Was Plato a Collectivist?

Dr. Roberts teaches English literature in Boys’ High School of The Westminster Schools, Atlanta, Georgia.

Ideas have consequences, the late Richard Weaver was fond of reminding us; it is an argument dear to the heart of every student of liberty. and no ideas have so permeated Western intellectual history as have those of Plato. Indeed, the whole history of Western thought, as Alfred North Whitehead suggested a few years ago, may be seen as a series of footnotes to Plato.

It is, consequently, much to the embarrassment of many individualists that Plato is frequently claimed by collectivists as one of their own. The claim is doubly discomforting because individualists are inclined to give much weight in their world-views to the place of tradition and ideas.

The simple truth is that individualists yield Plato to the collectivist ranks all too acquiescently. The Plato known to most men, of course, is the author of the Republic, with his utopian proposals for a strictly regulated society under the benevolent mailed fist of a single philosopher-king. The society depicted in this book is truly a far different thing from that envisioned by lovers of individual liberty. Such liberty is sacrificed in the Republic, as in every slave society since, for the sake of an alleged greater communal welfare.

But there is another Plato, less well known. The Republic was a comparatively early work; Plato’s growth was hardly arrested at this stage. Perhaps his last completed work is the Seventh Letter, in certain ways a much more significant document than even the Republic.

This epistle was written in 353-352 B.C., when Plato was about 75 years old, to the relatives and comrades of his own friend and former pupil, Dion of Syracuse. The letter, in reply to a request for aid in avenging the assassination of Dion, is an extended apologia pro vita sua, a spiritual autobiography in which the old man, now only five or six years from death, surveys in retrospect his long life.

"In my youth," the letter relates, "I went through the same experiences as many other men. I fancied that if, early in life, I became my own master, I should at once embark on a political career."¹

Circumstances Change Plans

These aspirations were frustrated, largely by circumstances beyond Plato’s control. The golden age of Pericles had passed; Plato grew up during the twin disasters of the Peloponnesian Wars and the collapse of the Athenian Empire. These dual catastrophes resulted in bitter power struggles between democrats and oligarchs in Athens, culminating in the year of anarchy, 404-403 B.C.

Plato’s family, on both paternal and maternal sides, was aristocratic, and naturally aligned itself with the old Athenian Right Wing. This group, which included Plato’s uncle Charmides and his cousin Critias, succeeded in establishing the Tyranny of the Thirty in 404.

"They at once invited me to share in their doings, as something to which I had a claim," Plato remembered in the Seventh Letter. "The effect on me was not surprising in the case of a young man. I considered that they would, of course, so manage the State as to bring men out of a bad way of life into a good one. So I watched them very closely to see what they would do."

Plato was only twenty-four when his education in the ways of the world began. For the oligarchy did not —"of course" — bring good government to Athens. Among other outrages, it attempted implicate Socrates in a murder Plato, who had been a friend if not actually a student of the aged teacher, was shocked and surprised.

The oligarchy was soon afterwards overthrown by a democratic counterrevolution, and again Plato felt his personal ambitions rise. "And once more," he recollected, "though with more hesitation, I began to be moved by the desire to take part in public and political affairs."

But he soon discovered that democratic despotism was not significantly different from oligarchic despotism. The new regime itself not only went after Socrates, but convicted him in what has become the world’s most infamous trial. Socrates died in 399.

"As I followed these incidents and the men engaged in public affairs," Plato remembered, "the laws too and the customs, the more closely I examined them and the farther I advanced in life, the more difficult it seemed to me to handle public affairs aright."

Signs of Maturity

The young man with all the answers clearly was maturing into his share of common sense. He was also having second thoughts about the practical chances of a political career at this time.

"Though at first I had been full of a strong impulse towards political life," the Seventh Letter continues, "my head finally began to swim; and, though I did not stop looking to see if there was any likelihood of improvement in these symptoms and in the general course of public life, I postponed action till a suitable opportunity should arise."

With a certain touching naivete, perhaps characteristic of the extremes of idealism and cynicism to which youth is prey, Plato now turned against both democracy and aristocracy. He concluded grandly "with regard to all existing communities, that they were one and all misgoverned."

