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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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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