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What is AskPhilosophers? This site puts the talents and knowledge of philosophers at the service of the general public. Send in a question that you think might be related to philosophy and we will do our best to respond to it. To date, there have been 5091 questions posted and 6395 responses. [more]


Question of the day

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Would Plato have supported fascism in its twentieth century incarnations? Isn't his fascism implied in his strong support of the idea of the nation state and the rule of philosopher kings?

Response from Nickolas Pappas on January 29, 2015
This is an old question about Plato’s Republic, and it’s something of an evergreen, because every serious contemporary reader who goes through the Republic’s proposal for a better state will notice the similarity between some features of that proposal and features of modern totalitarian states. The guardians are subjected to a life without property or privacy that calls communism to mind. The organic unity of the state, which your question alludes to, might sound like modern fascism.

But the question is a complex one, with too many elements to be handled in this space. Let me say a few words and then direct you to a place where I consider more aspects of the issue, chapter 10 of the third edition of my Guidebook to Plato’s Republic. There I ask about paternalism, individual autonomy, and other features of the Platonic state that are relevant to the question you have raised.

The trickiest part of your question is the first word: “Would.” You aren’t asking whether Plato did describe fascism, but whether – given the political system that he did describe – he would approve of modern fascism. This question is more likely to be answered “Yes” than the anachronistic one about whether Plato described an actual fascism; but it’s also harder to settle in a conclusive manner, because we have to speculate a bit.

For example, we know that totalitarian states take advantage of and control the latest technology in order to control their populations. Plato had no technologies of mass communication or mass observation available to him even to imagine. Nor did he have tanks or machine guns. Would he have approved of video cameras on street corners and automated patrols of phone conversations and the Internet? The reality of such intrusions into people’s lives might have appalled him; or he might have thought it was the quickest way to achieve the just state. How you answer this pedestrian-sounding question about Plato and modern technology will have implications for how much of a totalitarian you take Plato to be.

To take the point further we need to cite more than one or two features of one kind of totalitarianism. In general you can say that totalitarianism 1) restricts speech, 2) denies its citizens participation in government, 3) subjects the young to an indoctrinating education, 4) selects a self-perpetuating ruling class or cadre, and 5) enforces its rule by punishing any citizens’ acts of disobedience or subversion. And there’s no denying that many of the same features do appear in the Republic’s city. The philosophers' knowledge of the Form of the Good licenses their complete domination over the other citizens' lives. Free constitutional debate makes no more sense to Plato than asking children to vote on the multiplication table. As every government does, the guardians will make laws about contracts, libel, and insult, will levy taxes and regulate trade (425c-d). But we also see them lying to the people about their births (414d-415a), and to the guardians about their breeding partners (460a); planning the reproduction of the guardians in accord with eugenic theories (459a-e); restricting the speech and poetry permitted in the city; indoctrinating young guardians. Of the five characteristics listed, these clearly account for (1)-(4).

A lot of these points of similarity are made possible by the philosopher kings. In my opinion it’s fair to say, therefore, that Plato has described an authoritarian state, and more than that a paternalistic one. Totalitarianism is a kind of paternalistic tyranny, so totalitarianism and the Platonic state do share certain features. The leader’s knowledge is presumed superior to the citizen’s, so that the citizen’s main virtue consists in obedience. The laws promulgated by the leader are said to be for the good of the citizen. If citizens like the idea of private property, that is too bad for them under totalitarianism, if totalitarianism objects to private property. Citizens will just have to be weaned from their old ideas.

But totalitarianism is more than paternalistic, inasmuch as it is imposed tyrannically. In more or less Platonic terms I would call tyranny a concentration of power for the benefit of the ruler. Totalitarianism is sustained by force, as characteristic (5) above says: It enforces its rule by punishing any citizens’ acts of disobedience or subversion.

Here we find a significant difference between the Republic and modern totalitarianism. Plato says that a good state bases its legitimacy on persuasion, not force (548b, 552e). Even the loyalty that the good city expects is not supposed to be blind loyalty. If the philosophers living under existing regimes do not owe their cities public service (520b), political obligation must be something earned by the city. Indeed Socrates says one owes loyalty only to the well-run city, or to the model of it in one’s soul (591d-e). Sensible people won’t pay attention to political affairs in cities as they are (592a-b). A theory that calls for civic sentiment only in the best of all states is not a theory demanding irrational obedience.

“Ah, but would Plato accept the kind of philosophical rule that is imposed by force, if he sees no other alternative?” This hypothetical question, unlike the question I raised about Plato and modern technology, has a clearer answer: No. For Plato knew of at least one state in his own time that resembled the one he described in the Republic, with one major difference that it sustained its government by force. This was the state of Sparta, likewise divided into a large population and a small effective army, but with the army constantly terrorizing the serf population (known as Helots). Plato did not want to duplicate Spartan government in his city. Besides anything else, he knew that such a state was always vulnerable to revolts. His aim to persuade the public is not window dressing for his political philosophy, in other words, but an essential element of it; and it seems to me this element distinguishes him decisively from totalitarian thinking.

Finally let me point out that the most intrusive regulations within the new city only apply to its governing classes, the philosophical rulers and the soldiers who support them. I can’t think of one modern totalitarianism that likewise controls the lives of its ruling classes while leaving the mass of the population living as they had been, pursuing prosperity as they see fit.

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