Plato & Anti-politics

Plato is considered the first political thinker, but he believed in a world without politics. Writing shortly after the ultimate failure of Athenian radical democracy, he has nothing positive to say about Athens or democracy. Plato focuses on justifying why politics must be abolished and how, but does not comment in any detail on how we should live without politics.

Plato’s works include a commentary on the merits of rhetoric and philosophy inspired by Socrates. Contrary to contemporary view, Plato said rhetoric is the art of presenting a case as you want it to appear, allowing the speaker to mislead their audience. In contrast philosophy is the art of understanding things as they really are, which is not always as they seem. Philosophy is the most important knowledge and is the only way to understand what is just or unjust. Plato insists that most active citizens understand rhetoric but not philosophy. They are personally successful but promote injustice. Democracy gives a platform to the many who don’t understand how things are. Plato believed democracy was the second worst form of government, only better than tyranny (and often its precursor).

Everyone would live justly in Plato’s utopian vision of society. He defines living justly as using a skill that contributes to the good of society. It also means not doing harm to others, i.e. not making others worse. Punishment that is just makes people better not worse (he would have approved of the use of prison for reform and rehabilitation). This was contrary to the prevailing Greek view of justice, which was to do good to one’s friends and harm to one’s enemies, and that the strongest has the right to decide what is right and wrong. This traditional view is more consistent with every individual’s self-interest.

Plato describes his utopian society as resting on the division of labour, where individuals unite for the benefit of specialisation (but more frugal and basic than the specialisation of the industrial revolution). This contrasts with Athens, where slaves and war income free the citizens from work for active politics. This modest society will also be free from the greed that leads to endless war for the acquisition of power and wealth. Plato believed that Utopia should be ruled by a philosopher-elite meritocracy. Only a small number of people are naturally gifted in politics, so only a small number can justly participate. People are born with souls that are bronze, silver or gold. Bronze are the workers, silver the soldiers and gold the ruling elite. People from different groups should not inter-breed. Plato believed that people were happiest when fulfilling roles that matched their abilities. This does not mean that the elite should take advantage of the others, or that the elite are financial better off. Plato believed that this social structure mirrors the divine natural harmony of the universe, so must be right. It is therefore just, using Plato’s definition of justice to be ‘overall rightness’. Our souls are in order when we act as our nature requires. In Plato’s society the conflicts that law regulates vanish, so there is no need for law, and there is no question that it is the elite who should rule. In short, there is no need for politics.

Utopia is criticised for being a poor, boring and static society, with no change or innovation. Plato argues this is outweighed by the benefits of the peace and happiness of its people. He does however believe that this society could not last forever, and there would be cycles of decay and restoration. Honour and pride would replace the wisdom of the ruling elite, who would then degenerate into an oligarchy where the elite become rich and oppress their inferiors. This would lead to conflict between social groups, leading to a democratic revolution. The people eventually become led by a demagogue who becomes a tyrant. The cycle is only closed if the tyrant can be taught to be a philosopher-king.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it:

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