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Stephen Gareth Lingard, November 1996.


IS THERE A PLACE FOR SOCRATES IN PLATO'S IDEAL COMMUNITY ?

 

Plato's Republic is a highly provocative work that covers a great deal of issues and can be described as both famous and infamous. It is the central work of a great philosopher and also his most frequently mis-interpreted. The text consists largely of a search for perfect morality through the medium of a discussion between Plato's mouthpiece and mentor, Socrates, and a number of his contemporary Athenians. The debate proceeds with the construction of the ideal community, on the basis that discovering perfect morality within this community will make it easier to recognise the same quality in individuals. At first glance it would appear that this community contains a prominent place for Socrates, particularly as that Plato asserts that philosophers should rule. However, more stringent examination throws up serious questions as to whether there is any room at all to accommodate Plato's elder colleague. In this essay, I intend to examine both Socrates and the ideal community of the Republic and to assess whether there is a place for him within it.


Socrates, who is still regarded as one of the greatest philosophers in history, lived for seventy years in the Greek polis of Athens, where he was eventually executed in the year 399 B.C. Athens at that time was just one of a plethora of such polis, or city-states, each an autonomous political entity. Famously, the Oracle at Delphi cited Socrates as the wisest man of all, prompting lifelong activity on his part in an attempt to get to the bottom of this question of wisdom. He announced his own ignorance and set out to question those of commonly accepted wisdom in the hope of shedding light upon the subject. In turn, he questioned politicians, poets and craftsmen, each representing a fundamental pillar of society, and by their answers became convinced that what they claimed to possess was not wisdom. The craftsmen alone he found to have actual knowledge, each of his own particular field of work, but they mistakenly used this as a foundation for pronouncements upon other, unrelated subjects. The other two groups had no knowledge at all, but merely opinion or belief, although society made the mistake of hailing both politicians and poets as wise.


For Socrates, recognition of one's own ignorance is the first step on the road to true knowledge and he claimed that only in this sense did he possess any wisdom. Progress must be made by constant questioning, after the initial doubt, thereby avoiding building mere opinion or belief upon the shaky foundations of assumed wisdom. It was his life of such questioning that brought Socrates to his death, at the hands of his fellow citizens. During the course of his quest, which he believed to be a duty, he antagonised a great many important figures in Athenian society and therefore became the focus of great prejudice and dislike. The standard accusation ran that he "has theories about the heavens and has investigated below the earth and above the earth and can make the weaker argument defeat the stronger", (Plato, Apology P46). Unfortunately for Socrates, it was popular enough to ensure that a jury of 501 citizens found him guilty and sentenced him to death.
Plato was some forty years younger than Socrates but spent a good deal of his life under the influence of his older mentor. In this he was not alone, as Socrates frequently sought the company of many young men in order to engage in the very questioning detailed above. Although he made a great impression upon many of these young men, in Plato Socrates found an extraordinary talent that was receptive to his ideas and way of life. Indeed, in many ways, Plato's work is seen as an extension of Socrates philosophy, and as the latter did not write anything down, some believe that Plato often simply enshrined in written form the work of his famous predecessor. Whilst this cannot be accepted in a simplistic sense, it is true that several salient points in the works of Plato are based upon Socratic principles. An example of this from the Republic, often regarded as his magnum opus, is the idea that 'virtue is knowledge', the whole basis of the claim that philosophers should rule. Significantly, Plato often uses Socrates as his mouthpiece in his philosophical dialogues, so one must be careful to distinguish between this Socrates and the historical Socrates.


In Republic, Plato, speaking through Socrates, describes the formation of the first community as a simple association of a very few individuals upon the principle of need. No man can be self-sufficient on his own, so each devotes himself to a particular task and provides the fruits of his labour for the rest of the group. As needs grow, the group grows, widening the scope and size of its activities until it contains all manner of tradesmen, merchants and producers. In the tradition of Socrates, Plato was a great believer in the importance of specialists and frequently used analogies regarding the skills of artisans, such as shipbuilders or shoemakers. As one would visit a specialist shoemaker when in need of a pair of shoes, Plato thought that the running of the community should also be entrusted to specialists. He would ask whether one considered the governing of a whole community as more or less important than the making of shoes, and would then point out the stupidity of not having experts in the field of government when the respondent agreed that this area was more important. The logical conclusion of this argument is that every occupation and role should be undertaken upon the basis of expert knowledge in each field. The same applies to government as to every other area and Plato believed that this specialisation was more important in ruling than in anything else. Whilst this principle of specialisation was relatively novel to Athenians at the time, the assertion that it is the philosophers who have this specialised knowledge was far more controversial.


