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Rethinking Plato: Philisophical Idealism and Political Totalitarianism
Apr 1, 2001

Plato's (427-347 B.C.E.) political ideas remain influential. His idealist philosophy emphasizes ideas and ideals (independent of material and historical contexts), virtue vs. vice, and essential human values, and thus challenges modem philosophy's general dependence on materialism, excess "objectivism," and relativism. His search for the ideal person and the ideal city based on justice and harmony still motivates us. Although Plato is criticized for the totalitarian nature of his ideal city, his ideas are helpful when it comes to understanding the limits of democracy, especially direct democracy.

Plato was born into an aristocratic Athenian family. In The Republic, he analyzes the main psychological and sociopolitical pillars of the ideal person and the ideal city. His analyses are affected by such contemporaneous sociopolitical crises as the Peloponnesian War and Socrates' execution by popular decision.(1) Believing that these problems have individual and systemic causes, he considers both the just person and the just city as an indispensable whole. In other words, a good individual life can be lived in a good city and good people can create a good city.

According to Plato, absolute truths are objective facts beyond relativistic opinion. Things have ideal Forms, whether they differ from the real ones or not. He emphasizes that things are good or bad by nature, and thereby accepts psychosocial phenomena as primordial instead of socially constructed.

Justice, the pillar of the ideal individual and social life, is a crucial good value. Plato rejects the idea that "justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger."(2) On the contrary, justice, regardless of power, is based on virtue and is the main source of happiness. Justice is awarded in this life and the Hereafter, and injus tice is punished.

Ideal People, Ideal Society

The soul, according to Plato, is affected by three groups of motives: reason, spirit, and appetite. Human justice means maintaining harmony among these motives. Similarly, social justice depends on the harmony among the three social classes symbolizing these motives. Each motive might result in virtue or vice. The virtue of reason, courage, and appetite are, respectively, wisdom, courage, and moderation. But these motives can result in ignorance, cowardice, and licentiousness.

Since reason is the most significant factor for harmony among people and within the city, it symbolizes the guardians (the golden class). Spirit is symbolized by soldiers (the silver class), and appetite by farmers and artisans (the bronze class).

Plato considers knowledge, the source of wisdom, as coming from education instead of experience. Therefore public schools are crucial, as is the guardians' task to censor other educational sources, such as poetry, to protect students from vice. Children begin to study music and poetry, the sources of a balanced and harmonious education, at an early age and are socialized independently of any family influence.

The guardians are the "soulcrafts" and holders of wisdom having absolute power.(3) Thus politics is a technical issue-there is no political race or opposition, and public opinion is irrelevant. The guardians answer only to wisdom and live a pure communist life, one without private property and family.(4) Military power is not used for imperialistic and other common militaristic purposes, but only for self-defense. Production is based on satisfying the citizens' necessities and avoiding any accumulation of capital or market competition.

Plato explains four deviant types of political regimes as following: honor-oriented timocracy, wealth-oriented oligarchy, freedom-oriented democracy, and personal-exploitation-oriented tyranny. These regimes differ from the ideal reason-based regime (aristocracy), because timocracy is based on spirit, oligarchy on appetite, and democracy on a mixture of these two. Plato explains cyclical transformations of these regimes in light of the changes in the value structure, thereby stressing the significance of values and ideas on political transformation.

Plato and Modern Thought

Plato and modern social theory analyze several common issues, such as the importance of the division of labor. He considers people social creatures who must live within a complex and interdependent social life. Although he accepts social class as a consequence of division of labor, he rejects class warfare and class-based economic disparity. His understanding of this division, with its vertical and disciplinary structure, also differs from liberal social relations in terms of agreement or social contract.(5) In addition, he insists upon gender equality, for one's class membership depends only on merit, which, in turn, is based on one's quality of soul and education. For example, as "a male and a female doctor have souls of the same nature," they are equal.(6)

Plato made great contributions to political theory by describing, generalizing, and systematizing psychological and sociopolitical issues. The Republic's main contribution to political science is its sui generis emphasis on the role of ideas, values, and ethics in politics. He attaches importance to ideas and an intelligence not restricted by custom, instead of material/historical structural factors.(7) He questions "what ought to be" in politics, and stresses such moral and ethical values as justice and virtue as being the main criteria of normative social theory. As Wolin points out: "No one has ever surpassed Plato in insisting upon the moral urgency and centrality of political vision."(8)

These contributions are very relevant now, for "the primary problem today is the reconciliation of the classical aim of politics-to enable human beings to live good and just lives in a political community-with the modern demand of social thought, which is to achieve scientific knowledge of the workings of society."(9)

Some Critical Remarks

Plato's ideas become problematic when analyzing the relationship between theory and practice, as follows:

•Sociopolitical issues exist in a dynamic structure and always face change and transformation. Therefore, even if the guardians grasp the knowledge, the impact of change on time and space might render their knowledge obsolete.

