Durant 1926: The Political Solution (Plato)

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter I, Section 8 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.


VIII. The Political Solution

Automatically—without any hypocrisy of voting. Democracy means perfect equality of opportunity, especially in education; not the rotation of every Tom, Dick and Harry in public office. Every man shall have an equal chance to make himself fit for the complex tasks of administration; but only those who have proved their mettle (or, in our myth, their metal), and have emerged from all tests with the insignia of skill, shall be eligible to rule. Public officials shall be chosen not by votes, nor by secret cliques pulling the unseen wires of democratic pretense, but by their own ability as demonstrated in the fundamental democracy of an equal race. Nor shall any man hold office without specific training, nor hold high office till he has first filled a lower office well (Gorgias, 514-5). 

Democracy depends on equal opportunity in education. Democratic elections should depend on ability rather than on votes. 

Is this aristocracy? Well, we need not be afraid of the word, if the reality is good which it betokens: words are wise men’s counters, without value of their own; they are the money only of fools and politicians. We want to be ruled by the best, which is what aristocracy means; have we not, Carlyle-like; yearned and prayed to be ruled by the best? But we have come to think of aristocracies as hereditary: let it be carefully noted that this Platonic aristocracy is not of that kind; one would rather call it a democratic aristocracy. For the people, instead of blindly electing the lesser of two evils presented to them as candidates by nominating cliques, will here be themselves, everyone of them, the candidates; and will receive an equal chance of educational election to public office. There is no caste here; no inheritance of position or privilege; no stoppage of talent impecuniously born; the son of a ruler begins on the same level, and receives the same treatment and opportunity, as the son of a boot-black; if the ruler’s son is a dolt he falls at the first shearing; if the boot-black’s son is a man of ability the way is clear for him to become a guardian of the state (423). Career will be open to talent wherever it is born. This is a democracy of the schools—a hundredfold more honest and more effective than a democracy of the polls. 

It will be a huge problem if education is politicized. 

And so, “setting aside every other business, the guardians will dedicate themselves wholly to the maintenance of freedom in the state, making this their craft and engaging in no work which does not bear upon this end” (395). They shall be legislature and executive and court in one; even the laws shall not bind them to a dogma in the face of altered circumstance; the rule of the guardians shall be a flexible intelligence unbound by precedent. 

The primary task of education should be to develop the ability to think critically that can be trusted by others. But the trust from others requires that they themselves must be able to think critically to some degree.

But how can men of fifty have a flexible intelligence? Will they not be mentally plaster-casted by routine? Adeimantus (echoing, no doubt, some hot brotherly debate in Plato’s home) objects that philosophers are dolts or rogues, who would rule either foolishly, or selfishly, or both. “The votaries of philosophy who carry on the study not only in youth with a view to education, but as the pursuit of their maturer years—these men for the most part grow into very strange beings, not to say utter scoundrels; and the result with those who may be considered the best of them is, that they are made useless to the world by the very study which you extol” (487). This is a fair enough description of some be-spectacled modern philosophers; but Plato answers that he has guarded against this difficulty by giving his philosophers the training of life as well as the erudition of the schools; that they will in consequence be men of action rather than merely men of thought—men seasoned to high purposes and noble temper by long experience and trial. By philosophy Plato means an active culture, wisdom that mixes with the concrete busy-ness of life; he does not mean a closeted and impractical metaphysician; Plato “is the man who least resembles Kant, which is (with all respect) a considerable merit.” 

The ability to think critically and wisely must be supported by practical experience that comes from active living.

