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Introduction to Plato

by Paolo Scroccaro

translated from Italian by Chuck Salvo

The number of studies and commentaries on his works, the admiration and veneration that has been paid to him from the very beginning, but also the fury with which he has been criticized, are indications of the importance that Plato has had and still has for Western thought. In his work all the themes of philosophy are found: from ethics to politics, from religion to economy, from medicine to physics, from psychology to astronomy. Due also to the fact that the specialized departmentalization which afflicts modern thought was alien to a mentality according to which culture should be global and interdisciplinary, values that for a few years have been rediscovered in this area. For this reason whoever looks in Plato for the elements of a dualistic thought is mistaken: this dualism that our rationality imposes on us, annuls itself at a higher level, in which the opposites coincide. Not by chance have all the currents of thought that are inspired by Plato, from Plotinus to Giordano Bruno, made the conincidentia oppositorum one of their essential elements.

What we have said above drives us to regard reason (dianoia) as limited, therefore it is not even true that only the rational is real. It is then necessary to postulate a form of knowledge that can surpass the limits of reason; it is for Plato Intellectual Intuition, that is the faculty by which the Intellect (Nous) has the direct vision of the real; the intellect is the divine element in man, and his experience is communicable only through a language that does not follow the rules of rational thought, a dense language, that speaks through images from many-sided meanings: myth.

Plato makes a wide use of myths, and they are neither the result of a reason nor yet master of their means nor the angry outlet of a failed dramatist, nor do they tend to depart substantially from the myths and symbols of traditional religion, because through these elements, he wants to bring man to understand himself, the Cosmos and the Gods. Plato only seeks to resume and bring up to date that very ancient instrument of knowledge and communication. Certainly, whoever considers myths «fables for children» can not understand their efficacy and it will always be a problem for him to ever understand how a philosophy so great is not liberated from this form of superstitious and coarse knowledge. In our opinion the language of myth is the only one with which is it possible to communicate the truth outside of every language. Plato himself, speaking of the object of his most intimate teachings and his deepest search, affirms:

«There is no writing of mine about these matters, nor will there be ever be one. For this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued intercourse, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself» (VII Letter, 341).

Socrates, Plato's teacher, wrote nothing; Plato himself declared many times the limits of writing as the means to communicate knowledge:

«You'd think they [written words] were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever». (Phaedrus 275 d)

«Your invention will enable them to hear many thing without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to possess knowledge but actually possess opinions.» (Phaedrus 275 b)

«No sensible man will venture to express his deepest thoughts in words, especially in a form which is unchangeable, as is true of written outlines.» (VII Letter 342)

«For this reason anyone who is seriously studying high matters will be the last to write about them and thus expose his thought to the envy and criticism of men [...] whenever we see a book [...] we can be sure that if the author is really serious, this book does not contain his best thoughts; they are stored away with the fairest of his possessions. And if he has committed these serious thoughts to writing, it is because men, not the gods, have taken his wits away.» (VII Letter 344)

These are very topical considerations, in a culture like ours, in which the written word has such an importance that we only consider the cultures that possess it historical, while the others are hastily branded as prehistoric.

Son of a midwife, Socrates spoke of having inherited from his mother the art of maieutics, the art of helping men to give birth to what lives within them: wisdom, which must be loved and reared like a living being. Socrates did not give truth, nor theories, but simply directed men to inquire, making them at first conscious of their ignorance and then eager to know.

Plato, wrote instead, but in a particular form: the dialog. This instrument, in the hands of Plato, who is the inventor and the most brilliant user of it, assumes a depth and a meaningfulness that is difficult to summarize in a few lines. The dialog answers in fact to many needs. First of all, dialectics has the function of leading, through the inquiry into various propositions and hypotheses, to the attainment of truth; the assumption is obviously a sincere and common love for wisdom.
Through the dialog, therefore, the reader is often led to draw out consequences, and often anticipates the solution to the problem; in a much different way from an essay, therefore, this form permits an active participation of the reader, which, if he will not yet join the involvement (implication) of a lively Socratic dialog, to go back however to the stages that lead to various conclusions. In many dialogs one does not arrive at an explicit answer to the initial problem: the reader must find it, aided by all the collected elements and by his own desire for truth.
And more, the dialog tries to keep to the written word -we have already mentioned its limits- the living Socratic maieutics. In the dialog the author is not alone to espouse his theories, all the characters in a dialog, with their culture, their experiences and their thought, have importance; therefore in reading a dialog, it will be necessary also to keep in mind who are the participants: the wise man is not at all solely who knows, but who can speak in a diverse manner to diverse souls, adapting the language to whoever is facing him: he writes

