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Plato’s Political Philosophy

1] Introduction to Plato (428 BCE–348 BCE)

Plato PSIR

Born around 428 BCE in Athens and grew up during the famous Peloponnesian War (430 BCE – 401 BCE), a student of Socrates, and the teacher of Aristotle, Plato wrote on a wide variety of topics including Politics, Philosophy, Cosmology, and Epistemology.

Plato belonged to an aristocratic family, which was also a part of the oligarchy that ruled Athens for a short time. After the execution of his teacher by the state in 399 BCE, Plato left Athens to travel in Europe and Egypt for over a decade, studying various subjects. After returning, he founded a university, called The Academy around 387 BC. While there, Plato wrote several literatures including The Republic, The Symposium, The Laws, etc.

During his career, Plato also had some teaching adventures, particularly with the rulers of Sicily (an island in Italy). Unfortunately, all of them ended disastrously, and Plato had to escape for his life, twice. A paradox for this great thinker, who thought that he could enlighten the rulers, while they were not ready to hear. It is also important to note here that all of this, did not weaken the faith of Plato that philosophy can alter the human condition.

If Socrates is known as the father of Philosophy (Ethics), who described the meaning of the ‘good life’, Plato is known as the ‘father of political philosophy’ since he was the 1st person (in the Western world) to give an elaborate theory of state and politics.

The biggest contribution of Plato is ‘The Theory of The Philosopher King.’ According to him, that state is ideal, where philosophers are the rulers. In the words of Plato “Unless…. Political power and philosophy meet together… there can be no rest from troubles… for states, nor… for all mankind.”

“Unless…. Political power and philosophy meet together… there can be no rest from troubles… for states, nor… for all mankind.”

Plato

Plato’s political thought, discussed here is mainly based on his book The Republic, regarded as one of the greatest works in political philosophy by all accounts.

“The safest common characterization of the European philosophical custom is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of common thoughts scattered through them.”

A N Whitehead

Concern of Plato as a thinker

Plato was the disciple of Socrates, perhaps the greatest one. Plato’s works draw upon the ideas of Socrates and we can say that he continues where Socrates leaves.

One of the major concerns of Plato was to give the theory of an ideal state and to establish that politics and philosophy are no different. Through his theory, Plato seeks to create an ideal state, or at least establish a standard with which we can judge existing political practices. He suggests that justice is the greatest good that people can attain individually and collectively, and all of his theories point in this direction.

2] Allegory of Cave

In The Republic, Plato uses the story of the “allegory of the cave” to illustrate the three different levels of understanding and help us illustrate the difference between illusion(ignorance) and real knowledge.

Imagine, says Plato that people live in a cave and are chained so that they can only see the back wall of the cave. These people are chained so that they cannot leave the cave. Behind them is a fence behind which men walk backwards and forward, holding human-like objects and animals and other things that we usually see in day-to-day life.  Behind the fence is a fire that casts a shadow on these objects on the cave wall.

Now, the people who have spent their entire lives chained in the cave, facing its back wall, will think that the shadows cast on the wall represent reality. However, these are the images of some objects behind the fence. This state of awareness, thinking of shadows/images to be a reality, Plato calls imagining.

Suppose, however, that one of the cavemen was freed from the chains and forced to turn around. At first, the light from the fire will blind him, but he will get used to it eventually. In this stage,  he would witness the sources of images, the fire, the fence and the objects casting shadows. This state of understanding, Plato calls belief. This is, however, not a state of ultimate knowledge. Since the objects casting shadows, in themselves are not the real objects.

The highest state of cognition will be achieved, says Plato, when a person is dragged out of the cave. There he can see the sun, the source of all light and all the other objects in their original form. This state, Plato calls is a state of knowledge. The life outside the cave is the ultimate reality of which the shadows and the objects casting these shadows were mere imperfect representations.

Further, when such an enlightened person, who has attained this state of knowledge goes back inside the cave and explains the reality, other prisoners make fun of him. Those who have spent their entire lives in the cave are extremely reluctant to leave their bondages and to come in sunlight. Prefer to live in the den of ignorance, and develop their comfort zone. However, it is the duty of a teacher to push them forcibly out of the cave and show them the reality.

3] Theory of Forms / Idea

The theory of forms(idea) is one of the ideas that most learners of Plato find difficult to grasp, particularly because of the elusive nature of this theory.

For Plato, form cannot be seen, but can only be understood through reason. As explained by Plato, everything we see around us has an ideal form. Be it humans, trees or fruit, everything has a corresponding ideal form. All of these forms exist in a transcendental reality (readers may consider this as something of a spiritual world). Similar to the physical objects, concepts such as justice, courage, temperance, state etc. also have an ideal form in this transcendental reality.

Now, if you try to visualize these forms, as a sort of ideal human or an ideal tree with lots of flowers or fruits etc., you’re mistaken. Forms cannot be visualised since they are not objects of the senses, just like you cannot visualise the idea of justice or courage. These are objects of understanding rather than senses.

The next logical question is ‘How does one understand these forms?’ since they are in fact objects of understanding. Plato says that it cannot be explained in words. A mere oral or textual explanation is not enough. It can only be understood via practice, through years of training in mathematics and dialectics. For which, Plato gives his theory of education.

We can also compare the concept of ‘understanding forms’ of Plato with the concept of ‘adhikar’ or eligibility in Indian philosophy. As Hindu texts suggest, to understand certain concepts, a learner first needs to have achieved that level of realization (adhikar). These concepts cannot be taught orally or written down. This doctrine of adhikar also explains why different Vedic literatures are meant for different classes of people and why there are apparent contradictions (because people are at different levels of ‘adhikar’).

