5 Aralık 2010 Pazar

Plato's Elitism and Its Effects on His Ideal State System

Plato (427 BC-377 BC) was one of the earlier and most important philosophers of the world and is also known as the founder of “The Academy”. The son of wealthy and influential Athenian parents, Plato began his philosophical career as a disciple of famous Socrates. Socrates was both the tutor and the hero of Plato and he played a great role in Plato’s formation of ideas. Plato used Socrates as the main figure in his works and expressed his views from the mouth of Socrates. Plato’s most famous work is “The Republic” in which he tries to draw the qualities of a just individual and a just state by explaining the sublime nature of justice. This assignment aims to analyze Plato’s conception of ideal state in the light of his ideas on the differences between people’s natural talents. In order to that, I am going to first explain Plato’s ideas about people’s natural talents and Protagoras’ objection to this. Secondly, I am going to explain Plato’s picture of an ideal city-state that is ruled by the Guardians. Thirdly, I am going to show the links between Plato’s elitism and his formation of ideal state.

Plato’s ideas on the big differences between people’s natural talents can be best understood by analyzing his interpretation of Protagoras’ relativist approach. Protagoras (490-420 BC) is a famous ancient Greek philosopher from Abdera who is considered as one of the most important sophists by Plato. Protagoras’ famous dictum which constitutes the basis of his theory of relativism is as follows; “Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not” (The Greek Sophists, p. 10). Plato; talking from the mouth of Socrates in his book Theaetetus, interprets this dictum as; perception of something -which differs man to man- is always of what really is. Thus, “nothing is one thing itself in itself, nor could you speak of it correctly as some thing, not even some kind of thing; but if you call it large, it will also appear so small, or if heavy, then also light; and so on in all such cases, since nothing is one thing, neither some thing, not some kind of thing” (The Greek Sophists, p. 11). In other words, Protagoras’ theory of relativism revised by Plato leads to the conclusion that perception differs man to man and that is why we can judge something only on the basis of our own measures, our own perceptions. This is caused of Plato’s belief that people’s talents and limits are very much different and it should be wrong to compare people with different standards. A suitcase can be very heavy for a weak man, but for a strong man it would be very light. Thus, a weak and strong man should not be compared according to Plato.

Having this in mind, we can pass to Plato’s ideal society and city-state. First of all, in Plato’s just state there are three main classes: the first class is the class of Guardians (Rulers, Auxiliaries), the second class consists of artisans, workers, farmers, businessman and the third class refers to slaves who are not accepted as citizens. Guardians are the golden class of Plato’s ideal society. According to Plato, Guardians must have been selected from the “most talented children of the society” and should have a special education containing physical, philosophical and mathematical training. They should have a kind of ascetic life, away from mundane pleasures. In his idea, Rulers should exercise the supreme authority and deal with the philosophical aspect of political life whereas Auxiliaries should deal with military, police and executive duties. Plato believes in the supremacy of “true” knowledge and his dream is to live in a society ruled by philosophers who have the greatest capacity of producing knowledge. Plato thinks that after an effective education starting from a young age, selected and trained Guardians can achieve control over them and think of the welfare of the community instead of their self-profit. “So, we must choose from among our Guardians those who appear to us on observation to be most likely to devote their lives to doing what they judge to be in the interest of the community, and who are never prepared to act against it” (Plato, p.119). The second class consists of artisans, workers, farmers and businessman and they are the major actors in economic life. Plato also claims that specialization is very necessary for the development of a society and thinks that every man should be specialized in his job. Third class refers to slaves but Plato does not talk too much about them. In his view, justice can only be achieved through the dominance minority Guardian class. “This feature too you can see in our state, where the desires of the less respectable majority are controlled by the desires and the wisdom of the superior minority” (Plato, p. 143). Thus, in a sense Plato advocates an oligarchy or an elitist system where the state would be ruled by people who have the much knowledge.

Plato’s elitist ideal-state is caused by his belief that people have different talents. In his view, ruling the state should be made by people who are selected from the most talented children and who have had a special education. These special people will constitute the class of Guardians and they will rule the society in their own way. Other people who do not have the capacity of Guardians could not have right to change their decisions and democracy would be detrimental to the good of the state in Plato’s view. We could observe a similar approach in Plato’s ideal individual. Plato completely believes in the dominancy of the knowledge and his ideal just man is a person who always makes rational decisions and suppresses his instincts and emotions. He claims that there are three important parts in our minds: reason, spirit and the desire and appetite. His ideal justice requires always the use of reason before spirit and desire. Each part of our mind has a function and the right time to use this function but they should not trespass on each other’s area. Of course, reason should be the dominant element. “The just man will not allow the three elements which make up his inward self to trespass on each other’s functions or interfere with each other, but, by keeping all three in tune, like the notes of a scale (high, middle, and low, and any others there be), will in the truest sense set his house to rights” (Plato, p.161). The spirit is related with our feelings, it can be useful when it is used in right time and place but it could be dangerous too. The desire and the appetite part is the most dangerous element of our decision making process because it is the animal part of us. Similar to the role of Guardians, in ruling the individual reason should be the single authority and should not be affected by spirit or appetite parts. Again we should see that Plato’s elitism leads him to this idea and he prefers elitism to democracy.

Finally, in my opinion although Plato’s ideal society and individual can be very disturbing, we should realize that he was raised in a society where slavery was legal and there were huge differences between people’s education. Today, people are now more standardized and they have more or less equal social rights and opportunities to develop their skills. So, democracy is now possible and beneficiary but in ancient Greece it may not be the case.
- “The Greek Sophists”, (2003), London: Penguin Books
- Plato, “The Republic”, (1987), London: Penguin Books

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