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Western Political Thought: Plato

Political thought is the study of questions about power, justice, rights, law, and other issues pertaining to governance.


Plato was an influential philosopher and scholar in political realm who lived between 427 and 347 BC. He was a student of Socrates and later made the first known "university," called the Academy. He has immense contribution in political theories. His best work is The Republic, and his best known concept is the Theory of Forms. The Theory of Forms states that, while experience is changing and illusory, ideal forms are static and real. Plato advanced Parmenides theory that both experience and forms are real. Aristotle and Socrates also began their philosophical thought from Parmenides, who was known as Parmenides of Elea and lived between 510 and 440 BC.

Plato developed such dissimilar areas of philosophy as epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. He had profound influence on Western philosophy. It is affirmed in the famous remark of Alfred North Whitehead: "the safest characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. He was also the ideal political philosopher whose ideas had a thoughtful impact on subsequent political theory. His greatest impact was Aristotle, but he influenced Western political thought in numerous ways. The philosophy of Plato is marked by the usage of dialectic, a method of dialogue involving ever more insightful insights into the nature of reality, and by cognitive optimism, a belief in the capacity of the human mind to attain the truth and to use this truth for the coherent and righteous ordering of human affairs. Plato believed that conflicting interests of different parts of society can be consistent. The best, rational and righteous, political order, which he proposes, leads to a harmonious agreement of society and allows each of its parts to flourish, but not at the expense of others.

Plato was the visionary of the dialogue and dialectic forms in philosophy, which originate with him. Plato was the founder of Western political philosophy, with his Republic, and Laws among other dialogues, providing some of the initial extant treatments of political questions from a philosophical perspective. Plato's own most conclusive philosophical influences are usually thought to have been Socrates, Parmenides, Heraclitus and Pythagoras, although few of his predecessors' works remain extant and much of what we know about these figures today derives from Plato himself.

Many Philosophers described Plato as "one of the most dazzling writers in the Western literary tradition and one of the most penetrating, wide-ranging, and influential authors in the history of philosophy." He was not the first thinker or writer to whom the word "philosopher" was applied. Other authors in the history of Western philosophy approximate him in depth and range. Perhaps only Aristotle (who studied with him), Aquinas and Kant would be generally approved to be of the same rank.

Reviewing his contribution to politics, it is observed that in the entire history of political thought, no thinker aroused the admiration, admiration and criticism that Plato did. Plato has been generally regarded as the creator of philosophical idealism by virtues of his conviction that there is a universal idea in the world of everlasting reality beyond the world of the senses. He was the first to articulate and define political ideas within a larger framework of a philosophical idea of Good. He was concerned about human life and human soul or human nature, and the real question in it is how to live best in the state within the European intellectual traditions. He theorised the disorders and crises of the actual world and presented to his readers a revelation of a desirable political order, which has fascinated his fans and detractors today also. He has been labelled as a poet of ideas, a philosopher of beauty and the true founder of the cult of harmonious living. He has been acclaimed for his denunciation of materialism and insensitive selfishness. Both Voltaire (1694-1778) and Nietzsche (1844-1900) characterized Platonism as the intellectual side of Christianity. Many intellectuals such as John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Morris (1834-1896) were fascinated by Plato's concern for human perfection and excellence. Plato, along with his follower Aristotle has been credited for laying the foundations of Greek political theory on which the western political tradition rests. These two philosophers between themselves have explored, stated, analysed and covered wide range of philosophical viewpoints and issues.

The Republic: Among the major works of Plato in political philosophy, The Republic was collection of Plato's ideas in the field of ethics, metaphysics, philosophy and politics. The Republic, regarding justice, the greatest and most well- known work of Plato, was written in the form of a dialogue, a method of great prominence in clarifying questions and establishing truth. It was one of the premium examples of the dialectical method as stated and first developed by Socrates. Though Socrates did not provide a theoretical explanation of the method, he established a precise pattern of dialectical reasoning for others to follow. He placed dialectics in the service of ethics, defining virtue as a basis for traditional and moral change. The argument in the Republic was conducted in a single room among Socrates. The Republic in Greek means justice, and should not be used or understood in this Latin sense meaning the states or the polity. William Ebenstein indicated that after twenty three hundred years the Republic "is still match less as an introduction to the basic issues that confront human being as citizens". No other writer on politics has equalled Plato in combining, penetrating and dialectical reasoning with poetic imagery and symbolism. One of the main norms of the Republic is that the right kind of government and politics can be the legitimate object of rigorous scientific thinking rather than the unavoidable product of muddling through fear and faith, indolence and improvisation.

