Posts Tagged ‘Plato’s Republic’

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Second

June 9, 2021

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  Second

Second Thesis:  A well-run state must pay attention to the relationship between economic and political power

For if the work done and the benefit accrued are equal, well and good; but if not, there will inevitably be ill-feeling between those who get a good income without doing much work and those who work harder but get no corresponding extra benefit.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, Book II, chapter V, 1263a8

ABSTRACT:  In discussing both the idealized states proposed by philosophers, and some states of his day widely considered to be well-run, Aristotle examines the role of wealth in society.  He rejects the extreme egalitarianism of Plato and Phaleas, as well as the restrictions put on the wealth of Spartan rulers, as being unbearable as well as impractical.  At the same time, he admits that rivalry between rich and poor can lead to factionalism and instability.  He argues that citizens need enough property to not merely live, but to live well; but he does say the state must have laws and policies to prevent the gulf between the wealthy and the rest from becoming so great that it undermines social unity’

            Book Two of Aristotle’s Politics is a survey of proposed ideal states, as well as some actual constitutions which were widely held to be successful.  Half of the chapters are devoted to criticism of Plato’s theories, particularly regarding property.  Plato himself was very concerned with the relationship between wealth and political power; it is therefore worthwhile to recall Plato’s views in order to see in what sense he and Aristotle might agree, and to better understand the nature of their disagreement.

            Plato’s political speculations in Republic begin with the individual rather than the group.  His Socrates and other characters are debating what sort of life is best for an individual, when Socrates proposes that they look at the State as an individual magnified.  In understanding how a well-run state would function, the group hopes to see how the individual soul should be arranged.  The individual can be said to have reason, passion and appetite; a city-state can be imagined as reflecting this structure.  The majority of people are farmers and other sorts of producers.  They are primarily concerned with material goods and satisfying their appetites.  They have no inclination or patience for higher education, or abstract thought, or for moral concerns beyond what is good for themselves and their households.  If they are drawn to political power, it is only as a business like any other, to enrich themselves.  Others are more drawn to military careers, as they desire honor and fame more than wealth and comfort.  These are the people governed by passion or spirit (Greek:  thumos).  In any society, only a few will be philosophers, lovers of wisdom, primarily governed by reason and desiring nothing more than to learn and understand.

            People seeking power either to feed their material desires, or in a lust for fame, are the least suited to hold power and will inevitably abuse it, putting their own gain before their duties to the State.  Only those who care the least about material comforts or the adoration of the mob can be expected to lead their society responsibly and intelligently.  Thus, the first division Plato proposes is between those who seek wealth and are denied political power, versus those who care little about gaining wealth for themselves and thus can be trusted to protect the rest:  the producers and the guardians.  These guardians are warrior-philosophers, devoted to a lifetime of physical and intellectual training, including martial and gymnastic practice, geometry, music and philosophy.  The producers want wealth and are welcome to pursue it; in exchange, they support the leadership and obey its instructions.  Among the guardians, the younger and more high-spirited individuals serve as auxiliaries, using their military training to enforce the law and to protect against invaders; they are driven by their thumos, and prefer honor over wealth, so they are rewarded with military honors and accolades for their service.  The older and wisest seek neither praise nor wealth, but wish mostly to be allowed to pursue knowledge; these are the leaders who guide the state out of a sense of duty, sharing the fruits of their learning to direct the state justly and wisely.  In return for their service, they are allowed ample time for study and philosophic contemplation.  Neither the guardians nor the auxiliaries are allowed any private property; they are supported entirely by the State, which collects taxes from the producers.  They thus have no incentive to accept bribes, or to engage in aggressive wars to gain loot, or any of the other personal or corporate corruptions that would undermine the smooth running of the state; they simply live peacefully as far as they can, prepared to defend the modest national wealth they possess but otherwise seeing to their own welfare.  Plato’s ideal republic is, in short, a society where those who have money are denied power, and those who have power are denied money but instead “give according to their abilities and receive according to their needs,” as a later philosopher put it.  Furthermore, Plato explicitly links the mixing of economic and political power as the corruption that undermines even the best state and, step by step, leads it to tyranny, where the government is entirely devoted to the profit of the tyrant and his toadies.

            Aristotle is also aware that differences in wealth can undermine a nation, and the desire for wealth can corrupt its leaders; but he rejects Plato’s radical solution of doing away with private wealth (at least for the leadership) altogether.  He agrees that the citizens definitely share some things; “at the very least, a constitution being a form of association, they must share in the territory, the single territory of a single state, of which single state the citizens are sharers.”[1]  But in Plato’s ideal republic, the Guardians are to have literally all things in common:  not only having common meals and sharing all property, but even sharing wives and children.[2]  Aristotle criticizes this excessive unity.  While it is possible to imagine such a society, Aristotle says that in fact the state benefits from being a diverse association.  Different individuals, with different abilities and aims, come together and work together for the benefit of the whole; that is what makes the state more self-sufficient than the individual or even the household.[3]  And while Plato explicitly seeks to break down the natural family relationships among the Guardians so that all will equally care for all the children, Aristotle argues that in fact this will lead to weakening concern for any children.  He makes a similar argument when it comes to property in general.[4]  Where one person is responsible for one household, that person will take care of the people and associated property; there are clearly designated areas of responsibility for each person.  Where everyone is equally responsible for caring for all the children and maintaining all the property, no individual has a specific responsibility to do anything.  When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.  Thus, Aristotle argues, it is better that each man be responsible for his own wife and children, and that the property of the state be divided, some (like temples) for common use and cared for by the people as a whole, while others (such as farms and other means of production) privately owned, the responsibility of particular individuals who will bear the consequences if they neglect their proper work. 

