University High School
Instructor: Lee Fallon
The Cult of Plato
The Cult of Plato
In Plato's The Republic, Plato details his idea of a perfect society from the perspective of an ancient Greek philosopher. Much like Karl Popper, who famously indicted the book, saying that Plato's doctrines served as the blueprint for Nazism, Fascism and Communism, I believe that implementing any of Plato's ideas would be largely detrimental to the people of any state, especially our own. His idea for a rigid, regimented state, along with his warped sense of justice, strips the citizens of all agency and freedoms. Plato's ideas are more suited to control a cult, than a functional state. It is for these reasons that I stand firmly against the implementation of Plato's ideologies into our society.
A simple lens to view Plato's Republic through is that of justice. Plato's unique definition of justice was "sticking to one's own lane," finding a job you're good at and staying with it, not being distracted by the appeal of what other people may be engaging in. According to Plato himself, "…ours is the only state in which we shall find the shoemaker sticking to his shoemaking and not turning pilot as well, the farmer sticking to his farming and not taking on court work into the bargain, and the soldier sticking to his soldiering and not running a business as well…" (Plato 20).
This all but perfectly mirrors the accounts of Steven Hassan, a former cult member who wrote the book, Combatting Cult Mind Control. In this book, he cites psychologist, Stanley Milgram, who states, "The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person's wishes, and therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his own actions." (Hassan 59).
In Plato's Republic, everyone is a tool of the state, an instrument to further its efficiency. Citizens are stripped of their free will and agency in favor of constant work for the good of the state. This doctrine is hammered even harder by Plato's harsh rhetoric. As he states on page 104, "If a carpenter is ill… and goes to a doctor, he expects to be given an emetic or be cured… if he is ordered to undergo a long cure, wrapping his head up, he will probably say that he's no time to be ill…" (Plato 104). Plato encourages those within his republic to work until they can work no more. He encourages the ill to keep working instead of undergoing lengthy, lifesaving treatment. Those who can no longer work should be put to death. While on paper it's not a bad thing that every person living within the state has a purpose, Plato devalues the lives of every single one, regarding them only as gears in the greater machine of the republic. This disregard for their well-being perfectly reflects the way cult leaders view those whom they oversee.
Plato's belief that the state is more important than any individual is proven further through his views on family and class. He split his republic up into three main classes, those being Philosopher Kings, the selfless leaders of society, Auxiliaries, the soldiers who would defend the state, and everyone else. The Philosopher Kings were not allowed to own or desire anything for themselves. Plato elaborates, "…our men and women Guardians should be forbidden by law to live together in separate households, and all the women should be held in common to all the men; similarly, children should be held in common, and no parent should know it's child or child its parent." (Plato 168).
For the Philosopher Kings, there is no bigger taboo than possession. There is no such thing as "my wife" or "my child." Everyone belongs to everyone, or more accurately the state. Plato sees ownership as a distraction that could have people prioritize their personal interests over that of the state. In the republic, nothing is ever more important than the state. Your "family" are the members of that state. This mimics how cults often have their members renounce their biological families and becoming a part of the cult brotherhood. As Hassan recounts, "The group now forms the member's 'true' family; any other is just his outmoded 'physical' family. Some cults insist on a transfer of family loyalty. Jim Jones was far from the only cult leader to insist his followers call him 'Dad.'" (Hassan 71-72). Removing member's ability to have anything for themselves is just one of many ways cults remove agency from their members, and Plato is guilty of it.
Another parallel between Plato's Republic and cultism is the way they handle information control, and how that fosters elitism. According to Hassan, "In many totalistic cults, people have minimal access to non-cult news. This is partly because they are kept so busy, they don't have free time. When they do read, it is primarily cult generated propaganda or material that has been censored to 'help' members stay focused." (Hassan 65). This kind of manipulation manifests itself in Plato's handling of the ancient Greek religion. Plato states, "We must neither believe nor allow the story of the dreadful rapes attempted by Theseus… and Perithous… or any other lies now told about the terrible and wicked things which other sons of gods and heroes are said to have dared to do. We must compel our poets to say that they never did these things." (Plato 84).
While I agree with Plato in that we shouldn't be giving citizens the impression that rapists are in any way idealistic figures, this speaks to a larger trend of censorship within Plato's republic that allows him to control the populace. He controls what they're allowed to read, removing stories that don't fit what he considers good for the people. He doesn't give the people the chance to come to their own conclusions and decide that Theseus and Perithous are in the wrong on their own. He removes the agency of the people by forcing them to adhere to the specific doctrines that he decides and nothing else. He goes further into it, using religion as a way to create a sense of elitism within the republic.
As Plato states on 116, "…when god fashioned you, he added gold in the composition of those of you who are qualified to be Rulers, he put silver in the Auxiliaries, and iron and bronze in the farmers and other workers." (Plato 116). Here, we can see that Plato would instill in the citizens the idea that they were specially crafted by the gods for their specific purpose in life. This is the same way cult leaders manipulate their members into believing they're a part of some special cause. As explained by Hassan, "Members are made to feel part of an elite corps of mankind… As a community, they feel they have been chosen by God, history or some other supernatural force to lead mankind out of darkness into a new age of enlightenment." (Hassan 80). In giving members this sense of importance, cult leaders are able to get their cultists to work even harder and sacrifice more. Plato is doing the same thing, ultimately empowering them and giving people the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice, giving up their life for the republic.
Self-sacrifice is especially prevalent for the Auxiliaries. They were expected to not fear death because Plato believed that self-preservation instinct was the only thing stopping a man from fighting their absolute hardest. He would even risk the lives of children to see this through. Plato himself writes, "…in a craft like the potter's, children serve a long apprenticeship watching how things are done… we must therefore act on that assumption and make it possible for our children to be spectators of war." (Plato 182-183). Plato would risk the lives of young auxiliaries-to-be in order to make sure they're familiar with war. He also believes this arrangement will make the adult auxiliaries fight harder to protect the children. Plato sees human beings as disposable and doesn't comprehend the issue of sending children out to witness the horrors of war.
If we are to design a perfect society, implementing Plato's ideas is not the way. While some concepts aren't terrible on paper, like everyone having a job and women being able to rule, the reasoning behind these ideas is consistently warped. Plato didn't want everyone to have a job because he was a strong advocate for worker's rights, he wanted everyone to have a job because he didn't want any bodies to go to waste. He didn't want women to lead because he was a women's rights activist, he wanted women to lead because he didn't see the logic behind letting half of the world's minds go unused.
Every mildly good idea Plato had can be traced back to his distorted view of the world. Above all else, Plato cared about the function and efficiency of the state. At no point in The Republic does he allude to the idea that he cares about the happiness, well-being, or lives of those living within the state. He goes out of his way to convince the people that their deaths would be meaningless, encouraging them to labor or fight until their bodies stop working.
We can't craft a perfect society by using any of Plato's doctrines, because a perfect society is one with a government that values the lives of its people, that doesn't manipulate, lie and control the minds of those it oversees and respects the autonomy of the people. The government of a perfect society doesn't strip all agency from the citizens under the guise of stability. For these reasons, we cannot adopt the philosophies of Plato into our society.