Athena looking over Plato – Athena is an ancient Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare Pic: Creative Commons
427 – 347 BC – Plato is known as the father of political philosophy – The entire western philosophy is nothing but footnotes to Plato and Aristotle. Plato was a significant figure in Ancient Greece. His greatest student, Aristotle, was as influential as he was.
Plato belonged to Athens that was once the most advanced state. He did not like Athens’s defeat in the hands of Sparta. As a patriot, he tried to find the problem. There was democracy at that time in Athens. He found the problem in governance, and therefore Plato criticized democracy.
Plato defined democracy as the “rule of many ignorant poor”. He advocated the idea of “philosopher’s king” to make Athens a perfect, ideal state. As per Plato making decisions require skills and judgment, and a common man is unable to make it and hence is unfit to choose and ultimately end up choosing an unfit. A philosopher appointed by few experts must be a ruler because he has knowledge and skills.
According to Plato, the philosopher’s king should have no interest in power and money. He should have real knowledge. People may have to request the philosopher to become the king.
Plato considered himself to be a disciple of Socrates, who was known as the wisest man. Plato’s hatred towards democracy is also linked to the event in Socrates’ life. Democrats ordered Socrates to drink poison and accused him of misleading the youth.
For Socrates, Polity and ethics cannot be separated. Problems of political life have a solution only in ethics. Ethics tells us what we ought to do and ought not to do. According to Socrates, the purpose of life is to lead a good life. However, to lead a good life, we must have knowledge of the good life.
“Excellence” is not a gift, but a skill that takes practice.
We do not act “rightly” because we are “excellent”, in fact, we achieve “excellence” by acting “rightly”Plato
For Socrates, knowledge is a source of virtue or excellence. Excellence is a source of happiness. Attainment of happiness is the purpose of life. “Just like for preparing a good shoe, a person must know the art of shoemaking, similarly, for a leading a good life person should know the art of living”.
The knowledge that Socrates talks about is real knowledge, rather than mere rhetoric or professional knowledge. Plato has made the view that knowledge is a source of virtue as a foundational principle of his theory of the ideal state. In the words of Plato, until philosophers are the rulers or rulers learn philosophy, there is no end to the predicament of human life.
“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”Plato
Theory of Idea
According to Plato, when we look at worldly things, we consider them as real. It happens because of ignorance. Worldly things are not real. The world of ideas is the world of reality.
The purpose of Plato behind the theory of ideas is to make governance better at Athens by establishing values, norms, standards, and yardsticks.
But it is beyond the capacity of the human mind to understand ultimate reality. Plato’s idea of reality remains a matter of debate.
Further, Plato categorizes persons into three categories. Men of reason; Men of courage; Men of appetite. Persons in whom reason dominates can understand and establish the ideal state.
Theory of Justice
Plato gave the theory of Justice. The most basic idea of Justice is doing one’s duty. Secondly, justice means being good and not to harm anyone. Thirdly, Plato’s views conflict with assumptions of sophists who are his contemporaries.
Sophists say justice is the interest of the stronger. Since the state is strongest, laws made by the state serve the interest of those who are ruling rather than the interest of the common man. Hence, it is better for the common man to be unjust than to be just. Man is selfish by nature and self-interest comes prior to the interest of society.
Since their argument showed the reality of the world of politics, it was not easy for Plato to counter-argue. But it is wrong to think laws made are only for the interest of the ruling class. Also, it is wrong to think that an unjust man is happier than a just man.
Lastly, for those who think that justice is only for the weak, Plato says that even the strongest man is not strong enough to fulfill all of his requirements on his own.
He has used a dialogue format to convey knowledge. Pic: Creative Commons
“Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws”Plato
- justice is the duty
- justice never harms anyone
- justice man is a happy man
- Both strong and weak require state and law
The critics of Plato call him a person who gives all rights to the state and only duties to the citizens. They call it not only bad politics but bad psychology too.
Theory of education
As per Plato, the purpose of the education system is to find out the qualities of the soul so that different persons can be assigned different tasks. The focus is on developing creative faculties of mind like philosophy, literature, and poetry.
Plato’s system of education contains demerits as education is in private hands. There is no system of public education. Opportunity is dependent on the willingness and capacities of parents.
“Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress, no matter how slow”Plato
Theory of Communism
Plato is a perfectionist and does not want to leave any loophole while creating an ideal state. He gives communism of family and property as an additional safeguard to check the possibility of misuse, corruption, and favoritism. As per him, the guardian class (ruler and soldiers) will not be allowed to own any property. All this is to tackle corruption.
“The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men”Plato
According to Plato, a family is a bigger evil than property. It is because of the family that people tend to earn money by unfair means. Therefore, the only state will select who will marry who. Moreover, only the ablest of men and women will be allowed. Since the purpose of marriage is only procreation, once the child is born, marriage is over and the child will be taken by the state.
