University High School
Instructor: Lee Fallon
The Enemy of the Good: Plato's Doomed Quest for Perfection in The Republic
The Enemy of the Good: Plato's Doomed Quest for Perfection in The Republic
Several famous people are credited with giving the warning "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." The French philosopher Voltaire said it in French, "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien." William Shakespeare wrote it in Shakespearean English in King Lear, "Striving to better, oft we mar what's well." The Chinese philosopher Confucius expressed it in a metaphor, "Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without." British Prime Minister Winston Churchill bellowed it as a politician: "Perfection is the enemy of progress!" No matter who uttered the words, this oft-repeated warning -- don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good -- captures three essential ideas: (1) in life, "the good" is often enough; (2) "perfection," while tempting as a theoretical goal, is impossible to achieve in real life; and (3) striving to replace "the good" with "perfection" -- even on a purely theoretical level -- has a negative effect that can make things worse.
Asking whether perfection is truly an enemy of the good is a helpful way to frame the elements that should be adopted and those that should be rejected in Plato's masterwork, The Republic. The book is Plato's thought experiment for replacing the existing forms of government in 375 BC with an imagined perfect city ruled by philosopher kings. In his takedown of then-existing governmental structures, Plato offers much that should be adopted: he makes many logical and intriguing observations about human nature, and about what works and does not work in government. These observations are very helpful -- and indeed have been very helpful in world history -- in designing a roadmap to create a "good" but not "perfect" society. However, in his quest for theoretical perfection, Plato also gets a lot wrong, and offers much that should be rejected. Many of the details underlying Plato's imaginary "perfect" city, even as a purely theoretical ideal, would make things worse if adopted as a goal for society in theory or in practice. Particularly when viewed through the lens of modern values like the importance of family and the benefits of diversity and inclusion, Plato's Kallipolis can be seen as the embodiment of the quest for perfection being an enemy of the good.
But first, what does Plato get right? He offers several reflections about human nature that still resonate today. For instance, in The Republic, Plato spends a great deal of energy trying to define the quality and components of a "just" soul. (140) Plato rejects the idea that someone can be "just" simply by pretending to be "just" -- for instance, by acquiring a magic instrument like the ring of Gyges. (Introduction) According to Plato, a person cannot achieve a "just" character simply by obtaining all of the objects of his desire invisibly while avoiding the reputational harm that usually comes with greed. Instead, according to Plato, to be a "just" person, one must arrange the components of the soul: reason, desire/appetite, and spirit in a way that one can achieve four essential qualities: wisdom, courage, self-discipline and justice itself (130). At the core, Plato argues that justice can be achieved in the human soul only when reason and spirit are deployed to temper the human impulses of appetite. (142-147) This fundamental way of thinking about what makes someone a "just" person still resonates today. Think about the modern example of the cyclist Lance Armstrong, who gained a global reputation as a just and giving person; a cancer survivor who, through sheer grit, hard work, and dedication won the Tour de France multiple times. But it turned out that Armstrong was using performance enhancing drugs, the modern equivalent of the ring of Gyges, and he was exposed and shamed as an unjust person who greedily tried to acquire the objects of his appetite for fame, wealth, and power. On the other hand, in modern society today, people like Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa are universally viewed as just people who placed goodness, logic, and reason over their personal desires, not for reputational purposes, but to achieve true justice in their souls, which in that fact promoted social justice and awareness in the real world. Plato's formulation of justice as something that comes from within -- an inner-awareness of right and wrong and controlling your personal desires and appetites -- remains broadly the way we think about what makes a just person today.
Another thing Plato gets right is the importance of education in creating a society of just people, and how good education can have a multiplier effect, as good citizens educate future good citizens, and those future citizens educate the next generation, and on and on. Plato writes:
By maintaining a sound system of education and upbringing you produce citizens of good character; and citizens of sound character, with the advantage of a good education, produce in turn children better than themselves and better able to produce still better children in their turn. (125)
This idea matches the fundamental educational philosophy in most societies today, certainly in America, where education is viewed as a primary and mandatory pathway to achieving good citizenship in young people. On a micro level, a high school's commitment to students learning about values like responsibility, loyalty, and consideration mirrors Plato's mandate that education should instill students with moral values that make them good citizens, who can grow into good teachers the next to learn.