            Aristotle also discusses Plato’s last dialogue, his Laws, wherein he seeks to give more concrete detail to the somewhat abstract idealism of Republic.[5]  While Laws is Plato’s longest dialogue, Aristotle has relatively little to say about it, since it is in many ways a rehashing of RepublicRepublic is an idealized state, and thus lacking on details and not too concerned whether its ideas could be actualized; the Laws keeps most of the original notions of Republic but provides more detail and clarification, attempting to present not just an ideal state but a framework for establishing a state based on those notions.  There are, for example, lengthy discussions of how to arrange households and farms, the role of foreigners such as traveling merchants, details of the education curriculum, and more.  Most of the details which Aristotle discusses have to do with property laws:  how much each citizen would be allowed to own, laws regarding its management, and political implications of these laws, among other matters.  There are two points in particular that appear in this book, and will become recurring themes later in the Politics:  the problem of faction, and the types of political structure.  As to structure, Aristotle mentions monarchy, oligarchy and democracy, and argues that Plato combines elements of oligarchy and democracy into a type Aristotle calls “polity.”  Aristotle in fact prefers so-called “mixed” constitutions over any pure example of the three types, seeing them as having the chance of avoiding the weaknesses peculiar to the pure types while drawing on their strengths.  He will say much more about this later in the Politics.

            Aristotle has more to say about the issues of money and politics.  He points out that a state like Plato proposes, where individual estates are limited by law, will in serious trouble unless population is controlled as well.[6]  In most states, neither births nor property acquisition are strictly regulated; people have as many children as they are able, and sometimes even more than they can support.  This “inevitably causes poverty among the citizens, and poverty produces faction and crime.”  Plato’s Laws would start each producer citizen with an equal estate, and limit the maximum increase of wealth to five times that, with the number of such farming estates firmly established; thus if the population were to grow, there would simply be no way for the excess to start their own households, and seemingly no way to absorb the new population into the economy.  Aristotle goes on to discuss another utopian thinker, Phaleas, who also discusses the social problems related to wealth.[7]  Phaleas too was concerned with how inequalities of wealth can undermine the stability of the state, by breeding crime and factionalism.  His answer was simple and direct:  eliminate differences in wealth.  The factions that so often divide and can even destroy the state are largely conflicts between the poor many and the rich few; eliminate the differences, and you eliminate the chief cause of factionalism.[8]  Poverty would be eliminated, and thus crime would disappear as well, Phaleas claimed, since no one would have to steal to feed themselves.[9] 

            Aristotle appreciates the effort Phaleas makes to head off factionalism, but finds several faults with this plan.  First, Aristotle says Phaleas pays inadequate attention to national defense; we don’t have any evidence to judge this claim, and the question doesn’t seem essential; the issues of foreign relations could be addressed without seriously undermining the internal economics, if equality of property were workable.  Aristotle’s other objections seem more substantial, as they touch on human nature itself, and provide reasons why such equality would be impossible.  Suppose, Aristotle says, it were possible to determine the perfect level of property for everyone, so that no one was either corrupted by luxury or ruined by poverty, but each had enough to live moderately and well; even then, there is no guarantee that everyone would be content.  Unless people’s appetites are also equal, what seems a reasonable allowance to one will seem to be penury to another; thus, unless education is equal so that all have the same characters and expectations, they will become discontent even with equality.  (He does concede that maybe Phaleas has assumed this equality of education, but doesn’t think this is clear.)  Furthermore, people don’t resort to crime merely from poverty; some, perhaps most are trying to get far more than they need, and it is the desire for easy luxury that drives them.  And people do not compete merely for greater wealth, but also for distinction, status and honor. Those who have worked harder, or who have fought bravely in defense of his nation, or who otherwise consider themselves “better” will resent being treated “the same.”  So while Aristotle sees some merit in paying attention to the divisiveness of wealth, he finds this sort of extreme state control of wealth unviable.

            Much of the difference between Aristotle and his mentor Plato is visible in their discussion of the Spartan government.[10]  Plato cites the Spartan as one of the best constitutions, largely because it separates the aristocratic, military leadership from the producers; the leaders strive for honor, while the others are focused on farming and producing goods.  His only fault with the Spartan model is that they don’t practice philosophy; compared to his republic, it is as if the Guardians proper were gone and the Auxiliaries were left in charge, without the benefit of learned, wise, steady leadership.  In Plato’s telling, even the perfect republic would eventually decline, first by abandoning the leadership of the philosophers, and then as a result becoming increasingly interested in money.  First the aristocracy declines to an oligarchy, rule by the rich few; from there it deteriorates to a democracy, where everyone rules and everyone simultaneously pursues their own private wealth, further mixing politics and money-making; and finally it devolves into a tyranny, where the most corrupt and ruthless individual seizes power and turns the state into a money-making enterprise for himself and his cronies.  It is a rationalist explanation, deriving from the principle that corruption of the individual or the state occur when the appetites overrule reason; and it is a somewhat idealized presentation of the Spartan constitution as well.

            Aristotle is much less enthralled with the Spartan ideal and more interested in the Spartan reality.  While Spartan men are supposed to be pure warriors living lives of material simplicity and concerned only with honor, Aristotle says in fact there are great differences in wealth between them, which weakens the nation and in particular leaves the Ephors, magistrates drawn from outside the aristocracy, open to bribery.  And it is not just the Ephors who fail to live up to the ideal of Spartan austerity; Aristotle writes, “They live a life of undue ease, while the rest have a very high degree of austerity in living, so high indeed that they really cannot endure it but secretly get round the law and enjoy the pleasures of the body.”[11]

