Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Plato's Tripartite Commonwealth

We often see Plato through the lens of either Neoplatonism or what might be loosely described as ‘Christian Platonism’, or an admixture of both, or else through some other lens that serves the same purpose, namely to deflect our attention from the original and primitive Plato, Platonica prima. The main effect of this deflection is always to install a mystical, otherworldly Plato and to obscure or even deny altogether the plain reality of the political Plato. For Plato was – let us reiterate an historical fact - first and foremost a political philosopher, and his Academy was, first and foremost, a school of statecraft. Not a school of Mysteries. Not a temple of religion. A school of statecraft. It is remarkable that over the last 2000 years Plato the political philosopher has rarely been studied as such, even by his most ardent followers. This is a testament to both his breadth and depth, certainly: he makes extraordinarily profound contributions to a full range of human undertakings from sociology to psychology to cosmology to literature to metaphysics. But Plato the political philosopher is often not given his due weight, or else – especially in these democratic times – he is subject to gross misrepresentations whether by conservatives like Leo Strauss or liberals like Karl Popper. Very often we hear sentiments to the effect that “I like Plato, but I ignore his fascist politics…” or similar, which is again an effort to sidestep the fact that his politics is central to who and what he was. People want Plato, but not the political Plato. In truth, though, you cannot have it that way. If one wants to fully engage with Plato, with the Platonica prima, one must grapple with Plato as political philosopher. These days, this is territory fraught with more misunderstanding than almost any other.

The modest purpose of this posting, therefore, is to clarify certain aspects of Plato’s political philosophy, especially as revealed to us in his masterwork the Republic. As in all other fields, of course, we encounter a rich and varied range of views in the Platonic dialogues, and it would be fatally wrong to suppose that there is a systematic Platonic programme. Much of what we find in the Republic is contradicted in the Laws, and vice versa, or in other dialogues. All the dialogues are political in one way or another, although Plato himself speaks in none of them. Yet the Academy was a school of statecraft and in this it had an objective and purpose beyond just exposing students to a range of disparate views. We can take it that there is a definite Platonic politics, but it is rich and deep rather than narrow and sectarian. We can be sure, for instance, that Platonic politics is anti-democratic (it was the Athenian democracy that put Socrates to death, after all), and yet it is also within the range of the Platonic political tradition that there are times and circumstances in which democracy is to be the preferred form of governance. Indeed, all modern political positions have found succor in Plato: there are elements in Platonic politics that are compatible with conservatism, liberalism, communism, fascism, anarchism, monarchism, technocracy, the full range. This is part of the difficulty for modern readers. To be sure, Plato was an aristocrat, and his politics is aristocratic - rule of the best - not democratic - rule of the most - but at the same time his dialogues are replete with craft analogies and allusions showing a deep sympathy for every aspect of manual labour and the labouring class. To appreciate and engage with Platonic politics one must step outside of all the usual political categories, Left and Right, and come at the problem of politics from a completely fresh beginning.

One further point: it is also necessary – and a difficult thing for any modern reader of Plato, whether they are aware of it or not – to put Aristotle aside and not to give in to the ever-present temptation to read the political Plato through any form of Aristotelean filter. Modern man is much more Aristotelean than Platonic in all his habits of mind. If we want the Platonica prima we must stop being modern, step outside of all the political assumptions that have prevailed throughout the modern era, but also stop being Aristotelean and stop reading Plato as being in any way connected to Aristotle. Aristotle’s politics, that is, tells us nothing about Plato’s politics. We can only arrive at the Platonica prima by careful, meticulous and repeated reading of the Platonic corpus in and of itself. We should adopt this as an ironclad desideratum of study. Any study of Plato’s politics that begins with the cliche that Aristotle said that man is a political animal is off on the wrong foot.

* * *

The fundamental premise of Platonic politics is that it is possible to eliminate structural violence in a state. The elimination of violence – which is to say conflict – is the prime objective of all Platonic politics. In this it is diametrically opposed to Marxism, for example, which is built upon a foundational theory of class conflict. For the Marxist self-interested conflict is the very bedrock of politics, and it is impossible to escape. Democratic theory is built on this premise as well. It supposes that there are a range of conflicting interests always vying for control and that the best that can ever be achieved is a sort of equilibrium of interests with “checks and balances” that convert the conflict into orderly electoral battles rather than outright civil war. A democracy, that is, is civil war without blood. Every election leaves 49% of the population vanquished and unhappy. Parliament is warfare by proxy.

