Imagining Other:

Political Philosophy Part 1

Week 2: Plato - extracts


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Notes on Plato


Plato – The Republic.


A sample of the kind of argument presented in Plato’s Republic.

From Book (iv) (in modern words – adapted from the translation by Jowett (originally published in 1892, used in ‘Masters of Political Thought’ Volume One, by Michael B. Foster, Harrap 1979, first published 1942 – page 70):


I shall begin with the assumption that a perfect state is one that is rightly ordered, and is therefore [because being perfect means having the four cardinal virtues] wise, brave, temperate and just.


[Note: Plato assumes that a good state is like a good person – see also below on ‘temperance’]


If we take wisdom first, then this means having knowledge, and ‘good counsel’. But there are many kinds of knowledge in the state: for example the knowledge of a carpenter or a smith. This kind of knowledge would not be useful to make a good state, because it is knowledge about a particular thing in the state, and not about the whole.


[Those who have knowledge about the whole state, and about its relation with other states, Plato calls ‘guardians’. Accounts of Plato usually describe these as ‘philosopher-rulers.’ The best state, for Plato, is one in which philosophers are rulers and rulers are philosophers.]


Will there be more guardians in the state than carpenters, smiths etc [workers]? Won’t the guardians be the smallest of all the classes who have some knowledge? The guardians will bring wisdom to the state, and thus the state will be both wise and ‘constituted according to nature’ [i.e. to run a state on the basis of guidance by a class who have wisdom - knowledge of the whole state - is the ‘natural’ way to run a state].


How do we decide if a state is brave? We consider that part of the state that fights and goes to war on the state’s behalf - i.e. soldiers. The rest of the citizens may be courageous or cowardly, but this will not make the state itself brave or cowardly. The kind of knowledge that courage is based on is knowledge of what things should be feared or not. [Note Plato adds here: ‘as our legislator has educated them – he believed that states were most likely to be set up, or established, by a ‘legislator’ – one who drew up the original rules/laws/constitution.]


Soldiers need training so that they understand and will obey the laws of the land, as well as being aware of dangers to the state. Then they will have the courage that the state requires – and this will be different from ‘mere uninstructed courage, such as that of a wild beast or slave.’ They will have the courage ‘of a citizen’ – i.e. someone who considers, and acts on the interests of, the state (not someone being courageous on their own behalf).


What is meant by temperance in the state? It must mean the ‘ordering or controlling of pleasures and desires.’ Someone who is temperate is described as ‘master of himself.’  That is, ‘in the human soul there is a better and also a worse principle; and when the better has the worse under control, then a man is said to be master of himself.’ If the worse side dominates the best, then someone is ‘unprincipled.’


‘The simple and moderate desires which follow reason, and are under the guidance of the mind and true opinion, are to be found only in a few, and those best born and educated.’ Whereas ‘children and women and servants, and ... the freemen so called who are of the lowest and most numerous class’ are not temperate.


In a good state the rulers and the ruled will agree as to their different positions. Thus there is a kind of harmony. ‘Temperance is the agreement of the naturally superior and inferior, as to the right to rule, both is states and individuals.’ [See above: a good state is like a good individual – it is also made up of good individuals. A good citizen is, for Plato, the same thing as a good person...]


Finally, the state will be fair and just provided each man practices ‘one thing only, the thing to which his nature was best adapted.’  If someone who only knows how to be a cobbler or a trader attempts to do the job of a soldier, or if a soldier attempts to be a legislator then ‘this meddling of one with another is the ruin of the state.’


There are, then, ‘three distinct classes, [and] any meddling of one with another... is the greatest harm to the state.’