            On the other hand, Aristotle writes somewhat approvingly of the council of Ephors itself, an institution Plato generally ignores.  While there seems to be no constitution with which he doesn’t find some fault, and he minds much to say about the character and competence of the Ephors, he does agree that they contribute to the stability of the state.  The Ephors were a council of five men, elected from and by the people, who shared power with the Spartan kings.  This clearly is a deviation from the aristocratic ideal, which is likely why Plato ignores it in the Republic; he is presenting a clean typology, while Aristotle is looking closer at actual cases.  In fact, he says, Sparta has this democratic element in its government, which may weaken the aristocratic ideal but does keep the people “quiet because it gives them a share in the highest office…  The point is that if a constitution is to have a good prospect of stability, it must be such that all sections of the state accept it and want it to go on in the same way as before.”[12]  This is a point that Aristotle returns to:  a “mixed” constitution is often better than a “pure” type, because it can draw on the strengths of several types of government.  Aristotle is greatly concerned about the causes of  factionalism and instability in the state, and how to avoid it.  Plato’s solution to the problem of instability is to put the most reasonable people in charge, and preserve them from the corrupting influence of money by forbidding them to own any private property—including even spouses and children.  Those with power, have no wealth; and those who are allowed private property have no power.  Aristotle says this is unbearable, and thus people will circumvent such restrictions if imposed on them; also, no one can practice the virtues of such as liberality, which involve proper use and sharing of wealth, if they have none.  Plato’s republic, or Sparta’s aristocracy, ultimately lead to the corruption of the people by denying them scope to practice the virtuous use of wealth, while allowing them only corrupt opportunities to obtain the wealth that people naturally desire.  So Aristotle argues that it is better to allow people the ability to obtain enough wealth, while also limiting the gap between rich and poor if it threatens social stability.

            Aristotle’s survey of philosophical political theories and of actual constitutions doesn’t focus exclusively on economic policies, but this is at the center of many of his criticisms.  There is advice here that would please the American “right” and “left” wings, which I suppose makes it “centrist” and perhaps even “practical.”  Conservatives would undoubtedly agree with Aristotle’s objection to Plato’s extreme egalitarianism, even communism.  Our conservatives would echo Aristotle’s view that each person will see to their own property better than the society as a whole can manage extensive common property; if you want production and trade to thrive, let specific individuals run their own businesses.  The view that the one who works should see a profit from their labors will also appeal to conservatives in our day.  And Aristotle’s view on the relationship between private wealth and virtue has parallels to conservative arguments against taxpayer-funded social programs.  Conservatives often argue that if society collects taxes to help shelter, feed and cloth the poor, this will undermine morality since it means taking money away from individuals who might have shared it freely, and also because if society as a whole is helping the poor, then no one individual is exercising the virtue of charity or liberality by sharing what specifically is that individual’s own wealth to give away.  Just as Aristotle says it is important that citizens not only have enough to live, but even enough to enjoy and enough to share, American conservatives today would argue that a society with high taxes to fund things like universal health care and tuition-free college not only robs individuals of the incentive to work, but also robs them of the ability to do good, and to be good and virtuous people, by giving personally to help others. 

            Liberals would reply that what matters is that the poor are fed and sheltered, and that if the state can accomplish this better then that is how it should be.  They would applaud Aristotle’s awareness that vast differences in wealth can divide, weaken, and possibly destroy a society.  A government that wishes to last must be a government that provides justice in the eyes of its citizens, and that includes justice for the hungry and cold.  While the rich may claim that they deserve more as the “better people,” everyone has a right to life, which means everyone must have a right to the requirements for life; if a society fails to provide either a chance to earn a living wage or help for those who cannot, that society devolves into a cold war between the rich and the poor, which could eventually go hot and end the society. 

            Aristotle is seeking political structures that avoid either extreme.  He is neither Rand nor Marx, though he could see the point in both perspectives.  Instead, he wants a society that can provide enough to every citizen to live a good life, while giving those who want more a legitimate and socially helpful way to earn it.


[1] Politics, Book II, chapter 1, 1260b36

[2] Plato is often criticized today for his totalitarian tendencies, but it is interesting to note that he treats women as people, with the same rights and responsibilities as men; he says they should have the same education and even be trained for military service.  Aristotle states that women are inferior, and in much of this chapter explicitly treats them as property more than people. 

[3] Politics, Book II, chapter 2

[4] Book II, chapter 5

[5] chapter 6

[6] Book II, chapter 6, 1265a38

[7] Book II, chapter 7

[8] chapter 7, 1266a31

[9] 1267a2

[10] Plato, Republic, book VIII, 542-550; Aristotle, Politics, book II, chapter ix

[11] 1270b28

[12] 1270b17

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 3

November 14, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 3

 

“And then one, seeing another grow rich, seeks to rival him, and thus the great mass of the citizens become lovers of money.”

—–“Likely enough.”

“And so they grow richer and richer, and the more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue; for when riches and virtue are placed together in the scales of the balance, the one always rises as the other falls.”

—–Plato, Republic

 

 

One of the key elements of Plato’s idealized republic is that each individual does what he or she is best at. The best thinkers are set to solving problems and making plans for the society; the best and bravest soldiers are given jobs of defense and law enforcement; and the best businesspeople are empowered to make money and all the products that make life possible for all, and comfortable for themselves. Sometimes we carelessly call this a “caste” system, but it really is a meritocracy: each job is to be done by whomever is best at that job.

A second key element is that each person is to receive what he or she desires most. Thinkers want to think; makers want to make; warriors want to show their prowess. Therefore, the guardians are given the leisure to philosophize, theorize and investigate; the producers are allowed to make money and to enjoy the fruits of their labors; and the auxiliaries spend their time training and fighting for the sense of achievement and for the social recognition their honor demands. When Socrates describes the life of the guardians, with its lack of fame and creature comforts, Glaucon complains that he is making his citizens miserable. Socrates really has two replies to this. First, he says that the point of his exercise is to explore what would make the overall healthiest society, not to make any one person the happiest possible; therefore, it is irrelevant whether one group or another has everything that could be desired. But more importantly, Socrates/Plato is saying that in fact these people are getting what they really want, and what will really fulfill the longings of their true natures.

Thirdly, and just as vitally, no one gets what he or she should not have. The guardians are allowed to think, and have the satisfaction of seeing their ideas in action; though Plato makes it clear that true philosophers would rather focus on theory and only stoop to the distraction of implementing their ideas out of a recognition of their duty to others. But they do their work for the republic for nothing more than their own basic maintenance. They receive no riches, no fine mansions or spectacular clothes so that people should look at them enviously as they are carried about on palanquins; they live simple lives devoted to their work and to self-improvement to make themselves better at their jobs. And the guardians receive no fame, since that is reserved for the auxiliaries; the guardians are to do their work not so they can be loved and have their names emblazoned on monuments like a pharaoh, but simply so they can learn more and lead their society. Fame is reserved for the auxiliaries, whose ambition and sense of honor is their strongest drive; but they are not allowed any leadership role, nor are they allowed to accumulate riches. The auxiliaries are to be more educated than the producers, but still are temperamentally and intellectually unsuited to leadership; and they are not to collect creature comforts which would distract and soften them. And the producers, who so crave wealth and luxuries, are too undisciplined and selfish to be trusted either in the professional defense force or in political leadership. They may enjoy the wealth of the republic, but may not have any power or part in its leadership.

