Written originally for Classical Studies, a Stage 2 subject, during 2005. This was my MAJOR.
Many Athenians considered their polis, their city state, to be perfect – ideal in regards to military and cultural achievements. Famous philosopher Plato, though, considered it to be otherwise. Instructed early on in his tutelage by Socrates to be skeptical of a society that gives no specific place to those with expertise in politics, Plato was well learned in the seediness of Athens; its arrogant nature, military and political faux pas and even its contempt towards its own citizens on some occasions. Plato saw through his states façade, and was inspired to formulate the ideals of the perfect state. Plato's 'Ideal State'
Detailed heavily in his frequently praised Republic, these blueprints for the new society were designed to be instated in three "waves". Three waves to wash away the corruption, and bring in the new ideals and principals. The first of these consists of a new ruling class of Guardians; to be established with only Philosopher-Kings. Plato defined the philosopher as an individual who has a great love of knowledge, and believed that knowledge was the key to a successful ruler; he said that either kings should become philosophers or philosophers should become kings. His want for this first wave is obviously due to Athens disliking to people of his high stature; no one likes a "know-it-all". Athenians saw Plato's kind as rogues, useless individuals who thought themselves better than the rest of society. With the rulers of Plato's 'Ideal State' philosophers, this disliking would, while still existing, not be a problem as much because of the larger community of knowledgeable citizens.
The second wave consisted of the Guardians being a mixture of men and women. This idea was extremely radical for it's time, as women weren't politically involved in that era. Women weren't politically active until relatively recent times, meaning that Plato as a philosopher was quite knowledgeable not just by Ancient Greek standards, but by modern day standards also. The third wave was that the Guardians would live communally, without private property of their own. They wouldn't even have any wealth. They would share things, and through that Athenians would lose their need to be jealous of each other because of class rankings. Envy would be, in theory, non-exist because their wouldn't be a concern with the attainment of wealth. There wouldn't be disagreements over who owns what, as everyone uses the same items in a sense.
Plato describes a state as "…when a group of people gather and settle in one place who have different various requirements."1. This interpretation of what a society should be, and essentially is, can be seen as the base of all of Plato's idea regarding his idea's towards his "Ideal State". Everyone in the society needs different things, different requirements, and the best way to achieve those different requirements is to work together – with gatherings having a mutual exchange system. The most important needs of the society were food, then shelter and then clothing; the best way to satisfy these needs would be for individuals to attend to certain tasks – someone would be a farmer, another a builder, someone else a weaver. Each person should have their task in accordance with their own abilities – so a farmer should stick primarily to farming, trying to cultivate his skills. He should not only grow food for himself and his family, but also for other in the community – as should a weaver not only make clothes for himself. This way, the farmer doesn't have to farm as well as make his own clothes, or the weaver having to weave and then farm on top of his strenuous work load.
In the Republic, through the guise of the character 'Socrates', Plato explains what he thinks life in his Ideal Polis would be like;
"…they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and having the praises of the gods on their lips, living in sweat society, and having a care that their families do not exceed their means; for they will have an eye to poverty or war… Of course they will have a relish – salt, and olives, and cheese, and onion, and cabbages or other country herbs, which are fit for boiling; and we shall give them a dessert of figs, and pulse, and beans, and myrtle-berries, and beech nuts, which they will roast at the fire, drinking in moderation. And with such a diet they may be expected to live in peace to good old age, and bequeath a similar life to their children after them."2
There is no way to ultimately tell whether or not the three waves that he believes in so much would be able to instate such a lifestyle that would effect, positively, even the most common of common farmers. A major fault in the theory of the ideal state is that the political structure that Plato intended for the polis was never disclosed. Even with the philosopher kings instated, there isn't any laws spoken of; this gives way to the crazy notion that there wouldn't be need for laws as the citizens would be so blissful that they would have no want or need to commit a criminal act – that the reason why there aren't any plans for armies in his ideal state, either, except for the people with the specific skills required. It's as if Plato doesn't believe in or trust average Athenian men's skills – they need to be specifically chosen. It is pure wishful thinking from Plato that has caused the absence of these fundamental elements; he believes that his ideas are so full-proof that he has purposely left them from his theory. Also, this can be attributed to his contempt for politicians.
Three classes would be needed in this society; rulers, at the top of the ladder – they would be intellectuals who thought rationally. The "middle class" would be auxilaries, who would be courageous and spirited; military. They would be obedient to the rulers, though. And the third class would be money-makers – farmers, tradesmen. They aren't "working class", though, as they are allowed to own their own property and earn money. However, Plato warns that there needs to be measures taken to stop excessive wealth or poverty – confining the "money-makers" to their class forever, just like anyone else in a different class. Once born into a certain social sector, you stay there. It's interesting that there isn't a fourth class, one for the slaves; they are, without a doubt, the ultimate working class. This doesn't mean that there weren't any slaves in the ideal state, on the contrary, they were still very popular; it's the fact that they weren't considered to possess any rights as human beings. Plato often comes across a someone with morals, so, with this information, we truly understand that he was just a product of his time – someone who, while a radical thinker in some respects, wasn't as "ahead of his time" as some believed.
"…a difficulty is presented in the first book of the Republic (332-3). If good living is a skill or art, what is it the skill to do? There seems no way of specifying the skill as 'the skill to do x" without making it also the skill to do the opposite of x. Another difficulty is this: if one has skill in or knowledge of wrestling, then one is a good wrestler. But is knowledge of goodness (that which Plato though, would enable one to teach it) sufficient to make one a good man? As it has been put, is knowledge sufficient for virtue?"3
The problem that quite a few people encounter whilst learning about Plato's theories, or any other philosopher's theories for that matter, is that the ideas are nothing but that – everything sounds good, but to be put into practice would be an entirely different matter completely. With the above statement, it gives the idea that each man creates his own definition of "goodness" and the doing of "good", but therein lies the fault – without a social meaning, the word is nothing but a word. In a society like Athens where society came first, it wouldn't matter if a citizen thought they did "good", because if they didn't do good for the polis, then that "good" doesn't matter.
"Plato's theory of the origins of political society is Marx's 'materialist conception of history'; his picture of self-interest governing economic relations is both Hobbes' social contract and Smith's hidden hand; there is liberalism in the strategy of mitigating the effects of either extreme wealth or extreme poverty; and there is even a type of utilitarianism at work in ascribing to the ruler the task of maximizing happiness (and the 'Good')."4
Being born into a strict social class reflects Karl Marx's thesis that "the nature of individuals depends on the material conditions determining their production"5; the individuals in the ideal state would be very docile, due to the condition of which they were born and raised. Their nature would be effected by their surroundings, their society. How can any society that has such a strict social code and classes ever be successful? I think this is a reflection of the, while well thought out ideas, under-thought in context on Plato's behalf. His contempt for the society that he lived in and the people who ruled it clouded his judgment, and his theory is flawed for it.
1 Jackson, R. "Plato: A Beginner's Guide"
2 Plato Republic
3 Hare, R.M. Plato
4 Cohen, Martin Political Philosophy: From Plato to Mao
5 Marx, Karl The German Ideology