In Plato’s book “The Republic”, written about 380 BC, he gives us, using his mentor Socrates as his mouthpiece, a proposed system of government which has been debated ever since.
Plato criticizes democracy by means of a metaphor comparing a state to a ship in mid-ocean. Should we navigate by having a vote amongst the passengers? No, of course not. What we need instead is an expert; someone who is trained in the art of navigation. The rest of the book is concerned with the choosing and training of these experts, who will govern Plato’s ideal state.
Plato divides the inhabitants of his state into three classes: the Guardians (sometimes called “philosopher-kings”), who will govern, the Auxiliaries, who will assist them, and everyone else, who will undertake all the fundamental economic tasks of farming, manufacturing and so forth. He describes the education and life of the Guardians in great detail, ignoring the other classes (He even suggests putting forward an artificial myth; that the gods created man out of three metals; gold, silver and base metal, to correspond with the three classes)
The potential Guardians should be chosen when still children, and given a lengthy education, both physical and moral (which he calls the “dialectic”), to equip them to rule. It includes the suggestion, revolting to our minds, that they should be taken whilst still young to witness battles, to accustom them to the sight of bloodshed. It seems that only when they are at least fifty will their education have been completed, and many will have fallen by the wayside in the process. He includes women Guardians as well as men, apparently following the same syllabus. This is unexpected, because women in contemporary Athens had no public role, and he justifies it by the curious analogy that pedigree stallions and mares are looked after in an identical way!
Plato was well aware that even the best political system can be corrupted by personal greed, or ambition for one’s children, and therefore he lays down some extraordinary details of the Guardians’ lives. They will all live communally, in messes, without private property of any kind, and will be forbidden even to touch gold and silver. (Here Plato was influenced by how the warriors of Sparta lived). The Guardians must never marry or raise families: any children they have will be taken from them and raised communally by nurses, so that no-one shall know who their parents or their children are. Children who do not have the necessary qualities to become Guardians will be discarded; but there will be the possibility of recruiting talented children from the lower classes of society. The Guardians will thus always be a non-hereditary elite.
Plato includes a long discussion on culture and censorship. It is clear to him that most of the literature of his day won’t do: it gives out the wrong messages. The Greek gods are frequently portrayed as immoral or vindictive in their behaviour, the poets and playwrights too often show wickedness triumphing and good men suffering unjustly. This will all have to change. In his Republic there will be rigid censorship: all literature must point to an improving moral, with virtue always rewarded and wickedness punished, and craftsmen and artists must show only beauty, not ugliness. By this means, the future generations of Guardians will be protected against erroneous thoughts.
It might be worthwhile putting Plato’s contempt for democracy into context. He was in his early twenties when democratic Athens was disastrously defeated by Sparta, whose social system bore a strong resemblance to Plato’s ideal republic. There followed the short-lived government of the “Thirty Tyrants”, [many of whom were personal friends of Socrates], who conducted a bloody purge of their opponents. After the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants, it was a jury of citizens in a restored democracy which condemned Socrates to death – it has never been clear why: no other philosopher ever suffered such a fate.
To return to Plato's analogy of a ship without an experienced navigator; he suggests that this will lead to the appearance of several alleged experts, offering radically different advice of what to do. Now the whole principle of democracy, as advocated by such writers as Rousseau and Mill, is that the public are intelligent enough to distinguish between good advice and bad advice, between the honest men and the charlatans. Plato, having observed the Athenian assembly of his day, is not convinced: he thinks the citizens are fickle and ill-informed, liable to fall prey to demagogues who make wild and irresponsible promises which then cannot be fulfilled. The notion that the people cannot be relied on to make sensible judgments has been the grounds ever since for attacking democracy and defending dictatorship and censorship. It is usually heard on the political Right.
Plato’s system remains the only valid alternative to democratic government; namely, rule by experts, carefully selected and trained to be people not only of the highest ability, but also of the highest integrity, motivated purely by desire to serve the public good, without personal greed or ambition. Could such a system ever be implemented? And if so, what would life under it be like?
