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Plato’s Republic

Plato’s works are considered among the finest of the ancient philosopher, and his “Republic” has been called “the highest point to which ancient thinkers ever attained.”[1]

Plato was deeply affected emotionally and politically by the prosecution and execution of his mentor, Socrates. In watching the Athenian democracy at work, Plato was severely disappointed in its performance. He pondered all kinds of reasons for this political failure. Plato postulated that greed and luxury were culprits in the scheme that killed his beloved teacher.

“Men are not content with a simple life: they are acquisitive, ambitious, competitive, and jealous; they soon tire of what they have and pine for what they have not; and they seldom desire anything unless it belongs to others. The result is the encroachment of one group on the territory of another, the rivalry of groups for the resources of the soil, and then more. Trade and finance develop, and bring new class divisions.”[2]

Plato himself wrote,

“any ordinary city is in fact, two cities, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich, each at war with the other; and in either division there are smaller ones – you would make a great mistake if you treated them as single state”[3]

Plato continues to write about how the merchant system continues to build individual merchants that seek higher and higher social position through wealth and consumption. Wealth is redistributed throughout society until wealthy merchants and bankers rule society; an oligarchy is formed. At this point government no longer becomes about statesmanship, it becomes about politics, the power to rule and gain in society by being in power politically over that society.

Plato’s ideal government was an anarchistic vegetarian communism. All other forms of organized government fail, according to Plato. Aristocracy fails because power is limited in too few a number. Oligarchy fails because the pursuit of government becomes the acquisition of wealth. Even democracy fails because people are not trained and educated sufficiently to make good decisions. Democracy is really mob rule.

But Plato’s Republic is more than just a treatise on government.

“Plato’s ideas about the best organization of the community still have an important place in political philosophy. Yet it is a mistake to think of the work only as an exercise in political philosophy: it is also a contribution to ethics, theory of knowledge, metaphysics, philosophy of education, philosophy of art, philosophy of mind, and other things besides. Plato himself does not make these divisions in his subject matter. The theme of the Republic is justice.” [4]

In Plato’s Republic we see discussions of justice, and the soul. In talking about a model city (city states were the norm in Plato’s day), we see discussions of the class system, the importance of philosophical training for leadership, and in so doing, inquiries into the nature of knowledge, what cognition itself is, culminating in a program of education, putting forth underpinnings for higher education that still hold to this day.

Even being thousands of years old, Plato’s Republic has been given the highest of praise:

“The Republic is the centre around which the other Dialogues may be grouped; here philosophy reaches the highest point (cp, especially in Books V, VI, VII) to which ancient thinkers ever attained. Plato among the Greeks, like Bacon among the moderns, was the first who conceived a method of knowledge, although neither of them always distinguished the bare outline or form from the substance of truth; and both of them had to be content with an abstraction of science which was not yet realized. He was the greatest metaphysical genius whom the world has seen; and in him, more than in any other ancient thinker, the germs of future knowledge are contained. The sciences of logic and psychology, which have supplied so many instruments of thought to after-ages, are based upon the analyses of Socrates and Plato. The principles of definition, the law of contradiction, the fallacy of arguing in a circle, the distinction between the essence and accidents of a thing or notion, between means and ends, between causes and conditions; also the division of the mind into the rational, concupiscent, and irascible elements, or of pleasures and desires into necessary and unnecessary—these and other great forms of thought are all of them to be found in the Republic, and were probably first invented by Plato. The greatest of all logical truths, and the one of which writers on philosophy are most apt to lose sight, the difference between words and things, has been most strenuously insisted on by him (cp. Rep.; Polit.; Cratyl), although he has not always avoided the confusion of them in his own writings (e.g. Rep.). But he does not bind up truth in logical formulae,—logic is still veiled in metaphysics; and the science which he imagines to ‘contemplate all truth and all existence’ is very unlike the doctrine of the syllogism which Aristotle claims to have discovered (Soph. Elenchi). “[4]

[1] From the Introduction of Plato’s Republic found at Project Gutenberg, page found at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1497/1497-h/1497-h.htm
[2] The story of philosophy, p. 19
[3] The story of philosophy, p. 19
[4] Philosophy 1. p. 372
[5] From the Introduction of Plato’s Republic found at Project Gutenberg, page found at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1497/1497-h/1497-h.htm

© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

November 5th, 2010 Posted by | Philosophy | no comments

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