Mindbites: Plato’s Justice and The Philosopher Kings

Plato was an idealist. He envisioned a utopian state of being where the Guardians or ‘Philosopher Kings’, a particular class within the Greek Polis, were the sole carriers of the necessary characteristics needed for the governance of a ‘just’ society. He strongly believed that given the required knowledge, which meant being censored from the explicit material contained within Greek Art and Mythology, they would be able to better transform the ‘soul’ of the Polis ensuring the preservation of a ‘just’ environment that provided equal opportunity for all its citizens.

Plato was born during the wake of the Peloponnesian War. The war struck as a result of a tug-of-war for power between Sparta and Athens. The aftermath of the war left the city-states bankrupt and demoralized. As a result, the obsolete idea of a ‘just’ city-state had gradually deteriorated. Through the Republic, Plato conveys his idea of how a ‘just’ political community should be formed and maintained. In essence, Plato fantasized that incorporating his idealistic views of ‘good’ and ‘justice,’ through the Guardians, into the Polis would dramatically rejuvenate, and maybe even to a large extent, renovate a society that was deteriorating morally, economically and socially.

The Guardians were a specialised class of people who carried, what Plato believed was, the optimal characteristics required to govern a ‘just’ society. During that era, Greek states prohibited other classes – this would exclude the Guardians, from actively taking part in the state’s politics. It was a belief at the time that the role one fulfilled within the Polis was dependent on the family’s occupational lineage. Socrates interpreted, in the Republic, that ‘a person’s nature is defined by the art for which he is suited for,’; hence, the role of governance was particularly reserved for the Guardians. This role required specialist skills and natural born talent that would assist in the daily administration and reproduction of a ‘just’ society. In order to qualify as a Guardian, it was crucial to be courageous, wise and moderate. Having these characteristics would isolate men and women of the upper strata in the Polis, permitting them to further undergo the ‘Guardian’s education’. Willingness to acquire this level of education defined, what Plato deemed to be, a philosopher. He goes on to state, in the Republic, that philosophers or Guardians have exclusive access to the ‘Forms,’ the paradigmatic ideologies that exist beyond all material existence. This supports the idea of the ‘ship of state’ metaphor, “[A] true pilot must of necessity pay attention to the seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft if he is really to rule a ship”. This argued that only the Guardians were fit enough to ‘pilot’ or govern a Greek Polis that had the ultimate desire of attaining justice, as they were ‘experts in attaining the political good’. Any member of the Polis, citizen or non-citizen, who surpassed their occupational lineage by going into the wrong class, was said to corrupt the group. Such meddling would cause the group to lose its integrity within the Polis.

The Guardians were made to sacrifice their personal interests, as an act of self-discipline, which would promote freedom through liberty and not license, within the Polis. Plato believed it was imperative that the Guardian class not be enticed by materialism. In order to avert such an act, Plato proposed that the children of the Guardian class be raised communally, which would build a sense of commitment amongst the members. This would eradicate any signs of partiality enabling the community to achieve the greater good of the Polis, as first care would be given holistically. It was mentioned in Book Five of the Republic, a family with personal preferences and attachments was unjust. In Book Three, Plato distinguishes ‘family’ as an obstacle to ‘equal education’ and ‘equal opportunity’ for all the members of the Guardian class. Plato even condemned the purchase of private property by the Guardians. Having a selected few whom were detached from materialistic pleasures govern the Polis would ensure a consistent policy, which would trail in one route that would ensure the functioning of a ‘just’ society. Plato thought that true freedom came when an individual could self regulate under the laws of the state or Polis.  Therefore, it was essential that the Guardian class self regulate in a responsible manner, as this would promote freedom through liberty and not license. Here, license was when citizens indulged in activities that would satisfy their personal wishes and desires. License discouraged the construction of a well-ordered state. Such discipline would develop, according to Plato, a collective personality that is in “harmony,” in the sense that the members of the Guardian class would not instill aims that diverge from their true purpose, which was to transform the Polis into a utopian paradise for its citizens. For the Guardians to adhere to their materialistic possessions in pursuit of their happiness and self-pleasure was deemed unjust. By solitarily focusing on the good of the Greek city-states would lay their happiness, ‘because pursuing the good of the city is a worthwhile part of their own future’.

