Visual by Anjali for The Philosophy Project
Athenian democracy is considered the cradle of modern civilisation, however its intellectual paragon Plato- was the harshest critic of it. Plato thought that democracy would eventually lead to petty tyrants nominated by the ignorant masses. Seeing the turmoil in his home country, he envisioned a state motivated by justice, a state that is stable and close to perfection. He saw the solution to the impermanent nature of democracy in absolute rule by ‘philosopher kings,’ who were just in spirit.
Most modern states are democratic as citizens have a right to elect the governing state. Plato found democracy unnatural as ruling is a skill that takes specialised training that only a few people have. According to Plato, democracy is prone to hysteria because of people's emotion and their mass mobilisation. The irrationality of public support defies reason and leads to catastrophic contradiction over time. He warned that allowing people to govern themselves would eventually lead to the masses supporting tyrants' rule. Plato believed that competence is a necessary quality in a leader, and he criticised democracy for generating few such individuals. Instead, popular spinsters who are good at manipulating public opinion are elected.
Plato saw justice as the ultimate principle of social life, and he titled 'Republic' as a debate on justice. Plato theorizes Justice as a mental quality that manifests itself in a just political and social system. According to Plato, the human organism comprises three elements; Reason, Spirit, and Appetite. When each part of a person's soul fulfils its functions without interfering with the functions of other elements, they are said to be just. There is justice inside the person when all three agree that reason alone should reign among them.
There are three classes in the social organisation that correspond to these three elements in human nature; the philosopher class, or ruling class, which is the representative of reason; auxiliaries, a class of warriors and defenders of the country, which is the representative of spirit; and the community's appetite instinct, which consists of farmers, artisans, and is the lowest rung of the ladder.
It is a principle of functional specialisation that encourages everyone to contribute to society in a specialised way. In Plato's mind, injustice meant meddling and intervention. Any employment exchange between the three social strata would be detrimental to the state and the worst evil. On the contrary, such a state would be just if the kings, warriors, and artisans did their jobs correctly. Hence, Justice is a non-interfering principle that keeps the various classes of society and various individuals within each class, and various aspects in an individual's soul within correct bounds. Hence, political justice is the consequence of a structured city.
He believed that if each class were engaged in executing its natural role, there would be no reason for unhappiness. Plato claimed that justice is a soul trait that allows people to put aside their unreasonable, selfish desires and derive selfish satisfaction from performing a particular role for the greater good.
PHILOSOPHER KINGS- THE IDEAL MONARCHS
The idea of a philosopher king is that the finest form of government is one in which philosophers reign. Plato introduced the concept of a philosopher monarch as part of his vision of a good community. He asserts that cities will never be free of disease or turmoil until philosophers become kings. Philosophers are morally and intellectually capable of ruling. Morally, it is in their nature to strive for the truth, their wisdom makes them immune to the greed and lust that tempts others to abuse power. Their intellectual capability as rulers is evident because they alone can gain complete knowledge of reality.
Plato argues that a city ruled best and most free of civil strife is one in which the rulers are not motivated by personal ambition but rather by a desire for the public good. Philosophers will dominate not just because they are best equipped but also because the city will no longer be well governed if they don’t. It will be vulnerable to economic deterioration, factionalism, and civil war. They will see ‘rule’ as a necessity rather than a fun activity.
The non-interference criteria of justice makes Plato’s state antithetical to democracy.
Karl Popper, the eminent philosopher, called Plato the enemy of ‘Open Society’ and saw in his work the seeds of totalitarianism and fascism- things that had afflicted his home country, Austria, and driven him to exile. He maintains that in the ‘Republic’, the term 'just' is used as a synonym for ‘that which is in the interest of the best state'. The arrest of change by maintaining a rigid class division and class rule is what stabilizes a polity for Plato. Hence, for Popper, Plato's demand for justice leaves his political programme at the level of totalitarianism.
Plato saw the state as a perfect whole in which each individual, which is its component, serves not for its own sake but for the betterment of the whole. According to Popper, this prioritization of the state over the individual is the culprit behind the despotic, totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Moreover, he says, Plato is advocating for an undemocratic political system led by a paternalistic dictator. It is a well-known fact that the people or class in charge of the state's administrative affairs would eventually establish hegemony over the society.
Plato, The Republic (Penguin Classics)- Translated by Desmond Lee
Karl R. Popper, The Open society and its Enemies Vol-I: The Spell of Plato
Vandita Gupta is an undergraduate student pursuing Philosophy from the University of Delhi. Her areas of interest are Epistemology, Buddhist philosophy and Feminism.