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Default Plato's Political Philosophy.

1. Life - from Politics to Philosophy.

Plato was born in Athens in c. 427 B.C.E. Until his mid-twenties, Athens was
involved in a long and disastrous military conflict with Sparta, known as
the Peloponnesian War. Coming from a distinguished family - on his father’s
side descending from Codrus, one of the early kings of Athens, and on his
mother’s side from Solon, the prominent reformer of the Athenian
constitution - he was naturally destined to take an active role in political
life. But this never happened. Although cherishing the hope of assuming a
significant place in his political community, he found himself continually
thwarted. As he relates in his autobiographical Seventh Letter, he could not
identify himself with any of the contending political parties or the
succession of corrupt regimes, each of which brought Athens to further
decline (324b-326a). He was a pupil of Socrates, whom he considered the most
just man of his time, and who, although did not leave any writings behind,
exerted a large influence on philosophy. It was Socrates who, in Cicero’s
words, “called down philosophy from the skies.” The pre-Socratic
philosophers were mostly interested in cosmology and ontology; Socrates’
concerns, in contrast, were almost exclusively moral and political issues.
In 399 when a democratic court voted by a large majority of its five hundred
and one jurors for Socrates’ execution on an unjust charge of impiety, Plato
came to the conclusion that all existing governments were bad and almost
beyond redemption. “The human race will have no respite from evils until
those who are really philosophers acquire political power or until, through
some divine dispensation, those who rule and have political authority in the
cities become real philosophers” (326a-326b).

It was perhaps because of this opinion that he retreated to his Academy and
to Sicily for implementing his ideas. He visited Syracuse first in 387, then
in 367, and again in 362-361, with the general purpose to moderate the
Sicilian tyrants with philosophical education and to establish a model
political rule. But this adventure with practical politics ended in failure,
and Plato went back to Athens. His Academy, which provided a base for
succeeding generations of Platonic philosophers until its final closure in
C.E. 529, became the most famous teaching institution of the Hellenistic
world. Mathematics, rhetoric, astronomy, dialectics, and other subjects, all
seen as necessary for the education of philosophers and statesmen, were
studied there. Some of Plato’s pupils later became leaders, mentors, and
constitutional advisers in Greek city-states. His most renowned pupil was
Aristotle. Plato died in c. 347 B.C.E. During his lifetime, Athens turned
away from her military and imperial ambitions and became the intellectual
center of Greece. She gave host to all the four major Greek philosophical
schools founded in the course of the fourth century: Plato’s Academy,
Aristotle’s Lyceum, and the Epicurean and Stoic schools.

2. The Threefold Task of Political Philosophy.

Although the Republic, the Statesman, the Laws and a few shorter dialogues
are considered to be the only strictly political dialogues of Plato, it can
be argued that political philosophy was the area of his greatest concern. In
the English-speaking world, under the influence of twentieth century
analytic philosophy, the main task of political philosophy today is still
often seen as conceptual analysis: the clarification of political concepts.
To understand what this means, it may be useful to think of concepts as the
uses of words. When we use general words, such as “table,” “chair,” “pen,”
or political terms, such as “state,” “power,” “democracy,” or “freedom,” by
applying them to different things, we understand them in a certain way, and
hence assign to them certain meanings. Conceptual analysis then is a mental
clearance, the clarification of a concept in its meaning. As such it has a
long tradition and is first introduced in Platonic dialogues. Although the
results are mostly inconclusive, in “early” dialogues especially, Socrates
tries to define and clarify various concepts. However, in contrast to what
it is for some analytic philosophers, for Plato conceptual analysis is not
an end to itself, but a preliminary step. The next step is critical
evaluation of beliefs, deciding which one of the incompatible ideas is
correct and which one is wrong. For Plato, making decisions about the right
political order are, along with the choice between peace and war, the most
important choices one can make in politics. Such decisions cannot be left
solely to public opinion, he believes, which in many cases does not have
enough foresight and gets its lessons only post factum from disasters
recorded in history. In his political philosophy, the clarification of
concepts is thus a preliminary step in evaluating beliefs, and right beliefs
in turn lead to an answer to the question of the best political order. The
movement from conceptual analysis, through evaluation of beliefs, to the
best political order can clearly be seen in the structure of Plato’s

