Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Analysis on Greek Political Thought: Plato

Greece is considered as the most significant and distinctive civilization for its permanent legacies that contributed to the intellectual and moral progress of society by inventing the concept of a secular civilization. Daring assumption that man is able to discover the meaning of things existing and phenomena happening around him encouraged Greeks to think and speculate. They consider their society as “thinkers” and so came the wisdom from deep speculation. This is what is now known as “philosophy” derived from the Greek word “philosophia” which literally means “love of wisdom” In the free atmosphere to speculate and express one’s idea the Greeks were able to extend their knowledge to the various aspects of universe. Their knowledge and ideas therefore is the root of Western civilization and influenced most civilizations in the world.
Politics, as its very name suggests (derived from the Greek word “polis” which was city state) is also a Greek discovery. Concerning how to achieve a better society where in groups of people could co-exist and achieve justice, a number of Greek thinkers proposed their distinctive political philosophies. For that reason, early Greek civilization had already various forms of government and other political systems that other civilizations did not have. It is to say that the political philosophies that establish the foundation of the field so-called politics started from Greek. Thus it is even impossible to talk about political thoughts without speaking about Greek political thinkers. So do Roman thinkers. The mainstreams of politics that became integral part of the political inheritance of the world are Greece and Rome. If Greeks
          Here I have Plato, the greatest Greek philosopher throughout history, the author of “The Republic”, the matchless work that deserves to be called first political science, in that it applies systematic reasoning and critical inquiry to political ideas and institutions as the first philosopher to be introduced in dealing with history of political thoughts.
         Plato was born in Athens around 427 BC. He lived during the Age of Synthesis. After his father's death his mother married a friend of Pericles so he was politically connected to both the oligarchy and democracy. After the Peloponnesian War, his mother's brother and uncle tried to persuade him to join in the oligarchic rules of Athens. Instead, Plato joined his two older brothers in becoming a student of Socrates.
Plato was an opponent of the relativism and skepticism of the Sophists; but, like them he focused on values rather than on physical science. Aristotle credits Socrates with emphasizing moral questions and precise definitions; and Plato surely absorbed these lessons.
Plato was no friend of the Thirty Tyrants, whose reign (404-403 BC) lasted only 8 months, but he also was not a friend of the Athenian democracy when it was restored. He alienated them by him method of critical interrogation. In 399 BC he was brought to trial with the capital crimes of religious impiety and corruption of youth, convicted, and sentenced to death. His friends offered to pay a fine instead of the death penalty. As Plato tells us in the Seventh Letter after Socrates' death, he became disenchanted with all existing political regimes."
About 387 BC, Plato founded a school in Athens, in a grove sacred to the demigod Academus, called the Academy. It was, in effect, a university of higher learning, which included physical science, astronomy, and mathematics, as well as philosophy.
In 367 BC Dionysius died and was succeeded by his teenage son, Dionysius II, whose uncle, Dion, was a close friend to Plato. Dion invited Plato to come a school Dionysius for his future kingship. Plato, seeing that this was a way for him to complete his goal for a philosopher king decided to travel to Sicily and take control of the boy's studies. Dionysius II later had a fight with Dion, and exiled him, Plato was unable to convert the boy to philosophy and returned the Athens, where Dion had established residence. Plato continued correspondence with Dionysius II, and tried to have him reconcile with Dion. Dionysius II lured Plato into a trap, by telling him that he wanted to become a philosopher. Plato was trapped in Syracuse until 360. Where he traveled back to Athens and continued to function as president of the Academy. He died in 347 BC, at about the age of eighty.
          In the course of life mentioned above Plato’s matchless masterpieces “the Republic” (which I am going to mainly discuss in this paper), “the Statesman” and “the Laws” were written. Political thoughts expressed in those books were molded based on the experiences and relationships he had in the society of his time.
         I once again emphasize that knowing Plato’s experiences and relationships is very important in understanding how his political philosophy came about. What I mean by experience here is Plato’s observation on political systems and social conditions of Greece (Athens) and relationship here specifically means his relationship with Socrates, his teacher.
          The two factors or incidents greatly inspired Plato and influenced on his political philosophy. First, when Plato grew old enough, there was change in Athens governmental system from oligarchy to democracy. Moreover, Peloponnesian War after which Athens democracy became poorer people-centered gave chance for the poorer citizens to promote the rights. They predominated in the assembly and passed several votes to promote the pleasure and pecuniary interest of their classes. As a result, the poor classes came to have decisive voice in politics. Plato thought it was absurd that the city-state was led by silly group of people whose rule is justified by number of people. He was a witness of abuse of democracy in society. This anti-democrat feeling of Plato has later on brought the theory of dictatorship of “Philosopher King” which is completely opposed to democracy. The execution of Socrates made Plato’s standing firm as an anti-democrat. The death of his admired teacher Socrates urged him to leave secular politics and to concentrate on establishing his political philosophy.
        Second, his political theory is established and greatly influenced by Socrates, his teacher. Socrates takes quite large part in Plato’s political philosophy. “The Republic” the representative work of Plato is a Socratic dialogue in which Socrates and various foreigners and Athenians discuss on various political, social and philosophical issues. In the Republic, Plato does not appear. It is quite noticeable that he appeals his philosophy just by giving dialogue of Socrates. It obviously means that Plato’s political philosophy is molded and greatly influenced by Socrates. In addition to that, the decisive incident that urged Plato to engage in political philosophy was also the death of Socrates. With these facts I would say that relationship of Plato to Socrates was basis of his political philosophy.
        With this background, in this paper I am going to precisely look into the core ideas in the Republic(three essential aspect of politics- republic, statesman and law) about ideal form of society and politics suggested by the greatest western philosopher, Plato. This analysis on Plato’s political thoughts is aimed to answer the questions: What is the ideal form of government and society? What is the highest value that we must pursue in society? How do we achieve a better society in which the highest value is embodied? And who is to rule our very society?

