A SKETCH OF THE POLITICAL STRUCTURE OF THE REPUBLIC
Ron Owens (Graduate Student), Department of Philosophy, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
In Book VI of The Republic Plato makes the point that it is quite reasonable to assume that the polity sketched out as the ideal Polis can come into being [499c]. And he further points out that should this not be the case, should the ideal Polis not be capable of realisation, "we could be justly ridiculed as uttering things as futile as daydreams are." [499c]. Are we to take Plato at his word here, that what he is attempting to sketch out is a political structure capable of application, or is his claim at 499c just a literary device to hold the reader's attention? If this were the only instance of Plato making a claim for realisability then it is possible to argue, as other have done, (1) that The Republic is to be regarded as an idealised theory concerning the perfect state - thus what would we have at 499b-c is a literary device.
But this is not the only instance where Plato makes this claim, he makes it three more times. At 499d he says "It is not a thing impossible to happen, nor are we speaking of impossibilities. That it is difficult we too admit" (emphasis added); at 502c he says "Our present opinion, then, about this legislation is that our plan would be best if it could be realized and that this realization is difficult yet not impossible" (emphasis added); and at 540d "...do you admit that our notion of the state and its polity is not altogether a daydream, but that though it is difficult, it is in a way possible, and in no other way than that described..." (emphasis added). And at 541 there is outlined a plan of action by which philosophers, haven taken control of a city, could speedily and easily establish the constitution portrayed in The Republic.
What we have here is a specific claim for realisation which is made four times. At each instance though the difficulty of realisation is stressed so is the possibility of realisation. It is reasonable to assume that, having made the same point this number of times, Plato means what he says on the issue of realisability. If this is Plato's position then there is a sub-text in The Republic which is concerned with defining and describing a new political structure, and with one which is also capable of implementation. It is this sub-text of political structures and their applicability which are the concerns of this paper. In searching for the impact of this political sub-text it is important to bear in mind that much of the relevant information is hidden in layers beneath the topic or specific subject under discussion at any one time. Thus while it is the case that, for example, the latter part of Book VII deals with aspects of the final training of disciples and that is the major subject under discussion, nonetheless at another level there is information to be gleaned identifying some of the political roles of Hoi Epikouroi and the duration of their education.
Thus the purpose of this paper is to identify and sketch out the political structures for the ideal Polis described by Plato in the sub-text, with a view to identifying some of the points of contention between those political structures and the contemporary political structures under which Plato lived and wrote his thesis. The first part of the paper briefly identifies the hierarchical division of the ideal Polis into its three constituent socio-political groupings; the second part examines the role and functions, and the political responsibilities, of each of these groups, ie Hoi Polloi, Hoi Epikouroi, Hoi Phylakes. And in the third part there is a discussion of the ideal Polis' political structures and what those structures might mean in terms of contemporary civil rights and freedoms. References in square brackets [ ] are references to The Republic and translations are from Plato Republic (P Shorey, trans), 2 Vols, Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press, 1987).
What does Plato have to say about the particular political accoutrements of the citizens of his ideal Polis? In this section I simply attempt to give a factual and comprehensive picture of what is to be found in The Republic concerning the political structure, and the political rights and responsibilities of the citizens, of the ideal Polis.
Because what is being sought here is the political sub-text, not the principal philosophical text, the primary context in which the information is found often will not be acknowledged, but it is never denied. And furthermore, for the purposes of this paper, there is an underlying premise that when Plato says that something is the case (for example the quotation given above from 499d), then that is the case for Plato, unless the contrary can be clearly demonstrated. In The Republic the political structure of Plato's ideal Polis establishes a society in a hierarchy of three socio-political groupings: Hoi Polloi (the many - the agricultural, production and manufacturing class); Hoi Epikouroi (the Auxiliaries - the military, policing and administrative class); and Hoi Phylakes (the Guardians - the ruling class). The structure also provides for gifted children to advance into the senior classes and also provides for non-gifted children to move to more appropriate classes. Thus, in this sense, the structure, though hierarchical is not strictly a rigid stratification. Although there is provision for the institution of slavery in The Republic, and it is acknowledged that slaves have a function to perform [395e, 433d], slaves do not, in Plato's view, constitute a distinct socio-political grouping.
