ontempt of Court

No Utopia in Plato’s State: An Analysis of Karl Popper’s Social Engineering in The Republic.

The social and moral constructs within Plato’s Republic are largely debated. Tasked with defining justice and proving whether a morally just life is best, Plato constructs a city to function as a large scale model to illustrate his theory of justice and morality. Scholar analysis does not always consider this city to be just a representational model of an ideal social structure however and much work has gone into scrutinizing the concepts Plato built into it. Karl Popper’s criticisms of The Republic can be found in his 1957 text The Open Society and Its Enemies. The focus of this Article will be limited to Volume One “The Spell of Plato” and will examine Popper’s themes on Totalitarianism and Social Engineering as they relate to Plato’s city. The Article will begin with a discussion of Popper’s analysis. The latter half will largely discuss critiques of Popper’s position. The closing section will be an exercise in discussing Raymond Cormier’s comparison between Plato’s Republic and a science fiction film in light of the critiques discussed prior to that point.

Popper’s Analysis of Plato

Philosopher Karl Popper’s contribution with The Open Society is to establish Plato in a perspective that is less than “fundamentally humanitarian”, and one that is far removed from what he refers to as a bias towards an idealized Plato. Popper cites Crossman for pointing out that Plato was rarely criticized “’before the Great War..’” but that Crossman himself still idealized Plato. Volume One is largely a critique of Plato’s Republic along with discussions from Plato’s other dialogues. Volume one is Popper’s attempt to show that Plato has contradicted himself or was at least inconsistent. Popper believes that Plato’s fundamentals for the city are best summarized as follows: “[Arrest all political change!] Change is evil, rest divine” and “[Back to nature!] Back to the original state… founded in accordance with human nature…” From his summary of Plato’s formula Popper concludes that the social hierarchy is best when it returns to its most natural state. Popper then proceeds to outline a basic form of the constructed city found in The Republic; touching on the class system, the role of education, and the necessity for the city to function autonomously in terms of sustainability. This brief description becomes the initial evidence for Popper’s claim that the ideal state found in The Republic is effectively a totalitarian state.

The first prominent evidence for Popper’s claim of totalitarianism comes in a discussion of justice, which is the starting point for The Republic. Popper outlines several criteria for his own definition of justice; “an equal distribution of the burden of citizenship…, an equal share in the advantages…, equal treatment of the citizens before the law…” and Popper believes that any of these would make his totalitarian allegations wrong if Plato had defined “justice” in the same manner. Popper finds that Plato is inconsistent in his definition of justice, defining “justice” as being synonymous with equality at one time and belonging to everyone, and then defining it as a consequence of properly filling one’s role by attending to their own business and theirs alone. This latter definition stems from TheRepublic, concerning the class based hierarchy in which the three different social classes are kept from interfering with one another. Knowing that Plato has previously acknowledged that justice is related to equality, which Popper refers to as ‘equalitarian’ or ‘isonomy’, Popper concludes that Plato must have deliberately omitted this definition from the writing of TheRepublic in favor of the latter definition. Popper does not believe that Plato simply overlooked equalitarian justice since it “played a considerable role in the earlier Gorgias”, but rather that Plato quietly refused to discuss it so as to falsely show his readers that all viable alternatives to Plato’s proposed structure had already been discussed and dismissed.

Popper states that the main principles of equalitarianism are direct opposites of the totalitarian ideas echoed in TheRepublic. Equalitarian justice requires a recognition and treatment of individual citizens as individuals, in contrast to the totalitarian/Republic class division by birth, and its treatment of citizens as parts of a whole and working toward a common good. Given The Republic’s labeling as a totalitarian state then, Popper proceeds to outline how this state-oriented definition of justice is implemented into the dialogue. Socrates makes three arguments; the first argument being that minding one’s own business becomes a virtue comparable to the other three, the second establishes a connection between one’s property and minding of their own business, and the third argument culminates in justice being what is best for the stability of the state.