The Republic
The concept of the “Republic” is broad if we speak of its scope. Focusing on core idea of Plato, I would like to discuss on the main points of the Republic 1) criticism of governmental systems that cannot sustain themselves: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. 2) Drawing of ideal state and principles that governs that ideal state.

Criticism on Forms of Government
           Plato’s main purpose in the Republic was to suggest the ideal State. To strengthen his idea on the ideal state, it was necessary for him to criticize other forms of government existed at the time. He criticizes the four forms of government namely timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. This criticism is actually for the sake of justifying his assertion on the ideal State.
First, timocracy according to Plato is a rule by those which our State seeks to honor usually military leaders. Timocracy is a rule by men who are by natural constitution fitted for war rather than peace since their highest value are military stratagems and contrivances, and the waging of everlasting wars Honor is often equated with wealth and possession so this kind of gilded government leads to the people valuing materialism above all things. Timocrats are contentious, ambitious leaders who seek power for them to exercise. Therefore, timocracy cannot be an ideal state since the leader values authority, power, and ambition most instead of peace and welfare of people.
Second, Plato criticizes oligarchy for this type of government is a rule of a few selfish wealthy opportunists for private gain. Timocracy degenerates into Oligarchy when it rulers begins to devise public funds for their private gain. Those lovers of money and honor create two extreme classes, the rich and poor. In oligarchic state, the rich are constantly plotting against the poor. This state in which leaders (a few rich people) seek their own interest and even use public expenditure for private gain, cannot be an ideal type to follow.
Third is democracy that perhaps Plato hatred most. Democracy follows oligarchy in which the extreme gap between rich and poor exist. The poor overthrow to oligarchs and grant liberties and freedoms to citizen. Plato criticized democracy as a rule by many who are poor and lower classes. Plato considered democracy absurd for its rule is justified by number of people.
Last, too much freedom and liberties granted to the citizens may lead to a tyranny which Plato described as rule by a despot without regard for law. Under tyrant liberty getting gout of all order and reason, passes into the harshest and bitterest form of slavery.

          Plato’s political theory is on basis of moral values. For that reason, Plato strongly emphasizes that the ideal society is where in justice exists and prevails. Thus the book the Republic is an attempt to resolve a major problem, namely injustice. Perhaps, for Plato even state existed in purpose of achieving justice, the highest value he pursued. In the Republic, Plato uses Socrates to argue for justice that covers both just person and the just city state. Justice is a proper, harmonious relationship between the warring parts of the person or city. According to Plato, that justice can be achieved only when, a person has and does what is his own.
        The definition of justice by Plato comes to me quite surprising because we do not usually connect justice with roles that we have in society. For Plato justice is being excellent in fulfilling one’s given role. He, who fulfils what he is destined to do with excellence, is a just man. And just state is composed of just men who know their own positions and roles.
          This unique definition of justice, the highest value a man must pursue, we came to have question that “then, what are the roles that a man can receive and must fulfill?” According to Plato, justice is the fruit which appears in consequences of each man’s doing that job for which he is best suited, thereby contributing to the good of State those talents with which he is gifted by nature.

Class Stratification and Virtues Required to Each Class
          Presenting the value to pursue, Plato now suggests class stratification in state. He presents three classes in states and put people to each class according to their naturally gifted ability. Plato stratifies the state into three classes: 1) artisans, 2) warriors, 3) legislators or guardians. Before deeper discussion about each class, I would want to first briefly discuss how this class stratification came to be.
             Plato believed the state grows out of the nature of the individual so he refers human being himself to the state. Believing that the state is a natural institution reflecting the structure of human nature, Plato considers state as structurally the same with human nature. So if we are to analyze state, we must first understand human nature and his components.
Plato believed in triune concept of the biological nature of man: head, heart and stomach Relating three biological division of man to psychological aspect of man we can psychologically divide human nature: intellect (thinking), spirit (conation), appetite (physiological nature).
With this triune concept of Plato about human being, we can now analyze how Plato’s class stratification came to be. First, artisans may refer to stomach biologically and to appetite psychologically. Second, warriors may refer to heart biologically and to spirit (conation) psychologically. And last, guardians are referred to head biologically and to intellect (thinking).
The three classes serve different functions in the state. Artisans are producer of basic needs of society like food, shelters and daily stuffs which are to satisfy appetite of people in the state. Warriors are protector of the state who had brave heart and courageous spirit. And guardians are to rule and lead the government of society. They are supposed to be wise and intellectual.
Each class requires different virtues and abilities for people in performing their given role in their classes: Temperance, courage, wisdom, justice.

