Plato, the Constitution, and the Republic

We may not be able to share the "things," but we must share a country.

In our first reading for the fall in our 30 week foray into “The Development of Political Theory and Government,” we read Books II through V of the Plato’s Republic where Socrates, in his discussion with Glaucon and Adeimantus, lays out what he views as his perfect society. In Book V he lays out some reasons why a communal approach should work best. He lays out the three classes of people in his Republic: the philosopher guardians, the auxiliary (soldiers), and…you know…everyone else. In describing the soldiers’ lives he says that they should have all property (“houses and meals”) in common, and no private possessions of any kind… the children would be “bred” not much differently than dogs and horses. No one would know who their mother or father would be because they would live as one community. He then goes on to describe how this should operate in the community as a whole:

“The greatest good of a State is unity; the greatest evil, discord and distraction. And there will be unity where there are no private pleasures or pains or interests—where if one member suffers all the members suffer, if one citizen is touched all are quickly sensitive; and the least hurt to the little finger of the State runs through the whole body and vibrates to the soul. For the true State, like an individual, is injured as a whole when any part is affected…And whereas in other States members of the same government regard one of their colleagues as a friend and another as an enemy, in our State no man is a stranger to another; for every citizen is connected with every other by ties of blood, and these names and this way of speaking will have a corresponding reality—brother, father, sister, mother, repeated from infancy in the ears of children, will not be mere words. Then again the citizens will have all things in common, and having common property they will have common pleasures and pains. Can there be strife and contention among those who are of one mind; or lawsuits about property when men have nothing but their bodies which they call their own; or suits about violence when every one is bound to defend himself?”

After Plato proceeds in describing how, in terms of how we treat our enemies in war, of course such a state would have immense value, but Glaucon asks (paraphrasing), “Sure, one big happy family, but is it REALLY possible?”

Plato demurs and drops several hints that this is just an exercise, and that he is more interested in doing the little things that can be done to improve the current composition of states. It takes a few more books, including the “allegory of the cave” — the ultimate rendition of what Plato has called a “royal lie”— in Book VII, until in Book VIII he begins to describe the risks of both oligarchy (over time the elites become scornful of both those they are ruling and their responsibility to them) and “too much freedom” which can result in the extremes of “democracy.”

Nothing could seem more… prescient than Plato’s contention that both rule by the elite and rule by the people result in problems. It isn’t until the “Laws” that Plato begins (though from a distance, as his proxy Socrates is nowhere to be seen) to make more serious strides in trying to navigate the potential checks and balances required to create a perfect system of government.

It’s possible, though, that the lesson from Plato is not one of type of government, or particular caste system or regime for organizing society, but rather the ideals of how we should treat each other regardless of the intricacies (and failures and foibles) of the regime in which we find ourselves. When Jesus says, “render unto Caesar” that which is Caesar’s, it is… arguable… whether he means what many would like to think he means (“pay your taxes!”), but it does probably mean, at least, that whether the government around you is one in which you respect or not — and regardless even whether the regime at play respects your property or not — that we should strive to be a society in which there are “no private pleasures or pains or interests, where if one member suffers all the members suffer;” where there is a sense of unity so that strife and contention is minimized; some semblance of unity, and fidelity to a common cause is required if we are to get past our current unrest intact.

There is ample evidence that the “common store” approach to economics and government may not be the most effective approach, especially on a “national” scale, namely because it requires someone in power to enforce it, and they are as human and failing as those they are governing.

However, maybe it’s not a bad idea to dust off the term “patriotism” or even “nationalism” to see if there is something there besides how it has been recently branded. Something akin to brotherhood and a common spirit that unites us. Otherwise, we seem to be going down a path that leads us to consider the political “opposition” as the “enemy.” When prominent people are seriously bringing up warnings of “civil war,” it should give us pause and make us wonder if we’re approaching contentious and important issues the right way. It may or may not be that the GREATEST good of a State is unity, but it’s possible that in the long term, it is a prerequisite for keeping OUR Republic.

On that note, we had our celebration of the Constitution this past weekend… the 9th Anniversary of our first one in 2011… And we took some time to chat with some of the attendees on why they believe that the Constitution is worth celebrating: