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Our panel of 90 professional philosophers has responded to

Question of the day

The first thing I’ll say is important. Nothing in my answer will settle this question for everyone. This has long been one of the questions about Plato’s Republic that its readers debate the most heatedly, and it will likely that way.

As the question is stated, it has an ambiguity in it and a false dilemma. These are worth clearing up. The ambiguity appears in the phrase “the plausibility of the utopia.” To call a proposed form of government (whether utopian or not) “plausible” could mean 1) that it’s plausible to believe such a form of government could come into existence, or 2) that it’s plausible to believe such a form of government would work well if it did come into existence.

(While we are on that phrase, let me gently take issue with your word “utopia.” The Republic describes a utopia in Book 2: a peaceful, vegetarian farming community in which people eat roasted acorns and sleep on straw mats. That would be perfect, Socrates says, but Glaucon doesn’t want to hear another word about such an undesirable “city of pigs.” So they go on to explore the large developed economy and civil society that we think of as the Republic’s city. By the nature of the argument that gives rise to this city, it is something other than a utopia. It is the best city we can imagine instituting in the absence of utopia. That’s my view, anyway.)

Before returning to the ambiguity, let me identify what I consider the false dilemma in your question. Does Plato believe in the plausibility of the city, or “was his goal merely to formulate an argument?” He might be doing both. That is, he may well be formulating an argument precisely because he believes in the plausibility of the city. I say this not to criticize the question but to get clearer on what is at stake. For the question to pose a dilemma, you might mean: Was his goal merely to formulate an argument that he expected his readers not to believe, because he didn’t believe it either?

With that as the alternative, let’s go back to the ambiguous phrase. The Republic is repeatedly cautious about (1). Maybe a city like this would come about someday and maybe it wouldn’t. In Book 5 Socrates finally reveals what it would take to bring the city into existence, and the two options he proposes are both outlandish. Either people who rule cities today would have to become philosophers, or someone would have to grant philosophers the power that kings have. One way or other, you’d need someone with the expertise of a trained philosopher and the power of an existing absolute monarch. Rulers with great power tend not to be the types who set time aside to study philosophy deeply. But even the prospect of their doing so is more plausible than the thought of existing philosophers being granted strong executive powers sufficient for bringing the city into existence.

Along with that considerable practical problem, combining philosophers with rulers sounds as if it would violate the Republic’s rule that each person is best suited to performing a single task or job. Wouldn’t a “philosopher-king,” as we commonly all them, have two jobs at once? The Republic has an answer to this worry, but not everyone has accepted it. The answer is that ultimately the highest knowledge a ruler needs is the same as the highest knowledge a philosopher possesses. As I say, it would take some doing to convince everyone that this answer works.

So obstacles exist to the implementation of the philosophical city. But it could come into existence with a bit of luck, Socrates says, and that’s enough for his purposes. We understand how our own souls ought to function best if we study the constitution of a perfect city, so the city has value even if we can only contemplate it as an abstraction. But with luck it would cease to be an abstraction and acquire existence in this world.

That is my answer if you mean (1) by “the plausibility of the utopia.” A city like that is possible, but just barely. The nice thing it that it’s worth studying even if it never comes into existence.

If you mean (2) however, that Plato thinks the city would not work, hence would not be a good city, if it did come into existence; then my answer is more definite. The Republic makes clear, on my reading of it, that a city like that would be preferable to any existing city if it could come into existence. Many people disagree with my reading (although many also agree). When they do disagree, they point to difficulties in the theory Socrates sketches out. These point to Plato’s own thought, they say, that the city could not exist. But most of the difficulties in the theory prove to be specious, or quite minor. And as a bottom line, I would ask you to think historically. In Plato’s time, no one had proposed an overhaul of a constitution to produce a city run by philosophers in which the governing class and the standing army owned no property. Nothing like this was on the horizon. I don’t see why Plato would write an elaborate dialogue to indicate in his sly way the impossibility of an institution that, in his time, not one person had proposed as possible. Why would he set out to refute utopias in a culture that wasn’t writing utopias?

As I said, there are many more arguments to be made on both sides of this question. But before I could be convinced of the view that Plato is questioning utopias, I would have to be shown not just this or that difficulty in the Republic’s proposal of a good city, but also the advantage of reading the Republic as skeptical. What do we gain philosophically by setting up the description of a city when our point is to deny its possibility?