Popper chooses not to discuss the first argument because it results more from a process of elimination than a lengthy establishment, as Socrates states that it is “what is left over”. Popper is not even fully convinced that the first argument is reasonable. The second argument incorporates the matter of property. In conjunction with the idea that minding one’s business is just, it is also just that a person is not kept from his property or that it is not stolen from him, because without this property he cannot mind what is his own. Popper states that Plato is inferring that the minding of one’s own business must then extend from one’s craft, duties, or role, to their personal property as well. Finding this argument to be flawed, Popper counters with an example that it is just for a thief to conceive of and implement a plan to steal someone else’s property. Theft is this person’s craft, the plan is of their own making, and the goal is to make someone else’s property their own. Since all of these things pertain to the thief’s business, despite its infringement on someone else, it is just.

The third argument concerns establishing the welfare of the city as a whole. Following Plato’s above definition that what is just is to attend to one’s own business, these acts and roles that are attended to serve as the functions of the city. Thus shoe makers practice their craft, potters theirs, the auxiliaries protect the state and its citizens, and the guardians are responsible for governing the state. All of this is attended to for the sake of the stability and health of the community. Popper points out that this stability is achieved by a strict class division. Referring to Socrates’ example of tradesmen switching jobs; two different men of two different trades are not likely to be very good at each other’s job, but even if they were to switch roles for a short time, they would not cause much of a disturbance. This is a mixing of roles within the worker class. However if a member of the working class were to somehow join the auxiliaries, or if an auxiliary somehow joined the guardian class, classes for which none of these people have been trained or educated, what results is “utmost wickedness”,destruction, and injustice.

Popper summarizes Plato’s argument as asking “does this thing [social change] harm the city?” If so, then it commits an injustice, since it risks the stability. This argument does not allow for the desire of an individual to become a warrior, or for a warrior to become a ruler. The classes are to maintain their roles on the ground of being virtuous, and for the sake of the whole. Popper points out that this means Plato’s moral code becomes one of utility and is based solely on the interest of the state.

Having briefly established Popper’s claim of totalitarianism against Plato’s city, and the evidence to support this claim, it is important to move on to Popper’s second chief concern with The Republic. The second concern comes in the form of how to implement the system which Plato has described. Popper discusses two forms of social engineering; Utopian and Piecemeal, and the methods of social restructuring that each uses. Utopian engineering is the form which Plato is charged with, and in Popper’s mind is the more dangerous and is less sound than the Piecemeal approach.

The Utopian approach requires that a blueprint or design is already in mind. This is used as a means to identify the goals that are trying to be achieved. On the topic of end goals, or “aims” as Popper calls them, he clarifies that it is necessary to distinguish between the ultimate aims and the intermediary aims. This is necessary because the actions are only rational if they knowingly “and consistently” work toward achieving the ultimate goal. While the ultimate does include the intermediary goals, the intermediary must be recognized specifically as steps towards the ultimate. As such the intermediary cannot be rationally pursued on their own merits but only in relation to the ultimate. Social reform under the Utopian approach requires large scale changes, and thus expects a unified conformity from the citizens involved.

The Piecemeal approach does not necessarily require a blueprint but it may prove useful. Popper believes that anyone who takes this approach to social engineering will be aware of the difficulties of their task, stating that “he may or may not hope that mankind will one day realize an ideal state” and that “perfection, if at all attainable, is far distant”. This suggests that there is an awareness to the person who attempts this method that he may not succeed in his lifetime, the lifetime of those who continue his work, or at all. In contrast to the Utopian, which keeps the end goal constantly in mind, Piecemeal engineering focuses on eliminating the most immediate threats to a society. This implies that after each change there is period of reflection or reevaluation required to determine what must be improved next under Piecemeal engineering. Popper writes that “it [Piecemeal engineering] is the difference between a reasonable method of improving the lot of man, and a method which… may easily lead to an intolerable increase in human suffering [Utopian engineering]”.

Keeping in mind that Piecemeal engineering works by accomplishing a task then reevaluating afterwards, the system would, ideally, keep a relatively progressive pace in achieving a consistently better state, without a specific end goal to signal a stopping point. In the event that the Piecemeal society makes a mistake, it should be evident within one or two reevaluations, so that not much harm is done and it can be corrected relatively easily. The Utopia is contrary to this since it requires a governing power to be concentrated in a select and small class of people. The governing body is focused entirely on achieving the end goal prescribed by the blueprint and taking whatever steps to reach that goal. Popper points out that this requires them to ignore complaints and criticisms about the methods used to obtain the end goal.

