This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
By Nathaniel B. Broyles
Professor Alexander Ott PHI 311 Philosophy of the Social Sciences April 7, 2011
Much of what the modern world knows of Socrates comes from second and third-hand sources. Although he is considered by many to be the Father of Western Philosophic Thought, we only know of him through the writings of his students. Most notably, we are made aware of Socrates through the writings of Plato and his most well-known work, The Republic. The Republic is written as a dialogue between Socrates and several other Athenian citizens wherein they attempt to define the nature of justice. During the course of the discussion, several definitions are formed and discarded until, finally, Socrates consents to give his own opinion on the nature and definition of justice. From that definition, Socrates goes on to define five different types of societies and to explain why four of those types of societies are undesirable. The fifth, which he calls Aristocracy, ties in directly with his own definition of the nature of justice. While Plato and Socrates advocate Aristocracy as the ideal society, their assertion is deeply flawed as it is not a societal model that can function effectively in a real world environment.
Plato and Socrates defined society as belonging to one of five different types, listed here in descending order from best to worst as defined by Socrates: aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. Tyranny then, being the worst society that one can live in, is defined as the rule of the strongest. It is a place where might is the ultimate extension of what is right as the strongest impose their will upon the people and impose order through fear and the force or arms. Democracy, which is the society that Socrates himself is a part of in Athens, is the rule of the masses. In this form of society, the rule of the majority becomes law. There is a little of each type of society in democracy but the underlying theme for Socrates is that little is actually accomplished and it is but one small step from descending into tyranny. Socrates middle ground is that Oligarchy, wherein the rich and the prosperous rule society in their own self-interest. Socrates defines this type of society as being ruled by the appetites or, more properly, the satiation of bodily wants and desires. From the rule of the rich, Socrates
brings us to the rule of the honored warriors, the timocracy. In a timocracy, which is the type of society favored by the Athenian s chief rival, Sparta, the defense of the city-state takes precedence above all other concerns. Warriors are honored above all others and they form the base upon which that society rests safe and protected from all that would harm it. This leaves us with aristocracy as the perfect society according to Socrates for all others have flaws which make them less than desirable. For Socrates, the perfect society is one based on reason and justice. It is a place where people like Socrates, philosophers, rule for the good of all as philosopher-kings in a city-state wherein everyone lives a just life.
Socrates defined justice as doing one s own business, and not being a busybody. Further, he refined his definition to include the three social classes of the trader, auxiliary, and the guardian, all doing their own business as justice. Injustice was defined as the meddling of one with another, or the change of one into another of the three classes, which would be doing the greatest harm to the State, and may by most justly termed evil-doing. In the modern era that we live in, Socrates definition is confusing and makes little sense. As with any author, it is critical to take into account the times during which Socrates lived before we are able to come to an understanding of his meaning. In Socrates time, Greece was divided into a number of competing city-states. Each of the citizens of those states considered the welfare of the city-state to be of the utmost importance when considered against the welfare of the individual. This sense of nationalism was what the citizens of those ancient city-states were taught from birth and the closest modern comparison would be the romantic nationalism that so characterized Europe during the eighteenth century. That sense of romantic nationalism is most easily defined in the words of former President of the United States John F. Kennedy: Ask not what your country can do for
you. Ask what can you do for your country. If this then is justice according to Socrates, how does this definition extend to the creation of his perfect society?
Living a just life, according to Socrates, means that one does that which is according to one s nature for the good of the state and nothing more or less. This has the effect of creating a caste system in which there is little to no social mobility. Citizens are supposed to work according to their nature so that the state may remain strong and stable and they are not to change their professions from what they are naturally best at. This idea underscores Socrates belief that the State is of primary importance while the individual is, at best, of secondary import. Citizens would, in Socrates society, be tested, sorted, and channeled into education and training programs from a very young age according to their natures. So, if a child demonstrated a love and facility with a toy like Lincoln logs, they would be channeled into an educational track of carpentry or architecture. Key to this societal structure, however, are those with a nature similar to Socrates himself. The philosopher-kings were the only people wise enough to be trusted to see to society s best interests and so would be the leaders of all, according to their natures.
As Niccolò Machiavelli tells us in The Prince, an ideal society that has never, and is never likely to have, existed in real life is no way for a nation s rule to be based upon. In order to deconstruct Socrates arguments in favor of his aristocracy, we will examine the cornerstones upon which Socrates bases his ideal society and illustrate how those same principles would fare in reality. If, as Socrates asserts, his aristocracy is the ideal society then it should follow that in the thousands of years that mankind has been living together as a truly social animal there should have been some record left behind of such a society having existed. When one takes into account that all four of the other societal archetypes
described by Socrates exist even in the modern era, one has to question the validity of aristocracy as a true and reasonable societal model.
