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The whole point of Plato’s Republic is the pursuit of justice, but in practice, it is wildly unrealistic. I can say with certainty that I would not care to live in Plato’s ideal city-state because, in a sense, I already have. I was a citizen of the closest attempt at this utopia: The Soviet Union. While I do not believe that Lenin started a communist revolution in 1917 with the intention of creating Plato’s Republic, I know that the Russian Empire was transformed into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics based on Plato’s political ideas. In a sense, Lenin is real world attempt at being one of Plato’s philosopher kings. While the stated end goal was to exalt the workers, Lenin wound up exploiting them. Plato was too idealistic in proposing that, when put in practice, his so-called just and stable republic would function to counteract the selfish nature of men. In fact, the structure of Plato’s Republic is totalitarian even in its ideal form. He would be right to call me a moral relativist, because, after my cultural experience of socialism, my conviction is that a democratic republic, despite its inequities, is the closest thing on earth to justice.
As you know, Plato had a negative perception of democracy. He grew up during the Peloponnesian War and witnessed firsthand how unchecked democracy can be highly corruptible. If political power is available to anyone, it could easily end up in the hands of dictators and demagogues, of people who manipulate the masses through their rhetoric and disguise their selfish interests as justice.1 In reality, their political agendas are at odds with the common good. Alternatively, direct democracy could allow for excessive freedom that permits the majority to overpower the minority to the point where anarchy ensues. So, democracy lends itself to volatility and corruption, often resulting in either an oligarchy or mob rule. Either way, Plato’s position on the matter is clear: the majority of society is not informed or even interested enough in politics to be capable of governing themselves, to be entrusted with making the crucial political decisions that determine the fate of the state.
I know you are familiar with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as a metaphor for the learning process: taking on new perspectives is uncomfortable before it becomes illuminating. However, more importantly, you should know the allegory’s political significance. Plato’s message here was to illustrate that the majority of people inhabit the sensory world of mutable shapes and forms, unable to grasp the true, unchanging essence of ideas 2. The truth is supposed to transcend the narrow lens of cultural and personal experience. Plato expanded on this criticism by developing a blueprint to his ideal republic. He believed that a stable and prosperous state would function under the unity of a universal and permanent idea. In mapping out his republic Plato intended to provide a solution to the problems he identified within the democratic system. He needed to find a way to unify the state under an immutable ideal, that being justice. He found a way to do so by relating the state to the human soul, proclaiming that the state should be the individual writ large.
Plato divides the soul into three parts: Appetite, Passion, and Reason. The just person has a balanced set of equal virtues to create equilibrium out of the parts of the soul: Temperance, Courage, and Wisdom3. When functioning in harmony, the result is a sound mind inside a healthy body. Likewise, Plato proposed that the ideal state should consist of a rigid hierarchal system of three classes into which all citizens are born. Each class serves a crucial function to the wellbeing of the state in the same way that the three parts of the soul comprise the whole. The role of each class corresponds to that of each virtue meant to balance out the three parts of the just soul. At the bottom of the hierarchy, the Workers represent desire for money and personal gain. Next, the Warriors represent the spirit and passion of the state. Finally, at the top of the hierarchy resides the Rulers, or Guardians, which Plato refers to as the Philosopher-Kings.
Corresponding to reason, the Guardian class connects all of the appropriate virtues with reason. The result, according to Plato, is the possession of knowledge. Using their inherent reason to keep all parts of the state in balance, Philosopher-Kings are supposed to intrinsically put the love of knowledge before their desire for power. This ruling class is bred into existence and is the only one with access to education. They are rigorously trained to be good political decision-makers so that the majority of the population won’t corrupt such critical processes. They are to limit the scope of their lives and their value to society to their particular, preassigned craft of artisanship.
This all sounds like a good plan in theory, but human nature undermines the foundation. Plato assumes that everyone will be content with what they have in this society since the end result is justice for all. But justice that is not enough for real-world people. For example, Plato insists that the philosopher king, whose birthright is the exclusive power of the state, must lead a monk-like existence, with modest pay, no private property, and worst of all no family of their own. This is a flimsy check on power because Plato assumes people will willingly take on the taxing commitment of leading a state with no personal benefits. This exemplifies the underlying reason that Plato’s Republic is unrealistic.
