In The Apology of Socrates
laments the execution of Socrates
for his questioning of the fundamental tenets of society. He holds the philosopher’s right to ask ‘Why?’ above all else, for it is only through dialectic argument
that one may finally arrive at the truth
. This would appear, then, to be a clear acknowledgement of the need for personal intellectual freedom
in a society. Each individual has their own perspective on the world, and since in the end no one can definitively prove theirs to be true, each must be allowed his own. Yet years later in what has arguably been his most influential text, The Republic
, he is so confident in his homespun dogma
that he crafts a society where not only is its ideology unquestionable, but is largely to be kept hidden. Revulsed by the corruption and depravity he saw in Athens
, and in fact inherent in all existing forms of government, he set out to assemble the ideal state, one whose very nature would be in line with universal Justice. It’s a wild ride, this mad pursuit of his, and along the way he yields up many an idea both insightful and revolutionary, but his sin of pride mires his quest from the beginning. It’s sorrowfully ironic that one who is puppet master to ‘he who does not know’ should be so utterly confident in his beliefs; but he is, and this undermines all he sets out to achieve.
At the very least, one cannot say that Plato’s goals are not noble, and his effort not valiant. He wants no less than to right the world’s wrongs, for about him he sees much to be deplored. He wishes to create an ideal society; however, unlike Marx
would latter attempt, he does not do so on purely secular lines. The mighty city he fashions is built atop the ideological foundation of his Theory of the Forms
. Plato holds that behind the chaotic and fluctuating world we perceive through our senses is another world, a truer world, that of the Forms. This realm may only be accessed by the inquisitive rational mind, and in it lie hierarchically the true natures, the very essences, of that which we perceive in our world, be they mundane objects such as tables and chairs, or abstract concepts such as good and evil. This is the true face of reality behind the mask of perception, but it is so radically foreign to the mind accustomed to the mask that few would ever stumble across it, and those that do would never be able to convince those left behind of its verity. Regardless, it is the truth absolute, and as such sound governance can come solely from its wisdom.
It is with this in mind that Plato fashions his ideal society; he divides it into philosophical Rulers who take their mark from their study of the Forms of justice and good, Guardians who enforce their dictates, and a working class that is the economic base for it all. In many ways his Calipolis
achieves a kind of perfection that has not been matched in the thousands of years since its conception. The Rulers are not those who lust for power, but rather those who lust for knowledge. The philosopher-king
is entranced solely by his study of the Forms, but out of compassion wields this wisdom for the good of the state. His society is truly equal, for as people are positioned within it on the value of individual merit and ability, women, nor indeed any other minority, need fear discrimination. Another pitfall of conventional society Plato manages to circumvent is that of corruption. Those with any semblance of power, which is to say the Rulers and Guardians, take their wages from the working class and are barred from owning private property, instead taking and sharing the minimal material objects they’re allowed in common. Education is another solid feature of Plato’s society. Plato wishes to see everyone achieve their potential, and those children showing promise are raised up from wherever they may stand to refine their bodies and their minds as far as they might. Have they the potential, any child from any class may one day become a Ruler. Those not fit for philosophical study, namely the working class, are to have their careers paired with their natural dispositions. Thus Plato satisfies everyone’s needs as best they can be simultaneously satisfied.
