The Essence of the Commonwealth



     "It was dialectic itself that led Plato back to politics. Plato began to realize that the Socratic demand for self-knowledge could not be fulfilled so long as man was still blind with regard to the principal question and lacked a real insight into the character and the scope of political life. The soul of the individual is bound up with the social nature; we cannot separate the one from the other. Private and public life are interdependent. If the latter is wicked and corrupt, the former cannot develop and cannot reach its end. Plato has inserted in his Republic a most impressive description of all the dangers to which an individual is exposed in an unjust and corrupt state. . .

'So it is, then, with this temperament we have postulated for the philosopher: given the right instruction, it must grow to the full flower of excellence; but if the plant is sown and reared in the wrong soil, it will develop every contrary defect, unless saved by some miracle.' Republic (491)

     "That was the fundamental insight by which Plato, from his first studies in dialectic, was led back to his study of politics. We cannot hope to reform philosophy if we do not begin by reforming the state. That is the only way if we wish to change the ethical life of men. To find the right political order is the first and most urgent problem. . .

     "Plato became a political thinker and a statesman not by inclination but from duty. And he inculcated this duty in the minds of his philosophers. If they would follow their own way they would prefer by far a speculative life to political life. But they must be summoned back to earth, and, if necessary, compelled to participate in the life of the state. The philosopher, the man who constantly holds converse with the divine order, will not easily condescend to return to the political arena.

'So the philosopher, in constant companionship with the divine order of the world, will reproduce that order in his soul and, so far as man may, become godlike. . . Suppose, then, he should find himself compelled to mould other characters besides his own and to shape the pattern of public and private life into conformity with his vision of the ideal, he will not lack the skill to produce such counterparts of temperance, justice, and all the virtues as can exist in the ordinary man.' Republic (500)
     "Long before Plato there had appeared Greek thinkers and statesmen who were inspired by the will to reform the state and who were endowed with deep political wisdom. In this sense Solon may be styled the 'Creator of Athenian political culture.' What distinguished Plato from these first pioneers of political thought was not so much the answer given by him as the question itself. As to the answer we may criticize it very severely. Many features of the Platonic doctrine that he himself thought to be eternal and universal may now easily be recognized as accidental. They depend upon special conditions of Greek social life. Plato's tripartite division of the human soul, and the corresponding division of the social classes, his views about the community of property or the community of wives and children--all this is open to grave objection. But all these objections cannot detract from the fundamental value and merit of his political work. Its greatness depends on the new postulate introduced by Plato. This postulate was unforgettable. It stamped the whole future development of political thought.

     "Plato began his study of the social order with a definition and an analysis of the concept of justice. The state has no other and no higher aim than to be the administrator of justice. But in Plato's language the term justice does not mean the same as in common speech. It has a much deeper and more comprehensive meaning. Justice is not on the same level with other virtues of man. It is not, like courage or temperance, a special quality or property. It is a general principle of order, regularity, unity, and lawfulness. Within the individual life this lawfulness appears in the harmony of all the different powers of the human soul; within the state it appears in the 'geometrical proportion' between the different classes, according to which each part of the social body receives its due and cooperates in maintaining the general order. With this conception Plato became the founder and the first defender of the Idea of the Legal State.

     "Plato was the first to introduce a 'theory' of the state, not as a knowledge of many and multifarious facts, but as a coherent system of thought. Political problems in the first century were in the center of the intellectual interest. More and more 'wisdom' (sophia) tended to become political wisdom. All the famous sophists regarded their doctrine as the best, and indeed, as an indispensable introduction into political life. 'Who will listen to me,' says Protagoras in the Platonic dialogue which bears his name, 'will learn to order his own house and he will be best able to speak and act in the affairs of the state.' Long before Plato the question of the 'best state' had been often and eagerly discussed. But Plato is not concerned with this question. What he is asking for is not the best but the 'ideal' state. That makes a fundamental difference. It is one of the first principles of Plato's theory of knowledge to insist upon the radical distinction between empirical and ideal truth. What experience gives is, at best, a right opinion about things; it is not real knowledge. The difference between these two types, between doxa and episteme, is ineffaceable. Facts are variable and accidental; truth is necessary and immutable. A man may be a statesman in the sense that he has formed a right opinion about political things and that he has a natural talent which, in Plato's language, is described as a gift of the gods. . . Yet that does not enable him to give a firm judgment, because he has no 'understanding of the cause.'

