PLATO: Criticism

Reference: The Story of Philosophy 

This paper presents Chapter I, Section 10 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.



And now what shall we say of this whole Utopia? Is it feasible? And if not, has it any practicable features which we could turn to contemporary use? Has it ever in any place or measure been realized? 

At least the last question must be answered in Plato’s favor. For a thousand years Europe was ruled by an order of guardians considerably like that which was visioned by our philosopher. During the Middle Ages it was customary to classify the population of Christendom into laboratores (workers), bellatores (soldiers), and oratores (clergy). The last group, though small in number, monopolized the instruments and opportunities of culture, and ruled with almost unlimited sway half of the most powerful continent on the globe. The clergy, like Plato’s guardians, were placed in authority not by the suffrages, of the people, but by their talent as shown in ecclesiastical studies and administration, by their disposition to a life of meditation and simplicity, and (perhaps it should be added) by the influence of their relatives with the powers of state and church. In the latter half of the period in which they ruled, the clergy were as free from family cares as even Plato could desire; and in some cases, it would seem, they enjoyed no little of the reproductive freedom accorded to the guardians. Celibacy was part of the psychological structure of the power of the clergy; for on the one hand they were unimpeded by the narrowing egoism of the family, and on the other their apparent superiority to the call of the flesh added to the awe in which lay sinners held them, and to the readiness of these sinners to bare their lives in the confessional. 

Plato intended people to be fitting in a society in the best way possible according to their nature. On the surface Plato’s ideas seem to have been quite successful under Catholicism, but did they really accomplish what Plato intended? Catholicism did use the power of religion to keep people in line. But that did not help people evolve per their potential.

Much of the politics of Catholicism was derived from Plato’s ”royal lies,” or influenced by them: the ideas of heaven, purgatory, and hell, in their medieval form, are traceable to the last book of the Republic; the cosmology of scholasticism comes largely from the Timaeus; the doctrine of realism (the objective reality of general ideas) was an interpretation of the doctrine of Ideas; even the educational “quadrivium” (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music) was modeled on the curriculum outlined in Plato. With this body of doctrine the people of Europe were ruled with hardly any resort to force; and they accepted this rule so readily that for a thousand years they contributed plentiful material support to their rulers, and asked no voice in the government. Nor was this acquiescence confined to the general population; merchants and soldiers, feudal chieftains and civil powers all bent the knee to Rome. It was an aristocracy of no mean political sagacity; it built probably the most marvelous and powerful organization which the world has ever known. 

Plato’s ideas built a powerful organization in Catholicism, but that organization has been only as stable as its “royal lies” (the postulates of Catholic theism). This organization suppressed the seeking of scientific knowledge, which has been its undoing.

The Jesuits who for a time ruled Paraguay were semi-Platonic guardians, a clerical oligarchy empowered by the possession of knowledge and skill in the midst of a barbarian population. And for a time the Communist Party which ruled Russia after the revolution of November, 1917, took a form strangely reminiscent of the Republic. They were a small minority, held together almost by religious conviction, wielding the weapons of orthodoxy and excommunication, as sternly devoted to their cause as any saint to his, and living a frugal existence while ruling half the soil of Europe. 

A society built on Plato’s republic is only as successful as it paves the way for the evolution of the civilization.

Such examples indicate that within limits and with modifications, Plato’s plan is practicable; and indeed he himself had derived it largely from actual practice as seen on his travels. He had been impressed by the Egyptian theocracy: here was a great and ancient civilization ruled by a small priestly class; and compared with the bickering and tyranny and incompetence of the Athenian Ecclesia Plato felt that the Egyptian government represented a much higher form of state (Laws, 819). In Italy he had stayed for a time with a Pythagorean community, vegetarian and communist, which had for generations controlled the Greek colony in which it lived. In Sparta he had seen a small ruling class living a hard and simple life in common in the midst of a subject population; eating together, restricting mating for eugenic ends, and giving to the brave the privilege of many wives. He had no doubt heard Euripides advocate a community of wives, the liberation of slaves, and the pacification of the Greek world by an Hellenic league (Medea, 230; Fragm., 655) ; no doubt, too, he knew some of the Cynics who had developed a strong communist movement among what one would now call the ‘Socratic Left. In short, Plato must have felt that in propounding his plan he was not making an impossible advance on realities which his eyes had seen.