Implications of Plato’s theory of forms

There are several implications of the theory of forms as Plato proposes, and it will become more apparent as we proceed through the topic.

The foremost is the proposition of Plato that ideal forms can only be understood by years of practice and study. Thus, it cannot be comprehended by the general public, which in turn alienates them from politics. The situation, later Plato explains via the division of labour.

When we compare Plato’s theory of forms with his allegory of caves, it becomes clear that the cave represents the world of appearances and objects in the material realm. And outside the cave is a metaphysical reality or the world of forms/ideas. The awareness of being inside the cave and not having real knowledge presents a situation where Socrates remarks ‘I know that I know nothing’. The first stage, in attaining real knowledge. The search for discovering the truth is represented by leaving the cave when one can see the real forms of everything and has attained knowledge.

Obviously, one cannot have a ‘knowledge’ by being inside the cave. Inside the cave, the whole premise is based on illusory reality, where mere images, and not true objects exist. Thus people can have different opinions about reality, but not the knowledge. And the knowledge, suggests Plato can only be shown, since explaining to those inside the cave is not going to work.

Further, Plato also suggests that when a person is exposed to light outside the cave, at first his eyes ache because of sudden light. Indicating that knowledge does not come easily and it is a painful process at first. This is also the reason people inside the cave are unwilling to give up their understanding of reality and come out of the cave. This is the reason why Plato gives his elaborate theory of education, designed to drag young pupils out of this cave of ignorance and make them realize true knowledge. How exactly Plato intends to achieve it, we’ll learn in his theory of education.

Explaining further, Plato suggests that people inside the cave are not only ignorant of the true reality but are even arrogant about it. They cannot, like Socrates did, admit their ignorance. And because they’re so stubborn about it, the teacher who tries to drag them out of the cave appears unrealistic and the object of scorn. This is also the reason why Socrates earned the hatred of Athenian politicians and was subjected to death.

4] Myth of Metals / Noble Lie

A noble lie is a myth or a lie, knowingly propagated by an elite to maintain social harmony. Plato’s myth of metals (theory of soul) is a noble lie proposed to create a division of labour and maintain harmony. In his words, if the people believed “this myth…it would have a good effect, making them more inclined to care for the state and one another.”

Plato suggests that every soul has 3 elements i.e. 1. Reason ( or wisdom)  2.Courage 3. Appetite. However, all souls are not similar. Some are inferior and some are superior souls. Based on whichever element dominates in a person, there are three categories: Men of Gold (when reason dominates), Men of Silver (when courage dominates) and Men of Brass and Iron (when appetite dominates).

…the earth, as being their mother, delivered them, and now, as if their land were their mother and their nurse, they ought to take thought for her and defend her against any attack and regard the other citizens as their brothers and children of the self-same earth…While all of you, in the city, are brothers, we will say in our tale, yet god, in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule, mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are the most precious—but in the helpers, silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen. And, as you are all akin, though, for the most part, you will breed after your kinds, it may sometimes happen that a golden father would beget a silver son, and that a golden offspring would come from a silver sire, and that the rest would, in like manner, be born of one another. So that the first and chief injunction that the god lays upon the rulers is that of nothing else are they to be such careful guardians, and so intently observant as of the intermixture of these metals in the souls of their offspring, and if sons are born to them with an infusion of brass or iron they shall by no means give way to pity in their treatment of them, but shall assign to each the status due to his nature and thrust them out among the artisans or the farmers. And again, if from these there is born a son with unexpected gold or silver in his composition they shall honor such and bid them go up higher, some to the office of guardian, some to the assistanceship, alleging that there is an oracle that the city shall then be overthrown when the man of iron or brass is its guardian.

From The Republic, Part III

Implications of Noble Lie

Plato’s myth of metals suggests that people are born with certain characteristics that are meant for some kind of work and are unsuitable for some other kind. It runs contrary to the modern assumption of natural equality. It shows Plato’s belief in natural inequality, which is also shared by Aristotle as we shall see later.

The concept also comes closer to the Indian idea of varna, where people are born with a certain mixture of sattva-guna, rajo-guna and tamo-guna (goodness, passion and ignorance respectively). Based on the dominating element, they are classified into 4 varnas i.e. brahmin, kshatriya, vaisya and sudra (philosopher/priestly class, rulers, warriors and administrators, merchants and farmers, labourers and servants respectively).

The biggest implication of Plato’s including the ‘noble lie’ in his Republic is the inconsistency it creates in the ideas of Plato. While the virtue of justice, the ultimate aim of Plato is based on knowledge or the truth, it being partly based on a myth creates a contradiction. A myth, a part of this world of shadows, holding together Plato’s ideal world. Or put plainly, using a lie to establish the truth.

This inconsistency creates myriads of other questions like, can consistency be ever achieved in politics? Can politics be ever presented as a united whole truth? Is it human nature that remains too uncertain to conform to any particular reality? These questions remain unanswered even today, and perhaps form a base for the most recent ideology in politics and philosophy i.e., post-modernism. The ideology suggests that ‘there is no ultimate truth’, and ‘what exists is only discourses or the relative truths.

The theory also creates other implications, which we shall see in the conclusion to the chapter i.e., Assessment of Plato.

