This year I am taking a course in Western political thought. And so I’ve started reading about the great thinkers and influential minds that have shaped and criticized democracy and the modern state. One of these minds is Plato, a man opposed to the concept of democracy. Below are some thoughts I presented on his work The Republic for my class.
Plato’s The Republic develops the idea that the strength and success of the state is directly tied to the values citizens live by. Early on Plato outlines that legislation doesn’t construct a strong state. “They are always fancying that by legislation they will make an end of frauds in contracts, and the other rascalities which I was mentioning, not knowing that they are in reality cutting their heads of a hydra?”
Plato argues that legislation and policies do nothing to solve the problems states face if fundamental values aren’t perfected in individuals and the state. And Plato names three important values the state must posses; courage, wisdom and justice. Wisdom, he says is a value that requires people to act for the interests of all groups and all parties. And justice means that people must jobs according what their skills and natural talents say they ought to do. Justice becomes uniquely important when determining who leads or manages the state. Plato writes that according to the value of justice those who have been educated and formed over a period of time have the just right, or the skills and natural talents to lead society. He specifically selects philosophers as the group in society with the natural skills and talents to lead others as opposed to manual labourers whom, he says, don’t have the necessary skills to make sufficient decisions.
But in defining these sections of society, Plato says this doesn’t mean that any class has power to exploit, marginalize and neglect another class. Instead all must act for the good of all citizens. Particularly, politicians must act to serve everyone in society, particularly those classes who are disempowered.
“They must descend again among the prisoners of the den and partake of their labours and honors, whether they are worth having or not. 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.”
This concept of acting in the interest goes back to the idea of wisdom, which Plato defines of acting in the common good or doing what’s is right for all people. Statesmen he claims are compounded to rule in the interest of masses and listen to what they’re saying.
Problems arise from this point of view though. Plato’s argument doesn’t assure us that leaders will act in the interest of all. In an ideal world this will happen but in reality, will it? This is particularly important because Plato objects to democracy. And one of democracies most important functions is to act as a cheque and balance to protect citizens from their leaders. Plato’s plan for the state doesn’t give us this assurance.