Plato the Non-Totalitarian

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It's pretty common to hear that Plato was a totalitarian who thought that philosopher-kings ought to be given the decision-making power in government (e.g. here, for a pretty prominent mention at a top blog), so that the ordinary joes who don't know any better won't be doing what's bad for everyone, including themselves. No laws should restrict these benevolent tyrants, since laws just get in the way of allowing them to make the best decisions. Laws are too sweeping and won't apply as well in every case, and philosopher-kings would be wise enough to see when a given principle does or doesn't apply.  As I said, this is a common mistake. This isn't actually Plato's view, even though someone reading only the Republic might be excused for thinking Plato did hold to something like this (although I think you do have to ignore some clear signs even in the Republic if you want to take Plato to be advocating the model of the city he sets up there).

In Plato's careful political philosophy (e.g. in the Statesman and the Laws), he distances himself from this view. He does think an ideal government would function something like that, but he acknowledges that this is only the ideal government. If you really had an expert who not only knew all the relevant information and could predict exactly which policies would be best but also had the best interests of everyone involved and were willing to do what's right all the time, then the best form of government would be to let that person rule, and those who resisted would be revealing that they don't know what's best for them.

Many will still bristle at this, but I think they ought to do so only if they recognize that Plato was highly skeptical about whether anyone could possibly be like this. Even if there were such experts no one could ever be shown to be such an expert, because the masses who aren't experts of that sort won't be able to recognize that the expert's views are correct (because they're not themselves experts). Therefore, most people wouldn't be able to tell the expert from the corrupt imposter. Therefore, to guard against that eventuality, it's best to have the inferior form of rule, which is rule by many who are not experts. Plato outright admits this in the Statesman, quite plainly repudiating the view that so many attribute to him because of their misreading of the Republic.

As I said, many will still disagree with him about what the ideal state would be like, but they ought to do so not in terms of his faux view put forward in the Republic, which is mostly intended to be a model that serves as an analogy for what he thinks the just person will be like. They ought to take his mature presentation of political discussion in his later dialogues, which are unambiguously about politics as a own subject of its own rather than the moral philosophy and exploration of human nature that the Republic carries out.

4 Comments

Could you give the reference from the Statesman where Plato repudiates the view so often and wrongly attributed to him?

Also, do you take the Republic to, ultimately, not be concerned with political matters at all? Glaucon says at the end of book 9, "You know, I guess it doesn't matter if such a city comes to be on earth, unless it 'comes to be' in one's soul" (obviously a paraphrase). Do you take this to be a repudiation of the politics of the Republic?

Plato doesn't repudiate the politics of the Republic in terms of its being the ideal state. What he repudiates is the view that we should seek to run a government like that. It's not even remotely possible that we could pull it off, and pulling it off badly is much worse than, say, democracy.

The section of the Statesman where he argues for this as the ideal government and then acknowledges that it would never be achievable so we have to settle for second best is somewhere in the range of Statesman 291d-303b. That's the section I assign to my students. I don't know offhand the exact spot without my book, but my lecture notes include the range I assign, so I have that.

Thanks for the "Statesman" reference. I agree that the repudiation is clear in the "Laws." I'm not so clear it's in that section of the "Statesman." The claim in the "Statesman" is that according to public opinion, a philosopher-king isn't going to appear. But this isn't a claim that a philosopher-king will never appear, and it's that claim that's needed to repudiate the "totalitarianism" of the "Republic."

(Vlastos has a good, brief discussion of this in "Socratic Knowledge and Platonic 'Pessimism,'" Philosophical Review 66 (1957): 226-238; the discussion of the "Statesman" starts around p. 234.)

That section of the Statesman includes Plato's worry that no one would be able to recognize the expert except the expert, and so even if the philosopher-king appeared you wouldn't see anyone recognizing such a person as good.

I've never read the Laws, so there's no way I picked this up from that. I do know that he gets into it there, but I learned that after reading and teaching this section of the Statesman.

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