The ignorance toward the criticisms of the masses that a Utopia requires means that a mistake in social reform may not be noticed by the governing body until it has caused “considerable inconvenience to many, and for a considerable span of time.” Worse still, the concept of the end goal may change with successive generations of the governing body. Popper refers back that this is why Plato’s Utopia requires an arrestment of change, so that the ideal end goal remains resolute and unaltered from its original form.

Stated above, the intermediary steps toward achieving the end goal in a Utopian society are only considered rational if they work towards said goal. Popper finds that in order to maintain this, even in Plato’s Utopia, there must exist a “dogmatic attachment” to the plan that has been constructed, and this faithful adherence will justify its methods as a means to the end. The problem of this dogmatism, aside from an inevitable disregard for the people, is that the strict adherence strips away the rational aspect of the intermediary steps and from the entire blueprint. It becomes a matter of blind faith in the plan, without contextual considerations.

Considering the sweeping reforms the Utopian city requires then, it becomes evident that the society must start from a clean slate so as not to infringe too greatly on one which is already well established. Referring back to Socrates it becomes evident that in order to start with a clean slate, the education of the youth must be distinctly different from that of their parents. To do this the parents must be physically removed from the children and the children’s education will alienate them from the mindset of the previous generation, so that the children become the blank slate on which the Utopia can be formed. Popper concludes that “it is not reasonable to assume that a complete reconstruction of our social world would lead at once to a workable system”. In the event that one such reconstruction did not give a favorable result, it would be necessary to do it again. Popper’s point then is that the desire for a “workable system” is not guaranteed by simply starting from a blank slate.

Michaelle Browers offers a counter critique on volume one of Popper’s Open Society. He admits that Popper’s critique of TheRepublic as an ideal is valid, but because Popper’s research is incomplete it is unsound. Browers is of the mind that Popper, despite his claim to the contrary, has not provided a fair treatment of Plato’s work in regards to Utopian and Piecemeal engineering. Popper makes use of references to Plato’s Laws to criticize TheRepublic throughout the text but, according to Browers, he makes no mention of it in the chapter dedicated to Utopianism. Because of this he concludes that Popper has provided a “misreading of [Plato’s] political thought”. Browers’ goal then is to use the Laws as a supplement to the blueprint of The Republic to show that Popper’s criticisms were answered in a later text.

As discussed earlier Utopian engineering requires a clean slate to work from or large scale reform that will likely infringe on the citizens who are affected by it, but this reform will not consider these people as individuals, since it is only focused on the end goal. Browers finds that in the Laws, where a Cretan man is tasked with founding a new colony, Plato takes the time to consider several geographic features of the area where the colony of Magnesia is to be founded before his characters begin to implement the colony through discussion. The characters also consider the citizens who will occupy it and begin to build around these considerations, which Browers identifies as being very much like the Piecemeal engineering that for which Popper advocates. Taking these into account the Laws do appear to use a similar Piecemeal method, since it considers the most immediate complications.

Browers indicates that the Laws employ several features in its impending colony that are not found in typical Athenian society, of which Socrates is fond. Unlike Athens, the Magnesia colony contains a more developed appeals system for its court than what Athens used. The colony of Magnesia borrows common dining areas from Spartan society, and assigns judges for a court that are elected for their “wisdom and experience” similar to Cretan and Spartan councils. Rather than pulling ideas from a single grand blueprint, the construction of the Laws seems to have borrowed ideas from several different cultures and combined them together to form a colony that is “more modest and worldly” than the city seen in The Republic. Browers states that this does not seem at all like the clean slate indicated in TheRepublic, or by Popper, since it is conforming to ideas that are necessary for a very specific group of peoples.

Popper writes that Plato’s political program can be easily understood in relation to the idea that change is bad but the Laws makes a concession which seems to keep a capacity and necessity for change in mind. The Nocturnal Council is comprised of members of the colony of various experiences and good virtues and appears to be responsible for discussing and reviewing knew knowledge that is brought back by members who have traveled abroad. This knowledge is judged on basis of whether or not it holds value for the colony, either in education or in adapting and maintaining the civility of the colony. Following Morrow’s Cretan City, Browers notes that the Council is now often agreed to have been responsible for consistently reviewing and revising the colony’s policies without being responsible for directly governing it.