Plato indicates why this is important in Book VIII of Republic. There he imagines how this ideal state would eventually degenerate, since nothing human lasts forever. The point of this fiction is to show how each of the main political archetypes of his day vary from the ideal, and to rank them from best to worst. The first step away from the ideal resembles the Spartan or Cretan states, which Plato has Socrates affirm are generally considered well-run. There is no clear name for this sort of state, but Plato coins the term “timocracy,” or government by honor. This state resembles his republic in most respects, but the leaders are not philosophers. Instead, they are more like the people Plato had as auxiliaries: educated and cultured perhaps, but more passionate and ambitious and concerned for their personal honor. Lacking philosophic discipline and wisdom, they are prone to temptation and longing for the goods the guardians were denied. They are competitive with one another, seeking personal honor as much or more than the welfare of the state. When they are younger, this drive for honor is likely to be their primary motivation, and this to some extent keeps them honest and devoted to their service as warrior-leaders. When they are older, however, Plato says they are more likely to start to covet wealth. They are legally denied wealth and forbidden from farming, trading or other ways they could make money; so they may resort to extorting from their fellow citizens or other covert means of accumulating luxuries, and they become miserly over what they do have since it is so hard to acquire. Without philosophy to build and guide their characters, they start to love money more and virtue less.

The next sort of state is oligarchy, or government by a rich elite. In this sort of state, personal virtue and excellence have been largely dispensed with as requirements for leadership. Instead, leaders are those who are wealthy and powerful, and those who are politically powerful in turn use their position to gain more wealth. While the timocratic state of Sparta or Crete was still said to be “well run” and in fact the actual governments most approved by Plato, oligarchy is clearly corrupt. Love of virtue and justice has been replaced by love of money, and it is the rich who are respected rather than the wise. Furthermore, as there are separations between rich and poor, there is envy and crime as those without wealth attempt to get some by whatever means they can. Graft at the top, theft at the bottom, the oligarchy seems corrupt through and through.

However, oligarchy is in fact barely midway down Plato’s scale of corrupt states. Next is democracy, such as found in Plato’s own state of Athens. In this state, the pretense that some people are better fit to lead than others is thrown out completely; everyone competes for money and for power. The people have realized that their leaders are, in fact, no better than any of them, so they command little loyalty in times of crisis. The people chafe at any restrictions imposed on them by leaders who they regard as nothing special in themselves, so they revolt and establish a government that will allow the maximum liberty possible to the individual citizens. Being the freest in that respect, democracy also allows the most range of individual characters, from the virtuous to the positively criminal. And being so variegated and individualistic, the democracy lacks cohesion; mutual competition is everything.

Naturally, in such an environment there are some people who simply want to be free of all restraint, and others who will not be satisfied until they dominate everything. Therefore, democracy naturally slides towards tyranny. In tyranny, the confusion of economic and political power is complete, as one individual takes over the state and runs it for his own pleasure and that of his lackeys. The tyrant is thus the complete opposite of the philosopher-king in the ideal republic; while the guardians served the state and received only their basic needs in return, the tyrant demands satisfaction of his every appetite and expects the state to serve him. And while democracy promised complete equality as well as freedom, Plato argues that the greed and ambition of its citizens guarantees that both of these will be lost, resulting in the most unequal and repressive state possible.

In Plato’s terms, the United States is not a democracy; it is a mixture of democracy and oligarchy. The Constitution was written by men who had read Plato and read the history of Athens, and who shared many of Plato’s concerns about pure democracy. Instead of having the people set policy directly, the created a system where the people elect leaders who in turn set policy. But even with this sort of two-stage democracy, the tendency for tyranny has always existed. America’s detractors and lovers all agree that this is a society devoted to the making and spending of money. And particularly today, there is an unquestioned faith in the wisdom of the businessman. Plato says this is exactly the sort of person we should keep well away from power. Government requires long-term thinking; business can do very well planning year-by-year or quarter-by-quarter. Government requires an eye on the big picture, coordinating and prioritizing all sorts of needs of the citizens; business requires only a limited perspective. Businesses may profit and even be founded on a holistic approach, but it is not necessary. In Plato’s republic, all leaders were to be trained in music and in physical fitness, as well as in the intellectual skills directly relating to politics, because they needed to be well-rounded individuals, limber of body and mind. In American schools the focus is on training for the business world, and funding for the arts and for physical fitness (aside from team sports which are practically businesses themselves) is constantly under threat.   The idea of a “liberal arts” education, training everyone in a core body of knowledge to make each one a better citizen, is generally despised as useless; why learn about history or science or philosophy when you can just earn an M.B.A. and get rich?

Plato would say it is inevitable that a rich and powerful individual would emerge in a government like ours and set himself up as a strongman, that he would gain a loyal following by promising some group power over others, that he would play on their emotions rather than argue logically or factually, and that eventually the government would be taken down and fall into tyranny. This is always the danger of populism, and Plato saw nothing good in it. He believed in a government that gave the people what they truly needed and wanted even if they didn’t realize this themselves, but which did not give them a voice or power since they would inevitably misuse it. At the same time, he believed in a government that impoverished its leaders rather than enriching them, making them true public servants; government was to exist for the well-being of the citizenry as a whole, not just the ruling elite.