3. The Quest for Justice in The Republic.

One of the most fundamental ethical and political concepts is justice. It is
a complex and ambiguous concept. It may refer to individual virtue, the
order of society, as well as individual rights in contrast to the claims of
the general social order. In Book I of the Republic, Socrates and his
interlocutors discuss the meaning of justice. Four definitions that report
how the word “justice” (dikaiosune) is actually used, are offered. The old
man of means Cephalus suggests the first definition. Justice is “speaking
the truth and repaying what one has borrowed” (331d). Yet this definition,
which is based on traditional moral custom and relates justice to honesty
and goodness; i.e. paying one’s debts, speaking the truth, loving one’s
country, having good manners, showing proper respect for the gods, and so
on, is found to be inadequate. It cannot withstand the challenge of new
times and the power of critical thinking. Socrates refutes it by presenting
a counterexample. If we tacitly agree that justice is related to goodness,
to return a weapon that was borrowed from someone who, although once sane,
has turned into a madman does not seem to be just but involves a danger of
harm to both sides. Cephalus’ son Polemarchus, who continues the discussion
after his father leaves to offer a sacrifice, gives his opinion that the
poet Simonides was correct in saying that it was just “to render to each his
due” (331e). He explains this statement by defining justice as “treating
friends well and enemies badly” (332d). Under the pressure of Socrates’
objections that one may be mistaken in judging others and thus harm good
people, Polemarchus modifies his definition to say that justice is “to treat
well a friend who is good and to harm an enemy who is bad” (335a). However,
when Socrates finally objects that it cannot be just to harm anyone, because
justice cannot produce injustice, Polemarchus is completely confused. He
agrees with Socrates that justice, which both sides tacitly agree relates to
goodness, cannot produce any harm, which can only be caused by injustice.
Like his father, he withdraws from the dialogue. The careful reader will
note that Socrates does not reject the definition of justice implied in the
saying of Simonides, who is called a wise man, namely, that “justice is
rendering to each what befits him” (332b), but only its explication given by
Polemarchus. This definition is, nevertheless, found unclear.

The first part of Book I of the Republic ends in a negative way, with
parties agreeing that none of the definitions provided stands up to
examination and that the original question “What is justice?” is more
difficult to answer than it seemed to be at the outset. This negative
outcome can be seen as a linguistic and philosophical therapy. Firstly,
although Socrates’ objections to given definitions can be challenged, it is
shown, as it stands, that popular opinions about justice involve
inconsistencies. They are inconsistent with other opinions held to be true.
The reportive definitions based on everyday usage of the word “justice” help
us perhaps to understand partially what justice means, but fail to provide a
complete account of what is justice. These definitions have to be supplied
by a definition that will assist clarity and establish the meaning of
justice. However, to propose such an adequate definition one has to know
what justice really is. The way people define a given word is largely
determined by the beliefs which they hold about the thing referred to by
this word. A definition that is merely arbitrary or either too narrow or too
broad, based on a false belief about justice, does not give the possibility
of communication. Platonic dialogues are expressions of the ultimate
communication that can take place between humans; and true communication is
likely to take place only if individuals can share meanings of the words
they use. Communication based on false beliefs, such as statements of
ideology, is still possible, but seems limited, dividing people into
factions, and, as history teaches us, can finally lead only to confusion.
The definition of justice as “treating friends well and enemies badly” is
for Plato not only inadequate because it is too narrow, but also wrong
because it is based on a mistaken belief of what justice is, namely, on the
belief grounded in factionalism, which Socrates does not associate with the
wise ones but with tyrants (336a). Therefore, in the Republic, as well as in
other Platonic dialogues, there is a relationship between conceptual
analysis and critical evaluation of beliefs. The goals of these
conversations are not merely linguistic, to arrive at an adequate verbal
definition, but also substantial, to arrive at a right belief. The question
“what is justice” is not only about linguistic usage of the word “justice,”
but primarily about the thing to which the word refers. The focus of the
second part of Book I is no longer clarification of concepts, but evaluation
of beliefs.

In Platonic dialogues, rather than telling them what they have to think,
Socrates is often getting his interlocutors to tell him what they think. The
next stage of the discussion of the meaning of justice is taken over by
Thrasymachus, a sophist, who violently and impatiently bursts into the
dialogue. In the fifth and fourth century B.C.E., the sophists were paid
teachers of rhetoric and other practical skills, mostly non-Athenians,
offering courses of instruction and claiming to be best qualified to prepare
young men for success in public life. Plato describes the sophists as
itinerant individuals, known for their rhetorical abilities, who reject
religious beliefs and traditional morality, and he contrasts them with
Socrates, who as a teacher would refuse to accept payment and instead of
teaching skills would commit himself to a disinterested inquiry into what is
true and just. In a contemptuous manner, Thrasymachus asks Socrates to stop
talking nonsense and look into the facts. As a clever man of affairs, he
gives an answer to the question of “what is justice” by deriving justice
from the city’s configuration of power and making it relative to the
interests of the dominant social or political group. “Justice is nothing
else than the interest of the stronger” (338c). Now, by contrast to what
some commentators say, the statement that Thrasymachus offers as an answer
to Socrates’ question about justice is not a definition. The careful reader
will notice that Thrasymachus identifies justice with either maintenance or
observance of law. His statement is an expression of his belief that, in the
world imperfect as it is, the ruling element in the city, or as we would say
today the dominant political or social group, institutes laws and governs
for its own benefit (338d). The democrats make laws in support of democracy;
the aristocrats make laws that support the government of the well-born; the
propertied make laws that protect their status and keep their businesses
going; and so on. This belief implies, firstly, that justice is not a
universal moral value but a notion relative to expediency of the dominant
status quo group; secondly, that justice is in the exclusive interest of the
dominant group; thirdly, that justice is used as a means of oppression and
thus is harmful to the powerless; fourthly, that there is neither any common
good nor harmony of interests between those who are in a position of power
and those who are not. All there is, is a domination by the powerful and
privileged over the powerless. The moral language of justice is used merely
instrumentally to conceal the interests of the dominant group and to make
these interests appear universal. The powerful “declare what they have made
- what is to their own advantage - to be just” (338e). The arrogance with
which Thrasymachus makes his statements suggests that he strongly believes
that to hold a different view from his own would be to mislead oneself about
the world as it is.