So much for incompetence; as for rascality we may provide against that by establishing among the guardians a system of communism: 

In the first place none of them should have any property beyond what is absolutely necessary; neither should they have a private house, with bars and bolts, closed against any one who has a mind to enter; their provisions should be only such as are required by trained warriors, who are men of temperance and courage; their agreement is to receive from the citizens a fixed rate of pay, enough to meet the expenses of the year, and no more; and they will have common meals and live together, like soldiers in a camp. Gold and silver we will tell them that they have from God; the diviner metal is within them, and they have therefore no need of that earthly dross which passes under the name of gold, and ought not to pollute the divine by earthly admixture, for that commoner metal has been the source of many unholy deeds; but their own is undefiled. And they alone of all the citizens may not touch or handle silver or gold, or be under the same roof with them, or wear them, or drink from them. And this will be their salvation, and the salvation of the State. But should they ever acquire homes or lands or moneys of their own, they will become housekeepers and husbandmen instead of guardians; enemies and tyrants instead of allies of the other citizens; hating and being hated, plotting and being plotted against, they will pass through life in much greater terror of internal than of external enemies; and the hour of ruin, both to themselves and to the rest of the State, will be at hand (416-17), 

To develop character during training, greed should curbed as much as possible. It is interesting to note that much of Capitalism has been guided by greed.

This arrangement will make it unprofitable, as well as dangerous, for the guardians to rule as a clique seeking the good of their class rather than that of the community as a whole. For they will be protected from want; the necessities and modest luxuries of a noble life will be theirs in regular provision, without the searing and wrinkling care of economic worry. But by the same token they will be precluded from cupidity and sordid ambitions; they will always have just so much of the world’s goods, and no more; they will be like physicians establishing, and themselves accepting, a dietary for a nation. They will eat together, like consecrated men; they will sleep together in single barracks, like soldiers sworn to simplicity. “Friends should have all things in common,” as Pythagoras used to say (Law 807). So the authority of the guardians will be sterilized, and their power made poisonless; their sole reward will be honor and the sense of service to the group. And they will be such men as from the beginning have deliberately consented to so materially limited a career; and such men as at the end of their stern training will have learned to value the high repute of the statesman above the crass emoluments of the office-seeking politicians or the “economic man.” At their coming the battles of party politics will be no more. 

The guardians will be trained to have a simple life and just enough wants that will be amply fulfilled by the state. Their sole reward will be honor and the sense of service to the group.

But what will their wives say to all this? Will they be content to forego the luxuries of life and the conspicuous consumption of goods? The guardians will have no wives. Their communism is to be of women as well as of goods. They are to be freed not only from the egoism of self, but from the egoism of family; they are not to be narrowed to the anxious acquisitiveness of the prodded husband; they are to be devoted not to a woman. but to the community. Even their children shall not be specifically or distinguishably theirs; all children of guardians shall be taken from their mothers at birth and brought up in common; their particular parentage will be lost in the scuffle (460). All the guardian-mothers will care for all the guardian-children; the brother-hood of man, within these limits, will graduate from phrase to fact; every boy will be a brother to every other boy, every girl a sister, every man a father, and every woman a mother. 

The guardians will have a common family. This is a controversial point.

But whence will these women come? Some, no doubt, the guardians will woo out of the industrial or military classes; others will have become, by their own right, members of the guardian class. For there is to be no sex barrier of any kind in this community; least of all in education—the girl shall have the same intellectual opportunities as the boy, the same chance to rise to the highest positions in the state. When Glaucon objects (458 f) that this admission of woman to any office, provided she has passed the tests, violates the principle of the division of labor, he receives the sharp reply that division of labor must be by aptitude and ability, not by sex; if a woman shows herself capable of political administration, let her rule; if a man shows himself to be capable only of washing dishes, let him fulfill the function to which Providence has assigned him.

There is no discrimination for the duties of the guardians based on sex.

Community of wives does not mean indiscriminate mating; rather there is to be strict eugenic supervision of all reproductive relations. The argument from the breeding of animals here starts its wandering career: if we get such good results in breeding cattle selectively for qualities desired, and from breeding only from the best in each generation, why should we not apply similar principles to the matings of mankind? (459). For it is not enough to educate the child properly; he must be properly born, of select and healthy ancestry; “education should begin before birth” (Laws, 789). Therefore no man or woman shall procreate unless in perfect health; a health certificate is to be required of every bride and groom (Laws; 772). Men may reproduce only when they are above thirty and under forty-five; women only when they are above twenty and under forty. Men unmarried by thirty-five are to be taxed into felicity (Laws, 771). Off-spring born of unlicensed matings, or deformed, are to be exposed and left to die. Before and after the ages specified for procreation, mating is to be free, on condition that the fetus be aborted. “We grant this permission with strict orders to the parties to do all in their power to prevent any embryo from seeing the light; and if any should force its way to birth, they must understand that the offspring of such a union cannot be maintained, and they must make their arrangements accordingly” (461). The marriage of relatives is prohibited, as inducing degeneration (310). “The best of either sex should be united with the best as often as possible, and the inferior with the inferior; and they are to rear the off-spring of the one sort but not that of the other; for this is the only way of keeping the flock in prime condition. … Our braver and better youth, beside their other honors and rewards, are to be permitted a greater variety of mates; for such fathers ought to have as many sons as possible” (459-60). 

