Durant 1926: The Political Problem (Plato)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter I, Section 5 (The Political Problem) from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.

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V. The Political Problem 

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Justice would be a simple matter, says Plato, if men were simple; an anarchist communism would suffice. For a moment he gives his imagination reign: 

First, then, let us consider what will be their way of life. … Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves? And when they are housed they will work in summer commonly stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and shod. They will feed on barley and wheat, baking the wheat and kneading the flour, making noble puddings and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reed or clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds of yew or myrtle boughs. And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and having the praises of the gods on their lips, living in sweet society, and having a care that their families do not exceed their means; for they will have an eye to poverty or war. … Of course they will have a relish—salt, and olives, and cheese, and onions, and cabbages or other country herbs which are fit for boiling; and we shall give them a dessert of figs, and pulse, and beans, and myrtle-berries, and beech-nuts, which they will roast at the fire, drinking in moderation. And with such a diet they may be expected to live in peace to a good old age, and bequeath a similar life to their children after them (372). 

Observe here the passing reference to the control of population (by infanticide, presumably), ‘to vegetarianism, and to a ”return to nature,” to the primitive simplicity which Hebrew legend pictures in the Garden of Eden. The whole has the sound of Diogenes the “Cynic,” who, as the epithet implied, thought we should “turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self-contained”; and for a moment we are likely to classify Plato with St. Simon and Fourier and William Morris and Tolstoi. But he is a little more skeptical than these men of kindly faith; he passes quietly on to the question, Why is it that such a simple paradise as he has described never comes?—why is it that these Utopias never arrive upon the map?

Justice is not simple because men are not simple.

He answers, because of greed and luxury. Men are not content with a simple life: they are acquisitive, ambitious, competitive, and jealous; they soon tire of what they have, and pine for what they have not; and they seldom desire anything unless it belongs to others. The result is the encroachment of one group upon the territory of another, the rivalry of groups for the resources of the soil, and then war. Trade and finance develop, and bring new class-divisions. “Any ordinary city is in fact two cities, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich, each at war with the other; and in either division there are smaller ones—you would make a great mistake if you treated them as single states” (423). A mercantile bourgeoisie arises, whose members seek social position through wealth and conspicuous consumption: “they will spend large sums of money on their wives” (548). These changes in the distribution of wealth produce political changes: as the wealth of the merchant over-reaches that of the land-owner, aristocracy gives way to a plutocratic oligarchy—wealthy traders and bankers rule the state. Then statesmanship, which is the coordination of social forces and the adjustment of policy to growth, is replaced by politics, which is the strategy of party and the lust for the spoils of office. 

When land ownership became the privileged class we had aristocracy and statesmanship. As mercantile bourgeoisie arose aristocracy gave way to a plutocratic oligarchy, and statesmanship was replaced by politics.

Every form of government tends to perish by excess of its basic principle. Aristocracy ruins itself by limiting too narrowly the circle within which power is confined; oligarchy ruins itself by the incautious scramble for immediate wealth. In either case the end is revolution. When revolution comes it may seem to arise from little causes and petty whims; but though it may spring from slight occasions it is the precipitate result of grave and accumulated wrongs; when a body is weakened by neglected ills,· the merest exposure may bring serious disease (556). “Then democracy comes: the poor overcome their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing the rest; and give to the people an equal share of freedom: and power” (557). 

Every form of government tends to perish by excess of its basic principle. 

But even democracy ruins itself by excess—of democracy. Its basic principle is the equal right of all to hold office and determine public policy. This is at first glance a delightful arrangement; it becomes disastrous because the people are not properly equipped by education to select the best rulers and the wisest courses (588). “As to the people they have no understanding, and only repeat what their rulers are pleased to tell them” (Protagoras, 317); to get a doctrine accepted or rejected it is only necessary to have it praised or ridiculed in a popular play (a hit, no doubt, at Aristophanes, whose comedies attacked almost every new idea). Mob-rule is a rough sea for the ship of state to ride; every wind of oratory stirs up the waters and deflects the course. The upshot of such a democracy is tyranny or autocracy; the crowd so loves flattery, it is so “hungry for honey,” that at last the wiliest and most unscrupulous flatterer, calling himself the “protector of the people” rises to supreme power (565). (Consider the history of Rome.) 

Democracy also ruins itself by excessively promoting the equal right of all to hold office and determine public policy when people are not equipped by education to select the best rulers and the wisest courses.

The more Plato thinks of it, the more astounded he is at the folly of leaving to mob caprice and gullibility the selection of political officials—not to speak of leaving it to those shady and wealth-serving strategists who pull the oligarchic wires behind the democratic stage. Plato complains that whereas in simpler matters—like shoe-making—we think only a specially-trained person will serve our purpose, in politics we presume that every one who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state. When we are ill: we call for a trained physician, whose degree is a guarantee of specific preparation and technical competence—we do not ask for the handsomest physician, or the most eloquent one; well then, when the whole state is ill should we not look for .the service and guidance of the wisest and the best? To devise a method of barring incompetence and knavery from public office, and of selecting and preparing the best to rule for the common good—that is the problem of political philosophy. 

It is dangerous to presume presume that every one who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state.

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