After presenting his statement, Thrasymachus intends to leave as if he
believed that what he said was so compelling that no further debate about
justice was ever possible (344d). In the Republic he exemplifies the power
of a dogma. Indeed he presents Socrates with a powerful challenge. Yet,
whether or not what he said sounds attractive to anyone, Socrates is not
convinced by the statement of his beliefs. Beliefs shape our lives as
individuals, nations, ages, and civilizations. Should we really believe that
“justice [obeying laws] is really the good of another, the advantage of the
stronger and the ruler, harmful to the one who obeys, while injustice
[disobeying laws] is in one’s own advantage” (343c)? The discussion between
Socrates and his interlocutors is no longer about the meaning of “justice.”
It is about fundamental beliefs and “concerns no ordinary topic but the way
we ought to live” (352d). Although in Book I Socrates finally succeeds in
showing Thrasymachus that his position is self-contradictory and
Thrasymachus withdraws from the dialogue, perhaps not fully convinced, yet
red-faced, in Book II Thrasymachus’ argument is taken over by two young
intellectuals, Plato’s brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, who for the sake of
curiosity and a playful intellectual exercise push it to the limit
(358c-366d). Thrasymachus withdraws, but his statement: moral skepticism and
relativism, predominance of power in human relations, and non-existence of
the harmony of interests, hovers over the Western mind. It takes whole
generations of thinkers to struggle with Thrasymachus’ beliefs, and the
debate still continues. It takes the whole remainder of the Republic to
present an argument in defense of justice as a universal value and the
foundation of the best political order.

4. The Best Political Order.

Although large parts of the Republic are devoted to the description of an
ideal state ruled by philosophers and its subsequent decline, the chief
theme of the dialogue is justice. It is fairly clear that Plato does not
introduce his fantastical political innovation, which Socrates describes as
a city in speech, a model in heaven, for the purpose of practical
implementation (592a-b). The vision of the ideal state is used rather to
illustrate the main thesis of the dialogue that justice, understood
traditionally as virtue and related to goodness, is the foundation of a good
political order, and as such is in everyone’s interest. Justice, if rightly
understood, Plato argues, is not to the exclusive advantage of any of the
city’s factions, but is concerned with the common good of the whole
political community, and is to the advantage of everyone. It provides the
city with a sense of unity, and thus, is a basic condition for its health.
“Injustice causes civil war, hatred, and fighting, while justice brings
friendship and a sense of common purpose” (351d). In order to understand
further what justice and political order are for Plato, it is useful to
compare his political philosophy with the pre-philosophical insights of
Solon, who is referred to in a few dialogues. Biographical information about
Plato is fairly scarce. The fact that he was related through his mother to
this famous Athenian legislator, statesman and poet, regarded as one of the
“Seven Sages,” may be treated as merely incidental. On the other hand,
taking into consideration that in Plato’s times education would have been
passed on to children informally at home, it seems highly probable that
Plato was not only well acquainted with the deeds and ideas of Solon, but
that these deeply influenced him.

