By Oliver Leech, MPhil
‘Justice consists in minding your own business and not interfering with other people.’
- (The Republic, 433 b)
Plato (c 427 BC—347 BC) set in train a way of thinking about politics that still resonates today. The clearest outline of his political theory is in his dialogue, The Republic where, initially exploring the origins of society, he introduces the notion of the division of labour. People have different natural aptitudes which fit them for different jobs. The ideal society is one in which each person gets on with his specialised work and does not interfere with that of others. An innocent enough starting point, you might think, but next consider where it leads. Ruling is a specialised skill like medicine or ship building. The ideal society is one in which doctors get on with medical treatment without interference from those less knowledgeable, ship builders get on with building ships and political experts get on with decision making in the same way. If a doctor or ship builder wants to make a contribution to politics that is as unacceptable as a politician prescribing an ointment or designing a rudder. Sounds common sense, doesn’t it?
Government is run by experts, Guardians as they are called (who can be male or female) with no recourse to democratic approval. They are chosen for their aptitude and given a rigorous education until ready for power in middle age. But won’t power inevitably corrupt? Plato has a remedy for that. The Guardians will not be allowed to possess any personal wealth and will live austere lives in homes that are a combination of monastic cloisters and military barracks.
Society is to be divided into three groups: a) the ruling Guardians, b) an auxiliary level supporting them (think of the civil service, the armed and the police forces) and c) the rest of the population who pursue their own goals within the state but who have no say in how it is run. This is a totalitarian system devised by a thinker who knew democracy (direct, not representative) at first hand, who supports censorship of the arts and has radical ideas about the family, all part of his overriding objective to produce a state that is a harmonious whole, one in which every section contributes to the overall good.
There are many reasons for valuing Plato’s political thought today. Consider, for example, what has happened in the wake of economic failure in parts of the Eurozone? Democratically elected leaders have been replaced by technocrats (from the Greek techne, skill and kratos, power). Is this Plato’s dream coming true in southern Europe? It is part of Plato’s legacy that we are always aware of the tension between the popular will on the one hand and the knowledge of the expert on the other. Getting the balance right is one of the most difficult questions of our age.
And here is one more. We are told that the greatest problem facing the world is how to avoid environmental disaster. But no democracy is ever going to vote for a reduction in its own living standards that may be required for the benefit of future generations. I can hear Plato saying, ‘What else do you expect when you ask the unqualified people? Only those with expertise should be making the decisions.’
A good enough reason for dusting off your old copy of The Republic, surely?
You can read more by Oliver at: Consciousness and Other Matters
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