The first of Socrates four societal cornerstones that must be refuted is the idea that the state is of primary importance and that the individual s personal needs and desires are a secondary concern. In Greece circa 400 B.C., nationalism was not just an idea; it was a necessity for personal safety and survival. The ancient world was full of warring city-states that were all in competition with one another for territory and resources. In such a time, it was necessary for people to forego some of their personal freedoms for the greater good of the whole. This is not the case today where, to use the United States as an example, we have entire societies that are based upon the rights and freedoms of the individual. To better illustrate this point, it is necessary to place things in context. In Socrates time, a strong citystate was needed to allow the individual to survive and thrive. Throughout the ages, civilizations have adapted, evolved, and changed enough to allow, over time, more and more individual freedoms to the ordinary citizen. Such a thing was not possible in the time of Socrates where every day was lived under the constant threat of war, drought, or famine. Today, individual freedoms, at least in modern democracies such as the United States, are guaranteed to all members of those societies. Certain freedoms are, of course, voluntarily given up where they come into conflict with the ability of the state to protect its citizens from harm. On the whole, however, it is those freedoms granted to the individuals that make the nation strong as those freedoms allow for the spiritual, intellectual, and physical advancement of society through the growth of the its individual citizens.
The biggest part of Socrates society is his notion of everyone living a just life according to their nature with crossing of the boundaries created by this caste system. Caste systems, by their very definition, are
inherently unfair and, inevitably, lead to unrest in those who are unhappy with the life that society has chosen for them. According to Socrates, men are by nature traders, legislator, or warrior. Traders, or producers, are those individuals who perform a trade or service for society as a whole. They are the carpenters, stonemasons, blacksmiths, and farmers and they are the backbone upon which any society is built. Although he does not go into much detail about the role of legislators, it can be assumed that they perform the role of administrators or middle management for Socrates aristocracy. The last class, or caste, which Socrates advocates is that or warrior or guardian. They are those who preserve us against foreign enemies and maintain peace among our citizens at home, that the one may not have the will, and the others the power, to harm us. Socrates goes a step further, too, and calls this class supporters of the principles of the rulers. In effect, it is up to this higher caste to suppress the others and enforce the will of those in power. Socrates recognizes, however, that concentrating such power in one class could lead to the formation of a timocracy and so members of the guardians have certain restrictions placed upon them. In essence, they cannot have any personal property or monetary consideration so that they may not be tempted into corruption. This type of caste system, as described by Plato, has the potential to devolve rapidly into violence against the ordinary citizen who rebels against his enforced lifestyle. Too, the guardians cannot remain uncorrupted when they see the evidence of everyone around them owning property and possessions when they themselves are forced to live a life of stoicism and austerity.
Education and training is a very important part of Socrates ideal society. He advocates the abolition of poetry and the arts in favor of training and education in line with the nature of the child. By starting this training early in life, they will know only this way of life and so will know happiness in living a just life. In order to facilitate this training, children will be removed from their parents when it is time for them to
begin training and undergo assessment by the guardians, who are the supporters of the principles of the rulers. The guardians will determine, after extensive testing, which children are directed into the various training and educational tracks. They will become traders, legislators, or guardians according to their natures. There are, however, two problems that are immediately apparent with this plan of action. The first is the destabilization, or destruction, of the family as children are removed from their parents. Essentially, there will be no familial units, only men and women living together for the purposes of companionship and procreation for the greater good of the state. Secondly, testing and the interpretation of those results is not an exact science. There is every chance that mistakes will be made and children will be directed into areas that are not suited to them and in which they will not be happy. One example that can be made is that of Albert Einstein, who is widely acknowledged as one of the foremost minds of the modern era. Einstein did not do well at all in school at a young age. In fact, his early scholastic endeavors were wholly unremarkable. It was after he graduated from high school, though, that his brilliance began to show and he started to explore higher mathematics. In Socrates society, Einstein would never have been given the opportunity to explore his own special brand of brilliance. He would have been relegated to membership in the trader class and forbidden from acquiring an education in philosophy, the arts, or mathematics. The forced conscription of children into various trades by the decisions of a third party is no less than a recipe for mass discontent.
Finally, we come to Socrates biggest conceit; the notion that only men that he saw as his equal in intellect are able to effectively rule society. These philosopher-kings would be found within the guardian class as they would have already been indoctrinated as supporters of the principles of the rulers but have displayed sufficient aptitude to become true disciples and shepherds of Socrates vision. There is nothing wrong with the idea that the most wise and educated among a people are those most able to
rule them effectively and justly. In fact, it is that belief that effectively drives the (for the most part) success of representative democracies. Those who live as a part of a representative democracy elect those who they see as more educated, better capable, and possessed of stronger ethics to oversee and represent their interests in government to the best of their abilities. The problem with Socrates model is that his leaders are not chosen by the masses. Instead, the rule of the wisest in Socrates aristocracy is only step removed from tyranny as it also contains equal parts of elements of a timocracy.
It is interesting to note that Socrates never does effectively and unquestionably define exactly what justice is. Instead, he uses metaphor and example to bring his debate around to the points that he wishes to make. He uses his partial definition of justice as the basis of his argument for the creation of what he sees as the perfect society. Tellingly, his ideal society is devoid of justice, happiness, and freedoms. His newly created city operates on the premise that the people need none of these things for they will be happy in doing what is in the best interest of the greater good at the expense of their individual freedoms. As philosophical thought has evolved and grown over the centuries, there has been a gradual shift away from focusing on the body politic and recognizing the necessity of individual freedoms. Socrates argument in favor of aristocracy loses its effectiveness when gauged from a more modern viewpoint. The unique totalitarian nature of Socrates proposed society is something that has never before occurred in the course of human events and is unviable as a societal framework.