The two bases for the political tripartite division of society are (a) the principle of separate and specific function, based on the division of labour, and (b) an analogous tripartite division of the human psyche (a division which may have its origins in Pythagorism) into the elements of appetite, passion and reason which mirror the three classes of the ideal society. The underlying problem with this political structure is that it requires that the ideal city be constituted primarily of classes, of separate socio-political groupings, and not of individual human beings. (2)
In the ideal Polis the only group to exercise political power and, what is more important, political control is the elite group identified as the Guardians (Hoi Phylakes). The military and policing powers of the Polis and its administrative functions are to be exercised by the Auxiliaries (Hoi Epikouroi) under the direction of the Guardians.
By far the most numerous of the socio-political groupings is the citizen group described as Hoi Polloi. The grouping is made up of the whole gamut of the social and economic-production functions, excluding only the educative functions, the military and policing functions; the administrative functions; the judicial functions and the political functions. It is unclear in The Republic as to who would perform the major economic functions of the Polis, such as the assessment of taxation which would be necessary given the manner in which the Polis is to support both the guardian and auxiliary classes, not only in terms of their sustenance but also in terms of the provision of military equipment, particularly such expensive items as horses and ships, and public facilities, such as the mess halls and living quarters put at their disposal. But, given Plato's criticisms of the abilities of the lower classes and the specific function allocated the auxiliary class, it is probable these functions would have to be performed by the guardian class.
The education of the lower class of citizens is not specifically provided for. Though, as Cornford points out, unless some provision is made for them to share, at least, in the early education to be provided for the Guardians and Auxiliaries, there would be few, if any, opportunities available to the Polis for promoting their most promising children to one of the higher orders (3) and Shorey argues that we cannot infer, "as hasty critics have done", from 421a that the masses are not to be educated. (4) Although they are required to be obedient to, and to be taught and guided by, the laws of the Polis they appear not to be subject to the same legal strictures as are applied to the other two classes in terms of marriage, family and children; the acquisition of property and wealth; and higher education. As pointed out above this class of citizens is to take no part whatsoever in the governance of the Polis. They are expected to exercise that degree of self control which is to be epitomised by their being obedient to their rulers [389e, 499b].
Plato's social, economic and political views of this class of citizens are complex and are not fully explained by him. On the one hand they are unruly, capricious, self centred, living only for the moment [431c, 586a-c]. As individuals who fall away from accepted standards of excellence they are no great danger to the Polis [421a]. They are, in the main, not capable of being educated [493e-494a, 519b-c]; though provision is made for gifted children to become members of the other classes [415c]. And like children their erroneous ways, which are the result of ignorance and deception, ought not to be condemned [499e]. Spiritually, their souls are marred by their vulgar occupations in the same manner as their bodies are marred by their arts and crafts [494d-e]. Being uneducated and being ignorant of, and incapable of attaining, any knowledge of the truth, they are unfit to rule in the Polis [519b-c]. And as the moral freedom to act autonomously was not possible for them so for Plato it was also unnecessary. (5)
Yet they will be the good, efficient farmers who keep the Polis fed; the good and efficient artisans and tradesmen supplying the necessities of daily living; the good, efficient merchants ensuring the importation of essential materials. To them and to them alone falls the responsibility for the maintenance of the agricultural, economic, manufacturing and, more importantly, taxing infrastructures of the Polis, without which neither the Guardians nor the Auxiliaries could continue to perform their specialist functions. And while they might be free from some of the strictures to be imposed on the auxiliary and guardian classes, particularly in relation to wealth, property and marriage, nonetheless their lives will still not be of their own making. (6) In a significant sense they will be an oppressed class because their lives will be so structured as to allow no basis for self respect in that their highest moral attainment will be deference to their betters (7) and further, in their ignorance it will be necessary that they be "slaves of the best man" in order that all may be akin and friendly [590c-e].