The essence of the constitutional reform which Solon made in 593 B.C.E.,
over one hundred and fifty years before Plato’s birth, when he became the
Athenian leader, was the restoration of righteous order, eunomia. In the
early part of the sixth century Athens was disturbed by a great tension
between two parties: the poor and the rich, and stood at the brink of a
fierce civil war. On the one hand, because of an economic crisis, many
poorer Athenians were hopelessly falling into debt, and since their loans
were often secured by their own persons, thousands of them were put into
serfdom. On the other hand, lured by easy profits from loans, the rich stood
firmly in defense of private property and their ancient privileges. The
partisan strife, which seemed inevitable, would make Athens even more weak
economically and defenseless before external enemies. Appointed as a
mediator in this conflict, Solon enacted laws prohibiting loans on the
security of the person. He lowered the rate of interest, ordered the
cancellation of all debts, and gave freedom to serfs. He acted so moderately
and impartially that he became unpopular with both parties. The rich felt
hurt by the reform. The poor, unable to hold excess in check, demanded a
complete redistribution of landed property and the dividing of it into equal
shares. Nevertheless, despite these criticisms from both sides, Solon
succeeded in gaining social peace. Further, by implementing new
constitutional laws, he set up a “mighty shield against both parties and did
not allow either to win an unjust victory” (Aristotle, The Athenian
Constitution). He introduced a system of checks and balances which would not
favor any side, but took into consideration legitimate interests of all
social groups. In his position, he could easily have become the tyrant over
the city, but he did not seek power for himself. After he completed his
reform, he left Athens in order to see whether it would stand the test of
time, and returned to his country only ten years later. Even though in 561
Pisistratus seized power and became the first in a succession of Athenian
tyrants, and in 461 the democratic leader Ephialtes abolished the checks
upon popular sovereignty, Solon’s reform provided the ancient Greeks with a
model of both political leadership and order based on impartiality and
fairness. Justice for Solon is not an arithmetical equality: giving equal
shares to all alike irrespective of merit, which represents the democratic
concept of distributive justice, but it is equity or fairness based on
difference: giving shares proportionate to the merit of those who receive
them. The same ideas of political order, leadership, and justice can be
found in Plato’s dialogues.

For Plato, like for Solon, the starting point for the inquiry about the best
political order is the fact of social diversity and conflicting interests,
which involve the danger of civil strife. The political community consists
of different parts or social classes, such as the noble, the rich, and the
poor, each representing different values, interests, and claims to rule.
This gives rise to the controversy of who should rule the community, and
what is the best political system. In both the Republic and the Laws, Plato
asserts not only that factionalism and civil war are the greatest dangers to
the city, more dangerous even than war against external enemies, but also
that peace obtained by the victory of one part and the destruction of its
rivals is not to be preferred to social peace obtained through the
friendship and cooperation of all the city’s parts (Republic 462a-b, Laws
628a-b). Peace for Plato is, unlike for Marxists and other radical thinkers,
not a status quo notion, related to the interest of the privileged group,
but a value that most people usually desire. He does not stand for war and
the victory of one class, but for peace in social diversity. “The best is
neither war nor faction - they are things we should pray to be spared from -
but peace and mutual good will” (628c). Building on the pre-philosophical
insights of Solon and his concept of balancing conflicting interests, in
both the Republic and the Laws, Plato offers two different solutions to the
same problem of social peace based on the equilibrium and harmonious union
of different social classes. If in the Republic it is the main function of
the political leadership of philosopher-rulers to make the civil strife
cease, in the Laws this mediating function is taken over by laws. The best
political order for Plato is that which promotes social peace in the
environment of cooperation and friendship among different social groups,
each benefiting from and each adding to the common good. The best form of
government, which he advances in the Republic, is a philosophical
aristocracy or monarchy, but that which he proposes in his last dialogue the
Laws is a traditional polity: the mixed or composite constitution that
reconciles different partisan interests and includes aristocratic,
oligarchic, and democratic elements.

5. The Government of Philosopher Rulers.

It is generally believed today that democracy, “government of the people by
the people and for the people,” is the best and only fully justifiable
political system. The distinct features of democracy are freedom and
equality. Democracy can be described as the rule of the free people who
govern themselves, either directly or though their representatives, in their
own interest. Why does Plato not consider democracy the best form of
government? In the Republic he criticizes the direct and unchecked democracy
of his time precisely because of its leading features (557a-564a). Firstly,
although freedom is for Plato a true value, democracy involves the danger of
excessive freedom, of doing as one likes, which leads to anarchy. Secondly,
equality, related to the belief that everyone has the right and equal
capacity to rule, brings to politics all kinds of power-seeking individuals,
motivated by personal gain rather than public good. Democracy is thus highly
corruptible. It opens gates to demagogues, potential dictators, and can thus
lead to tyranny. Hence, although it may not be applicable to modern liberal
democracies, Plato’s main charge against the democracy he knows from the
ancient Greek political practice is that it is unstable, leading from
anarchy to tyranny, and that it lacks leaders with proper skill and morals.
Democracy depends on chance and must be mixed with competent leadership
(501b). Without able and virtuous leaders, such as Solon or Pericles, who
come and go by chance, it is not a good form of government. But even
Pericles, who as Socrates says made people “wilder” rather than more
virtuous, is considered not to be the best leader (Gorgias, 516c). If ruling
a state is a craft, indeed statecraft, Plato argues, then politics needs
expert rulers, and they cannot come to it merely by accident, but must be
carefully selected and prepared in the course of extensive training. Making
political decisions requires good judgment. Politics needs competence, at
least in the form of today’s civil servants. Who then should the experts be
and why? Why does Plato in the Republic decide to hand the steering wheel of
the state to philosophers?

