Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Platonic State and George Orwell’s 1984

The Classical Mind 
W. T. Jones
Harcourt, Brace & Word, Inc.

In The Classical Mind, W. T. Jones analyzes the implications of Platonic political theory and reaches the conclusion that while Plato was himself not a totalitarian, a state founded on Platonic principles will be close to the totalitarian state that George Orwell describes in 1984.

Here’s the excerpt from the chapter, “Plato: The Special Sciences”:
"Plato was not a totalitarian in intent, even if, as we may suspect, this is where a state founded on Platonic principles would end in fact. It is true that in its externals the Platonic state is close to that of George Orwell’s 1984. There is a Ministry of Propaganda, indoctrinating the public with useful fictions; a Ministry of Censorship, rigidly suppressing dangerous thoughts; the same military flavor; the same powerful police, the same discipline, the same denial of a domain of private rights; the same omnipresent state; the same ruling and self-perpetuating clique. The only difference—but a basic one—is in the character of the ruling elite. The rulers of Plato’s state know the truth and act in accordance with it for the good of all. The rulers of Orwell’s state are Thrasymacheans*, not Platonists; they have taken over Thrasymachus’ nihilism, cynicism and egoism and applied modern techniques of advertising and political control to accomplish results that Thrasymacus did not dream of, but that he certainly would have applauded. In Plato’s state, the rulers lie to the people for the good of the people; in the Orwellian state, the rulers lie to the people for the good of the rulers. In Plato’s state there is a tension of opposing economic, social, and political forces in the producing class, but this is held in check and in balance by the rulers, whose passionless knowledge has put them outside the struggle for power; in the Orwellian state the struggle for power infects the whole state and becomes more bitter, cruel, and savage in the more intelligent classes, for reason is not regarded as an instrument of self-discipline but as a tool for satisfying the passions. It is true that we have grounds for fearing that even Plato’s rulers might be corrupted by power, but it would be unfair to assume, because of this doubt, that Plato was advocating a totalitarian state. At a theoretical level, at the level of what has been called intent, Plato was poles apart from the totalitarians."
* Thrasymachus is a character in Plato's Republic.

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