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Plato’s Just State

Chris Wright ponders Plato’s masterplan.

One of the purposes of Plato’s Republic is to put forth a conception of the ‘just state’. Plato describes how such a state would be organized, who would govern it, what sort of education the children would have, and so on. He goes into great detail, laying out ideas that may at times strike the modern reader as wrongheaded, petty, or even immoral. Sir Karl Popper argued in The Open Society and Its Enemies that Plato’s ideal state is totalitarian, with little freedom of expression allowed, little diversity, and a perverse commitment to a Spartan-like regimentation of social life. Others see evidence of democracy in Plato’s description, for instance in the egalitarianism that characterizes certain aspects of his educational program. I want to ask to what extent Plato’s vision is still relevant – whether it has anything valuable to say to us. And is the Platonic state just or unjust? Is it entirely impracticable, or are there elements that can and should be put into practice? How adequate is the theory of justice on which it is founded? After discussing these questions I will briefly consider the form a modern version of this utopia might take.

Plato’s Definition of Justice

“To do one’s own business and not to be a busybody is justice.” (Republic 433b.) Although the modern reader may find it odd, this is the definition of justice Plato offers. The idea is that justice consists in fulfilling one’s proper role – realizing one’s potential whilst not overstepping it by doing what is contrary to one’s nature. This applies both to the just state and to the just individual. In the just state, each class and each individual has a specific set of duties, a set of obligations to the community which, if everyone fulfils them, will result in a harmonious whole. When a person does what he is supposed to do, he receives whatever credit and remuneration he deserves, and if he fails to do his task, he is appropriately punished.

Thus justice is “the having and doing of one’s own and what belongs to oneself” (434a). Excess and deficiency of any kind are unjust. In this formulation the Platonic definition of justice seems plausible. A thief, for example, is unjust because he wants to have what is not his own. A doctor who does not care about curing his patients of illnesses can be called unjust because he is disregarding his proper role. A murderer acts unjustly since he deprives his victim of that which rightly belongs to him, namely his life. In general, unjust people either do not realize the virtues and duties proper to their situation in life, or treat someone worse than he deserves. Similarly, an unjust state fails to accomplish the functions of a state. According to Plato, these functions of the state include making possible the conditions under which everyone can feed, clothe and shelter themselves, as well as seek the Good.

Plato’s conception of justice is informed by his conviction that everything in nature is part of a hierarchy, and that nature is ideally a vast harmony, a cosmic symphony, every species and every individual serving a purpose. In this vision, anarchy is the supreme vice, the most unnatural and unjust state of affairs. The just state, then, like nature, is hierarchical: individuals are ranked according to their aptitudes, and definitively placed in the social hierarchy.

The individual soul, too, is hierarchical: the appetitive part is inferior to the spirited part, which is inferior to the rational. Yet each has a necessary role to play. Reason should govern the individual, but the appetites must also to an extent be heeded if the person’s soul is to be harmonious and not in conflict with itself. And if every aspect of the soul accomplishes its task well, or fittingly, the result is necessarily a ‘moderate’ and ordered state of affairs. The virtuous individual has a well-ordered soul, which is to say that he knows what justice is and acts according to his knowledge. He knows his place in the state; he knows what his aptitudes are and he puts them into practice. He also adheres to the dictates of reason, doing everything in moderation.

The Platonic worldview is quite foreign to the modern liberal democratic world. We are accustomed to a dynamic, free, at times chaotic society, which knows almost nothing of rigid hierarchies. People are not ranked according to their intrinsic value or their value to society, and any philosophy that reeks of a caste system is decisively rejected. We are not committed to analogies between nature and society; and we do not think of the world as a harmony, even ideally. We like order, but we do not consider it supreme among values. We admire ambitious, driven people, rather than those who are at peace with themselves or do everything in moderation. In general, our culture places little emphasis on a specific ideal, choosing instead to censure types of behavior which interfere with other people’s pursuit of happiness. Plato, however, would consider our ideal state unjust, decadent, anarchical.

Plato lived in an Athens that to his chagrin was in danger of losing its cultural and military preeminence, and was succumbing to disintegrating influences from abroad and from within. He had lived through the terrible time of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, and the Thirty Tyrants, and therefore had intimate experience of the horrors of anarchy. In short, he saw an older, supposedly better, world crumbling around him, and he wanted to understand what had gone wrong and how it could be fixed. The result was that he emphasized order and homogeneity, and upheld the claims of the state over the claims of the individual, while thinking that in a just state full of just individuals, the laws of the former would harmonize with the desires of the latter. For Plato, justice was to be sought in the old, in the static – the assimilation of the individual into the community – not in the new or the dynamic. While Plato did value freedom, he did so much less than we moderns do, as is evidenced in his not emphasizing it in his discussions of justice.

