Plato's most important dialogue, the Republic, consists, broadly, of three parts. The first (to near the end of Book V) consists in the construction of an ideal commonwealth; it is the earliest of Utopias.
One of the conclusions arrived at is that rulers must be philosophers. Books VI and VII are concerned to define the word 'philosopher'. This discussion constitutes the second section.
The third section consists mainly of a discussion of various kinds of actual constitutions and of their merits and defects.
The nominal purpose of the Republic is to define 'justice'. But at an early stage it is decided that, since everything is easier to see in the large than in the small, it will be better to inquire what makes a just State than what makes a just individual. And since justice must be among the attributes of the best imaginable State, such a State is first delineated, and then it is decided which of its perfections is to be called 'justice'.
Let us first describe Plato's Utopia in its broad outlines, and then consider points that arise by the way.
Plato begins by deciding that the citizens are to be divided into three classes: the common people, the soldiers, and the guardians. The last, alone, are to have political power. There are to be much fewer of them than of the other two classes. In the first instance, it seems, they are to be chosen by the legislator; after that, they will usually succeed by heredity, but in exceptional cases a promising child may be promoted from one of the inferior classes, while among the children of guardians a child or young man who is unsatisfactory may be degraded.
The main problem, as Plato perceives, is to insure that the guardians shall carry out the intentions of the legislator. For this purpose he has various proposals, educational, economic, biological, and religious. It is not always clear how far these proposals apply to other classes than the guardians; it is clear that some of them apply to the soldiers, but in the main Plato is concerned only with the guardians, who are to be a class apart, like the Jesuits in old Paraguay, the ecclesiastics in the States of the Church until 1870, and the Communist Party in the U.S.S.R. at the present day.
The first thing to consider is education. This is divided into two parts, music and gymnastics. Each has a wider meaning than at present: 'music' means everything that is in the province of the muses, and 'gymnastics' means everything concerned with physical training and fitness. 'Music' is almost as wide as what we should call 'culture', and 'gymnastics' is somewhat wider than what we call 'athletics'.
Culture is to be devoted to making men gentlemen, in the sense which, largely owing to Plato, is familiar in England. The Athens of his day was, in one respect, analogous to England in the nineteenth century: there was in each an aristocracy enjoying wealth and social prestige, but having no monopoly of political power; and in each the aristocracy had to secure as much power as it could by means of impressive behaviour. In Plato's Utopia, however, the aristocracy rules unchecked.
Gravity, decorum and courage seem to be the qualities mainly to be cultivated in education. There is to be a rigid censorship from very early years over the literature to which the young have access and the music they are allowed to hear. Mothers and nurses are to tell their children only authorized stories. Homer and Hesiod are not to be allowed, for a number of reasons. First they represent the gods as behaving badly on occasion, which is unedifying; the young must be taught that evils never come from the gods, for God is not the author of all things, but only of good things. Second, there are things in Homer and Hesiod which are calculated to make their readers fear death, whereas everything ought to be done in education to make young people willing to die in battle. Our boys must be taught to consider slavery worse than death, and therefore they must have no stories of good men weeping and wailing, even for the death of friends. Third, decorum demands that there should never be loud laughter, and yet Homer speaks of 'inextinguishable laughter among the blessed gods'. How is a schoolmaster to reprove mirth effectively, if boys can quote this passage? Fourth, there are passages in Homer praising rich feasts, and others describing the lusts of the gods; such passages discourage temperance. (Dean Inge, a true Platonist, objected to a line in a well-known hymn: 'The shout of them that triumph, the song of them that feast,' which occurs in a description of the joys of heaven.) Then there must be no stories in which the wicked are happy or the good unhappy; the moral effect on tender minds might be most unfortunate. On all these counts, the poets are to be condemned.