Roger Paden discusses Popper’s forms of social engineering in his work Popper’s Anti-utopianism and the Concept of an Open Society and concludes that Popper’s Piecemeal argument against utopian engineering is actually utopian in itself. Popper has established that the difference between the two forms is Piecemeal engineering’s ability to consistently review decisions as they are made in order to take a rational and adaptive approach to solving immediate problems, while utopian engineering operates from a blueprint or set plan of action that is focused intently on a single end goal. In Popper’s arguments against utopianism he clearly favors concepts of individuality and justice before the law, in direct opposition to The Republic’s minding of one’s own business and operating for the good of the state. Given this liberal stance Paden finds that, according to Popper’s arguments, liberal institutions must already be in place in a state for Piecemeal engineering to be successful, and thus they become “preconditions of piecemeal engineering, not its product.”

According to Paden, Popper believes that the value of liberal institutions goes beyond liberal, or open, societies and actually extends to all societies, quoting Popper: “Liberalism is an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary creed (unless it is confronted by a tyrannical regime).” Paden concludes then that while Popper generally opposes radical utopian changes, he would actually support radical changes necessary to turn a closed society into an open one. John Wild encourages this line of inquiry and refers back to Popper’s summary of Plato’s doctrine of “change is evil, rest divine”. Referring to the original quote, Wild finds that Plato generally warns against change except when it involves a bad thing changing for the better. Thus Wild states that “change from an evil state to a better one is good” and this statement is familiar to Popper’s own stance against The Republic. Popper has argued that Piecemeal engineering is more rational in part because of its ability to consistently test policies before fully implementing them, in order to gauge their effectiveness, but Paden points out that Popper excludes various aspects of the proposed open society from these kinds of tests. What Paden concludes then is that Popper’s argument for an open society is actually an ideal society akin to a utopia, which Popper has been arguing against.

George Klosko analyzes Popper’s Open Society as well, noting that despite the criticism Popper received for the work it still provided a valuable critique of Plato’s work. Echoing Popper, he remarks that before the Open Society, Plato was held in very high regards by scholars and that the subsequent work changes the reader’s perceptions of Plato whether they believe Popper or not. One point Klosko makes is that Popper’s overall dislike of Plato is not particularly new and had been generally echoed in works that were published before Open Society. What is different about the work is that Popper follows through with his analysis and reasoning more thoroughly. Klosko does however take issue with Popper’s assertion of totalitarianism in conjunction with historicism, inferring that the historicism aspect is problematic for Popper’s argument.

Historicism is a view that states there are laws or historical trends that can be interpreted to determine the outcome of political actions. Historicism’s main doctrine according to Popper is that “history is controllied by specific historical or evolutionary laws whose discovery would enable us to prophesy the destiny of man”. This alleges that one who can perceive the laws which history naturally and inevitably proceeds through will be able to predict and manipulate the outcome favorably, or protect against it. Klosko points out that Popper has added this claim to his list against Plato and that Popper uses it to support Plato’s idea of arresting all change. Klosko admits that there is some support for this, so that Popper cannot be definitively proven wrong, but there is more evidence against Popper’s claim in the Laws. For Popper there must be a Golden Age to return to, a time “before the Fall”, but in the Laws Plato founds civilization “from a primordial disaster”.

Similarly John Wild states that the Golden Age Popper is referring to is entirely made up and that there is no proof that Plato believed in such a time. Historicism infers that when change is made, a society will inevitably decline from that point forward, but Klosko points out that a society in the Laws improves after changes are made, countering Popper’s notion of gradual decline. Wild joins Klosko in stating that Popper has committed a fallacy here. Wherein Popper attributes “inexorable laws [that govern] the behavior” and subordinate individuals to Plato, Wild believes that “social order [is a] manifestation of what is going on within the individual soul” and is closer to Plato’s thought. Again Wild‘s own reference can be used to dissuade Popper’s Golden Age concept, referring to the myth of Prometheus where man was created as a “blunder” and thus there was no great era to return to or to have regressed from.