Thus, despite whatever superficial similarities there may be between Plato’s idea of justice and our own, they are fundamentally different, since his worldview is diametrically opposed to ours. In a particular case, such as that of a murder, Plato might judge as we do (largely because we seem to have intuitive ideas of how humans ought to be treated). However, both his explicit definitions of justice and the deeper intuitions that inspire his definitions differ from ours. We conceive of justice as oriented around ideas of individual freedom and the priority of the individual over the community, and we consider it sometimes not only permissible but even meritorious to disobey the state’s laws if they violate certain intuitions about individual rights. Plato’s concept of justice is instead inspired by his conviction that the collective takes ethical precedence over the individual, that there is a cosmic order into which each person is supposed to fit, and that virtue, and to an extent duty, is far more important than rights.

The differences become apparent when we look at larger scales than individuals’ transgressions. Many would agree with Plato that theft is unjust or that the professional who ignores his duties can be called ‘unjust’, and also that tyranny is unjust. But in this last case our respective judgments are based on different reasons. We would say that the tyrant’s injustice consists in his suppressing freedom, killing innocent people, and disregarding democracy and self-determination. Plato, on the other hand, would say that the tyrant is unjust insofar as his acts promote anarchy and prevent his subjects from seeking the Good and living in harmony with themselves and the community. The tyrant upsets the natural order of things.

Another illustration of the difference in our outlooks is in our conceptions of the ideal or just person. According to Plato, the ideal person is a philosopher, since his wisdom means his soul is in complete harmony with itself. The philosopher’s rational faculty governs his passions and appetites, never allowing them free rein, but still respecting their claims on him and indulging them when expedient. He has knowledge of himself and society; he knows what it is to be virtuous; he has a certain amount of equanimity, and he never loses control over himself. By contrast, Plato’s unjust person is divided against himself, torn between his passions and appetites, and has no respect for reason, which alone could unify his soul such that he would be an individual in the literal sense of the word ‘in-dividual’.

Our notion of the ideal person is far less specific than Plato’s. Like Plato’s, it does, to an extent, incorporate the notion of ‘virtue’; but for us virtue is conceived as treating others well rather than as functioning healthily within a community. Our ideal can be called more ‘relational’, in that it emphasizes how others should be treated rather than emphasizing the character of one’s psyche.

Given these differences, one obvious question is which concept of justice (or more fundamentally, which worldview) is better, Plato’s or ours? I have elaborated on neither, merely sketching them. Still, let me suggest an answer: neither Plato’s nor our own is totally satisfactory, but each has its strengths. The most defensible notion of justice, socially or individually, would be a combination of the two, selecting the strengths from each and reconciling them. It would emphasize both the importance of community and the importance of the individual, while succumbing neither to the potential totalitarianism of the Republic, nor to the excessive individualism of modern culture. In the following I’ll briefly describe Plato’s utopia, then consider if it would be desirable to put it into practice.

Plato’s Ideal State

Every reader of the Republic is told that Plato’s intention in discussing the just state is to illuminate the nature of the just soul, for he argues that they are analogous. The state is the soul writ large, so to speak. For example, the divisions of the state correspond to divisions of the soul. But since the soul is difficult to analyze, in the dialogue Socrates says that he will first speculate on the state, and then rely on his speculations to illuminate the nature of justice in the individual.

Superficially, it appears that the lengthy discussion of the state is therefore primarily an interpretative device. Clearly, though, it is more than that. Plato may not have believed that his utopia would work in practice, or even that it would be desirable to institute some of his more radical suggestions, but he certainly attributed some value to his discussion independent of its illustrative function. Judging by Socrates’ language, it’s reasonable to suppose that Plato would have liked to have seen some of his ideas actually implemented in a city-state. He was dissatisfied with the city-states of his day, and was proposing an alternative. So let’s look at its details.

In Plato’s ideal state there are three major classes, corresponding to the three parts of the soul. The guardians, who are philosophers, govern the city; the auxiliaries are soldiers who defend it; and the lowest class comprises the producers (farmers, artisans, etc). The guardians and auxiliaries have the same education, which begins with music and literature and ends with gymnastics. The arts are censored for educational purposes: for example, any poetic writings which attribute ignoble doings to the gods cannot be taught. Only poetry which nourishes the budding virtues of the pupils can be part of the curriculum. Similarly, musical modes which sound sorrowful, soft, or feminine, are banished from the education of the guardians. This apparently leaves only the Dorian and Phrygian modes, of which . Socrates approves because they incite the listener to courage, temperance, and harmonious living. Certain instruments, such as the flute, are also forbidden from the ideal city-state, as are certain poetic meters, since Socrates associates them with vice.

