Plato and Rousseau: freedom, utopia and the status quo.

Let me to try to shed a little light on why Plato was inclined to endorse such a totalitarian state. What could drive such a sharp mind to want such a despicable political structure?

It’s impossible to understand his motivations until you place it in the context of his understanding of Greek society. Don’t forget, of course, that by the time he wrote Republic his teacher and companion had been democratically sentenced to death for ‘corrupting the minds of the youth’. And this in turn led Plato to believe that the majority’s minds were corrupt, though not through any fault of Socrates’.

Hence the notorious allegory of the Cave, which depicts prisoners stuck watching shadows, believing they are perceiving reality. The bleakness of their situation is somewhat exacerbated, though, by the revelation that they are ‘like us‘. Not only that, but they enjoy their condition. This is a precursor to Marx’s theory of false consciousness. He believes the majority are so indoctrinated by faux values that they come to take pleasure in what Plato sees as spiritual enslavement.

You can thus see why he had few reservations about mapping out a grandiose project for reform. If there was no value in the status quo – if people had genuinely hit rock bottom and were living under an illusion devoid of value, what could hinder his desire to offer them redemption at any cost?

Not only does Plato envision redemption, however, but also liberation. He obviously believes that by creating his Republic, he would be doing something analogous to freeing the Cave’s prisoners from their shackles. And he believes that by placing political power in the hands of the philosophers, they will be able to guide all of us towards the good. And given how sure he is that they know what is best for everyone else, what, exactly, is there left to say in the face of his utopian dream?

Now I mention Rousseau as to provide a contrast, or perhaps not. For it is arguable that despite Plato’s authoritarianism and elitism and Rousseau’s staunch egalitarian and democratic convictions, the two share more than they differ on. Note, for instance, how Rousseau ended up a total outcast from French society. At that time, Paris was believed by most elites to be the center of the universe. Anyone with any sense about them would love the city. And yet for Rousseau, he saw nothing but misery amongst all the ‘progress’ in the arts and sciences. He soon left that life, instead opting for the peace and solitude provided by nature.

I touched upon this side of Rousseau in my post on Fight Club last week. He was rigidly anti-consumerist, and was of the firm conviction that men as they were living at his time were not truly happy at all. And is this not a story that we have heard before?

Cue Rousseau’s grand educational treatise, Émile, which imagines an experiment in raising a child which secures his virtue and happiness. And cue The Social Contract, a plan for a society which in its own way is as ambitious and utopian as Plato’s Republic. It also envisions sweeping reforms which include extensive direct democracy, equal ownership of property and thereby, according to Rousseau, genuine freedom. Man would be utterly reformed.

Perhaps utopian theories are inevitable, then, when you believe that man is miserable and has the potential to do so much better.


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