Excellent essay by Richard Kraut from the Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Listen to this excellent radio program and take
notes. The segment is about one hour. The free Real
Player is required for streaming audio.
A concise introductory essay from the Catholic
Philosophy of Plato
An well-organized overview from the Radical Academy
Republic, Book I
One of Plato's greatest and most influential works.
This is a marked-up version of the Jowett translation.
Republic: Study Questions
To think about and look for when reading Book I.
The mind altering depiction of the trial of Socrates. really, this work changed
the world and if you read it well it will change you too.
25 of his dialogues and letters
from the 1871 translation by Benjamin
Allegory Of The Cave: A Springboard For The Matrix
A clever interpretation of Plato's allegory in
relation to a philosophical movie The Matrix
lies and perpetual war
Danny Postel and
Shadia Drury discusses Plato and other political philosophers in the service
of contemporary theory and practice. This piece is particularly useful as an
instance of how ancient philosophy remains relevant. Whether Drury's critique
of Leo Strauss and current politics is accurate is open to discussion.
in the Republic
Those of us who read Plato for pleasure and profit will be liable to hail
many of his
works as great. History, however, usually holds that his Republic
is his magnum opus. In that book we gain such great allegories as the
ring of Gyges and the cave. Plato’s reputed feminism is laid plain
in this work, as he argues for the equal ability of women to rule. Plato’s
conception (given by the character of Socrates) of the best possible State
(a Republic) is perhaps the first fully developed theory of politics which
still has great influence today.
Plato develops a concept of
a polis (an organized society; note here the root of politics)
on the analogy of the well-ordered human being. When each part of the
human being works in harmony with the other parts (desire, action, and
reason), then that individual is balanced and healthy. Similarly, Plato
divides society into three classes of people - the workers (desire), the
guardians (action), and the rulers (reason). The healthy polis consists
of parts that work in harmony and stay within their proper roles. A significant
portion of the book is given to the problem of how the rulers should properly
rule (i.e. use their power). Plato proposes that the majority working
class consists of citizens who are capable workers but poor decision makers,
lacking the requisite knowledge. They are led by their desires and not
The rulers, therefore,
must lead the masses to keep them in their proper place. Among the methods
necessary to controlling the masses are deception and force. Education
is considered as powerful tool for creating the illusions that keep people
in their places. Think now of the story of the Cave (if you have not read
it yet, make sure that you do) and the contemporary retelling of that
the movie The Matrix. In the cave/matrix the mass of people live in a
state of illusion, not knowing shadows from reality. By conforming to
the illusion the masses stay in their place and perform their required
tasks. That is the purpose of the illusion; the big political lie.
Some contemporary political
theorists and politicians agree with Plato. On this view, mass deception
is a necessary element of ruling the modern nation. Common people are
not capable of understanding the complex realities that make up our dangerous
world. Ordinary people are concerned with ordinary things in their everyday
lives. They have not the time, education, or attention to make informed
analyses and take proper action. Therefore, illusions must be created
to lead them to support the correct actions. For example, the general
population is seldom willing to go to war. Thus, their emotions must be
stirred and fears stoked until they stand united in full support of the
actions of those who govern them and send out the armies of guardians
to do the will of the state.
Consider, for instance, a famous
statement by Hermann Goering, Chief of the Nazi Air Force in World War
II, as quoted by Gustave Gilbert in his Nuremberg Diary;
got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary
to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very
thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.
"Why, of course,
the people don't want war," Goering shrugged. "Why would
some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the
best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one
piece. Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia
nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That
is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country
who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag
the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship
or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."
"There is one difference,"
I pointed out. "In a democracy the people have some say in
the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United
States only Congress can declare wars."
"Oh, that is all
well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be
brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have
to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists
for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works
the same way in any country."
Goering states here an idea
extended from Plato’s noble lie. The people do not want war, thus
the leaders are compelled to create illusions in order to build the support
needed carry out wars as deemed necessary by them. This way of thinking
remains alive in the world today.
Another candidate for a powerful
illusion is in representing freedom as a matter of getting what you want
(fulfilling desires). The consumer society is perfectly designed to promote
this illusion. People who are able to fulfill some of their desires will
give up other freedoms and function as effective workers. Freedom can
also be traded off for an illusion of enhanced security. The Matrix has
elements of both of these illusions at work.
A question that Plato must answer (no one could rightly accuse him of
being intellectually negligent) is whether it is just or unjust for rulers
to lie to the people in such total ways. In order to deal with such questions,
he begins the work by asking what justice really is, anyway? People talk
about justice and demand it, but are we really clear on what it is?
One of the Republic introduces the problem in the form of a discussion.
Socrates keeps on bugging everyone to tell him what justice is, and when
they tell him their idea, he points out weaknesses in the definitions.
Socrates was so effective at this that he succeeded in angering the actual
politicians of Athens, who could not demonstrate that they knew what justice
was and so were not really fit to rule. Their solution was to kill him.
In Book One we get three distinct
definitions of justice, with a number of variations:
Justice is repaying debts.
Justice is doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies.
Justice is the interest of the stronger.
The last one is most important.
Thrasymachus’ view can be paraphrased as might is right.
Consider the following exchange;
I suppose that you would call justice virtue and injustice
Thrasymachus: What a
charming notion! So likely too, seeing that I affirm injustice to
be profitable and justice not.
Socrates: What else
then would you say?
Thrasymachus: The opposite.
Socrates: And would
you call justice vice?
Thrasymachus: No, I
would rather say sublime simplicity.
Socrates: Then would
you call injustice malignity?
Thrasymachus: No; I
would rather say discretion.
Socrates: And do the
unjust appear to you to be wise and good?
Thrasymachus: Yes, at
any rate those of them who are able to be perfectly unjust, and who
have the power of subduing states and nations; but perhaps you imagine
me to be talking of cutpurses. Even this profession if undetected
has advantages, though they are not to be compared with those of which
I was just now speaking.
Thrasymachus is quite open
and passionate about his views (at least in Plato’s characterization
of him). If a person can be unjust and get away with it, then they are
in better off than someone who holds themselves to a standard of abstract
justice. This is because justice in his view is a matter of maximizing
your own personal profit. Of course, the best players in the game will
be the rich and powerful. For only they will be above and secure from
the others. In this view, justice does not stand as a limit on action
at all, for those with great power will use deception and force to further
benefit themselves. If they can create the illusion that the masses are
better off by allowing the powerful to further benefit themselves, then
they will have pulled off the most clever use of power.
We can find many examples of
such uses of political power, deception, and force at work in the world
right now. One legacy that Plato gives us is the basis for questioning
government and corporate power by reference to the concepts of justice.
If we refuse to think about the meaning of justice, then we give
Thrasymachus (and his contemporary followers) his way by default.
Of course, people differ over
whether a government actually is using unjust methods. It may even be
regarded in some nations unpatriotic to ask such questions. One must wonder
in that case whether we really are subject to the wholesale illusion as
depicted in The Republic.
However you see the uses of
these ideas, I hope that you find it as remarkable as I do that a text
written more than 2,300 years ago continues to have intense political
relevance today. When Alfred Whitehead said; "All of philosophy
is by a footnote to Plato" his hyperbole was not far off. It
really does matter how we answer the questions that Plato raised. Even
if we don't think about it, our leaders certainly do.
- Read section one of Book I of the Republic.