Plato’s Republic is a utopia, which has been approximated to various degrees. Its ultimate weakness lies in the need for external control of human nature.

Yet critics from Aristotle’s day to ours have found in the Republic many an opening for objection and doubt. “These things and many others,” says the Stagyrite, with cynical brevity, ”have been invented several times over in the course of ages.” It is very pretty to plan a society in which all men will be brothers; but to extend such a term to all our male contemporaries is to water out of it all warmth and significance. So with common property: it would mean a dilution of responsibility; when everything belongs to everybody nobody will take care of anything. And finally, argues the great conservative, communism would fling people into an intolerable continuity of contact; it would leave no room for privacy or individuality; and it would presume such virtues of patience and cooperation as only a saintly minority possess. ”We must neither assume a standard of virtue which is above ordinary persons, nor an education which is exceptionally favored by nature and circumstance; but we must have regard to the life which the majority can share, and to the forms of government to which states in general can attain.”

All warmth and significance goes out the window when external controls are enforced. Whether the property is common or not, people may not take responsibility for it. The need for privacy may not get fulfilled when one is living in a close nit community. It may be difficult to enforce a strict standard of virtue and education.

So far Plato’s greatest (and most jealous) pupil; and most of the criticisms of later date strike the same chord. Plato underrated, we are told, the force of custom accumulated in the institution of monogamy, and in the moral code attached to that institution; he underestimated the possessive jealousy of males in supposing that a man would be content to have merely an aliquot portion of a wife; he minimized the maternal instinct in supposing that mothers would agree to have their children taken from them and brought up in a heartless anonymity. And above all he forgot that in abolishing the family he was destroying the great nurse of morals and the chief source of those cooperative and communistic habits which would have to be the psychological basis of his state; with unrivaled eloquence he sawed off the branch on which he sat.

To all these criticisms one can reply very simply, that they destroy a straw man. Plato explicitly exempts the majority from his communistic plan; he recognizes clearly enough that only a few are capable of the material self-denial which he proposes for his ruling class; only the guardians will call every guardian brother or sister; only the guardians will be without gold or goods. The vast majority will retain all respectable institutions—property, money, luxury, competition, and whatever privacy they may desire. They will have marriage as monogamic as they can bear, and all the morals derived from it and from the family; the fathers shall keep their wives and the mothers shall keep their children ad libitum and nauseam. As to the guardians, their need is not so much a communistic disposition as a sense of honor, and love of it; pride and not kindness is to hold them up. And as for the maternal instinct, it is not strong before the birth, or even the growth, of the child; the average mother accepts the new-born babe rather with resignation than with joy; love for it is a development, not a sudden miracle, and grows as the child grows, as it takes form under the painstaking care of the mother; not until it has become the embodiment of maternal artistry does it irrevocably catch the heart.

Some of the ideas of Plato’s conflict with natural instincts, such as, monogamy, the maternal instinct and the family; but they apply only to a very small minority of guardians who operate basically on the sense of honor and pride in their function.

Other objections are economic rather than psychological. Plato’s republic, it is argued, denounces the division of every city into two cities, and then offers us a city divided into three. The answer is that the division in the first case is by economic conflict; in Plato’s state the guardian and auxiliary classes are specifically excluded from participation in this competition for gold and goods. But then the guardians would have power without responsibility; and would not this lead to tyranny? Not at all; they have political power and direction, but no economic power or wealth; the economic class, if dissatisfied with the guardians’ mode of rule, could hold up the food supply, as Parliaments control executives by holding up the budget. Well, then, if the guardians have political but not economic power, how can they maintain their rule? Have not Harrington and Marx and many others shown that political power is a reflex of economic power, and becomes precarious as soon as economic power passes to a politically subject group—as to the middle classes in the eighteenth century?

In Plato’s republic the wealthy do not rule the poor. Instead the centers of political and economic powers are separated. But how practical is this?