5] Theory of Justice

Justice is one of the central concerns in Plato’s Republic. The purpose of Plato is to create an ideal state of perfect justice. Thus Plato talks about, what is justice, whether it is desirable or not, and how to achieve this state of justice, individually and collectively.

However, let it be said in the beginning that the Platonic conception of justice is different than the modern understanding of the concept. Justice denotes ‘fairness’ as we understand it in day-to-day life and even in politics. But for Plato, justice denotes a virtue or a state of excellence, characterised by reason in the soul dominating over courage and appetite. Plato also extends the same principle of justice at the state level. He suggests that a just state is one where the philosophers rule and other classes perform the functions in accordance with the nature of their soul.

For Plato, “justice is the greatest good that people can attain as individuals and as members of a political community.”

Methodology of Plato

In his book, Plato used the method of dialectics to establish his theory of justice. Through this, he presents arguments and counter-arguments

Following is an opening argument in The Republic where Socrates is narrating the incident. Please know that in most of his texts, Plato speaks through the characters of Socrates. While is it beyond the scope of this book to give complete dialogue, we’re presenting an excerpt to illustrate the process of dialectics.

Well said, Cephalus, I (Socrates) replied; but as concerning justice, what is it? —to speak the truth and to pay your debts—no more than this? And even to this are there not exceptions? Suppose that a friend when in his right mind has deposited arms with me and he asks for them when he is not in his right mind, ought I to give them back to him? No one would say that I ought or that I should be right in doing so, any more than they would say that I ought always to speak the truth to one who is in his condition.

You are quite right, he replied.

But then, I said, speaking the truth and paying your debts is not a correct definition of justice.

Quite correct, Socrates, if Simonides is to be believed, said Polemarchus interposing.

I fear, said Cephalus, that I must go now, for I have to look after the sacrifices, and I hand over the argument to Polemarchus and the company.

Is not Polemarchus your heir? I said.

To be sure, he answered and went away laughing to the sacrifices.

Tell me then, O thou heir of the argument, what did Simonides say, and according to you truly say, about justice?

He said that the repayment of a debt is just, and in saying so he appears to me to be right.

I should be sorry to doubt the word of such a wise and inspired man, but his meaning, though probably clear to you, is the reverse of clear to me. For he certainly does not mean, as we were just now saying, that I ought to return a deposit of arms or of anything else to one who asks for it when he is not in his right senses; and yet a deposit cannot be denied to be a debt.

True.

Then when the person who asks me is not in his right mind I am by no means to make the return? Certainly not. When Simonides said that the repayment of a debt was justice, he did not mean to include that case?

Certainly not; for he thinks that a friend ought always to do good to a friend and never evil.

You mean that the return of a deposit of gold which is to the injury of the receiver, if the two parties are friends, is not the repayment of a debt,—that is what you would imagine him to say?

Yes.

And are enemies also to receive what we owe to them?

To be sure, he said, they are to receive what we owe them, and an enemy, as I take it, owes to an enemy that which is due or proper to him—that is to say, evil.

Sophist Argument on Justice

As discussed earlier, Sophists represented the rival tradition of Socrates. They believed and taught that the self-interest is more important than the interest of the society. The way to have a good life is through material pleasures, which can be acquired by power. Thus, acquiring power and utilizing it should be the main subjects of teaching.

In Plato’s dialectic dialogues, Thracymacus represents Sophist character.

According to Thracymacus, justice or right means what is in the interest of the strong. Sophists believed in natural justice where ‘might is right’. Or ‘the powerful do what they like’ and that is justice. The ruling class always makes rules in their own interest.  And in many situations, it is preferable for man, not to follow rules. In this way, man can serve his interest much better.

Thracymacus gives the following example to argue his case for justice

“Why, you imagine that a herdsman studies the interests of his flocks or cattle, tending and fattening them up with some other end in view than his master’s profit or his own; and so you don’t see that, in politics, the genuine ruler regards his subjects exactly like sheep, and thinks of nothing else, night and day, but the good he can get out of them for himself…. Innocent as you are yourself, Socrates, you must see that a just man always has the worst of it…. It is to one’s own interest not to be just. “

Thus, for Sophists, ‘what is’ should define what ‘ought to be’. The harsh reality of this world should be a guide for human action.

Response of Plato

Plato suggests that it would be better if we understand the principles of justice at the level of the state, and apply same at the level of an individual. Because, Plato argues, ‘state is an individual writ large’, and it is easier to understand the larger picture first.

‘State is an individual writ large’

Plato

Plato begins by saying that the state is natural, and not an artificial creation of man. State is natural because no one is self-sufficient, and human beings need each other.

To ensure social self-sufficiency, there also needs to be a division of labour. Every state will need a group of artisans who will perform economic functions e.g., farmers, traders, craftsmen etc. Then, the warrior class to protect the state against external aggression and to maintain law and order. Finally, the state will also need a class of rulers whose function is to formulate policies, make decisions at the state level etc. Plato calls the rulers upper-level guardians, while warriors are lower-level guardians or auxiliaries.

Each class, Plato continues, within the division of labour must perform some specific functions and possess certain qualities (virtues) and skills. For the ruler class, the most important virtue is that of wisdom (reason). This will enable them to maintain order in the state. For the auxiliaries, the virtue of courage is most necessary otherwise they cannot perform their function well. And the artisans must have temperance (patience) argues Plato. They should be able to restrain their passions. The artisan class must understand that their function in the state is economic and the craving for wealth and status should not lead them to take over other functions i.e., those of the guardian class.

