Plato's Republic

by Plato

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What does Plato think about freedom for individuals?

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The modern self as we understand it today was unknown to the ancient Greeks. For Plato, as with all his fellow Athenians, individuals were defined by the role they played in the wider community. In political terms, this meant that citizens of the Athenian polis were inextricably linked to the state; there was no real separation between the two. For free male citizens of Athens, there were numerous opportunities for involvement in this direct democracy. It was a citizen jury, for example, that presided over the trial and sentencing of Plato's mentor, Socrates.

In his own ideal state, Plato takes the identity of citizen and state a step further. In modern terms, Plato's utopia can seem disturbingly similar to a totalitarian system. However, such an assessment would be anachronistic. Plato is concerned with human freedom, but his conception of freedom is out of step with more modern notions.

As far as Plato is concerned, the state can only function properly if every group in society carries out its proper role, analogous to the proper functioning of the human soul. The state, like the soul, is divided into three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite. Reason is associated with Plato's philosopher-kings, the future rulers of his ideal state; spirit is the dominant characteristic of the warrior class; appetite distinguishes the mass of the population.

True freedom in this polity resides in aristocratic freedom, the rule of reason unimpeded by desires. At this point, we need to bear in mind Plato's metaphysics, which form the basis of his political thought. According to Plato, if the appetitive part of the soul is allowed to predominate, then we will become slaves to our passions, appetites, and desires. It is the same with the ideal state. Plato was strongly critical of the Athenian system of democracy, which had, after all, been responsible for putting his venerated mentor to death. As such, he was keen to ensure that in his utopia, the masses—the appetitive element in the state—should not be allowed to exercise ultimate political power. Otherwise, Plato believed, true freedom, the rule of reason, would be destroyed and replaced by a system based upon the unfettered exercise of the baser human wants and desires.

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Much of Plato’s thought about the freedom of individuals is encapsulated in The Republic, which lays out Plato’s idea of justice, his political ideology, and the ideal state. Because Plato largely correlates the well-being of the individual with the well-being of the society and the state as a whole, people should have very little freedom in his mind.

For example, in creating his ideal society in The Republic, Plato describes three castes of society—producers, warriors, and guardians—and makes it quite clear that these castes are things that individuals should be a part of. Additionally, over the course of the dialogue, Plato focuses predominantly on the guardians and prohibits them from owning property or money. He even proposes a campaign of eugenics in which the ruler of the society dictates who the guardians get to mate with in order to keep a strong society.

Altogether, Plato thinks that individual freedoms are far inferior when compared to the needs of society.

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As stated above this could be a thesis topic, but to build on what was said above, Plato did not see a huge difference between individuals and the state, polis.  If the state was healthy, the individuals would be healthy. Each individual has a role to play in making the state healthy and should play that role.  To Plato individual freedom was the ability of the individual to reason and gain knowledge without impediment from the materialism rampant in society.  Thus, he later concludes that the best rulers of the polis should be those with the most reason and knowledge, the philosopher.  Since philosophers are few, he believes in rule by those few but in his perfect state everyone would be free to acquire knowledge and practice reason to the best of their ability.  However, the base material nature of most men would be controlled by the state. The rule by the most educated, wise, and virtuous men was and is a powerful concept.  Philosophers have argued it since Plato wrote and some like Boethius (d. 525 CE) even died for his belief that Rome should be ruled by the "wise" senators rather than the degenerate barbarian emperor. 

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