The only salvation, he deduced, was for power to rest in the hands of a wise dictator: "Therefore, I said, there will be no cessation of evils for the sons of men, till either those who are pursuing a right and true philosophy receive sovereign power in the States, or those in power in the States by some dispensation of providence become true philosophers."

While Plato was indulging himself in such speculations, the political temperature in Athens was steadily rising. Not being utterly without discretion, Plato recognized that the time was ripe for some traveling. He left on an extensive grand tour which kept him away from Athens for more than a decade.

At some point in this wandering, he arrived in Sicily, where he had audience with Dionysius the Elder, tyrant of Syracuse, and discovered in the dictator’s brother-in-law, Dion, a ready disciple.

Plato as Teacher

In 387 B.C. Plato returned to Athens, where he found the political climate still unfavorable. The bane of all professional educators is that jibe, "Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach." Plato himself, finding it impossible to enter politics, turned to teaching the subject to others.

His suburban school in the grove of Academics heavily emphasized political and juridical theory. Moreover, his students went forth throughout the Mediterranean world as advisors to rulers; Plutarch, among his other considerable labors, compiled an impressive list of the political advisors trained by Plato — including Aristotle himself, who brought up the man later known as Alexander the Great. Shortly after founding the Academy, Plato also began committing to paper his dreams of the philosopher-king he had not yet found in real life. The Republic was finally finished around 375 B.C.

Then, in 367, a curious thing happened. That was Plato’s sixtieth year; it was also, incidentally, the year Aristotle came to the Academy as a pupil. In this year, Dion sent word to Plato that Dionysius the Elder had died and was being succeeded by his son, who could use a philosopher’s guidance.

The Lure of Politics

All the pent-up idealism and lust for personal political involvement in the sixty-year-old Plato responded to Dion’s invitation. In the Seventh Letter, Plato recalled having thought to himself that "if ever anyone was to try to carry out in practice my ideas about laws and constitutions, now was the time for making the attempt; for if only I could fully convince one man, I should have secured thereby the accomplishment of all good things."

Unfortunately, Dionysius the Younger proved to be no more attracted to the virtues of philosopher-kingship than are most tyrants. In fact, Plato had been his guest at court only some four months when Dion was banished; the young tyrant had Plato himself put under a kind of house arrest. The aging philosopher eventually managed to return to Athens, but only after considerable personal danger.

And here emerges a thing truly amazing: a few years later, in 361 B.C., Plato made yet another quixotic voyage to Syracuse! Dionysius had been importuning the sage to return, and Dion, although in exile, added his pleadings; both men assured Plato that Dionysius had undergone a change of heart and was now truly anxious to learn the life of philosophy.

Plato’s longing to believe this dubious tale was obviously rooted deeply, for he rationalized away his reservations, forsook his wits, and packed his grip.

"I myself had a lurking feeling that there was nothing surprising in the fact that a young man, quick to learn, hearing talk of the great truths of philosophy, should feel a craving for the higher life," is the rather lame excuse offered in the Seventh Letter. "So blindfolding myself with this reflection, I set out, with many fears and with no very favorable anticipations, as was natural enough."

The next sentence is revealing and sufficient: "I had the good fortune to return safely…." Never again did Plato attempt any active political role.

Realism in the "Laws"

To measure the extent of Plato’s disillusionment with dictatorship as well as with oligarchy and democracy, it is instructive to turn to the Laws. He began work on this major project around 360 B.C., interrupted it to write his Seventh Letter, and was engaged on the final revision when he died in 348 or 347.

In the Laws, Plato is no longer concerned with designing an ideal state. He now seeks to frame a constitution applicable to any society of ordinary Greeks in the middle of the fourth century before Christ.