In The Republic, Plato explained that the common opinion of justice in the contemporary world is that those who behave unjustly naturally gain power and become rulers and stronger people in society. On the other hand, when weak people behave in accordance with justice, they are underprivileged, and the strong gain the advantage. In the "second title, Concerning Justice" Plato equates justice with virtue, thus making them equal. Nevertheless, as one attempts to explain justice within the context of political discipline, one sees that laws were initially created to bring peace and social order to society. Bruell stated that The Republic presents itself as a thought of justice. This is an important statement because it demonstrates Plato's argument about the system of justice as a dynamic political philosophy. Consideration of justice displays that it is the work of the humanistic intellect rather than expose of a universal truth. Plato's deliberation of justice shows that in the sphere of justice, there are multiple ways to designate its private and public place in the society. He argued that justice is a methodical system and it functions according to the needs of the society and the individual. In fact, the system itself is so prevailing that it can become manipulative in regulating the lives of innocent individuals when such a system rests in the influence of powerful rulers who practice anarchy.

The Republic argues that in order to realize the truth about right and wrong, one must abandon the traditions of the past and start observing justice personally by building up knowledge without resting on traditional philosophies. His penetrating questions and hypothesis on the relativity of justice is extremely philosophical. In discovering the true nature of justice, Plato mainly dedicates the majority of his works cantering on his concept of morality. It is established that The Republic serves to introduce the relativity, the comprehensive reach of Plato's notion of justice. In brief, Plato indicated that it is beneficial when one practices justice. He creates a link between the acts of morality to the act of justice and concludes that such actions are worthwhile. He inspires one to perceive just deeds as more than mere good deeds. Thus, the introspective facade of reason can never be freed entirely from "participation" in the ruling dimension. Therefore, Plato's greatest contribution in politics is his argument that it is basically the partiality that the system of justice incorporates which makes it a powerful system.

Plato (427-347) The Laws: Plato had significant contribution in the field of legal and political science. His last and longest dialogue, the Laws is highly important. In the form of an argument between an Athenian, a Spartan, and a Cretan, Plato outlines the "second-best" state (the "law state") in painstaking detail. While holding some of the idealism of the Republic, the Laws aims at a more attainable goal, a community based on the principle of moderation. Consequently, Plato substituted the communal living arrangements of the Republic with private property and permitted citizens a voice in the management of public affairs. He also prefigured the famous "mixed" or "balanced" constitution, observing that democracy should be tempered with kingdom. His emphasis for making, revising, and teaching the laws is a tacit admission that the "royal science" of philosophers must give way to known and settled rules. Correspondingly, Plato's interest in existing institutions and appreciation for imperfect regimes serves as a bond to the more empirical and realistic politics of Aristotle.

Plato opined that justice does not consist just adhering to the laws, for it is based on the inner nature of human spirit, it is also to the victory of the stronger over the weaker, for it protects the weaker against the stronger. A just state, Plato contended that it is achieved with an eye to the good of the whole. In a just state or society, the rulers and military, the producers all do what they ought to do. In such a society, the rulers are intelligent, the soldiers are brave, and the producers exercise self- control or temperance. For Plato, justice is a moral notion. Prof: Ernest Barker indicated that justice for Plato is at once a part of human virtue and the bond which joins men together in the states. It makes man good and make him social" Prof. Sabine agreed with above statement and stated that Plato's Justice is a bound which holds the society together.

It is appraised that Plato's political philosophy, which emerges from his literatures, has great prominence in the history of western political theory. Plato was the first organized political theorist and a study of the western philosophy of tradition begins with his masterwork, the Republic. Jowet rightly pronounced that Plato as father of philosophy, politics and literary idealism. Plato's involvement to the western political thought is immense. He had given it a direction, a basis and a vision. Political idealism is Plato's ability to western political philosophy. He transformed novel ideas and integrated them skilfully in a political system. His radicalism lies in the fact that his rulers are without comforts and luxuries possessed by men of property. In the Republic, Plato represented a perfect model of an ideal order. Plato was the first to allow women to become rulers and legislators. His outline of collective households, temporary marriages and common childcare were accepted as essential condition for the liberation of women by the socialist of the 18th and 19th centuries. The major objective of Plato's Political thought was the wellbeing and development of the public.

Plato described four deviant types of political regimes that include honour-oriented timocracy, wealth-oriented oligarchy, freedom-oriented democracy, and personal-exploitation-oriented tyranny. These regimes differ from the ideal reason-based regime (aristocracy), because timocracy is based on spirit, oligarchy on appetite, and democracy on a mixture of these two. Plato explains cyclical transformations of these regimes in light of the changes in the value structure, thereby stressing the significance of values and ideas on political makeover.