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 2

November 5, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 2

“And each form of government enacts the laws with a view to its own advantage, a democracy democratic laws and tyranny autocratic and the others likewise, and by so legislating they proclaim that the just for their subjects is that which is for their—the rulers’—advantage and the man who deviates101 from this law they chastise as a law-breaker and a wrongdoer. This, then, my good sir, is what I understand as the identical principle of justice that obtains in all states [339a] —the advantage of the established government. This I presume you will admit holds power and is strong, so that, if one reasons rightly, it works out that the just is the same thing everywhere,102 the advantage of the stronger.”

—–Thrasymachus, from Republic by Plato

 

 

Plato’s presentation of political theory in Republic has two elements. The first is presented as the views of the Sophists, the professional teachers who were often presented as rivals to Socrates; the second and longest portion is the positive expression of Plato’s own view, which he puts into the mouth of Socrates. The Sophists were not so much political philosophers as they were early political scientists. As traveling scholars, they went from city to city, and each city was effectively its own country with its own laws and political structure. They did not teach that any one political system was the right one. There were no schools like we know them today, where teachers are hired to offer courses that students may select, within limits, to earn degrees attesting to their educational achievement. Instead, each Sophist traveled from democracy to monarchy to oligarchy, and collected students wherever he went. He would teach whatever courses the students wanted, since his pay came directly from the students. And unsurprisingly, the students usually wanted courses that would lead to political and economic advancement: public speaking, law and legal debate, and so on.  They weren’t interested in how society “ought” to be structured; they wanted to deal with their society as it was structured, and know how to get and wield power in that society.

Thrasymachus was one of these professional traveling teachers, and Plato depicts him as unwilling to share his views until he is paid by the audience. Once he has received his due, he gives a speech asserting that “justice” is just the will of the ruling class. The stronger class imposes its standards, sets up the laws, punishes those who break those laws, and defines “good” and “evil” for the society. Whatever the stronger does is “just,” since it is they who decide what “just” means. Thrasymachus is, like most Sophists, a skilled speechmaker but a lousy debater, and is unable to answer questions about the implications of his own position. In particular, his concept “the advantage” turns out to be vague: what if the ruling class is mistaken about what is their true advantage? Is it better to get what they want, or what they need? Eventually, rather than defend his own views, he simply leaves, and one of his audience steps forward to try to shore up and refine his position. This speaker, Glaucon, presents a somewhat different view. In every society, he says, there are a few “wolves:” natural predators, who have more ambition, more political savvy, and more deviousness. These “superior” men (in ancient Greece the political roles of women ranged from limited to nonexistent, depending on the city) could pretty much get away with whatever they wanted, and then argue their way out of it in court or pull in political favors to avoid any punishment. If every individual had to defend himself and his family against these predators, each would be devoured one by one until everyone was impoverished and enslaved by the single ruling tyrant of the community. The one chance the majority have is to band together, like sheep in a herd. For this reason, people join together to form societies and establish laws and enforce punishments. It is, in many ways, similar to the argument Thomas Hobbes made two thousand years later: that in a state of natural anarchy we are all trapped in unending violence, and to prevent this we all choose to live in a society that will impose limits on our mutual conflicts.

The Sophist positions have significant differences. Thrasymachus argues that government is formed for the advantage of the naturally powerful “superior” people; Glaucon argues that the function of government is to protect the majority from the so-called “superiors” who would prey upon them. Both, however, have one important thing in common: they don’t ask what government should be, but instead attempt to simply analyze what it is. They offer a descriptive analysis of government. Plato, in response, offers an aspirational argument. He does not simply present what government is; he presents what it should be, and then discusses why actual governments fall short and how they could be improved.

Anyone wanting a detailed description of Plato’s views should just read the Republic; it is an excellent introduction to philosophy and was, in fact, originally written for intelligent readers of all backgrounds, not just professional philosophers. I will try to summarize his conclusions. A society has three basic functions: production, security and direction. In Plato’s ideal republic, most people would be artisans, tradesmen, farmers and so on, people who make things and sell and buy. This is because most people care most about their appetites; they have little interest in intellectual theory and prognostication, and little interest in earning medals. And in fact, without them, there would be no society. At the same time, Plato says that a society needs those things these producers have little personal use for. They are like the belly of the individual. Without appetite and a stomach, the person dies and cannot do much else; but with only appetite or with the appetite in charge, the person isn’t really a “person.”

To be a person, you need reason; and to be a well-functioning society, you need leadership to coordinate activities, make long-term plans and set general policies. A society without government would not really be a society at all, but just a bunch of people in physical proximity. Reason needs to be in control of the person if he or she is to be truly happy; and a happy society must have people who are led by reason in charge. Plato calls these people “guardians.” They are the so-called “philosopher-kings” that Plato is known for. They study philosophy, both the esoteric metaphysics and theoretical mathematics that serve primarily to free the mind, and the applied ethics and general principles of statecraft that are directly relevant to running the republic.

Just as there are some people who live lives of thought, and others who are doers and makers, there are a third sort who crave honor more than anything. They are the natural warriors. They don’t care about riches or about being respected as deep thinkers; they want to save the world and be respected for doing it. Again, Plato says that a person needs a sense of honor and ambition as much as he or she needs appetite and reason; and a society needs people who want to win medals and promotions and who value parades and admiration, provided it is for the right reasons. Plato would make these people “auxiliaries.” Their job in the republic is to defend the producers and the guardians from foreign threats, to enforce the laws written by the guardians, and generally to support the social order.   Plato here seems to be thinking of Sparta, which was ruled by a warrior class that did nothing but train for battle. Even their king lived in poverty that an Athenian merchant would have found appalling, because Spartans did not care for wealth; they cared only for the honor that came from bravery and success in war.

