Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Is Plato’s the Republic a Work of Politics or Ethics?

Ancient Philosophy
Julia Annas
Oxford

Plato’s the Republic is often assumed to be a work of political theory because it describes his vision of an ideal state.

But in Ancient Philosophy, Julia Annas points out that Plato’s thrust in the Republic is on ethics. The description of an ideal state takes up only a small part of the Republic, and it is far too brief and sketchy to serve as a ‘blueprint’ for political action. It does not give the work its framework.

Plato developed a basic model of an ideal state only because he wanted to depict it as a parallel to the moral person’s soul. Here’s an excerpt from Ancient Philosophy:
The main argument of the [Republic] is posed at the beginning of the second book and answered at the end of the ninth, and it consists of Plato’s attempt to answer the question, ‘Why should I be moral?’ Morality, it seems, benefits others rather than myself; would it not be better for me to live a kind of life in which I pursue my own ends in a way which ignores or exploits others? Plato thinks that a life in which morality is supreme can be rationally defended as the best life for an individual, even in the worst possible circumstances of the actual world. To make out his case, he introduces the ideal state as a parallel for the structure of the moral person’s soul; as he says at the end of the argument, the ideal state shows us the abstract structure which the moral person takes as an ideal to internalize in his aspiration to live a good life. But the ideal state is not the idea which structures the Republic, and the questions Plato asks about the actual world cannot be answered by reference to an ideal state without breaking the back of the work’s argument.
In his model of a just society, Plato has proposed a complete division of labour between wealth on the one hand and political power on the other. The ruling class of the “Guardians” is educated and trained primarily for the common good. The Guardians are inculcated with the spirit of sacrificing their own interests for the larger good of the society.

Plato believed that the Guardians would devote their lives to the public good and running the state. “Those engaged in what we call economic activity would be excluded from political rule, on the grounds that their way of life narrows them to consider only their own self-interest and makes them unfit to take part in the public arena where what is at stake is the common good.”

According to Plato, people can be virtuous and happy only in an ideal state, ruled in the interests of all. He believed that wealth, status, and other things commonly valued are irrelevant to happiness. He has given a brief description of an ideal state because he wanted to describe the general environment in which virtue and happiness can thrive.

The Republic has moved from being an ethical work to being a political one because many political movements have used the work to develop their own ideas of the state. Julia Annas holds several modern interpreters of Plato responsible for propagating that the theory of an ideal state is central to the Republic. She seems to suggest that Plato’s ideas have been incorrectly deployed to defend modern political theories, some of which are democratic and some are totalitarian.

The Victorians in the mid-nineteenth century used to be worried about creating a more just society and they saw Plato’s Guardians as meritocratic officials.

On the other hand, many thinkers of the twentieth century have seen the Guardians as a totalitarian, sometimes fascist idea. Plato’s insistence on common public education and culture has been claimed to be propaganda and brainwashing. The model of the Republic has been associated with the Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and several communist regimes, including the Soviet Union. 

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