Plato passes on to a curious argument about the drama. The good man, he says, ought to be unwilling to imitate a bad man; now most plays contain villains; therefore the dramatist, and the actor who plays the villain's part, have to imitate people guilty of various crimes. Not only criminals, but women, slaves, and inferiors generally, ought not to be imitated by superior men. (In Greece, as in Elizabethan England, women's parts were acted by men.) Plays, therefore, if permissible at all, must contain no characters except faultless male heroes of good birth. The impossibility of this is so evident that Plato decides to banish all dramatists from his city:
When any of these pantomimic gentlemen, who are so clever that they can imitate anything, comes to us, and makes a proposal to exhibit himself and his poetry, we will fall down and worship him as a sweet and holy and wonderful being; but we must also inform him that in our State such as he are not permitted to exist; the law will not allow them. And so when we have anointed him with myrrh, and set a garland of wool upon his head, we shall send him away to another city.
Next we come to the censorship of music (in the modern sense). The Lydian and Ionian harmonies are to be forbidden, the first because it expresses sorrow, the second because it is relaxed. Only the Dorian (for courage) and the Phrygian (for temperance) are to be allowed. Permissible rhythms must be simple, and such as are expressive of a courageous and harmonious life.
The training of the body is to be very austere. No one is to eat fish, or meat cooked otherwise than roasted, and there must be no sauces or confectionery. People brought up on his regimen, he says, will have no need of doctors.
Up to a certain age, the young are to see no ugliness or vice. But at a suitable moment, they must be exposed to 'enchantments', both in the shape of terrors that must not terrify, and of bad pleasures that must not seduce the will. Only after they have withstood these tests will they be judged fit to be guardians.
Young boys, before they are grown up, should see war, though they should not themselves fight.
As for economics: Plato proposes a thoroughgoing communism for the guardians, and (I think) also for the soldiers, though this is not very clear. The guardians are to have small houses and simple food; they are to live as in a camp, dining together in companies; they are to have no private property beyond what is absolutely necessary. Gold and silver are to be forbidden. Though not rich, there is no reason why they should not be happy; but the purpose of the city is the good of the whole, not the happiness of one class. Both wealth and poverty are harmful, and in Plato's city neither will exist. There is a curious argument about war, that it will be easy to purchase allies, since our city will not want any share in the spoils of victory.
With feigned unwillingness, the Platonic Socrates proceeds to apply his communism to the family. Friends, he says, should have all things in common, including women and children. He admits that this presents difficulties, but thinks them not insuperable. First of all, girls are to have exactly the same education as boys, learning music, gymnastics, and the art of war along with the boys. Women are to have complete equality with men in all respects. 'The same education which makes a man a good guardian will make a woman a good guardian; for their original nature is the same.' No doubt there are differences between men and women, but they have nothing to do with politics. Some women are philosophic, and suitable as guardians; some are warlike, and could make good soldiers.
The legislator, having selected the guardians, some men and some women, will ordain that they shall all share common houses and common meals. Marriage, as we know it, will be radically transformed.1 At certain festivals, brides and bridegrooms, in such numbers as are required to keep the population constant, will be brought together, by lot, as they will be taught to believe; but in fact the rulers of the city will manipulate the lots on eugenic principles. They will arrange that the best sires shall have the most children. All children will be taken away from their parents at birth, and great care will be taken that no parents shall know who are their children, and no children shall know who are their parents. Deformed children, and children of inferior parents, 'will be put away in some mysterious unknown place, as they ought to be'. Children arising from unions not sanctioned by the State are to be considered illegitimate. Mothers are to be between twenty and forty, fathers between twenty-five and fifty-five. Outside these ages, intercourse is to be free, but abortion or infanticide is to be compulsory. In the 'marriages' arranged by the State, the people concerned have no voice; they are to be actuated by the thought of their duty to the State, not by any of those common emotions that the banished poets used to celebrate.
Since no one knows who his parents are, he is to call every one 'father' whose age is such that he might be his father, and similarly as regards 'mother' and 'brother' and 'sister'. (This sort of thing happens among some savages, and used to puzzle missionaries.) There is to be no marriage between a 'father' and 'daughter' or 'mother' and 'son'; in general, but not absolutely, marriages of 'brother' and 'sister' are to be prevented. (I think if Plato had thought this out more carefully he would have found that he had prohibited
all marriages, except the 'brother-sister' marriages which he regards as rare exceptions.)