Indeed, then, life in Plato’s ideal state has affinities with life under a totalitarian government. The laws which Socrates suggests are repressive. People are allowed to have only one occupation – namely that for which they are best suited by nature. Evidently there is no division between the public and the private. Only what is conducive to temperate living is encouraged, and excess and vice of any kind are strongly discouraged. Neither wealth nor poverty is permitted, as each leads to vice.

Plato’s thoughts on women and children may be even more horrifying to the average liberal. He argues via Socrates that the traditional form of the family should be done away with. Men should have women and children in common, such that no man knows who his children are or has excessive love for one woman in particular. Even mothers are not allowed to know who their children are. Their children are taken from them after birth, and they are given other children to suckle as long as they have milk.

Plato’s breeding principles sound ominously like the Nazi idea, and Spartan practice, of killing weak and deformed infants. He says:

“the best of either sex should be united with the best as often [as possible], and the inferior with the inferior as seldom as possible; and they should rear the offspring of the one sort of union, but not of the other, if the flock is to be maintained in first-rate condition. Now these goings-on must be a secret which only the rulers know, or there will be a further danger of our herd, as they may be termed, breaking out into rebellion.”

More congenial to modern sentiment is Plato’s suggestion that women in the guardian class should receive the same education as men, so that the best of them can assist in war and governance. There is no private property or money except insofar as it is necessary, among the lower classes; therefore there will be no disputes about what belongs to whom – just as there will be no disputes about which women belong to whom, and who one’s children are. In general, the goal Plato is aiming at is that everyone thinks of everyone else as a member of their family, such that there is little or no strife between people and they all desire the same thing – which is harmony, temperance, gentleness toward fellow-citizens and harshness toward people from other states – a unified front on all issues, as it were. The health of the community is the overriding principle in all spheres of life. All of Plato’s radical prescriptions follow from that one principle.

Sedition & Subversion

What are we to make of these ideas? What should we take from them? Do they represent a mere historical curiosity – a way of gaining insight into Plato’s mind or into his culture – or do they have independent philosophical and political merit?

My opinion is that their obvious totalitarianism makes it a very good thing that Plato’s just state was never constructed. This is where my fidelity to modern ideologies shows itself. I think that Hegel was right in his assessment of liberalism: it has so to speak ‘discovered’ the importance of subjectivity, and thus serves as a needed corrective to totalitarian excesses. The individual is not ethically subordinate to the community; her health, and especially her freedom, are no less important than communal harmony. Indeed, unless a person feels free, he cannot be psychologically healthy.

Plato underestimates the value of self-determination: its foundational importance to self-respect and hence to justice, even in his sense of the term. Plato’s guardians perhaps exhibit the virtues and enjoy the satisfactions of self-determination; but everyone else in Plato’s utopia is to be forced by the philosopher-king(s) to live their lives in a fundamentally unfree (non self-determining) way. They will thus lack complete self-respect and contentment: the mere knowledge that they are in an inferior position relative to others will breed discontent, which will upset their psychological equilibrium, the harmony of their faculties and desires with each other, and with their place in the world. In other words it will set each of them at war with himself and with the state. Accordingly, as Plato himself implies, this will make for unjust individuals. By denying most of its citizens true freedom – the opportunity to discover themselves and their talents unhindered by oppressive laws promulgated by an oppressive regime – Plato’s utopia will make their dissatisfaction with themselves and the community inevitable, which is bad not only in itself but also because it means people are unjust, ie self-divided. Thus the Platonic utopia makes impossible the very virtues it was meant to promote.

The need for recognition is a basic psychological need. People want to recognize themselves in their activities, in the world, in other people’s reactions to them. But no one who is conscious of oppressive restrictions on his behavior can think that his deepest sense of himself is being recognized by the community which censors him. Rather, he may be full of resentment, tormented by repressed desires, and desperate to break free of the shackles and spontaneously affirm himself – to actualize his full, rich sense of who he is and wants to be. No one can feel good about himself unless his activities grow out of his own ideals and self-perceptions. They must emerge organically from his spontaneous sense of himself. Genuine recognition is impossible except on the basis of freedom, so any social order that does not allow freedom among its participants is inherently unstable, having the potential for rebellion built into it. Every major culture in history, then, has been erected on somewhat tenuous and transient foundations; but Plato’s utopia in particular would soon collapse.