In Plato’s day, it was not impossible that a group of philosophers might have run a city-state on these lines. It would probably need to be small, and isolated from the outside world. (Plato had in mind the city-states of contemporary Greece, with only a few thousand citizens, and he never discusses international trade at all). Between 388 and 361 BC Plato made three visits to the court of Dionysus, tyrant of Syracuse in Sicily, attempting to educate his heir, Dionysus II, but completely failed to turn the young man into a Guardian. The Spartan system, which had attracted Plato, went into irreversible decline not long after its victory over Athens. Within a century, the coming of the empire of Alexander the Great, and later that of Rome, made all city-states obsolete. In the nineteenth century various attempts were made to set up communities in the wilds of America, whose people would be motivated by brotherly love rather than individual gain, but few lasted any length of time; usually foundering on the rock of competing egos.
On the other hand, some religious-based communities have proved more durable. Consider, for instance, the Roman Catholic church: the most durable structure the world has ever seen. All authority is vested in a hierarchy of priests, who are believed to have a direct access to God, and who are commanded to be celibate, without personal property, and absolutely obedient to their superiors; all of which would seem to fit Plato’s criteria. It is surely no coincidence that almost all the early Christian theologians were Greeks who were very familiar with Platonic ideas.
The late Richard Crossman, who served as a cabinet minister under Harold Wilson in the 1960s, once wrote a book called “Plato Today”, in which he suggested other institutions working on the same lines. He cited the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and Hitler’s SS as examples. Both were elite organizations with high entry requirements, both were rigidly disciplined and both attempted to inspire their members with ideological fervor to take the place of individual ambition. As a less pernicious example, Crossman cited the British independent boarding school, where young men lived communally, in conditions far more Spartan than they would have enjoyed at home, and where they were trained to run the Empire: their education being overwhelmingly moral and “character-building” rather than technical.
The best attempt to portray life in a Platonic state can be found in the final section of Jonathon Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, where he visits the land of the Houyhnhnms. They are intelligent horses, whose society is entirely Platonic. They have no contact with the outside world, no science, industry or even agriculture, nor do they have any spirit of curiosity, or wish to expand their knowledge. They keep their population numbers stable by voluntarily abstaining from sex, and have no personal affection for their foals. Lesser horses, who are of a different colour and of inferior mental capacity, are servants to the elite, accepting their lower status without complaint. The Houyhnhnms have remained the same for countless generations, and in consequence conformity has become so total that there is no longer any need for a police force. We are told that they compose poetry, though Swift wisely refrains from giving us examples (it presumably consists of portentous general statements in heroic couplets!), but have no other arts. Even conversation is devoid of discussion, since they all think in exactly the same way.
Gulliver professes to find Houyhnhnm society immensely preferable to his own. This no doubt reflects Swift’s hatred of England in his day, and increasingly of the human race in general; but at the same time Swift has infallibly brought into focus the great weakness of the Platonic society, which has been shared by all its imitators down to the present day. It would be entirely stationary; not to say stagnant. It would never produce anything new in culture, technology or ideas. It is very doubtful if it would be flexible enough to cope with some major natural disaster, like a famine, an epidemic or an earthquake (and the Greek world was extremely susceptible to devastating earthquakes). It could never fully be isolated from outside pressures and influences. These weaknesses are obvious in all Plato’s imitators: the Catholic church, the Nazis and Communists, the British public-school system.
Plato had no notion of progress. This is not surprising, since the concept was unknown before the end of the eighteenth century, when the French Revolution and the industrial revolution changed the world for ever. To Plato, society and politics were seen as moving in endless repetitive and meaningless circles, and any change was likely to be deterioration rather than improvement. The best he could imagine, therefore, was a form of society structures to guard against any change at all. We can only be glad that we do not live in such a society. As Churchill once put it: democracy is a very bad form of government,but all the others are even worse.