Government by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle
The most famous of Socrates's pupils was an aristocratic young man named Plato. After the death of Socrates, Plato carried on much of his former teacher's work and eventually founded his own school, the Academy, in 385 BC. The Academy would become in its time the most famous school in the classical world, and its most famous pupil was Aristotle.
The Nature of Justice. The question which opens this immense dialogue is: what is justice? Several inadequate definitions are put forward, but the most emphatically presented definition is given by a young Sophist, Thrasymachus. He defines justice as whatever the strongest decide it is, and that the strong decide that whatever is in their best interest is just (review again the Athenian position in Melian Debate). Socrates dismisses this argument by proving that the strong rarely figure out what is in their best interest, and this can't be just since justice is a good thing.
The Analogy of the Ideal Republic. After Thrasymachus leaves in a royal huff, Socrates starts the question all over again. If one could decide what a just state is like, one could use that as an analogy for a just person.
Plato then embarks on a long exposition about how a state might embody the four great virtues: courage, wisdom, temperance, and justice.
The remainder of the dialogue is a long exposition of what justice in a state is; this section is considered one of the first major, systematic expositions of abstract political theory . This type of thinking, that is, speculating about an ideal state or republic, is called "utopian" thinking (utopia is a Greek word which means "no-place").
Plato (speaking through Socrates) divides human beings up based on their innate intelligence, strength, and courage. Those who are not overly bright, or strong, or brave, are suited to various productive professions: farming, smithing, building, etc. Those who are somewhat bright, strong, and especially courageous are suited to defensive and policing professions. Those who are extraordinarily intelligent, virtuous, and brave, are suited to run the state itself; that is, Plato's ideal state is an aristocracy, a Greek word which means "rule by the best." The lower end of human society, which, as far as Plato is concerned, consists of an overwhelming majority of people in a state, he calls the "producers," since they are most suited for productive work. The middle section of society, a smaller but still large number of people, make up the army and the police and are called "Auxiliaries." The best and the brightest, a very small and rarefied group, are those who are in complete control of the state permanently; Plato calls these people "Guardians." In the ideal state, "courage" characterizes the Auxiliaries; "wisdom" displays itself in the lives and government of the Guardians. A state may be said to have "temperance" if the Auxiliaries obey the Guardians in all things and the Producers obey the Auxiliaries and Guardians in all things. A state may be said to be intemperate if any of the lower groups do not obey one of the higher groups. A state may be said to be just if the Auxiliaries do not simply obey the Guardians, but enjoy doing so, that is, they don't grumble about the authority being exercised over them; a just state would require that the Producers not only obey the Auxiliaries and Guardians, but that they do so willingly.
When the analogy is extended to the individual human being, Plato identifies the intellect with the Guardians, the spirit or emotions with the Auxiliaries, and the bodily appetites with the Producers. Therefore, an individual is courageous if his or her spirit is courageous and an individual is wise if his or her intellect is wise. Temperance occurs when the emotions are ruled over by the intellect, and the bodily appetites are ruled over by the emotions and especially the intellect. An individual may be said to be just when the bodily appetites and emotions are not only ruled over by the intellect, but do so willingly and without coercion.
Does this arrangement satisfy you? Is this a fair division of the human soul? Is this a fair division of society? Before you even read Plato's critique of democracy, what do you think he would say about it? Would a democratic state be courageous, wise, temperate, and just based on the system Plato sets up here? What would Plato think of American democracy, which is based on elected representatives? What is the "democratic individual" and how does this creature come about? What happens to individuals in a democracy?