It is supposed that the sentiments at present attached to the words 'father', 'mother', 'son', and 'daughter' will still attach to them under Plato's new arrangements; a young man, for instance, will not strike an old man, because he might be striking his father.
The advantage sought is, of course, to minimize private possessive emotions, and so remove obstacles to the domination of public spirit, as well as to acquiescence in the absence of private property. It was largely motives of a similar kind that led to the celibacy of the clergy.2
I come last to the theological aspect of the system. I am not thinking of the accepted Greek gods, but of certain myths which the government is to inculcate. Lying, Plato says explicitly, is to be a prerogative of the government, just as giving medicine is of physicians. The government, as we have already seen, is to deceive people in pretending to arrange marriages by lot, but this is not a religious matter.
There is to be 'one royal lie,' which, Plato hopes, may deceive the rulers, but will at any rate deceive the rest of the city. This 'lie' is set forth in considerable detail. The most important part of it is the dogma that God has created men of three kinds, the best made of gold, the second best of silver, and the common herd of brass and iron. Those made of gold are fit to be guardians; those made of silver should be soldiers; the others should do the manual work. Usually, but by no means always, children will belong to the same grade as their parents; when they do not, they must be promoted or degraded accordingly. It is thought hardly possible to make the present generation believe this myth, but the next, and all subsequent generations, can be so educated as not to doubt it.
Plato is right in thinking that belief in this myth could be generated in two generations. The Japanese have been taught since 1868 that the Mikado is descended from the sun-goddess, and that Japan was created earlier than the rest of the world. Any university professor, who, even in a learned work, throws doubt on these dogmas, is dismissed for un-Japanese activities. What Plato does not seem to realize is that the compulsory acceptance of such myths is incompatible with philosophy, and involves a kind of education which stunts intelligence.
The definition of 'justice', which is the nominal goal of the whole discussion, is reached in Book IV. It consists, we are told, in everybody doing his own work and not being a busybody: the city is just when trader, auxiliary, and guardian, each does his own job without interfering with that of other classes.
That everybody should mind his own business is no doubt an admirable precept, but it hardly corresponds to what a modern would naturally call 'justice'. The Greek word so translated corresponded to a concept which was very important in Greek thought, but for which we have no exact equivalent. It is worth while to recall that Anaximander said:
Into that from which things take their rise they pass away once more, as is ordained; for they make reparation and satisfaction to one another for their injustice according to the appointed time.
Before philosophy began, the Greeks had a theory or feeling about the universe, which may be called religious or ethical. According to this theory, every person and every thing has his or its appointed place and appointed function. This does not depend upon the fiat of Zeus, for Zeus himself is subject to the same kind of law as governs others. The theory is connected with the idea of fate or necessity. It applies emphatically to the heavenly bodies. But where there is vigour, there is a tendency to overstep just bounds; hence arises strife. Some kind of impersonal super-Olympian law punishes hubris, and restores the eternal order which the aggressor sought to violate. This whole outlook, originally, perhaps, scarcely conscious, passed over into philosophy; it is to be found alike in cosmologies of strife, such as those of Heraclitus and Empedocles, and in monistic doctrines such as that of Parmenides. It is the source of the belief both in natural and in human law, and it clearly underlies Plato's conception of justice.
The word 'justice', as still used in the law, is more similar to Plato's conception than it is as used in political speculation. Under the influence of democratic theory, we have come to associate justice with equality, while for Plato it has no such implication. 'Justice', in the sense in which it is almost synonymous with 'law'—as when we speak of 'courts of justice'—is concerned mainly with property rights, which have nothing to do with equality. The first suggested definition of 'justice', at the beginning of the Republic, is that it consists in paying debts. This definition is soon abandoned as inadequate, but something of it remains at the end.
There are several points to be noted about Plato's definition. First, it makes it possible to have inequalities of power and privilege without justice. The guardians are to have all the power, because they are the wisest members of the community; injustice would only occur, on Plato's definition, if there were men in the other classes who were wiser than some of the guardians. That is why Plato provides for promotion and degradation of citizens, although he thinks that the double advantage of birth and education will, in most cases, make the children of guardians superior to the children of others. If there were a more exact science of government, and more certainty of men following its precepts, there would be much to be said for Plato's system. No one thinks it unjust to put the best men into a football team, although they acquire thereby a great superiority. If football were managed as democratically as the Athenian government the students to play for their university would be chosen by lot. But in matters of government it is difficult to know who has the most skill, and very far from certain that a politician will use his skill in the public interest rather than in his own or in that of his class or party or creed.
