Sunday, July 13, 2008
Plato and totalitarianism
Plato (see picture) was a philosopher born at the beginning of the Peloponnesian war which raged from about 430BC to 400BC. Plato is correctly given a lot of credit for being a very influential philosopher, indeed he thought and wrote about most areas of philosophy during his lifetime. For this he is very much admired, so much in fact that critical voices tend to drown in this ocean of admiration. However, since I started reading "History of Western Philosophy" by Bertrand Russell (one of my favorite philosophers by the way) I have gained a new perspective on Plato, one which I will share here.
In "The Republic" Plato writes about Utopia, that is, the ideal society. It is indeed a very charming and interesting book, much more engaging then many contemporary books that I have read. Socrates, the protagonist in The Republic is a man of great charisma and charm, and as a reader it is difficult not to be seduced.
Nevertheless, if you take away the the charm that is undeniably great in this book, what you are in essence left with is a state that would have made Josef Stalin and Hitler envious, had it ever been created. Society, we are told, is to be divided up into three different classes of citizens, guardians who are to rule, soldiers who will fight and workers who will (you guessed it), work. The guardians decide who, in the next generation, will become the guardian and who will be the worker/soldier. In other words, what Plato is advocating is that we decide at birth whether a child will be ruling over others, fight for the state, or carry out all the dirty work. We have A, B, and C citizens i.e. what we have is fascism, in its most pure form.
A short defense of Plato may be in order here. I do not think that he was being selfish when he advocated this fascistic society, it was not to make life comfortable for himself and other philosophers. Rather, his argument is that rulers should be chosen according to how good they are at ruling, not according to how many people like that ruler. Just like you want a shoemaker to make your shoes, or a soldier to fight your wars you would like a ruler who is educated in his/her profession. The problem with this, as Bertrand Russell points out, is that it is all but impossible to decide who is a good ruler, and if we get a bad ruler who we then cannot get rid of (in a democracy you would typically replace a bad ruler), then the consequences can be very serious indeed. I believe that there is no education that you can give a person that will ensure that he or she will be a good leader, therefore democracy is to be preferred.
Plato was also a fan of positive eugenics in which you arrange the society so that men judged as having desirable traits get more children as well as negative eugenics in which you prevent "inferior" people from getting children. We are told that when a child is born it is to be taken away from its mother so that she will never know which child is hers. If the child is judged by the doctors to be deformed or if it simply has inferior parents, it will be put away in a mysterious place "as it ought to be". Is it just me who thinks this sounds uncomfortably similar to Nazi Germany? Like I said, Hitler and Plato would have had a lot of ideals in common.
Strict censorship of information is another policy dear to Plato. We are told that any book that portrays Gods doing something un-virtuous are to be forbidden because Gods only do acts that are good (yeah right). This of course meant banning all works of Homer where you finds Gods that are jealous, envious, evil, cheating, you name it. As if that was not enough, Plato also want censorship of every book in which people are fearful or afraid to die. The reason is that the soldiers could be affected in a negative way if they read about the horrors of war.
To sum up, if Plato had been given free hands he would have created a fascist eugenic society society with very strict censorship. Hardly utopia for a modern person (I hope). Such a society, like the Christian-based societies that existed in the dark middle ages would also have a detrimental effect on creative thought and on science. All such a society can hope to achieve is success against other societies of roughly equal size (as long as that society does not start to encourage progress). Bertrand Russell suggests that Plato may have been influenced by the fact that he grew up during war-time. There is a clear tendency among people who live in turbulent times to desire stability, and as just mentioned, that is what Plato's Republic may potentially achieve.