The Allegory of the Cave and the Divided Line: Far and away the most influential passage in Western philosophy ever written is Plato's discussion of the prisoners of the cave and his abstract presentation of the divided line. For Plato, human beings live in a world of visible and intelligible things. The visible world is what surrounds us: what we see, what we hear, what we experience; this visible world is a world of change and uncertainty. The intelligible world is made up of the unchanging products of human reason: anything arising from reason alone, such as abstract definitions or mathematics, makes up this intelligible world, which is the world of reality. The intelligible world contains the eternal "Forms" (in Greek, idea ) of things; the visible world is the imperfect and changing manifestation in this world of these unchanging forms. For example, the "Form" or "Idea" of a horse is intelligible, abstract, and applies to all horses; this Form never changes, even though horses vary wildly among themselves—the Form of a horse would never change even if every horse in the world were to vanish. An individual horse is a physical, changing object that can easily cease to be a horse (if, for instance, it's dropped out of a fifty story building); the Form of a horse, or "horseness," never changes. As a physical object, a horse only makes sense in that it can be referred to the "Form" or "Idea" of horseness.
Plato imagines these two worlds, the sensible world and the intelligible world, as existing on a line that can be divided in the middle: the lower part of the line consists of the visible world and the upper part of the line makes up the intelligible world. Each half of the line relates to a certain type of knowledge: of the visible world, we can only have opinion (in Greek: doxa); of the intelligible world we achieve "knowledge" (in Greek, epistemˇ). Each of these divisions can also be divided in two. The visible or changing world can be divided into a lower region, "illusion," which is made up of shadows, reflections, paintings, poetry, etc., and an upper region, "belief," which refers to any kind of knowledge of things that change, such as individual horses. "Belief" may be true some or most of the time but occasionally is wrong (since things in the visible world change); belief is practical and may serve as a relatively reliable guide to life but doesn't really involve thinking things out to the point of certainty. The upper region can be divided into, on the lower end, "reason," which is knowledge of things like mathematics but which require that some postulates be accepted without question, and "intelligence," which is the knowledge of the highest and most abstract categories of things, an understanding of the ultimate good.
Plato usually wrote relatively short pieces, like the Euthyphro, Meno, etc. In all his writings there are only two book length works, the Republic and the Laws. The Laws was the last thing Plato wrote, at eighty, and it is a grim and terrifying culmination of the totalitarian tendencies in his earlier political thought. It is also pretty dull, since Plato had all but abandoned his earlier lively dialogue format. The Republic, however, is the supreme product of Plato's most mature years, thought, and style. It contains virtually the entire universe of Plato's philosophy.
The word "republic" is from Latin: Res publica means "public matters" or "the state." In Greek, the title was the Politeia, which means the Constitution. But the Republic does not start out about politics. It is initially a familiar kind of Socratic dialogue about justice, just as the Euthyphro is about piety and the Meno is about virtue. The Republic is divided into ten Books. Each of these was originally what would fit onto one papyrus scroll. [By late Roman times, the scrolls were cut up and sewn together into codices, or the kind of bound books that we continue to use.] The entire first Book of the Republic may originally have been one of the standard early dialogues that Plato wrote about Socrates. Later it was expanded. Unusual features of the dialogue, however, are (1) that Socrates [note well that Plato continues to use Socrates to speak Plato's ideas in all his mature works] actually narrates the entire thing, (2) that he speaks with a large number of people, not just one, (3) that these include two brothers of Plato himself (Glaucon and Adeimantus), and (4) that, after the dialogue about justice proceeds in the fashion that we expect of Socrates, things take an unexpected turn: One of the characters, the sophist Thrasymachus, begins to object that he knows quite well what justice is, and that the kinds of definitions the others have been giving are nonsense.
Thrasymachus says, "I declare justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger" Republic 338c [W.H.D. Rouse translation, Great Dialogues of Plato, Mentor Books, 1956, p.137. The following two citations are Rouse's translation also]. Robbery and violence are normally called "injustice," but when they are practiced wholesale by rulers, they are justice, i.e. the interest of the stronger, the rulers. Thus, when we consider ordinary citizens, "the just man comes off worse than an unjust man everywhere" (343d). Since the rulers do not obey the principles they impose on the citizens, they are in those terms "unjust." So Thrasymachus says, "You will understand it most easily, if you come to the most perfect injustice, which makes the unjust man most happy, and makes those who are wronged and will not be unjust most miserable" (344a).
