Background: Some Key Ideas on Politics in Plato’s Republic
When Plato was a young man in late fifth-century B.C. Athens had a ruling junta. Political matters by the last decade of the 400s B.C. had changed from a century earlier when democracy had just begun. Now, at the end of a losing war against Sparta, even a couple of Plato’s relatives committed cold-blooded executions of numerous opponents, and one tried to implicate his former teacher Socrates in political crimes. Socrates was in fact charged by those who alleged that he “corrupted the youth of Athens” with his questioning of everything including the rulers. Civil strife, terrible competing interests, boiled in Athens.
In his famous work The Republic Plato addresses the question: How can you make a just society? Who would be the best leader(s)? If you think about it, isn’t that one of the most significant questions for all generations? Really try to imagine if our world were just, if America had real justice and peace consistently. Would it be different than what we usually see?
Plato’s answer to the problem of societal justice was rule by philosophers, people of wisdom (men and women). These people endowed with intellectual gifts should be raised and fully trained in specialized settings for their role in leadership. They would form a sort of nobility specifically molded in what we might call a very well-bred enlightenment for the people, driven by the desire for wisdom.
Why not democracy? Earlier in the fifth century Athens had developed a popular rule by all citizens – freeborn men of the city. As direct democracy and by men only, it differed from our form. Yet Plato preferred even rule by the rich to democracy because ordinary people were far too easily swayed by the emotional and lying rhetoric of demagogic politicians. It was the demos (people), after all, the ordinary people, who time and again had supported the ruinous campaigns of the Peloponnesian War of the late fifth century by their votes, and it was under a democratic government that Socrates was put on trial on trumped-up charges and executed. That is why Plato set out to find an alternative to both oligarchy and democracy. The propositions of The Republic were the result of his endeavor.
Plato asserted that the best government is rule by reason, just like it would be best in yourself. You have inside you various urges – to act well and do what you know is best, to go after your own gain, to get something immediate (pleasure, comfort, somebody else’s things, honor). So in your society, he asks, wouldn’t you want those with great reason and knowledge to rule instead of those hungry for military action, revenge, honor, wealth, eating? Ordinary people cannot be trusted to bring about justice for the whole, he asserted.
Plato compares the state to an elaborate and expensive ship. A ship, to accomplish a safe and successful journey, needs an expert navigator at the helm, a captain who knows the capacities of the vessel, meteorology, water currents, astronomy, the ins and outs of administration and ship management, and a good number of other related matters. An ignorant and untrained person at the helm of a ship would endanger vessel, cargo, crew, and passengers alike. Similarly, Plato suggests, the ship of state needs expert governors at the helm, governors who are well informed about such things as law, management, economics, sociology, military strategy, history, and other relevant subjects. Ignorant and incompetent governors can be and have been disasters for states and citizens. He sought wise, just rulers.
Do you agree with Plato? How would you evaluate his ideas outlined here (keep in mind his goal)? Are his ideas helpful in assessing the type of political system which is best for our nation?
Your answer should be a typed, double-spaced essay of 2 pgs of actual text. Put your name, class
& section, professor’s name, and date on the top left in single space; title the paper
Cite any use of sources exactly where they are used (parenthetical form is fine).