Plato's Republic

by Plato

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1. Explain Plato's conception of social justice and then defend or attack it 2. Explain Plato's conception of democracy. Then explain his argument in Book 8 that democracy is inferior to what he calls "true aristocracy". defend or attack this argument. 3. Explain Plato's argument that the function of a state is to meet the needs of its citizens. Glaucon and Adeimantus present the alternative view that the function of the state is to keep its citizens from injuring each other. Thrasymachus presents the view that the function of the state is to benefit the ruling individual or group. Which of the three views, if any, is the correct one? 4. What features of Plato's "true aristocracy" are intended to reduce the likelihood of political corruption? Explain.  5. What features of Plato's "true aristocracy" are intended to reduce the likelihood of political instability (the destruction of the political order due to insurrection, a coup, or some other internal threat)?  6. Define social wisdom. What reasons are there to think that Plato's aristocracy would have the virtue of social wisdom? Are there any reasons to think that Plato's aristocracy would lack this virtue. 7. What reasons are there to think that Plato's aristocracy would have the virtue of social moderation? 8. Explain Plato's conception of oligarchy. Explain his argument in Book 8 that oligarchy is inferior to what he calls "true aristocracy" 9. Defend or attack the following claim: Plato would have regarded the United States political system as a "mixed constitution," in some ways similar to an aristocracy, in some ways similar to a timocracy, in some ways similar to an oligarchy, and in some ways similar to a democracy. 

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1) In The Republic, Plato, through Socrates, argues that social justice is rooted in "doing one’s own." He suggests that social justice is maintained when individuals see "justice [as] when everyone minds his own business, and refrains from meddling in others' affairs."  In other words, social justice is realized when "everyone must practice one of the occupations in the city for which he is naturally best suited."  For Plato, this construction of social justice repudiates the view held by Glaucon and Adeimantus, which suggests that the function of the state is to keep its citizens from injuring each other.  In Socrates's understanding of everyone doing their job, citizens clearly understand their expectation and adhere to that.  At the same time, this notion of social justice critiques Thrasymachus's view which suggests that the function of the state is to benefit the ruling individual or group.  In Socrates's mind, this cannot embody the claims to social justice because not all of the social good is honored and respected.  In this idea, there is a clear understanding of social justice rooted in what individuals are meant to do and, as a result, social tension decreases:  "Such a conception of individual justice is virtue ethical because it ties justice (acting justly) to an internal state of the person rather than to (adherence to) social norms or to good consequences."  When the individual internalizes this social construction, Socrates suggests that social justice can be realized and understood.

2) Plato's conception of democracy is rooted in the idea that the democratic notion of the good does not seek to enhance the individual temperaments needed for elevated rule in accordance to the forms or the ideas that should guide all human endeavor.  Socrates suggests that democracy is "a many colored cloak decorated in all hues, [causing] this regime… to look fairest."  In Plato's observation, democracy could not be seen as the best form of government in the Classical setting: 

But the rule by the many was no remedy for the ills of oligarchy, according to Plato, because ordinary people were too easily swayed by the emotional and deceptive rhetoric of ambitious politicians. It was the demos, after all, the majority of ordinary people, who time and again had supported the disastrous campaigns of the Peloponnesian War by their votes, who had condoned numerous atrocities and breaches of the law, and who were also responsible for the questionable trial and execution of Socrates. Athenian politics, in other words, seemed an irremediably corrupted affair, and all a rational person could do was to attend to personal matters, and to pursue wisdom in the privacy of one’s solitude and a small circle of friends. 

A "true aristocracy" that is guided through the forms or ideas that embody the essence of what pure government is would be much more preferable to a democratic state where "the emotional and deceptive rhetoric of ambitious politicians" were taken as fact.

