Morality and Governance in The Republic: The Good, the Bad, the Individual and the State

Sujoy Sur

Introduction

The Republic is an exhausting read. The book, which is actually a dialogue divided across 10 books, is the most famous work by Plato, who is one of the most prominent personalities in Green philosophy not only because his writings are also the primary source of Socrates’ ideas but also because his ideas form a thesis for Aristotle to formulate his antithetical ideas which then reigned supreme over Europe for the next 1500 years until the emergence of St. Thomas Aquinas and later Francis Bacon. The book is exhausting not because it incorporates a broad range of ideas and themes involving many actors, but because to truly understand the philosophy and concerns raised in the dialogue one needs to come back to it again and again after realizing how its ideas have seeped into the culture and politics around oneself, which results in a symbiotic growth one’s innate understanding of the philosophy in the dialogue as well as of the motivations which stir the culture and politics around us; also probably because it requires considerable patience to read all 10 books one after the other.

The Republic’s realm is in metaphysics and epistemology. It is the world of ideas. The Republic delves into the notions of justice, goodness, truth, and wisdom. It is a world of social constructs, a debate about virtues, not about survival. To many, on the outset, it may seem an ideological and theoretical discussion, devoid of pragmatism and little possibility of transcending into practical possibilities, but the brilliance of the dialogue and its timelessness lies in defying this very trait of idealistic impossibility. The dialogue assumes who is a man and what are his needs and builds upon that to aim for a man who is supremely virtuous and superior in his very being and conduct and his being and stages leading to it is what a true, good State is about. Thus, The Republic, characteristically speaking, is no less than a religious doctrine as much it is a political one.

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Plato uses the dialogic form to convey his ideas. In this essay, under Part II, there will be a brief delineation of the main philosophical concerns of the book followed by the thematic concerns and ideas of the book. In Part III the culmination of Plato’s ideas in The Republic is discussed.

Plato’s Cognition

Plato’s Republic, Kallipolis, is not exactly a very political state in its being. As one reads his dialogues, one can understand that he aims for the replacement of politics with “rational organization” of the State. This corresponds to a Marxian revamping of state structure by political, even deceitful means, for a just and good state.

The dialog starts with the rumination on the question ‘What is Justice?’, which as the discussion progresses reveals to us Plato’s theme for the discourse, ‘The just individual forms the basis of a just state’, or ‘An ideal state’.  But, unlike other philosophers, Plato does not say what and how an ideal state should be like; he takes a bottom-up approach, firmly stating that only just individuals can lead to a just state. Plato’s conception of a state can easily be seen to have inspired by events which happened around him, the most prominent being the ‘state killing’ of his mentor and teacher Socrates, who was a victim of a democratically just state of unjust individuals.

Specialisation of Labour

 Plato believes that justness then is something which can never be inspired but must be taught and is a skill to be learnt. Here we are introduced to the concept of “specialization of labor”. Thus justice in its very essence being able to justly do what one is truly capable of and that is what one must do and not meddle with other’s business. This becomes his basis for having an exclusive soldier class, for only a soldier needs a fearless spirit in him to be a great one as much as a shoemaker needs art in his soul to make beautiful shoes. War is then an art for Plato as much is music. But, Plato asserts that there is good art and then there is bad art. Any and everybody’s subjective outpour which moves people cannot be said to be good art, but art and music which goes with the idea of justness and goodness that the State propagates and believes in, is the art which must be allowed, whereas others must be censored. Censorship for Plato in the form a State propaganda is an important component of a just State.

The Noble Lie

 As readers expecting rational truth and justice, Plato here warns us that we should not expect piety from him, something which we synonymously associate with truth and justice now. Instead, Plato talks about ‘the noble lie’, which the State must provide to people to make them believe in the system and structure. Should this shock an aware and conscious citizen of a democratic-liberal state of 21st Century? Drawing an analogy, from a third person’s perspective, does it not pinch the viewer when the Batman in The Dark Knight in Nolan’s city state of Gotham asks Gordon to tell a lie to the citizens to maintain their faith in the system, while he is a watchful guardian watching over them, making a villain out of himself. But Plato’s Kallipolis betters Gotham in one aspect – it is a just state, a virtuous one, one lacking class barriers, one lacking misrepresentation of the individual as it allows the individual to cultivate one’s virtues as a part of one’s being – it is a true meritocracy. And how better do we cultivate this virtuosity in individuals besides education.