•Sociopolitical problems cannot be solved by transcending them because ignoring certain facts does not change the outer reality. Plato, however, seeks continued peace and stability by ending competition in politics, economics, and other spheres of activity. Moreover, he seeks to create harmony through social homogenization. As political theory's essential aim is to solve real-life problems, it must "create a common rule in a context of differences," instead of destroying social diversity.(10)

• Power is necessary to translate knowledge into practice, and only a stronger source of power can emancipate people from the pressure of another source of power.(11) Plato offers no specific methods to solve this vicious circle and make power subservient to knowledge.

Another, problematic aspect of The Republic is its totalitarian political ideology, which is neither necessary nor convenient for realizing Plato's ideal people and ideal city (based on justice and wisdom). In his book, Plato supports indoctrination and social engineering instead of social contract and consensus. Such a totalitarian system has many potential problems, among them the following:

• It destroys the private sphere (i.e., the family), uses censorship to prevent any space for individual freedom, and violates basic human rights. Moreover, as the Soviet Union proved, it destroys the citizens' motivation, creativity, and efficiency.

• A system that classifies people in a three fixed groups (gold, silver, and bronze) denies multiple identities and also results in discrimination.

• Politics is too important to be left to guardians. As it affects human life, ordinary citizens must be able to intervene to politics and determine their own interests and goals.

• A guardianship regime makes it impossible for people to recover their rights from manipulative dictators. The only way out is revolution, which is made all the harder by the systemic brainwashing received in the public schools.

• It is hard to find rulers who accept authority not out of personal desire but out of fear that they could be "ruled by someone worse than oneself."(12) In this regard, Plato's philosopher-kings might be very dangerous, for "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."(13) While disciplinary education may be somewhat suitable in semi-voluntary stitutions (monastic orders) or in the parent-child relations for a short time, it may be disastrous if applied to a whole society for a long time.

On the other hand, Plato's non-democratic arguments include some good points that are used in modern political systems. For example, modern democracies are generally representative, instead of Athens' direct variety, which Plato believes leans toward the tyranny of majority. The modern judiciary system, including a constitutional court and judges, symbolizes the dominance of knowledge's quality over the majority's quantity. Moreover, the main basis of a democratic state's bureaucracy-meritocracy-refers to officials selected on merit, which is similar to Plato's ideas.


Plato could not find the medium system and so tended toward totalitarianism as a reaction to Athenian direct democracy. Such a reaction derives from his bipolar mental world-everything is either good or bad. In this regard, his ideas resemble Zoroastrianism or the Confucian concept of yin-yang.(14)

However, as Aristotle stresses, psycho-social phenomena may be categorized into three groups, two of which are bad (excess and deficiency) and one which is good (means). For example, reason's excess is demagogy, its negligence is ignorance, and its means is wisdom. The spirit's excess is rage, its negligence is cowardice, and its means is courage. The appetite's excess is licentiousness, its negligence is frigidity, and its means is moderation.(15) In this regard, the excess and negligence of political systems are Plato's totalitarianism and Athenian direct democracy, while the ideal system is located in the middle way.


  1. Arlene W. Saxonhouse, Athenian Democracy: Modern Mythmakers and Ancient Theorists (Notre Dame: 1996), 87.
  2. Plato, "The Republic," in Classics of Moral and Political Theory, ed. Michael L. Morgan (Indianapolis: 1996), 41.
  3. Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Boston: 1960), 36.
  4. In his ideal society, family ties are provisional and trivial.
  5. George Sabine, A History of Political Theory (New York:1965),49.
  6. Plato, The Republic, 125.
  7. Sabine, A History of Political Theory, 63.
  8. Wolin, Politics and Vision, 35.
  9. Richard J. Bernstein, The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory (Pennsylvania: 1976), xxii.
  10. Wolin, Politics and Vision, 61.
  11. Ibid., 67.
  12. Plato, The Republic, 48.
  13. Robert Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (New Haven:1987), 76.
  14. Mulford Q. Sibley, Political Ideas and Ideologies: A History of Political Thought (New York: 1970), 69.
  15. Aristotle, "Nicomachean Ethics," in Classics of Moral and Political Theory, ed. Michael L. Morgan (Indianapolis: 1996), 268-71.