In our recent heated debate about partisan versus non-partisan methods to make the politics of failure work again I mentioned that Dr. Strangelove’s proposals seemed (at least to me) to be reminiscent of Plato’s Republic. I’m not trying to start another fight about Dr. Strangelove’s arguments. But I do think The Republic is an interesting subject for discussion. What follows is merely a brief introduction to The Republic and barely even that. I’m not a political theorist and I’m sure I’m leaving many important things out.
In The Republic, Plato lays out (through the hypothetical words of his mentor Socrates) his ideal form of government. Society will be divided into categories of people who will be bread by the state to be optimally adapted to their role in the society. Workers bred to work. Soldiers bred to fight. “Guardians” bred to rule. Guardians are the wisest in society, the ones who know what is best for the community.
“So the state founded on natural principles is wise as a whole in virtue of the knowledge inherent in its smallest constituent part or class, which exercises authority over the rest. And it appears further that the naturally smallest class is the one which is endowed with that form of knowledge which alone of all others deserves the title of wisdom.” (Part 5, Book 4, section 429).
The Guardians attain their rank by birth initially but must spend their childhoods passing tests and trials and must follow strict rules: Guardians own no private property. Guardians have no home or storehouse to which all shall not have access. Food shall be provided to them as an “agreed upon wage” for the Guardians.
And how would these Guardians be prevented from abusing their position? Plato advocates the creation of a state religion. “They must be told that they have no need of mortal and material gold and silver, because they have in their hearts the heavenly gold and silver given them by the gods as permanent possession, and it would be wicked to pollute the heavenly gold in their possession by mixing it with earthly, for theirs is without impurity, while the currency among men is a common source of wickedness.” (Part 4, Book 3, section 416e).
One might think that this merely a utopian speculation. But in Plato’s time, Greek states assumed many of the powers that he discusses. For example, Spartan children were taken over and raised by the state. Indeed, Plato’s form of government is based in part on Spartan principles. To Plato, this was a serious proposal of a practical form of government.
This approach to establishing good government was widely followed for nearly two thousand years. Macheivelli is part of that tradition, as are the advocates of the divine right of kings. In the 18th century a new approach arose based on individual preferences and laws. These philosophers (Locke, Jefferson, Madison etc) no longer think of selecting or creating the best possible types of governing elites. Instead they dream of creating institutions capable to getting the most out of who ever gains office. Which leads me to the Federalist Papers which I have posted about before and probably will again.