According to Plato, justice is supposed to be to the equal advantage of all classes since a philosopher-king, who has exclusive possession of political power, would know that it is in everyone’s best interest to put the prosperity of the state first. And once everyone’s well-being is fulfilled there is ideally no need for strife to exist. This is supposed to satisfy everyone, but in reality, of course, it does not and it never will. The reason for this is that, in actuality, it goes against our nature as human beings to accept the idea that harmony of interests exists between those in power and the common good. Someone will always take advantage of an opportunity to attain power, to enhance their pleasure. Therefore, it is irresponsible to place all of a society’s faith in the philosopher-kings’ innate discipline over their desires- regardless of the modest lifestyle required of them. Blind faith in what is assumed to be the intrinsic intellectual and moral superiority of an aristocracy cannot be the only check against power in a political system. It would be irresponsible, and it certainly would not be just. This is why Plato’s Republic resembles a totalitarian state.
Hopefully at this point you can see that Plato’s Republic would not be fair or stable despite its intended purpose. Now, to drive home the point that it is ultimately unrealistic, I emphasize the fact that Plato constructed his theoretical republic on the foundation of a universal truth. He should have known better than anyone, having been Socrates’ star pupil, that truth is unattainable in our reality. To give exclusive control of the state to people considered to be the knowledgeable ones goes against Socrates’ core belief that knowledge and truth are unattainable. As Jorn Bramann puts it in a book I’ll be sending you, Plato undermines Socrates’ assertion that the only thing he is certain of is his ignorance.
Now it is time for me to acknowledge your valid concerns, though I will preface this by stating my firm belief that it is better to risk the hazards of democracy than the far more destructive ones of a totalitarian government.
In the presidential election of 2016, the American people may have been rational, but, in my opinion, they were not judicious in who they elected; they were persuaded by the obnoxious rhetoric of Donald Trump, just as Plato, to his credit, said was prone to happen in a democratic society. Throughout that election, the truth was thwarted in many ways. Unfortunately, it has been thwarted by politicians for as long as democracy has existed, and it will continue to be thwarted time and again in the future. Additionally, the possession of money does indeed allow certain people to come to power and enact rules that promote their own self-interest rather than that of society as a whole. Clearly, direct democracy is hazardous. It is also evident that our democratic republic in the U.S. is far from perfect as well. This, I will admit.
Even I, myself, at a low point after the election, came to wonder whether the masses can be trusted to make the fateful political and structural decisions of the nation after all. But then I quickly reminded myself of the simple, yet potent notion that I have come to accept as truth, as my definition of justice: The privilege of living in a society that values and safeguards above all else the voice and freedom of its citizens is the very thing that allows America to withstand times like these. In any situation, the unwavering commitment to upholding the right of each citizen to have a say in the political decisions of their country, no matter what their background or level of education, remains. It is celebrated by even the fiercest of political rivals; it serves as a common ground and as America’s redeeming quality. Even if it cannot always guarantee an ideal outcome, an inclusive government, having been built on a foundation of equality, is the best option.
As strange as it may sound, I believe that Trump being elected President demonstrated that the democratic republic in which we live is indeed a just society. A significant demographic of Trump’s voter base that fell under the spell of the catchy slogan, “Make America Great Again,” were themselves victims of social change. These individuals formerly held secure jobs in the steel and coal industries and were supplanted by the better efficiency of automation. Plato hated forms and concepts that were subject to change as well. Unfortunately, change can’t be helped. As society progresses, upheaval occurs along the way. I think of this suffering as the growing pains of the nation. But the good thing about America is that its political structure is flexible. We honor and protect the individual rights and freedom of each citizen so much that we honorably accept when a political candidate who seems immoral and belligerent gets elected to office. As long as the outcome is determined by the free will of the people, and as long as our system of checks and balances remains functionally in place, the results of an election are less relevant. What makes me hopeful is that even the seemingly worst outcomes in American politics are never permanent. People have the power to use their voices to counteract manipulative rhetoric by influencing others with their own passionate arguments. You must also never forget that people have the power to use their votes to effect change. In the USSR, Lenin, and later Stalin, took our voices away, and without a voice you are powerless.