Unlike contemporary democrats, he viewed men as naturally unequal and therefore saw the foundation stone of Athenian democracy as flawed. In Republic he argues that humans are born with one of three categories of quality within their souls, as he described them, of gold, silver or bronze. The members of each category have their own levels of ability and potential, with gold representing the highest, and bronze the lowest. According to his principle of specialisation a bronze class person is inadequate for the demands of rulership whilst a gold class person would be wasted in undertaking menial tasks. It is therefore obvious that the members of the gold class possess the nature most suited to the task of rulership, but the novel aspect is that it is the philosophers who Plato believes to possess this soul of gold. He believes that the important distinction that sets them apart from the rest is their love of knowledge, rather than mere opinion or belief. They alone can see the true nature of things, not only appearances, and Plato uses his famous Theory of Forms to make this distinction. Non philosophers "can see moral actions, but not morality itself, and so on. They only ever entertain beliefs and do not know any of the things that they believe", (Republic, p202).


To many observers, it seems that this point provides a perfect opportunity for Socrates involvement in the community. As perhaps the greatest philosopher and the primary influence upon Plato, it seems that rulership as a philosopher is the natural outlet for Socrates. Surely if Plato intended philosophers to rule he would look no further than Socrates? However, the matter does not prove to be so simple. In Republic, the class of gold who rule the community are known as 'guardians' and Plato's criteria for them goes far beyond the normal conception of a philosopher. To become a guardian, an individual must display great natural aptitude from an early age and undergo a long, thorough education. The formative years are to include what may almost be described as indoctrination with the accepted values of the community, at the expense of academic education. It is the character which is shaped at this stage, and all music and poetry which could adversely influence the guardians-to-be is ruthlessly censored. For a period of two years approximately between the ages of eighteen and twenty they undergo vigorous physical and military training, designed to produce the balance between mind and body conducive to the correct combination of aggressiveness and gentleness. Candidates then embark on prolonged and highly detailed academic study, including mathematics, geometry, astronomy and dialectic. At each stage of the process anyone of inferior standard is rejected, thus ensuring that only the very best complete the course, and also that those who do will be very few in number. Graduation, so to speak, occurs at around the age of fifty, whereupon the successful candidate finally becomes a guardian. This is a truly intensive programme designed specifically to produce knowledge of goodness in the very cream of the community, as only they are up to the task.


At the very simplest level, if Plato believes that completion of the above education is a prerequisite for a philosopher king, then Socrates does not qualify. Neither does Plato himself, for that matter. Technically, no one at all could, as the institutions designed to produce the programme were not in place. To be slightly less pedantic, there is little to so that Socrates showed even the potential to be chosen for a position of rulership. For example, the central trait of his philosophy was his self possessed ignorance and perpetual quest for knowledge via questioning and discussion. True, he recognised the importance of knowledge, but never claimed to have it, so how could he be a guardian? Plato shares his belief in the necessity of knowledge, but the guardians of the ideal community do have it. Plato does not personally claim such wisdom, but in his programme of education for the guardians he is suggesting a way in which it might be obtained.
In all probability, Socrates would also object to many of the details of this education, in particular the early period of character moulding. This amounts to little more than the teaching of blind adherence to the accepted values of the group, allowing no room for Socrates favourite occupation of questioning. This phase can be criticised for dampening natural curiosity and reasoning, as it relies more upon parrot fashion learning than on logical thought. Furthermore, he is unlikely to agree with the thorough censorship practised upon the young guardians-to-be, or the use of the 'noble myth', a deliberate lie told by the rulers to keep the productive class to heel. Socrates intelligence is not in question, so beyond the above objections there is no reason to think that he could not complete the years of academic work, but perhaps some that he would agree with its relevance for the question in hand.