On Education

Book III onwards we see Plato’s emphasis on education, or more on the lines of training of the mind, body and soul so that a just individual can share a symbiotic relationship with a just State. For Plato, education serves a dual purpose of having a citizenry which serves the State and also as a screening mechanism which will allow Plato’s Kallipolis to have its community of Philosopher Kings. Now, if one takes Plato’s emphasis of meritocracy as one equation and his emphasis on having Kings who are philosophers as another, one can sense Plato’s tacit disdain of democracy. The very same democracy which his teacher Socrates criticized, the democracy which led to his teacher’s death. Freedom, which is the heart of democracy, was defined by the Athenian’s as isegoria, which essentially translates to having equality in freedom to speak in the assembly, which when combined with elutheria leads to a form of governance where everyone has a license to do anything they wish, which leads to a cyclical chain of events where tyrants come to power and it keeps alternating with democracy. This conjectural statement when seen in light of the rise of incoherent, hate-mongering leaders in the most powerful of countries, who aim to trump rationality with tyranny disguised as democracy, seems like prophetic truth now.  Plato’s argument basically stems from the premise of the just state which is that the soul of the citizens mirrors the character of the state; thus unhindered liberty is chaotic, often fueled by a part of the self which primarily values desire over emotions and rationality, leading to disasters like the Peloponnesian War, or the election of Adolf Hitler if one wishes to not go too far back into history. This brings us to the classes into which Plato divides his Kallipolis through education.

Plato says that, the State like the individual then should also be divided into three halves – rationality, emotions, and desire.  The rational ones shall be the philosopher kings who shall govern the affairs of the State, the emotional ones who have spirit be soldiers, and the ones who can truly fulfill the desires of others and themselves be the merchant/working class. Plato wants to have a system of education where everyone is imparted basic education until 20 years of age, which involves training of the mind with poetry and music, and training of the body with gymnastics. Here again Plato wishes to balance out Spartan martial habits with Athenian intellectual ones. Those who would fail the examination would take up activities of workers, farmers and businessmen. The next stage of education would be for 10 more years of training of body and mind, after which an elimination test would be held; those who fail will look after executive and military acts of the State, and those who pass would be given another 5 years of training to free themselves from the love of perception. There would be another 15 years of education in dialectics, and those who would be able to withstand the whole process would emerge as ‘Philosopher Kings’ of the State.  But, is experience and merit the best way to allow someone to govern us?

Why philosophers as kings

Plato justifies the need for philosophers by the ‘Allegory of the Cave’. He says, an individual who solely relies on his perception is like a prisoner in a dark cave looking at silhouetted shadows of shapes moving outside the cave in day light. The individual never realizes the true shape, identity, or form of things because he always relies on his perception. Here Plato gets at his philosophical best. Education to the mind is like taking out the prisoner out of this cave, who after initially resenting the blindness caused to him gets to see what the truth it like. It is truth, truth and truth alone which can instill in a person a sense of justice because he ‘knows’ the things as they are not only how he perceives them to be. One is reminded of Kant’s assertion of ‘Noumenon’ beyond the perceivable ‘Phenomenon’. A Noumenon is Ding an sich (A thing in itself) and is independent of our senses which can only perceive the Phenomenon. Kant’s assertion, and a rather tedious logical explanation of this, is what brought a revolution to philosophy and is said to be one of the ideas which brought enlightenment to the age of reason.

But whereas Kant is sure that our hankering for an ‘heavenly afterlife’ is because an individual can never experience the Noumenon as virtue and happiness are so poorly correlated in this life, Plato is optimistic that humans can be virtuous if they are trained to be. Plato’s allegory is one which he bases on his Theory of Forms, where he by usage of analogy says, if we put it in context of Kant’s philosophy, the Noumenon – the Sun, the object – is in itself an intelligible form which exists in itself and by way of it’s very being nurtures us as well – Krishna, anyone? His philosopher king will be one who will realize the intelligible forms and thus not be a tyrant because tyrants, as Plato believes, have a worthless life of gaining physical power only. History has given us Hitler and Mussolini as examples, who objectively put were great leaders but lacked goodness.

The higher being – the philosopher

Plato’s philosopher will not bother about material wealth, not concerned about sense experiences. Plato says that the morality of the philosopher king will be different from the masses, as Nietzsche would do 2 millennia later by way of putting forward philosophy’s greatest hero in the form the Ubermensch – who would rise above the morality of the herd and bound by his own notions of morality which would not be plagued by the negativities of human cowardice, intemperance and lack of wisdom. But then, do we not find Plato’s philosopher king in Napoleon Bonaparte? Not quite, as he too has his lust for power but then in recent popular culture we have come across characters who despite having no lust for any worldly want, or even need, lacked the justness or goodness we expect in someone who would govern us. What would make a person be Superman when he can instead be Ultron.

Plato’s argument is cyclical here, as it is here where he used the allegory of the caves and re-asserts that a truly enlightened person who sees the objects beyond their opinionated existence will be a just and good person. So, is there some presumption in Plato’s philosopher king’s pre-existing goodness? Plato says, practically speaking, society cannot be started from scratch, so it is the king who will have to turn into a philosopher. Then how does he hold the society together? Here is when we see the greatness of Plato’s masterpiece, the impenetrable fortress which his idea is, and makes us realize why it wasn’t defeated by any criticism over the course of 2 millennia. The answer lies in ‘The Noble/Great Lie’. Citizen’s have to share a narrative about themselves which would instill in them a sense of brotherhood and belonging, which would act like a cement to the bricks of the society. This Noble lie will be guarded by the guardians who themselves would internalize the lie as the State would progressively get older. We see the idea of ‘Nationalist brotherhood’ in its roots here.