The auxiliary class alone comes close to epitomising the central tenet of The Republic, (8) namely the principle of separate and specific function which requires that each child, woman, slave, freeman, artisan, rulers and ruled should perform only one task as one person. Their education and training are extensive, lasting until they are 50 years old and they only have three classes of duties: they are (a) to protect the Polis from external enemies [373e-374a, 415e], (b) to protect the Polis from internal enemies by policing the laws of the Guardians [415e, 423a-b] and (c) to perform the myriad of administrative functions required by the Polis [539e-540a]. They are to have no access to wealth or property, save the necessities of life [416d]. One of the basic structural units of classical Greek society, the family, though allowed amongst Hoi Polloi, is denied them [457c-e]; they are to live in a communal environment without privacy[416d-e]; their mating is to be rigorously controlled without their knowledge [459d-e]; their happiness is to be subordinated to the collective happiness of the Polis [420c, 466a, 519e]; they are required to give unquestioning obedience to the Guardians; in the superior interests of the Polis, as and when determined to be necessary by the Guardians, they are to be lied to [389b, 459c-d]; and haven fallen into the hands of the enemy on the field of battle they are to be deserted by their comrades and left to the enemy's pleasure [468b].
Yet like Hoi Polloi not only do they have no access to political power, though under direction they wield military and policing powers, they also have no say in the exercise of political control in the Polis which they defend and administer. The Guardians exercise total control over their lives; their food, their clothing and their shelter are to be provided by the Polis; their duties are to be performed under the close direction of the Guardians; their mating and social intercourse is to be rigorously controlled; they exist merely to serve the interests of the Polis. In terms of contemporary classical politics, even by Spartan standards, (9) they too are an oppressed class.
I now wish to turn to the elite group of The Republic and look at
them simply in terms of the political and governmental roles assigned them in the idealised Polis rather than in terms of their philosophical training. They are the only group in the Polis to have access to, and to exercise, political power [412b-d]. To them falls the responsibility for formulating and enacting all the laws of the Polis [425d]; for administration of the laws and for the judicial functions of the city [389c-d, 409-410]; they are responsible for supervising the administrative machinery of government; for the education of all the citizens and the associated curricula, and for the censorship of educative material to be made available for public consumption [389b]. They alone have the power to declare war, to regulate warfare and make peace [466d-471c]; to them falls the responsibility for maintaining the breeding policies of the Polis - particularly with respect to the auxiliary class [459e]; and for maintaining the health of the citizenry . Their power over the life and death of the citizens is absolute [410a]. Finally, they are empowered, where circumstances warrant it, to lie to the citizenry to protect the interests of the Polis [389b]; even though should any other citizen be discovered to have lied then they are to be adjudged guilty of a serious offence [389c].
Though not mentioned in The Republic it would appear likely to assume that they would also have responsibility for the higher financial functions of the Polis, particularly with regard to the assessment of taxation for the purposes of maintaining the Polis. (10) It is suggested in Book IV that the general administrative arrangements and general taxing and excise arrangements be left to the Guardians to formulate [425d].
The practical structures for the formulation of public policy and for the exercise of political power in the Polis are not outlined by Plato in this dialogue. It is reasonable to assume, however, that the Guardians' philosophical training, their necessary attainment of knowledge of the true forms, of the ultimate nature of general ideas, of abstract and conceptual thought, (11) would lead them to act in concert without the need for formal structures. This training and knowledge would also negate the possibility of conflict amongst the ruling elite.
These then are the political accoutrements Plato allows the three classes of his ideal Polis. And if the ideal Polis were to be utopian then there is probably little criticism to be levelled against these accoutrements; for in utopian societies things work out as planned, including the people who populate such societies. But Plato, in setting out his practical, and realisable, model Polis, is not describing a Utopia. He quite openly admits that all human societies, like all things in nature, degrade and decay [546a-b], and thus his model, which is designed to meet the ethical and moral needs of the real world, is subject to criticism.
The political structures of The Republic can be described as an autocratic meritocracy, with the exercise of all political power and control limited to a small elite group, Hoi Phylakes. Entry into that group is on the basis of age [412c] (they must be over 50 years of age) and more importantly of merit (high levels of training in philosophy) as assessed by the elite group itself, which has the responsibility for education each successive generation [540b].
