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July Books 32) The Republic

32) The Republic, by Plato

One of the disadvantages of having got into a political career through practice rather than study is that I am woefully under-read in the basics of political science. So, in order to make a beginning on putting that right, I have ploughed through the Penguin Classics edition of The Republic, having started and stalled on the Project Gutenberg version a couple of years ago.

For those of you who haven't read it (which I suspect is the vast majority of you), it is written by Plato, but all the ideas are presented as a discourse by Socrates (who had been Plato's teacher) in conversation with interlocutors whose mood ranges from interested to hostile. The core of the book is the presentation of the ideal state, in which government is conducted by a specially trained and bred class of philosophers/judges/warriors, but he diverges onto various other topics as well, in particular what the nature of their education should be.

Plato's insistence that education in philosophy (which for him includes all the sciences) would automatically produce gifted rulers must surely have seemed a bit naive even in his own day. And yet, of course, you have large parts of society constructed around this: Oxbridge classicists going into the City; the énarques in France; the Ivy League in the US. On the other hand, I observe that really intelligent people often make poor politicians; few of the skills of political leadership are intellectual. Plato would chide me that this is a problem with democracies and tyrannies, which I admit are the only polities I have particularly engaged with, and he explains why this is so in his chapters examining the problems of democracy and tyranny. I am not completely convinced though.

Striking that Plato insists on the equality of men and women, at least within his ruling classs; striking also that this is combined with a vehement advocacy of infanticide on eugenic grounds, and on the abolition of marriage in favour of a planned breeding programme. I wonder if any sf novelist has ever tried writing a society constructed along Plato's lines. There are echoes of it in a lot of places, but I can't think of any explicit example.

Of course, anyone who did try and construct a society along Plato's lines would run into the problems of the flaws and inconsistencies of the text. In particular, Plato's thoughts on the theory of forms are implicit in a lot of the text, but he is (apparently) rather unclear in his vocabulary so one is never completely sure what he is trying to get at, and the more specific he gets on basic philosophical contexts, the more adrift I felt.

Still, I'm glad I put the effort into this.

Edited to add: see comparison with Brave New World.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 21st, 2007 02:13 pm (UTC)
I wonder if any sf novelist has ever tried writing a society constructed along Plato's lines.

Not SF, but Kleon the philosopher-slave, in Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Spartacus, runs away to join the rebellion with some pieces of The Republic shoved into his tunic.

John Christopher's The Guardians (near future, children's book) draws on it too, perhaps.
Jul. 21st, 2007 03:42 pm (UTC)
Alternately, while not a direct parallel, 2000AD Judge Dredd dystopia takes a fair number of ideas from Plato, especially the Judges as guardian-elite.

I only just understood the theory of forms when I studied it for undergrad, I scraped a pass on that course, so naturally continued on to take political theory for my next two years as well, who needs to study easy stuff you can pass with good marks?

Don't think I've ever actually managed to read the whole book in and of itself, always had to jump in and out depending on need and what I needed to get, just really difficult to relate to the writing style.
Jul. 21st, 2007 03:52 pm (UTC)
I read an abridged version of The Republic. Interesting stuff.
Jul. 21st, 2007 04:17 pm (UTC)
"Anthem" is an attempt to depict
what that would look like, or so I've heard stated, but never with a direct source "Oh yes this is what I was doing, says Ms. Rand", and it's not like the idea of totalitarian eugenics-driven states was exclusive to Plato anymore at the time - it might just be indirect, convergent evolution, for all I know.
Jul. 21st, 2007 09:27 pm (UTC)
Brave New World
Jul. 22nd, 2007 12:46 am (UTC)
wonder if any sf novelist has ever tried writing a society constructed along Plato's lines.

Aldous Huxley perhaps? ;-)

Plato's insistence that education in philosophy (which for him includes all the sciences) would automatically produce gifted rulers must surely have seemed a bit naive even in his own day.

Hmm...well Aristotle did teach Alexander. Is my chronology off? Surely one of the most far-reaching elements of Alexander's success was his combination of building new cities, protecting old local rulers, and employing terror by ransacking Persopolis...these are philosophically-informed strategies of occupation and empire-building, beyond tactical military conquest.