The philosopher-king of the earlier Republic is nowhere to be found here. In the Laws, Plato dismisses government by personal direction of a benevolent despot as simply not practical. The conditions of actual life rule out the possibility of any one fallible man combining in himself all the virtues requisite to a genuine philosopher-king. Instead, the state’s best hope lies in a mixed constitution, balancing in a golden mean the opposite but equally necessary principles of popular control and personal authority ("democracy" and "monarchy," in Plato’s terminology).2

Economically, the system of the Laws also differs considerably from that of the Republic. Plato now dismisses his earlier communism, on the same grounds as he does dictatorship: it simply is not practical. Socialism may be the most desirable of all utopian goals, he says, but it just will not work in the real world.3 The father of Western thought has here, in his old age, achieved a blend of common sense and uncommon wisdom, unfortunately not ubiquitous among subsequent generations.

Age and Experience

But in another and even more important respect have age and experience modified the young man’s utopian idealism. Plato’s thought began with the desire to reinstate the totalitarian ethic of the old Greek city-state, and a political career seemed the natural corollary of such a macrosocietal premise. However, he came to recognize that the philosopher is a man doomed to failure in the practical world. Plato’s own bitter experience is not unique, of course, and he must often have recalled the fate of his friend Socrates. Even today, we still mock as the archetype of the impractical intellectual the Greek Thales, who tumbled into a well because he was gazing up at the stars.4

"This is a jest which is equally applicable to all philosophers," Socrates says of Thales. And yet only the philosopher — the lover of wisdom — is truly a free man.5 Ridiculed and rejected by the world he would save, the wise man must at last, in that magnificent phrase of Socrates from the end of the Republic, fall back upon "the city which is within him" (IX, 591).

It is a much-vexed issue to what degree Plato used Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own views in the dialogues, but at this point we seem to have the words of the older man. It is clear, at least, that Plato’s initial disappointment at his own political impotence was not sufficient to prevent his Sicilian journeys after the Republic was completed.

Content to Cultivate His Own Garden

But it is equally clear that the observations of Socrates at the end of Book IX of the Republic could just as well have been spoken by the Plato who returned from the final Sicilian trip. Jesus was later to note that a prophet is not without honor save in his own country; likewise, Socrates cynically held that a wise man cannot succeed as a statesman, at least "not in the land of his birth," except by the improbability of divine intervention. He will be a statesman only in that heavenly city of Ideas or Forms, Socrates insisted, and whether such a city "exists, or ever will exist (is no matter; for he will live after the manner of that city, having nothing to do with any other" (IX, 592).

Plato came at last to the conviction of Socrates that the wise man will above all cultivate his own garden, restricting his teaching efforts to selected individuals around him who will then go out to other individuals, including, hopefully, kings and rulers. This ultimate concern with the individual is not devoid of social implications, of course, as Plato makes clear in both the Seventh Letter and the Laws. The State must have good laws, both written and unwritten, but the best laws ever devised will not prove effective if the State is not peopled with an aristocracy of good men. The individual ethos is of supreme importance; the just society is impossible without it.

At the risk of some simplification, we may say that the difference between the early Plato of the Republic and the older Plato of the Seventh Letter and the Laws is the difference between the collectivist and the individualist. If modern statists isolate and elevate the collectivist biases of the Republic, certainly students of liberty may study with profit and claim with pride the older, wiser Plato.

 

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The Man versus The State

Beyond the regulative apparatus such as in our own society is required for carrying on national defense and maintaining public order and personal safety, there must, under the regime of socialism, be a regulative apparatus everywhere controlling all kinds of production and distribution, and everywhere apportioning the share of products of each kind required for each locality, each working establishment, each individual. Under our existing voluntary co-operation, with its free contracts and its competition, production and distribution need no official oversight. Demand and supply, and the desire of each man to gain a living by supplying the needs of his fellows, spontaneously evolve that wonderful system whereby a great city has its food daily brought round to all doors or stored at adjacent shops; has clothing for its citizens everywhere at hand in multitudinous varieties; has its houses and furniture and fuel ready made or stocked in each locality…. And throughout the kingdom, production as well as distribution is similarly carried on with the smallest amount of superintendence which proves efficient; while the quantities of the numerous commodities required daily in each locality are adjusted without any other agency than the pursuit of profit.

HERBERT SPENCER 

Further Reading

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