«[the discourse] written down, with knowledge, in the soul of the listener; can defend itself, and it knows for whom it should speak and for whom it should remain silent. [...] You mean the living , breathing discourse of the man who knows, of which the written one can be fairly called an image.» (Phaedrus, 275e)

If one does not keep all this in mind, one runs the risk of missing the richness of the Platonic works.


His life

Plato was born in Aegina in 427 of an aristocratic family, from which he received an excellent education that aroused in him respect for and interest in tradition and a notable sensibility for political life. Around the age of 18, he met Socrates and became one of his most important disciples. He shared along with many of his contemporaries a youthful attraction for political activity, but would move away from it in disgust after the bitter experience of the oligarchic government of the Thirty Tyrants (403-402), in which Socrates refused to be involved, and which even Plato would condemn; and before its collapse, the extremist democracy which followed the Tyrants would come to condemn the most just of men -Socrates- accusing him of corruption of the young, treason against the city, and impiety (399).

Around 390 Plato began a series of challenging voyages to Crete, Egypt, Cyrene, Greater Greece... in this way Plato came in contact with the principal centers of philosophy and learning of antiquity. In 388 he was at Syracuse for the first time, at the court of Dionysius the Elder, where he tried, with the help of Dion, to orient the government towards his philosophic ideals. The attempt failed and Plato was reduced to slavery: Rescued by a follower, he returned to Athens and founded the Academy (378), which quickly became the most important and renowned school of the West.

In 367 Plato was again in Sicily, to reattempt the Syracusan experience with the new tyrant, Dionysius the Younger; but soon the agreement with the tyrant went awry, Dion was exiled and only with difficulty could Plato get back to Athens. Another voyage to Syracuse, in 361, would not have better luck. Plato returned to Athens, which he never left again. Dion would try to overthrow Dionysius but he would die in the attempt, to the immense sadness of Plato, who probably had supported the revolt, at least ideally.

Meanwhile the emissaries of the Academy developed an important philosophical and political role in the Mediterranean area (see for example the work of the Platonists Erastus and Corisco with the Prince Ermia of Atarneus.) Plato died in 347, bequeathing an incredibly vast intellectual inheritance.

The importance of Plato's political thought seeped out from the scanty biography that we have just sketched, but it was only little recognized by the historians of philosophy, who were often bringing to it their political and ideological preconceptions or the arrogance of an era that holds itself superior to all the others. Many of the positions that Plato held at the base of his political theory have little by little been rediscovered, as for example, the fact, so natural but forgotten for at least two centuries, that man and his fulfillment must be the goal of politics -- not the economy.

Plato is, anyway, very far from the degenerate image of the intellectual who is alienated from the problems of his time, finding an easy refuge in his books; to the contrary, it was just his bitter experience of the corruption of Athenian politics that convinced him of the necessity of an active engagement of philosophy in society; as Voegelin justly notes, Plato

«realized, above all, that -what the modern reformers and revolutionists seem incapable of understanding- a reform cannot be realized by a well-intentioned leader who would draw his own followers from the ranks of those in which moral confusion is the cause of political disorder»;

his work of reforming is born, therefore, in the individual and is a work of education in the most profound sense that such a word can assume. It was not a matter of giving life to a new political faction to join with those already existing, but of making live what for Plato was the true politics, before which the politics of his era was only a degenerate form, almost unworthy of such a name; Plato did not hesitate to have Socrates affirm:

«I believe that I am one of the few Athenians -so as not to say I'm the only one, but the only one among our contemporaries- to take up the true political craft and practice the true politics.» (Georgias, 521d)

The Academy he founded was nothing if not a school to prepare the philosopher-politician.