Plato also gets a lot right in his observations about the existing forms of government at the time that he wrote The Republic in 375 BC. These observations are drawn in parallel to his map of the human soul. To Plato, the human soul is the battleground of a psychological war between reason and desire, with reason and spirit winning over appetite to create justice. (130-139) To Plato, the same is true for human government: reason and spirit must win over greed to create a just society. (142-153) For instance, Plato and his fellow Athenians of the day hated the idea of tyranny, government by a single tyrant, which they viewed as the ultimate expression of one man's greed and surrender to his worst desires and appetites. (Introduction) History, including modern history, is filled with examples of tyrants who behave precisely this way to the harm of their citizens, as recently as today (for example, the dictatorial rule of Vladimir Putin in Russia). Plato holds both criticism and praise for the oligarchical form of government, rule by a few. (Introduction) Plato criticizes the way that oligarchies can focus too much on obtaining material wealth for the few in power and the way that the powerful exploit the weak. But he praises the way that oligarchies control the will of the majority and prevent democratic mob rule of the kind that led to his mentor, Socrates, being put to death by a bloodthirsty democratic majority. Plato criticizes Athenian democracy for being unchecked in the way that each and every citizen was given an equal voice to express their individual appetite, leading to tyrannies of the majority in whatever direction the mob wanted to go, right or wrong, in consuming the objects of their desires. (Introduction) In some ways, the representative form of government that we practice in America today under the United States Constitution is based on the same ideas that underlie Plato's praise for certain aspects of oligarchies and his criticisms of Athenian democracy. The U.S. Constitution, for instance, does not allow democratic majorities to rule directly in America, but rather creates a system in which we elect representatives who use their own judgment in casting votes on legislation and other acts of government.
It is in Plato's doomed search for perfection, creating the imaginary city of Kallipolis ruled by philosopher kings, that he gets a lot wrong. Plato feels that, in critiquing the existing forms of government, he must offer a "perfect" replacement. This search for perfection leads him down a path where he makes judgment after judgment, rule after rule, about ways that people's lives must be decided and controlled, many of which simply do not match the current ways of thinking about human development, human individuality, freedom, or personal thought. For instance, in Plato's "perfect" society, everyone is required to perform the task that he or she is most "fit" to perform: philosopher king or soldier, doctor, or judge. (107, 112-113) But this regime of mandatory performance of your most "fit" role feels a lot like the oppressive caste system in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in which human beings are bred to play certain roles and live in certain castes, with no free will or agency to make any personal decisions about how they spend their lives. There is an obvious problem that is present both in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and The Republic, how is stability maintained in a structured world? Plato's system of mandatory assigned roles feels a lot like a kind of enlightened slavery, a world like the opening scene of The Lego Movie, where everyone sings in unison while they go to work in the morning: "Everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you're part of a team!" What is missing, of course, is choice -- the freedom to choose what we do with our lives. It is hard for us here in America in 2021 to think of anything as "perfect" that does not include the freedom to choose our own path.
In Plato's Kallipolis, the Guardians (which includes both Rulers and Auxiliaries), are deprived of private property and families, because personal property creates too much temptation and desire, while families create divided loyalties. (177) This contradicts our thinking in present day, at least in many modern societies, about positive human development centering around the role of family in providing a nurturing environment in which a child can develop a healthy sense of self and a sense of shared community values. Plato also views sex as a means to an end, reproduction, rather than something that should be part of people's freedom and individuality. (82, 99-100) Plato, with his ideas of enforced "platonic" love that eliminates all lust or search for sexual pleasure, would be very unpopular in today's world in which freedom of expression and freedom of sexual identity are considered cherished values.
