Plato’s Society: Utopian or Dystopian?

I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.
The Republic by Plato

Plato was born in 427 BC in Athens. During that time, Athens was already engaged in the Peloponnesian War (430–404) with Sparta for three years. Hence it could be said that Plato grew up in exciting times. He also witnessed the political fighting between the oligarchic and democratic factions for control of the city’s politics.

The fact that he chose to become a politician is interpreted to be a natural choice because Plato had family ties with both the oligarchic and democratic parties. Hence he was a well-born youth with a foot in both camps. Plato is said to have travelled widely after the death of Socrates.  He eventually founded the Academy in Athens in 386. Plato taught there for the rest of his life. He died in 347. Besides the Republic Plato also wrote two other books on politics, The Statesman and The Laws.

The Republic is written in the form of a long conversation between Socrates and others. As it goes on, the tone of the book becomes less conversational, and it ultimately becomes a Socratic monologue.[1]

Utopia

“Utopia” may be literally translated “no place” from the Latin. It is a term first coined by Thomas More in a political fantasy by that name written nearly 2000 years after Plato’s Republic.[2] 

One of the most intriguing and contested questions regarding Plato’s Republic concerns not the description of the just city itself, but, rather, what role the description is supposed to play in the functioning of that city. The relevance of the works of a philosopher like Plato in today’s context is something to look at. In other words, as a reader of the Republic, what should we take away from this description of the perfectly just city?

The description of the just city in Plato’s work seems really rich and insightful in terms of living a virtuous life – why an individual has to choose justice over injustice. Even when seen through of the city to soul analogy, there are great insights in the Republic regarding the arrangement and health of one’s soul.

But Plato never used the word utopia in the Republic. Already said, that the Republic is a work on individual morals in and about a hypothetical city-state. Here the city-state maybe is not meant as a pattern to guide actual civil government but is an instructive medium used to discuss principles of personal morality and virtue. The ideas with, of course, good intentions put forward by Plato even if implemented, would not be an ideal society. In his work, he mentions media censorship, where he emphasises the necessity to censor art. Other concepts such as state-regulated education, the class system, lying to the citizens for greater good hints at a dystopian regime than a utopian one.

Allegory of the cave

Plato in Republic, Book VII, presents the allegory of the cave (514a-520). This was majorly to compare the effect of education and the lack of it on our nature. But it brings about an analogy of the utility of philosophers and philosophy. Here Plato uses Socrates to describe a group of people who have been chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives. They see nothing but a blank wall.  Hence the people watch shadows which are projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them. They also give names to these shadows.

The shadows are the prisoners’ reality. There is imprisonment in the cave, a departure from the cave, rerun to the cave by a supposedly free prisoner. The reality in the outside world is entirely opposite to what the prisoners have perceived all the while. So used to observing shadows, it takes a while for the free prisoner to adapt to real objects, which he eventually does with analysing his reflection in the water and ultimately regards sun as the source of light of the free world. And when the free prisoner comes back to convince them of the same and try to free them, they violently resist being freed.

This allegory is also supported by Plato’s theory of forms where the things in the physical world are flawed reflections of ideal forms. If we have lived in the dark, our supposed light, would we restrain ourselves from questioning the reality, nature of it, the origin of knowledge, etc? As already mentioned, the allegory is to bring out the utility of the philosophers in the society, where they act where the philosophers act as enlightenment to people who have lived in the dark. Still, they don’t impose the new reality to them but rather propose and discuss it with them.[3]

A Comparison with George Orwell’s 1984

Even though the allegory and Orwell’s book differ thematically, they converge at some point.

Orwell narrates the story of Winston Smith, who is a citizen of London, Oceania. It is to be noted that Oceania is under control of the ‘Big Brother’   – elite that keeps an eye on the events in the country. They make use of listening devices and cameras to achieve this. The protagonist, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth (news, entertainment, education). His job description would be altering the history of Oceania and public records to brainwash the citizens. The ruling party in Oceania also prohibits free speech, thought, and sex.

The similarities are the naivety of the characters of the book and the prisoners of the cave. The citizens of Oceania are naïve in believing that the government monitors them. The supporters of the party fail to question the possibility of the government’s power read minds, i.e. to monitor their thoughts (Thought Police). At his workplace, Winston falls in love with Julia, a co-worker, and they move in together before he is arrested and tortured. 

Through big billboards in the streets with the messages “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU”, the government had “mastered the approach of intimidating people”. Given their abilities, the characters in Orwell’s 1984 could not rebel against the government that had robbed their freedoms. The prisoners are also naïve in such a way that they only assume what they see even without looking keenly into it. They fail to discuss the shadows that they see; they only give names to the images. There is no possibility that they could’ve learnt about it from an external source yet, but they showed naivety by naming what they haven’t seen.

The party’s slogan reads:

WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

Here, the characters are also ignorant, pretty much adding up as a weakness. In the beginning, Winston is seen as ignorant. He seems to feel comfortable in engaging in altering historical account of events in Oceania. He also appears to be unaware of the harm he causes to himself and his people. However, the outcomes of ignorance catch up with him.

The slaves in the cave are ignorant because they fail to question why they are held captive. They are unaware of their rights and freedom. They do not seem to demand justice. They fail to imagine that they can be free. They do not bother questioning the nature of the things whose shadow they see being projected on the wall when it is evident that there is a freedom of movement outside the car. 

Once we start questioning what we see, our beliefs, it becomes possible to differentiate between reality and illusion as it takes down the path of critical thinking. This would be based on our past experiences. Orwell sees this critical thinking as the way. Meanwhile, to discover reality, Plato emphasises the need to differentiate fact from illusion.[4]

Conclusion

The cultural influence of Plato’s Republic, in literature and art, has been significant. The legacy that he’s set has often been used as a dystopia in the mass-media (The Matrix, 1999 ).  There is a more persuasive interpretation of a dystopia rather than a utopia because, in Plato’s so-called ideal society, anyone who leads the way is entirely truthful and just. However, in the real world, this is hardly the truth. As a result, if the state were to be given the powers that the Big Brother government possesses in the book, these powers are guaranteed to be abused.

The class system, which initially meant to create happiness, not envy, would be used to “keep people in their rightful place”. The censorship that protects justice, maintain national security would instead be used to mislead the population, robbing their right to information. With all these, the government would try to hold on to power at all costs.                                                 

Now, is Plato’s society a utopia or a dystopia? The author believes the answer to be a utopia as long as the city remains only on the page. If these ideas were ever to be put into practice, no matter how well-intended it was, the state would eventually come down to a totalitarian dystopia.                                                                                          

It makes one wonder, can we be confident in what we think we know? If one day, we were freed of all our most basic assumptions, say our whole life was a lie. Will we break free to struggle towards the truth even if it means starting from scratch or stick with comfortable and familiar reality, which might be an illusion.


[1] J. S. McClelland, A History of Western Political Thought 16-48 (2005)

[2] The editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Utopia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, (July 10, 2020, 4:33 PM), https://www.britannica.com/topic/utopia/Satirical-and-dystopian-works

[3] C. D. C. Reeve, A Plato Reader Eight Essential Dialogues 463-468 (2012)

[4] Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell), 1984

Krishnasree S from NMIMS, Mumbai

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