Bust of Plato, Naples

I am publishing through August on Pandaemonium a series of extracts from my books on the theme of historical fears of the masses and of democracy. The granddaddy of all philosophical arguments against democracy originates in Plato. This is an extract from The Quest for a Moral Compass exploring Plato’s dialogue The Republic, which discusses Plato’s views on the problems of democracy.


Plato’s Republic
From The Quest for a Moral Compass, pp25-30

All humans divide naturally, in Plato’s eyes, into three classes, each suited for one of the three indispensable social roles. Labourers produce the material needs of society. Soldiers guard the state. And rulers rule.

The tripartite division of the population is linked to the tripartite division of the soul into appetitive, spirited and rational parts. The appetitive part of the soul is linked to bodily desires, such as the yearning for food or pleasure. The spirited is concerned with honour, and with anger and indignation. The rational is driven by a desire for knowledge and truth.   This division, especially between the appetites, or bodily desires, and reason, or the mind, was to exert enormous pressure upon subsequent ethical thinking. For Plato, and many of those that followed in his footsteps, reason and desire, the body and the mind, the ego and the id, were locked in mortal combat.

Humans, according to Plato, fall into one of three categories depending on which part of their soul is dominant, three categories that correspond, of course, to the three social roles necessary for the healthy functioning of the state. The common people are driven by base desires, soldiers by a desire for honour, while rulers look to reason. Upbringing may help an individual regulate his soul and thereby change the group to which he should belong. But mostly it is a matter of birth – we are born to be blacksmiths or soldiers or philosopher kings.

A healthy soul is one in which there is balance between its three parts; a soul in which reason rules, spirit assists by providing the necessary emotional qualities of courage, self-control and strength of will, and appetite is kept in check, inhibited from doing more than satisfying essential physical needs. As with the soul, so with the state. In a healthy state, the labourers, the soldiers and the rulers live in harmony; and they do so because such a state is ruled by those whose souls are most guided by reason. Justice is expressed in the maintenance of balance, in the soul, and in the city. A city is ‘thought to be just when each of the natural classes within it did its own work’.

Plato from Raphael's School of Athens

Plato described five different types of societies, and ranked them according to how rational, successful and just each was. Four were kinds of city states that already existed in Greece – timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. The fifth was his own Republic, a society ruled by philosopher kings, and which Plato called an aristocracy. This was the best of societies, one in which ‘the desires of the inferior many are controlled by the wisdom and desires of the superior few’.

Next on Plato’s scale of the good society came timocracy, or military dictatorship. Sparta was the model (as indeed it was for the Republic itself). It was a bleak, austere society built upon military conquest and mass enslavement in which slavery allowed not for a life of luxury but for one of unremitting asceticism. Sparta demanded obedience and sacrifice from its citizens to sublimate their interests to those of the community. All manual work in Sparta was the lot of slaves and of helots – Greeks captured in battle and enchained as bonded labour – because all male Spartans were trained almost from birth to become professional soldiers. To us, Sparta may seem anything but an ideal society, but the discipline, selflessness and attachment to the ideals of the polis won Spartans the admiration not just of Plato but of most Ancient Greeks.

Timocrats, Plato believed, are ruled by the desire for honour, a passion more worthy than that of bodily desire, but less so than that of reason. If neither aristocracy nor timocracy was possible, then Plato considered oligarchy as the next best. The souls of oligarchs are dominated by an ignoble passion, the desire for material goods. They nevertheless have to show a degree of self-control to accumulate wealth. Then comes democracy, a society ruled by people dominated by lowly appetites for food, drink, sex and pleasure. It is a society without order or discipline. A democrat puts all ‘his pleasures on an equal footing’, ‘always surrendering rule over himself to which ever desire comes along, as if it were chosen by lot.’ Political equality inevitably leads to a coarseness of culture and an anything-goes morality, a claim that finds an echo among modern conservatives.