A lack of censorship towards the explicit material contained within Greek Art and Mythology would eradicate liberty and encourage freedom through license, causing the Polis’ moral values to disintegrate. Plato considered Greek Arts to be dangerous as most Greek Gods within that era were infamous for criminal activity. Plato resisted teaching the Guardian Class of these myths and legends due to the bad behaviour executed by the Gods. The Gods were known for ‘making war on other gods, plotting against them, or fighting with them’; they were also known for more severe crimes like rape and incest. The knowledge exposed to the Guardians was strictly on attaining human excellence and virtue, which would lead them to enlightenment. Obeying these educational boundaries set by Plato would sculpt the ‘souls of the citizens’ in the most optimum way possible. Sacrificing freedom towards artistic material meant that members of the Guardian class were not allowed to educate their children, as they would have intended. Plato considered this to be in favour of the children, as he strongly believed that young minds were incapable of judging right from wrong and thus would make incorrect decisions that would, in effect, harm the Polis. According to Socrates, in the Republic, such sacrifices are beneficial as they are required in the pursuit of perpetual justice for the city-state. Plato states that a member of the Guardian class has completed his education when he or she has understood the notion of ‘good’ as that will help them in creating order in the state. However, this is rather ironic as Plato is not fully aware of the meaning of ‘good’ himself.

Abiding by the rules and regulations set out by Plato, the Guardian class would be able to capture the Polis within an ideal state of being. Plato was not a Democrat; he was more in favour of an Aristocratic constitution. For Plato, a democratic system encouraged license, which was not a true form of freedom. He believed a system of voting would enslave citizens to their own personal desires causing them to being to demand what is most favourable for themselves, rather than the Polis. Through this, Plato developed the concept of ‘causation,’ which he believed operated in the physical world.  ‘Causation was a principle of same cause, same effect’. The idea was that a ‘just’ action conducted by the Guardians would ‘preserve or help produce the just condition of the soul’ within the other members of the Polis, gradually transforming the Polis into a ‘just’ society. A consistently administered regime was required in order to maximise the level of justice within the ‘souls of the citizens,’ which could be achieved through communal accordance and the realization of equal opportunity for all citizens within the Polis. ‘Political justice requires the absolute subordination of artistic beauty and family and human eroticism’.

Plato’s vision of the Polis was to ‘radically purify’ human nature to the extent where the physical world could parallel the transcendental sphere. He strongly believed that this vision could be turned into reality only with the aid of qualifying Guardians. Plato aimed to construct an idealistic world that paralleled a transcendental sphere, with the aid of a small group of people called the Guardians or ‘Philosopher Kings.’ The Guardians were a specialized class of people who carried, what Plato believed was, the optimal characteristics required to govern a ‘just’ society. As an act of self-discipline, it was required of this particular class to sacrifice their personal interests in order to promote freedom through liberty within the Polis or Greek city-state. However, Plato believed a lack of censorship towards the explicit material contained within Greek Art and Mythology would damage the integrity of citizens, encouraging them to be arrested by their personal desires and act in accordance to it, even if it was harmful to the state. Plato strongly believed that only by abiding the rules and regulations set out by him could the Guardian class be able to capture the Polis within an ideal state of being, turning his vision into reality. Nonetheless, even though Plato desired an Aristocratic constitution to uphold within the Polis, condemning access to Greek Art and Mythology along with segregating and restricting the Guardians did not act as a favourable solution. A society that was already economically and socially deteriorating would influence a change in the political constitution. Aristocratic governance was no longer considered ideal, as the war had acted as a catalyst to a polarized estate, financially and morally. This would have eventually caused the state to succumb to tyranny. Hence, segregating the Guardians from the masses would not be an ideal solution for the states renovation. The circumstances of that era forced the people living inside of the Polis to put themselves in first preference over the city-state.