Although those members of the subordinated group with responsibility for the administrative functions of the Polis, Hoi Epikouroi, are to be supported by the Polis, nonetheless every aspect of their lives is to be controlled, overtly and covertly, by the elite group. All citizens outside of the elite group are to have no access to political power; no political rights; no input into the formulation of public policy or public laws; yet they have many political responsibilities and duties. Like the herd animals he so often equates them with their prime political role is obedience
Thus a principal tenet of freedom for classical Greeks, to be one's own master is undermined, for to be autonomous in The Republic is not to rule oneself, not to exercise any capacity for self-mastery or self-legislation, but rather that one's self should be ruled by a Reason from outside of one's self, in other words to be a slave to the external. The outcome being, as Farrar argues, that the ideas used to express the citizens' own purposes and freedom have become externalised (12). This dramatic redefining of the concept of self by Plato so as to externalise its value, that concept of self, whose freedom, autonomy, integrity and good his ideal Polis was designed to promote and perfect, in fact undermines, if it does not deny, the basic premise of contemporary social order, ie the autonomy of the citizen as expressed by concepts such as of eleutheria and to ison . This redefining of freedom and autonomy by Plato is in opposition to both contemporary beliefs about political structures and the role of the citizen within those structures; and current conventional beliefs regarding those structures. For Plato the democratic man and the tyrant, contemporarily and conventionally regarded as prime examples of autonomous beings, are in fact to be regarded as slaves, as people, though beholden to no others, enslaved by their passions and devoid of reason. On the other hand those industrious citizens of The Republic who have surrendered their integrity and autonomy, their eleutheria and to ison , to people whose sole regard is to be for the happiness of the Polis, citizens who would, by the benchmarks of freedom set out in the Delphic inscriptions concerning slave manumission (13), be classed as slaves - these people, according to Plato, are truly free. This construction of freedom is at odds with a conventional view which argues that the concept of freedom implies a fundamental equality which characterises all those who are free (14). The political philosophy of The Republic, which externalises the value of self by devaluing self qua self, in fact disempowers the citizens in the processes of claiming to liberate them.
And the citizens are also further disempowered by the development, within the overall political theory of The Republic, of a theory which postulates that the Polis, as a separate, autonomous agent, is superior in all political and moral considerations to the individual citizen - a theory of 'State/Individual' dichotomy which is at odds with the contemporary concept of a citizen duality of 'public-private'. Though some have argued that the separation of the State from the citizen had its beginnings in the time of Solon (ie late 7th, early 6th century BC) (15) it is my contention that Plato's formulation of the 'State/Individual' dichotomy is the first significant philosophical formulation of that dichotomy.
The supremacy of the Polis is expressed in two ways. There is to be a political supremacy over the actions and interests of the citizens and there is to be a moral supremacy over their desires and wants.
Maintaining the political superiority of the Polis is a responsibility of the guardian class. They are expected to have an indwelling conviction that whatever actions they perform are, quite simply, what they at any time believe to be in the best interests of the Polis. And further, they are expected to be zealous in doing what they believe to be in the Polis's best interests and are to be of such a nature as to be unlikely to act in any other way. In any conflict between what is seen as the best interests of the Polis and the actions and interests of any individual citizen or group of citizens then the interests of the Polis are to be paramount. The Guardians may, in relation to the activities of enemies or citizens, lie to the citizenry for the benefit of the Polis, even though should a citizen lie that is to be regarded as a great sin. The interests of the Polis are also to be advanced and protected in the sphere of private interactions amongst citizens. In regulating and controlling the procreation and rearing of children the Guardians, as a right [459d], are to have the freedom to make considerable use of falsehoods and deceptions so that in the interests of the Polis the numbers of citizens might be kept constant. The Guardians also have absolute power of life and death over the citizens; given that any action they might take is to be regarded as an action in the interests of the Polis then any decision they might take with regard to the life or death of a citizen is to be made in the interest of the Polis and not of the citizen, for example, reprobate citizens are quite simply to be put to death by the Guardians [410a].
