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The concept of the virtuous city is central to both Plato’s and Alfarabi’s treatments of political science. The respective analyses of Plato and Alfarabi bear many similarities, but their final goals differ radically. Plato’s description of the republic is both an ideal towards which cities should aim and a metaphor for balance in a virtuous person’s soul. Alfarabi refers frequently to Plato in his texts on political science, and was certainly influenced by The Republic and Plato’s other writings, but his virtuous city has no allegorical component. Instead, he lays down guidelines for the establishment of a real political entity. Whether the change is a distortion or an improvement is entirely a matter of perspective
To understand Plato’s teaching on the virtuous city, it is first necessary to understand the allegory of the cave introduced in The Republic. It tells of the arduous journey the philosopher must take in order to escape the “cave” of the reality he constructs for himself through sensory input and instead comprehend the ideals that lie outside of the cave beyond what he can perceive (514-519). Only those possessing the noblest natures may complete this “journey” and return to enlighten those left in the cave (520); those who complete the journey are the very persons Plato sets as ruling the city (535). The existence of the virtuous city depends on leadership by the philosopher-king (540), and it falls to him to impart the wisdom he gains through his philosophizing (his journey outside the cave) to the citizens of the virtuous republic.
Plato calls virtuous the republic where justice takes the form of everyone performing the single function in the community to which he is suited and concerning himself only with what belongs to him (443). He divides the republic’s citizens into ruler-Guardians, auxiliary Guardians and farmers and craftsmen, each filling the role to which he or she is suited by nature, and each group needing the other group in order to function as a whole. His discussion of the virtuous city is not confined to strict political treatise. Plato (or rather Socrates) sees no distinction between the just man and the just city, because a just city is composed of just men (434), and so he makes explicit that the division of the city’s citizens into ruler-Guardians, auxiliary Guardians and farmers and craftsmen represents the division of man’s soul into a rational, “spirited” and appetitive parts (441), distinct but representing a unified whole. As the city-state’s justice lies in each man performing his own work, justice for the individual represents him allowing each part to fulfill its function, bringing harmony to the whole (443).
Plato closes his analysis of his virtuous republic with the admission that it exists nowhere on earth, but perhaps only in some higher reality, some divine order (591), and the understanding of the cave metaphor becomes useful here. The impossibly perfect city is an ideal towards which all cities should aim, an ideal existing outside the cave to which the philosopher-king must try and bring his people.
Alfarabi’s description of the virtuous city bears much resemblance to The Republic, at least superficially. Both he and Plato believe that the city’s ruler should receive intense theoretical training, that “the legislator must be a philosopher,” and in The Attainment of Happiness Alfarabi even recommends Plato’s program of study by name. Alfarabi states in The Political Regime that the supreme ruler is one who has received this intense training and uses his Active Intellect to make decisions, like Plato’s philosopher-king, and that the men he rules are “virtuous, good and happy ” because of his rule. In fact, the happiness of the people depends entirely on the ruler’s abilities and individual virtue; he is like the “First Cause” in his city (Political Regime, 38-39). Alfarabi asserts the happiness achieved by the people depends on the perfection of their political activity, and so a virtuous city is necessary for the happiness of its citizens. These statements are in accord with Plato’s political philosophy and even more strongly stated by Alfarabi. Furthermore, Alfarabi states (and Plato implies; The Republic, 535) not everyone may be a philosopher and contemplate the perfect essence of things. Alfarabi baldly states in The Attainment of Happiness that “the images representing theoretical things” (i.e., Platonic ideals) are “philosophy when they are in the soul of the legislator … religion when they are in the souls of the multitude” (Attainment of Happiness, 47), perhaps all the more reason why Alfarabi emphasizes the necessity of the supreme prince. As in Plato’s Republic, without a philosopher as king, the virtuous city of Alfarabi cannot exist.
However, Alfarabi’s texts are not merely a translation of The Republic into Arabic; they have an entirely different focus from Plato. First of all, Alfarabi stresses worldly experience and the study of human nature in the training of rulers as well as philosophical training (Attainment of Happiness, 39; The Enumeration of the Sciences, 26). He also lays down an outline for a real political regime, with the prince at the head of a bureaucracy. He sets circumstances for precedent, and circumstances under which precedent may be altered (Political Regime, 37-39).
The realism of the virtuous city in Alfarabi’s political writings is emphasized by his inclusion of “weeds” in the section of The Political Regime where he discusses deviations from the perfect city. The Weeds are those inhabitants of the virtuous city “submerged by the citizen body as a whole” but not quite perfect in their acceptance of the supreme ruler’s philosopher (Political Regime, 53-56). They fall into several distinct classes, from budding philosophers to those who do not have the mental capacity to comprehend the truth, and they have different possibilities for happiness within the city. By including these people within his virtuous city, Alfarabi completely sets himself apart from Plato. Unlike Plato, Alfarabi does see a difference between a just man and a just city – namely, a virtuous city is one led by a “supreme ruler” guided by his Active Intellect. It can encompass a few weeds and retain its virtue. In keeping with the idea of the cave and the true essences lying beyond it, there is no room for “weeds” or anything less than perfect in Plato’s conception of either the ideal city or the just man’s soul. Thus, Alfarabi’s city is not an allegory or an ideal, but rather a kind of cookbook for establishing and maintaining a real city that will lead to the happiness its citizens.
As for the question of whether Alfarabi’s perspective on the virtuous city is a corruption or improvement on Plato, the answer lies in whether the virtuous city should be an ideal to be yearned for or something realized on earth. For Plato, theory comes closer to truth than experience, so the practical realization of his city is beside the point. The state he describes is the one in which the perfectly virtuous man may participate in politics (591). As discussed, Alfarabi is interested in what a people can actually achieve. Alfarabi’s virtuous city neither distorts nor improves Plato’s republic, but completely departs from it.
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