This is a very fundamental objection, and perhaps a fatal one. The answer might be made that the power of the Roman Catholic Church, which brought even kings to kneel at Canossa, was based, in its earlier centuries of rule, rather on the inculcation of dogmas than on the strategy of wealth. But it may be that the long dominion of the Church was due to the agricultural condition of Europe: an agricultural population is inclined to supernatural belief by its helpless dependence on the caprice of the elements, and by that inability to control nature which always leads to fear and thence to worship; when industry and commerce developed, a new type of mind and man arose, more realistic and terrestrial, and the power of the Church began to crumble as soon as it came into conflict with this new economic fact. Political power must repeatedly readjust itself to the changing balance of economic forces. The economic dependence of Plato’s guardians on the economic class would very soon reduce them to the controlled political executives of that class; even the, manipulation of military power would not long forestall this inevitable issue—any more than the military forces of revolutionary Russia could prevent the development of a proprietary individualism among the peasants who controlled the growth of food, and therefore the fate of the nation. Only this would remain to Plato: that even though political policies must be determined by the economically dominant group, it is better that those policies should be administered by officials specifically prepared for the purpose, than by men who stumble out of commerce or manufacturing into political office without any training in the arts of statesmanship. 

The reality is that the economically dominant group will eventually control the political policies. Control through dogmas is not possible when the economic centers become independent. Political power must repeatedly readjust itself to the changing balance of economic forces. It is good if political policies are implemented by officials specifically prepared for the purpose.

What Plato lacks above all, perhaps, is the Heracleitean sense of flux and change; he is too anxious to have the moving picture of this world become a fixed and still tableau. He loves order exclusively, like any timid philosopher; he has been frightened by the democratic turbulence of Athens into an extreme neglect of individual values; he arranges men in classes like an entomologist classifying flies; and he is not averse to using priestly humbug to secure his ends. His state is static; it might easily become an old-fogey society, ruled by inflexible octogenarians hostile to invention and jealous of change. It is mere science without art; it exalts order, so dear to the scientific mind, and quite neglects that liberty which is the soul of art; it worships the name of beauty, but exiles the artists who alone can make beauty or point it out. It is a Sparta or a Prussia, not an ideal state. 

Plato lacks the sense of flux and change, for he dreams up an orderly and static society. America incorporates that flux and change.

And now that these unpleasant necessities are candidly written down, it remains to do willing homage to the power and profundity of Plato’s conception. Essentially he is right—is he not?—what this world needs is to be ruled by its wisest men. It is our business to adapt his thought to our own times and limitations. Today we must take democracy for granted: we cannot limit the suffrage as Plato proposed; but we can put restrictions on the holding of office, and in this way secure that mixture of democracy and aristocracy which Plato seems to have in mind. We may accept without quarrel his contention that statesmen should be as specifically and thoroughly trained as physicians; we might establish departments of political science and administration in our universities; and when these departments have begun to function adequately we might make men ineligible for nomination to political office unless they were graduates of such political schools. We might even make every man eligible for an office who had been trained for it, and thereby eliminate entirely that complex system of nominations in which the corruption of our democracy has its seat; let the electorate choose any man who, properly trained and qualified, announces himself as a candidate. In this way democratic choice would be immeasurably wider than now, when Tweedledum and Tweedledee stage their quadrennial show and sham. Only one amendment would be required to make quite democratic this plan for the restriction of office to graduates in administrative technique; and that would be such equality of educational opportunity as would open to all men and women, irrespective of the means of their parents, the road to university training and political advancement. It would be very simple to have municipalities and counties and states offer scholarships to all graduates of grammar school, high school and college who had shown a certain standard of ability, and whose parents were financially unable to see them through the next stage of the educational process. That would be a democracy worthy of the name. 

It is true that this world needs to be ruled by its wisest men. Today we must take democracy of universal suffrage for granted and put restrictions on the holding of office. Statesmen should be as specifically and thoroughly trained as physicians.

Finally, it is only fair to add that Plato understands that his Utopia does not quite fall within the practicable realm. He admits that he has described an ideal difficult of attainment; he answers that there is nevertheless a value in painting these pictures of our desire; man’s significance is that he can image a better world, and will, some part of it at least into reality; man is an animal that makes Utopias. ‘We look before and after and pine for what is not.” Nor is it all without result: many a dream has grown limbs and walked, or grown wings and flown, like the dream of Icarus that men might fly. After all, even if we have but drawn a picture, it may serve as goal and model of our movement and behavior; when sufficient of us see the picture and follow its gleam, Utopia will find its way upon the map. Meanwhile “in heaven there is laid up a pattern of such a city, and he who desires may behold it, and beholding, govern himself accordingly. But whether there really is or ever will be such a city on earth, … he will act according to the laws of that city, and no other” (592). The good man will apply even in the imperfect state, the perfect law. 