“Love is a serious mental disease”Plato
Plato as Feminist
The thread that connects all feminists is their concern for women, raising the status of women, and ending discrimination against women.
The grounds for considering Plato as feminists are equality of opportunity to education as well as becoming philosophers queens. Here we can see a big difference between Aristotle and Plato. Aristotle does not even consider women eligible to be treated as citizens and Plato is talking about making them rulers.
Plato’s communism has an indirect liberating influence on women as it relieves them from the domestic responsibilities of child-rearing and other works.
Whether we recognize him as the first feminist or not but we should appreciate him on the question of women far ahead of his time.
“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”Plato
Critical evaluation of Plato
Aristotle, who was not only the greatest disciple of Plato but also his greatest critic. As per Plato, the philosopher-king is a symbol of knowledge and knows what is best. But Aristotle says that it is not so important that a ruler is wise in the world of ideas rather he should be worldly-wise. Politics is not a precise science rather it an art based on common sense.
According to Aristotle, we should not go after what is best but what is best practically. Aristotle prefers polity as the best applicable form of government. Polity is a rule of the middle class and rule of law.
Plato has accepted Aristotle’s argument. Plato tried to make some kings as philosophers but his experiment failed. In his book “The Laws” he reestablishes the rule of law.
Aristotle was most critical of his idea of communism, family, and marriage. Aristotle believes that Plato is undermining the institution of family as the purpose of marriage is not procreation but to give emotional stability.
Another critic of Plato, Karl Popper, termed him as Fascist. Like the Fascist state, Plato does not give rights or freedom but expects people to sacrifice themselves for the state. People are under the strict control of the state. It favors the one-man rule of philosophers king.
Though there are some parallels between Plato’s republic and states established under Hitler and Mussolini, on the deeper analysis we conclude that the philosophy of fascism is based on irrationalism, whereas Plato gives importance to reason. Plato does not recommend expansionist foreign policy.
Secondly, the Fascist state was a reality whereas Plato’s republic remains a utopia. We cannot say that Plato’s idea of state could have been exploitative and coercive in case it had come into existence as established by the fascist rulers.
“Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”Plato
Plato as a totalitarian thinker – Totalitarian state has total control over the lives of the citizen. State not only controls the public sphere but also the personal sphere. A Totalitarian state is different from an authoritarian state. The authoritarian state controls only the public sphere. Examples of totalitarian states are Italy under Mussolini, Germany under Hitler, the former USSR under Stalin, Afghanistan under the Taliban.
In present times China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea can be cited as examples.
Plato is termed by scholar Karl Popper as a totalitarian thinker because Plato’s republic is a society with no freedom. State not only controls the public sphere but also institutions like family and marriage to the extent that it selects partners of marriage.
However, it would not be fair to call Plato a totalitarian thinker. Many scholars have done a deeper analysis of totalitarianism. One prominent thinker is Hannah Arendt.
In her book “On origins of totalitarianism”, she suggests that totalitarianism is a rule of terror and violence. It is an extreme form of exploitative state. If we see at Plato’s Republic, we cannot say that it is the rule of terror and violence. It is rather a rule of reason based on the idea of justice. It does not seem that Plato intends to exploit people.
“He who is not a good servant will not be a good master”Plato
In the words of Karl Popper, “We have been seduced by the greatness of Plato, the greatness of Plato has been taken for granted.
Karl Popper defines an open society as a liberal democratic society that respects freedom of speech and expression and allows the right to dissent. As per him, Plato’s Republic does not have features of an open society.
One critic suggests that Plato was wrong for his time and our times. His ideas go against the basic premises of democracy.
But Plato’s contribution to Philosophy and political philosophy has been acknowledged by other scholars. According to Whitehead, the entire western philosophy is nothing but footnotes to Plato and Aristotle.
Popper who was one of the greatest contemporary critics of Plato has acknowledged that one can be either Platonic or anti-Platonic but can never be non- Platonic. Meaning one may either approve what Plato has written or disapprove but the effect of Plato’s ideas is such that one cannot remain indifferent to Plato.
Plato has also given the life cycle of an ideal state. Ideal state led by the Philosopher king will decay into timocracy (rule of soldier class). It will further decay into an oligarchy (rule of rich, producer class) and reach its lowest level i.e. democracy ( rule of poor, ignorant). His contemporaries and his disciples have criticized his utopias. Hence, Plato has modified his views and proposes the mixed form of government and puts the philosopher-king under the rule of law.
Plato was very radical in his approach and a perfectionist. Among the everlasting contribution of Plato to western political philosophy are his theory of ideas, the institution of philosopher-king, the necessity of an ideal state, the realization that the ruling class should have real knowledge about governance, the idea of justice, education as a means to transform the society, recognition from the fact that women do not suffer from any natural disability with respect joining politics.
Plato is an idealist – concerned with what ought to be rather than what is; giving preference to society over self-interest.