When I set out to read Plato’s Republic, I wasn’t aware that it was a (remotely) controversial work. Perhaps naively, I’d assumed that it was one of those ancient compendiums on human affairs; you know - full of anodyne, unsurprising claims about mankind’s nature, the need to build accountable institutions, and littered with aphorisms about the inherent goodness of personal liberty. Something that would feel obvious through the lens of modernity. Instead, what I read was a drama (not a treatise) that paints the ideal society as a technocratic utopia, where eugenically-produced philosopher kings will rule with nigh-supernatural genius and unmitigated sovereignty. Plato’s elaborate vision, unsurprisingly, hasn’t escaped history unscathed.
The Contours of The Kallipolis
The Republic is structured as a dramatic dialogue, told from the perspective of Socrates: Plato’s legendary teacher, who was seemingly never interested in writing things down himself. The core subject throughout the dialogue is justice (δικαιοσύνη); its constitution, how it can be cultivated, and its relation to both individual being and wider society. Socrates’s deliberations involve a handful of different characters, who each represent a challenging perspective. Through the course of the exchanges, a vision is painted for the ideal city - and how the justice it will manifest is inextricably linked with personal justice.
The first dialogue is between Socrates and Cephalus. The latter, in many ways, represents Athenian convention; his definition of justice is centered around upholding personal promises and fulfilling what is legally owed. Socrates quickly dismantles this perspective, providing the example of a stolen weapon being returned to a violent criminal; legally it’s the “correct” recourse, but how can it comply with a defensible notion of justice? Cephalus’s son, Polemarchus, then offers an alternative definition: justice is realized through helping one’s friends, and harming one’s enemies. Socrates asks, in his trademark manner, whether it’s possible to mistakenly consider an enemy as a friend, or vice versa; clearly our individual social judgments are fallible, and therefore they cannot be the basis for justice. He also pokes at Polemarchus’s implicit assumption that friends are automatically virtuous (we all have friends that give us pause), and the idea that categorical allowance for harm - even if directed at supposed enemies - can be a mechanism of justice.
Enter Thrasymachus, who angrily inserts himself into the discussion; he provides a definition representative of the era’s Sophist thinkers: justice is always defined by those in power, and at any point in time, it exists simply as a tool of the strong. The rational reaction to justice, he argues, is simply to ignore it; why voluntarily submit to the whims of others? Socrates pushes back against Thrasymachus’s implicit assertion that injustice is therefore a de facto virtue, and we are permitted to pursue whatever reaps personal rewards. He also criticizes the notion that every individual should view the world as a competitive battleground; clearly the formulation of a just society, and the basis of just social interaction, requires some degree of compromise and cooperation. The first set of dialogues ends with Socrates having refuted the first set of arguments, but having come no closer to a worthy definition of justice.
The meat of the exposition begins in the next section, with Socrates’s dialogue with Plato’s brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus. Glaucon begins with more finesse than his predecessors, first outlining the distinctions among 1.) things that are good because they produce about desirable consequences, 2.) things that can be considered inherently good, and 3.) the highest class - things that both bring desirable consequences and are can be considered inherently good. He’s willing to slot justice into the first category, invoking the legendary Ring of Gyges to illustrate his position. The ring supposedly granted the wearer the power of invisibility; if someone could use it to perform unjust acts and evade all consequences, what reasonable inclination would they have to restrain themselves? In ordinary circumstances, Glaucon argues, the just individual is identical to the rational individual, abiding by social consequences. Adeimantus piles on, stating that justice is never praised for its own sake - and the onus is on Socrates to prove that anyone cares actually cares about it, absent material consequence.
At this point, Socrates makes an interesting move: instead of further pursuing individual justice, he pivots the discussion to the notion of a just city-state. He argues that the interplay of justice and flourishing (εὐδαιμονία) is easier to examine at a larger scale. Socrates begins by outlining a “healthy” city, which Glaucon dismisses as a “city of pigs” - given its intense focus on commerce, and no consideration for war or sensible social stratification. In turn, Socrates subsequently describes the luxury-filled “fevered” city, which draws criticism for its lack of discipline and inherent tendency towards aristocratic extortion. This gives him the opening to introduce the idea of the guardians: a ruling class that will produce philosopher-kings capable of leading and defending the ideal city, or The Kallipolis.
The next several sections detail how the guardian class should be raised, educated, and integrated within the broader society. Socrates details a two-part education system that both imparts the four chief virtues (wisdom, courage, justice, temperance), and provides warrior-grade physical education. No aspect of the guardian’s life is left to chance: they will have limited exposure to poetics (only learning the stories that are conducive to virtuous behavior), closely-monitored diets, exacting daily routines, and curated interaction with other classes in society.
Some aspects of Socrates’s proposal feel surprisingly progressive: male and female guardians will receive the same education, and nothing should artificially restrain the advancement of a woman who holds the right attributes to lead. Other aspects invoke dystopian futurism: the breeding of guardians will be strictly controlled by the state, and guardians will be kept from knowing their biological parents; their devotion will be entirely communal, and directed towards the betterment of the city-state. The guardians are depicted as effectively synthetic tools for the advancement of societal virtue; those who are worthy will lead as philosopher-kings in both domestic and wartime affairs; those who are second-tier will manage “auxiliary” functions; and those who deemed unworthy will be discarded.