Plato’s society is built around his conception of the Good, and it is this that imbues it with all its merit, and all its atrocity. If one looks at Plato’s ideas in The Republic as Plato himself must, which is to say as absolutely and unquestionably true, then his society is indeed the utopia he takes it to be. Yet if one approaches skeptically, Plato’s utter certainty in himself seems almost farcical, and the idea of any execution of his plans unallowable. Firstly, if Plato himself were to look at all he states he would realize himself in the wrong. While analyzing the human faculty of knowledge, Plato comes to the conclusion that “…the many conventional notions of the mass of mankind about what is beautiful or honorable or just and so on are adrift in a sort of twilight between pure reality and pure unreality.” He believes that human knowledge is to varying degrees true or untrue, but never entirely accurate to reality. This is a brilliantly humble notion, yet for some reason Plato sees himself to be exempt from it. Perhaps he sees himself to have already walked the road of not knowing, to have already asked all the questions and therefore assuredly be in the right. How vain!, for one man to consider himself in possession of the Truth, moreover after having just acknowledged that none else had ever done so before. As a philosopher he should know that all reasoning is marred in a priori assumptions
and fallacious logic
Regardless, he is utterly certain in his convictions, building his entire society atop them. But when his society is viewed apart from his ideology, it appears starkly as just another tyranny. Plato’s society is not actually in itself just, but only just in that it strives to align both state and individual with the external, universal Form of justice. To achieve this Plato uses the same instruments as every other dictator
. Poets may not express any theme Plato himself deems untrue, stories may not be told whose moral does not fit in with his own, and actors may not represent characters deviating from his ideal. As for the masses, those unfit to comprehend Plato’s elaborate ideas, they must be deceived into submission with fairy tales and outright lies. “If anyone is to practice deception, either on the country’s enemies or its citizens, it must be the Rulers of the commonwealth, acting for its benefit.” So for an artist of philosopher to represent the world as something other than Plato conceives it is to be the worst sort of offence, but because Plato is always right, for him it’s just fine. Plato grants that the masses will never achieve the nirvana
-like understanding that the Rulers strive for, and admittedly won’t live happy lives toiling to support the system, but Plato justifies this by saying that they toil at what they are innately destined to do, and hence will live satisfied lives. Plato fails to realize that not everyone’s vocation is productive; what if one’s calling is surfing and sunbathing, or playing guitar and smoking pot? It just doesn’t matter, because Plato is the father that knows best, and he says you’re going to be a farmer. The citizens of Plato’s fair city are, then, oppressed in every way. Body and mind they are slave to the state: they will think what they’re told to think, and do what they’re told to do.
All this is acceptable to Plato because it serves a purpose: to unite the community with the Forms of justice and good. However he himself acknowledges that human understanding exists “fluctuating in that half-way region” between pure reality and pure unreality, and though he may think himself above delusion and misconception, he is human, and he is not. As such, it is preposterous that an entire state should be subject to the idle fancies of some wistful thinker. Certainly he should be allowed to think as he will; but just as it is not my place to tell him he is wrong, it is not his place to tell me he is right. Neither of us can convince the other of our perspective, a fact that Plato illustrates all too well in his Allegory of the Cave
. As much as his story is representative of the delusion of the masses and the value of the philosopher, it is equally an allegory of the irreconcilability of human perspectives. Those in the cave would kill he who’d seen the real world before accepting his truth, and Plato takes this to mean that those in the Cave are wrong and must be converted. What he does not see is that there are infinite tunnels leading from the Cave to infinite worlds, for all are beheld in our imaginations. There is no end to the ways in which a person may perceive the world, and as no one would want this privilege, to imagine one’s existence, one’s environment, one’s self, taken away from them, they must then extend this privilege to everyone. Plato, like a cantankerous child in the sandbox, takes away everyone else’s buckets and shovels, forcing them to play only with the castle he builds.
The true nature of reality does not come preassembled, just waiting to be discovered and disseminated, but rather is like some random heap of Lego bits and pieces for each of us to assemble as we see fit. Modern society recognizes the right of the individual to piece together these parts into a unified perspective, and grants us this privilege with fundamental, indelible rights, found for example in Canada
in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
. Plato, however, though himself the sole proprietor of truth, and it was his utter confidence in his beliefs that invalidated his society from the start. Were one to accept his Theory of the Forms, then yes, his Calipolis is indeed an ideal society. But in purely pragmatic terms, his society is an unabashedly despotic theocracy where the majority of citizens are naught but brainwashed slaves who toil away their joyless lives in menial work to support an upper-class of idle dreamers. Plato was right that utopia will only come to exist when all of society is united as one, but they cannot rightly be united under a lie, and they cannot all be united under the perspective of one person. What is required is a proper social contract, whereby everyone is united in their desire for freedom by ensure freedom for everyone else. If a single, undeniable Unifying Theory of Existence cannot be found, and for the moment it cannot, then society must learn to accommodate all perspectives as best as can feasibly be done, rather than hammering out dissension and deceitfully obtaining compliance as Plato would have us do.