According to Plato, political theory is married with moral theory. In his masterwork, the
As souls are best when reason governs appetite and spirit, so those states function best where the ruling class governs the soldiers and guards of the State (the spirited class) and the farmer and artisan class (appetites). If such a state functions with this kind of order, it follows the “order” of a well-functioning soul. Plato concluded that this is what we mean by a just state.
Justice Large and Small
So a consideration of justice in the political realm is inseparable from justice in the individual soul. In ethics Plato follows Socrates, taking many of the same positions. For one, Socrates had argued against the Sophists, who maintained that the good life is pleasure. Plato agreed with his teacher's idea that “Knowledge is virtue.” In fact, he agreed with Socrates' view of morality in general, accepting Socrates' concept of the soul and the concept of virtue as function.
Plato showed that the idea of virtue as a fulfillment of function is indispensable to his moral and political ideas. Just as things, like hammers and cars, have functions, so Plato also thought the soul had a function. If doctors and musicians and craftsmen are acting well when they are performing their arts correctly, so too a soul is acting well when it is living properly. Living well is a kind of art.
Plato saw a close parallel between the art of music and the art of living. In both cases the art consists of recognizing and obeying the requirements of limit and measure. A musician can only tune his instrument so far and get the right sounds from it. So, too, a sculptor must know how much stone to chisel, else he too will fall short of good art.
So the soul must operate within the limits set by intelligent living. The soul has appetite, spirit, and reason.
The appetites ought to be kept within limits, avoiding excess so as not to usurp the authority of the other parts of the soul. If a person can moderate his love of pleasure and his desires, then he is temperate and possesses the virtue of
Then there is the spirited part of the soul, which is a person's energy of will, but this too must be kept within limits. If such a person is rash, he runs without looking, speaks aggressively without knowing the situation, or acts excessively in some other manner. He has spirit, but his spirit is disconnected to the requirements of the situation. There are people in battle who run recklessly toward the enemy and there are countries that do the same thing. But the person who runs out of his foxhole during infantry battle increases his chances of being shot. His foxhole is for his protection; it increases his chances of survival. If the foxhole is used properly, a soldier can shoot out of it and expose only his helmet, thereby decreasing the chances that the enemy can strike him. But if he acts with just the right amount of spirit, with the right measure, then he is
The virtues are interconnected.
Do tragedies result when the appetitive element in the soul overrules reason?
Yes, that would be Plato's interpretation of many personal conflicts. Reason informs the person that he should eat enough to remain healthy, and even to enjoy what he eats. But reason also informs him not to overeat, use drugs, or drink excessively. But the appetites are in armed conflict with reason and often win out.
The Philosopher-King and the Decline of the Idea State
Plato has said that a state governed by reason — a state with justice — is an ideal state.
Individuals and states with out-of-control drives and appetites end in strife, that is, internal anarchy. For harmony to prevail, the rational element must be in control. Who should be the captain of the ship? Should it be the most popular person, or the one who knows the art of navigation? Come to that, who should be a shoemaker or a shipbuilder or a flute player? Isn't the expert the one who is a master in each of these functions? Likewise, who should rule the State?
For Plato there is just one answer: the philosopher-king is the one whose education has led him up step by step through the ascending degrees of knowledge of the Divided Line until at last he possesses knowledge of the Good, that synoptic vision of the interrelation of all truths to one another. To reach this point the philosopher-king requires the right education — mostly in mathematics, metaphysics, and dialectic — right up to the time when he has the vision of the Good and is then ready for the task of governing the State.
States not governed by their most reasonable element will suffer declines. Plato argued that if “there are five forms of government, there must be five kinds of mental constitution among individuals.” The five forms of government are
Plato considered the transition from aristocracy to despotism (or rule by a tyrant who wields power oppressively) as a step-by-step decline in the quality of the State corresponding to a gradual deterioration of the moral character of the rulers and the citizens. His ideal state was an aristocracy, since here the rational element embodied in the philosopher-king was supreme and people's reason controlled their appetites. Plato was disenchanted with all governments, especially Athenian democracy because of how it had treated Socrates. “I saw clearly with regard to all states now existing that without exception their system of government is bad.” Still, the norm for a state is aristocracy (or rule by a hereditary or noble class;
Less desirable is a
Plato said that the ideal society he described in his Republic “can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers.”
Under a timocracy there would be the beginning of a system of private property, and this desire for riches paves the way for a system of government called
Democracy is rule “by the many,” Socrates argues in the
Democracy emerged from plutocracy. It started with the sons of the more restrained father-plutocrats, where the goal of life was to become as rich as possible. “This insatiable craving could bring about the transition to democracy,” said Plato, for “a society cannot hold wealth in honor and at the same time establish self-control in its citizens.” It is when the rich and poor find themselves in a contest under plutocracy that the turning point is reached, for “when the poor win, the result is a democracy.” Thus, “liberty and free speech are rife everywhere; anyone is allowed to do what he likes.” As a result, Plato concluded, “you are not obliged to be in authority, or to submit to authority if you do not like it.”
Democracy is favored in America and in other countries throughout the world. So why is Plato so critical of it?
It most likely goes back to his theory of knowledge. If ordinary citizens lack the requisite knowledge of certain crafts, like shipbuilding and flute playing, then how will they possess a more difficult kind of knowledge: namely, what is good for the State?