Political Thought: Plato: Influences on Plato and Theory of Ideal State

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Who is Plato?

  • A Greek Philosopher who lived between 427-347 B.C

  • Born into an Aristocratic Athenian Family

  • Lived through the Peloponnesian War – 431 to 404 B.C

  • Established Academy – the First institution of higher learning in the Western World.

Every Thinker a Child of His Time

Plato’s thought and ideas influenced by his context – his time and space

  • Defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War against the Spartans bringing an end to the glorious period in Greek history

  • The cause of defeat was attributed to conflict and discord amongst the various classes in Greek polity and society.

  • Bitter struggles for power.

  • Rulers ruling for self interest

Influences on Plato

  • Socrates - Socratic method and Theory of Knowledge

  • Pythagoras - universe based on Mathematical and logical principles - society must also follow such definite principles

  • Heraclitus - change is the essence of the universe

  • Parmenides - permanence of ideas in a continuously changing world

The Republic

  • Based on the conditions of Greek society and other influences Plato sought to create an Ideal State in his seminal work.

  • The Republic – Concerning Justice.

Theory of Ideal State

Plato in his work The Republic creates an ideal state.

What is the purpose of this ideal state?

  • To create peace and harmony in the state and rulers’ rule for public interest rather than self-interest.

  • To achieve Justice. (More on it later)

What are the characteristics of the ideal state?

  • Ruled by a Philosopher King

  • Functional specialisation – division of labour and virtues into three classes.

    • Artisans – Economic function – virtue of temperance

    • Guardians – Military function – virtue of courage

    • Rulers – Ruling function – virtue of wisdom

  • Maintenance of proper stationing by each class.

  • Justice is The Organising Principle of Plato’s Ideal State

Theory of Justice

Plato creates an Ideal State to achieve justice. But what is justice?

  • Justice for Plato is virtue of virtues.

  • It is the proper and harmonious relationship between various classes in the state.

  • Also, maintenance of proper relationship among wisdom, courage and temperance.

  • It is an expression of harmonious relationship between the individual and state-society.

  • Justice for Plato is the highest Form of Good.

How to Achieve Justice?

To understand that, we need to look at Plato’s

  • Theory of Knowledge

  • Theory of Education

Theory of Knowledge

  • Knowledge Is Virtue

  • Socratic theory of knowledge

  • Virtue not understood as excellence in a field or discipline rather ethical in nature

  • How to acquire knowledge? – Through one’s soul – enlightenment of soul - through the Socratic method of Elenchus (Meno)

  • Knowledge of what? – Knowledge of Good Life.

  • What is a good life? – Good life is life of virtues and ethics – fulfilling one’s function and following proper stationing in the division of virtues.

Theory of Education

  • Holistic look at education

  • Plato is a classicist – believes art should reflect order and harmony. He is opposed to romanticism

  • Education in different stages –

    • First Stage – learning of basic skills such as reading, writing, recitation and so on. Important change was censorship of poetry especially of the poet Homer.

    • First Filtration process – of the producer class

    • Second stage – military training + teaching mathematical and geometrical truths as it teaches how to think logically.

    • Second filtration process – of the guardian class

    • Third stage – training in the dialectics – method of disputation leading to knowledge of universal principles.

  • After the third stage, only few would be left who could master dialectics.

  • For Plato there is higher knowledge than dialectics also - the Knowledge of Good.

  • Good – is the cosmic principle of order that unites both physical and ethical principles in a grand synthesis.

  • The student who masters the Knowledge of Good would ultimately become the Philosopher King – since he/she would have the ultimate knowledge.

What is the Purpose of Plato’s Theory of Education

  • To find the Philosopher King – that is education process itself becomes a process of ruler selection.

  • To remove the objects of desire from the society of rulers. To this end, Plato proposes Ascetic Communism – the guardians and rulers will not be allowed to own property nor will they have families.

  • Plato proposes the radical eugenics principle – mating would be regulated by state, children will be held in common and they will not know their true parents.

  • Foremost, it is through education that future rulers will realise that the desire for power and pleasure is not the basis of individual or political fulfilment. Rulers must rule in public interest.

Plato’s Other Important Concepts

  • Noble Lies – Myths of Metals

  • Allegory of Cave – World of Being vs World of Becoming

  • Cycle of deterioration of State

What Are Noble Lies?