The Republic

It is surely Plato's most significant work from the point of view of its sociopolitical doctrine, for the range of the themes taken into consideration, which deal with the political experience of man. The original title, Politéia, (of which De re publica is the Latin equivalent) is difficult to translate: it signifies the establishment, structure of the State, or better of the Polis, which was, as we have already seen, the form of public organization of classical Greece; its principle merit, and at the same time the character that most distinguished Greek social life from that of the moderns is the fact that it maintained, for its size, a distinct character to the measure of man. Not by accident was the dialog born around the problem of justice on the scale of the individual. To understand what is just for the single man, says Plato, it will be well to seek it where it is manifested in the grand scale: in the Polis. Plato affirms thusly the essentially Greek principle, according to which man is a microcosm and the state only reflects, on a vast scale, the organization of the human being: the state becomes the common denominator between man, of which it is a reproduction in the large, and the cosmos, of which it is the smaller image.

The structure of the dialog is rather complex and structured; one can compare it to a system of «Chinese boxes» in which one frame holds an argument that in its turn gets interrupted to form the beginning of a new problem; from argument to argument, it pushes us up to the most profound and essential aspects of the political experience of man, until it can take up again the threads of all the questions left in suspense, which get resolved one by one, in the inverse order to how they were introduced in the dialogue. It creates such a harmony in its symmetry that it is worthy of a man who not only is a great philosopher, but also a great artist and writer.

The heart of the work is therefore the most precious part, the culminating moment of the dialectic that, without leaving any questions unresolved, leads up to the most profound of the problem of justice and the State. And at the center of the Republic we find a myth, one that reasserts the importance that the language of myth holds for Plato's philosophy.

The myth of the cave is one of Plato's most famous, and is the complete powerful synthesis of his philosophy; it is in strict relation with the beginning and the end of the dialog, which form the frame which we have mentioned:

- The dialog opens with a story which should be considered at least allegorical, because the descent from Socrates to the Piraeus, the port of Athens, to assist at the festival of the goddess Bendis, is not other than the allegory of a descender (catabasi), of a descent to the lower realms (inferi), to the heart of the individual and at the same time to the heart of society, representing also geographically by the lowest point of the city, the Piraeus; the idea is emphasized from the opening of the dialog:

«I went down (katében) to the Piraeus yesterday...»

- The end of the dialog is an extensive narration of the experience made in the world of the Hells (Inferi) by the warrior Er, dead and then returned to life: another myth, therefore, another descender (catabasi). These three scenes mark the progress of the dialog. We will begin, therefore, just with the myth of the cave, a worthy introduction not only to the Republic, but to all Platonic philosophy.


The Myth of the Cave

The Republic, Book VII, 514a - 517a

- Next, I said, compare the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this: Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They've been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets. [...] Then also imagine that there are people along the wall, carrying all kinds of artifacts that project above it -statues of people and other animals, made out of stone, wood, and every material. And, as you'd expect, some of the carriers are talking, and some are silent.
- It's a strange image you're describing, and strange prisoners.
- They're like us. Do you suppose, first of all, that these prisoners see anything of themselves and one another besides the shadows that the fire casts on the wall in from of them?
[...] What about the things being carried along the wall? Isn't the same true of them? [...] And is they could talk to one another, don't you think they'd suppose that the names they used applied to the thongs they see passing before them? [...] And what if their prison also had an echo from the wall facing them? Don't you think they'd believe that the shadows passing in front of them were talking whenever one of the carriers passing along the wall was doing so? [...] Then the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts.

[...] Consider, then what being released from their bonds and cured of their ignorance would naturally be like, if something like this came to pass. When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he'd be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he'd seen before. What do you think he'd way, if we told him that what he'd seen before was inconsequential, but that now -because he is a bit close to the things that are and is turned towards things that are more- he see more correctly? Or, to put it another way, if we pointed to each of the things passing by, asked him what each of them is, and compelled him to answer, don't you think he'd be at a loss and that he'd believe that the things he saw earlier were truer than the ones he was now being shown?