Man must dream a better world, and the closest outcome will be forged from the laws of nature.

Nevertheless, with all these concessions to doubt, the Master was bold enough to risk himself when a chance offered to realize his plan. In the year 387 B. C. Plato received an invitation from Dionysius, ruler of the then flourishing and powerful Syracuse, capital of Sicily, to come and turn his kingdom into Utopia; and the philosopher, thinking like Turgot that it was easier to educate one man—even though a king—than a 

whole people, consented. But when Dionysius found that the plan required either that he should become a philosopher or cease to be a king, he balked; and the upshot was a bitter quarrel. Story has it that Plato was sold into slavery, to be rescued by his friend and pupil Anniceris; who, when Plato’s Athenian followers wished to reimburse him for the ransom he had paid, refused, saying that they should not be the only ones privileged to help philosophy. This (and, if we may believe Diogenes Laertius, another similar) experience may account for the disillusioned conservatism of Plato’s last work, the Laws. 

Plato’s utopia requires that the human nature be conquered, such that those in power want to resolve anomalies for the sake of knowledge.

And yet the closing years of his long life must have been fairly happy. His pupils had gone out in every direction, and their success had made him honored everywhere. He was at peace in his Academe, walking from group to group of his students and giving them problems and tasks on which they were to make research and, when he came to them again, give report and answer. La Rochefoucauld said that “few know how to grow old.” Plato knew: to learn like Solon and to teach like Socrates; to guide the eager young, and find the intellectual love of comrades. For his students loved him as he loved them; he was their friend as well as their philosopher and guide. 

Plato’s love was to research and to teach.

One of his pupils, facing that great abyss called marriage, invited the Master to his wedding feast. Plato came, rich with his eighty years and joined the merry-makers gladly. But as the hours laughed themselves away, the old philosopher retired into a quiet corner of the house, and sat down on a chair to win a little sleep. In the morning, when the feast was over, the tired revelers came to wake him. They found that during the night, quietly and without ado, he had passed from a little sleep to an endless one. All Athens followed him to the grave. 

Plato had a great life and he passed away peacefully at the age of eighty.


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  • vinaire  On April 11, 2021 at 11:38 AM

    When you talk about fractals, you are talking about the same pattern repeating at various points. When this is happening all over the universe, it points to some natural law. Natural laws are followed by their corruption, which generates anomalies. You cannot differentiate between what is the natural law and what is its corruption; but you can recognize anomalies. Hopefully resolving these anomalies shall lead to harmony, and we may identify this harmony as an attribute of what is natural.


    • Chris Thompson  On April 11, 2021 at 6:46 PM

      Hey Vinay,
      You wrote, ” (regarding fractals) . . . Natural laws are followed by their corruption, which generates anomalies.”

      This has not been my understanding nor observation of the behavior of fractals.

      Fractal iterations allow for patterned results that abstract consistencies, inconsistencies, almost perfectly balanced symmetries, and wild seeming deviations (such as bifurcation, or possibly you would abstract a wild bifurcation as a corruption?).

      For the discussion, I am defining corruption as, “. . .the noticeable entropy of consolidated focused energy.” Example: The decay of an organic body after death. And, the computer file was scrambled and its information was lost.


      • Chris Thompson  On April 11, 2021 at 6:57 PM

        Another example of a fractal information database which embraces and allows for every similarity, difference, symmetry as well as asymmetric phenotype in humanity is our genetic pool.

        I am no longer sure that I believe anymore that wild deviations from “normal” in our offspring are from corruption.


      • vinaire  On April 11, 2021 at 8:13 PM

        By corruption of natural laws, I mean outpoints, which are carefully defined by Hubbard in the Data Series, such as, Omitted data, Altered sequence, Added falsehood, Dropped out time, Altered importance, etc. Of course, there are plus points also that bring about evolution. I am not talking about the behavior of fractals here. I am talking about the reality of this universe.