Having established that Socrates could not be a philosopher king in the ideal community, the next area to examine is that of the 'auxiliaries', the military arm of the guardians. A major problem here is that the early phase of education outlined above is also applicable for the auxiliaries. Actually, they are one and the same people as the guardians proper, but military service was to be completed as a young man before continuing with the education necessary for full guardianship. Whether Socrates would, in other circumstances, make a good soldier or not, the previous objections are applicable.
Both types of guardian were to live under certain social restrictions imposed by Plato. Firstly, they were to have no private property or wealth, but Socrates would have been unmoved by this particular fact. During his trial, as outlined in the Apology, he makes the point that he has very little money, as for a fine he "could probably afford one hundred drachmae", (Apology, 38). Secondly, they have no family life, but live communally with the other guardians, both male and female. Indeed, even sexual relations are in common, in the hope that the resulting offspring would then view the whole group as family and therefore increase its unity. The proposal of equality for women, (only in the guardian class), may have raised Socrates eyebrows, but beyond the unfamiliarity of the proposals, he may well have been able to accept them.
The third group in the community is the productive class, who correspond to the bronze class of people. Plato says relatively little about them, but it is clear that they would be by far the largest class. Beyond the sketchy details given of their lives, it is apparent that, unlike the guardians, they are allowed private property, wealth, and normal family relations. By inference, it is discernible that slaves are to exist within the community, and in these respects, life for the productive class seems rather similar to that of contemporary Athens. The major difference lies in the strict application of the principle of specialisation. As Plato wrote, "We...allotted every single person just one job - the one for which he was naturally suited, and was to work at all his life, setting aside his other pursuits , so as not to miss the opportunities which are crucial for quality achievement", (Republic, 374 b). He further emphasised the importance of socialisation when he added, "...specialisation of function will ensure that every person is not a plurality, but a unity, and thus that the community as a whole develops as a unity, not a plurality", (Republic, 433). Therefore, anyone caught dabbling in a multiplicity of occupations was liable to be weeded out by the guardians, for the good of the community as a whole. Such phrases sound terribly authoritarian and give rise to many of the charges of 'Big Brother' mentality that have, largely unjustly, been levelled at Plato.
Plato stressed that the morality of the community lay within this idea of each person 'doing one's own' and keeping to his own role whilst respecting that of the other classes. However, it is hard to imagine Socrates merely 'doing his own' without questioning the role of others or their alleged competence to do it. The idea of him living as a citizen in the productive class and managing to avoid coming into conflict with the ever vigilant guardians is unrealistic, to say the least, given his record in the comparatively liberal city-state of Athens.


In what amounts to a whistlestop tour of the three classes within the ideal community, it has become clear that the historical Socrates can realistically fit into none of them. In each case there are basic facts which are at irreconcilable odds with his basic philosophy. However, on a more general note, there are fundamental facets of the community which are very much in tune with it. For example, the foundation of the whole community is the principle of knowledge as virtue. The philosophers rule because it is they who are in possession of the necessary knowledge of what is good for the community as a whole. Socrates would have questioned whether they did actually have this knowledge, but if they had he would agree with their rule wholeheartedly. The principle of specialisation ensures that whilst the other classes do not have knowledge of goodness and morality, they base their lives upon the knowledge that they do have and recognise the philosopher's right to rule. This overall dominance of reason would have been very appealing to Socrates. The clash with his legacy lies in the prohibition of discussion upon the basis of reason and the guardians claim to have knowledge, with no proof for everyone else.
To roundly condemn the ideal community and Socrates as irreconcilable would be to do a grave injustice to Plato. The whole thing was written for the specific purpose of rendering the search for morality in the individual easier by looking for it in the ideally moral community. As Plato wrote, "...it's because we need a paradigm that we're trying to find out what morality is, and are asking whether a perfectly moral man could exist and, if so, what he would be like...", (Republic, 472 c). It was not intended as what it has often been criticised as, a political treatise, and therefore, allowances should be made. The community was created as an entirely preconceived means to an end and conditions within it are vastly different from those in any actual instance. Therefore, it is hard to evaluate Plato's proposals in any realistic sense and it should be noted that Republic itself contains many acknowledgements of the unlikelihood of the proposals ever being carried out. As a result, whilst it is interesting to try to find a place for Socrates in the ideal community of his chief disciple, it is perhaps not comparing like with like. Socrates did exist, in a real context and with real ideas. The community did not. Had Plato been writing of a more realistic moral community, or ever been charged with creating one, then it is almost certain that he would have found a place for Socrates, his friend, mentor and chief influence.


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