[...] And is someone compelled him to look at the light itself, wouldn't this eyes hurt, and wouldn't he turn around and flee towards the things he's able to see, believing that they're really clearer than the ones he's being shown? [...] And if someone dragged him away from there by force, up the rough, steep path, and didn't let him go until he had dragged him into the sunlight, wouldn't he be pained and irritated at being treated that way? And when he came into the light, with the sun filling his eyes, wouldn't he be unable to see a single one of the things now said to be true? [...] I suppose, then, that he'd need time to get adjusted before he could see things in the world above. At first, he'd see shadows most easily, then images of men and other things in water, then the things themselves. Of these, he'd be able to stud the things in the sky and the sky itself more easily at night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon, than during the day, looking at the sun and the light of the sun. [...] Finally, of course, he'd be able to see the sun, not images of it in water or some alien place, but the sun itself, in its own place, and be able to study it.

[...] What about when he reminds himself of his first dwelling place, his fellow prisoners and what passed for wisdom there? Don't you think that he'd count himself happy for the change and pity the others? [...] And if there had been any honors, praises, or prizes among them for the one who was sharpest at identifying the shadows as they passed by and who best remembered which usually came earlier, which later, and which simultaneously, and who could thus best divine the future, do you thing that our man would desire these rewards or envy those among the prisoners who were honored and held power? Instead, wouldn't he feel that he'd prefer to go through any sufferings, rather than share their opinions and live as they do?

[...] Consider this too. If this man went down into the cave again and sat down in his same seat, wouldn't his eyes -coming suddenly out of the sun like that- be filled with darkness? [...] And before his eyes had recovered- and the adjustment would not be quick -while his vision was still dim, if he had to compete again with the perpetual prisoners in recognizing the shadows, wouldn't he invite ridicule? Wouldn't it be said of him that he'd returned from his upward journey with his eyesight ruined and that it isn't worthwhile even to try to travel upward? And, as for anyone who tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could somehow get their hands on him, wouldn't they kill him?

The significance of the myth, in its general lines, is transparent and is explained by Plato; it can be divided briefly into two parts.

- In the first place, Plato describes what he means by knowledge and ignorance, almost draws out the programmatic manifesto of his philosophy, and probably makes a retrospective description of his own way of knowledge. The cave is the world, the shadows are what we prisoners see with our senses, much different is the world of the Ideas, which are outside the cave, which is perceptible only by those who, after an exhausting journey of searching and working on oneself, manage to light up the spark of intuition in their own mind.

If, however, the value of the world of appearances is like a shadow set in front of the world of pure Ideas, it would nevertheless not be correct to hold that their value for Plato is totally negative: the images of sense are also always in some relationship, if only indirect, with the beings which they are precisely the shadows of. The Ideas are those that the Archetypes, or the models, the moulds, from which the objects of the world of sense derive. And the path which will lead to the cave's exit begins just from the shadows.

The philosopher is the one who has brought such a journey to completion: the term «philosopher» does not mean for Plato one who has behind him long years of study and who has collected a quantity of ideas; such studies in themselves do not guarantee true Knowledge; if they are limited to investigating appearances, without managing to penetrate to the ultimate root of all that exists -the One-Good, symbolized in the myth by the Sun- it will still always be fallacious study. The philosopher is rather one who has directed his efforts to a much different form of knowledge, which is able to profoundly transform whoever attains it. Our current conception of the philosopher would therefore not have been shared by Plato, who would have substituted instead the term "philodoxer", or lover of opinion. One can therefore say, as does Voegelin, that a correct interpretation of Plato's philosophy should base itself just on the understanding of this pair of opposing concepts, "philosophy/philodoxy", and the loss, in the English language, of the second term, has generated the confusion that stands at the base of the fact that true philosophers today don't exist, while there exist many "philodoxers" who have usurped the title.

