J.G. Keely's Reviews > The Republic

The Republic by Plato
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Sep 07, 11

bookshelves: greece, utopia, philosophy
Read in January, 1998

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message 1: by Wilcott (new) - added it

Wilcott So I hear that Plato's Republic proposes a form of government that leads to fascism. Is this true? or just misinterpretation?


J.G. Keely Well, what it does is represent a cycle of governance that contains fascism: in Plato's understanding, you start with a Meritocracy, where people are in power based upon their skills and ability, an example of which might be the American Founding Fathers. Then, over time, this degrades into Timarchy, where the next generation ends up being less competent than the previous one, since they inherit their positions instead of earning them, and they start squabbling over power.

After that, the power struggle becomes monetized, as the people in charge start hording more and more wealth in an attempt to keep their power, which leads to Oligarchy: rule by the wealthy. This can be represented by the monopolistic power of the 'Robber Barons' in America. Then, when everyone is hording wealth, you end up with a large, powerful middle class, which leads to Democracy, where things are ruled by this huge group of free people. The Fifties and Sixties in America are a good example of this, where the Middle Class had a great deal of power and things like Civil Rights, Roe V. Wade, and other freedoms were enacted.

But, Democracy leads to lack of discipline, because everyone just ends up free to do as they like--they refuse to be taxed because they want to keep their money, they refuse to go to war because they don't want to risk death, they want to have everything and not to give anything up, which weakens the state because there are no 'hard decisions' being made. We can see this in the economic meltdown in California, where voters were able to refuse being taxed, or in part of Europe, like Greece, that refused to take on austerity measures.

But eventually, something is going to go wrong: famine, war, or some other big problem that the Middle Class doesn't know how to deal with, and this makes them afraid, and so they decide to invest their power into a Tyrant who will take over and make the hard decisions for them. You could look at George Bush as an example of a leader who was ceded a great deal of power in a time of fear.

Or you could mention King George III, from whom the American colonies rebelled, which brings us back to Meritocracy and completes the cycle.

However, Plato did suggest the possibility of this cycle being broken if we could get a 'philosopher king' into power. A philosopher king would be someone who was raised to be a ruler, who understood politics, economics, international relations, and knew how to make tough, necessary decisions. But, he would also have to be someone for whom power and wealth were less tempting than the idea of doing his job well, and then he would have to pick an equally-skilled successor when he died. There have been a few such philosopher king types, like Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Queen Victoria, but when they die, it always turns into a squabble for power, which leads back into the cycle.


message 3: by Wilcott (new) - added it

Wilcott Keely wrote: "However, Plato did suggest the possibility of this cycle being broken if we could get a 'philosopher king' into power. A philosopher king would be someone who was raised to be a ruler, who understood politics, economics, international relations, and knew how to make tough, necessary decisions."

I see, so basically these 'philosopher kings' will be raised by the people to eventually rule over them. They will be given the authority to do as they please with the state because they were better educated in politics, economics, international relations and so on. They will even be given the authority to elect the next 'philosopher king' because only they will have the knowledge to know who is the best person to take up this position. This sounds a bit like Hobbes's Leviathan.


J.G. Keely Yeah, I've noticed a lot of Utopian ideas tend to follow similar lines--that instead of setting up a system which tries to account for and act in accordance with human behavior, they end up relying on an ideal that everything is just 'different' and that the person in charge is somehow automatically the best leader and isn't motivated by greed or power.


message 5: by Wilcott (new) - added it

Wilcott Indeed, I guess one has to take a biased view of the world in order to believe that their ideals are achievable.

Oh, and thanks for the summary of the 'cycle of governance', it is most interesting.


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