The only society worse than a democracy is a tyranny. This is not the opposite of democracy but is rather democracy fully played out, a society in which every form of behaviour, including murder and disrespect for law, becomes acceptable. The moral of the story is that ‘extreme freedom can’t be expected to lead to anything but a change to extreme slavery, whether for a private individual or for a city’. Tyranny enslaves not just the population but the tyrant too. A tyrant’s soul, Plato observes, must be ‘full of slavery and unfreedom, with the most decent parts enslaved and with a small part, the maddest and the most vicious, as their master.’ He is ‘like the city he rules’, full of ‘fear, convulsions and pains throughout his life’….

Mattia Preti Diogenes and Plato

Why should the rulers of Plato’s Republic be so much better than other rulers at maintaining the balance of the soul and the harmony of the city? Because they are philosopher kings. Rulers are born to rule. But the ‘superior few’ in Plato’s Utopia are especially wise and rational. Not only are they special by birth, but their specialness has been honed to a pitch by singular training.

From birth to cradle, members of the potential ruling class are subject to a regime that would make North Korea seem like a playboy’s paradise and leave English public schoolboys yearning for the days of fagging and cold showers. But it is not one at which any Spartan would cavil, for it is from Spartan life itself that Plato draws inspiration. A special breeding programme ensures that ‘The best men… have sex with the best women as frequently as possible’, while the ‘opposite’ is the case with ‘the most inferior men and women’. Newborn children are culled, with the finest taken to ‘the rearing pen’ while inferior specimens are whisked off to ‘a secret and unknown place’ and killed. (In Sparta, according to Plutarch, ‘puny and deformed’ infants were thrown into a chasm on Mount Taygetos known euphemistically as the Apothetae, Greek for ‘deposits’; many classicists now think this is a myth). The lucky survivors ‘are to be possessed in common’, as are women. The children are put through a strict programme of education, indoctrination and discipline. They are forbidden to eat fish or confectionary. Homer is banned, as are all dramatists, not to mention music from Lydia which, apparently, is too sorrowful.

The reward for such a regimen of breeding, indoctrination and discipline is the creation of a class of citizens, not just upstanding and virtuous, but one whose souls are so well ordered, and so able to sublimate their animal desires to the dictates of reason, that they are able to see beyond this world and into a realm of transcendence. And so Plato introduces us to his theory of the Forms.

Ordinary people, Plato believed, ‘are living in a dream’. What they take to be real objects or feelings or qualities are mere shadows, fleeting phantoms of real existence. Shadows of what? Of the Forms, the true reality, that exist in a transcendent realm separate from the physical world and independent of our senses. Sensible things – things that we understand through our senses – come to be, change and perish. They are in constant flux. That is why our senses deceive us. True reality is not the physical world revealed to our senses but the ideal world accessible only by reason.

Jean Delville Plato's School

A non-philosopher, Plato believed, ‘likes beautiful sounds, colours, shapes and everything fashioned out of them.’ But he is ‘unable to see and embrace the nature of the beautiful itself.’ A philosopher, on the other hand, is enamoured not just of beautiful things, or of truthful things, but of Beauty and Truth themselves. When Socrates searched for definitions, he was, Plato suggests, looking for the Form of that which he was trying to define. The Form provides the objective definition of terms like justice or piety. The highest of the Forms is that of goodness. To most Greek philosophers, to be ‘good’ was to fulfill one’s proper role in the order of things. The Form of the Good established the purpose and goal of all things in the cosmos. Apart from the gods, only a philosopher could comprehend the Form of the Good.

To illustrate the contrast between the opinion of ordinary people and the knowledge of true philosophers, Plato gives us the famous allegory of the Prisoners in the Cave. Most humans are like prisoners chained in a deep subterranean cave, manacled in a line and able only to look at the rock face in front. ‘Far above and behind them’ is a fire, the only source of light in the cave. Between the fire and the prisoners, people are moving, carrying various objects that cast flickering shadows on the rock face. The prisoners have only ever seen these shadows. They have never cast eyes on the real objects creating them. They have no idea that such objects exist. The prisoners, Plato observes, ‘would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artefacts.’And that is how humans exist too. The unseen real things correspond to the Forms, the sensuous objects and qualities we take to be real are the shadows on the wall.