In other words, in a just state, men of gold will rule over men of silver and iron & brass. In just state, every class will perform the function according to the spiritual qualities of their soul. While men of reason will rule and make laws, men of courage will ensure security.  And the men of appetite will be involved in the task of production. All will perform the function for which they are naturally suited. In this way, they will achieve excellence.

Please know that when Plato talks about the virtues of different classes, it is assumed that the higher class will already possess the virtues of the lower classes.

ClassTraitBefitting Virtue(s)Metal
Rulers / upper-guardiansKnowledgeTemperance, Courage, WisdomGold
Warriors/lower guardians/auxiliariesEmotionTemperance, CourageSilver
ArtisansAppetiteTemperanceIron and Brass

Thus, to sum up, a just state according to Plato is ruled by philosophers, and there exists an appropriate division of labour i.e., classes and thereby the division of virtues. Justice, then is, the virtue of virtues, the virtue maintaining a proper relationship between other virtues i.e., courage, wisdom and temperance. Further, the classes also do not interfere with each other’s functions in a just state i.e., non-interference

As discussed in the beginning, ‘state is an individual write large’. Having established the principles of a just state, Plato seeks to establish the principles of justice at an individual level.

Just like in a just state, philosophers are rulers, in a just person wisdom rules over courage and appetite. The Reason rules the soul. Conversely, in an unjust person, passions and desires rule rather than reason. An unjust person is characterised as one with ceaseless desires, lacking any purpose or direction, and not aware of what constitutes real happiness and fulfilment.

Plato suggests how we ought to live in society and lays down the foundation of ethics. There is a difference in the way we live in nature and the way we live in society. In nature, we are guided by our instincts, passions or appetite. In society, we ought to be guided by reason. It is true that man is an animal, but it is also true that man is a social animal, different from other animals. ‘What is’ should not be our to ‘what ought to be’.

Glaucon’s Arguments

Glaucon represents the contractual theory of justice. For him, Justice is in the interest of the weak. Those who were weak, could not defend themselves from the strong hence they came together, and entered into a contract. Powerful agreed that they would not harm the weak. Weak agreed not to criticize the powerful, in return for the protection they give.

Plato’s Response.

Plato has two objections to this argument. 1) This theory suggests that the state is contractual/artificial/man-made, and 2) It suggests that only the weak require the state.

As seen earlier, Plato (and Socrates) suggest that man is a social animal. No man is self-sufficient and thus, their association i.e. society and state is natural, it is not artificial creation. Further, it is wrong to think that only the weak require the state, both strong and weak require the state because even the strongest person is never strong enough.

For Plato, the achievement of all forms of excellence is dependent on justice. Thus, when there is a state, when there is justice, there is peace and only then, there can be excellence.

Why all classes will accept Plato’s theory of justice?

According to Plato, the state is ‘inter-dependence.’ No one is self-sufficient. Man of reason will be dependent on, man of courage and man of appetite. Similarly, the other classes are also dependent on each other. Hence Plato believes that each class, will recognize the importance of the other class, treat the members of the other class with respect and feel obliged towards them.

Implications of Plato’s Theory of Justice

Thus, for Plato, the principles governing the life of an individual i.e., ethics and principles governing the state i.e., politics, cannot be different from each other. The idea of a good life and a good political life cannot be different from each other.

By saying that the ‘State is an individual writ large,’ or state is an enlarged version of an individual, Plato wants to say that the nature of the state will be shaped by the character of citizens living in the state. Hence, he suggests that the “State does not come out of oak or rock, it inherits in the mind of the people living in the state.” Thus, for Plato Athens cannot become a virtuous state, until and unless its citizens are virtuous.

We also find a lot of similarities between Plato’s concept of Justice and the Indian concept of Dharma. The term dharma denotes living according to one’s nature. The Hindu scriptures attach paramount importance to individual dharma and this is evident from a sloka in Geeta which says that “destruction in the course of performing one’s own duty is better than engaging in another’s duties.” This duty, again is based on the concept of varna, the similarity of which, with Plato’s noble lie has already been discussed.

Plato’s theory of justice also paves the way for his other theories. The theory of philosopher King illustrates how the just state will actually come into practice. The theory of education is given by Plato to ensure how to divide the classes and train the philosopher king(s). And his theory of communism, which acts as a secondary mechanism to protect the ruling class from getting corrupt.

6] Theory of Education

Purpose of Theory of Education

Plato’s theory of education is linked to his theory of justice. In a just state, everyone is to perform the task according to his natural aptitude / spiritual qualities of the soul. To find these spiritual qualities, Plato devised a system of education.

Plato’s Views on Education

In Athens, education was privatized. The sophists, the roving teachers would charge fees for their teachings and only the rich could afford it. Plato was not in favour of the system and was impressed by the Spartan system of state-sponsored education (universal education).

Further, according to Plato, the state is essentially pedagogic, implying that imparting education is one of the most important functions of the state. Education is the primary means of socialization. And if the state wants obedient citizens, the education system plays a critical role.

Plato also favoured education for women and we see it in his theory of the philosopher king, where any child, regardless of sex, can become philosopher king if he shows necessary qualities.

Plato was in favour of military education. He also emphasized the study of mathematics and logic which develops the rational faculties of mind.

Plato on Artistic Censorship

Plato was an advocate of censorship of poetry. He argued that while people take from poets what sounds like ethical knowledge, when in reality, poets are no different from Sophists. They do not teach knowledge to the people, but rather ‘opinions.’ Poetry consists of characters, both gods and heroes, frequently behaving unjustly. Thus, Plato asks, how can we expect children to become just rulers if they’re exposed to literature that glorifies injustice?