Also - don't forget Plato was writing in his time. He couldn't very well denounce eugenics, abolition of monogamy, and infanticide when the Spartans were the apex power of Greece (and over Athens) at the time (I think I'm right - but I could be wrong on the chronology again).

Jul. 26th, 2007 08:31 am (UTC)
I could be wrong on the chronology again

Well, yeah, you are, a bit. By the time the Republic was written, perhaps about 375 BC, Sparta was Top Nation, but already in decline (though this may not have been noticeable yet). Athens was not under direct control of Sparta, and was run once again by a democracy. Criticism of aspects of Spartan society were no more impossible than criticism of the United States is today.

But you're right that what Plato says about eugenics, polygamy and infanticide are connected with Sparta - however, it's not that Plato was afraid to criticize these aspects of Spartan society, but that he, and the other wingnuts that coalesced around Socrates, genuinely admired the Spartan way of doing things (which they viewed through very rosy-coloured spectacles).
Jul. 26th, 2007 12:59 pm (UTC)

re: Criticism of aspects of Spartan society were no more impossible than criticism of the United States is today.

Haha, so you mean to say it was actually impossible and one could end up in extraterritorial grey-legality silver mine and trireme oarsman slavery? ;-)
Jul. 22nd, 2007 11:54 am (UTC)
Do you mean "really intelligent people", or do you mean intellectuals, or the academically inclined? I would observe that few people make good politicians, regardless of intellect; it's a very tough job to do well. But I'd agree that most of the qualities the job requires are nothing to do with intelligence.
But the question that really interests me is, what in your view *would* be a suitable preparation for potential political leaders? What do you think are the qualities required, and which of these can or should be taught? I remember one of the founders of the College of Europe expressing disappointment that so few of their graduates became politicians, despite this being an important part of the purpose of the institution in his view. Is it possible that by designing a very academic course, they had taken the wrong approach?
Jul. 22nd, 2007 04:16 pm (UTC)
Sorry to jump in - but your questions have sparked a lot of thoughts.

What would be on your wish list of qualities required or taught?

My first notion was an earnest core and operational belief in ethics - the sort who would not think to assassinate & torture as acceptable tools to a desired outcome, rather than the sort who would find some philosophical rationale to accept the practice(s). Perhaps some requirement of public service at some point in their life. Unfortunately, this lead me to recognise that for most in my country, this value is expressed narrowly to a question of military service (while the responsibility of life & death on one's decision is a valid experience, it is also a somewhat erroneous or limiting one for a lot of important decisions a politician needs to make). I'm also lead to a third quandry: how important is a politician anyway...their ability to change the course of decisions made before their 'leadership' is limited, and limited further still by 'national interests' that represent awfully few avenues to break through these vestments. Indeed, it is these 'national interests' that seem to inevitably lead any politician, no matter how ethical, down the path of murder, rapine, and deception. I wonder whether parenthood should be a core requirement as well.

Of course nwhyte is in the business of turning that sort of thing around, and more power to him. It just never ceases to amaze me what a delicate and slow going thing successful change is.
Jul. 24th, 2007 02:19 pm (UTC)
More power to him indeed. :-) That's why I thought his answers to those questions would be interesting.
The importance of a politician is as limited as the importance of any one person, they can't (usually) just change the world. But I do think they, like journalists, teachers, policy advisers, artists, etcetera, have a very important influence, and that it matters whether they do their jobs wisely, and well.
Public service, sure; I'm all in favour of (non-military) compulsory service to society, for everyone but especially for (budding) politicians. Arguably by participating in a political party they do that already. But parenthood? You're kidding, right? Just think of the potentially excellent people that would exclude.
Having said which, by requirements I was really thinking of personal qualities, rather than hoops to jump through. I strongly dislike *strict* rules saying "you must... in order to be able to..." - there's always an alternative.
Jul. 26th, 2007 08:23 am (UTC)
Have you forgotten 'Plato's Stepchildren'?

And if you have, can you tell me the secret?
Jul. 27th, 2007 12:26 pm (UTC)
Heinlein apparently has a go at The Republic in Starship Troopers, and it may be that Plato is partly behind the bug society.
Jul. 27th, 2007 12:52 pm (UTC)
I'm sure I've picked it up the other way round somewhere - that the military service requirement for citizenship among the humans of Starship Troopers is a nod to Plato.

Of course, both sets of statements may be true.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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