Klosko finds that Popper’s historicism problem is related to a misinterpretation regarding Plato’s Ideal Forms. While all things, according to Plato, are derived from perfect ideal forms, these Forms are not tangible. Klosko states that “Popper adds a temporal priority. He argues that the Forms are historical points of origin for material objects…”, but this cannot be since the Forms are purely metaphysical. There is no bygone era to decline from or return to as it relates to Popper’s Historicism based assertion. Klosko asserts that Popper “is mistaken about fundamental themes in Plato’s political theory”, as in the case of this misinterpretation and manipulation of Forms. Given these inaccuracies in Popper’s understanding of Plato’s doctrines and the further inaccurate assumptions that result from them, Klosko determines that Popper is wrong to classify Plato as a totalitarian in terms of historicism, stating that “it seems not to have occurred to Popper that a thinker can be a totalitarian because of reasons other than historicism”. Klosko concedes however that Plato could be seen as totalitarian, since Plato does wish to construct a solid and stable state and, once constructed, any changes could potentially doom it. Referring to the Laws, Klosko mentions the Athenian Stranger’s appreciation for the unchanged nature of Egypt for several millennia.

Having considered Popper’s misinterpretations directly, Klosko moves on to discuss matters of realizing the state described in The Republic and refuting allegations that the work is completely Utopian in nature. In doing so Klosko is specific about his use of the term utopia, stating that he is limiting his defense to allegations of whether Plato intended to implement the ideal state and his awareness of the issues such an implementation would face. Klosko begins his discussion of implementation by defining two types of interpretations of The Republic; Traditionalists who believe Plato was serious about creating an ideal state, whether it was actually possible or not, and Revisionists who believe The Republic is either a treatise on justice and the soul only, or that the requirements to set up The Republic are unfeasible. Klosko argues for the Traditionalist position and James McKeown’s assertion that The Republic is to society and politics what the Mother Goose rhyme is to horticulture can fairly safely place him among Revisionists.

McKeown contends that The Republic represents Plato’s examination of justice in the individual by use of the city as an example, stating that “he made it clear that he was not formulating a plan for a real state” and that it was “not to be taken as an actual political or social commentary…” In response to this sort of thought, Klosko has agreed that the work does genuinely focus on justice as one of its themes but notes that Plato has omitted plainly labeling and dividing the topics of his discussions before, citing the Gorgias as “not about either rhetoric or the moral life, but about both.” According to Klosko then The Republic’s focus on both justice and city building, which McKeown admits is elaborate, can be used to infer that the work is about both in topic and practical usage. McKeown maintains his position that The Republic has focused on the individual and finds that references to the tripartite soul lead to a restated question; from “what is justice?” to “how are men to order their lives so as to live best?”

To this Klosko might refer again to his duality concept mentioned just above. Since Socrates uses the example of a city to illustrate the constitution of a person, then a person can serve to represent the measure of their city. Given the orderliness which Plato designs the state, if a person were to model themselves after the city, then they should reflect this same level of orderliness in life. Klosko refers to corrupted peoples as being a sign of a corrupted city on two occasions. Klosko reasons that if the city is corrupt, and thus corrupts its citizens, the established system “would predominate and render any Piecemeal attempt to improve things futile”, thus the state would continually revert back to familiar, corrupt, grounds. This is the reason Plato requires a blank slate to work.

This constant regression back to the corrupted state would be the result of the appetitive aspect of the soul, as Plato calls it, in which the people are more concerned with their base wants and desires than with their ability to be rational. Here it may be important to mention that the city focused on in The Republic is the second city which Plato describes at the request or demand of Glaucon who believed the first to be inadequate. If the conditions of Plato’s second city seem at all confining, then the conditions of his first are even more so. The first city is described as the healthy city and the second as the luxurious. As McKeown believes The Republic to be a focus on justice and morality in the soul, the first city seems to reflect a more genuine ideal for Plato and is ruled with much more of the rational part of the soul. In this first city the people keep to their own business, much like the luxurious one, but the people are all artisans who produce goods for themselves and for their community, and they focus on good that they are most suited to making so that they are of the best possible quality. Ian and Margaret DeWeese-Boyde point out that the people of this healthy city only make what they need and that they find an intrinsic worth to the devotion of their crafts. To some extent then, this healthier first state could represent a more simplistic treatise on justice and the soul for McKeown, but the details of The Republic as a whole are still necessary to reach the point that is only glossed over by this first city.