Communist Russia used the ideas proposed by Plato in The Republic to erect their version of a so-called just society, but this social experiment ended in failure. I should note that Lenin did modify Plato’s ideal republic in some ways. For example, in Plato’s society the ruling class are trained intellectuals, and in the communist Russia, that class was the proletariat, or the workers. The proletariat was also supposed to be the only ruling class. But in spite of these differences, Soviet Russia could be considered the social experiment of Plato’s theoretical state. Lenin took advantage of Plato’s belief that the people lacked the capacity to know what was best for them or what course of action to take in the aftermath of his Bolshevik Revolution.6 The communist revolutionary leader was convinced that he alone had the competence to take fast political action in reforming the state in the chaotic upheaval of the Russian Empire. However, his reason could not trump his appetite for power in the way that it ideally would for Plato’s philosopher-kings. He could not be trusted to govern himself by restraining his hunger for power, and if the state is the individual writ large as Plato asserts, how on earth could Lenin be expected to run a balanced state resulting in universal justice? Lenin took away the rights of what was supposed to be the ruling class to have a say in structural decisions that determined their fate, and he murdered his political opponents. Where is the justice in that? Simply to have the freedom to express different perspectives in America, to criticize the powers that be, is a blessing. That is why it seems to me that in reality, justice is a precondition of a balanced state rather than the other way around as Plato suggests.
Continuing my brief history lesson, what sparked the Communist Revolution on a broader level than Russia alone was the fast-paced change that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. Progressive change always leaves someone in the dust, and, as is the usual case, in Europe it was the working class. Russia fell particularly behind in this respect. The early stages of the USSR were dedicated to combating the destabilizing changes that were stifling the workers at this time. Clearly, resistance to change has been a trend throughout history, which is another problematic aspect of Plato’s Republic, according to the philosopher Karl Popper.7 The problem for Russia was that in embracing communism, Lenin established Plato’s ideal of the ruling elite when the purpose was to create a single ruling class of the Proletariat. What replaced the Russian Monarchy was merely an elitist oligarchy disguised by the title of “The Communist Party.”8 Therefore, the voiceless citizens of the USSR were stuck in a submissive position to the ruling elite, fearing for their lives, while on paper the wealth and power were shared equally among a single ruling class of workers.
On paper, it seems that a whole society’s realization that the well-being of everyone should be the same would be the ultimate equalizing and unifying agent. It would be justice in Plato’s ideal republic. However, in the plane of existence that we live in, such an ideal does not translate into reality. It is human nature to pursue the extent of one’s well-being and potential even though the volatility of capitalism is what made communism seem so appealing in the first place. Plato’s Republic simply cannot be implemented without forcibly inhibiting the full potential of the majority. It is precisely in the unencumbered pursuit of our full potential as individuals that our personal truths get formed. We become more enriched, well-rounded people when we open our minds to as many alternative perspectives as possible. Society as a whole benefits exponentially more from open-mindedness to differing experiences than through a system that forces everyone to accept the same ideal as the ultimate truth.
So you see, in spite of the shortcomings of America’s democratic republic, what remains constant is that in the eyes of the law all citizens are free and equal. These are the redeeming qualities of democracy. These virtues are what make democracy worth dying for. Socialism should not be considered a better alternative for what is already good. I will tell you that the pursuit of utopian ideals is a far greater agent of corruption than the freedom to pursue your potential in a free and fairly open-minded society. It is better to have the freedom to speak your truth regardless of background than to have your voice taken away. I reiterate that without your voice you are powerless. It is better to recognize and honor the individual value of each citizen that makes up the state than to glorify the mechanism of the state at the expense of individual rights and liberty.
Unlike Plato’s Republic, American society has withstood the trauma of change in the form of war and crippling economic recessions because it has a system of checks and balances to maintain the integrity of the state no matter who the people vote into power. Plato, in his obsession with the unchangeable, designed a state that cannot withstand change for having been built on the idea of justice as a universal value. As your grandfather would say, he allowed his search for the perfect to become the enemy of the good. My view is that Plato was pursuing a fruitless goal because the only certainty in life is its nature to change. Hence, there is no endpoint to the acquisition of knowledge, because if there were, we would stagnate and die. If Plato’s universal ideal of a state’s justice is analogous to the health of an individual, I ask you, how could a state that is not open to growth and change be a healthy one?
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