Plato rejects this view and supposes, as a matter of principle, that it is possible to harmonize rival interests into a coherent state. He proposes that the best, most rational and most righteous order results in a polis that is an harmonious, organic unity in which all conflicting interests are reconciled. Plato’s view of the polis is organic. He thinks of all parts constituting a single organism. His greatest dread is civil war (real or symbolic) since it represents the organism that is at war with itself and therefore weakened internally Plato’s political values are organic: harmony, unity, cohesion. Peace and harmony, furthermore, are, in the Platonic reckoning, what people desire most of all. This should not be mistaken for a *pacifist* position – we are talking only of structural violence, the violence of one class or one caste against another. For the Marxist, or other radicals – agitators and troublemakers all - peace is a soporific and deluded condition that only ever suits the privileged rulers. Platonic politics seeks a real peace through the restoration of political coherence, the state of good government, eunomia.

From Laws 628c:

The best is neither war nor faction - they are things from which we should pray to be spared - but rather peace and mutual good will.

Importantly, this harmony is possible, in the Platonic view, without it being at the expense of any particular part of society. All sections and classes can flourish in an organic harmony without the prosperity and happiness of one group being to the detriment of another. This is the principle argument of the Republic. The sophist, Thrasymachus – and then others who take up his case – argues that justice is the same as ‘might is right’. The core arguments of the Republic are dedicated to refuting this age-old claim. It is a dispute that continues to this day. It is not only at the heart of the Republic but an issue at the heart of Western civilization. One can, of course, establish organic unity in a polis by brute force – this is the strategy of the fascist. In that case, the powerful reign, and are justified in doing so because they are the strong. The weak must suffer to be ruled because they are weak. Strength and power are the criteria. (The Thrasymachus argument has resurfaced in the syphilitic nihilism of Nietzche and his ‘Will to Power’.) But, Plato wants to say, this is not justice. It is the advantage of the strong at the expense of the weak. The political unity that Plato envisages, on the other hand, is above all just. Justice is the great theme of the Republic. And the principle of justice that is offered there – against the doctrine of ‘might is right’ – is: justice is rendering to each what befits him, or, as it is put at Republic 433a:

Justice is doing one’s own work and not meddling with what isn’t one’s own. 

Marx steals a version of this idea in his celebrated formula: from each according to his means, to each according to his needs.

This, though, we must hasten to add, is not the same as “equality”. There is nothing just about making the unequal equal, and the modern cult of equality – a cult that plagues all democracies and about which Marxists obsess - violates the Platonic principle of justice (each according to his own) at every turn. Equality is precisely the doctrine of busy-bodies and the meddlesome who are always anxious that someone might have something more than someone else. People are naturally unequal and justice allows them to be so, but without, at the same time, the temptation of ‘might is right’ and one party oppressing another. It is important not to fall into false dichotomies here. In a key statement in the Republic 351d we are told:

Injustice causes civil war, hatred, and fighting, while justice brings friendship and a sense of common purpose.

So, to recap: the good polity is (1) unified, harmonious and organic and (2) founded upon justice, not power (or spurious notions of equality.) 

A third feature of Platonic politics follows: politics must be rooted in reality. A state must be grounded in the psychological realities of man and, further than that, the cosmological realities of the world, and even further still, the metaphysical realities of eternity. This last is important because it is a psychological reality that man is a spiritual being and not merely an animal. It is to the great credit of the Platonic political outlook that it includes the spiritual within its purview. Modern atheistic doctrines such as Marxism, or nihilistic ones such as Nietzcheanism, and even more so the shallow consumerism of capitalism offer grotesque underestimations of the human reach. Not so Plato. There is no breach between the political and the mystical. Platonic politics is a spiritual and mystical discipline. It is a conspicuous feature of Platonic philosophy that it is every bit as concerned with the eternal verities of Heaven as with the practical governance of a polity. This is because it acknowledges the real extent of the human spirit and it is inhuman not to do so.

In any case, Plato is a realist. Politics must adhere to the real. The organicism of the state must conform to the realities of man, cosmos and Heaven. For practical purposes, in the context of the Republic, this means observing the fundamentally tripartite nature of human beings in their incarnate predicament. In particular, in human psychology Plato identifies three distinct natures: the intellectual nature, the ‘spirited’ (emotive) nature, and the appetitive nature. These are based, respectively, in the three regions of the human frame: the head, the chest, the lower organs. All people are made up of these three parts and three powers. In reality, though, some are more given to one than to another. So, for instance, some people are more given to intellection than to sports and physical contest, because the intellectual nature predominates in them over the spirited (thumos) nature. And others are slothful and given to physical passions and gormandizing and give no time to intellect or to acts of courage. Some people are thinkers, some are makers, some are given to feats of courage. In some people - craftsmen - their intelligence is in their fingers. There is, we might say, the trinity: head, heart and hand. These three types are explained in the Republic in great detail, and conform to ideas set out in other Platonic dialogues at length. We cannot rehearse or explore all the expositions of them here, but this is the reality of which Plato speaks. People are not all the same. There are different temperaments, different types, different dispositions. Justice consists in acknowledging that this is so – in careful conformity with both human and cosmic reality and always avoiding the abyss of subjectivity - and allowing each type to be as they are. Government must be adapted to people as they truly are at every level.