Literature, for Plato, should reflect order and harmony. So that same is reflected in the state. In his own words…

“We must not only compel our poets, on pain of expulsion, to make their poetry the express image of noble character; we must also supervise craftsmen of every kind and forbid them to leave the stamp of baseness, license, meanness, unseemliness, on painting and sculpture, or building, or any other work of their hands; and anyone who cannot obey shall not practice his art in our commonwealth.”

Plato’s views are highly relevant in contemporary times. While there is strict control over what’s written down in textbooks and what’s taught in schools, artistic censorship is often seen as violative of individual fundamental rights. We should applaud the Indian constitution which has rightly put ‘reasonable restrictions’ on freedom of speech and expression. Education does not occur in a vacuum. It is of little use to teach children certain ideals in schools while the whole society outside school functions on different values.

Scheme of Education

1st stage: Primary Education (Zero to Six years)

First gymnastics, music and moral stories should be taught at this stage. Gymnastics for physical development, music for mental development, and moral stories for character building.

2nd stage: Secondary Education (Six to Twenty Years)

All general subjects i.e.  Mathematics, Geometry, History, Geography, Physical Military education etc. are taught at this stage.

1st filtration occurs at the age of 20. Those who pass the test i.e., show the capacity to study further will be promoted, rest will join the producer class.

Higher Education.

1st stage: 20 to 30 Age.

The level of subjects will increase. The focus will be on Mathematics, Geometry, and Literature. Mathematics, according to Plato not only how to think logically, but also conveys the ideal of conceptual truth.

2nd filtration occurs at the age of 30. Those who show the aptitude for further learning will be promoted, and the rest will join the soldier class.

2nd stage: 30 to 50 years.

Dialectics and practical training

The learning of Mathematics is not sufficient according to Plato. While Mathematics relies on numbers and diagrams, the goal is to go beyond the realm of senses. Thus, at this stage, dialectics will be taught. Dialectics, as discussed earlier, is a method that leads to the discovery of universal truth.

The dialectical knowledge, argues Plato is closest to universal principles that underline the world. This will be a knowledge not only of physical phenomena but of ethics as well. Hence the learner of dialectics will come the know the true meaning of justice, or the ‘form’ of justice.

There is, however, a higher truth than justice, which Plato calls ‘Good’. This ‘good’, will be attained by only a few and represents the universal principle that unites both the physical and spiritual worlds. This ‘good’ gives meaning to everything in the universe. Although dialectic knowledge is necessary to acquire this ‘good’, the understanding of ‘good’ comes only after years of training, as a flash of insight or a realization of sorts. This awareness of ‘good’ transcends mere logic.

Only those, who attain this final vision will be allowed to become the philosopher kings, and in reality, very few will be able to attain it. Further, since the ‘good’ transcends mere logic, it also provides the basis for the absolute rule of the philosopher king, as we shall see later.

7] Theory of Philosopher King

“For no law or ordinance (public opinion) is mightier than knowledge.”

Plato

As discussed in Plato’s theory of justice, a just state, is ruled by reason. The ruler must have a knowledge of how to maintain the division of labour. And he/she should be the one in whom reason dominates the other two virtues. Rulers will be a class of people who have realized the state of ‘good’, and are the ones who have come out of the cave of ignorance and seen the sunlight.

The philosopher is a symbol of knowledge and sacrifice. He has proven abilities. Since he has attained the vision of ‘good’, which transcends mere logic, the philosopher king will have absolute powers. There are no limitations on his power of either public opinion or law. “For no law or ordinance (public opinion) is mightier than knowledge.”

Philosopher King need not be concerned about public opinion or the book of laws. He is a man of reason, a symbol of sacrifice. It would be foolish to question his wisdom. In Plato’s words, “It will be foolish to limit the expert practitioner of medicine with the book of medicine.”

Problems with the institution of philosopher-king and solutions:

Plato himself suggests three problems with the institution of the philosopher king. First, is to train the class of people to become philosopher kings. For this, he has given his elaborate theory of education as discussed earlier.

The second problem is to bring these men, who have attained the state of wisdom, or seen the sunlight, back to the realm of opinions, back to the cave of ignorance, to become rulers. These are lovers of knowledge and not power. Plato asserts that although reluctant, these are precisely the rulers qualified to rule. In his words, “Unless…. Political power and philosophy meet together… there can be no rest from troubles… for states, nor… for all mankind.”

The third problem with the institution of philosopher king is, to ensure that he continues to rule in a just manner, with the public interest in mind. It must be ensured that reason always remains the dominant virtue over courage and appetite, and that authority over people is not utilized to promote self-interest of ruler. As a solution, Plato gives an elaborate theory of communism which we shall discuss in the next topic.

How to select who will be Philosopher King or Queen.

According to Plato, the philosopher has no lust for power. He has a love for knowledge. Philosophers will be reluctant to govern or rule, hence people will request them to accept the duty as a part of their obligation towards the state. Hence for a limited period, they will accept the responsibility one by one. Philosophers are sacrificing their love for Knowledge for the sake of their duty towards the state. The philosopher king is a symbol of knowledge and sacrifice. In the words of Plato, “Those states are best governed where rulers are reluctant to govern (because he understands that money and power is not the source of the good life), rather than the states where rulers are eager to govern. (men of appetite, who have a lust for power and money.)”