...Tyranny is not a matter of minor theft and violence, but of wholesale plunder, sacred and profane, private or public. If you are caught committing such crimes in detail you are punished and disgraced; sacrilege, kidnapping, burglary, fraud, theft are the names we give to such petty forms of wrongdoing. But when a man succeeds in robbing the whole body of citizens and reducing them to slavery, they forget these ugly names and call him happy and fortunate, as do all others who hear of his unmitigated wrongdoing. [Republic ]
Thus to Thrasymachus the tyrant is happy and fortunate, and he is so precisely because he breaks the rules ("justice") that he imposes on the weak. What the weak call "justice" is really slavery, and no one truly strong would act that way.
[Such sentiments are familiar in modern philosophy from the still popular and influential German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).]
In Book I Socrates proceeds to refute Thrasymachus and does so. If the weak, after all, can prevent the strong from taking what they want or can prevent someone from becoming a tyrant, then they are the strong! Thrasymachus is finally quieted. At the beginning of Book II however, Socrates is told by Glaucon and the others that this was all too easy. They argue that anyone would be unjust, given the opportunity, just as Gyges seduced and murdered his way to the throne of Lydia, once he had found a ring that made him invisible, because everyone believes that injustice leads to happiness, if only one can get away with it. They want Socrates to prove that it is better to be just than to be unjust even if the unjust man is praised, celebrated, and rewarded and the just man is reviled, punished, and rejected. Socrates must prove that such a just man is actually happy and such an unjust man (a tyrant perhaps) is unhappy.
The rest of the Republic answers this challenge. It does so by way of an analogy. Socrates says that it is difficult to distinguish what is going on in the soul, but it is easier to see what is going on in the state. Thus the state will be examined by analogy to the soul. Now we would say that the state is the macrocosm (makros, "large," kosmos, "universe"), the large scale analogue, and the soul is the microcosm (mikros, "small"), the small scale analogue. When matters are sorted out for the state, then the soul can be understood in its own right.
As it happens, Plato ends up using the theory of the soul that he also proposes in the Phaedrus. The soul, on this view, has three parts, which correspond to three different kinds of interests, three kinds of virtues, three kinds of personalities -- depending on which part of the soul is dominant -- and so, properly, to three kinds of social classes that should be based on the three personalities, interests, and virtues.
"Spirit" is in the sense of a "spirited" horse. Plato thinks that this is the energy that drives the soul and may be used to reason to keep desire in line. Temperance, or moderation, will mean the limitation of desires. The word "temperance" is now a little archaic, and it tends to suggest "temperance" as it came to mean abstention from alcohol, as was advocated in the early days of this century by Cary Nation and the Women's Christian Temperance Union, who brought about Prohibition. The three parts of the soul also correspond to places in the body: reason to the head, spirit to the heart, and desire to the organs of desire, mostly in the abdomen. Plato simply made a good guess that reason had something to do with the brain. There wasn't a lot of evidence about this; and many people, including the Egyptians and Aristotle, thought that intelligence was centered in the heart. When the Egyptians mummified bodies, they actually used to throw the brain away, while the heart was carefully prepared and replaced in the body. Remember later in the course to compare Plato's parts of the soul and social classes with the doctrine of the gunas and the varnas later in Indian philosophy.
Now, Plato was originally looking for justice, but justice does not appear in the list of virtues. The answer is that justice applies to them all in the sense of their organization. Reason (and the philosophers) should be in control, with the help of spirit (and the warriors). The philosophers and the warriors are thus the "Guardians" of Plato's ideal state. This does not seem like a familiar sort of definition for justice, but the result, Plato says, is that each interest is satisfied to the proper extent, or, in society, everyone has what is theirs. The philosophers have the knowledge they want; the warriors have the honors they want; and the commoners have the goods and pleasures they want, in the proper moderation maintained by the philosophers and warriors.
The root of all trouble, as far as Plato is concerned, is always unlimited desire.
