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Analysis of The Perfect Society in Plato’s Republic and Its Relation to Totalitarianism

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Plato (427-347 BC) was an Athenian philosopher in Ancient Greece. He was a follower of Socrates (470-399 BC) and as such wrote a number of dialogues in which Socrates was the main protagonist. One of his most famous of these dialogues is the Republic, written in the context of a dynamic and often challenging political period and in which Plato presents his ideas of the perfect society called the perfect city – an ideal political society that is ruled by political experts. As the protagonist in the dialogue, Socrates tries to show that justice is necessary for happiness and assumes the best way to advance our understanding of justice is to study it on a grand scale, as a city-state. Some have however likened the way in which Plato’s perfect city is structured and governed to totalitarianism – a form of government which theoretically does not allow for individual freedom and aims to subordinate all aspects of individual life to the authority of the state. I will cover the structure and basic features of Plato’s perfect city, the question of how Plato understands the good of the perfect city and how that relates to the good of individual citizens, I will discuss both the idea of the noble lie and the statue analogy before going on to analyse the different basic types of totalitarianism so to discuss why I believe that the perfect society that Plato sketches in the Republic is, in fact, totalitarian in its nature and why it specifically fits with the definition of theocratic totalitarianism.

Plato’s perfect city has three different classes of citizens. The first and highest class are the Philosopher-rulers (who can be either philosopher-kings or philosopher-queens). The philosopher-rulers have a number of key responsibilities, such as legislation and application of the law, overseeing the education and culture of the city, approving marriages and deciding public policies. The rule of these philosophers is constrained by the original legal framework proposed by Socrates in the Republic. Philosopher-kings and philosopher-queens rule in turns, spending time doing philosophy and they do not own any private property or have families. The next class down are the auxiliaries. The auxiliaries are either young people who are believed to have the natural ability to eventually become future philosopher-kings or philosopher-queens or they are people who are seen to be more intellectual than members of the working class but lack the talent needed to be philosophers. Those who are believed to have the potential to become the next generation of philosopher-rulers go through rigorous tests and challenges to ensure they are up to the role, as Socrates outlines, saying “From childhood up, therefore, we must set them tasks that especially deceive and make one forget such convictions. We must watch them carefully and choose the one who remembers and is hard to deceive, and reject the rest.”(Republic Book 3 413c7-d1) The auxiliaries follow the orders of the philosopher-rulers and their primary concern is the internal security of the perfect city and war. The third and lowest class in Plato’s perfect city is the working class. This is made up of people such as farmers, doctors and manual labourers and they are responsible for providing food and other material goods for the perfect city. The working class follow the laws and orders of the philosopher-rulers, however, they have no input in the administration of political affairs. This structure means that citizens are clearly divided into different factions with little, if any, opportunity to move between them. This sort of system which severely lacks social mobility has shown itself in the real world that it can easily lead to political unrest. In fact, Plato himself believed that the biggest threat to the peace and stability of the perfect city was the potential for these factional tensions to lead to civil war. This is why he believes the rulers of the perfect society should be philosophers who own no private property, as the greatest motivation for a civil war is the desire of those in power for even greater political control and often the acquisition of goods or wealth. If they cannot own private property there is no incentive to accumulate it and as the rulers of the perfect city are philosophers, they should value intellectual achievements above political power. As the philosopher-rulers, therefore, have no incentive to abuse their political power, Plato believes that the citizens will therefore not feel oppressed and cause a revolt against them. Even if there is believed to be little risk of civil war, the idea that the ruling class can decide who is born into which class is flawed and, in fact, totalitarian. There is nothing wrong with the idea that some citizens may be more suited to manual labour, farming or pottery, in a free society, it should be the choice of those citizens whether they wish to accept that as the limit of their expertise or potential. When it is down to the elites in society to evaluate your class based on their beliefs, religious or otherwise, and they cannot be held to account by those that they rule, then that is totalitarian.