“Those states are best governed where rulers are reluctant to govern.”

Plato

Critical Evaluation

Aristotle was a major critique of Plato’s idea of the Philosopher King. For Aristotle, “law is a reason without passion.” Aristotle has justified the rule of law over the rule of person. According to him, not only are law and reason are same, but the rule of law has many advantages over the rule of person.

In reality, it will be almost impossible to find the ‘philosopher King.’ Philosopher King is a utopia, in reality, it will become the rule of tyranny. The wisdom of many is preferable over the wisdom of one person. The law represents the collective wisdom of ages. It is true that the rule of law may have some limitations, the law may be rigid or it may be silent in some situations. And while the institution of the Philosopher King may have many apparent advantages, “one should not sacrifice good for the sake of best because best is unachievable.”

In his more mature work, The Laws, Plato himself modified his views, in the light of the criticism of Aristotle. Plato re-established the rule of law as the best practicable state. Hence, it is said that Aristotle’s ideal state (rule of law) is Plato’s second-best state.

We can also say that while Plato’s diagnosis is correct but, the prescription is not right. When Plato argues that those who are ‘reluctant to govern’ are better rulers than those who are ‘eager to govern’, he does not recognize human psychology. He gives paramount importance to the sense of duty. If the men of reason have no lust for power, but only a love for knowledge, it is doubtful how long and how well will they be able to do the work. Thus, some other institutional, and legal measures are needed to ensure the same.

8] Theory of Communism

In his theory of the Philosopher King, Plato also fears that sometimes even philosophers can become corrupt. It can happen that the passion in the philosopher king dominates his reason and he starts promoting his self-interest. Thus, selecting the best candidates for rulership is not sufficient and ‘the objects of desire themselves be removed for the class of rulers.’

For this, Plato proposes the communism (common ownership) of property and family for the auxiliaries (soldiers) and ruler class. For Plato, “If education is the primary machinery, to create the ideal state, communism is the supplementary machinery.”

In Plato’s theory of communism, the guardian class will not be allowed to own property or have families of their own. According to Plato, it is for a family that people earn money by unfair means. It not only leads to corruption but also nepotism. Thus, in his system of communism, even mating will be carefully regulated by the state to ensure a noble progeny of future rulers. Such a process will be carried out by selecting the noblest of Athenian males and females, and outside the institution of family. The children so born will not know their true parents and they will come to identify the state as their family.

Thus, children will also be trained to identify with the state from childhood.  This will also lead to the liberation of women, as they will be free to perform their duties towards the state and participate in political affairs.

It is also important to note that in Plato, communism is only meant for the guardian class. Since they have power, they can become corrupt. Communism for artisans is neither possible nor required. They are men of appetite, and hence cannot control their desires. Also, because they are not in power, they will not have the opportunity to be corrupt.

Critical Evaluation

While Plato is a radical thinker, we see moderation in Aristotle. Plato is not hesitant to suggest radical (extreme) solutions to solve problems, and his theory of communism, and abolishment of private property and family institutions are evidence for that.

Aristotle is a more pragmatic thinker. For him, one should not sacrifice the good for the sake of the best. Thus, rather than talking about the ‘best state’, he talks about the ‘best practicable state’. Aristotle is conservative. He wants to preserve the institutions, customs and traditions. He prefers to rely on the collective wisdom of ages rather wisdom of one person.

In response to Plato’s theory of communism, Aristotle suggests that it is true that property leads to corruption, but property also has many constructive implications. Property is a source of motivation and gives a sense of achievement to individuals. Those who own property are men of reason. Additionally, those who have property will prefer stability. Property is itself a virtue, it is a source of charity. Thus, it would not be a good idea to deprive ourselves of the virtues of property.

Aristotle also strongly disapproves of Plato’s theory of the communism of family. While it is true that family leads to nepotism, but as an institution of family has a lot of importance for society as well as for an individual. Family is a source of emotional and social stability. Through his theory of communism of family, Plato wants to take us back to the barbaric ages.

Thus, Aristotle criticized Plato’s communism, suggesting that the remedy is worse than the disease.

Platonic Communism vs. Modern Communism

While there are apparent similarities between the theory of communism given by Plato and that by communists, there are fundamental differences. As suggested by Brian Nelson in his book ‘Western Political Thought’, Plato’s communism is ascetic, whether the purpose is not the re-distribution of resources (as proposed in modern communism), but rather to remove the objects of desire. Through his elaborate system of education, Plato seeks to remove such a desire for wealth and family from future rulers, making communism more apparent and practical.

Plato’s CommunismModern Communism
Associated with PlatoModern communism is associated with the ideas of Karl Marx.
Plato is idealistMarx is a materialist.
Plato wants to create an Ideal State and believes in the supremacy of the state.Marx considers the state as an instrument of exploitation and wants to end the state.
Plato expects citizens to sacrifice their interests for the sake of the state.Marx calls for revolution against the state.
Plato divides the state into three classesMarx wanted to abolish classes.
Nowhere does Plato support violence.Marx is a supporter of Violence.
Plato considers the Idea as the ultimate reality.Marx considers ideas as ‘false consciousness.’
Plato proposes communism even in regard to wives and family.Karl Marx talks about communism only in terms of means of production i.e., economic terms.
Similarities
Both believed that private property is an evil. Both give the concept of class.
Similarities between Plato and Marx are very few and superficial. Whereas the differences are fundamental.

