University High School
Instructor: Lee Fallon
An Imperfect Perfect Society — How Plato's Republic Falls Apart
An Imperfect Perfect Society — How Plato's Republic Falls Apart
For centuries, Plato's Republic has been the inspiration behind a multitude of utopian and dystopian literature. From More to Huxley to Atwood, Plato's philosophical musings are drawn upon constantly. This stems from the two-sided nature of Plato's work. On one hand, Republic lays out a framework for a seemingly perfect society, noting details that seem very appealing even in the modern day. On the other, many of Plato's beliefs are flawed, foolish, and flat-out false, and the practices Republic seems to encourage are often cruel and illogical. Plato writes about a utopia, but his work has very dystopian themes running through it. And while some of his notions are, to a degree, alluring to the modern-day reader, most of what Plato writes, from his advocacy for eugenics and educational stagnation to some of the most central aspects of his republic, is simply unsuitable to be adapted to the modern world.
That is not to say Republic is entirely undesirable, however. Indeed, the book is not an inspiration for utopian stories because it is entirely incorrect, but because many aspects are quite appealing for a perfect society. One such is Plato's belief in how the rulers of a state are chosen. In Republic, Socrates states that "those who govern must be the best of them" (Plato 113), and later claims that "we need men who, besides being intelligent and capable, really care for the community" (113). Both values should absolutely be adopted, for there is no downside and a tremendous upside. A well-trained leader who genuinely wants their state to succeed will always be more effective than an ill-equipped, careless one, and so Plato's guidelines as to who should lead society should be implemented. Furthermore, Plato's desire for a balance of both athletic and academic education is one that should be considered. As Glaucon points out, "excessive emphasis on athletics produces an excessively uncivilized type, while a purely literary training leaves men indecently soft" (109). Plato's society values a balanced education with both physical and mental training, which is a policy that should be further adopted into the modern age. Depending on a student's institution, their education can be either entirely scholastic or extraordinarily focused on academics, with intellectual pursuits neglected. Well-balanced schooling helps create a well-balanced person, and if any element is stressed or ignored too harshly, there is a risk that a component of the education will dominate all others. As a result, education must be divided among different foci, to reduce ignorance in any particular one and to minimize the risk of domination. Plato further emphasizes the importance of education later in Republic, stressing that "those in charge of our state must stick to the system of education and see that no deterioration creeps in" (125). The republic's rulers uphold high scholastic standards, and this task should be adapted for current society, for it is one that many leaders throughout mankind have failed to do. Whether unknowingly or on purpose, education has not historically been maintained at a universally strong standard, and as such, Plato's belief that rulers must keep the education system strong should be adopted to make the world better. Plato's beliefs about education and the nature of rulers are appealing, as they are both features that humanity has struggled with in the past and the present, and as such, they should not be cast aside as misguided or faulty.
But regardless of the suitable elements in Plato's work, it remains true that much of Republic is disadvantageous to the formation of a perfect society, or else entirely incorrect. One such drawback is seen mixed into a beneficial element of Republic: the nature of leaders. Plato, in explaining how philosopher-kings and auxiliaries would stay as perfect as possible, promotes the use of eugenics, writing that his society would "mate the best of our men with the best of our women as often as possible, and the inferior men with the inferior women as seldom as possible, and bring up only the offspring of the best" (172). This belief is erroneous for several reasons, the most predominant being that eugenics is inherently discriminatory, targeting certain kinds of people while unjustly elevating others. Especially in the modern day, with the hazards of eugenics being fully understood, the adoption of such a practice would be extremely detrimental in fostering an attractive, ideal state. Furthermore, putting aside ethics, Plato's description of who is worthy of reproducing is extraordinarily flawed. He claims that courage and military aptitude should be factored into the eugenics, believing such aspects to be inheritable. This is entirely untrue, and so it would be foolish to try and implement it now. But this is not the only dark side to a seemingly positive aspect of Plato's writing, for his beliefs regarding education also have shadows. Directly after his emphasis on the importance of a strong education, Plato cautions that "[rulers must] avoid at all costs any innovation in the established physical or academic curriculum" (125). Despite his previously discussed belief that a strong education is necessary for society to improve, Plato rejects the notion that education should be improved, citing fears of dangerous political and social changes. This is foolish, for nothing, especially something as ambiguous and indefinite as education, is ever truly perfect. Education constantly changes with new scientific discoveries, new philosophic ideas, new history being made, and new books being written. To say that innovation in education is wrong contradicts Plato's desire for a society of people with solid educations, and as such, is something that should not be adopted when considering Republic. While some of Plato's ideas seem quite alluring, there is often an aspect of them that spoils the appeal, and so many of the benefits of Plato's ideology must be separated from the ruinous elements.