So how does Plato understand the good of the perfect city and how does the good of the perfect city relate to the good of individual citizens? Plato claims that his perfect city aims at the happiness of the whole of the city and not just the happiness of a particular group or class of people, as it says “…our aim in founding the State was not the disproportionate happiness of any one class, but the greatest happiness of the whole…”. According to philosophers such as Karl Popper, Plato assumes that the perfect city is an entity which is superior to the individual citizens who live in it. Popper thinks that there are passages in the dialogue which show that Plato is committed to totalitarianism, such as “… the guardians and auxiliaries, and all others equally with them, must be compelled and persuaded to do their own work in the best way. And thus the whole state will grow up in a noble order, and the several classes will receive the proportion of happiness which nature assigns to them.” (Republic Book 4 421b7-c6). This idea that nature assigns people their potential talent and happiness at birth leads on to Plato’s ‘statue analogy. The statue analogy comes up in the Republic when Socrates is responding to Adeimantus’ worries that the guards in the city they are describing will have none of the luxuries associated with happiness (and which the philosopher-rulers would have). Socrates says “It’s as if we were painting a statue and someone came up and criticized us for not painting the most beautiful parts in the most beautiful colors: ‘You’ve painted the eyes – the most beautiful part – black instead of red!’ I think we’d make a reasonable defence if we said: ‘See here, you curious fellow, don’t think we’re supposed to paint the eyes so beautiful that they don’t even look like eyes. Just see if we make the whole thing beautiful by giving each part its appropriate color…” and goes on to say that giving the working class the freedoms and luxuries and happiness of the philosophers would cause the perfect society to break down and cease to function: “…our farmer won’t be a farmer, our potter a potter, nor will anyone else keep to one of the patterns from which a city is made.” (Republic Book 4 420c7-421a2). So, in simplified terms, the statue analogy is used to explain that when one part of something becomes too beautiful, it interferes and overshadows the beauty of the whole, which is more important. In the case of the perfect city, the individual part would be one of the classes (auxiliaries or working class) and the whole would be the society itself. Instead of the issue being one part becoming too “beautiful”, the issue for Plato is the idea of one of the classes in his perfect society becoming too wealthy or happy to the point that it interferes with the class above. So if the guards Adeimantus is talking about were to have the material goods and wealth of the philosopher-rulers, it would damage the functionality of the entire city because they’d likely no longer want to be guards and protect the city. This approach could be argued to play into the narrative Popper paints, where he says Plato’s city has a “totalitarian character” as “state interest dominates the life of the citizen from the mating of his parents to his grave”. One of the other contentious points when it comes to how Plato understands the good of the perfect city and how that relates to the good of individual citizens comes about from the so-called ‘Noble Lie’. The Noble Lie is mentioned in Book 3 of the Republic, when Socrates is speaking to Glaucon: “Now, can we contrive a scheme to make even our rulers, or at least the rest of our citizens believe a single noble lie?… I’ll try to persuade first the rulers and soldiers, then the rest of the citizens, that everything we’ve done in training and educating them took place as it were in a dream, and that all the while they were really being nurtured and moulded … ‘All of you in the city are brothers’, we’ll tell them, ‘but the most precious are the ones fit to rule, because when the god formed you at birth he mixed gold into them, silver into the auxiliaries, and iron and bronze into the farmers and craftsmen. Since you are all related you will normally breed true, but a time will come when a golden offspring gives birth to a silver, the silver in turn to a gold, and so on for the rest…” (Republic Book 3 414b8-415b3). Here Plato introduces his version of the ‘myth of the metals’ whereby the ‘golden’ generation rule, soldiers are silver and then ‘bronze’ and ‘iron’ people are the workers. The idea behind this lie, which is propagated by the elite and is of a religious nature, is to maintain social harmony within the perfect city. It does this by convincing citizens that although they are in different classes and have different freedoms, the child of a worker may be born as a ruler or auxiliary and likewise the children of rulers or auxiliaries are not necessarily born with the same talents as their parents and could be demoted to the working class, therefore they are all one family.