Plato was right that the interests of the individual ultimately coincide with the interests of the community, for a community is only as healthy as the people who participate in it, and vice versa. Where he went wrong was in failing to understand the prerequisites of the self-harmony that he rightly thought constituted individual and communal happiness – the prerequisites being freedom, and the perception that one’s sense of self is appreciated by others. Modern liberal ideologies over-compensate for this deficiency in Plato. They have an impoverished view of what freedom is and why it is good, for they exalt the concept of an isolated, ahistorical individual who needs nothing but protection from other people rather than genuine and durable ties with them. Protection is of secondary importance: the essence of freedom, the reason why it is desired in the first place, is that it is inseparable from interpersonal union – from mutual recognition of each person’s self-determined activities as being his, as being him. In a truly free society there would be no atomization, and no artificial legal barriers to interpersonal understanding and recognition, to communal self-realization. People live in and through the community. Far from needing protection from it, they feel deprived without it.

Other Ideal States

Socrates remarks in the Republic that although his (Plato’s) utopia may be unrealizable, it is useful as an ideal or a standard by which we can criticize existing institutions. While I disagree with Plato’s version of utopia, I agree that it is a worthy task to formulate social ideals. In doing so, we at least posit an ideal state we can strive to realize, even if in its final details this is impossible. With that in mind, I suggest that something like properly democratic communism is the ideal we should use to critique the present, since it reconciles Plato’s emphasis on the community with the modern emphasis on individual freedom. Indeed, Marx’s ideal of a communist utopia is not merely ‘Marxist’; it is heir to both the Platonic and the liberal utopias. This statement may seem paradoxical, if only because Platonism and liberalism are diametrically opposed, as we have seen. But consider what is involved in Marx’s ideal society. First of all, classes would not exist. That is, Marx claims in the Communist Manifesto (1848) that after a period of state socialism and redistribution of wealth, separate classes will no longer exist and the state will no longer be needed.

Marx’s classless utopia is not as blatantly incompatible with Platonism as it might seem, since, for one thing, the Marxist definition of ‘class’ is very different from the Platonic. Plato incorporates a fusion of political and economic criteria: the lowest class is involved in productive economic activities but has no political power, while the highest class has all the political power, but no economic activity. For Marx, on the other hand, the definition of class is exclusively economic, based on the group’s role in the process of production. For Marx there are basically two classes, namely the capitalists and the workers.

My points are, first, that rather than contradicting Plato, Marx adopts a different starting-point. Second, while Marxist ideology does contradict Platonism in its classless and popularist ideals, it does so on the basis of a deep sympathy with Plato’s goals. Both are concerned with the health and wholeness of the community, the durability of its social structures, the happiness of its citizens, and the justice of its political and economic arrangements. To that extent, communism is a descendant of Plato’s republicanism: it too is an ideology built on the conviction that the community is an organic whole and not merely an aggregate of individuals, and therefore that social structures – the relational ties between people – take priority over the behavior of atomized individuals, both in a scientific analysis of society, and also in the formulation of an ethical ideal. Where Marx’s ideal state differs from Plato’s is not in its goal or inspiration, then, but in its means of realizing its goal, or more accurately, in the structures it posits as constitutive of that goal – viz, democracy, universal economic and political cooperation, the absence of coercive social mechanisms, and so forth. These political structures have more in common with liberalism than Platonism, as they place great emphasis on the freedom of the individual.

Marx does reject liberal talk of rights and the rule of law, but he does so precisely because he understands that such talk is symptomatic of the incomplete realization of the liberal goal of self-determination. To achieve his purer vision of liberalism, Marx thinks that capitalism, together with its ideologies exalting private property with its corresponding laws, rights, and so on, must be transcended, as it suppresses and dehumanizes people.

Despite the differences between Plato’s conception of justice and our own, elements of his philosophy can be reconciled with elements of our liberal democratic ideology. I also suggested that Plato’s ‘communitarian’ intuition was largely right, even if his means of realizing it were dangerously wrong. Also, the ideal individual should indeed be self-unified and have self-control, and Plato was right that, on the whole, such individuals will not arise except in socially harmonious conditions.

Marx retained some of Plato’s intuitions while discarding the totalitarian doctrines which would make the achievement of Plato’s ‘perfect community’ impossible. I think we should do as Marx did, at least in theory (even if in practice his ‘followers’ deviated far from his ideals), and adopt the liberal features of Plato’s notion of social justice while casting off its totalitarian undertones. If we did so, I suspect life would become a little better than it is now, in our confused and atomized world.

© Christopher C. Wright 2012

Chris Wright studied postgraduate philosophy at the University of Missouri – St Louis.


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