In Klosko’s article on Plato’s Utopianism he infers that the politics of the state go beyond legislature for the Greeks, stating that the politics also reflect on moral discussions. He refers to Aristotle in describing the state as being “for the sake of the good life” and to Plato directly for describing “politics as the art ‘which has to do with the soul.’” Klosko’s interpretation that Greek politics reflects on the structure and organization of the soul as well as the state appears to work in tandem with McKeown’s interpretations then, only that politics in The Republic are not limited to moral analogies as McKeown believes.

Klosko believes that Plato’s significant attention to the implementation of the state described is, by itself, enough to be considered a serious discussion on politics. From here then McKeown will be left alone to consider Plato’s moral teachings, even if they may be limited by his interpretation. Plato’s philosopher-king becomes one of the great hurdles to implementing the ideal city, as Popper indicates that this individual, or their council, would be responsible for neglecting the individuality of the people in implementing the large scale reforms that are necessary. Klosko concedes that putting a philosopher king into the position necessary to create the state is nearly impossible and he believes that Plato was aware of this. Klosko discusses the political obstacles involved in overcoming this hardship in the unlikely event that the conditions are right, but they are too in depth to be discussed in this work. It can, however briefly, be pointed out that there is a difference between a philosopher who becomes a king and a king who becomes a philosopher, and that Plato’s “real hope… throughout most of The Republic is the conversion of a king into a philosopher.”

Regarding allegations that The Republic may be a totalitarian state however, Klosko never definitively refutes this; he only states that it is not one based on Popper’s claims of historicism. In an authoritarian state, or in trying to enforce utopian social changes, the issue of suppressing dissenting opinions or those who are unhappy will inevitably occur. The people who are affected are bound to voice displeasure at some point. Violence may or may not initially come to mind in dealing with suppression and Popper has associated violent enforcement with utopian social reform before, according to Paden. Where Popper asserts that violent enforcement is always bad for utopian engineering, Paden questions if utopian engineering is inherently bad simply because “many attempts… may have involved the use of violence”. One again Klosko’s work is relevant here in pointing out that Plato never seems to advocate the use of force in establishing his philosopher king or the social policies of The Republic. This non-violence seems to have extended to those affected by social policies as well, as Socrates is attributed in the Crito with stating that a man who does not agree with his city’s policies can only convince the law makers that he is right or submit to the city’s will. Klosko admits that in one of Plato’s other works he seems less opposed to violence, and The Republic itself advocates exiling the previous generation for the sake of a blank slate, but The Republic’s silence on violence itself is enough of an indicator for Klosko that “Plato deprives his philosopher of the resort to force” and “he cannot attempt a seizure of power”.

Klosko’s reasoning show that the inability to resort to force means even the would-be ruler must keep to himself, much like the rest of the population is expected to tend to their own duties. Even if the philosopher did come to power however, it is contested whether or not they would be happy in their position. Pointing to an argument by Bloom and Strauss, that everyone would be unhappy, “especially the philosophers”, we have a brief consideration that goes somewhat past Popper’s consideration. In criticizing the ideal state Popper has questioned the potential happiness of its citizens as it pertains to the suppression of their individuality, but he has not considered the happiness of those who are leading this suppression. Since the philosopher kings seem to be responsible for this unhappiness, why should their own displeasure be called into question? Klosko responds that even if the philosophers are made unhappy by having to give up their business in order to govern the state, “the ideal state is designed not to make any one class happy, but for the good all”. The state is built on a cooperative level, wherein the goals are understood by the individuals and are pursued as a community.

The nature of happiness in The Republic has been closely tied to the virtues, namely moderation, courage, and prudence. On virtue Christopher Bobonich distinguishes between philosophers and non-philosophers, with the second category encompassing both the auxiliary and production classes of The Republic. He states that non-philosophers are incapable of genuine virtue and defines the qualifications for it according to the Phaedo: “ a person aim[s] at wisdom for its own sake, and (ii) wisdom govern[s] all the person’s exchanges involving other things, that is, that the person choose and act on the basis of wisdom.” The non-philosophers are further separated because of their fear of death and a constant attachment to material things, a result of the appetitive part of the soul, and thus they can only obtain a “slavish virtue” at best according to Bobonich.