Finally, Plato might benefit from attendance at some discussion sessions about diversity and inclusion, particularly relating to his views on women. While Plato claims that both men and women can be Guardians, he repeatedly says that women are generally weaker at everything:
It's quite true, he replied, that in general the one sex is much better at everything than the other. A good many women, it is true, are better than a good many men at a good many things. But the general rule is as you stated it. (165)
This notion of general female inferiority can be found throughout The Republic, directly in the expression above and indirectly in its repeated references to men playing the roles of Rulers (113) and Auxiliaries (115), judges (107) and doctors (103), as well as references to women in domestic roles in the home, for instance as cooks (165). While we might forgive Plato for expressing the strong traditional views of gender inferiority in 375 BC if he were an artist or a historian, grading him on a curve feels like too light a critique here. Plato is a philosopher who is trying to craft the "perfect" society for all of human history. To achieve perfection, his Kallipolis should capture timelessly what we now understand as the truth about gender: that gender equality is not only right and just, but it is factually correct. Men and women have the capacity to perform jobs equally in almost every setting, save a limited few based on physical differences alone.
On the subject of race, while Plato does not discuss racial differences in the way that they exist in modern society, his Magnificent Myth is a lie that separates society into three classes: Gold (Rulers), Silver (Auxiliaries), and Bronze (Workers) and which enforces class distinction in a hierarchical way that raises concerns about class warfare in Kallipolis. Human history and human nature teaches us that people who are separated based on rank and class have a tendency to develop tension between them, particularly when the separation is based on a lie like the Magnificent Myth, created only to keep people in their place. In Nazi Germany, a lie was used by the Nazi regime to create a psychological framework in which Jews were classified as non-humans. Societies built on lies are dangerous. While Kallipolis is intended by design to be only good and fair and kind, a regime based on a lie which divides people into different classes feels fundamentally shaky and prone to problems like some of the worst kind of problems we have seen in human history.
While several historical figures have warned against pursuing perfection, there are plenty of famous quotes that seem to glorify chasing it, even as a goal that can never be reached. One that comes to mind, that we are taught as children, is "practice makes perfect." Basketball player Kobe Bryant said, "I chase perfection" and NFL Hall of Fame Coach Vince Lombardi said, "If we chase perfection we can catch excellence." Like Plato in The Republic, these quotes suggest that we should pursue perfection for its own sake, as an ideal that perhaps can never be reached but which in our theoretical pursuit will make us better and stronger, bringing us closer to the ideal. So which is right: chase perfection as an ideal, or avoid letting perfection be an enemy of the good?
There is an example in the sports world today that may help answer the question: Ben Simmons of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers is a former number one overall pick and a famous perfectionist. Simmons is an all-world defensive player and has received many accolades for his defense as well as his slashing scoring ability near the basket. But in the modern NBA, an all-star player like Simmons is also expected to be at least a serviceable three-point shooter. Three-point shooting helps space the floor and gives the player room to slash or to shoot, and makes the defense adjust which creates opportunities for teammates. Simmons is not only terrible from the three-point line, but he refuses ever to shoot from there, taking only 25 three-point shots since he was drafted in 2016 and making only 3 of them! Simmons explains that he is a perfectionist and only wants to shoot three-pointers if he knows they will go in. His perfectionism has paralyzed him and his status as a player has eroded to the point where he has lost the confidence of his coach and teammates, as they have also lost confidence in him. Simmons recently demanded a trade from the 76ers and has refused to show up at training camp this season. Ben Simmons's perfectionism has driven him to an unfortunate dilemma in his career, despite the talent that he so holds.
In the case of Plato, he has many insightful things to say about human beings and human relationships, and about how human societies should exercise reason and self-restraint to better care for one another as a community. When Plato launches into the design of a so-called "perfect" society as a thought experiment, however, he loses perspective on reality. Plato repeatedly comes up with rules that feel oppressive and wrong, which contradict some of our highest values of freedom, individuality, expression, and equality in modern day. Kallipolis is not timeless at all, and feels outdated, controlling, and mostly...crazy. In the end Plato, like Ben Simmons, falls into the trap that comes with the pursuit of absolute perfection: separating ourselves from reality clouds our judgment and leaves us unable to work through the facts and needs of real life. While we should always strive to grow and mature as individuals and societies, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Confucius and Churchill had it right: practice does not make perfect. It is much more healthy and sane to focus on improving the good.