Theorising the Perfect State

The Republic - Plato, Melissa Lane, Desmond Lee, H.D.P. Lee

Sometimes I wonder if people give this book five stars because it is either a) written by Plato, or b) if you don't give it five stars then you are afraid that people will think that you are some semi-literate mindless cretin whose reading capacity tends to extend little beyond the Harry Potter and Twilight Series. Yes, I realise that I have given it five stars, but I have given it five stars because I actually enjoyed the argument that this book outlines. Basically it is a very logical argument that examines the nature of the human soul and of justice and the structure of the argument is of the sort that you could only expect to see from a master. Mind you, some of the points that Plato makes, such as physicians role being only to maintain the health of society and not to heal or care for the sick or injured (thus simply letting them die) would be repugnant not only to us (to an extent) but also to the people of his day. However it is the way that the argument flows, and the way that Plato explores concepts that are relevant even to us today that makes me think highly of this work of literature.


First of all, let us consider the context of the book. This was written after the death of Socrates which meant that the democratic model that Athens had been based upon had failed, and this it was quite clear to Plato and his contemporaries that democracy had failed. As such, when writing about the perfect society, one could not write about a democracy, and if one did, one needed to outline how the previous experiment failed and how it could be improved. This is the case today with socialists examining how the Russian experiment failed, but seeking to build upon its ideals to create a government that will avoid those mistakes. However, in Plato's mind, this could not happen simply because he knew that the basic foundations of the democratic state could not support a functioning ideal government. The main reason for that is that, like our democratic system, the power brokers not only tended to be rich, but also very well spoken, meaning that the populace could easily be swayed and end up supporting the power-brokers flawed, and in many cases self-centered, policies.


However, while many consider that the Republic is about an idea of how to construct a perfect state, the treatise itself goes far beyond that because what it is actually looking at is the idea of perfect justice. Near the end of the treatise Plato once again outlines his theory of forms, which is that everything in this world his a pale reflection of the object's perfect form. For instance, all tables that we see are a reflection of a perfect table, and as tables can only be created by people who make tables, and because all table makers are different, it is thus impossible to create the perfect form of a table. However to help us understand this concept further, Plato brings out the idea of art. A painting of a table is a mere reflection of the table that is painted, and every painting of that table will be different and no painter is able to paint that table as it truly is – the painter is basically restrained by the medium of which the painter creates the table. The same goes with poetry, because the poet is only able to create a pale reflection of the event that the poet is writing the poem about, and no poet, through the medium of poetry, is able to create a perfect reflection of that event.


Van Gogh - A Table


Thus, what Plato is doing is he is applying his theory to that of government. Thus every government is a reflection of the perfect government, and no government can replicate the perfect form of government. Further still, being a philosopher, Plato is restrained from being able to describe exactly what that perfect government is because he is restrained by the medium of which is uses to outline what he believes the perfect form of government is. That, by the way, is very important - what he believes the perfect form of government to be. The major restraint that Plato faces in outlining the perfect form is that it is his opinion, and his opinion is quite possibly wrong.



However, let us consider what this government is. First of all, it is not a democracy, and has no democratic institutions. The government is a oligarchic state which is ruled by philosophers, with the philosopher king at the top of the chain. It is also a very stratified form of government, with three castes, namely the ruling caste, the warrior caste (known as the Guardians), and the working caste. We must remember also that there is no room for anybody who cannot fit into any of these castes, thus the sick, injured, or disabled, have no part in this society because they are not able to fulfil any meaningful role within the state. However your caste his not determined by your birth, which means that just because you are born to working class parents does not mean you are automatically a part of the working class, and as such, just because you are born among the ruling class does not mean you are automatically members of the ruling class.



A few further points that I note is that Plato endorses religion in his state, but this is not surprising considering the Greeks were very religious people. However, Plato does not see a need to comment on religion, and while it is the case that there were philosophers who were atheists, Plato, nor his teacher Socrates, were one of them. Plato also does not support the idea of family, and actually believes that it should be abolished (though he does support monogamous marriage). I suspect that is this because the family unit tends to be a very tight unit, and if allowed in such a stratified society, having a family unit would mean that the idea of a person being a member of a specific class based on skill would fall apart as the members of a family in a specific class would not allow their children to fall down to a lower class.



Plato also believes in the abolition of wealth and property, which means that his state is a socialist state. Once again this is not surprising considering that most dictatorships tend to have the wealth concentrated at the top, with the rulers effectively being the progenitors of a kelptocracy. However, it is also the case in the democracies where wealth creates privilege, and privilege creates power. Just as it is today, the wealthy of fifth century Athens were able to buy the best minds to write their arguments and promote their policies to the detriment of the poorer classes. A democracy could quite well also be considered a form of kleptocracy.


Finally, Plato advocates censorship, particularly in education. He indicates that there are some things that should not be taught to our young for fear that our young may not understand what is being taught. This is very much the case today because there is a form of censorship that is basically accepted, and that is the rating systems for our movies, and now for our computer games. One cannot release a movie in an advanced democracy without getting the approval of the ratings agency. Further, studios will purposely self censor a movie so that it will receive a certain rating so that more people will go and see it and will be willing to see it.