But not all of Plato's ideas have a combination of good and bad — many are detrimental in their entirety. This is perhaps best illustrated with Plato's belief on how reproduction and child-rearing should take place. There are inherent flaws in the mating festivals portrayed in Republic, failings which make the practice impossible to endorse. For instance, Plato entirely ignores the existence of homosexuality. He makes no mention of same-sex intercourse in the mating festivals, and thus the idea is entirely unrealistic. It creates a hole in his logic that the philosopher-kings will spur the auxiliaries on with sex as a reward, as this simply cannot be true for a decent chunk of the guardian population. Additionally, Plato's abolition of family intertwined with the mating festivals results in the very real danger of incest between siblings. If one implements his aforementioned ideas about eugenics, and the most desirable traits get passed down to a couple's offspring, the risk of incest skyrockets. "Desirable" auxiliaries would theoretically be chosen to have many children, and if their descendants inherit the favorable traits, chances are that they will be chosen for intercourse in the mating festivals, and so the risk of inter-sibling incest rises. And because the familial unit has been entirely abandoned, it is not possible for the participants to object. Plato even points out that "there will be no rule to prevent brothers and sisters cohabitating" (173), and this lack of incest prevention tarnishes the already unstable idea of mating festivals. The entire practice is needlessly risky and will not work as completely as Plato hopes, and therefore, it is incompatible for the modern age.
Yet this is not the only instance of Plato being entirely incorrect. His call for doctors to make "no attempt to cure those whose constitution is basically diseased by treating them with a series of evacuations of doses […] no treatment should be given to the man who cannot survive the routine of his ordinary job, and who is therefore of no use either to himself or society" (105). Aside from the cruelty, for which reason alone this belief should be left behind, Plato's reasoning is flawed at its core. He claims that, if a man's constitution is corrupted or unhealthy, that man should be left untreated or even put to death, all because that man cannot help advance society in his current condition. And while that may appear true at first glance, Plato's logic falls apart when attempted to be applied to the modern day. Firstly, modern medicine allows for the rapid curing of debilitating diseases, thus negating the argument that a man with such an ailment cannot be useful for society. It would be foolish to let a man die who has the potential to become a useful member of society relatively quickly. Secondly, the neglect and/or termination of such patients robs some citizens of their unique skills. Plato says it himself: "We have different natural aptitudes, which fit us for different jobs" (57). These jobs must include fairly niche talents, such as therapy, and so to best utilize all citizens, these talents should be utilized. Where better to utilize them than on encouraging another member of society to fulfill his potential and support the state? Removing the patients who need more specified care removes the chance for people with such aptitudes to use their talents, creating a no-win scenario.
Finally, Plato's social hierarchy is fundamentally defective, for it has a multitude of both irrational practices and distressing implications. Perhaps the plainest example of the former occurs when Plato explains that philosopher-king-type children may be born from a working-class family. Throughout much of the book, Plato emphasizes how the guardians could never know their own family so that they only develop loyalty to the state, and yet he does not mention the very real possibility that a child born to non-guardian families will develop some form of familial bond. This jeopardizes the structure of the guardian class, for that forbidden relationship could easily disrupt the universal state loyalty which Plato demands. This very real possibility is a major flaw in how the class system works in Republic, and thus should be treated with caution. But the social structure contains another flaw — the philosopher-kings, despite Plato's best efforts, still hold too much power. This is evidenced by Plato's assertion that "[the mass'] natural role is to be a slave to the rightfully controlling element" (153), and it is further reinforced when he declares that "Auxiliaries were to be like watchdogs obeying the Rulers, who were the shepherds in the community" (148). Philosopher-kings were designed to be the justest, least power-hungry rulers possible, yet Plato completely undermines this goal by giving them an army fully devoted to serving the rulers and the rulers only and emphasizing the fact that the lower castes are "slaves" to the Guardians. These two statements obliterate any lingering idea that the social system is adaptable for the modern world, as they completely disregard Plato's previous desires for a selfless governing body. He instead creates a class system which was described by Plato himself as being akin to slavery. Plato attempts to have a social system in which the higher-ups hold more power than the masses, while simultaneously calling for leaders to be devoted to the state and not to power, and this contradiction is not one that can be easily adopted by contemporary society.
Republic is, at its core, an imperfect attempt to create a perfect society, but it was not an abject failure. Some of Plato's musings hold up now, and there is a fair bit of Republic which could be tempting to implement in our world. But these possibilities fall apart when faced with the multitude of holes riddling his theory. Plato ultimately fails to consider the full consequences of his endeavors, and this is his fatal flaw. He does not understand that his eugenics system is both unrealistic and remarkably dangerous, that educational stagnation does not lead to progress, that human behavior makes both his callous healthcare system unnecessary and his social structure susceptible to corruption. Republic is based almost entirely on theory, and as such, one faces enormous difficulty in adapting many of its core aspects to reality.