1. Plato’s The Republic

Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived in the city-state of Athens from 428/427 to 348/347 B.C. For several years he operated a school of higher education, called the Academy, in his home. He composed a number of dialogues in which an earlier philosopher, Socrates, discusses philosophical topics with various people. In The Republic they examine the nature of justice. Arguing that it would be easier to see justice in the state than in the individual because of the state’s larger size, Plato (through Socrates) considers the ideal state in Books II-V of its ten Books.

Plato begins his consideration of the state by stating that it exists to enable people to aid each other in providing for their needs and thus requires the presence of workers in different occupations–he identifies artisans, traders, retailers, and labourers as necessary in any state and various professionals as also present in a “luxurious State.” He goes on to observe that as a state’s population rises its territory may become insufficient, causing it to try to annex some of its neighbours’ territory, and thus it needs warriors as well as workers. Next he adds that it will also need rulers, which he argues should be chosen from the class of warriors. Initially Plato calls the warrior class “guardians,” but later he suggests applying that term only to rulers and designating warriors “auxiliaries.” He proposes that to ensure that the auxiliaries put the good of the state before themselves they have no private property or wives (and households) of their own. He argues that this will promote unity in the state, which he claims is the greatest good in the state.

My first reaction on reading Plato’s description of the ideal state was alienation at his proposing not allowing those in the military to have private property and wives and households of their own. Reading others’ comments on his proposal made me realize that I wasn’t the only one to have such a reaction. For example, in The Great Ideas Program Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff observe, “This writing has shocked some people by its proposal of … the possession of all things in common, including wives and children” (Volume 2: The Development of Political Theory and Government, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1959, page 1). They continue, “It has shocked others by its portrayal of an authoritarian, hierarchal state, with a ‘guardian’ elite, a philosopher-king, and a ‘royal lie’ [that God had framed the different classes] to keep the lower classes content…. It has also been considered a heavenly community … and its influence has come down the centuries to utopian communities in the United States … and to the communal settlements in modern Israel” (pages 1-2).

Incidentally here is what Plato concluded about justice. He identified four virtues in a state–wisdom, which he associated with the rulers or guardian class; courage, which he associated with the warriors or auxiliary class; temperance, which he associated with the working class; and justice, which he summed up as “when the trader, the auxiliary, and the guardian each do their business” (The Dialogues of Plato in volume 7 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952, page 350). Then he said that just as there are three classes in the state there are three principles in the individual–appetite, reason, and passion–and that in the same way as a state is just when each of the classes does its own business an individual is just when “the several qualities of his nature do their own work” (page 354).

See also my post on Books I-II of the Republic, https://opentheism.wordpress.com/2017/02/11/plato/.

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2 thoughts on “1. Plato’s The Republic

  1. Allison

    When I read your post on Plato, and his comment about not allowing military to have wives and personal property, I had two reactions. First, I thought of Paul’s encouragement for Christians to remain single so that they might more wholly dedicate themselves to ministry. Second, I thought that if our politicians were to follow that Plato’s guidelines, our countries might be better served. 😉

    Reply
    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      When I read Plato’s comment about not allowing military to have wives and personal property, I too thought about Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7:8, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.” However I, and I imagine you, also recollected that Paul realized the problem that such a policy would likely result in, his going on to say, “But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (ESV).

      Reply

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