Now, suppose one of these prisoners had been freed from his chains and taken outside. He would be ‘pained and dazzled’ by the light and ‘unable to see the things whose shadows he had seen before’. But once his eyes had adjusted, he could view things afresh and he would discover a new world. If now he returned to the cave, he would find it difficult to see the shadows. He would ‘invite ridicule’ from the other prisoners who would say of him that ‘he’d returned from his upward journey with his eyesight ruined and it isn’t worthwhile even to try to travel upwards’. If he tried to free the prisoners and lead them upwards, ‘if they could somehow get their hands on him, wouldn’t they kill him?’

This was not, for Plato, a rhetorical question. Socrates, after all, had been put to death by the democratic cave-dwellers of Athens. Only in Plato’s Republic would Socrates have been given his true due, for only there would society have been ruled by those who knew the Forms.


The images are, from top down, a Roman copy of a Hellenistic bust of Plato, from the Archaeological Museum of Naples; detail from Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’; ‘Diogenes and Plato’ by Mattio Preti; and Jean Delville’s ‘Plato’s School’.

One comment

  1. When seen from an ecological perspective, the four (cardinal ) virtues of prudence/wisdom, justice/fairness, temperance/restraint and fortitude/courage take an altogether different meaning although they still can be related to pursuit of sociology.

    In ecological terms, prudence/wisdom identifies the ability to know what is good and what is bad for our survival and wellbeing (which I have termed elsewhere as the discrimination/discernment principle). Justice/fairness is applied to determine what lives and what dies or what prospers and what does not. Temperance is applied in order to minimize the suffering and death of other life-forms. Fortitude is the capacity to remain strong when facing cravings or obstacles in terms of displaying the other virtues.

    Taken together, it can be argued that these virtues are the basis of the ideal natural instincts that are blueprinted within our consciousness in order to ensure that an ecological balance is maintained in terms of biodiversity and resilience and as such these ideal natural instincts form the basis of ecological sustainability.

    When these virtues are transposed on to human societies then we have the basis of natural law and natural justice which is seen within the context of a natural order which forms the good life as willed and created by the Creator.

    Liberty and material security from this perspective are then taken as natural rights by which a person is able to conduct themselves according to the four cardinal virtues. So rather than liberty being an end in itself, it is actually the means by which to reach self-knowledge and self-actualization.

    Therefore, in relation to the different organisational structures of society and in particular the viability of democracy, it could be argued that democracy is indeed failing to achieve the ecological enlightenment that is required to ensure ecological sustainability considering the extent of ecological overshoot within democratic societies. The reason I would suggest is because material wealth or economic growth is the primary focus which relates to the satisfaction of base desires. The same can be said of a tyranny which might apply to America which has the highest ecological overshoot and at a level whereby the indiscriminate murder and suffering of life-forms is facilitated. Oligarchy might describe the new regime of corpocracy that is currently emerging or the old regime of aristocracy, neither of which pays much concern to ecological sustainability but does show some restraint in order to promote self-interest. This leaves military dictatorship which if the USSR, China or present day North Korea are examples then they too were or are able to demonstrate ecological sustainability either.

    This effectively leaves the only option of a society that is ruled by those that are able to prioritize ecological sustainability in order to achieve the ideal society, that being philosopher kings/queens.

    Overall, this raises the question of democracy for what end. What is the purpose of democracy? Is it to simply enable the free expression of liberty as an end in itself which takes only minimal account of ecological sustainability but in the main is simply the opportunity to consume without restraint other than the restrictions that are created through resource scarcity. This can in no way shape or form be considered the ideal!

    The ideal as Plato suggests, is when prudence/wisdom, temperance/restraint and fortitude/courage are indeed in balance or in a just/fair relationship with one another since this is the only way to achieve the ideal of ecological sustainability and as such be in touch with the truth, beauty and goodness of LIFE and be in communion with the Creator of LIFE.

    Is democracy able to achieve this. Perhaps, after society has been appropriately educated.

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