Education and Philosopher King
            As pointed out above, the concept of justice, namely, everyone in his right place doing his rightful task as his nature deems fit, sets the stage for a proper understanding of Plato’s theory. Then, how do we achieve justice? How are we going to put people in right place to do their rightful tasks? According to Plato, the answer to the question would be education.
             Education is one of the important roles of government which makes individuals capable of doing his work for by it, members of various classes are determined. If a person excels in temperance, then he is to belong to the class of artisan, if courage, he is to be warrior; and if wisdom, a guardian. Education is a tool to classify by which people are placed in right place.
            A government, as a body of ruling State, must offer proper education. For Plato, education is the way to achieve a just society. For that reason, Plato himself established academy to train and educate the youth who would be leaders of society. But education, for Plato in fact had more specific purpose. The major and specific role of education is to cultivate man of wisdom, a philosopher. Plato gave great importance to cultivating philosophers. Why did he? Plato’s emphasis on education has distinct purpose and it is related with his ideal state.
             I have mentioned four forms of State which Plato was against. Then now, what would be the ideal form of State that Plato was thinking? It is Aristocracy, the rule of the best, just and good or Monarchy, rule by a single just man. Plato actually favored a Monarchy by a great leader. And that great leader according to Plato must be a Philosopher. This is one of his main ideas of political theory, so-called “Philosopher King” Plato insists that philosophers for they are lover of truth and wisdom are to be a guardian to achieve ordered society. Plato’s criticism against other four forms of government was in fact to draw this conclusion of his ideal state, which is Monarchy (or Aristocracy) under a philosopher king. And philosophers are cultivated through education. The philosopher king is interested in knowledge of the highest magnitude, even that which surpasses justice, namely, ‘the good,’ and if we only have a guardian who has this knowledge our state will be perfectly ordered that people can serve their assigned tasks in rights places, justice is realized.


Contribution and Significance of Plato’s Political Thoughts
          Plato’s political philosophy is closely connected with moral philosophy. The ultimate goal of the society for Plato, was a society in which justice exists. Plato discussed about five forms of government as we see above: Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy and Tyranny. From Aristocracy (or Monarchy) which according to Plato is ideal form of state, the state may decline to following forms of government. This is how the state declines from ideal state:
Aristocracy à Timocracy à Oligarchy à Democracy à Tyranny
        Plato was born in Athens (a democratic state) when the Democracy was flourishing that every individual has given liberty and freedom. Moreover, as Athens went through Peloponnesian War, the poor and lower classes came to have more power and more freedom. During the time Athenian democracy was considered a great system of government for in it individuals could enjoy his rights and freely participate in politics. But Plato considered democracy as the last stage after which tyranny, the worst form of government comes. He criticized democracy as rule by many who are silly seeking their private gains. Plato warned people being granted excessive freedom.
Plato in his life witnessed evils spawn out of democracy in which people abuse their excessive freedom. The teachings and advices of wise men were ignored by foolish (and poor who were not educated) group of people. For the criterion of making important political decision was a number of people agreeing, the society was often led to wrong way by foolish people who were many in number. The society was no longer in order for it is led by people who were not wise and thoughtlessly seeking their private gains. The wise men saying truths were even executed, like Socrates, Plato’s mentor.
          Witnessing all of the evils of democracy in which morality was degrading, Plato, as wise man, and lover of justice and morality bravely cried for moral society in which justice flourishes. This sharp and penetrating critique of democracy makes us, who are living in democratic society think about things that we usually overlooked. Plato’s worry became reality today. We are given freedom and rights to enjoy individual happiness. But as we witness, morality within society is seriously degrading and we cannot find a just society anymore. Is it more important to enjoy freedom than to achieve a justice society? Perhaps we are not realizing the fact that uncontrolled freedom can make us deviate from righteousness for we are such being that abuse what it is given. Plato is still alive here and asking us the question that will never perish as long as a society exists “What is a society for? What is the value that each one of us has to achieve in our very society?” and Plato tells us the answer, justice which most of us today neglect.
           Plato is perhaps too idealistic for he is talking about Utopia which can never exist in reality. He himself knew that the ideal society he suggests was Utopia. However, Plato at least knew what value we, a civilized man in society ought to pursue. Although he was in some part idealistic, he still tried to move what he says to action. He established Academy to cultivate future leaders in expectation one of his student would be a philosopher king was to wisely rule the state.
              Politics is the field in which moral value were degraded in seeking selfish- interests. In the midst of political immoralities, Plato is remembered as the philosopher who cried for just and moral society that became unachievable dream. By his political philosophy, we came to think about what Politics is once again.

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