John E.E.D. Acton, or Lord Acton (1834-1902) famously said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Even Plato was aware of this and that commoners might be envious of the power of the Guardians, desiring it for themselves so as to obtain greater goods and pleasures. Thus Plato proposes a set of rules for his Guardians that would render their position undesirable to the commoners:
With these views about nudity, the Greeks were all the more impressed with India when Alexander the Great arrived there and found naked holy men. These were Jain monks, and others, who had renounced the world even to the extent of renouncing clothing also. The Greeks called them the gymnosophistai "naked philosophers"; and Greek philosophers like Pyrrho of Elis, who was with Alexander's army, reportedly spent a great deal of time talking with them. Pyrrho, at least, seems to have actually picked up some ideas from Indian philosophy thereby. Naked monks still exist in India. They are called digambara or "sky-clad," since the sky is their only covering.
Of all the serious criticisms that can be made against Plato's ideal state, I think that a couple of the most telling are that his theory involves two serious internal contradictions:
Taking Plato's theory at face value, however, does not answer the whole challenge originally posed by Thrasymachus. This might give us a definition of justice, after a fashion, but it does not show why it is better to be just or why the just person is happier. Plato does that in Book VIII of the Republic by examining "imperfect" states. He imagines what would happen if his ideal state decays.
Recent economists in the area of Public Choice theory [e.g. James M. Buchanan and the Virginia School of Public Choice], have described how the politicization of economic goods inevitably creates increased public conflict as the sense grows that wealth is something to be seized and distributed through state action. As everyone comes to believe that their prosperity depends on political success and consequent government largess, such a dynamic will tend to destabilize democracy, since in politics there are always losers and they begin to think that they are victims of the regime and have no stake in it. Capitalism is often disparaged as a system with "winners and losers," but the losers in capitalism are just the unsuccessful businesses, while the winners do win by providing what is most agreeable to consumers. In politics, the "winners and losers" are both consumers, and the losers are those who are then legally robbed to pay off the winners, who have the power of the state to take what they want (if you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can at least get Paul to vote for you). One would think that the United States Constitution shuts off any drift towards a regime of seizure and redistribution because of the "Takings" clause of the Fifth Amendment: "Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." The Takings clause, however, was an early casualty of enthusiasm over the New Deal and has steadily eroded ever since. It is only now that a movement has developed, and received some attention from the Supreme Court, to enforce it.
For Plato's argument, the tyrannical state is the final refutation of Thrasymachus. It is clearly the most unhappy kind of state. Thrasymachus, of course, can argue that he doesn't care. It is Plato's analogy, not his. All that matters is whether the tyrant himself is happy or unhappy. Plato's answer to that is to identify the nature of the "tyrannical personality": since the tyrant is subject to completely unlimited desire, he can never be satisfied with anything he has. He will always want more. That is also the answer in a famous scene in the 1948 movie Key Largo, with Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. Robinson is a gangster holding a hotel full of people, including Bogart, hostage. Bogart at one point asks him what he really wants out of all this. Robinson can't say, so Bogart, like Socrates, makes a suggestion: is it that what he really wants is just more? Robinson says, yes, yes, he wants more, more! That is the tyrannical personality.
In our century, it is not hard to find tyrannical personalities to fit Plato's description. Both Hitler and Mussolini were undone by their inability to be satisfied with their successes. When Hitler had conquered France, there was only one country left in the world at war with him, Britain. Stalin's Soviet Union was busy mollifying Hitler by supplying him anything he needed. If Hitler had been content to absorb his conquests and develop German's potential, there is no doubt that he would have been in little danger for some time to come. He destroyed himself because he just had to invade Russia. Similarly, Mussolini was cautious enough that Italy remained neutral when Britain and France declared war on Germany for invading Poland. He lost his caution when he saw France defeated and decided to jump on Hitler's bandwagon. It meant, literally, his death. Otherwise Mussolini might had ridden out the war and died peacefully in bed, like his colleague the dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco.
