“Toward the end of the astonishing period of Athenian creativity that furnished Western civilization with the greater part of its intellectual, artistic, and political wealth, Plato wrote The Republic, his discussion of the nature and meaning of justice and of the ideal state and its ruler.”
What happened, back then, was that Athens had invented a certain kind of democracy (based on ample opportunities and relative abundance) and, using that political system, had build a very successful society.
In time, the system became perverted – mainly because pampered people loose their edge – and its future demise started to become apparent for the open minded thinkers. Among which Socrates was one of the most vocal critics and had payed dearly for not keeping his mouth shut.
We should remember now, if we are to believe Plato’s words, that ‘the Republic’ is nothing but the faithful reproduction of an actual conversation. Socrates own thinking, in spirit and in words.
Let me take a break at this moment and remind you two things:
1. Rome, which had also started as a democracy, at some point conquered the entire Greece – including Athens, discovered the works of Plato, admired them, a little later its political system degenerated into authoritarianism and eventually failed miserably.
2. Western Europe forgot about Plato for more than a millennium and rediscovered him because the Arabs had preserved his work. Moreover until recently only specialized scholars had any idea about who Plato was…
Back to the ruling process…
I’ll assume the translation was faithful and Plato really meant ‘rule’ as opposed to govern, ‘impose your own will upon the community’ instead of putting in practice the will of the people…
Now let me remind you that no matter how wise a ruler and how proficient a builder Pericle was, his reign ended the epoch of grandeur for Athens. After that the great city had started a 2000 years decline…And here are some other interesting thoughts about that era: “There is no little irony in the fact that one of the things we most admire in the ancient Greeks is their love of freedom – and yet one of the chief manifestations of that love was their constant striving to control in some way the futures of their neighbors.” (Robin Waterfield, Athens, a History…)
So what was Plato really trying to say? “The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.”
Well, I have no way of knowing that but I can infer a thing or two out of his words:
– He was speaking about an epoch were bona fide democracy was no longer the prevailing political system. Not only that he used ‘rule’ instead of ‘govern’ but it seems that public offices were up for grabs, the ‘important’ person itself was the one to decide if to rule or not.
– People were rather arrogant at that time… who’s job was to decide who was ‘above’ and who was ‘below’? How come am “I” so sure that “I” am the most qualified (superior) to rule and that anybody else would be my inferior?
Then how come I suddenly understood the reasons for Athens’, and then Rome’s, failure to survive in spite of they being the dominant powers of their times?
As to Plato’s maintaining that all he did was to ‘faithfully’ record Socrates’ words… allow me to have some doubts.
Socrates was asked to kill himself because his teachings – ‘you should learn to think with your own head’ – were perceived, by the powerfuls of the day, as being dangerous for the young generations.
Could it be possible that the same thinker might have uttered, as Plato pretended:
“[Socrates]Then, I said, the business of us who are the founders of the State will be to compel the best minds to attain that knowledge which we have already shown to be the greatest of all-they must continue to ascend until they arrive at the good; but when they have ascended and seen enough we must not allow them to do as they do now.
[Glaucon] What do you mean?
[Socrates] I mean that they remain in the upper world: but this must not be allowed; they must be made to descend again among the prisoners in the cave, and partake of their labors and honors, whether they are worth having or not.
[Glaucon] But is not this unjust? he said; ought we to give them a worse life, when they might have a better?
[Socrates] You have again forgotten, my friend, I said, the intention of the legislator, who did not aim at making any one class in the State happy above the rest; the happiness was to be in the whole State, and he held the citizens together by persuasion and necessity, making them benefactors of the State, and therefore benefactors of one another; to this end he created them, not to please themselves, but to be his instruments in binding up the State.
There is absolutely no difference between this line of thinking and that which was taught by the followers of Marx:
“The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.
The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.
The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer.
hey merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes. The abolition of existing property relations is not at all a distinctive feature of communism.”
What we have here is nothing but two examples of extreme arrogance.
Both state that ‘I (disguised as ‘the thinkers’/’communists’) know better than all of you so you’d better obey me. Or else.’
For both the State is instrument of oppression, not the expression of the free will of its inhabitants.
I refuse to accept that Socrates actually thought like that.
On the other hand Plato wrote his Republic during Pericle’s reign and Aristotle, Plato’s favorite pupil, was the teacher of Alexander the Great. And no matter how many exploits Alexander had we shouldn’t forget that he was nothing but another ruthless dictator. More successful than most but still a dictator. Same thing for Pericles. He was indeed a great builder and administrator but his reign marked the end of the Greek democracy. Very soon after him Greece lost her independence and political significance.
All that was left was the Greek culture. The habit of thinking with one’s own head. Socrates’ real legacy, not Plato’s.