Would We Want to Live in Plato’s Ideal Society?

Plato’s vision of a harmonious state would scandalize liberals and conservatives alike. But some of his advice might be worth taking.

Plato’s vision of a harmonious state would scandalize liberals and conservatives alike. But some of his advice might be worth taking.


What’s the Big Idea?

Although it’s a staple of philosophy classes everywhere, Plato’s Republic has attracted considerable criticism over the centuries. As a vision of an ideal state, many of its prescriptions have become notorious: banishing poets, rejecting democracy, putting “philosopher-kings” in charge, and so on.

But John Dillon, recently retired professor of classics at Trinity College, Dublin, believes that the Republic’s detractors miss the mark. “I am always surprised,” he explains, “that this arrangement is taken seriously as a political blueprint by so many scholars who should know better, as well as by the general public….What Plato is doing in the Republic is taking the opportunity to air a number of his cherished political ideas, while primarily presenting a schema of the well-ordered human soul.”

It’s in the Laws, Dillon argues, that “Plato is being serious about constructing a state.” And the proposals that text offers—together with a few ideas from the Republic—may provide a path out of some of our current political and environmental crises.

What’s the Significance?

As detailed in a previous post, Dillon agrees fundamentally with Plato’s belief that states should seek stability and material sufficiency above all. He contrasts those priorities with those of modern capitalist democracies, which valorize competitiveness, acquisitiveness, and the quest for perpetual growth. Rather than grabbing for resources and profits, Dillon argues that world leaders should give serious credence to Plato’s “insistence on limiting production…to necessities rather than luxuries.”

He favors similar restraint with regard to the “production” of new people, citing Plato’s advice that governments should “determine as exactly as possible what number of people [their states] could support ‘in modest comfort,’ and then stick to that.” He suggests that in the event of truly unsustainable population growth, one remedy would be to “limit children’s allowances [i.e. welfare benefits] to the first three children of any couple, instead of actually increasing them, as is currently the case [in Dillon’s native Ireland].”

Since “advanced western societies…limit their population growth spontaneously,” Dillon does not believe such measures will actually be necessary—only that they should be considered valid fallback options. Moreover, he’s as willing to tweak conservatives as liberals in the name of stability. Echoing Plato’s proposal that the very wealthy “should hand over [their] surplus to the state and its patron deities,” Dillon advocates extremely steep taxation of the rich. “One would simply have to prescribe that anyone earning over five times the minimum wage would have the choice, and privilege, of donating his surplus to one of a number of approved public or private enterprises…or have the money removed from him by 100% taxation.”

Dillon concedes that many of these initiatives would be hugely unpopular, and emphasizes Plato’s general priorities (stability, austerity, shared sacrifice) over any specific policies. Still, at least one of the philosopher’s ideas—a version of which Dillon also supports—was endorsed by Time magazine in 2007: mandatory national service for young adults.

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.