Because their nature is ruled by the appetitive part, the non-philosophers are never awakened to wisdom and never transition to being ruled by the orderly/rational part of the soul. Bobonich directly connects the people discussed in the Phaedo with those in The Republic by way of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The citizens of the ideal state are subject to the same rules and thus are incapable of genuine virtue as well. This lack of genuine virtue will, upon death, essentially cut them off from their gods and their souls will be left to continue wandering aimlessly, as they did without wisdom in life, in the afterlife, or worse they may be reincarnated as an animal which has even less hope. Since non-philosophers are incapable of the necessity of wisdom, and consequently cut off from happiness, then only those born with philosophical tendencies even have a chance of acquiring happiness.

Raymond Cormier discusses Plato’s Republic by comparing it to a science fiction film and, against this more modern backdrop, critiques it for its similarities. What follows is a final discussion of this critique and the work discussed as a whole up to this point. The film THX-1138 depicts what Cormier describes as “utopian and dystopian elements combined in a single work” and he leads directly into brief discussions of some of Plato’s concepts. Cormier comments that despite the apparent happiness of the people in Plato’s state, the people “would have no personal freedom or liberty as moderns might define these terms.” Cormier appears to have subscribed to Popper’s thoughts on Plato in this comparison, and this statement has an important contextual relevance. Specifically it has denied the context of Plato’s original work and imposed a contemporary context over it. As Nicoara points out in his criticism of Popper, context is important to understanding both Plato and Popper, in that the two are operating in drastically separate time frames, and Popper seems to have ignored Plato’s context a great deal. This is not to say that Cormier’s assertion of modern definitions is not entirely applicable but, contextually, Plato’s definitions cannot be matched directly with our own modern definitions.

Discussing Plato’s “Myth of Metals” Cormier states that each class; Guardian, Auxiliary, and Producer, has an ore in their veins, and that gold births gold, silver births silver and so on. While this generally follows Plato’s myth Cormier has omitted any indication of the upward and downward movement amongst these classes for which Wild points out Plato has accounted. While each class will usually produce similar offspring, exceptional children may be born to lower class parents, and unexceptional children to higher class at times. These exceptions are not accounted for as Cormier continues that “procreation is regulated so to produce the best possible children”.

Cormier continues, describing the world in THX-1138 as a subterranean “bleak, post-apocalyptic, computer controlled… populace” and indicates that they are denied basic human desires by means of daily sedative doses. After refusing their sedatives two characters begin to wake up, in a matter of words, and notice their basic desires which have been hidden from them by regimental drug usage up to this point. Cormier claims that this is a “’sin and crime,’ in Plato’s words”, but there seems to be no indication that this is a crime in The Republic. These appetitive desires may not lead Plato’s people to a virtuous life, but that is their choice, and they are not kept from them. At worst, such desires may be punished insofar as they interfere with another person’s duties.

Despite these criticisms of Cormier’s choice of words, he may be tentatively correct in, along with Popper, labeling Plato’s political doctrines as having a significant autocratic tendency. Plato’s Republic no doubt advocates for strict guidelines in the arts which Cormier considers a censorship. Klosko has pointed out that if one takes Plato as having seriously considered implementing the state, then he has gone through great troubles to outline a possible, though highly improbable, ideal state. It requires strict division among its classes and the people in them keep to themselves so as to function to the best of their abilities. In the end it appears to this author that Plato, if his doctrines are intended for implementation of the state, and not simply the soul, advocated for an autocratic state.

Given Klosko’s work to prove the remote plausibility of Plato’s state however, it does not seem to be completely utopian as Popper alleged, only potentially so. By potentially utopian it must be understood in the context of George Klosko’s defense against the term, in that utopian here refers to political reform that is not taken to have serious considerations of implementation. Per Klosko’s defense of Plato’s Republic he has argued that Plato did intentionally design the ideal state to be established given the right circumstances. Following Klosko’s argument and definition of utopian then, The Republic does not represent a utopia but an ideal. Alternatively, if Jame McKeown’s position is seriously considered; stating that The Republic is not a treatise on political reform and is relegated solely to the discussion of justice and the order of Plato’s tripartite soul, then Popper’s allegations of utopianism and totalitarianism become inapplicable altogether, since the city becomes nothing more than a metaphor for the soul.


Rishabh Goswami is an undergraduate computer science student at Ashoka University. Rishabh previously worked with Mahmudabad Estate and currently working as a data analyst intern at Adobe Inc.

Go to Top