9] Decline of an Ideal State

Towards the end of The Republic, Plato acknowledges that even an ideal state must eventually decline, since after all, it is a human institution. Further, since the ‘state is an individual writ large’, the decline at the level of state will also lead to the decline at the level of an individual.

The decline will start, Plato suggests, in the process of selection of children as future guardians. Upon becoming full members of the ruling class, some of them will deviate from the principles of state, and seek to amass private property. The decline of reason from the position of supremacy. The virtue of courage will be supreme, and honour will become more important than reason. The state will be ruled by warriors instead of philosopher king. Thus, the monarchy will give way to the timocracy.

The future generation, the children of auxiliaries who acquired power in the first stage, will possess neither wisdom nor courage. However, the virtue of temperance will still be present, and this generation will be careful to preserve their wealth and property. They will believe in the ethic of working hard and saving the money. Thus, the rule of the few rich, oligarchy will be established in place of timocracy.

The children of oligarchs suggest Plato, will be used to having money and will not even possess temperance, what to speak of courage and wisdom. The liberty, and freedom to pursue individual passions will be the prime concern for this generation. Since nobody will possess the virtues, equality will prevail in the society. Although there is freedom, there will be no real knowledge of what to pursue, the efforts will almost end in frustration. These citizens, we can call full-fledged citizens of the cave. Since there is equality, it will be a rule of the people, what Plato calls democracy.

This state will give way to the rule of the despot (tyranny). This, according to Plato is the natural consequence of democracy. When the mass of people will realize that they are being oppressed by the rich, they will select a leader amongst them to alter the status quo. Such a leader, however, when will come to power, oppress the rich and poor alike and become a tyrant, establishing tyranny.

This theory of the decline of an ideal state is a sobering realization of the pragmatism in The Republic of Plato. Although known for his romanticism and his utopian, radical ideas, the description of the decline of an ideal state, gives a different perspective on Plato.

10] Assessment of Plato

The Republic is regarded as one of the greatest pieces of work written on political philosophy. Nonetheless, even the father of political philosophy is not above criticism.

Contradictions in the Ideas of Plato

There are serious inconsistencies and contradictions in the ideas of Plato. The justification of one idea contradicts another. However, Plato was too great a thinker to achieve consistency by sacrificing truth. Thus, we do not see any attempt in Plato to hide these contradictions.

The first inconsistency arises when Plato suggests measures to ensure that rules do not go corrupt. It is suggested that the rulers, who have attained the state of ‘good’, which is even beyond knowledge, and who have come out of the cave of ignorance, have no lust for power. These rulers have a love for knowledge. So much so that they are not willing to rule and they are doing it only as a matter of duty. However, Plato himself expressed doubt that sometimes the appetite in these rulers will overpower the reason, and he proposes communism as a secondary mechanism to deal with it. However, as Socrates proposes and demonstrates in his own death, this cannot happen. A person with knowledge cannot act otherwise. Thus, it appears that Plato doubts the very Socratic premise on which his theory is based.

The second inconsistency, regarding the use of ‘myth/noble lie’ to establish the principles of justice(truth), has been already discussed in the ‘implications of noble lie’ section.

Plato proposes that the principles of justice applicable at the level of the individual are also applicable at the state level, and vice-versa. Thus, what follows is that every person is in a state of justice, only when he is ruled by reason (in his individual life). However, in suggesting that only the persons made up of ‘golden metal’ are capable of acquiring knowledge, Plato denies the knowledge to large sections of the population (artisans and auxiliaries). Thus, what follows is that they are supposed to live the lives of injustice, ruled by their passions and appetite. Thus, there is an incompatibility between justice at the level of state and justice at the level of individual. This also questions a basic premise of Plato that ‘state is an individual writ large’.

Plato is an Enemy of Open Society

Karl Popper Plato's Criticism
Karl Popper (Image)

Open Society denotes a democratic society marked by fundamental rights. Karl Popper in his book ‘Open Society and its Enemies.’ (1945) calls Plato, Hegel and Karl Marx as enemies of open society. He suggests that the theories of Plato have a dangerous tendency towards totalitarianism. He believes that Plato’s readers have been under the ‘spell of Plato’, which obstructs their judgement. He calls Plato “an enemy of open society” on the basis of following arguments.

1] Essentialism: It is linked to Plato’s ‘theory of form’. Plato suggests that the idea(essence) forms the absolute reality. He makes us believe that essence is supreme knowledge and disregards the reality of this world. Plato divorces us from reality and forces us to think about some reality, which is beyond the understanding of the common man.

2] Holism: Plato does not give importance to the individual and sacrifices the individual in the name of collectivity.

3] Historicism: Historicism means the ideological use of history. Presenting history in a manner that serves political purpose. Plato has given the life cycle of an ideal state. The ideal state will decay into the rule of the soldier class. (timocracy) which will decay into the rule of the rich. (Aristocracy). Thus Plato suggests that to prevent decay, there is a necessity for the rigid and strong control of the philosopher king.

Popper suggests that all the totalitarian leaders reflect the above ideas. e.g. they establish the primacy of state/nation/race over the individual. To justify their rule, they rely on the creation of myths, presenting myths as the ultimate reality. They give the law of decay and suggest that if people do not want decay or postpone it, they will have to make sacrifices.

Plato as First Feminist.

Feminists represent a school of thought that demands gender equality and gender justice.

Despite coming from a highly patriarchal society, Plato never believed that women suffer from any natural disabilities either in the field of education or in the field of governance. He gives equality of opportunity to women. Plato does not make any discrimination based on gender for the post of philosopher king. Thus, women can also become philosopher queens in Plato’s ideal state.

