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Plato's Republic

The Republic begins with the question 'What is justice?' and goes on to imagine a utopian society in which justice prevails. Underpinning his ideal community is a conviction central to Plato's thought. Knowledge of what is good is the most important human attainment; and, a more dubious corollary, any man who knows what is good will never do evil.

The community imagined in the Republic is therefore one governed by the wise. It is an aristocracy of talent, with a small group of Philosopher Rulers at its head. Much of the discussion in the book centres on the practical means by which such a society can be achieved.

When he comes to devising the details, Plato shows unmistakable signs of the mad boffin, creating in the laboratory of the mind a world which has only faint (and unpleasant) links with any normal reality. The philosopher rulers are trained for government by a strenuous course in philosophy, mathematics and science up to the age of thirty-five. To avoid distractions in society, there must be strict censorship of literature and art.

Devotion to the best interests of society may be reduced by the rival claims of a family. So family life must be abolished. Everything is to be shared. This includes men and women. The necessary sexual arrangements provide ample opportunities for Plato's fantasy.

Selective breeding is essential to improve the quality of the small ruling class. Men and women of this class will be brought together from time to time for sexual festivals. They will draw lots to discover their partners, but the Philosopher Rulers are advised to rig the ballot - ensuring that the best men and women are paired.

The healthy infants of the best parents are to be brought up as a group (all the rest are discreetly destroyed). The children will not know their parents, but they must call 'mother' and 'father' everyone who took part in their own festival of conception. This will avoid any subsequent danger of incest, for men are allowed to breed up to the age of fifty-five.

Some of this derives from the example of Sparta, carried by Plato to schematic extremes. His dislike of Athenian democracy (responsible for the execution of his hero, Socrates) inclines him to Spartan sympathies.

For most of Plato's readers, over the centuries, the social system of the Republic has no doubt seemed interesting speculation. But in the 20th century, with its experience of master-race theories and eugenic experiments, the Platonic fantasy is revealed as grotesque. Even Plato realizes that some explanation may be needed to keep the underclass happy. He accordingly invents a creation myth for his society.

People are to be told that God created them as three classes, with traces of gold in the bodies of the top class, silver in the middle class, iron and bronze in the lower class. This explains the nature of society. Social mobility (both up and down) is caused by people accidentally having the wrong metal for the class they are born into.

That is the story', says Socrates, 'do you think there is any way of making them believe it?'. 'Not in the first generation', replies his friend Glaucon, 'but you might succeed in the second and later generations'.

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