Plato is often dismissed as an idealist. Nothing could be further from the truth. He carefully describes human psychological realities and insists that government must be based upon them. He is for government with deep roots in the Real. It is, in fact, the modern political philosophies that are based on nothing more than wishful thinking or perverse miscalculations of the human estate. The Marxist cult of equality is the most catastrophic example of this in our times, but the empty materialism of capitalism is just as grotesque. The crudely naturalistic libertarian premise that life is a jungle is perverse as well. It is in our own era that we have witnessed unprecedented chaos, disruption, upheaval and carnage from attempts to impose fantasized ideologies upon an uncooperative reality.

* * *

Since politics is based in the reality of man, Plato proclaims the crucial parallel: “Man and city are alike,” Republic, 577d. The three temperaments of man give rise to three basic castes: the intellectuals, the guardians (army) and the producers/consumers. A just state allows each of these groups to go about their proper work receiving what is due to them in terms of benefits and burdens and without any of them interfering in the proper work of the others. The Platonic vision, that is to say, is essentially vocational. In the Republic Plato outlines a vision of a society that is based on integral vocations. In a spiritualized form, this exact same doctrine appears in the Bhagavad Gita and other traditional texts as a karma yoga – the notion that a man finds fulfillment through doing the work to which he is born. Nothing could be further from the industrialized degradations of work. The nature and quality of work – and not merely the quantity of “employment” – is at the very heart of Platonic politics. Justice is where a man can do his proper work, the work which conforms to his temperament and nature and for which he has the greatest aptitude. An economic order in which an artist must drive taxis all day instead of making art is, by Platonic values, an abomination. And so too is a political order in which a businessman or a plumber – acting as meddlesome people - displace those who have real aptitude for leadership. In a just polity, businessman stick to business, plumbers stick to plumbing and leaders lead. This is not a matter of chance: Plato’s fabled republic, his hypothetical ‘Ideal State’ is structured exactly to this end.

Plato therefore posits three castes with three distinct functions, this arrangement corresponding to the psychology of man. There are the intellectuals, or the philosophers, who direct the laws and leadership of society – this because they are the wisest and the most objective in their judgments. There are the guardians, or the soldiers, who protect the state but who are too given to emotion to be wise rulers. And there is the producer class who are concerned with the appetites, the provision of goods, but who are too greedy to rule. Each of these groups are separate and look after their own functions without unwarranted meddling from the other groups. The three castes engage in mutually beneficial enterprise and together serve the common good.

Concerning the philosophers of the Ideal Polity, let us state this loud and clear – in fact, it ought to be emblazoned in huge lettering across the surface of the Moon for everyone on earth to see: Plato is in no way proposing that the characters who make up the philosophy department at Oxford and their ilk ought to be handed the reins of power! His “philosopher-kings” are not in any way those tiresome pedants who go by the name “philosopher” in modern times. Instead, he proposes a class of born contemplatives who are trained in rigorous objectivity (through maths, geometry, music etc) and who are imbued with an abiding, lifelong and transcendent love of wisdom. Plato is concerned to find a class of people who are above the squabbles of self-interest. This is the only way to rise above the state of conflict and to bring structural violence to an end. In any society at any time there is a small elite of such individuals. Plato wants to find them, nurture them and entrust them with ultimate power.

To ensure the philosopher-kings are free of self-interest and are fixed upon the common good, however, Plato proposes heavy strictures upon them. They are deprived of personal wealth and they are removed from family life. These are quite infamous provisions in the Republic, but critics – such as Popper – fail to mention that they only apply to the philosophic class and not to the population as a whole. In a notorious misrepresentation of this Aristotle says that Plato proposed a general communism, and Plato-haters have been happy to accept it. The provisions of the Republic are clear, however. And the reason for the provisions is also clear. The rulers – and only the rulers – are to be deprived of wealth and family life to keep them absolutely free of corruption and nepotism. Plato is perfectly aware that power corrupts. He goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure that his philosopher-kings are kept as pristine and as unsullied as possible. An enemy of freedom and an open society? Not at all. But power is a burden. The philosopher-kings – the intellectual caste – have their freedoms curtailed precisely because they are invested with power over the state. Plato’s philosopher-kings live like austere monks. Need we compare this ideal with the corruption and nepotistic abuses of almost any modern leader – in democracies as much as in tyrannies – that one cares to mention? The problem the Republic confronts is: how do we find a wise ruling elite that will govern with absolute impartiality for the common good of all citizens above and beyond the squabbles of class conflict?