If Sparta was a society ruled by those Plato would have made auxiliaries, Athens was ruled by producers. Most of its public officers were chosen by literally drawing names out of a box; laws were written by random assemblies of a hundred or more citizens; and the army consisted of every able-bodied male, no matter what his “day job” might have been. Plato’s innovation was to try to combine some elements of Athenian society with elements of Spartan life, and to coordinate all of it with a professional class of thinkers who would devote themselves to studying statesmanship and morality. Without reason in charge, the militant auxiliaries would quickly become a threat to the producers and to neighboring states; or the producers would rid themselves of all leaders and restraint and fall into decadence. Those who care only for their own personal sensual gratification may be good and highly effective producers, but make terrible leaders. Those who care only for personal glory are a little better, but their society (like Sparta) is not much more than an armed camp waiting for the next war, and most likely brutally oppressing the producers the way the Spartan warriors regularly terrorized the Helot majority that did most of the farming and crafting that supported their society. To have a well-led society, you need professional and trained leaders, a professional and trained military, and professional and knowledgeable producers. No matter how successful a general or how rich a merchant, neither has the knowledge or temperament needed for effective leadership of society.

 

To be continued….

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 1

October 20, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 1

There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.

—–Plato

 

 

The first and most famous writing in Western political philosophy is Republic, written by Plato around 380 BCE. It is not only a political writing, and arguably may not even be primarily such; it is a philosophical tour de force, discussing ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and esthetics as well as politics. Thus it is one of the most encyclopedic pieces of philosophical writing as well as one of the earliest, and for both reasons is often a cornerstone of “Philosophy 101.”

Plato’s answers do not always satisfy, and did not always satisfy even his contemporaries; but his writings set the agenda for philosophy down through the millennia. It is therefore fitting to start any discussion of political philosophy with Plato, hear what he has to say, and then examine how later thinkers have confirmed or rejected his claims.

No thinker writes completely in a vacuum, and Plato was particularly a man of his time despite his desire to speak only of the eternal Forms. He began his philosophical career as one of those young aristocratic men who followed Socrates around the Athenian agora, hanging on his every word as he interrogated the professional politicians, professors and other leaders of society. Socrates wrote nothing of his own, as far as we know, except perhaps a hymn according to one historical record; what we know of his actual beliefs comes to us through the writings and teachings of his students. As was common in the ancient world, his students were not shy about using the master’s name to try to give answers the master would have given if he had only thought about some problem, or if he had lived longer, and thus had explicitly taught on some subject he didn’t actually cover. They were not journalists in today’s sense, trying to capture the words and deeds of the great person without error or embellishment; they were more concerned with keeping the spirit of the great teacher alive so that he could continue to teach even after death. In the case of Plato, great devotion to the person of Socrates was joined to great literary talent and to great philosophical genius, the result being that we know that at some point Plato starts putting his own words into Socrates’ mouth but we don’t agree on exactly which parts are closer to the original Socrates and which are Plato’s thoughts attributed to Socrates. What we do know is that Plato wrote an extensive library of books, many of which survive to this day, and that almost all of them are written as philosophical conversations or debates in which Socrates is the main figure. They do not always agree with each other in content, and the style varies as well, reinforcing the impression that as Plato grew older his own thought became more independent of Socrates. But certain principles appear early and often in Plato, and are echoed in other writers who similarly knew Socrates. An early story is that the oracle at Delphi identified Socrates as the wisest man alive, and that Socrates decided that his only wisdom was to realize his own ignorance. Therefore, he devoted his life to exposing the ignorance of those who claimed to have knowledge, particularly the knowledge to tell others what was right and good. The professional teachers of his day, the Sophists, are generally remembered today as relativists; they taught as “good” whatever the local community said was “good,” while themselves noting that what was praised in one city-state was often abhorred in another. Socrates by contrast is said to have believed that there was indeed a real universal truth to be found, and a real sense in which “good” was an ethical principle that held true no matter what the society said. He thus claimed his own inquiries were his own attempt to educate himself, or to find a teacher who could show him the truth of how to live his life. However, he also quickly found that no one he encountered really knew this truth at all, since none of the important men he questioned was able to defend his views. He thus styled himself a “philo-sopher,” a “lover-of wisdom,” a perpetual seeker rather than an authority; and he called all his neighbors to become seekers as well.

History, including Plato’s own writings, reports that this did not sit well with the leaders he had interrogated and publicly embarrassed. Eventually, he was arrested and charged with corrupting the youth and not reverencing the gods. He was brought to trial in the waning days of Athenian democracy, when the Athenian people were fairly paranoid about finding enemies of the State and rooting them out. It is true that some of the young men who followed Socrates had turned traitor during the war with Sparta, which had ended a few years earlier with a humiliating defeat for the Athenians. At the same time, some of his followers had also proven to be patriots, and Socrates himself was nearly arrested by the pro-Spartan junta which briefly ruled before it was overthrown and democracy reinstated.

The trial of Socrates took place in the same way every important decision was made in Athenian democracy. A large jury, generally 501 randomly chosen free male citizens, listened to advocates for and against the proposition—in this case, the proposition that Socrates was guilty of capital crimes and should be executed. Normally, the defendant in such a trial would give as eloquent a speech as possible, often reciting one written by a professional. He would appeal for mercy, perhaps having his wife and children come on stage with him in rags even if they were in fact quite wealthy, to try to sway the emotions of the jurors. Socrates rejected that plan and refused the speech a friend offered him. Instead, he taught the audience and his accusers. He brought one of them up before them all and asked him to recite the details of his crimes, poking holes in his claims and suggesting that even his accusers didn’t believe what they were saying. Instead, he argued, they were simply embarrassed by his lifetime of needling them. He had made them look foolish by exposing their ignorance, and they wanted revenge. Instead, Socrates argued, he should be seen as a benefactor of the city, who sought nothing but the moral improvement of the citizens by teaching each one individually to seek the good. His questions were like the sting of a gadfly, which might stir a lazy cow to action; his only purpose was to make people think about what is good or evil so that they might act for the good. He therefore insisted that the charges against him were nonsense, insincere, and false; far from undermining the city, he was actually its chief benefactor. Still, the jury narrowly voted to convict. Under Athenian law, at that point both sides had to propose a suitable punishment. When his accusers demanded his death and the jury asked Socrates what alternative punishment he would recommend, he suggested they give him free meals for life like they would for an Olympic victor or military hero. Given those two choices, the jury chose death. He accepted the sentence, submitting to the laws of the State and the will of God, and was executed.