     "According to this principle Plato had to reject all mere practical attempts to reform the state. His was quite a different task: he had to understand the state. What he demanded and what he was looking for was not a mere accumulation or an experimental study of segregated and haphazard facts of man's political and social life but an idea that could comprehend these facts and bring them to a systematic unity. He was convinced that without such a unifying principle of thought all our practical attempts are doomed to failure. There must be a 'theory' of politics, not a mere routine work of empirical prescriptions. When a man does not know his own first principle, and his results are constructed out of he knows not what, how can he think that such a fabric of convention can ever become science. As Plato says in his Gorgias, true politics is distinguished from ordinary political practice and routine as cookery is distinguished from medicine. Cookery goes to work in an utterly untheoretical way . . , whereas medicine has investigated the nature of the person whom it treats and the cause of its proceedings, and can give an account of each of these things.

     "This urge for 'causes' and 'first principle' was the radical innovation of Plato. Personally and practically we cannot speak of him as a radical. We may describe him as a conservative; we may even charge him with being a reactionary. But that is not the decisive question. His was an intellectual not a political revolution. He did not begin with a criticism of a special political constitution. In his Republic he gives us a systematic survey of all the different forms of government and of the mental attitudes of the 'souls' which correspond to these forms. There is the ambitious nature, the oligarchic, the democratic, and the tyrannical nature. And each of them answers to a particular constitution--to timocracy, to plutocracy, oligarchy, tyranny. All this is determined by definite rules: each constitution has its virtue and its vice, its merits and its disadvantages, its constructive principle and its inherent defect that leads to deterioration and decay.

      In this theory of the rise and decline of constitutions Plato speaks as a keen observer of political phenomena. His description is a very 'realistic' one. He does not conceal his personal predilections or antipathies; but all this does not influence or obscure his judgment. There is only one thing that he absolutely rejects and condemns: the tyrannic soul and the tyrannic state. They are to him the worst corruption and degeneracy. As to the others he gives of them a very careful and penetrant analysis that shows an entirely open mind. He insists upon all the defects of Athenian democracy; but, on the other hand, he does not accept the Lacedaemonian state as a real model. The model he is looking for is far beyond the empirical and historical world. No historical phenomenon is adequate to the ideal pattern of the state; for, as he says in his Phaedo, the phenomena 'aim at being' but fall short and are unable to be like their archetypes. Not for a moment could Plato think of putting on the same level a given empirical fact and his Idea of the Legal State--the state of justice. That would have meant the denial of the fundamental principle of Platonism. In a passage of his Laws Plato declares that the poems of Tyrtaeus which praise the Spartan ideal of courage should be rewritten and that the glorification of military courage should be replaced by that of higher and nobler things. 'In spite of all Plato's respect for Sparta, and all he borrows from it,' says Jaeger, 'his educational state is really not the pinnacle of admiration for Sparta's ideal, but the severest blow that ideal ever suffered. It is a prophetic anticipation of its weakness.'

     "All this becomes understandable if we bear in mind that Plato had to solve a problem very different from that of any other political reformer. He could not simply replace one political system or form of government by another and better one. He had to introduce a new method and a new postulate into political thought. In order to create the rational theory of the state, he had to lay the ax to the tree: he had to break the power of myth. But here Plato encountered the greatest difficulties. He could not solve the problem without, in a certain sense, surpassing himself and going beyond his own limits. Plato felt the whole charm of myth. He was endowed with a most powerful imagination that enabled him to become one of the greatest myth makers in human history. For we cannot think of Platonic philosophy without thinking of the Platonic myths. In these myths--in the myths of the 'super-celestial place,' of the prisoners in the cave, of the soul's choice of its future destiny, of the judgment after death, Plato expressed his most profound metaphysical thoughts and intuitions. And at the end he gave his natural philosophy in an entirely mythical form: he introduced, in Timaeus, the conceptions of the demiurge, of the good and the evil world soul, of the twofold creation of the world.

