Academic Features

Plato – A Totalitarian Advocate?

Written by Nikita Nandanwad. Karl Popper's interpretation of Plato's Republic as advocating totalitarianism is today considered overly hostile. But this argument was built from textual evidence, so how should we approach the Republic, and how should we understand Popper in his own historical context?

Plato (ca. 428 BC – 348/347 BC) was a philosopher who lived during the Classical period in democratic Athens and was a foundational figure of Western philosophy. His Republic, an example of a Socratic dialogue, is one of his best known works. A massive work dealing with a myriad of topics and concerns, it is perhaps best to summarise the Republic as a work about the search for justice. In the course of his argument, Socrates (the character) conceives of the completely just city (‘Kallipolis’) which meets everyone’s needs,  ruled over by philosophers and is a utopia in every respect.

Surprisingly for its aim, Republic has received accusations of advocating some highly problematic policies labelled as ‘just’, including eugenics, censorship and classism. I would like to focus on the arguments of Karl Popper (1902-1994), an Austrian-British scholar known for his total rejection of Plato as a philosophical ideal, accusing him of being an advocate of totalitarianism.

Before examining Popper’s arguments, it is essential to outline the context in which the Republic was written. Plato’s time and place shaped his model of Kallipolis: it is now widely accepted that Plato was ambivalent, if not outright hostile, towards Athenian democracy, and modelled Kallipolis as the counter to the flaws he saw in the Athenian political system. Athens was the city-state famed for giving birth to democracy as we know it. But Plato’s experience of democracy was quite different to ours – while most modern Western states are representative democracies, i.e. citizens electing a group of officials to represent them, Athens was a direct democracy in which all citizens (that is, adult male Athenians who were not slaves) directly decided policies by casting votes through the assembly. In both modern-day politics and the Classical period, this is considered a highly radical system for allowing the everyman to influence civic and military policy. Plato belonged to a tradition of elite Athenian intellectuals who criticised this untoward “power of the people”.

Secondly, the Republic is set during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), fought between Athens and Sparta. The war saw several infamous debacles, such as erratic and often irrational decisions made by the assembly, to the detriment of political stability. Undoubtedly, Plato’s experiences reinforced his observations of democracy as a degenerate, barely-restrained system of mob rule which was unfit to make wise decisions for the good of the city. 

Similarly to Plato, Karl Popper’s polemical arguments are shaped by his experiences: the looming threat of national socialism, and later, Stalinist rule, instilled a dominating fear of authoritarian rule in 20th century scholarly circles. Today, the extent to which Plato opposed democracy is debated, but Popper assumes a fairly radical stance, arguing that Kallipolis sowed the seeds of a totalitarian ideology favouring the state over the individual at all costs.

According to Popper, Plato fundamentally aimed to revert back to the “tribal patriarchy of the … natural class rule of the wise few over the ignorant many”. I shall detail below the most problematic aspects of the Republic which Popper uses to reinforce his argument:

370c 415a-c: Everybody is born with a particular set of abilities falling under three categories: gold (rulers), silver (auxiliaries), iron and bronze (workers). Therefore, each citizen should have a single occupation suited to him and should avoid interfering with other categories. This would ensure that a ‘naturally superior’, enlightened minority should rule over the majority. 

457d-460c: To avoid factionalism or class tensions, the state should regulate human reproduction – people from different categories should avoid intermarriage. To prevent dissent, rulers should hide the truth from the public via a fixed lottery system.

386a, 401b, 595a: Well-educated citizens are necessary for the formation of a good society. The state should facilitate this education by censoring the ‘bad’ material, including unacceptable art and poetry

Popper infers from the above that Plato prioritised the well-being of the state at all costs, resulting in the totalitarian morality that the state is never wrong, even if it harms or restricts the individual. It is exactly such ideals, Popper argues, which built the repressive regimes of the 20th century and threaten to dismantle freedom as we know it.

Today, Popper’s ideas are considered tenuous and overly hostile to Plato, but his central concern remains that the Republic did advocate ideas characteristic of authoritarian rule. Nevertheless, we must take Plato’s ideas in the context of his time. Plato certainly wouldn’t have conceived of totalitarianism as we understand it: his aim in constructing Kallipolis was to create a society that benefited all individuals. In a comprehensive episode of the podcast Philosophy Bites, Melissa Lane (author of Plato’s Progeny) argues that while seeds of authoritarianism are present in the Republic, Plato only aimed to instil mechanisms to prevent people from falling prey to desires. In a democracy, people could vote based on their irrational judgements, passions and fears, while the aforementioned mechanisms would prevent the resultant socio-political turmoil of the Peloponnesian War. Lane also points out that Popper cherry-picked the above aspects for the purpose of his argument, but the Republic contains several ideas suited to radically differing schools of thought, such as Marxism or feminism. There are evidently elements of incredibly progressive ideas for Plato’s time, such as his argument that women could also be philosophers and guardians of the city, or that rulers should be forbidden from possessing private property. In fact, this has led to other scholars assuming equally extreme positions about Plato’s intentions – such as Gregory Vlasto’s representation of Plato as a quasi-liberal who respected the Athenian system and was merely trying to improve its flaws.

However, it is inevitable that, in today’s world, we should scrutinise the Republic with a lens which Plato certainly would not have intended. Just as Plato was attempting to solve the problems he perceived in Athenian democracy with a ‘stable’, just model, Popper’s arguments are a product of his experiences, like the similarly coloured perspectives of 21st century readers. The Republic is a brilliant example of a work that discusses concerns pertinent to our own time. But it is still the product of a society vastly separated from ours by both time and ideals, which shape our interpretation in ways which were simply not relevant to Plato’s time.

Written by Nikita Nandanwad

Bibliography

Ferrari, G. R. F., and Tom Griffith (tr.). The Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Ober, Josiah. Political Dissent in Democratic Athens. Princeton University Press, 2011.

Popper, Karl R. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Vol.1, The Spell of Plato. Third Edition, Revised.. ed. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1957.

Warburton, Nigel (host). “Melissa Lane on Plato and Totalitarianism.” Philosophy Bites (podcast), March 16, 2008. Accessed November 4, 2020. https://philosophybites.com/2008/03/melissa-lane-on.html 

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