The Philosophy of Plato: Politics

Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of the Western World


by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

The Philosophy of Plato: VIII. Politics

The politics of Plato are the rigid application of all that he had already recognized as true in metaphysics and ethics. He does not regard the empirical reality which surrounds him, the various constitutions of Grecian cities, but has in view the ideal world which is the norm of the true and the good and hence of every virtue. He traces the lines of a republic in which men must be organized in such a way that they may realize to the maximum extent that which it is given them to know of the ideal world. And animated by the conviction that material reality must be sacrificed to the ideal, Plato is not brought to a stop even by those consequences which at first sight seem paradoxes, such as the partial abolition of property and of the family.

Although Plato treats of state organization in Politics and in Laws, his fundamental treatise is the ten books of the Republic. His thought can be summarized as follows:

First of all Plato finds that the necessity for society and the state resides in human nature itself. No one is sufficient in himself; everyone needs the aid of others in order to live a life worthy of man. Hence man must live with others in society in order to make use of them both materially and morally.

From the moment society arises out of the necessity of meeting the needs of man, the members which make up society must be organized into different classes according to the diversity of works to be be performed. Led by the theory that in man there are two different souls, one of which has two aspects, Plato establishes the teaching that in society also there must be three different organizations or classes: philosophers, warriors, and producers, corresponding to the rational soul and the two aspects of the irrational soul (the irascible and the concupiscible).

Each of these classes has its special work to fulfill:

  • The philosophers must direct the state;
  • The warriors must defend the state;
  • The producers (subdivided into various groups of arts and skills) must attend to the material production of those things that are needed by the state.

Thus Plato’s state is eminently aristocratic. Its direction is confided to a few philosophers who, granted the Platonic identification of wisdom and virtue, are also the best and hence are worthy of directing all the others.

The philosophers, who live in the contemplation of the ideal world, are, in the state, the representatives of wisdom, which is the fundamental virtue, as we have seen. The philosophers, because they are wise, also know the essence of the state and can show the other two classes the way that must be followed in order to attain the end of the state. They must restrain the warriors from their irrational impulses, and thus there arises rational fortitude; they must restrain the passions and greed of the producers; this restraint gives rise to the virtue of temperance. Thus is attained the virtue of justice, which we know to be, after wisdom, the fundamental virtue of human life.

The state must also take care of education in order to procure new leaders. Practically speaking, education is restricted to the warrior class, from which the (philosophers) were elected to the head of the state. The producers’ class is not considered because of the Greek prejudice against manual labor. Education comprises music and gymnastics, the first to render the spirit amiable; music includes not only music properly speaking, but also poetry, history, and so forth — all the activities presided over by the Muses. Hence the name “music.” Gymnastics serves to render the body shapely and strong, and must be subordinated to music because physical development, if not regulated by the mind, produces unmannerly and materialistic people. Hence Plato has a certain aversion to physical exercise.

The state thus thought out by Plato is an ethico-religious organism which must care for the material good of the citizens and above all lead them to the attainment of the ideal of virtue. The citizens of Plato’s state must concern themselves with living in accord with the transcendent world and not give in to the inclinations of sense and passion. The great personage is not the one who does great things, but the one who knows how to live wisely.

Plato is ready to sacrifice everything. Thus he denied the family and the right of private property to the philosopher and warrior classes. He understood that attachment to one’s own family and greed for material goods could be grave impediments preventing these two classes from fulfilling their duty, in view of the fact that the latter have to defend the state even at the cost of their lives and the former have to live completely in the contemplation of virtue. In Plato private property and the family find place only in the class called producers.

To see Plato as the precursor of present-day Socialism and Communism is to misconstrue his entire ethical teaching. He denied the family and the right to property to two classes in the state because these classes must be completely freed from the shackles of material goods and intent on attaining a grade of spiritualization. On the contrary, Socialism and Communism of the present day deny private property and would abolish the institution of the family for a thoroughly materialistic purpose, that is, to make possible greater material prosperity.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work. “Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of the Western World” was designed and organized by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D. Copyright ©1992 -2011 The Radical Academy. Copyright renewed in © 2011 -2013 The Radical Academy (a project of The Moral Liberal).

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