     "How is it to be accounted for that the same thinker who admitted mythical concepts and mythical language so readily into his metaphysics and his natural philosophy spoke in an entirely different vein when developing his political theories? For in this field Plato became the professed enemy of myth. If we tolerate myth in our political systems, he declared, all our hopes for a reconstruction and reformation of our political and social life are lost. There is only one alternative: we have to make our choice between an ethical and mythical conception of the state. In the Legal State, the state of justice, there is no room left for the conceptions of mythology, for the gods of Homer and Hesiod. 'Shall we allow our children to listen to any stories that anyone happens to make up, and so to receive into their minds ideas often the very opposite of those we shall think they ought to have when they are grown up? No, certainly not. It seems, then, our first business will be to supervise the making of fables and legends, rejecting all which are unsatisfactory; and we shall induce nurses and mothers to tell their children only those which we have approved, and to think more of molding their souls with these stories than they now do of rubbing their limbs to make them strong and shapely.' If we continue to speak of the wars in heaven, of the plots and fightings of the gods against one another, of the battles of the giants and all the innumerable other quarrels of gods and heroes with their friends and relatives, we shall never find order, harmony, unity in our own human world. . .

     "There was, however, still another barrier that had to be removed, and another adversary overcome, before Plato could establish his own theory of the Legal State. He had to struggle not only with the power of tradition but also with the very opposite power--a theory that repudiated all conventional and traditional standards and tried to build up the political and social world upon an entirely new basis. The conception of the Power State had become prevalent in all the sophistical theories. It was not always openly admitted and defended, but there was a general feeling and a tacit consent that this conception was the only one that could make an end to all vain and superfluous discussions about the 'best state.' The thesis that 'might is right' was the simplest, the most plausible and radical formula. It appealed not only to the 'wise men' or sophists but also to the practical men, the leaders of Athenian politics. To attack and destroy this dictum was the principal concern of Plato's theory.

     "The first attack was made in the Gorgias, in the dialogue between Socrates and Callicles, the second was made in the first book of the Republic in the duel between Socrates and Thrasymachus. Plato never made any attempt to enfeeble the thesis of his opponents; on the contrary he gave it its greatest strength and its full persuasive power. But it is precisely by this culmination and climax that the thesis finally refutes itself. Plato's method may be said to be a sort of psychological reduction ad absurdum. What is the nature and the aim of every desire and passion? he asks. Obviously we do not wish for the sake of wishing--we aim at a certain end and we try to attain that end. But the lust of power does not admit of any possible attainment. It is the very character and essence of the will to power that it is inexhaustible. It can never come to a rest; it is a thirst that is unquenchable. Those who spend their lives in this passion are comparable to the Danaedes: they strive to pour water into a leaking butt. The appetite for power is the clearest example of that fundamental vice that, in Plato's language, is described as 'pleonexia'--as the 'hunger for more and more.' This craving for more and more exceeds all measure and destroys all measure--and since measure, right proportion, 'geometrical equality' had been declared by Plato to be the standard of the health of private and public life, it follows that the will to power, if it prevails over all other impulses, necessarily leads to corruption and destruction. 'Justice' and the 'will to power' are the opposite poles of Plato's ethical and political philosophy. Justice is the cardinal virtue that includes all the other great and noble qualities of the soul; the greed for power entails all fundamental defects. Power can never be an end in itself; for that only can be called a good that leads to a definitive satisfaction, to a concord and harmony. No other thinker had such a clear insight into what the Power State really is and means, and no other writer has given such a clear, impressive, and penetrating description of its true nature and character as Plato did in his Gorgias."

Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State