A critique and defense of Plato’s “just state”


Plato may or may not have looked anything like this.

In case anyone out there has an interest in Plato, here's a paper from my student days in which I did the shamelessly anachronistic and ahistorical thing of discussing The Republic, liberalism, and Marxism all together. It took me forever to think of a paper topic, and that's what I came up with. But the essay might have a few points of interest anyway.


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One of the purposes of Plato’s Republic is to expound a conception of the just state. Plato describes how such a state would be organized, who would govern it, what sort of education the children would have, and so on. He goes into great detail, laying out ideas that at times strike the modern reader as wrongheaded, petty, or even immoral. Karl Popper, for instance, argued in The Open Society and Its Enemies that Plato’s ideal state is totalitarian, with little freedom of expression allowed, little diversity, and a perverse commitment to a Spartan-like regimentation of social life. Others see evidence of democracy in Plato’s description, for instance in the egalitarianism that characterizes certain aspects of his educational program. The question I want to ask in this paper is whether, and to what extent, Plato’s vision is still relevant—whether it has anything valuable to say to us. Is the Platonic state just or unjust? Is it entirely impracticable, or are there elements that can and should be put into practice? How adequate is the theory of justice on which it is founded? After discussing these questions I will briefly consider the form that a modern utopia might take, drawing on Marxian conceptions.


Plato’s definition of justice


“To do one’s own business and not to be a busybody is justice.” (433b) This is the definition Plato offers, which the modern reader may find odd. Justice consists in specialization, in fulfilling one’s proper role—realizing one’s potential while not overstepping it (by doing what is unnatural, i.e., contrary to one’s nature). This applies both to the just state and to the just individual: in the former, each class and each individual has a specific set of duties, a set of obligations to the community, which if he and everyone fulfill will result in a harmonious whole; in the just individual, every part of the psyche accomplishes its natural function easily and well. Conversely, in the ideal society each individual gets his “just deserts” (as does each class): by doing what he is supposed to do, he receives whatever credit and remuneration he deserves. If he fails to do his task, he is appropriately punished.


Thus, justice is “the having and doing of one’s own and what belongs to oneself” (434a). Excess and deficiency of any kind are unjust. In this formulation, the Platonic definition seems plausible. A thief, for example, is unjust because he wants to have what is not his own. A doctor who does not care about curing his patients of illnesses can be called unjust because he is disregarding his proper role. A murderer acts unjustly insofar as he deprives his victim of that which rightly belongs to him, namely his life. In general, unjust people are those who either treat someone worse than he deserves or do not realize the virtues/duties proper to their situation in life. An unjust state, similarly, is one that fails to accomplish the functions of a state—which, according to Plato, include making possible the conditions under which everyone can feed, clothe and shelter himself, as well as seek the “good”, i.e. realize his potential.


Plato’s conception of justice is informed by his conviction that everything in nature embodies a hierarchy. Nature is ideally a vast harmony—a cosmic symphony—every species and every individual serving a certain purpose. Anarchy is the supreme vice, the most unnatural and unjust state of affairs. The just state, then, is hierarchical, like nature: individuals are ranked according to their aptitudes and placed in a definite location in the social hierarchy. The individual soul, too, is hierarchical: the appetitive part is inferior to the spirited, which is inferior to the rational. Yet each has a necessary role to play. Reason should govern the individual, but the appetites must be heeded as well (to an extent) if the person’s soul is to be harmonious and not in conflict with itself. The virtuous individual has a well-ordered soul, which is to say he knows what justice is and acts according to his knowledge. He knows his place in the cosmos and in the state; he knows what his aptitudes are and puts them into practice; he adheres to the dictates of reason, which means he does everything in moderation. (If every aspect of the soul accomplishes its task well, or fittingly, the result is necessarily a ‘moderate’ and ordered state of affairs.)