I would like to draw four main points from this story (which is drawn primarily from Plato’s Apology and also agrees with Xenophon’s account, both apparently eyewitness accounts of the trial of Socrates):

  1. Socrates, though avoiding usual “political activities” such as seeking office or making speeches in the assembly. Still, he regarded himself to be a political citizen and even a moral activist.
  2. He was brought up on political charges by leading politicians, so his trial and execution was a political event.
  3. He was subversive in undermining respect of certain leaders, but submitted to the laws of his country even to his own death.
  4. The overall impression of the presentations is that democracy failed. Democracy, not just particular individuals, tried and executed Socrates unjustly.

This last point is particularly important for the later development of Plato’s political philosophy. His writings, as well as Xenophon’s, depict Socrates as basically patriotic. Yes, he was unconventional; yes, he did embarrass some political leaders by exposing their ignorance and hypocrisy; and yes, some of his followers were disloyal and even treasonous. Still, he himself died in obedience to the laws of Athens. Plato came away from that thinking that democracy is inherently unjust. In democracy, demagogues driven by personal ambition, greed and vanity manipulate the mob, which is itself motivated by passions and appetites rather than rational thought. Neither the leaders nor the followers have any interest in justice or even a conception of what this is, so that they conspired together to kill their greatest benefactor and teacher. Therefore, Plato concluded, the only way a just society could ever exist would be if power is held not by the majority, but only by those few who have the moral and intellectual capacity for leadership.

To be continued….

Work and Philosophy: Psychological Interlude Chapter Three: Temperament (pt.ii)

December 25, 2012

I read that as an INTP, I represent about 1% to 5% of the population; and if I am an INXP (borderline between the T and F, as my tests say) then I am rarer than that.  That helps to explain why I was drawn to philosophy early in life and still am, and why my favorite areas of philosophy are those dealing with personal life questions.  I am happiest thinking by myself or in an intimate conversation, so reading lots of books is no problem (aside from eyestrain).  I would rather learn abstract general principles that can be applied to answering a wide range of questions, and to finding connections between many different phenomena.  I want to find logical connections and arguments, but I am also seeking to understand what the passions are saying to me.  And I am always seeking new answers and a more complete understanding.  So my temperament has had a profound impact on my career choices and my career satisfaction.

Suppose I were my exact opposite, an ESFJ.  Then I would have little patience for sitting alone studying, or intensely focusing on one person or task.  As an Extrovert, I would want to be involved with as many people as possible.  As a Sensor, I would focus on concrete realities and particulars, and as a Feeler I would focus particularly on the feelings of those particular people around me.  As a Judger, I would want to set everything and everyone in order, to ensure social harmony and efficiency.  I might have wound up actually going into the ministry, where the ESFJ’s open heart and interest in providing help and direction to lots of people would have been very valuable. Or I might have gone into sales or worked my way into management, where I would have been comfortable taking charge of people for their own good.  Almost any service-oriented profession would have been a natural fit.

In my experience of the Presbyterian vocational counseling system, the most influential version of temperament theory was that was developed by Marilyn Bates and David Keirsey.  In addition to revising the personality test to focus on observable behaviors more than speculations of internal psychology, they greatly improved the four central temperaments.  Early on, Myers-Briggs and their associates noticed that all NT variants had many traits in common, as do all NF types, whether they are also Introverts or Extroverts, Judges or Perceivers.  They concluded that the two middle letters, representing the “functioning” aspects of the personality, were the most crucial.  However, attempts to establish commonalities between all STs or SFs were not as successful.  Keirsey and Bates concluded that for concrete thinkers, the primary distinguishing characteristic is not how they relate to words and ideas, but how they relate to the concrete world.  Is this Sensor more tempted to accept and enjoy the world, or to try to organize it?  Based on this question, and a fair amount of historical research into personality and temperament from ancient times until today, they developed their theory of the four archetypes:

  1. The Sensing-Perceiving, or SP:  the Artisan.  This is the sort who prefers to live in the moment, to enjoy the here and now.  They tend to be more passionate and hedonistic, and ruthlessly pragmatic—do what works in the current situation.  They are often drawn to the arts, to sports, and to tools, or to any job that is exciting.
  2. The Sensing-Judging, or SJ:  the Guardian.  Guardians worry about the future, and want to provide now for what might happen later.  They too prefer the concrete to the abstract and the actual to the possible, but they ask what can be done with the actual and the concrete.  They like things, and people, orderly and in place. Of the four temperament types, Guardians have the most respect for authority; when in charge they exercise it naturally and expect others to comply, and when not they naturally defer to the leader and are glad to follow a strong authority figure.   T-type Guardians tend towards careers like accounting, number-oriented tasks with clear right and wrong solutions and with significant responsibilities.  F-type Guardians are also responsible, but tend to prefer to work with people rather than things or numbers, so they gravitate towards the helping professions.  The S-types together make up 85% of the population, according to Dr. Keirsy.[1]
  3. The Intuitive-Feeling, or NF:  the Idealist.  As Intuitives, they are more defined by their relation to language and the inner world than they are by the outer world; as Feelers, they focus on values and emotions than on cold logic.  They can make good teachers or ministers, as do Guardians; but whereas Guardians approach teaching or the ministry in terms of upholding social order and traditional values, Idealists want to present new possibilities to those around them.  Idealists like to take abstract principles and present them to those who can benefit from them.  Introverted Idealists tend towards careers that require more personalized and individual attention, such as therapist, or perhaps writing, which allows them to focus completely on the grand ideas and passions without the distraction of actual concrete people.
  4. The Intuitive Thinker, or NT:  the Rational.  We are as oriented towards possibilities, language and the inner world as are the Idealists, but we prefer the logical over the emotional.  Scientists, architects and systems analysts are often NTs.  Artisans want to enjoy the world, Guardians to protect and manage it, and Idealists to save and heal it; Rationals want to understand it.  We tend towards strategic thinking and strategic careers, requiring long-term rather than immediate, crisis-driven thinking.  Many NTs are inventors and innovators; others, like Napoleon, use people rather than physical material to build their systems and to execute their plans.