The ascent toward the cave's exit, which, among things, as symbol of the world, is common to the mysticism of most cultures, to ascend once again from what is given in the senses to reality "in itself" is what Plato means by education; as has already been pointed out, Plato intended to propose a philosophy that was at the same time a pedagogy, in the deepest sense that such a word can assume, or even a science of inner transformation. Such an education represents the continuation of the work initiated by Socrates, the art of making souls give birth to what they carry hidden inside of them. Plato makes note that it is not a question of bringing sight to blind eyes, since all the prisoners of the shadows see each very well; they are simply facing a mistaken direction: education is the capacity to turn the eyes of the soul toward those things which are more like it, being made of the same substance which makes up the Ideas.

- The second part of the myth is not less important, being of an essentially political nature. The philosopher will have to become political, redescending, that is, from the world of essence and contemplation into the darkness of the cave, which had become unbearable to his eyes, to take back outside at least one of his old companions from his prison. That will come at great risk to his own life; Plato is doubtless alluding here to Socrates,

«I'm the only one among our contemporaries to take up the true political craft and practice true politics.» (Georgias, 521d).

The myth of the cave constitutes the spiritual foundation, so we say, of Plato's political theory. In this context it should also turn out to be clearer how much is said on the value of politics in Plato: when he entrusts, as will be seen, to philosophy the guidance of the Ideal State, he intends to stress that the principal function of the State, as he means it, is of a principally philosophical and spiritual nature, we could say educational.

Since he is the one who has crossed through life who goes to the heavens, being the better expert in the idea of the Good, the philosopher assumes an ordering function in all the social community; as it is he himself who guarantees that the State, with its laws and ordinances, respects the supreme reality. We also note incidentally that Plato makes the philosopher assume the symbolic role that in all the traditional cultures the head of the community holds: that of the center, of the axis between the human and the divine, of pontifex. Among the great majority of cultures the well-being of society is a consequence of the perfect harmony between Earth and Heaven, guaranteed by the head of the community. Plato only brings back an idea of the traditional form to his philosophical horizon, giving it such a structure closer to his times and stressing also its original significance.

The philosopher becomes the guarantor of the embodiment of Justice in the public community. The idea of Justice is one of the guiding ideas of the Republic, and is therefore the first topic of discussion. The various interlocutors propose at the beginning of the dialog some values of justice that reflect the crises of Plato's times: the traditional aristocratic vision proposed «to do good to friends and evil to enemies», while the sophist, in debate with this ideology, opposed to it a totally utilitarian definition of justice as the advantage of the stronger. Plato has Socrates propose a quite different definition: justice is to guarantee to each one what is due to him by nature, in expediency of time and place. This definition, to appearance quite general, is in reality of remarkable importance: the philosopher must guarantee that every citizen has what is owed to his nature as much at the spiritual level, as at the material level, or rather, the job which he is «cut out for» should be entrusted to every citizen, what is also the guarantee for the state of a harmonious and peaceful order, and for the citizens, of happiness and fulfillment.


The three types of men

The tasks that the citizens carry out in the State are not therefore exclusively of a practical and utilitarian nature, but it is even through them that education is accomplished: work becomes a way of knowledge. Plato means also a general division of the functions of the State, that nevertheless, as he himself says, is only maximal, not taking account of the infinite nuances and differences that exist among the souls of every man. He means therefore three functions, to which correspond three different types of soul:

- The directive function, performed by the philosophers; their characteristic is to know the Good, their virtue is Wisdom. Inside the organization of the just state they do not possess personal goods, all their actions being turned to the well-being of the community.

- The conservative function, entrusted to the guardians. They are the ones who, on the path of wisdom, are the most similar to the philosophers of the State. Their virtue is courage. To them is entrusted the task of conserving the correct order of the State, and of defending it against foreign aggressors. For their type of life Plato is inspired by Spartan education: meals, goods, and dwellings are in common; they receive from the State, for their service, what maintains and clothes them, but «in measure neither greater nor less than their requirements» (416e). Also their life is wholly dedicated to the community.

- Plato has the productive function correspond to a third type of soul, the craftsmen and farmers, for which he acknowledges the possibility of personal possessions, even of wealth; nevertheless a maximum limit of wealth and poverty will always have to exist, in order to avoid the situation in the State where someone becomes so poor from not being able to work and someone else so rich from becoming a parasite on society. The greatest virtue of merchants and farmers is in fact moderation, the just middle, which is valued so dearly by the Greeks, who abhorred those who went beyond the limits which were granted to human beings, incurring the displeasure of the Gods.