Culmination of Plato’s Idea (Conclusion)

 Towards being a better self

Book VIII and IX then provide us with Plato’s idea of the best from of government, which can be closest to the ideal of justice which Plato establishes earlier. But it is book IX where Plato’s philosophy climaxes and we see it how by putting the State at the center of his republic he also uses it as an exemplar to inspire individuals to be higher beings, to gain wisdom. Plato takes cognizance of the kinds of government possible and gradually closes the door on democracy in book VIII. He says its central quality of unbridled freedom is what engenders its dissolution. He points out that the middle class which forms in between the poor and the rich sparks a revolution with the poor, thus overthrowing the complacent rulers. This then leads to appointment of a magisterial class of officers who then are ill-representations of true democratic society.

Democracy is then what human nature is if left undisciplined – a depraved, chaotic and disordered state of being; for democracy tries to force equality among the unequal, thus, misrepresenting the populace. This chaos ultimately leads to a tyrant coming into power, whose presence seems welcoming at first as he finishes off the enemies, but then his annihilation does not stop at the bad and starts spilling over to the good, for he is a man who came to the fore because of his lust for power and his lust is insatiable. Thus, tyranny ultimately evolves into a slave society. When a reader comes across this position taken by Plato, one cannot possibly avoid imagining Marx’s inevitable workers’ revolution, with Hitler’s rise in Germany echoing at the back of one’s head. People do not realize, as Tyler Durden put it in Fight Club, the “illusion of safety” which democratic freedom grants to everybody is actually a form of slavish limitation – no wonder Nietzsche two thousand years later concluded of the Christian democratic states as one practicing the slave morality beyond which a “Superman” must emerge. But what is in it for the individual?

Plato had mentioned three guiding forces earlier in the book – knowledge, emotions, and desires. Democracy is guided by desire, tyranny by emotion, other kinds in between, but it is the one with true knowledge that can truly lead us to truth and justice. Thus, Plato also hints that an individual should not be governed by his desire and emotions if one wishes to attain truth and wisdom, but only by his rational thought and knowledge. Pleasure and pain are eternally recurring transcendental manifestation of one state of being – the one where we can attain wisdom, the  non-desiring, non-lusting state. An unjust man, guided by animalistic motivations cannot ever align with the ideals of the State but only a man who has embraced knowledge and wisdom can do so. These state ideals being the reflection of his own subjective being.

Plato, in his final book, then again comes back to the subject of having a standard form of poetry and music. This may seem like a communist diktat to some, or quite antithetical to the current idea of allowing diverse opinions and welcoming odd liking of every individual, but not quite so with Plato. He says that in a rational state, there can be no scope for “evil decisions and ideas”. Poetry and music are acts which affect the soul and they should instill morality in them and not immorality in the name of freedom of democracy. An individual’s and the State’s fate rest on nourishment with good morality, therefore, evil morality which can damage the soul should not be allowed to be propagated. Who will be the judge? The enlightened philosopher king, of course.

This might seem empty rhetoric to justify a benevolent-monarchy by Plato, but if one looks around to see what has immoral music, art and entertainment, in the form of pornography or mind-numbing escapist videos and music have done to the individuals, it is not very difficult to reach to the conclusion that irrationality, be it in the form of Donald Trump or the anti-immigration pro-Brexit supporters or apathy towards politics barring empty quips masqueraded as opinions, in the name of subjectivity in art has killed objective pursuance of morality by the soul, reducing all pleasure to sensory perception mostly.

Do we need to censor our art? Maybe; do we need to pursue knowledge and not only a career? Maybe; do we need to instill just morality in our words and actions? Surely; do we need Plato’s philosopher king at a time when democratically appointed ‘kings’ are failing us?  Definitely. So let us rise, educate, find a philosopher in ourselves and make sure we are guided by rationality for that seems to be the only way forward now in a world divided by so many false chaotic fault-lines.

References

  1. Book II, The Republic
  2. Alan Ryan, On Politics- A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to Present (2013)
  3. ‘The Noble Lie’, Book III, The Republic
  4. JD Lewis , Isegoria at Athens: Where did it begin?, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 20, H. 2/3 (2nd Qtr., 1971), pp. 129-140
  5. Ancient Greek term personifying personal liberty; See, Alan Ryan, On Politics, A History of Political Though
  6. The theory itself is known as ‘Plato’s theory of knowledge’
  7. Toni Kannisto, What is the importance of the Critique of Pure Reason?
  8. Literally translates to “the overman” or “the superman”; See also Nietzsche’s idea of an overman and life from his point of view. https://ccrma.stanford.edu/~pj97/Nietzsche.htm
  9. See Crux, The Theology and Philosophy of Avengers: Age of Ultron,  

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