Having said all this, though, it is important to retract much of it.  While temperament theory can suggest “typical” career choices, the fact is that many, many people are successful and happy in careers that seem odd for their personality types.  Some of our most successful entertainers have been Introverts.  A successful doctor could be any personality type.  Temperament theory can suggest what career you should choose, if you want to “fit in,” or if you want to find what is most likely to satisfy.  But what it most reliably tells us is how you will approach your job.  For example, let’s consider the management at a large company.  Many are likely to be Guardians, the typical “company man,” working diligently at his job (since Guardians tend towards the traditional, a larger number of women Guardians are likely to seek to be housewives or to do “women’s jobs” like teaching or nursing; so I’m saying “he”).  He expects that if he does a good job, he will earn a promotion; and if he has been promoted, he deserves it and therefore deserves the respect and loyalty of those below him on the hierarchy.  He tends to know and follow the rules and expects others to do the same.  Almost as many executives are Artisans.  They are likely the “rainmakers,” the ones who take risks all others would think insane or at least unsettling.  If they win, they celebrate; if they lose, they bounce back quicker than the other types.  They tend to be “players” in every sense of the term, so they can be quite competitive and self-promoting.  They are great in a crisis, but can become bored by the routine—-until their neglect of details and deadlines creates a crisis, which they can then jump in and solve.  Most of the NTs are in Research and Development, but some may have come up with some great idea that has landed them in a position of importance:  for example, Howard Hughes, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs all wound up commanding thousands of employees.  The Extroverted NTs are most likely to appear as management in some capacity, using their innovative and strategic abilities to work with human systems as easily as other NTs work with physical and logical systems.  The Idealists are most likely working in Human Resources, but those in supervisory roles are using their empathy and optimism to understand those they manage, and to encourage them to see new possibilities for themselves and the company.  One job—middle management, for example—can thus be done by any of the four character types, with each type approaching the job in its own distinctive ways.

Temperament psychology can be used to help job seekers find a satisfying career, and it can help employers understand employees’ gifts and find the best ways to harness those for the business.  And perhaps most important to Dr. Keirsey, temperament theory can help us avoid “the Pygmalion Project.”[2]  We are drawn to someone who has something we lack in ourselves, and admire; then we begin to try to get the other person to embrace our values and our temperament.  Temperament psychologists generally believe temperament is inborn; so it is impossible to simply make the Artisan spouse, child or new employee become a Guardian or measure up to the Guardian’s standards.  Instead, we have to learn how to utilize our differences to the best effect, and to be aware of our weaknesses and our strengths.  In the workplace, the Perceivers will have more trouble memorizing and following all the rules that their Guardian managers may have written out, but they will be better able to cope when a crisis arises that wasn’t covered in the employee handbook.  A wise manager will put the square pegs in the square holes, finding each employee’s particular temperament and gifts and assigning tasks matching those gifts.  The unwise one will try to impose one model of “the good worker” on everyone, which generally will leave many out in the cold while the organization suffers from underutilized talent.

Philosophical implications:  Perhaps the first person to apply temperament theory to career counseling was Plato.  In his Republic, Plato identifies three distinct temperaments, which he identifies with the three parts of the soul.  Most people, he says, are dominated by their appetitive part, and thus in his ideal republic he assigns to the Artisan class.  These are the people who most want to work in the world of things, as farmers or crafters or merchants or whatever, in order to attain wealth and physical comforts.  Others are dominated by their “spirit,” or passions or honor.  They want glory more than wealth; they want to be recognized and admired.  These Plato would assign to the Auxiliary class, as soldiers and police, people of action, who take risks for the good of society and crave medals and honors more than wealth.  His model for these were the soldiers of Sparta, who lived lives of poverty and hardship in order to be the absolute best warriors in the world, wishing nothing more than to die with honor and be admired by their society (and fearing nothing more than the scorn of their own mothers if they should return alive and unscarred from a battlefield loss).  Fewest of all are the philosophers, who seek neither wealth nor honor so much as the opportunity to think and learn.  These Plato made Guardians, the rulers of the Republic, the “philosopher-kings.”  Unusually, Plato said that gender should not play any determining role in class assignment; an intelligent and reflective woman could be a Guardian just as well as a man.  The well-functioning state, Plato said, would put the right people in the right jobs, so that each person served society as his or her temperament determined; for the well ordered state needs the gifts of all temperaments working in harmony.  Therefore, he proposed a society where different temperaments were given the rewards that were most meaningful to each, each did the work for which it was temperamentally best suited, and none sought to do the other’s job.

The Founding Fathers tended to look not to Plato for their image of the ideal State, but to a nearly mythological Republic of Rome.  In their minds, the ideal State was one where even the leading citizens saw themselves as public servants.  Washington refused kingship and, after two terms as President of the United States, retired to private life.  In this he was consciously imitating Cincinnatus, the Roman aristocrat who was given dictatorial powers to defend Rome from invasion, only to resign from the dictatorship and retire to his small farm when the crisis was over.  The Revolutionary Founding Fathers were, by and large, men who respected social status, but primarily when it was earned and when it was used for the public good.  Our republic, unlike Plato’s, was designed to allow upward and downward mobility, and to allow the individual rather than the State to determine how the individual could best serve society.  But this idea of different temperaments, each valuable and true in its own right and its own manner, continued from Plato down through the ages, often in conflict with other philosophies that taught a single ideal of human nature, until it gained new life in scientific psychology.  Now, it is common in workplace settings, as well as on-line dating sites and other “pop psych” arenas.  It is a useful tool in all areas where understanding differences between people is important to helping individuals achieve their own happiness and live and work together as well.


[1] Dr. David Keirsy, Please Understand Me II:  temperament, character, intelligence, first edition (Del Mar, CA:  Prometheus Nemesis Book Company, 1998) p. 61

[2] Marilyn Bates and David Keirsey, Please Understand Me:  Character & Temperament Types fifth edition (Del Mar, CA:  Prometheus Nemesis Book Company, 1984) p. 68