Franco, however, is one of the people who spoils Plato's argument. Hitler really wanted Franco in the war. And he knew that Franco, and Spaniards in generally, really wanted to recover Gibraltar, after over two hundred years, from Britain. [Gibraltar was captured by Britain in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession and ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 -- one of the British admirals leading the capture had the extraordinary name of "Cloudsley Shovel."] Since Gibraltar was a thorn in the side of German and Italian operations in the Mediterranean, Hitler told Franco that if Spain entered the war, German troops would take Gibraltar and then give it to Spain. It was the kind of offer Franco couldn't refuse, but he did. Franco knew how to limit his desire, but that didn't prevent him from being a serious tyrant. Worse is the case of Joseph Stalin, who had an uncanny ability to bide his time and to take advantage of every opportunity. To the embarrassment of Western leftists, World War II itself began with Hitler and Stalin actually partitioning Poland between them. When Stalin subsequently invaded Finland, there was a moment when it looked like the Soviet Union might join Germany as the common totalitarian enemy of the Western democracies. When Stalin became an ally of the West instead (when Hitler invaded Russia), he could cash in his position with a post-war empire than would have been the envy of the Czars. Poor Poland, whose fate called Britain and France to war in 1939, and whose exiled citizens fought bravely in many of the major actions of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt at Yalta and remained a vassal state of the Soviet Union until 1989.
Although Plato didn't know about such a variety of tyrannical personalities, he seems to have felt that his ultimate argument about the unhappiness of the tyrant was not strong enough. To seal the argument, he ended the Republic with a myth: the Myth of Er. Er was supposed to have been a soldier who was struck down and left for dead in a battle. When the bodies were collected after ten days for burning, Er revived and said that he had seen the reward of the good and the punishment of the wicked in the hereafter. After the judgment of the gods, the souls of the dead went to a place of reward in heaven or a place of punishment in the underworld. Since Plato believed in reincarnation there were no eternal rewards or punishments -- except for an evil few who were not allowed out of Hades. All the others had to face the prospect of their next life, and they were given the opportunity to choose the character of their next life from a variety of alternatives.
The Republic thus ends rather lamely with the argument that we better be good or the gods will punish us. We hardly needed to go through the whole book just to be told that. But in the midst of this there comes a very striking moment. Er describes the souls choosing their next life. The first one he sees doing this chooses badly -- the life of a tyrant who is fated "to eat his children and suffer other horrors" [Republic 619b-c, Rouse p.420]. Plato's comment about this reveals an important principle of his thought: This was a person who had lived a good life and had just returned from a reward for it in heaven. But, says Plato, he had "some share of virtue which came by habit without philosophy." That is how Rouse puts it, p.420. Lee's translation is, "having owed his goodness to habit and custom and not to knowledge," p.399. The terms in Greek are aretê, "virtue"; ethos, "custom," "habit" (only one word in Greek); and philosophia. So Rouse's translation is more literal.
This was a prescient critique of Plato's own student Aristotle, who later believed that virtue actually was a matter of habit and that the good had no independent nature to know, as Socrates and Plato had thought. Plato, of course, can allow for Aristotle's kind of virtue, but he regards it, as at the end of the Meno, as a matter of correct opinion only, not knowledge. The shortcoming of that kind of virtue is that, being habitual, it is effective only in habitual circumstances. In unfamiliar circumstances, where novel cases of good and evil must be recognized, the person does not possess the knowledge that would make that recognition possible. Socrates had asked Eurthyphro for a definition of piety so that he would "look upon it" and "use it as a model" (Euthyphro 6d) to recognize novel cases of piety and impiety. The soul that picks the terrible life of a tyrant obviously has no model and doesn't know what it is doing. This is why Meno actually makes a good observation at Meno 97c, when he says, "he who has knowledge will always succeed, while he who has right opinion will so metimes succeed, sometimes not." Although Socrates oddly disagrees with this, the point is to be well taken that right opinion will only work for a limited sphere of possibilities, the familiar ones, while knowledge will always work.
