Misreading Plato

No, dammit! The Republic is NOT “Plato’s ideal form of government.”

I haven’t read Simon Blackburn’s book on Plato’s Republic, so I don’t have any reason to think that it’s actually as silly as Alex Koppelman makes it out to be in the preface to his interview with Blackburn. But if Koppelman is quoting Blackburn accurately, it seems that Blackburn has fallen into the same trap that caught Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper: accepting the conventional account of the Republic as Plato’s sketch of an “ideal government.”

Now that is simply wrong. As Blackburn tells Koppelman, the inquiry of the Republic is into virtue, not political organization. Book I (perhaps originally a free-standing dialogue) is Socrates’s argument that justice is beneficial to the just person, and also to the just organization or state. Even a pirate band, he points out to Thrasymachus, needs an internal principle of justice to function as a pirate band.

In Book II, Socrates turns from discussing whether virtue is advantageous to trying to define it, to figure out what it is. He proposes a strategy: since justice exists in states as well as in individual psyches, and since states are easier to observe, perhaps if we understood what justice was in the state we could figure out what justice is in the individual [see 368-369].

Socrates then proceeds [369-372] to sketch what he calls a just society, based on the principle of division of labor. The inhabitants all work hard and live simply. Since the resulting society has nothing worth stealing and no need to steal from anyone else, there is no warfare, and hard work and a simple diet keep them healthy.

But Glaucon, one of the two rich kids to whom Socrates addresses himself, objects: that would a good enough life for pigs, he says, but I want my comforts: “to lie on sofas and dine off tables, and have sauces and sweets in the modern style.” Socrates says to Glaucon: good enough. If you don’t want to discuss what I think is “the true and healthy constitution of the state,” then by all means let’s discuss a fevered, luxurious state. That will make it all the easier to discover justice and injustice (subtext: because there will be so much injustice around).

The fevered, luxurious society will naturally be in competition for resources with its neighbors, and will therefore need an army both for aggression and for defense. On the principle of the division of labor, an army shouldn’t consist of people whose “real” trade is something else; we need a trained professional soldier class: the guardians. Much of the rest of the Republic has to do with how the guardians will be educated and how they will live.

So, as I say, the claim that the Republic is Plato’s ideal form of government is wrong on its face. That’s not the claim Socrates makes. All the elaborate nonsense about censorship (including Bowdlerizing Homer), a ban on drama (within a work written in dramatic form), and the abolition of private property and the family within the “guardian” class &#8212 all that’s just from Book III &#8212 working up to selective breeding of humans and the “noble lie” of a fake breeding lottery (Book V. 459-460) is part of the design of what Socrates calls an unhealthy (and implies is an unjust) way of life.

Of course Glaucon and Adeimantus keep saying “Yes, Socrates.” They love the thought that they’re going to be part of the philosophic elite that gets to order everyone else around. (Glaucon, who is rather dim, misses the point that luxury, being related to appetite, is to be reserved to the politically least powerful class; the guardians and philosopher kings live simply.)

I was taught (by Paul Desjardins) to read the Republic as a mixture of moral psychology with some fairly broad social and political satire, mostly making fun of the dumb ideas and attitudes current among Plato’s aristocratic (and pro-Spartan) friends and relatives, but also of the excesses of what Athens called “democracy” (which involved, among other things choosing officials by lot). That makes sense of the dialogue format; if Plato had just wanted to write an essay on the ideal form of government, presumably he could have done so.

Yet lots of philosphers take Plato’s jokes seriously, which leads to the conclusion that he must have been some sort of vicious lunatic. In his essay “Back to the Pre-Socratics,” Popper offers a sensible rule of textual construction (borrowed, though he didn’t notice it, from Book I of the Republic): in interpreting a text by someone who’s supposed to be wise, prefer an interpretation that isn’t obviously trivial, stupid, or wicked. Popper then proceeded to forget that maxim in his own interpretation of Plato. In this Popper has ample company.

You’d think that, once Socrates gets to the point of saying that everyone over the age of 14 has to be sent into exile to avoid the pollution of the new regime by those not brought up under it (“Oldthinkers Unbellyfeel Ingsoc,” as Orwell’s headline has it), philosophically-trained readers would get the joke, even if Socrates’s interlocutors don’t. But if you thought that, you’d mostly be disappointed.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com