The next point is that Plato's definition of 'justice' presupposes a State organized either on traditional lines, or, like his own, so as to realize, in its totality, some ethical ideal. Justice, we are told, consists in every man doing his own job. But what is a man's job? In a State which, like ancient Egypt or the kingdom of the Incas, remains unchanged generation after generation, a man's job is his father's job, and no question arises. But in Plato's State no man has any legal father. His job, therefore, must be decided either by his own tastes or by the State's judgment as to his aptitudes. The latter is obviously what Plato would desire. But some kinds of work, though highly skilled, may be deemed pernicious; Plato takes this view of poetry, and I should take it of the work of Napoleon. The purposes of the Government, therefore, are essential in determining what is a man's job. Although all the rulers are to be philosophers, there are to be no innovations: a philosopher is to be, for all time, a man who understands and agrees with Plato.
When we ask: what will Plato's Republic achieve? the answer is rather humdrum. It will achieve success in wars against roughly equal populations, and it will secure a livelihood for a certain small number of people. It will almost certainly produce no art or science, because of its rigidity; in this respect, as in others, it will be like Sparta. In spite of all the fine talk, skill in war and enough to eat is all that will be achieved. Plato had lived through famine and defeat in Athens; perhaps, subconsciously, he thought the avoidance of these evils the best that statesmanship could accomplish.
A Utopia, if seriously intended, obviously must embody the ideals of its creator. Let us consider, for a moment, what we can mean by 'ideals'. In the first place, they are desired by those who believe in them; but they are not desired quite in the same way as a man desires personal comforts, such as food and shelter. What makes the difference between an 'ideal' and an ordinary object of desire is that the former is impersonal; it is something having (at least ostensibly) no special reference to the ego of the man who feels the desire, and therefore capable, theoretically, of being desired by everybody. Thus we might define an 'ideal' as something desired, not egocentric, and such that the person desiring it wishes that every one else also desired it. I may wish that everybody had enough to eat, that everybody felt kindly towards everybody, and so on, and if I wish anything of this kind I shall also wish others to wish it. In this way, I can build up what looks like an impersonal ethic, although in fact it rests upon the personal basis of my own desires—for the desire remains mine, even when what is desired has no reference to myself. For example, one man may wish that everybody understood science, and another that everybody appreciated art; it is a personal difference between the two men that produces this difference in their desires.
The personal element becomes apparent as soon as controversy is involved. Suppose some man says: 'You are wrong to wish everybody to be happy; you ought to desire the happiness of Germans and the unhappiness of everyone else.' Here 'ought' may be taken to mean that that is what the speaker wishes me to desire. I might retort that, not being German, it is psychologically impossible for me to desire the unhappiness of all non-Germans; but this answer seems inadequate.
Again, there may be a conflict of purely impersonal ideals. Nietzsche's hero differs from a Christian saint, yet both are impersonally admired, the one by Nietzscheans, the other by Christians. How are we to decide between the two except by means of our own desires? Yet, if there is nothing further, an ethical disagreement can only be decided by emotional appeals, or by force—in the ultimate resort, by war. On questions of fact, we can appeal to science and scientific methods of observation; but on ultimate questions of ethics there seems to be nothing analogous. Yet, if this is really the case, ethical disputes resolve themselves into contests for power—including propaganda power.
This point of view, in a crude form, is put forth in the first book of the Republic by Thrasymachus, who, like almost all the characters in Plato's dialogues, was a real person. He was a Sophist from Chalcedon, and a famous teacher of rhetoric; he appeared in the first comedy of Aristophanes, 427 B.C. After Socrates has, for some time, been amiably discussing justice with an old man named Cephalus, and with Plato's elder brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus, Thrasymachus, who has been listening with growing impatience, breaks in with a vehement protest against such childish nonsense. He proclaims emphatically that 'justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger'.