Children must be properly born, of select and healthy ancestry requiring strict eugenic supervision of all reproductive relations. This point happens to be very controversial.

But our eugenic society must be protected not only from disease and deterioration within, but from enemies without. It must be ready, if need be, to wage successful war. Our model community would of course be pacific, for it would restrict population within the means of subsistence; but neighboring states not so managed might well look upon the orderly prosperity of our Utopia as an invitation to raid and rapine. Hence, while deploring the necessity, we shall have, in our intermediate class, a sufficient number of well-trained soldiers, living a hard and simple life like the guardians, on a stated modicum of goods supplied by their “maintainers and fore-fathers,” the people. At the same time every precaution must be taken to avoid the occasions of war. The primary occasion is overpopulation (373); the second is foreign trade, with the inevitable disputes that interrupt it. Indeed, competitive trade is really a form of war; “peace is only a name” (Laws, 622). It will be well then to situate our ideal state considerably inland, so that it shall be shut out from any high development of foreign commerce. “The sea fills a country with merchandise and money-making and bargaining; it breeds in men’s minds habits of financial greed and faithlessness, alike in its internal and in its foreign relations” (Laws, 704-7). Foreign trade requires a large navy to protect it; and navalism is as bad as militarism. “In every case the guilt of war is confined to a few persons, and the many are friends” (471). The most frequent wars are precisely the vilest—civil wars, wars of Greek against Greek; let the Greeks form a pan-Hellenic league of nations, uniting lest “the whole Greek race some day fall under the yoke of barbarian peoples” (469). 

It is best to have the capacity to defend one’s state, while avoiding the occasions of war.  But increase in population causes war and war serves to control population. Maybe broad education can help control population better. Foreign trade has the overtones of the greed of Capitalism that may lead to war.

So our political structure will be topped with a small class of guardians; it will be protected by a large class of soldiers and “auxiliaries”; and it will rest on the broad base of a commercial, industrial, and agricultural population. This last or economic class will retain private property, private mates, and private families. But trade and industry will “be regulated by the guardians to prevent excessive individual wealth or poverty; anyone acquiring more than four times the average possession of the citizens must relinquish the excess to the state (Laws, 714 f). Perhaps interest will be forbidden, and profits limited (Laws, 920). The communism of the guardians is impracticable for the economic class; the distinguishing characteristics of this class are powerful instincts of acquisition and competition; some noble souls among them will be free from this fever of combative possession, but the majority of men are consumed with it; they hunger and thirst not after righteousness, nor after honor, but after possessions endlessly multiplied. Now men engrossed in the pursuit of money are unfit to rule a state; and our entire plan rests on the hope that if the guardians rule well and live simply, the economic man will be willing to let them monopolize administration if they permit him to monopolize luxury. In short, the perfect society would be that in which each class and each unit would be doing the work to which its nature and aptitude best adapted it; in which no class or individual would interfere with others, but all would co-operate in difference to produce an efficient and harmonious whole (433-4). That would be a just state. 

There should be a small ruler class of guardians, a larger class of warriors, and a very broad class of a commercial, industrial, and agricultural population. There should not be too much disparity of wealth among population. Excess wealth should go to state to be used for improving the infrastructure of the society.

In short, the perfect society would be that in which each class and each unit would be doing the work to which its nature and aptitude best adapted it; in which no class or individual would interfere with others, but all would co-operate in difference to produce an efficient and harmonious whole.


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