The moral superiority of the Polis finds its most constant expression in the primacy which Plato gives to the happiness of the Polis over any class within it or over the happiness of any single individual. The primary object in the establishment of the ideal Polis was not to be the happiness of any one class but the greatest possible happiness of the Polis as a whole. From which it follows that the laws of the Polis are not be concerned with the specific happiness of any group but with securing happiness for the Polis as a whole. Though while Plato does not concentrate on the happiness of the individual he does think that personal happiness is pertinent to an individual citizen only by virtue of their belonging to a particular class.
This concept of the supremacy of the Polis and its concomitant subordinate role of the citizen is, as Grene points out, a new philosophical formulation of the objectives of human existence and of the State as an expression of those objectives . The supremacy of the Polis follows from the proposition that the justice of the Polis is every citizen's responsibility. It also follows on from the definition of citizens as being merely sub-units of the group to which they belong, which groups in turn are to be regarded as sub-units of the Polis itself. The individual then is not a whole and for the political theory of The Republic is not to be treated as such. The Polis, on the other hand, is a unity and Plato enforces that fact on his individual citizens by treating them as factors and fractions of it. Thus he establishes his ideal Polis as an organism, separate and distinct from the citizens who are only a part of it, whose happiness is the sole concern of the citizens who serve it. With this construction of a State/Individual dichotomy Plato undermines the political structures of the contemporary Polis by extending the claims of the Polis over, and therefore in opposition to, the interests of all its citizens, whatever their position or standing in the community and however disparate their resources, capacities and experience.
The problem with this dichotomous construction is that the Polis is not to be seen as constituted of its citizens; its value is of a Polis qua Polis and not as an assemblage of citizens and further the common good, the happiness of the Polis, is to be regarded as something which can be separated, as a distinct entity, from the individual good or happiness of individual citizens. But, the realities of the human condition appear to support an argument that the common good of the Polis is best assessed in accordance with the individual good or happiness of each citizen seen as an end in themselves. The dichotomous construction also requires the denial of the individualism of the citizen which can be defined as a 'priority in value or worth of an individual over all else, especially over the social institutions of the Polis itself' .
What does this have to say about the structure of the ideal Polis? By denying people any intrinsic worth as people what Plato is doing is treating the men and women of his society simply as blocks and scaffolding to build a structure which implicitly expresses their individual lives, through the principle of separate and specific function, but which in turn removes from each of them their own individuality, their own separate personalities. Plato's conception of the individual citizen as part of an order, as merely a part of the unified Polis, leads him to deny the citizen any rights, particularly those which are the very conditions of the citizen being a moral person and thereby having capacity for a sense of duty and obligation; their rights to autonomy, integrity and self determination. And further, by his tripartite division of society into distinct groups, where the functions of those groups are more important than the people who make up the groups, Plato is creating a community which is not an assemblage of people but a hierarchical structure based on socio-political groupings.
It follows from this that Plato's overall conception of the ideal Polis leads him to conclude that his individual citizens need only be regarded as interchangeable parts of his much more significant social groupings; and as such he can then systematically overlook whatever they, as individuals, might wish for their own lives. The point needs to be re-emphasised here that it is Plato's position that the common good or happiness of the Polis is a good or happiness which can be and is to be separated, as a distinct entity, from any good which might be attributed to the individual citizen. And in his desire to construct a metaphysical basis for the good of all by constructing a metaphysical basis for the good of the Polis he denies the integrity and autonomy of the individual citizen. On Plato's argument, justice, as a constituent of the good for all, is necessarily a condition of society and of the individual: it consists in each individual person getting their due, not qua person but qua member of an harmonious social order.
What I have argued so far is that Plato wishes to suborn the personality of the individual and that individual's attendant happiness to the happiness of the Polis as it is his view that the Polis is an organism whose happiness is the sole concern of the people who serve it.
But as Chance has argued, the realities of human nature would seem to support the proposition that the happiness of any community is to be gauged only according to the happiness of individual citizens seen as an end in themselves (18). Annas argues that, though Plato overtly subordinates the desires and interests of the individual citizen to the common good of the State, if the common good is to be seen as just the collective desires and interests that individual citizens ought to have, then they would have those desires and interest as individuals anyway (19). This point of view is supported by the argument that Plato's theory of separate and specific function requires an excessive uniformity of outlook on the human condition and also an excessive specialization of the myriad functions to be performed as part of that condition. As Barker points out, the strict caste-like division of the classes is indicative of excessive separatism and the despotism which unifies the Polis by subjugating it completely to the Guardians is indicative of its excessive unification (20). Further, there is the tendency of Plato's arguments to reason in the abstract and in logical terms without much reference to the actualities and complexities of the human condition.