In spite of the idealism with which he is usually associated, Plato is not
politically naive. He does not idealize, but is deeply pessimistic about
human beings. Most people, corrupted as they are, are for him fundamentally
irrational, driven by their appetites, egoistic passions, and informed by
false beliefs. If they choose to be just and obey laws, it is only because
they lack the power to act criminally and are afraid of punishment
(Republic, 359a). Nevertheless, human beings are not vicious by nature. They
are social animals, incapable of living alone (369a-b). Living in
communities and exchanging products of their labor is natural for them, so
that they have capacities for rationality and goodness. Plato, as later
Rousseau, believes that once political society is properly ordered, it can
contribute to the restoration of morals. A good political order, good
education and upbringing can produce “good natures; and [these] useful
natures, who are in turn well educated, grow up even better than their
predecessors” (424a). Hence, there are in Plato such elements of the
idealistic or liberal world view as the belief in education and progress,
and a hope for a better future. The quality of human life can be improved if
people learn to be rational and understand that their real interests lie in
harmonious cooperation with one another, and not in war or partisan strife.
However, unlike Rousseau, Plato does not see the best social and political
order in a democratic republic. Opinions overcome truth in everyday life.
Peoples’ lives and the lives of communities are shaped by the prevailing
beliefs. If philosophers are those who can distinguish between true and
false beliefs, who love knowledge and are motivated by the common good, and
finally if they are not only master-theoreticians, but also the
master-practitioners who can heal the ills of their society, then they, and
not democratically elected representatives, must be chosen as leaders and
educators of the political community and guide it to proper ends. They are
required to counteract the destabilizing effects of false beliefs on
society. Are philosophers incorruptible? In the ideal city there are
provisions to minimize possible corruption, even among the good-loving
philosophers. They can neither enjoy private property nor family life.
Although they are the rulers, they receive only a modest remuneration from
the state, dine in common dining halls, and have wives and children in
common. These provisions are necessary, Plato believes, because if the
philosopher-rulers were to acquire private land, luxurious homes, and money
themselves, they would soon become hostile masters of other citizens rather
than their leaders and allies (417a-b). The ideal city becomes a bad one,
described as timocracy, precisely when the philosophers neglect music and
physical exercise, and begin to gather wealth (547b).

To be sure, Plato’s philosophers, among whom he includes both men and women,
are not those who can usually be found today in departments of philosophy
and who are described as the “prisoners who take refuge in a temple” (495a).
Initially chosen from among the brightest, most stable, and most courageous
children, they go through a sophisticated and prolonged educational training
which begins with gymnastics, music and mathematics, and ends with
dialectic, military service and practical city management. They have
superior theoretical knowledge, including the knowledge of the just, noble,
good and advantageous, but are not inferior to others in practical matters
as well (484d, 539e). Being in the final stage of their education
illuminated by the idea of the good, they are those who can see beyond
changing empirical phenomena and reflect on such timeless values as justice,
beauty, truth, and moderation (501b, 517b). Goodness is not merely a
theoretical idea for them, but the ultimate state of their mind. If the life
of the philosopher-rulers is not of private property, family or wealth, nor
even of honor, and if the intellectual life itself seems so attractive, why
should they then agree to rule? Plato’s answer is in a sense a negative one.
Philosophical life, based on contemplative leisure and the pleasure of
learning, is indeed better and happier than that of ruling the state (519d).
However, the underlying idea is not to make any social class in the city the
victorious one and make it thus happy, but “to spread happiness throughout
the city by bringing the citizens into harmony with each other ... and by
making them share with each other the benefits that each class can confer on
the community” (519e). Plato assumes that a city in which the rulers do not
govern out of desire for private gain, but are least motivated by personal
ambition, is governed in the way which is the finest and freest from civil
strife (520d). Philosophers will rule not only because they will be best
prepared for this, but also because if they do not, the city will no longer
be well governed and may fall prey to economic decline, factionalism, and
civil war. They will approach ruling not as something really enjoyable, but
as something necessary (347c-d).

