort of fellow, but for his ideal society the sort of behaviours he never previously spoke out against (and even, after a fashion, encouraged) are viewed as quite improper.
Sexual pleasure mustn’t come into it, and the lover and the boy he loves must have no share in it, if they are to love and be loved in the right way... if a lover can persuade a boy to let him, then he may kiss him, be with him, and touch him, as a father would a son, but his association with the one he cares about must never seem to go any further than this, otherwise he will be reproached as untrained in music and poetry and lacking in appreciation for what is fine and beautiful.
Here (and even more strongly in Laws) he speaks out only against homosexuality. This too is quite bizarre in context, because throughout the rest of his works homosexuality is often depicted as being superior and more manly than heterosexual desire. Hypocrisy ? I don't know, but certainly we once again see Plato writhing in a mass of contradictions.

Wine, Women And Song... Sort Of

Admittedly Plato may have proposed female soldiers but he never said they should be armoured only in leather bikinis.
Slavery is conspicuous by its absence in the Republic. The whole populace are slaves to the state anyway, so there's no point in individuals owning other people. The entire focus of the lives of both the rulers and their subjects is the overall happiness of the state. Nothing else is of any consequence. While this leads to some conclusions which are downright evil, others are far more forward-thinking.

It would be hard to accuse Plato of feminism, but it would be fair to say he had certain feminist sympathies. Overall, he's pretty consistent in deriding women as being generally inferior to men in every way - but it's a relationship with high scatter. That is, there are plenty of women who are superior to the vast majority of men, and he has no problem at all in assigning them leadership and military roles. If they are qualified, then why the hell not ?
Therefore, if we use the women for the same things as the men, they must also be taught the same things. Now, we gave the men music and poetry and physical training. Then we must give these two crafts, as well as those having to do with warfare, to the women also to use in the same way as the men use them.
Plato doesn't deny that men and women are different, it's just that those differences aren't relevant. What matters is, one again, ability. Anything else is just silly.
Therefore, we might just as well, it seems, ask ourselves whether the natures of bald and long-haired men are the same or opposite. And, when we agree that they are opposite, then, if the bald ones are cobblers, we ought to forbid the long-haired ones to be cobblers, and if the long-haired ones are cobblers, we ought to forbid this to the bald ones.
It’s true that one sex is much superior to the other in pretty well everything, although many women are better than many men in many things... Then there is no way of life concerned with the management of the city that belongs to a woman because she’s a woman or to a man because he’s a man, but the various natures are distributed in the same way in both creatures. Women share by nature in every way of life just as men do, but in all of them women are weaker than men.
Plato views women as having all the same flaws and abilities as men, just that in general they are weaker in every respect. It's hardly Joan of Arc, but at least it's equal opportunism. Women would be allowed roles in every level of society, including being philosopher queens and soldiers. This is largely consistent with his other works, which occasionally feature female philosophers (most notably the unnamed "wise woman" of the Symposium, who gets one over on Socrates). Crazily, this point of view is still superior to the notions that many people have today, with UK generals objecting to women serving in the infantry. Plato might have viewed women as the weaker sex, but this didn't stop him from applying objective tests to determine which women might be capable of certain roles despite their gender. Apparently this simple lesson has yet to be learned by modern society.


There are many. But perhaps the most important points for those reading Republic as a model of an ideal society :
  • Many themes in Plato are developed to their extreme in Republic. But many other dialogues convincingly explore the opposite possibilities, and even some parts of Republic feel self-contradictory.
  • The primary aim is a search for justice. This does not necessarily mean that a perfectly just society would be a nice place to live - justice and goodness need not be synonymous.
  • Freedom and democracy are usually today considered to be the end goals in themselves. Republic reminds us that they should be the means to an end. What we should be seeking is goodness, and while freedom and democracy may indeed be useful means to that end, they are not the same as goodness itself any more than justice might be.
  • Objective truth exists. These days we're supposed to "wake up sheeple !" and think and do everything for ourselves. Republic knocks that idea on the head, instead suggesting we should indeed do our own thing but only when we're acknowledged to be good at it - the rest of the time, we should all (rulers included) let other people take over in fields in which we are ignorant.
  • Merit is a fine way in which to determine who's suitable for what. But even the virtues of moderation and the social justice of a meritocracy can be perverted into monstrous, oppressive baby-killing constructs when taken to extremes. This is why I believe that even moderation needs itself to be applied in moderation, otherwise you end up with the bizarre form of moderation of the Republic that hardly looks like a nice place to live.

Given the mass of contradictions, I've got three possibilities as to how to interpret Republic :
  1. Plato was entering his "mad academic" phase, slowly become more conservative as he got older. Gone were the homosexual drunken orgies of the heady days of youth; only sex with girls (and especially older ladies) was permitted now.
  2. So pissed off was Plato with the Athenian's execution of Socrates that he was basically drawing a dick in the sand : "Well SCREW YOU GUYS, I'm going to invent FASCISM. Let's see how you like that for the next couple of thousand years, mmmkay ?"
  3. The Republic itself is a Platonic form. Like other Platonic forms, it's a teaching aid. It can't exist in the real world. Despite some lengthy, practical details as to how it would be arranged it has too many contradictions and fundamental flaws to ever come into being.
Although Republic does feature Plato "on holiday" a lot more than in his other works, it contains too much insight and detail to really take the first option seriously. The execution of Socrates no doubt was hugely influential in shaping Plato's world view of democrats and rhetoricians, as was his witnessing of Athen's many other mistakes, but the clarity of his thought makes it hard to believe that this was a man who didn't understand his own biases (indeed he notes these influences in his supposed letters). We should also remember the mistakes our own democracies are making today. So the second option also looks rather unlikely, although whether that means I think democracy is a fundamentally flawed system I'll leave for a future post.

