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Research: Plato's Republic

Philosophy : Political Philosophy

Key themes


Politics in Plato's time was based around the city-state. Each was relatively small, and developed its own nomoi

Athens, Plato's city, was unusually large and cosmipolitan, and was defended by a navy rather than a land army. These factors lended themselves to the development of democracy, in which around 5% of the population participated (no women, no slaves). Other city states tended to be more militaristic, with despots or oligarchs ruling (e.g. Sparta).

Plato's point of departure was a hatred of Athenian democracy, which he described as the "tyranny of the majority". He saw how orators could manipulate people's emotions (spirit and appetite) to the exclusion of their reason, and thought that Athens lacked a proper education and any proper rule.

The Platonic State

Plato actually describes two ideal states. The first, which he deals with only very briefly, is largely an economic system, in which his chief concern is the efficient management of people's appetive needs. In this state, each person would specialise according to their needs and abilities. Though Plato initially describes this model as "the healthy city" (369b-372e), he later dismisses it, pointing out that there could be no harmony without any rule of reason from without.

Plato's second state, the just state, is a balance between kinds of people in the same way as the just person is a balance in the tripartate soul (see Thrasymachus, Morality and Interest). Those whose souls are dominated by reason are philosophers (or guardians); those whose souls are dominated by spirit are soldiers; those whose souls are dominated by appetite are commoners. A just state is one in which each of these are in balance.

As with the soul, the state must be governed by reason (the guardians). It will also create an education system and social space for philosophy, something not very common or popular in democracies (perhaps Plato was merely setting up a state ideal for his own constitution?), and suitable training for soldiers, tradesmen and workers.

The guardian class must have absolute control; too much liberty in spiritual / apettitive people is bad because it allows them to corrupt themselves without the ministrations of reason.

Objection: This can only be said if philosophers are able to access practical knowledge required to manage a state. The state may also end up serving the interests of the guardian class, having the preservation and promotion of the education system and social space as its primary goal, rather than the wellbeing of the population as a whole.

Since private interests (i.e. family and property) may yet corrupt rulers, Plato suggested that rulers must abolish property and the family within their own class, so that rulers only serve reason. Again, this still opens the door to certain avarice, but it at least guarantees that rulers will judge other cases relating to property more justly. Plato hoped that this would generalise family feelings across the elite class, thus ensuring that a moral education, usually the job of the family, becomes the role of the education system.

One can further object that even if the guardians can't rule in their own appetive interests, they have no motivation to rule in the interests of the soldier and worker classes, so long as the soldiers will continue to defend them, and the workers continue to produce socially necessary goods.

The psychology upon which his state is based is also less than certain. Even if we accept his conception of a tripartite soul, and that different people find different balances, Plato gives us no reason why we should think that people can be categorised so sharply, in particular because the Guardian class, for example, would need to have almost no appetive or spiritual drive whatsoever to be able to live in communistic poverty, without marital or familial relationships. Plato says that it would be impossible for the soldier and worker classes to live under such a communistic system, so why should the guardians not only find it possible, but also desirable?

Julia Annas has also pointed out that Plato provides two alternative interpretations of his theory of virtue in the individual, without firmly committing to either. By a liberal reading, Plato is saying that so long as wealth, health, good food etc. contribute to or supplement the realisation of a person's virtue, then their life is a good one (e.g. if a businessman's virtue is running a bookshop, then it matters not if he happens to make a lot of money out of it, and indeed the money may contribute towards his running an even better bookshop). A more austere version, according to Annas, says that money, good health etc. have no value in themselves, and it is only in my intelligent use of them that my life can become better, rather than their presense. If we assume Plato intended the latter, then one can imagine a proper Guardian not minding his communistic lifestyle, even though the psychology is dubiously stoical.

Leo Strauss has advanced the argument that, since Plato seems to suggest at times that parts of his systems are impossible, he is only advancing the two state models as devices of argumentation, not to be taken seriously themselves, but to be taken seriously as examples of what one could do wrong. But though Plato clearly seems to construct the first model as an example of an unbalanced state, this hypothesis seems inconsistent with the second states basis on Plato's ethical theories described elsewhere, and with the development of the second state in Laws.

Another interesting feature of the guardian class is that women should have an equal role to men. Whether this is because they are freed up from their familial role, or vice versa, is uncertain. But this hardly makes Plato's state a feminist one, since elsewhere in the Republic he is disparaging towards women and "womanish" attitudes. However his arguments for this gender equality are plausibly feminist; he first argues that their gender is irrelevant to the work the guardians do (i.e. the physical differences); secondly, Plato's attention to the sexual appetites of the guardian class show a kind of proto-feminist concern for this force in political philosophy.

Plato, education and myths

An unusual but important aspect of Plato's politics was the method of education, borne out in his own work. Plato saw art, and in particular story telling, as the ideal way to communicate philosophy and other less important (but not trades-based) knowledge. His myth of the cave, used to explain the philosophers' special access to the forms, is a perfect example, which can be used to further explain why the guardian class is necessary. He thought that art should only represent the good things in society, and that artistic value ought to be thought of in terms of a piece's contribution to society.