Objections against the government of philosopher-rulers can be made.
Firstly, because of the restrictions concerning family and private property,
Plato is often accused of totalitarianism. However, Plato’s political vision
differs from a totalitarian state in a number of important aspects.
Especially in the Laws he makes clear that freedom is one of the main values
of society (701d). Other values for which Plato stands include justice,
friendship, wisdom, courage, and moderation, and not factionalism or terror
that can be associated with a totalitarian state. The restrictions which he
proposes are placed on the governors, rather than on the governed. Secondly,
one can argue that there may obviously be a danger in the self-professed
claim to rule of the philosophers. Individuals may imagine themselves to be
best qualified to govern a country, but in fact they may lose contact with
political realities and not be good leaders at all. If philosopher-rulers
did not have real knowledge of their city, they would be deprived of the
essential credential that is required to make their rule legitimate, namely,
that they alone know how best to govern. Indeed, at the end of Book VII of
the Republic where philosophers’ education is discussed, Socrates says: “I
forgot that we were only playing, and so I spoke too vehemently” (536b), as
if to imply that objections can be made to philosophical rule. As in a few
other places in the dialogue, Plato throws his political innovation open to
doubt. However, in Plato’s view, philosopher-rulers do not derive their
authority solely from their expert knowledge, but also from their love of
the city as a whole and their impartiality and fairness. Their political
authority is not only rational but also substantially moral, based on the
consent of the governed. They regard justice as the most important and most
essential thing (540e). Even if particular political solutions presented in
the Republic may be open to questioning, what seems to stand firm is the
basic idea that underlies philosophers’ governance and that can be traced
back to Solon: the idea of fairness based on difference as the basis of the
righteous political order. A political order based on fairness leads to
friendship and cooperation among different parts of the city.

For Plato, as for Solon, government exists for the benefit of all citizens
and all social classes, and must mediate between potentially conflicting
interests. Such a mediating force is exercised in the ideal city of the
Republic by the philosopher-rulers. They are the guarantors of the political
order that is encapsulated in the norm that regulates just relations of
persons and classes within the city and is expressed by the phrase: “doing
one’s own work and not meddling with what isn’t one’s own” (433a-b). If
justice is related to equality, the notion of equality is indeed preserved
in Plato’s view of justice expressed by this norm as the impartial, equal
treatment of all citizens and social groups. It is not the case that Plato
knew that justice meant equality but made it inequality, as Karl Popper
believed. In the ideal city all persons and social groups are given equal
opportunities to be happy, i.e. pursue happiness, but not at the expense of
others. Their particular individual, group or class happiness is limited by
the need of the happiness for all. The happiness of the whole city is not
for Plato the happiness of an abstract unity called the polis, or the
happiness of the greatest number, but rather the happiness of all citizens
derived from a peaceful, harmonious, and cooperative union of different
social classes. According to the traditional definition of justice by
Simonides from Book I, which is reinterpreted in Book IV, as “doing one’s
own work,” each social class receives its proper due in the distribution of
benefits and burdens. The philosopher-rulers enjoy respect and contemplative
leisure, but not wealth or honors; the guardian class, the second class in
the city, military honors, but not leisure or wealth; and the producer
class, family life, wealth, and freedom of enterprise, but not honors or
rule. Then, the producers supply the city with goods; the guardians, defend
it; and the philosophers, attuned to virtue and illuminated by goodness,
rule it impartially for the common benefit of all citizens. The three
different social classes engage in mutually beneficial enterprise, by which
the interests of all are best served. Social and economic differences, i.e.
departures from equality, bring about benefits to people in all social
positions, and therefore, are justified. In the Platonic vision of the
Republic, all social classes get to perform what they are best fit to do and
are unified into a single community by mutual interests. In this sense,
although each are different, they are all friends.

6. Politics and the Soul.

It can be contended that the whole argument of the Republic is made in
response to the denial of justice as a universal moral value expressed in
Thrasymachus’ statement: “Justice is nothing else than the interest of the
stronger.” Moral relativism, the denial of the harmony of interests, and
other problems posed by this statement are a real challenge for Plato for
whom justice is not merely a notion relative to the existing laws instituted
by the victorious factions in power. In the Laws a similar statement is made
again (714c), and it is interpreted as the right of the strong, the winner
in a political battle (715a). By such interpretation, morality is denied and
the right to govern, like in the “Melian Dialogue” of Thucydides, is equated
simply with might. The decisions about morals and justice which we make are
for Plato “no trifle, but the foremost thing” (714b). The answer to the
question of what is right and what is wrong can entirely determine our way
of life, as individuals and communities. If Plato’s argument about justice
presented in both the Republic and the Laws can be summarized in just one
sentence, the sentence will say: “Justice is neither the right of the strong
nor the advantage of the stronger, but the right of the best and the
advantage of the whole community.” The best, as explained in the Republic,
are the expert philosophical rulers. They, the wise and virtuous, free from
faction and guided by the idea of the common good, should rule for the
common benefit of the whole community, so that the city will not be
internally divided by strife, but one in friendship (Republic, 462a-b).
Then, in the Laws, the reign of the best individuals is replaced by the
reign of the finest laws instituted by a judicious legislator (715c-d).
Throughout this dialogue Plato’s guiding principle is that the good society
is a harmonious union of different social elements that represent two key
values: wisdom and freedom (701d). The best laws assure that all the city’s
parts: the democratic, the oligarchic, and the aristocratic, are represented
in political institutions: the popular Assembly, the elected Council, and
the Higher Council, and thus each social class receives its due expression.
Still, a democratic skeptic can feel dissatisfied with Plato’s proposal to
grant the right to rule to the best, either individuals or laws, even on the
basis of tacit consent of the governed. The skeptic may believe that every
adult is capable of exercising the power of self-direction, and should be
given the opportunity to do so. He will be prepared to pay the costs of
eventual mistakes and to endure an occasional civil unrest or even a limited
war rather than be directed by anyone who may claim superior wisdom. Why
then should Plato’s best constitution be preferable to democracy? In order
to fully explain the Platonic political vision, the meaning of “the best”
should be further clarified.

