Florence Liu, BSc. Politics and International Relations ’21
As part of political theory’s central occupation with understanding how we do – and how we should – think about political life, political theorists throughout history have continually questioned and redefined both the concept of ‘government’ in itself, as well as what it means to govern in the ‘right’ way. A core topic of contention within this endeavour has been the notion of ‘just’ government. What does it mean for a government to be fair? Is this conception of government achievable? Should we aspire to fair governance, and why? Such age-old questions date back to the beginnings of the Western political canon in Ancient Greece, forming the topic matter for Plato’s Republic – a text widely regarded as a foundational work in the history of political thought. This article will introduce Plato’s philosophical approach, as well as his argument for why we should aspire to live in a just state and what form such a state should take.
Plato’s philosophical approach: rationalism and the tripartite division of the soul and state
Plato’s approach is rooted in rationalism, an epistemological view claiming that reason is the primary source of and test for knowledge. Objective truth cannot be derived from observation, as the world around us is full of mere illusions. Instead, an objective higher order of truth must be reached through introspection and the application of logical reasoning. Thus, throughout the Republic, Plato constructs his normative view of the state through the construction of various logical propositions.
One of the key arguments Plato advances is that the origins of justice can be observed by comparing the just man to the just state. In particular, he claims that the human soul can be divided into three components with each component fulfilling a specialised function; this tripartite division and specialisation should also be reflected in the just state. Plato identifies the three components of the soul as 1) the appetites, responsible for base desires; 2) the spirits, motivated by emotions such as anger and the desire for honour; and 3) reason, which seeks truth. He further argues that the just soul should be governed by reason, with the spirits supporting this rule and the appetites acquiescing. In parallel, the state has a tripartite division into 1) the artisans, 2) the guardians, and 3) the philosopher-king; each group corresponds to the respective component of the soul, and its members’ souls will be dominated by that component. Similarly to the just soul, the just state is ruled by the philosopher-king (with the support of the guardians) and artisans comply with this rule.
Therefore, Plato’s conception of what it means for the state to be ‘just’ is dependent on the specialisation of function, wherein all components of society act in harmony (though are ultimately subordinate to reason) and each individual fulfils their unique role. The ultimate purpose of the ‘just’ state is to ensure the happiness of the state as a whole, meaning that no one group should be made disproportionately happy at the expense of others. For this to be achieved, each individual must perform their socially determined function; to attempt the function of another social class is the greatest harm one can do to their state, and also the greatest injustice. In contrast, the just individual does what benefits their state by excelling in their specialised function. However, excellence in function must be cultivated; thus the just state must provide the necessary training for each social group to achieve excellence.
In his exploration of the tripartite division, Plato advances the rather radical notion that the specialisation of function is gender-neutral. He claims there are no inherent differences between men or women that should dictate what functions they are destined to fulfil. Rather, the social group one belongs to is defined purely by the natural tendencies implied by the structure of one’s soul; therefore men and women can fulfil the same functions, and must also receive the same training needed to excel in their roles.
Plato identifies the key function of the guardian class to be the preservation of the code of honour that governs the state, as well as the protection of the state from external threats and internal policing. As such, the guardians’ training must educate them in a way such that their spirits are prevented from being corrupted, and they will know to be gentle to citizens but harsh to enemies. This is to be achieved through a combination of physical training and education in the humanities.
Plato asserts that the state is best governed when it acts as a whole, which necessitates that the guardians are fully devoted to the state with no personal plans, ambitions, or needs. He posits that this will only be achieved through the abolition of both private property and the traditional family unit. The establishment of communal living among the guardians has a two-pronged effect. Firstly, the creation of broad familial notions among the guardians develops unity and understandings of respect and honour, contributing to effective governance of the state. Secondly, it allows the development of a ‘superior’ guardian class through eugenics – Plato believes the state should carefully regulate sexual relations between the guardians and encourage relations between the most ‘admirable’ guardians in the hopes that their offspring will be similarly admirable.
Plato’s proposals for the guardian class understandably raise the difficult question of whether this vision is feasible – how could the guardians possibly be compelled to live in this way? For Plato, the answer to this question lies with the ruler of the state. Only when the state is led by a philosopher-king will this system be possible.
Plato defines what it means to be a ‘philosopher-king’ by drawing a distinction between the true form of something and the appearance it takes. Just as there is a difference between appreciating beautiful things and appreciating beauty itself, to love knowledge is fundamentally different from loving the illusion of knowledge. This difference is illustrated using the allegory of the cave. Plato describes a scenario wherein a group of prisoners (who have been imprisoned since childhood) are chained in a cave such that they are only able to see the cave wall in front of them. Behind them is a fire, and people walk between the prisoners and the fire carrying puppets; the prisoners are able to see the shadows of the puppets projected on the cave wall. Since the prisoners have never seen anything else, they perceive these shadows as reality. Now, suppose a prisoner is freed – the light of the fire would hurt his eyes, and the prisoner would be unable to understand that the puppets are the sources of the shadows he has known for his whole life. If the prisoner is dragged outside the cave, they would be initially blinded by the sunlight, but after adjustments would be able to see shadows, the puppets, the reflection of the sun, and finally the sun itself. The prisoner then understands that the sun is the ultimate source of everything they saw in the cave, and wishes to return to the cave to share this knowledge with his fellow prisoners. However, the other prisoners are so used to life in the cave that they are unwilling to hear the truth, and may mock or even attempt to kill the freed prisoner for disturbing the peace.
Plato likens the visible world to the cave, and the truth is the world outside the cave. The process of leaving the cave symbolises education and the journey towards the intelligible world. Philosopher-kings are those who have left the cave and have knowledge of the truth. This makes them suited to rule for three reasons. Firstly, as knowledge of the truth is inherently good, someone who understands the truth cannot do evil. Secondly, love of truth makes them honest. Finally, as desire for one thing weakens desire for others, the philosopher-king’s desire for knowledge (fulfilment of the soul) makes them more likely to decline physical pleasures, producing a moderate temperament.
However, good philosophers will only do good for the state when they live in communities where philosophy is embraced and valued; unless the state provides philosophers the correct education they run the risk of taking up other professions or isolating themselves from society. Plato asserts that like the guardians, philosopher-kings must undergo education in music and physical education, but must also learn mathematics and dialectic on top of this in order to understand the abstract and intellectual. It is only through this process that philosophers can reach understanding of the truth, which they then must strive to instantiate in the state.