The Platonic worldview is quite foreign to the modern liberal-democratic, capitalist one. We are accustomed to a dynamic, free, rather chaotic society, which at least ideologically is skeptical of rigid hierarchies, be they social or natural. Individual liberty is extolled as perhaps the highest value; people are not supposed to be ranked according to their intrinsic value or their value to society, and so any philosophy that reeks of a caste system is decisively rejected. We are committed to no parallels or analogies between nature and society; we do not think of the world as a “harmony”, even ideally (partly because our conception of nature is, in a sense, mechanistic, not teleological); we like order but do not consider it supreme among values; we admire ambitious, “driven” people, not those who are at peace with themselves or do everything in moderation. Plato, on the other hand, lived in a society (Athens in the 5th century B.C.) that, to his chagrin, was becoming increasingly heterogeneous, was in danger of losing its cultural and military preeminence, and was succumbing to disintegrating influences from abroad and from within. He had lived through the terrible time of the Thirty Tyrants and the Peloponnesian War, and therefore had intimate experience of the horrors of chaos. In short, he saw an older, “better” world crumbling around him, and he wanted to understand what had gone wrong and how it could be fixed. The result was that he upheld tradition; he emphasized order and homogeneity, the claims of the state over the claims of the individual (while thinking that ultimately, in the just state and the just individual, the laws of the former would harmonize with the desires of the latter). Justice, for him, was to be sought in the old, in the static—the submersion of the individual in the community—not in the new or the dynamic.


Thus, despite whatever superficial similarities there may be between Plato’s definition of justice and our own intuitive idea, fundamentally it is different. The worldview of which it is a part is diametrically opposed to our own. We conceive of justice as oriented around the ideas of individual freedom, the priority of the individual over the community, respect for rights (with less emphasis on duties or even virtues), a healthy dynamism, and we consider it not only sometimes permissible but often even meritorious to disobey the state’s laws (if they violate certain intuitions about individual rights); Plato’s conception of justice is inspired by his conviction that the collective takes ethical and ontological precedence over the individual, that there is a cosmic order that each person is supposed to fit into—which he upholds by fulfilling his natural roles—and that virtue, and to an extent duty, is far more important than “rights”. While in a particular case, such as that of the murderer, Plato might judge as we do, both his explicit definitions of justice and the deeper intuitions that inspire his definitions differ from ours.


The differences become apparent when we look at larger scales than individuals’ transgressions. Plato and we agree that the thief is unjust and that the professional who ignores his duties can be called “unjust”. We also agree that the political tyrant is unjust. But in this case, our respective judgments are based on different reasons. We would say the tyrant’s injustice consists in his suppressing freedom, his killing innocent people, his disregard for democracy and self-determination. Plato, on the other hand, would say the tyrant is unjust insofar as his acts promote anarchy and prevent his subjects from seeking the Good and living in harmony with themselves and the community. The tyrant upsets the natural order of things. While Plato valued freedom, he did so much less than we moderns do (as evidenced in his not emphasizing it in his discussions of justice).


Another illustration of the difference in our outlooks is in our respective conceptions of the ideal, or the “just”, person. According to Plato, the philosopher is the best person, since his soul is in complete harmony with itself. His rational faculty governs his passions and appetites, never allowing them free rein but, still, respecting their claims on him and indulging them whenever necessary or desirable. He has knowledge of himself and society; he knows what it is to be virtuous; he has a certain amount of equanimity, and he never loses control over himself. The unjust person, on the other hand, can in fact scarcely be called a person, he is so divided against himself. Like the state that is at war with itself, he is torn between his passions and his appetites and has no respect for reason, which alone could unify his soul such that he would be an individual, in the full sense of the word. (‘In-dividual.’)


Our notion of the best person, on the other hand, is far less specific than Plato’s. It does, to an extent, incorporate the notion of “virtue” (as does Plato’s), but virtue is conceived simply as treating others well. Our ideal can be called more “relational” than Plato’s, in that it emphasizes how others should be treated rather than the intrinsic character of one’s psyche or soul. In general, our society places little emphasis on a specific ideal, choosing instead to censure types of behavior that interfere with other people’s “pursuit of happiness”. This mainly negative conception of the ideal grows out of the liberalism that, even after two hundred years or more, remains the dominant ideology.


Given all these differences, the obvious question is “Which concept of justice—or, more fundamentally, which worldview—is better, Plato’s or ours?” While I have discussed neither of these in great detail, I’d suggest the following answer: neither Plato’s nor our own vision is satisfactory, but each has its strengths. The most defensible notion of justice—of the just society and the ideal individual—would be a combination of the two, selecting the strengths from each and reconciling them. To speak generally, it would emphasize both the importance of community and the importance of the individual, while succumbing neither to the potential totalitarianism of the Republic nor to the excessive and unhealthy individualism of modern capitalist society.