In the short dialogue Alcibiades I, little studied today and thought by some
scholars as not genuine, though held in great esteem by the Platonists of
antiquity, Socrates speaks with Alcibiades. The subject of their
conversation is politics. Frequently referred to by Thucydides in the
History of the Peloponnesian War, Alcibiades, the future leader of Athens,
highly intelligent and ambitious, largely responsible for the Athenian
invasion of Sicily, is at the time of conversation barely twenty years old.
The young, handsome, and well-born Alcibiades of the dialogue is about to
begin his political career and to address the Assembly for the first time
(105a-b). He plans to advise the Athenians on the subject of peace and war,
or some other important affair (107d). His ambitions are indeed
extraordinary. He does not want just to display his worth before the people
of Athens and become their leader, but to rule over Europe and Asia as well
(105c). His dreams resemble that of the future Alexander the Great. His
claim to rule is that he is the best. However, upon Socrates’ scrutiny, it
becomes apparent that young Alcibiades knows neither what is just, nor what
is advantageous, nor what is good, nor what is noble, beyond what he has
learned from the crowd (110d-e, 117a). His world-view is based on unexamined
opinions. He appears to be the worst type of ignorant person who pretends
that he knows something but does not. Such ignorance in politics is the
cause of mistakes and evils (118a). What is implied in the dialogue is that
noble birth, beautiful looks, and even intelligence and power, without
knowledge, do not give the title to rule. Ignorance, the condition of
Alcibiades, is also the condition of the great majority of the people
(118b-c). Nevertheless, Socrates promises to guide Alcibiades, so that he
becomes excellent and renowned among the Greeks (124b-c). In the course of
further conversation, it turns out that one who is truly the best does not
only have knowledge of political things, rather than an opinion about them,
but also knows one’s own self and is a beautiful soul. He or she is perfect
in virtue. The riches of the world can be entrusted only to those who “take
trouble over” themselves (128d), who look “toward what is divine and bright”
(134d), and who following the supreme soul, God, the finest mirror of their
own image (133c), strive to be as beautiful and wealthy in their souls as
possible (123e, 131d). The best government can be founded only on beautiful
and well-ordered souls.

In a few dialogues, such as Phaedo, the Republic, Phaedrus, Timaeus, and the
Laws, Plato introduces his doctrine of the immortality of the soul. His
ultimate answer to the question “Who am I?” is not an “egoistic animal” or
an “independent variable,” as the twentieth century behavioral researcher
blatantly might say, but an “immortal soul, corrupted by vice and purified
by virtue, of whom the body is only an instrument” (129a-130c). Expert
political knowledge for him should include not only knowledge of things out
there, but also knowledge of oneself. This is because whoever is ignorant of
himself will also be ignorant of others and of political things, and,
therefore, will never be an expert politician (133e). Those who are ignorant
will go wrong, moving from one misery to another (134a). For them history
will be a tough teacher, but as long they do not recognize themselves and
practice virtue, they will learn nothing. Plato’s good society is impossible
without transcendence, without a link to the perfect being who is God, the
true measure of all things. It is also impossible without an ongoing
philosophical reflection on whom we truly are. Therefore, democracy would
not be a good form of government for him unless, as it is proposed in the
Laws, the element of freedom is mixed with the element of wisdom, which
includes ultimate knowledge of the self. Unmixed and unchecked democracy,
marked by the general permissiveness that spurs vices, makes people impious,
and lets them forget about their true self, is only be the second worst in
the rank of flawed regimes after tyranny headed by a vicious individual.
This does not mean that Plato would support a theocratic government based on
shallow religiosity and religious hypocrisy. There is no evidence for this.
Freedom of speech, forming opinions and expressing them, which may be denied
in theocracy, is a true value for Plato, along with wisdom. It is the basic
requirement for philosophy. In shallow religiosity, like in atheism, there
is ignorance and no knowledge of the self either. In Book II of the
Republic, Plato criticizes the popular religious beliefs of the Athenians,
who under the influence of Homer and Hesiod attribute vices to the gods and
heroes (377d-383c). He tries to show that God is the perfect being, the
purest and brightest, always the same, immortal and true, to whom we should
look in order to know ourselves and become pure and virtuous (585b-e). God,
and not human beings, is the measure of political order (Laws, 716c).

