Plato’s totalitarianism.

Photo: bowbrick / Flickr.

This post is going to discuss whether or not Plato was a totalitarian. That may seem like a silly question; the type of thing philosophers spend too long pondering when the answer is obvious. So perhaps it’s best to make my conception of totalitarianism explicit to ensure that my reason for asking the question is clear.

It is non-controversial, then, that Plato was a totalitarian in all of the following senses: he believes that political power should be concentrated in a minuscule, intellectually superior elite; he advocates complete control of art, speech and thought; the state decides what your job is. In short, all aspects of life are immaculately planned in accordance with a top-down state ideology imposed by force. Why anyone would ever draw comparisons with the Soviet Union remains beyond my grasp.

And yet there seems to be a further side to totalitarianism, prominent in its Fascist strands, which goes even further than this insofar as it elevates the state above and beyond the individual so it has its own, organic status and collective value. The mechanisms by which we group together and try to promote the lives of each of us as individuals is seemingly fetishised as an organisation superior and intrinsically worthwhile in its own right.

Is Plato guilty of this form of totalitarianism? Karl Popper certainly thought so. Hence his insistence on tracing Hegelian philosophy and 20th century Fascist ideology all the way back to The Republic. But what, exactly, is the evidence for this claim?

I guess it doesn’t help Plato’s case that he seems to stress the importance of state stability so much. He talks at length about the need to set up a structure that can resist turbulence and stand strong, and he defines political justice in terms of acts which help to serve this goal. So individuals become mere moral cogs, important only insofar as they help to constitute the machine. Or so Popper claims.

With that in mind, try reading this snippet from Book IV:

Suppose that we were painting a statue, and some one came up to us and said, Why do you not put the most beautiful colours on the most beautiful parts of the body –the eyes ought to be purple, but you have made them black –to him we might fairly answer, Sir, you would not surely have us beautify the eyes to such a degree that they are no longer eyes; consider rather whether, by giving this and the other features their due proportion, we make the whole beautiful.

And how about the following passage in Book IX, which defends Plato’s decision to have the wise elite controlling the lives of the many:

And therefore, being desirous of placing him under a rule like that of the best, we say that he ought to be the servant of the best, in whom the Divine rules; not, as Thrasymachus supposed, to the injury of the servant, but because every one had better be ruled by divine wisdom dwelling within him; or, if this be impossible, then by an external authority, in order that we may be all, as far as possible, under the same government, friends and equals.

It looks here like Plato is rejoicing in an image of the relations that hold within his state. It’s not so much that everyone benefits from the arrangement, but the arrangement itself looks beautiful.

If you don’t see that, one more quote, this time from Book VII, seems to confirm the suspicion that something creepy is going on:

[T]he intention of the legislator, who did not aim at making any one class in the State happy above the rest; the happiness was to be in the whole State, and he held the citizens together by persuasion and necessity, making them benefactors of the State, and therefore benefactors of one another; to this end he created them, not to please themselves, but to be his instruments in binding up the State.

So Popper has a point. Plato definitely has a tendency to be the ultimate totalitarian. But let’s conclude with the other side, which may go some way to redeeming him somewhat in showing how he also speaks in a way consistent with our modern day focus on the individual, albeit in his inevitably twisted way.

There’s prima facie reason to think something has gone wrong in Popper’s argument as soon as we recall what the purpose of The Republic is: namely, to argue against Thrasymachus’ claim in Book I that justice is not good for the individual, but is rather good for anyone but you. Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates is to disprove this by showing why being just is always in the interests of the individual. And the state, for Plato, is set up with this mission in mind. It offers an environment in which justice can be attained, and the individual can thereby be benefited. So he isn’t a Fascist after all.

Now for a quote to confirm this theory. Consider:

Our first task then, we take it, is to mold the model of a happy state—we are not isolating a small class in it and postulating their happiness, but that of the city as a whole.

Note the contrast here. Plato is not talking about the happiness of individuals versus the happiness of the whole. He is not implying that the ‘happiness of the whole’ refers to the state’s queer status as happy independent of the happiness of its inhabitants. He contrasts the happiness of the whole with the happiness of one class, reflecting the fact that the happiness of the whole refers to the happiness of all individuals!

This is not, I take it, the words of a Fascist. It is the words of a humanist who disagrees with us about the way to further the interests of all persons. We believe happiness is best served by allowing each to pursue their own idea of what is good in life. Plato believed most people are incapable of making good decisions, and could benefit from the wisdom of the few to prod them (okay, that’s putting it lightly) in the right direction.

He is a strong paternalist. He is a totalitarian. But he is not, I take it, concerned with the state to the detriment of his concern for humans.

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