In the following I’ll briefly describe Plato’s utopia, and then I’ll consider the question whether it would be desirable for any of it to be put into practice.


Plato’s ideal state


Every reader of the Republic knows that Plato’s intention in discussing the just state is to illuminate the nature of the just soul; for he argues that the latter is analogous to the former. The divisions in the state, for example, correspond to the divisions in the soul. But since the soul is difficult to analyze, Socrates says he will first speculate on the state—which is the soul writ large, so to speak—and then rely on his speculations to illuminate the nature of justice in the individual.


It appears, then, superficially, that the lengthy discussion of the state is primarily a heuristic device. Clearly, however, it is also more than that. Plato may not have believed his utopia would actually work in practice, or even that it would be desirable to institute some of his more radical suggestions, but he certainly attributed some value to his discussion independent of its heuristic function. Judging by Socrates’s language, it is reasonable to suppose that Plato would have liked to see some of his ideas concretely realized in a city-state. He was dissatisfied with the city-states of his day, and he proposed an alternative in his dialogue. We would be remiss, I think, not to treat it as such—that is, as an outline of what is supposed to be a truly just society, and what would be, on the whole, a just society if it, or something like it, were realized.


So let’s look at its details. There are three major classes, corresponding to the three parts of the soul. The guardians, who are philosophers, govern the city; the “auxiliaries” are soldiers who protect and defend the city; and the lowest class comprises the workers (farmers, artisans, etc.). The guardians and auxiliaries have the same education during youth, which begins with music and literature and ends with gymnastics. The arts to which the children are exposed during their education are censored: any poetic writings that attribute ignoble doings to the gods cannot be taught; only that which nourishes the budding virtues of the pupils can be part of the curriculum. Similarly, the musical modes that sound sorrowful, soft and womanish are banished from the education of the guardians, which apparently leaves only the Dorian and the Phrygian modes. Socrates approves of these because they incite the listener to courage, to temperance, to harmonious living. Certain instruments, such as the flute, are also forbidden from the city, as are certain poetic meters, since Socrates associates them with vice. In general, all the arts in the state are to be strictly censored.


Indeed, the life of the whole state has affinities with life under a totalitarian government. The laws that Socrates suggests are repressive: only that which conduces to temperate living is encouraged; excess and vice of any kind are strongly discouraged. (For example, neither wealth nor poverty is permitted, as each conduces to vice.) People are allowed to have only one occupation, namely that for which they are best suited by nature. Evidently there is no division between the public and the private (that division so dear to liberals).


Socrates’s thoughts on women and children are as uncongenial to the liberal as the foregoing. He argues that the family, in its traditional form, should be done away with. Men should have women and children in common, such that no man knows who his children are or has excessive love for one woman in particular. Even mothers are not allowed to know who their children are. (Their children are taken from them, and they are given other children to suckle as long as they have milk.) The principles of breeding sound ominously like Nazi ideas and Spartan practices of killing all weak and deformed infants. For example,


...the best of either sex should be united with the best as often [as possible], and the inferior with the inferior as seldom as possible; and they should rear the offspring of the one sort of union, but not of the other, if the flock is to be maintained in first-rate condition. Now these goings-on must be a secret which the rulers only know, or there will be a further danger of our herd, as the guardians may be termed, breaking out into rebellion...

As usual, Plato goes into a lot of tedious detail, which we’ll pass over. He recommends that the rulers lie to their subjects when it is in the latter’s best interest. More acceptable to modern sentiment is his suggestion that women in the guardian class receive the same education as men, so that the best of them can assist the men in war and governance.


In general, the goal that Plato is aiming at is that everyone in the higher classes (the auxiliaries and the rulers, or the guardians) thinks of everyone else as a member of his family, such that there is little or no strife between them and they all desire the same thing, which is harmony, temperance, gentleness toward fellow citizens and harshness toward people from other states—a unified front on all issues, as it were. There is no private property or money (except, insofar as it is necessary, among the lower classes); therefore there will be no disputes about what belongs to whom—just as there will be no disputes about which women belong to whom, and who one’s children are and so forth. The health of the community is the overriding principle in all spheres of life. All of Plato’s radical prescriptions follow from that one principle.