Recalling Hesiod, Plato narrates a "Phoenician myth" on the birth of these types of men (414b-415d), and attributes to each one of them a metal: gold for the philosophers, silver for the guardians, iron and bronze to the farmers and craftsmen. To those who ask why the guides of the State should not possess gold and silver, he will respond that «they always have gold and silver of a divine sort in their souls as a gift from the gods and so have no further need of human gold» (416e). Moreover the possibility that «a silver child will occasionally be born from a golden parent, and vice versa, and all the others from each other» (415b) is explicitly affirmed, which rules out that Plato intended to propose the origin of a state based on a system of caste.

As one sees, Plato is in certain aspects very relevant, and in some ways one can understand the gross mistake of those who have recognized a type of proto-communism in the hypothesis of the abolition of private property. But Plato very well knew that not everyone is able to detach himself from earthly desires, and that even in this is moderation necessary. His relevance goes however much further: Plato rejects the existence of slaves for his State, and recognizes that his analysis of types of men does not distinguish between men and women, since the soul has no sex. Again, Plato affirmed that in a just State, written laws don't exist, since the very Justice which it embodies in entirety, guarantees that men are able to resolve their questions and to reconcile their arguments without need to set the laws in writing, an act that, in wanting to give a fixed and immutable form to a transcendent principle as that of Justice, is destined to fail. (The reservations that Plato had for the written tradition have already been mentioned.)

Plato opposes moreover his model of the State, whose character is Justice, harmony and unity, to a form of repressive and tyrannical government, which is based on a completely arbitrary and unnatural power of some over others; it is paradoxical that some critics, more from a totally modern prejudice that on the basis of a serious work of criticism, have even accused Plato of wanting to found a repressive and totalitarian State.


The four forms of government

After having delineated in books V and VI the aspects of the just Polis guided by philosophers, which we have summarized in general terms above, and after having traced the mystical and ideal picture of such a Polis in the Myth of the Cave, Plato confronts, in books VIII and IX, the problem of the degeneration of such a Polis. The origin of such degeneration is not sought by Plato in an historical event, but in an ontological, or so to say mythical, situation, for which every form of embodiment of an idea -and the Polis which he has outlined is precisely the form of the embodiment of the Idea of the Good and the Idea of Justice- carries in itself, however perfect, a principle of disruption, of becoming, of imperfection. The sequence that Plato maps out doesn't have, therefore, a literally historical character, his goal is not to delineate an historical process and it is not said that a state must necessarily pass ordinarily through the forms of degeneration that Plato sketches out. For the narrow bond, which we have repeatedly pointed out, that exists between man and the City, Plato has each political form correspond to a character; what has a great value also from the point of psychological and sociological view, as to say that the political quality of a State is determined by the maturity of its citizens, but that on the other hand a certain type of state gives life, with its education, ideology, propaganda, to a corresponding type of human character. This truth, which to us moderns does not appear so evident, given the abyss that separates the individual from the civil and political community of which he makes up a part, shows up immediately in all cultures in which the State is on a much reduced scale, as it was precisely in Greece.

- The first political form was established by the aristocracy, a term which Plato gave an exclusively etymological value, or «government of the best»; we will call it philosophical aristocracy to distinguish it from the historical aristocracy. It is a matter of the government of the philosophers outlined above, characterized by the fact that each individual develops the role that is due him, so the philosopher is political, the guardian does the guarding and doesn't possess personal goods, the trader does the trading, as does the farmer. The State is characterized by a strong social cohesion, unity and harmony. The opinion, today widespread, that Plato had outlined a defense of the conservative Athenian political aristocracy in opposition to the democracy which followed the government of the thirty tyrants, is derived from not understanding that Plato meant by aristocracy something totally different in respect to what the term signifies today, since this is clearly explained in the Republic and since Plato himself indicated clearly the limits of the historical aristocracy of his time, the suspicion comes that the terminological error is deliberate. It indicates how much modern critics are influenced by their personal political convictions.

