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Intellectual Biography - Plato's The Republic

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Apr 02, 2016 | #1

Intellectual Biography Research

Situate in Scholarship:

Plato was a major philosopher in classical Greece in the 4th and 5th Centuries BC, who founded the Academy in Athens and wrote a number of important works on ethics, philosophy and politics, including The Republic. Socrates was his teacher and his works take the form of dialogues between this master and his young, aristocratic students, although how many of these ideas were actually those of Plato himself is subject to debate. He was on the authoritarian and aristocratic side of politics in Athens, and actually admired the militaristic state of Sparta far more than the relative free and open society of his own city, particularly since it was based so much on trade and commerce. He also hated the Athenian democracy for sentencing Socrates to death in 399 BC and took no further part in its political life. Indeed, he left the city for many years as a protest against the execution of his beloved teacher, and all of his writings are overflowing with hatred and contempt for rule by the masses that he regarded as ignorant, greedy and irrational. When he returned to Athens, the real purpose of his Academy was to train the new ruling class of enlightened philosophers who he believed were the only proper governors of society.

Major Questions:

In The Republic, Plato's main interest was describing the ideal or perfect type of state, which would be governed in an authoritarian manner by a group of enlightened philosopher kings or Guardians. In this hierarchical society, the soldiers would rank below the Guardians and be responsible for the internal and external protection of the state, and below them would be the masses that did the necessary work of society but had no part of its government.

Major Metaphors:

Plato was an Idealist and dualist who has been very influential in the history of philosophy, including on early Christianity, especially through Augustine, and on into the early modern period with such philosophers as Descartes. For Plato, the ideal or perfect world was spiritual and eternal, while the material world was corrupt and transitory. Only the educated elite had the time and resources to become truly enlightened, which meant contemplating the eternal Forms of God and the soul, while most of the masses were slave-like, child-like and concerned only with money, material things and their own narrow self-interests and physical pleasures. For this reason they could never be trusted with the government of the state, given their limited capabilities, and only the enlightened elites should rule. Every member of The Republic would be trained for their proper duties from childhood.

Significance to the Study of Philosophy of Communication

Plato ResearchPlato disdained democracy as government by mobs and slaves, and his view was the standard one in history, at least up to fairly recent times. He lived long before the era of modern mass communications, of course, in a time when the majority of people were illiterate. Even in the West before modern times, this was typical and the common people were controlled by force or the skillful use of religion. For the most part, any 'communication' with them was in the form of commands, orders and edicts issued by the monarchs and ruling elites, and Plato would certainly have agreed that this was the best way to govern society. Bluntly speaking, he thought that the man function of the masses was to work, obey and keep quiet, and that the rulers were like the captains of a ship whose word was law. In politics at least, his ideal of an authoritarian and hierarchical society was the norm in most times and places, as was slavery in its various forms, although whether the ruling elites were necessarily enlightened is highly debatable. Even many of the Founders of the U.S. in the 18th Century also had this assumption that gentleman of property and refinement, with the wealth and leisure time to devote to important questions of state, were the natural ruling class of society. Disdain for the supposedly ignorant and uneducated masses was also common in the authoritarian and totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century, which ruled by brute force and coercion, but also through the use of mass propaganda. All governments used the new electronic media to manipulate and control the masses to some degree, just as large corporations employed them to sell products to consumers. These developments all took place over 2,000 years after Plato's lifetime, however, and used technologies that he would not have been able to imagine. In his world, where printing did not even exist, communication was far more simple, direct and verbal, although he did expect his Guardian caste to be able to deliver effective speeches to explain their policies.

Section Theses and Synopsis:

The Republic is divided into ten chapters in which the first four describe his view of the just and perfect society as one organized along authoritarian lines with a rigid caste system. He explains that the human soul (nous) is also divided into three parts, just as the larger society, with the rational part responsible for government, the timocratic or courageous part that desired glory, honor and power, than the slave-like part that was ruled by lusts, passions and material desires. Since the vast majority of humanity consisted of the third type, they could not even govern themselves much less the larger society. All authoritarians in history have agreed with Plato on this point, including the mass media propagandists and manipulators who employ modern communications systems.

In the next three chapters, Plato describes the Guardians or philosopher kings, the qualities necessary for their selection and the type of education that would be provided to them at state expense. First and foremost, they had to be rational, enlightened men (and women) who were not motivated by money, material needs or desire for military glory. Those were only for the lower castes, while the elites would have knowledge of God, the soul and the perfect or ideal Forms that were the true basis of the universe. All of this perfection came from God in fact, even though only a privileged few could comprehend it, and therefore real knowledge was also eternal and unchanging. As he pointed out in his allegory of the cave, most people were simply blind to these higher truths, and lived like fools trapped in darkness. Most of the masses would never have superior wisdom and consciousness, but only of the physical-material world, which was doomed to death and decay.

In the last two chapters, he insists that his philosopher kings will not be tyrants, since they will rule justly for the greater good of every member of society, and unlike dictators will not be in love with power for the sake of power or the desire to accumulate money and material things. Since the Guardians are spiritually, morally and intellectually superior, the masses will also be more likely to willingly accept their rule, although those who do not will be exiled or executed. He also warns that those souls who do good (as he defines it) will be rewarded in the afterlife while sinners will be punished even after death. Of course, the highest rewards will be reserved for the Guardians who spent their lives as wise and enlightened rulers of other people.

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