July Books 32) The Republic

32) The Republic, by Plato

One of the disadvantages of having got into a political career through practice rather than study is that I am woefully under-read in the basics of political science. So, in order to make a beginning on putting that right, I have ploughed through the Penguin Classics edition of The Republic, having started and stalled on the Project Gutenberg version a couple of years ago.

For those of you who haven't read it (which I suspect is the vast majority of you), it is written by Plato, but all the ideas are presented as a discourse by Socrates (who had been Plato's teacher) in conversation with interlocutors whose mood ranges from interested to hostile. The core of the book is the presentation of the ideal state, in which government is conducted by a specially trained and bred class of philosophers/judges/warriors, but he diverges onto various other topics as well, in particular what the nature of their education should be.

Plato's insistence that education in philosophy (which for him includes all the sciences) would automatically produce gifted rulers must surely have seemed a bit naive even in his own day. And yet, of course, you have large parts of society constructed around this: Oxbridge classicists going into the City; the énarques in France; the Ivy League in the US. On the other hand, I observe that really intelligent people often make poor politicians; few of the skills of political leadership are intellectual. Plato would chide me that this is a problem with democracies and tyrannies, which I admit are the only polities I have particularly engaged with, and he explains why this is so in his chapters examining the problems of democracy and tyranny. I am not completely convinced though.

Striking that Plato insists on the equality of men and women, at least within his ruling classs; striking also that this is combined with a vehement advocacy of infanticide on eugenic grounds, and on the abolition of marriage in favour of a planned breeding programme. I wonder if any sf novelist has ever tried writing a society constructed along Plato's lines. There are echoes of it in a lot of places, but I can't think of any explicit example.

Of course, anyone who did try and construct a society along Plato's lines would run into the problems of the flaws and inconsistencies of the text. In particular, Plato's thoughts on the theory of forms are implicit in a lot of the text, but he is (apparently) rather unclear in his vocabulary so one is never completely sure what he is trying to get at, and the more specific he gets on basic philosophical contexts, the more adrift I felt.

Still, I'm glad I put the effort into this.

Edited to add: see comparison with Brave New World.