In contemporary political scenario, Plato and modern social theory has several common issues, such as the importance of the division of labour. He considers people as social persons who must live within a complex and interdependent social life. Although he accepts social class as a result of division of labour, he rejects class warfare and class-based economic disparity. His understanding of this division, with its vertical and disciplinary structure, also differs from liberal social relations in terms of agreement or social contract (George Sabine, 195). Additionally, he asserts upon gender equality, for one's class membership depends only on merit, which, in turn, is based on one's quality of soul and education. For example, as "a male and a female doctor have souls of the same nature," they are equal (Sabine, A History of Political Theory),

Plato also contributed to develop political theory by describing, generalizing, and systematizing psychological and sociopolitical issues. The Republic's main contribution to political science emphasised on the role of ideas, values, and ethics in politics. He attaches importance to ideas and an intelligence not restricted by custom, instead of material/historical structural factors.

Criticism of Plato's theory:

Plato's political ideas gripped under criticism when analysing the relationship between theory and practice:

Socio-political issues exist in a dynamic structure and always face change. Therefore, even if the guardians grasp the knowledge, the impact of change on time and space might render their knowledge obsolete. Socio-political problems cannot be resolved by surpassing them because ignoring certain facts does not change the outer realism. Plato seeks constant peace and stability to stop competition in politics, economics, and other spheres of activity. Furthermore, he seeks to create harmony through social homogenization. As political theory's essential aim is to solve real-life problems, it must "create a common rule in a context of differences," instead of abolishing social diversity.

Another criticism was that power is necessary to interpret knowledge into practice, and only a stronger source of power can liberate people from the pressure of another source of power. Plato did not present specific methods to solve this spiteful circle and made power subservient to knowledge.

Other problematic facet of The Republic is its authoritarian political ideology, which is neither essential nor suitable for realizing Plato's perfect people and ideal city (based on justice and wisdom). In his book, Plato supports instruction and social engineering instead of social contract and agreement. Such a totalitarian system has numerous serious problems, mentioned below:

  1. It extinguishes the private sphere (such as the family), uses restriction to prevent any space for individual freedom, and violates basic human rights. Furthermore, as the Soviet Union proved, it destroys the citizens' motivation, creativity, and efficiency.
  2. A system that categorises people in a three fixed groups (gold, silver, and bronze) denies multiple identities and also results in discrimination.
  3. Politics is too important to be left to guardians. As it affects human life, ordinary citizens must be able to intervene to politics and determine their own interests and goals.
  4. A guardianship regime makes it impossible for people to recover their rights from manipulative dictators. The only way out is revolution, which is made all the harder by the systemic brainwashing received in the public schools.
  5. It is difficult to find rulers who accept authority not out of personal aspiration but out of fear that they could be "ruled by someone worse than oneself."( Plato, The Republic) In this regard, Plato's philosopher-kings might be very dangerous, for "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."( Robert Dahl, 1987) While disciplinary education may be suitable in semi-voluntary situations (monastic orders) or in the parent-child relations for a short time, it may be terrible if applied to a whole society for a long time.

Conversely, Plato's non-democratic opinions include some beneficial factors that are used in modern political systems. For example, modern democracies are generally representative, instead of Athens' direct variety leans toward the oppression of majority. The modern judiciary system, including a constitutional court and judges, represents the dominance of knowledge's quality over the majority's quantity. Additionally, the main basis of a democratic state's bureaucracy-meritocracy-refers to officials selected on merit, which is similar to Plato's notion.

These contributions are very significant presently as the main problem today is the reconciliation of the classical aim of politics to enable human beings to live good and just lives in a political community with the modern demand of social thought, which is to achieve scientific knowledge of the workings of society.

To summarise, Plato is one of the most prominent figures in Western philosophy. He was influential Greek philosopher, scientist, historian, and political theorist. He excelled in the fields of astrology, geometry and was acquainted with the doctrines of Greek leaders. Because he was a close follower of the teachings of Socrates, the majority of his ideas about the system of justice and his perception of how the system operates in society, directly represent those of Socrates. Thus, his relationship with Socrates leads him to learn the art of making and shaping his own theories that identify with his own individuality. Because his works are so significant to the political field, he is credited as the most celebrated Greek moralist. His early efforts in defending and defining the system of justice has gained him fame in the political arena.

In The Republic, Plato described evidently the definition of justice and ethics. His work is a major political discovery to the truth of right and wrong. The system of justice can be interpreted in different ways but principally its political theory demonstrates that the strong holds advantage over the weak is a universal truth. However, his revealing of the truth between right and wrong initiated the notion that justice is demarcated by the act of goodwill, instead of the self-interest of the individual. Plato argued that the rational notion of justice is so powerful that the validity of its political principles is eternal in human history.