Whilst Plato's ideal Polis might be an hierarchical tripartite structure it is nonetheless to be regarded as a single organism with the sole aim of attaining justice; a necessary concomitant of which will be that the happiness of any individual group, and thus the happiness of any individual person within such a group, is subordinate to the happiness of the Polis. If a major premise regarding the structure of the Polis is that, in the pursuit of justice, its unity is to be paramount over the individual parts which make it up then that unity will take precedence over all other values. In such a Polis any concentration of power, any violation of the rights of citizens to control over their own bodies, their homes and their property, any violation of the right to equality before the law, any denial of the right to participate in the political processes can be justified.
Further, the precedence which Plato gives to the unity of the Polis and the concomitant servile status of its citizens, not only negates the four primary elements of freedom as enunciated in the Delphic inscriptions concerning slave manumissions (21), but it is also indicative of the fact that he denies the idea that all people, whatever their intellectual ability, have a capacity for self-respect and autonomy which is lost if they are to be so totally dominated by the Polis as to be regarded as slaves of the Polis. As Annas points out Plato is quite open in saying that Hoi Polloi will, like slaves, lack any autonomy over their own lives (22).
This denial by Plato of a rational capacity for all people is also a point taken up by Foster when he argues that what distinguishes man qua man from any other animal is the human activity of rationality and he defines 'rationality' as the precedent intellectual apprehension of the form or end to be realized (23). But to bind the individual citizen to the social order of the ideal Polis Plato firmly rejects a major premise of contemporary political thought, namely, that the basis for social order is the autonomy, and thus the rationality, of the citizen.
This total denial of personal autonomy appears to be at odds with some of the character traits which Plato values. He clearly values a capacity for self-rule, for self-control. An outstanding characteristic of reason, as he originally defines it, is a capacity for self-mastery and self-legislation; and since he admits that most people possess at least some rudimentary capacity for rationality then it would appear that most people are capable of exercising some autonomy and self direction with regard to their own lives. Yet it is this very capacity which Plato denies to the vast majority of his citizens, arguing that their highest moral, and thus their highest political, attainment will be complete deference to their betters. He does this because he does not regard his citizens as people qua people, they are simply sub-units of the more important classes to which they belong. And even two of those classes, Hoi Polloi and Hoi Epikouroi, have a totally subordinate status. Thus, Plato reduces the citizen's autonomous capacity to nothing.
It is Plato's emphasis on the preeminence of the unity of the hierarchical class structure of the Polis above all other political and moral considerations which allows him to tolerate the injustices meted out to citizens as individuals. As Pappas has argued this class- analytic approach to the politics of the ideal Polis prevents Plato from making any sense of, much less answer, as simple a question as whether or not the citizens are treated unjustly in The Republic (24).
What I have argued in this paper is that Plato quite happily denies the citizens of the ideal Polis those freedoms and equalities which were both contemporary with and enjoyed by himself. He is able to do this because the political discussion in The Republic is so structured as to treat people merely as sub-units of well defined and stratified social structures; not as people qua people.
The hierarchical political structure of The Republic with its reliance on unquestioning obedience to the external, denies to the vast majority of the ideal Polis's citizens those four major constituent parts of 'freedom' which were seen by contemporary Greeks, and their religious institutions, as the hallmarks distinguishing the free from the enslaved: viz. (a) the right to be one's own master; (b) to be protected against seizure; (c) to freedom of action; and (d) to freedom of movement (25).
Furthermore, the right to freedom of speech (a valued freedom in contemporary classical democracies) was to be limited to the elite group; there was to be no opportunity for the private citizen to bring suit against any of the ruling class (a freedom of democracies by which ordinary citizens were able to hold appointed and elected officials to account for actions taken during their tenure of office); and the philosophy of civil rights and freedoms entailed in the concepts of eleutheria and to ison is abolished in favour of untrammelled obedience.
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