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.

Befriend your ideological opposite. It’s fun.

Step inside the unlikely friendship of a former ACLU president and an ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were unlikely friends. They debated each other at events all over the world, and because of that developed a deep and rewarding friendship – despite their immense differences.
  • Scalia, a famous conservative, was invited to circles that were not his "home territory", such as the ACLU, to debate his views. Here, Strossen expresses her gratitude and respect for his commitment to the exchange of ideas.
  • "It's really sad that people seem to think that if you disagree with somebody on some issues you can't be mutually respectful, you can't enjoy each other's company, you can't learn from each other and grow in yourself," says Strossen.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

Physicists find new state of matter that can supercharge technology

Scientists make an important discovery for the future of computing.

Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • Researchers find a new state of matter called "topological superconductivity".
  • The state can lead to important advancements in quantum computing.
  • Utilizing special particles that emerge during this state can lead to error-free data storage and blazing calculation speed.
Keep reading Show less

Physicist advances a radical theory of gravity

Erik Verlinde has been compared to Einstein for completely rethinking the nature of gravity.

Photo by Willeke Duijvekam
Surprising Science
  • The Dutch physicist Erik Verlinde's hypothesis describes gravity as an "emergent" force not fundamental.
  • The scientist thinks his ideas describe the universe better than existing models, without resorting to "dark matter".
  • While some question his previous papers, Verlinde is reworking his ideas as a full-fledged theory.
Keep reading Show less

How to heal trauma with meaning: A case study in emotional evolution

As tempting as it may be to run away from emotionally-difficult situations, it's important we confront them head-on.

Videos
  • Impossible-sounding things are possible in hospitals — however, there are times when we hit dead ends. In these moments, it's important to not run away, but to confront what's happening head-on.
  • For a lot of us, one of the ways to give meaning to terrible moments is to see what you can learn from them.
  • Sometimes certain information can "flood" us in ways that aren't helpful, and it's important to figure out what types of data you are able to take in — process — at certain times.
Keep reading Show less