The foregoing may suffice to characterize the various laws and prohibitions Plato wants to enact. The question is, what are we to make of them? Do they represent a mere historical curiosity—a way of gaining insight into Plato’s mind and the society he came from—or do they have independent philosophical and political merit?


My own opinion is that their obvious totalitarianism makes it a very good thing they were never enacted. This is where my fidelity to modern ideologies shows itself. I think Hegel was right in his assessment of liberalism (and modern consciousness in general): it has “discovered”, so to speak, subjectivity, the individual, and thus serves as a corrective to Platonic excesses. The individual is not ethically subordinate to the community; his health and freedom, especially, are no less important than communal harmony. Indeed, unless he feels free, he cannot be psychologically healthy. Plato underestimated the value of self-determination—its foundational importance to self-respect, and hence to “justice” even in his sense of the term. The philosopher, perhaps, (as Plato conceives him) exhibits the virtue, and enjoys the satisfaction, of self-determination, but everyone else in Plato’s utopia is to be forced by the philosopher-king(s) to occupy a certain place in the social hierarchy and live his life in a fundamentally unfree (un-self-determined) way. He will therefore lack complete self-respect, self-contentment; the mere knowledge that he is in an inferior position relative to others will likely breed discontent, which will upset his psychological “equilibrium” (the harmony of his faculties/desires with each other, and with his place in the world)—i.e., set him at war with himself and with the state—and will accordingly, in Plato’s conception, make him an unjust individual. In other words, this utopia, in denying most of its citizens freedom, or the opportunity to discover themselves and their talents unhindered by oppressive laws promulgated by an oppressive regime, will make inevitable their dissatisfaction with themselves and the community, which is bad not only from the perspective of their desire for happiness but also because it means they are “unjust” (self-divided). The Platonic utopia makes impossible the very virtues it was meant to promote.


The basic human psychological need is for recognition, or self-confirmation. People want to recognize their sense of self in their activities, in the world, in other people’s reactions to them; they want to feel respected, indeed loved, by themselves and others. But no one who is conscious of externally imposed restrictions on his behavior can think that his deepest, self-loving sense of himself is being recognized by the community—this community that feels the need to censor him! He may well be full of resentment, tormented by repressed desires, desperate to break free of the shackles and spontaneously affirm himself—actualize his full, rich sense of who he is and wants to be. Freedom has always been desired by people because genuine self-confirmation is impossible except on its basis. Any social order that does not allow substantial freedom among its participants is inherently unstable and has the potential for rebellion built into it. Every major society in history, then, has been erected on a tenuous and transient foundation; but Plato’s utopia in particular would soon collapse.


However, Plato was right that the interests of the individual ultimately coincide with the interests of the community. For a community is only as “healthy” as the people who participate in it. And vice versa. Where Plato went wrong was in failing to understand the prerequisites of the self-harmony that he rightly thought constituted individual and communal happiness;—the prerequisites, namely, of freedom and of the perception that one’s full sense of self is recognized by others. Modern liberal ideologies compensate for the deficiency in Plato, but they overcompensate. That is, they have an impoverished view of what freedom is and why it is good, for they exalt the abstract concept of an isolated, ahistorical individual who needs nothing but protection from other people rather than genuine and durable ties with them.[1] They forget that protection is of secondary importance; the essence of freedom, the reason it is desired in the first place, is that in its full, concrete reality (as opposed to the liberal abstraction of “political and economic liberty”, which exists in the ethereal realm of law rather than the concrete reality of social life) it is inseparable from interpersonal union, from mutual recognizing-of-the-other—recognition of his self-determined activities as being his, as being him. In a truly free society there is no atomization, no such thing as explicit “political rights”—no need for them; there are no artificial legalistic barriers to interpersonal understanding and recognition, to communal self-realization. People live in and through the community. Far from needing protection from it, they feel deprived without it


Socrates remarks in the Republic that although his utopia may be unrealizable, it is at least useful as an ideal, a standard by which we can criticize existing institutions. While I disagree with his version of “Utopia”, I agree it is a worthy task to formulate social ideals. In doing so, we at least posit an endpoint of historical progress, a state we can strive to realize even if in its details it is impossible. With that in mind, I would suggest that something like Marxian democratic communism is the ideal we should look to in criticizing the present. For it reconciles Plato’s emphasis on the community with the modern emphasis on the individual (i.e., freedom).