Further, Plato’s communism of family suggests that the state takes custody of the child. This, Plato suggests will have a liberating influence on women, and free them for other important works like education and governance.

Whether Plato was the first feminist or not, remains a matter of debate, those who think that Plato cannot be regarded as a feminist believe that, for feminists, the main objective is the liberation of women. The liberation of women was not the primary aim of Plato. He aimed to make women free so that their talent could be utilized in the service of the state.

However, we cannot ignore the fact that Plato was the first person in the Western world to recognize that women do not suffer from any natural disability. He has given the idea of the philosopher queens, which itself is a very revolutionary idea for his times.

Other Remarks on Plato

“Plato is philosophy, philosophy is Plato”

“The safest common characterization of the European philosophical custom is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”

A N Whitehead

“One can be either Platonic, or anti-Platonic, but can never be non-platonic”

Karl Popper

11] Previous Year Questions [1995-2022]

  1. Trace the evolution of Western Political Thought from ancient to contemporary period. [2020/20m/250w/4a]
  2. Explain Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s Idealism. [2019/20m/250w/2a]
  3. ‘Plato was an enemy of the open society’. (Popper). Comment. [2015/20m/250w/3a]
  4. ). Discuss. [2009/20m/200w/1c]
  5. Plato’s communism is a supplementary machinery to give effect to and reinforce that spirit which education is to create. (Nettleship). Comment. [2007/20m/200w/1a]
  6. Comment: ’State is an individual write large’. (Plato) [2006/20m/200w/1a]
  7. Plato’s theory of education ‘is the logical result of his conception of justice’. Discuss. [2004/60m/2]
  8. Explain Plato’s communism and compare it with modern communism. [2003/60m/2]
  9. ‘Until philosophers are kings or kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, cities will never have rest from evil’. (Plato).  Discuss. [2000/20m/200w/1a]

12] Test Your Knowledge (MCQs)

1] Who can comprehend the idea of perfection to the maximum extent possible, according to Plato?
a) Men of Gold
b) Men of Silver
c) Men of Copper
d) Men of Iron

Show Answer

Ans: a) Men of Gold

2] Who held the view that ‘Knowledge is virtue’?
a) Pythagoras
b) Socrates
c) Thrasymachus
d) Parmenides

Show Answer

Ans: b) Socrates

3] On what basis Plato believed in the concept of natural inequality?
a) Inequality of soul
b) Physical differences
c) Economic status
d) Societal convention

Show Answer

Ans: a) nequality of soul

4] What was the aim of Plato?
a) Bring out the goodness of man
b) Improve Education System
c) Create an ideal state
d) Contain widespread corruption

Show Answer

Ans: c) Create an ideal state

5] What does the word ‘Sophia’ denote?
a) Love
b) Knowledge
c) Grace
d) Prafulness

Show Answer

Ans: b) Knowledge

6] Who among the following cannot be called an idealist?
a) Socrates
b) Sophists
c) Plato
d) Hegel

Show Answer

Ans: b) Sophists

7] Allegory of cave” shows the difference between
a) Real knowledge and the illusion of knowledge
b) Scientific explanation of day and night
c) The movement of Sun
d) The knowledge about eclipses

Show Answer

Ans: a) Real knowledge and the illusion of knowledge

8] What does sunlight denote in the allegory of caves?
a) God
b) Real knowledge
c) Philosopher King
d) Happieness

Show Answer

Ans: b) Real knowledge

9] What was the methodology adopted by Plato?
a) Study of History
b) Diatectics
c) Experimental Knowledge
d) Empiricism

Show Answer

Ans: b) Diatectics

10] Which of the following statements does not represent the view of the Sophists?
a) Justice is the interest of the strong
b) Man is prior to society
c) State is an organic entity
d) Money and power is a source of good life

Show Answer

Ans: c) State is an organic entity

11] According to Plato, the nature of real knowledge is?
a) It is factual
b) It should be imparted by private individuals
c) It is based on religion
d) It is conceptual

Show Answer

Ans: d) It is conceptual

12] Who among the following said, “Who will survive if India dies?”
a) Mahatma Gandhi
b) Pandit Nehru
c) Swami Vivekanand
d) Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

Show Answer

Ans: b) Pandit Nehru

13] Like Plato, which of the following explained justice in terms of duty?
a) Aristotle
b) Indian concept of Dharma
c) Sophists
d) Thrasymachus

Show Answer

Ans: b) Indian concept of Dharma

14] State is a individual writ large’ means
a) State is a bigger version of individual
b) Individual is bigger than state
c) State is artificially created by individuals
d) Individual has no duty towards state

Show Answer

Ans: a) State is a bigger version of individual

15] What dominates in a just state?
a) Courage
b) Apetite
c) Reason
d) Creativity

Show Answer

Ans: c) Reason

16] Who represented contractual theory in Plato’s REPUBLIC?
a) Thrasymachus
b) Socrates
c) Glaucon
d) Pythagprus

Show Answer

Ans: c) Glaucon

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viswa

the content in this page is different from that of the pdfs i purchased from this website. which one should be referred?

Admin

Hi Viswa,
Actually we’re in process of updating the notes. This topic (Plato & Socrates) have been updated, but others are in process.
The updated topic has not yet been included in the PDF notes. The process of entire notes updation will be complete by May end. Those who’ve purchased the notes after Mains 2023, will get free updates. Hope this helps.

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