ANCIENT PHILOSOPHY MAJOR ESSAY
SEMESTER I 2006
MICHAEL RADZEVICIUS 1092537
What role does the method of governance in The Republic assume in an analysis of the viability of Plato’s political constructs? How does this relate to a discussion of The Republic as a utopian political ideal?
Plato’s The Republic is one of the most influential philosophical, political and literary texts in the history of Western thought. The Republic’s system of governance is of considerable moment to an appreciation of the relationship between Plato’s political philosophy and practical political activity. In the system of governance Plato envisages as the most effective and beneficial for a particular ...view middle of the document...
The Republic’s system of governance is subsequently based upon Plato’s tripartite division of society into the following groups: the smallest group of all, the ruling ‘philosopher-kings’; their general assistants and military corps the ‘Auxiliaries’ or ‘Guardians’; and finally, the general populace. In the society of The Republic ‘the desires of the less respectable majority are controlled by the desires and the wisdom of the superior minority’. For Plato, minority rule is an ineluctable necessity as ‘there are some who are naturally fitted for philosophy and political leadership, while the rest should follow their lead but let philosophy alone’. Critics such as George Hourani believe that Plato ‘pays little attention to the capabilities of the third class in his ideal city, regarding them as raw material on which the Guardians exercise their art’. The majority must therefore be governed by the philosopher-kings because it is the philosopher-kings alone who are biologically fit to rule.
The Republic’s system of governance can never be altered because each individual within Plato’s tripartite society is forbidden from leaving the social class to which they are biologically assigned. According to Plato, ‘quantity and quality are therefore more easily produced when a man specialises appropriately on a single job for which he is naturally fitted, and neglects all others’. Subsequently, ‘interference by the three classes with each other’s jobs, and interchange of jobs between them, therefore, does the greatest harm to our state, and we are entirely justified in calling it the worst of evils’. Plato does make a concession, however minor, regarding this ban on the interchange of class positions in The Republic when he expounds the ‘magnificent myth’ that details the mythical creation of the state’s citizens. As ‘occasionally a silver child will be born of golden parents, or a golden child of silver parents, and so on’, some progression and regression amongst the classes is theoretically possible, but, ultimately, not entirely probable.
Plato believes that as a ‘state whose prospective rulers come to their duties with least enthusiasm is bound to have the best and most tranquil government’, the philosopher-kings, being reluctant to seize power, will exist to benefit the state and the majority of its citizens. This is because the happiness of the rulers themselves is assured by doing so. Terence Irwin suggests that ‘if he [the philosopher] is a virtuous man, he should regard public service in other people’s interests as a part of the life that realises his own happiness; though the state is not designed for his happiness, he should find that his role in the state realises his happiness’. Thus, ‘ruling provides the philosopher with the opportunity of overcoming his awareness of the disparity between the physical and ideal realms, for the philosopher-ruler models the social order according to the harmony of the...