Indeed, the Marxist utopia is not merely “Marxist” per se; it is, in a way, heir to both the Platonic and the liberal utopia. This statement may seem paradoxical, for, as we have seen, Platonism and liberalism are diametrically opposed—and so it sounds odd to say that one vision can be the heir to, or the fulfillment of, both. But consider what is involved in the Marxian ideal. First of all, classes do not exist. This conception is perhaps not as blatantly incompatible with Platonism as it seems, because, for one thing, the Marxian definition of class is very different from the Platonic one. The latter, as we have seen, incorporates a fusion of political and economic criteria: the lowest class is involved in productive economic activities but has no political power; the highest class has all the political power; and then there is the class of soldiers, who have, properly speaking, neither a strictly political nor an economic role. For Marx, on the other hand, the definition of class is exclusively economic, based on the group’s role in the process of production and, correspondingly, its ownership or lack thereof of the means of production. So for Marx, in capitalism there are two essential classes, namely the capitalists and the workers.


Clearly Marx departs from Plato’s ‘hierarchical’ ideas in fundamental ways. My point is, first, that rather than directly contradicting Plato, he simply adopts a different starting-point and proceeds on that basis. He has little to say about Plato’s tripartite division of society, except insofar as he assumes it is morally unpleasant and will be superfluous in a communist society. This brings me to my second point: while communist ideology does contradict Platonism in its classless and democratic ideals, it does so on the basis of a deep sympathy with the goals Plato had in mind. Both Plato and Marxists are concerned with the health and wholeness of the community, the durability of its social structures, the happiness of its citizens and the justice of its political and economic arrangements. To that extent, communism is a successor to Plato’s republic. It too is an ideology built on the conviction that the community has, so to speak, ontological precedence over the individual—i.e., that it is an organic whole and not merely an aggregate of individual atoms, and therefore that social structures, the relational ties between people rather than the positive (“free”) behavior of some abstract atomized individual, take priority both in a scientific analysis of society and also in the formulation of an ethical ideal.


Where communism differs from Platonism, then, is not in its communitarian goal or inspiration but in the means it chooses to realize its goal—or, rather, in the structures it posits as constitutive of that goal, viz. democracy, economic and political cooperation, an absence of coercive social mechanisms, and so forth. These notions have much more in common with liberalism than with Platonism. Marx rejects all the liberal talk of “rights” and “the rule of law”, as well as liberalism’s emphasis on market-based competition, but he does so precisely because he believes it is symptomatic of the incomplete realization of the original liberal goal, namely individual self-determination. In order for “liberalism” (i.e., this pure version of liberalism, according to which freedom is the highest good) to achieve its ideal, capitalism—characterized by coercion, exploitation, and dehumanization, according to Marx—must be transcended, together with its ideologies exalting private property and private rights, and so on, which suppress and alienate humans’ social essence. From this perspective, indeed, Marx can be seen as trying to save liberalism from itself, just as he can be construed as saving Platonism from itself (that is, as retaining some of its intuitions while discarding the totalitarian doctrines that would actually make impossible the achievement of Plato’s ‘perfect community’, for reasons stated above).


There is no need to elaborate on the communist vision further. My intention in discussing Marx was to show that despite all the differences between Plato’s conception of justice and our own, elements of his philosophy can be reconciled with elements of our liberal democratic ideology. I have also suggested that Plato’s ‘communitarian’ intuition was largely right, even if his suggested means of realizing it were dangerously wrong. Likewise, the ideal individual should indeed be self-unified and have self-control; and Plato was right that, generally speaking, such individuals will not arise except in socially harmonious conditions.


In the end, I think we should do as Marx did. That is, we should adopt these general features of Plato’s notion of justice while discarding the moralistic undertones they have in the dialogues. If we treated them only as nonmoral values, while yet taking them seriously, I suspect that life would become a little better than it is now, in our confused and atomized world.


[1] This is, in effect, part of the argument Karl Marx makes in his essay “On the Jewish Question.”

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