Totalitarianism is defined as a form of government that theoretically permits no individual freedom and that seeks to subordinate all aspects of individual life to the authority of the state. There are however a number of different specific forms of totalitarianism with characteristics which may more closely match with the ideas Plato puts forward in his perfect city. One of these specific forms of totalitarianism is Communist totalitarianism, which advocates the use of totalitarian dictatorship to achieve socialism. Plato is, however, not advocating the implementation of socialism in his perfect city as the structure with the 3 different classes of citizen each with totally different standards of life does not fit with the ideas of Socialism. Tribal totalitarianism is another form of totalitarianism whereby power is monopolised by a party which represents and governs in the interests of one particular tribe. Tribes are not a feature of Plato’s perfect city though. Right-wing totalitarianism is a much closer fit to the features of Plato’s perfect city as it allows individual economic freedom but restricts individual political freedom because of the belief that it may lead to communism. It is still not quite the same however, as Plato’s concern about granting political freedom to all is not about communism but that it would lead to the breakdown of the perfect society when the working classes acquire the rights and luxuries of the classes above and therefore no longer have the motivation to continue as farmers and labourers providing essentials for the whole city. Lastly, there is theocratic totalitarianism. Theocratic totalitarianism is the monopolisation of power by a particular party, person or group that then governs according to religious beliefs and principles. In the case of Plato’s perfect city, this governing group are the philosopher-rulers who govern according to the principles laid out in The Forms earlier in the Republic. This particular style of totalitarianism also fits with Plato’s perfect society because many of Plato’s ideas and interpretations stem from a belief in God and how God has decided to create different people with different abilities, talents and natural potentials of happiness.

To conclude then, Plato’s perfect society which he outlines and explains in the Republic is structured in such a way that he believes would result in a harmonious and cohesive atmosphere where everyone works in different but essential roles to ensure the happiness of the whole city. Plato uses the statue analogy and the “noble lie” to explain and convince to the citizens of the perfect city why they should respect such a system, however, the idea that the maximum potential talents and happiness of a person is assigned naturally to them at birth by God is flawed, particularly due to the lack of evidence he gives in support of it. While the ultimate aim of Plato is to promote the happiness of the society as a whole, in doing so the happiness of individual citizens is overlooked. While there is nothing wrong with the idea that some citizens may be more suited to manual labour, farming or pottery, in a free society, it should be the choice of those citizens whether they wish to accept that as the limit of their expertise or potential. When it is down to the elites in society to evaluate your class based on what they believe God has made you, as it is in Plato’s perfect society, then you are in the realms of theocratic totalitarianism. Power in the perfect city is monopolised by the philosopher-rulers and they govern according to the principles in The Forms and according to their religious beliefs. I would, therefore, say that the perfect society that Plato sketches in the Republic is, to an extent, totalitarian. 

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Analysis Of The Perfect Society In Plato’s Republic And Its Relation To Totalitarianism. (2021, Jun 09). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 4, 2021, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/analysis-of-the-perfect-society-in-platos-republic-and-its-relation-to-totalitarianism/
“Analysis Of The Perfect Society In Plato’s Republic And Its Relation To Totalitarianism.” GradesFixer, 09 Jun. 2021, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/analysis-of-the-perfect-society-in-platos-republic-and-its-relation-to-totalitarianism/
Analysis Of The Perfect Society In Plato’s Republic And Its Relation To Totalitarianism. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/analysis-of-the-perfect-society-in-platos-republic-and-its-relation-to-totalitarianism/> [Accessed 4 Dec. 2021].
Analysis Of The Perfect Society In Plato’s Republic And Its Relation To Totalitarianism [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2021 Jun 09 [cited 2021 Dec 4]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/analysis-of-the-perfect-society-in-platos-republic-and-its-relation-to-totalitarianism/
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