That leaves option three. Towards the end Plato does say quite explicitly that it doesn't matter if this sort of state never comes to exist, and various sections feel incredibly ironic in context (hundreds of pages of other works exhorting the practise of philosophy, only to here be replaced with crude manipulation and lies to get people to behave "properly").
Then it was in order to have a model that we were trying to discover what justice itself is like and what the completely just man would be like, if he came into being... But we weren’t trying to discover these things in order to prove that it’s possible for them to come into being.
Yet this can't be the whole story. Too much of it is developed in too much detail to believe that Plato didn't genuinely want some aspects of it to be really implemented. Plato elaborates that in order to get as close as possible to the truly just city, the smallest change that would cause the most effect would be to have philosophers in charge.
Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophise, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils, Glaucon, nor, I think, will the human race. And, until this happens, the constitution we’ve been describing in theory will never be born to the fullest extent possible or see the light of the Sun. 
Because of his determination not to state bluntly what he really means, as we saw last time, we'll never know exactly what aspects of the Republic Plato wanted to bring about and which he might have seen as a step too far. Still, it's clear enough that we wanted the rulers to love truth (for its own sake) and learning - all learning, not just one particular branch of knowledge. Coupled with a control but not total suppression of their more worldly desires, that surely is a goal still worth seeking.

Regardless, if we regard the Republic itself as a Platonic form then its usefulness is restored even to those who disagree with it (which is to say practically everyone) as an ideal society. Justice is clearly important, but if it leads to baby murders then by itself, reductio ad absurdum, it cannot possibly be what society most needs. But at least Plato made the necessary distinction between the ends and the means, noting that in a democracy :
Do you notice how all these things together make the citizens’ souls so sensitive that, if anyone even puts upon himself the least degree of slavery, they become angry and cannot endure it. And in the end, as you know, they take no notice of the laws, whether written or unwritten, in order to avoid having any master at all... Extreme freedom can’t be expected to lead to anything but a change to extreme slavery, whether for a private individual or for a city.
Extreme freedom is open to all kinds of abuses. If you give people the freedom to have no laws at all, then tyranny inevitably emerges - the one state (which Plato admits has many advantages while it lasts) transmuting into its opposite. Democracy, according to Plato, gives people an equality that they don't deserve and inevitably abuse. The Republic was a state conceived on the basis that all people are not created equal. In both Lysis and Euthydemus, Plato notes that love doesn't mean letting people do whatever they want; in Second Alcibiades he recognises that we want isn't always what we need. Here he develops those ideas to their full, awesome extreme.

I don't know if I would call Republic a broken masterpiece. Many Platonic themes are developed to the fullest while others are brutally disregarded. Maybe he really did believe that killing babies was essential to a just society. Maybe it was intended to be ironic, or to point out the intrinsic flaws in such a concept. Maybe he thought it would be a jolly good idea if everyone did just a single thing for their entire lives and had no personal freedom whatsoever. It's hard to accept these notions, but on the other hand, the famous allegory of the cave basically boils down to this (though it's expressed much more eloquently) :

But Plato recognised the existence of crazy stupid mad people, so he would surely have realised that the reverse is not true-: just because you sound mad or stupid it does not mean you've actually done some useful research. So there's still scope to view the crazier notions of the Republic as being regarded by Plato as crazy and impractical consequences that are purely theoretical. But which specific ideas we'll never know for sure, though the ideas of censoring stories and music are developed in such depth that it's hard to believe he didn't think they had at least some practical merit.

The Republic is an extremely thought-provoking work that mingles madness with insight. It forcibly attacks many of the ideals we take for granted in modern society; our democratic system being different but sufficiently similar to the ancient Athenian model that Plato's alternative stands in very stark contrast. And not all of our modern ideals survive onslaught. Republic reminds us to differentiate the ends from the means, that people's abilities are not equal in all areas and that we shouldn't hold everyone's opinion to be of equal value in all areas.

Plato certainly made a lot of mistakes, and I'd understand anyone who decided to reject his conclusions out of hand based on some of the things he said. But that would have been a mistake too : as his greatest pupil Aristole said, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."

Perhaps most importantly of all, Plato's thoughts on how democracies fall currently seem all too relevant. It's appealing to fight for the democratisation of knowledge, against the power of the so-called "elites" who are seen as oppressing the masses. Appealing, but wrong, for that is the technique of demagogues and populists. Rather, if you want a democracy that actually works, you have to take a few carefully-selected lessons from Plato and improve the electorate - not just give them ever more and more freedom without the accompanying responsibility it requires. They have to understand that expert knowledge is best handled by experts - you cannot give them the excessive freedom to make decisions about things they don't understand, or the result will be exactly as Plato said it would be : excessive slavery and tyranny. Some freedoms, at least, are not virtues - a single freedom can destroy a thousand others. Crying, "will of the people !" is all too often not the sign of a democrat but the oppressor who would simply use the masses for their own petty gains.

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