The whole of modern politics according to Platonic analysis, let us note, concerns the incessant warfare of two sub-classes. They are described in the Republic. They are the “hoarders” and the “spendthrifts” – two sub-classes of the appetitive (productive/consumer) caste, or, as we know them today, “capital” and “labour”. These sub-groups, who emerged as rivals in modernity, are always at each other’s throats and are always seeking power in order to promote their own interests. Plato is not sympathetic to either of them. He wants to set a higher elite (the intellectual caste) – along with the army (the spirited caste) – over each of them in order to safeguard the common good. Such is the practical stance of Platonic politics: the Platonist seeks ways to promote the common good against the self-interested depravity of both the businessmen and the workers. In this sense he is outside of the main game altogether. He supports neither the Tories nor Labour, neither Republican nor Democrat. He is more interested in those institutions that rise above the affray. In British politics, for instance, he is perhaps more interested in the impartiality of the Crown, and in American politics the inviolability of the Constitution. In the political contest, he cheers for the umpire. The umpire represents the objective good of all, not one side or the other in a destructive battle of self-concern. In contemporary practice, Platonic politics is often reactionary, since it looks to the restoration of those traditional institutions - such as monarchy and aristocracy - which were displaced by the modern tussle of capital and labour. Monarchy is not the best form of government, but from a Platonic point of view it has many of its features; it is vocational and potentially objective. A king can sometimes be bought, as someone once said, but a democracy is always for sale.

* * * 

The full arrangement of the tripartite commonwealth in the Republic is as follows:

1. The caste of Philosopher-Kings. The smallest caste. The elite. They have leisure for philosophical contemplation and power but not wealth and not family life. Note well that members of this caste are drawn from throughout society: children of philosophical aptitude are recruited from the lower castes.

2. The caste of Guardians. They enjoy military honours but not leisure.

3. The caste of Producers and Consumers. The largest group by number. The “masses”. They have family life, free enterprise and wealth but not power or honors.

In each case, each group undertakes the task to which they are naturally suited according to their innate propensities or, in other words, their vocation. Philosophers are philosophers and can live accordingly. Soldiers are soldiers, traders are traders and carpenters are carpenters. They perform the tasks they are suited to do and in this are united in a single organic community of mutual interest. In a healthy organism every organ plays its proper role and contributes to the health of the whole. In a single man intellect, spiritedness (thumos) and the appetites all contribute to his functional well-being. A properly constituted state is no different. 

* * * 

This is a brief exposition of the politics of the Republic. Justice, then, is not the right of the strong and the advantage of the strongest as Thrasymachus and others would have it. It is the right of the best to the advantage of all. The vision of the ideal polity offered in the Republic, all the same, is admittedly hypothetical. Too many readers of Plato have taken the prescriptions in that work to be a firm programme of activism. There are enough signals in the text to let us know that it was never intended in that way. Socrates’ city is ‘writ in Heaven.’ Plato was no fool. The Republic must be understood as a book of instruction for contemplative use in the Academy, the school of statecraft, not as a manifesto for action. In the later dialogue Laws, Plato – probably looking to the wise example of his forebear, Solon - replaces the reign of the Philosopher-Kings with the rule of the best laws as delivered by a wise legislator. This is less than ideal, but shows us a more practical set of proposals and principles.

Platonic political analysis is concerned to expose and map self-interest, to promote the common good above self-interest, and to understand the proper role of various interests in a state as well as all the ways in which that proper role is infringed upon by others. At the core of Platonic social doctrine is a concern for the integrity of work. The Republic charts the disintegration of the whole, unified tripartite commonwealth into successively more chaotic and debauched forms of government with democracy – the triumph of subjectivity and relativism – the lowest of them and a prelude for tyrrany.

* * * 


The tripartite commonwealth of Plato found a strange champion in early XXth century Germany in the person of the mystic theosopher Rudolf Steiner. For a brief period after World War I Steiner promoted the idea of a "threefold state" in which three departments of the state are all kept independent of each other but all work for the common good. Steiner's version, though, is a modernist rendering heavily infected with his theosophical (or as he had it 'anthroposophical') concessions to "spiritual evolution" and the like. He equates the three parts of his proposed state to the three mottos of the French Revolution: equality, fraternity, liberty. This is certainly not Plato, but it cannot be denied that Steiner was borrowing from the Republic wholesale.

It is curious to note that a certain follower of Steiner, the American architect Walter Burley Griffin, won the contest for the design of the new capital city of Australia with a threefold plan that embodies the idea of the tripartite commonwealth. The city of Canberra is thus designed. Alas, there is nothing Platonic in the actual form of Australian governance.


Harper McAlpine Black

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