In the end, probably the most enduring image of the entire Republic, as an expression of Plato's view of life and the world, is the Allegory (or Simile) of the Cave. This occurs in Book VII (at 514), following his discussion of the Divided Line (in Book VI), which illustrated the levels of knowledge and reality in the discussion of the nature of philosophy and the good. Plato says that we are all like prisoners chained up on the floor of a cave. We are so restricted that we can only look in one direction, and there we see shadows on the wall that seem to talk and move around. We and our fellow prisoners observe, discuss, and remember what these shadows do or say. But, what happens if we happen to be released from our chains? We stand up and look around, and we see a fire burning at the back of the cave. In front of the fire is a low wall, and on the wall puppets are manipulated, which cast the shadows that are all we have ever seen. So suddenly we realize that all the things we have ever known all our lives were not the true reality at all, but just shadows [skiai -- significantly the same word that occurs at the end of the Meno, when Plato says that the statesman who can teach his virtue and make another into a statesman will be like the only true reality compared with shadows (100a)]. But there is more. There is an exit from the cave, which leads up to the surface. There we are at first blinded, but then begin to see trees, animals, etc. which in the cave were only represented by puppets. Eventually we notice that all those things exist and are knowable because of the sun. Returning to the cave, we would at first be blinded by the darkness, and our fellow prisoners would have no idea what we were doing or saying -- they would probably regard us as insane -- but we could not, of course, take them seriously for an instant.
In modern terms, Plato's description of the cave bears an uncanny resemblance to a movie theater. There we do indeed sit in the dark with our fellow movie goers, not looking at them but at the screen. Instead of a fire and puppets, we have a projector light and film. Instead of shadows, we have focused images -- much more compelling than shadows, but something about whose possibility Plato did not have a clue. But what we see on the movie screen, in turn, usually bears no more resemblance to reality than what Plato expected from the shadows on the cave wall.
The freed prisoner is, of course, the philosopher. The cave itself represents the world of Becoming and its fire the physical sun in the sky. The world on the surface outside of the cave represents the world of Being, where the individual objects are the Forms. Two peculiarities of the Allegory of the Cave, however, are the status of the shadows, as opposed to the puppets, and the nature of the sun. If the puppets are the actual objects in the world of Becoming, then the shadows must be people's opinions. We do mostly go through life paying attention to people's opinions rather than to the things themselves, so that is suitable. Plato, of course, thinks that even the things themselves are like shadows of the Forms. The sun, in turn, is a unique kind of Form: the Form of the Good. This is a unique moment in Plato's writings, since he does not elsewhere single out any Form as different in kind from the others, and he does not elsewhere pay any sustained attention to the good as such. He has already said in the Republic (at 506) that he cannot really give a definition of the good. He will only give us an analogy, that the good is to knowledge and truth what the sun is to light and sight.
Then what gives the objects of knowledge their truth and the mind the power of knowing is the Form of the Good. It is the cause of knowledge and truth, and you will be right to think of it as being itself known, and yet as being something other than, and even higher than, knowledge and truth. And just as it was right to think of light and sight as being like the sun, but wrong to think of them as being the sun itself, so here again it is right to think of knowledge and truth as being like the Good, but wrong to think of either of them as being the Good, which must be given a still higher place of honor....
The Goodtherefore may be said to be the source not only of the intelligibility of the objects of knowledge, but also of their existence and reality; yet it is not itself identical with reality, but is beyond reality, and superior to it in dignity and power.
This is suggestive and intriguing, and Plato's own students wanted to hear more. Once Plato even promised to give a lecture on the good. But when the day came, all he did was do a geometry proof. So we are left at a kind of incomplete pinnacle of Plato's thought, with a sense of how important in reality the good is, but with mostly metaphorical statements about it. That was either the best Plato thought he could do or, like the Pythagoreans, he thought that his most serious views should not be spoken in public. Later the Neoplatonists (students) would simply conclude that the Form of the Good was God, but there is no hint of that in Plato. He goes so far and then, like Parmenides, leaves us to continue the quest.