Throughout the remainder of the Socratic dialogue, Plato fleshes out the case for the guardian-run society, asserting that The Kallipolis can only be realized when “philosophers become kings”. He conjures the legendary Allegory of the Cave: the true philosopher is akin to a prisoner who has been freed from a life chained within a cave - where the only reality people have pieced together is derived from dancing shadows against the cave’s walls, and echoes from the outside world. Having glimpsed the true reality outside of the cave, it is the free man’s duty, Socrates argues, to return to the allegorical cave and help those still shackled. The allegorical path out of the cave is perilous, and not everyone is equipped to make the journey; it is the duty of the rigorously bred-and-trained guardians to serve as worthy stewards, leveraging their privileged knowledge to shepherd the wider society.
The Popperian Critique
One of the most incisive critiques of Plato’s Republic was given by Karl Popper, a leading social theorist of Post-War Europe. In the aftermath of World War II, Western academia was intensely focused on understanding the origins of Nazi Germany and its fascist allies; how could totalitarian ideologies take root within historically educated and developed societies? In his seminal work, Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper examines the Athens of 5th century BCE - detailing the emergence of democratic governance, and its reactionary opposition. He believed that the Athenians, through critical self-scrutiny, had painstakingly arrived at a system that promoted freedom, broad social progress, stable accumulation of knowledge, and enhanced cooperation; and naturally, this had unnerved those who were anxious about the prospective instability and rapid structural change.
Popper squarely identifies Plato as the ancient champion of the “closed society”; asserting that throughout The Republic and related dialogues, all notions of democratic rule, individualism, and egalitarianism are rejected. In Popper’s estimation, Plato had discarded the self-critical perspective of his teacher Socrates, and had his views (at least partially) warped by The Peloponnesian War - in which Sparta conquered Athens, upending the latter as the hegemonic power in Ancient Greece. The Spartans were legendarily organized around hive-like martial conduct that favored the needs of the collective over the individual; in their efficient brutality - which encompassed eugenics, slavery, and rigid censorship - Plato saw the building blocks of a worthy and just society.
Popper claimed that there were three philosophical predispositions behind Plato’s advocacy of closed societies. The first, Holism, was the claim that entities needed to be holistically considered in order to be truly understood; which is often the case for biological or ecological systems, where macro-phenomena cannot be logically deduced from the behavior of individual components. Popper points to Plato’s need, seen in Socrates’s dialogue with Glaucon, to model justice at the level of a society - presenting the construct of the city as somehow more real than that of the individual. The Kallipolis is built upon each individual performing their preordained role, working in strict adherence with the edicts established by the guardians. Popper saw this as a fundamental error: the dehumanization of the individual is the gateway through which all totalitarian regimes inevitably pass. The Nazis and Soviets had both constructed endlessly elaborate social and political justifications for their heinous treatment of specific classes - always supposedly in service of the greater good.
Popper then describes what he dubs Methodological Essentialism; pointing to the aforementioned Allegory of the Cave, where Plato’s theory of Forms is described. In broad strokes, Plato is asserting that the material nature of any discernible construct - whether a chair or a triangle or a city - is actually reflective of a perfect abstract representation, known as its Form. Popper critically examines how enlightened minds supposedly arrive at knowledge of true Forms: through processes fundamentally governed by intuition, rather than empiricism. While this sort of “revelatory” epistemology may be defensible when considering, for example, how ancient mathematicians suddenly grasped new discoveries - it is a very strange paradigm to apply to political philosophy. Namely, it seems to trade critical observation and sensible iteration for privileged insight that is purportedly only available to the biologically-determined ruling class.
Finally, Popper critiques Plato’s Historicism: the belief that history has an inevitable direction, governed by natural laws or principles. In the final sections of The Republic, Plato delineates “the law of decay” that he believed underpinned all human societies: a temporarily ideal society inevitably first degenerates into a timocracy, where personal honor and military ambition begins to shake the foundations of an otherwise virtuous society; the timocracy then gives way to an oligopoly, where the avarice of an enriched minority will rule the day; this fiduciary perversion will then result in democracy, where all pursuits are honored equally and the state is at the mercy of relentless tribal conflict; the strife will eventually give rise to tyranny, where a dictator will forcibly subjugate the society, ruling without temperance or virtue. To escape this degenerate cycle, Plato argued that society needed the the guidance of philosopher-kings, whose biology and education would uniquely equip to maintain the true Form of the Kallipolis, and stave off the otherwise inevitable societal decay.
Like Plato, Popper had also experienced the collapse of a democracy: his native Austria, in the wake of Nazi Germany’s rise. Where Plato perceived a unique opportunity for virtue through the composition of the Kallipolis, Popper instead saw slightly different trappings on a familiar totalitarian frame. Popper rejected the predetermination that colored Plato’s justifications for technocratic centralization, and saw democracy not as an inferior construct that was doomed to fail - but as the only bulwark that had kept the world from spiraling into total disaster. Naturally, not everyone agreed with Popper’s searing indictments; but the depth of his critique made it impossible for subsequent scholarship to ignore his perspective.
I find myself, now, wanting to read more of both Plato and Karl Popper. What I’d assumed was a prosaic text on the mechanics of government turned out to be a bit of a lightning rod, which continues to stir debate some 2000 years later. I’m planning to switch back to Indian Philosophy for my next post, focusing on the basics of Samkhya school. From there, I’ll be continuing on with Plato’s star pupil: The Stagirite.
A Recreation of Athenian Architecture ; Sir James Pennathorne