3) The purpose of the state is to provide for the needs of its citizens because if individuals lived in accordance to the forms, the higher notions of the good, then they would not find the need to injure one another in the first place.  Socrates is able to reject the views of his contemporaries because he affirms that the internalized notion of social justice would not necessitate the state to be an arbiter of negative reality.  Socrates's development of the purpose of the state is one to embrace the philosopher- king's attempts at ruling.  It is one that argues that individuals would refrain fro lying, killing, and stealing because of the "healthy, harmonious soul" that is created when the forms, the ideas, are understood and in daily practice in one's life.  In the Allegory of the Cave, Socrates suggests that this critical function of education is where the function of the state is best realized:

That's what education should be," I said, "the art of orientation. Educators should devise the simplest and most effective methods of turning minds around. It shouldn't be the art of implanting sight in the organ, but should proceed on the understanding that the organ already has the capacity, but is improperly aligned and isn't facing the right way.

When this notion of education and revelation is present in the rule of the philosopher- king, the function of the state realizes the idea of social justice where individuals act in accordance to what they are naturally suited to do.

4)  The philosopher king's understanding of the true essence of the forms would prevent any form of corruption in the pursuit of that which is pure.  This becomes the critical ingredient that would reduce the likelihood of political corruption.  Plato suggests that  "philosophers [must] become kings…or those now called kings [must]…genuinely and adequately philosophize."  In this idea is little in way of externalities which would lead them astray into the domain of corruption.  The intrinsic notion of the good is where the form exists and is something that Plato believes would prevent the philosopher- king from the taint of corruption: "[A] true pilot must of necessity pay attention to the seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft if he is really to rule a ship."  The philosopher- king sees themselves in such a role of internalized leadership. Once this is realized, Socrates suggests that “the philosopher whose dealings are with divine order himself acquires the characteristics of order and divinity.”  In these understandings, Plato would suggest a decreased likelihood for political corruption by those in the position of power who understand their natural inclination towards such power.

5) If the necessary conditions of social justice have been understood, Plato would argue that when everyone does what they are naturally suited to do and when they have internalized this understanding,  there is not much in way of coups and illegitimate seizures of power.  Socrates argues that “the heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.”   For this reason, there could not be illegitimate seizures of power because individuals would intrinsically recognize their incapacity to assume leadership, and reflective of how individuals can only maintain social justice if they act in accordance to their natural duty and responsibility.  

6 and 7)  The philosopher- king's embrace of the forms would result in social wisdom and moderation.  One who is purely involved in this quest would not be anything but wise and moderate:

The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become rulers in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.

Wisdom and moderation, refraining from base appetites, are a necessary part of the philosopher- king.  Socrates argues that the "troubles of states" and thus the troubles of humanity are averted when there is a philosopher- king who understands their true function, and accordingly, wisdom and moderation are fully recognized.

8) In his analysis of the imperfect states, Socrates argues that the oligarchy is one “in which the rich rule and the poor man has no part in ruling office.” In his own time, Plato did not feel that the oligarchic rule of the rich could provide for the needs of the state because of the inherent conflict of interest:   "The rich, as he saw, had mostly their special interests in mind, and during the time of their short-lived regimes they had shown to what length they could go to defend the advantages of the few against the majority of ordinary people." Plato believes that the best state is one where all interests are protected, something that the oligarchic emphasis on wealth precludes.  It is for this reason why he sees an oligarchy as an inferior or an imperfect state.

9)I think that Plato would not necessarily agree with the entirety of the original statement.  The aristocratic element where the philosopher- king is realized is not something that Plato would see as evident in the United States.  At the same time, Plato would criticize the insistence on democracy and what he would see as the convincing nature of being "easily swayed by the emotional and deceptive rhetoric of ambitious politicians."  The wealth of politicians as well as the guiding interests of money into American politics would help to enhance its timocratic nature, but Plato would see this as reflective of the oligarchic tendencies which exist at the heart of American government. For Plato,  the notion of how individuals in the position of power must recognize their function as a "true pilot" is denied with the presence of these external realities.

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