  • The question is why would people maintain the division of function and virtues as envisaged by Plato in his Ideal State?

  • Plato in order to ensure division of function and virtues in his ideal state, conceptualises Noble Lies also called the Myths of Metals to sustain it.

  • Plato puts forward the Noble Lies that every human soul has three elements Reason, Courage and Appetite.

  • All souls are not equal –

    • In souls, where reason/wisdom dominates – they are Soul of Gold. They become the rulers.

    • In souls, where courage dominates – they are Soul of Silver. They become the Guardians.

    • In souls, where temperance/appetite dominates – they are Soul of Copper. They become the Producers.

  • People will follow the threefold division of Plato because they believe it’s because of the Nature of their Souls.

  • However, it is important to note the irony that the Ideal State of Plato is based on a lie even if he calls its Noble.

Allegory of Cave

The allegory of cave is a metaphorical example of Plato’s Theory of Form and his conception of nature of Knowledge.

He creates an hypothetical situation –

  • Imagine, people living in a cave who are chained in such a way that they can only see the back wall of the cave. There is a fire near the cave which casts shadow on the back wall of the cave. Now people walking past the entrance of the cave with crude representation of daily objects etc would cast a shadow on the back wall of the cave.

  • So, people who are chained and cannot turn back, would look at these shadows on the wall and consider them the reality. They would be unable to comprehend that these shadows are ethereal projections, called Images by Plato, and not reality.

  • For Plato, these are the lowest objects of contemplation as they are furthest removed from the reality and this state of cognition called Imagining.

  • However, if one of the chainmen freed, he would be able to see the objects which are the source of the shadows. This state of cognition called BELIEF by Plato. It is higher than imagining but not the true Knowledge of reality.

  • Now, if the caveman gets out of the cave, he would be able to see real living things and not just their crude representation. This is called Knowledge by Plato.

  • When he finally looks up at the Sun – he would realise Sun as the source of things. Sun represents the ultimate Knowledge and is called the ultimate form of Good.

  • This search for Philosophical Truth is represented by this Allegory of cave. and the Philosopher King is the one who ultimately understands the Knowledge of “Sun” and therefore he becomes the Ruler.

Plato’s Dualism of Reality

World of Becoming

  • Empirical world of sensation and appearances.

  • World of endless change and of ceaseless flux.

World of Being

  • Non-empirical, Non sensory world of Form.

  • World of constancy and perfect stability

Decline of State

  • Plato understood that Politics belong to the realm of World of Becoming – therefore constant change.

  • So even if Ideal State ruled by the Philosopher King, it would deteriorate

    • Ideal State ◊ Timocracy ◊ Oligarchy ◊ Democracy

    • Ideal state(Aristocracy) will deteriorate to Timocracy when private property will be reinstituted, and desire will govern reason. The virtue of new ruling class will be courage and they will hold honour above Knowledge. It will be a Garrison State.

    • Timocracy will deteriorate into Oligarchy when the children of ruling Guardian class will come to desire wealth and property for their own sake. Their greed for wealth will be matched by their fear of losing it. They would maintain outward respectability, but their souls will be corrupted by the lust of wealth.

    • Lastly, Oligarchy will deteriorate into Democracy as the ruling class will desire not just wealth but the whole variety of petty pleasures. They would freedom to pursue their every passion without restraint . Hierarchy of virtues and functional division would be completely destroyed. It would be a Rule by the Many.

  • It is important to note that in Plato’s analysis the deterioration of state is accompanied by the disintegration of virtues within the souls of people.

Quotes of Plato

  • “State is individual writ large.”

  • “Reality is the shadow of ideas.”

  • “until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, cities will never have rest from the evils”

  • “Those states are best governed where the ruler is least interested to govern.”

  • “No law or ordinance can be mightier than Knowledge.”

  • “It is foolish to limit an expert practitioner of medicine with a book of medicine.”

The Republic

The Republic

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Plato’s Work

Plato’s work can be categorised into Early, Middle and Late.

  • Early work represents a more idealistic Plato under heavy influence of his teacher Socrates, almost called as his mouthpiece.

  • In his middle work, there is a mix of Socratic thought and Plato’s own ideas.

  • In his late works, Plato comes into his own and these works have the least Socratic influence.

Plato’s Work

Plato’s Work

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