7. Plato’s Achievement.

Plato’s greatest achievement may be seen firstly in that he, in opposing the
sophists, offered to decadent Athens, which had lost faith in her old
religion, traditions, and customs, a means by which civilization and the
city’s health could be restored: the recovery of order in both the polis and
the soul.

The best, rational and righteous political order leads to the harmonious
unity of a society and allows all the city’s parts to pursue happiness but
not at the expense of others. The characteristics of a good political
society, of which most people can say “it is mine” (462c), are described in
the Republic by four virtues: justice, wisdom, moderation, and courage.
Justice is the equity or fairness that grants each social group its due and
ensures that each “does one’s own work” (433a). The three other virtues
describe qualities of different social groups. Wisdom, which can be
understood as the knowledge of the whole, including both knowledge of the
self and political prudence, is the quality of the leadership (428e-429a).
Courage is not merely military courage but primarily civic courage: the
ability to preserve the right, law-inspired belief, and stand in defense of
such values as friendship and freedom on which a good society is founded. It
is the primary quality of the guardians (430b). Finally, moderation, a sense
of the limits that bring peace and happiness to all, is the quality of all
social classes. It expresses the mutual consent of both the governed and the
rulers as to who should rule (431d-432a). The four virtues of the good
society describe also the soul of a well-ordered individual. Its rational
part, whose quality is wisdom, nurtured by fine words and learning, should
together with the emotional or spirited part, cultivated by music and
rhythm, rule over the volitional or appetitive part (442a). Under the
leadership of the intellect, the soul must free itself from greed, lust, and
other degrading vices, and direct itself to the divine. The liberation of
the soul from vice is for Plato the ultimate task of humans on earth. Nobody
can be wicked and happy (580a-c). Only a spiritually liberated individual,
whose soul is beautiful and well ordered, can experience true happiness.
Only a country ordered according to the principles of virtue can claim to
have the best system of government.

Plato’s critique of democracy may be considered by modern readers as not
applicable to liberal democracy today. Liberal democracies are not only
founded on considerations of freedom and equality, but also include other
elements, such as the rule of law, multiparty systems, periodic elections,
and a professional civil service. Organized along the principle of
separation of powers, today’s Western democracy resembles more a revised
version of mixed government, with a degree of moderation and competence,
rather than the highly unstable and unchecked Athenian democracy of the
fourth and fifth century B.C.E., in which all governmental policies were
directly determined by the often changing moods of the people. However, what
still seems to be relevant in Plato’s political philosophy is that he
reminds us of the moral and spiritual dimension of political life. He
believes that virtue is the lifeblood of any good society.

Moved by extreme ambitions, the Athenians, like the mythological Atlantians
described in the dialogue Critias, became infected by “wicked coveting and
the pride of power” (121b). Like the drunken Alcibiades from the Symposium,
who would swap “bronze for gold” and thus prove that he did not understand
the Socratic teaching, they chose the “semblance of beauty,” the shining
appearance of power and material wealth, rather than the “thing itself,” the
being of perfection (Symposium, 218e). “To the seen eye they now began to
seem foul, for they were losing the fairest bloom from their precious
treasure, but to such who could not see the truly happy life, they would
appear fair and blessed” (Critias, 121b). They were losing their virtuous
souls, their virtue by which they could prove themselves to be worthy of
preservation as a great nation. Racked by the selfish passions of greed and
envy, they forfeited their conception of the right order. Their benevolence,
the desire to do good, ceased. “Man and city are alike,” Plato claims
(Republic, 577d). Humans without souls are hollow. Cities without virtue are
rotten. To those who cannot see clearly they may look glorious but what
appears bright is only exterior. To see clearly what is visible, the
political world out there, Plato argues, one has first to perceive what is
invisible but intelligible, the soul. One has to know oneself. Humans are
immortal souls, he claims, and not just independent variables. They are
often egoistic, but the divine element in them makes them more than mere
animals. Friendship, freedom, justice, wisdom, courage, and moderation are
the key values that define a good society based on virtue, which must be
guarded against vice, war, and factionalism. To enjoy true happiness, humans
must remain virtuous and remember God, the perfect being.

Plato’s achievement as a political philosopher may be seen in that he
believed that there could be a body of knowledge whose attainment would make
it possible to heal political problems, such as factionalism and the
corruption of morals, which can bring a city to a decline. The doctrine of
the harmony of interests, fairness as the basis of the best political order,
the mixed constitution, the rule of law, the distinction between good and
deviated forms of government, practical wisdom as the quality of good
leadership, and the importance of virtue and transcendence for politics are
the political ideas that can rightly be associated with Plato. They have
profoundly influenced subsequent political thinkers...

Good Luck.
The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital.

Last edited by Aarwaa; Wednesday, December 12, 2007 at 12:41 AM.
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