Was Plato a Totalitarian?

In the Republic, Plato debates and defines the nature of the just Individual and just State. It is important to note that, Individual and State in the Platonic dialogue are analogous.

To define the just individual, Plato first defines justice and the just State. Plato contends that justice means to perform one’s own job and not interfere with or be interfered by others. And this requirement is upon both Individual and State. A harmonious society is established and maintained when each group performs only one job.

Plato divides his Ideal State into three different divisions (classes of people). The most important class is the Guardians. They must be philosophers and their job is to rule the State. Second in terms of importance is the Auxiliaries. These are soldiers who protect the city (police) or attack an exterior enemy (army). And lastly, the most inferior class Plato states is the Producers, whose job is to provide for the needs of the others.

Plato also establishes some other very strict (in modern terms of our times) law requirements in his State.

Strict Totalitarian laws

  • In the Republic, Plato asserts that the so-called upper classes, the Guardians and Auxiliaries have the same education but that it is one superior to the education received by the Producers. Plato clearly does not have an egalitarian view here.
  • People are allowed to perform only one job. Although it might sound strange for Plato to suggest this, in modern day societies we might call this specialization.
  • Plato abolishes the private household and the institution of marriage is also to be abolished for Guardians. Apparently, a Spartan borrowed concept.
  • Plato dictates that men should possess women and children in common.
  • Children should be taken away from parents at birth and given to others to raise.
  • Wealth and or poverty are not allowed.
  • A breeding program in which the ‘best’ of each sex must be paired with the ‘best’ of the other sex (to maintain the breed). Perhaps this is where the Nazis got their own ideas of the pure race.
  • Plato strictly prohibits (although not entirely) certain art and poets in his Ideal State.

With all of these strict requirements that Plato wants to institute,  it would be valid to ask the question: Was Plato a totalitarian?

The roots of Totalitarianism

Karl Popper the philosopher (1902-1994) searched the roots of totalitarianism. Paraphrased from an article in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy Link,  Popper’s search for the roots of totalitarianism took him back to ancient Greece. There he detected the emergence of what he called the first “open society” in democratic Athens of the 5th century B.C.E., Athenians, he argued, were the first to subject their own values, beliefs, institutions, and traditions to critical scrutiny and Socrates and the city’s democratic politics exemplified this new attitude. But reactionary forces were unnerved by the instability and rapid social change that an open society had unleashed.

They sought to turn back the clock and return Athens to a society marked by rigid class hierarchy, conformity to the customs of the tribe, and uncritical deference to authority and tradition—a “closed society.”

Popper charged that Plato emerged as the philosophical champion of the closed society and in the process laid the groundwork for totalitarianism. Betraying the open and critical temper of his mentor Socrates, in his Republic, Plato devised an elaborate system that would arrest all political and social change and turn philosophy into an enforcer, rather than a challenger, of authority.  It would also reverse the tide of individualism and egalitarianism that had emerged in democratic Athens, establishing a hierarchical system in which the freedom and rights of the individual would be sacrificed to the collective needs of society.

Popper noted that Plato’s utopian vision in the Republic was in part inspired by Sparta.

Other thoughts

In my book, Plato’s Visual Utopia I describe a condition I call Between“Since human beings cannot permanently physically dislodge from reality, they remain attached to a platform I will denote here as an in-between zone, also known as the utopia/dystopia status quo. This area exists at the intersection of the real with the imaginary, an area where hope is most prevalent. From here we continue to weave our utopian dreams.” – Plato’s Visual UtopiaIn my view, Plato, in the Republic is a philosopher at the crossroads. Plato was ‘between’. His writings perfectly depict the status quo condition, a duality between utopia and dystopia.

In his article, Plato Wasn’t Fully Liberal but Nor Was He a Totalitarian Link. Aeon Skoble writes ” It’s a mistake to characterize him as a proto-totalitarian on the basis of the “ideal city” thought experiment in the Republic.” I agree and similarly, think that Plato is neither a Libertarian nor a Totalitarian.

Related Posts

Also, read the related Blog posts as follows: Plato’s DystopiaPlato’s AcademiaPlato and JusticePlato’s Imitation Theory, The Republic Lead subjects, Plato’s Regimes, Art as Imitation, Duality in Plato’s Republic, Plato and Art, Dystopia Connotations, Utopia Connotations, What is Utopia, Plato’s Republic, Who was Plato, Plato’s Visual Utopia book

Featured image artwork, “Red River” – a pencil drawing by Daniel Heller.