- The government that is produced by the corruption of the philosophical Aristocracy is called by Plato timocracy, or government of honor (gr. timé); it is characterized by the disappearance of the philosophers, replaced by the guardians, who give rise to a military style state, characterized in the political sphere by high aggressiveness and in the ideological sphere by a high conception of honor won in battle, that will be also the legitimizing principle of the members to the government. The individual who lives in such a society will be arrogant and ambitious (book VIII, 543a-55c).

- Quite soon the guardians of the government will begin to accumulate personal goods and wealth, and slowly it will turn into a constitution of the oligarchic type, which Plato also calls plutocracy, or government based on wealth (gr. ploùtos). The guardians will be replaced by men who love commerce and luxury. The city will appear opulent and rich, but politically it will no longer be a single state, but two: the state of the rich and that of the poor, and many members of the society will live as parasites on the backs of others, without any function and without producing anything (book VIII, 550c-555b).

- When in that case the many poor become aware of their numbers, they will overthrow the government of the few rich men in a revolution, and will bring about the origin of democracy. For the description of this form of government, Plato had under his eyes the politics of his time; but let us emphasize the fact that for many periods the Greek democracy is not absolutely comparable to what me mean today by that term. In fact, in the interior of this city, there exists as many states as there are citizens; it will appear therefore very multihued, since each individual is concerned with very many things, he can assert his opinion on every question, including those of which he has neither knowledge nor experience. He is concerned with a situation completely opposite from the life of the government of the philosophers, in which each individual performed a very precise function, which gave him fulfillment and gave the city wellbeing and harmony. The archetype of justice is therefore quite distant from this form of government, and although words like moderation, justice, liberty are on everyone's lips, they are nothing more than empty sounds. The democratic man is characterized by the lack of fundamental values, by a continual swing between extreme opposites, by an inner anxiety of the new and of change; he tires quickly for what he did and thought yesterday, his psychological instability arises from the fact that, looking among the shadows for the values which give significance to his own existence, he dies continually with them, and he himself is nothing more than a shadow (book VIII, 555b-562a).

- Every excess falls back into its opposite, and thus really quickly democracy will lead to tyranny: from the government of all to the government of one, who, managing to assume power by demagogic promises, will quickly make himself independent of those who supported him, defending his own power with army of mercenaries and oppressing the rest of the population. The despotic man is the opposite of the philosopher: rather than finding ascent in the world of ideas, and fostering it in the State, the tyrant will suppress all the best individuals, because they constitute a menace to his power, and they themselves pass over the confusion of conflicting desires. With this Plato responds to the sophist Trasimachus, who, in the opening of the dialog, had affirmed that the tyrant is happier that the just man. In reality the tyrant live like a prisoner, not only under the tyranny of his own passions, but in the continual menace of a revolt by the population, of an attack, of a coup d'etat by the very ones who should be defending it. In the tyrannical state Plato describes a situation diametrically opposed to the philosophical aristocracy, stressing thus a time of more significance for his political thought. Tyranny can hardly be considered a form of government, it is rather a sort of anti-government, since it conserves nothing, not even in the slightest part, of the archetype that, however imperfectly, the other structures reproduced. Instead of a philosopher the guide is a mediocre man, great only in his great passions. Instead of guardians, an army of mercenaries continually violates justice, completing the abuse of power. Instead of free merchants and farmers who devote themselves passionately to their own work, a mass of slaves who fall more and more into misery and have hardly enough to survive. The only hope for such a situation is that either the tyrant becomes a philosopher, or that a philosopher places himself at the side of the tyrant, prompting his actions gradually to the idea of justice and of the good that he sees (book VIII-IX, 562a-576b).

We insist in saying that, although the sequence of political forms has it own internal logic, Plato did not intend to utilize it to describe necessarily an historical process; rather one should think that, for Plato, the eventual historical value of the sequence has its origin in the fact that history itself is only the reflection and embodiment of a mythical or archetypal structure.


Paolo Scroccaro

translated from Italian by Chuck Salvo



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Articolo inserito in data: giovedì, 2 marzo 2000.

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