        An example of corruption as an outpoint would be a sickness, or stunted growth. A deviation is either an outpoint or a pluspoint.


      • vinaire  On April 12, 2021 at 8:40 AM

        Here the “corruption” occurs in the viewpoint, and not in what is out there.


        • Chris Thompson  On April 14, 2021 at 3:47 PM

          I understand perfectly what you mean by “corruption occurring in the viewpoint and not what is out there.”

          Not saying “because I’m right,” but you’ll need to pay close attention to what I’m trying to communicate about corruption.

          Example: A young boy is born with a cleft palette, and yet some aspect of this corruption becomes useful for the survival of the boy. Therefore, even though rejected socially for his stark deviation from normal, he yet survives, procreates and passes along a survival characteristic which becomes socially popular – later.

          In this example, a genetic corruption becomes a cleft palette, or blond straight hair, or webbed toes, or opposable thumb, whatever, you get the idea.

          All genetic modifications begin as corruption of the genetic code.

          YOUR syllogism begins with the major premise that you can know what a perfect utopia might look like. To my way of thinking about the universe, my tautological universe, your major premise is impossible to say, it is unknowable.

          You do not need to agree with this opinion of mine. But we may need a few iterations of discussing it to come to understanding of my opinion. That understanding will not make it correct. But it will mean that our minds have met. This is a kind of ego-less drill… 🙂


        • vinaire  On April 14, 2021 at 9:26 PM

          You are right about modification, which I see as evolution (pluspoint). By corruption I do not not mean evolution but a flaw (outpoint), Both are deviations.


  • Chris Thompson  On April 11, 2021 at 6:18 PM

    “Man must dream a better world, and the closest outcome will be forged from the laws of nature.”

    Each of us is always dreaming of a better world. This is not a problem which needs solving.

    If there is a problem, and I am not saying there is one which needs solving, could be that 🤔 because of our fractal organic basis, while be similar to one another, we yet are mentally, physically, socially, spiritually, distinctly different from one another.

    Homo Sapiens struggle to communicate with one another through the filter (as you write) of their natural ego.

    Everything that Homo Sapiens loves and hates about its own kind seems to incept from its ego, both what it loves and hates, but also that it loves and hates.

    Utopias are dreamed by individuals as a group solution for their individual dream. The idea that more than a small center-mass section of ideologues could ever agree on the principles of any one person’s utopia seems to me delusional.

    Possibly in a future genetically modified strain of Homo Sapiens, such as the type of individuals it would take to colonize the planet Mars, some of these utopias could 🙄 garner the types of group agreements that would make them socially possible.


    • vinaire  On April 11, 2021 at 8:21 PM

      Group agreements are aberrations, like the group agreement of earth being the center of our planetary system. On the other hand, as the viewpoints of people broaden, they tend to converge toward a saner reality.


      • Chris Thompson  On April 14, 2021 at 4:00 PM

        Like Scientology, you’ve written derogatory about group opinions.

        Therefore, only individuals can have sane opinions.

        We have to let that sink in and think about its many ramifications. Scientology and other hypnotic practices inflate ego, the enemy of society. This results in big commitments to big opinions.

        I think this is a mistake. I think that opinions are the fractal of an individual. I think that groups possess the weighted center mass sum of individual opinions. Sometimes this weighted center mass sum of opinion is correct. But it is never precisely an opinion as the opinion of an individual is an opinion.

        Or if it is in some way correct, . . . I have to think about that for a minute.


        • vinaire  On April 14, 2021 at 9:35 PM

          There are deviations on any dynamic. These devitions can be in the plus direction (evolution), or in the negative direction (degradation).

          On the third dynamic we see evolution in terms of the scientific progress. We also see degradation in terms of wars and social turmoil.

          We may say that the group agreement is evolving from the fixed ideas of Dark Ages to the current scientific revolution.


    • vinaire  On April 12, 2021 at 8:45 AM

      Ego is proportional to the narrowness of the viewpoint. The narrower is the viewpoint, the greater is the ego. The first dynamic has the greatest ego; the eighth dynamic has the least (none).


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