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Plato and Politics: Why we form a political society?

  • Ideas specified by The Republic (380 BCE)
  • Individual people are not self-sufficient- can’t acquire all necessities of life working alone
  • Thus, form communities in which we work for common goals
  • Goals better achieved if each person focuses on a specific role (farmer, carpenter, merchant etc. )- Each person should ONLY perform task for which they are most readily useful suited
  • Plato proposed people (like the metals gold, silver, and bronze) possess different natures that fit each of them to a particular function within the operation of the society
  • Thus, perfect society (he named Kallipolis) is one of different classes of individuals
  • Plato’s preferred type of government was aristocracy (rule by the best) but he believed that this would eventually give way to inferior forms of government:

Timocracy: rule motivated by love of power, not the common good

Plutocracy: rule motivated by acquisition of wealth & personal gain- creates society divided between rich and poor

Democracy: the poor rebel and select a charismatic leader that is unfit to lead, resulting in chaos and disorder

Tyranny: people consider a strongman to end disorder.   Uses absolute capacity to enslave subjects

Commonly cited benefits and drawbacks of Platonic politics:

 

Advantages:

  • Openness to women in positions of power makes some believe Plato was ahead of his time in terms of gender equality
  • Specialization and division of labour might maximize productivity
  • Unavailability of private property to ruling elite removes motive of personal gain in decision making
  • Leaders chosen based on merit alone- not wealth, family prestige, personal popularity like in other political systems

Disadvantages

  • Some feel it is too utopian; a society that could never be achieved and so is impractical
  • Some ideas that people owe complete allegiance to leader and should sacrifice well-being for good of state used to justify 20 th century totalitarianism (World War II Germany,   USSR)
  • People have little say in their role in society- their class is selected for them based on their early education, no role in determining who leads them
  • Selective breeding of guardians a similar idea to World War II Germany eugenics- forced sterilizations and killing of people deemed undesirable in the project to build the “master race”

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