This point of view is refuted by Socrates with quibbles; it is never fairly faced. It raises the fundamental question in ethics and politics, namely: Is there any standard of 'good' and 'bad', except what the man using these words desires? If there is not, many of the consequences drawn by Thrasymachus seem unescapable. Yet how are we to say that there is?
At this point, religion has, at first sight, a simple answer. God determines what is good and what bad; the man whose will is in harmony with the will of God is a good man. Yet this answer is not quite orthodox. Theologians say that God is good, and this implies that there is a standard of goodness which is independent of God's will. We are thus forced to face the question: Is there objective truth or falsehood in such a statement as 'pleasure is good', in the same sense as in such a statement as 'snow is white'?
To answer this question, a very long discussion would be necessary. Some may think that we can, for practical purposes, evade the fundamental issue, and say: 'I do not know what is meant by "objective truth", but I shall consider a statement "true" if all, or virtually all, of those who have investigated it are agreed in upholding it.' In this sense, it is 'true' that snow is white, that Caesar was assassinated, that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, and so on. We are then faced with a question of fact: are there any similarly agreed statements in ethics? If there are, they can be made the basis both for rules of private conduct, and for a theory of politics. If there are not, we are driven in practice, whatever may be the philosophic truth, to a contest by force or propaganda or both, whenever an irreconcilable ethical difference exists between powerful groups.
For Plato, this question does not really exist. Although his dramatic sense leads him to state the position of Thrasymachus forcibly, he is quite unaware of its strength, and allows himself to be grossly unfair in arguing against it. Plato is convinced that there is 'the Good', and that its nature can be ascertained; when people disagree about it, one, at least, is making an intellectual error, just as much as if the disagreement were a scientific one on some matter of fact.
The difference between Plato and Thrasymachus is very important, but for the historian of philosophy it is one to be only noted, not decided. Plato thinks he can prove that his ideal Republic is good; a democrat who accepts the objectivity of ethics may think that he can prove the Republic bad; but anyone who agrees with Thrasymachus will say: 'There is no question of proving or disproving; the only question is whether you like the kind of State that Plato desires. If you do, it is good for you; if you do not, it is bad for you. If many do and many do not, the decision cannot be made by reason, but only by force, actual or concealed.' This is one of the issues in philosophy that are still open; on each side there are men who command respect. But for a very long time the opinion that Plato advocated remained almost undisputed.
It should be observed, further, that the view which substitutes the consensus of opinion for an objective standard has certain consequences that few would accept. What are we to say of scientific innovators like Galileo, who advocate an opinion with which few agree, but finally win the support of almost everybody? They do so by means of arguments, not by emotional appeals or state propaganda or the use of force. This implies a criterion other than the general opinion. In ethical matters, there is something analogous in the case of the great religious teachers. Christ taught that it is not wrong to pluck ears of corn on the Sabbath, but that it is wrong to hate your enemies. Such ethical innovations obviously imply some standard other than majority opinion, but the standard, whatever it is, is not objective fact, as in a scientific question. This problem is a difficult one, and I do not profess to be able to solve it. For the present, let us be content to note it.
Plato's Republic, unlike modern Utopias, was perhaps intended to be actually founded. This was not so fantastic or impossible as it might naturally seem to us. Many of its provisions, including some that we should have thought quite impracticable, were actually realized at Sparta. The rule of philosophers had been attempted by Pythagoras, and in Plato's time Archytas the Pythagorean was politically influential in Taras (the modern Taranto) when Plato visited Sicily and southern Italy. It was a common practice for cities to employ a sage to draw up their laws; Solon had done this for Athens, and Protagoras for Thurii. Colonies, in those days, were completely free from control by their parent cities, and it would have been quite feasible for a band of Platonists to establish the Republic on the shores of Spain or Gaul. Unfortunately chance led Plato to Syracuse, a great commercial city engaged in desperate wars with Carthage; in such an atmosphere, no philosopher could have achieved much. In the next generation, the rise of Macedonia had made all small States antiquated, and had brought about the futility of all political experiments in miniature.