Posts Tagged ‘political philosophy of plato’

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….