Victor Nuovo: A philosopher ponders a perfect rule

Editor’s note: This is the 12th in a series of essays or reflections about the Republic, a book written two and a half millennia ago by the great philosopher Plato.
Act Four: To begin with, recall that the city and the soul, or what might better be called the individual life, mirror each other. They are supposed to be analogous, so that what is true of one is true also of the other. The best city is one that is perfectly just, whose rulers are wise, whose guardians are brave, and whose providers of essential needs (food, shelter, clothing) are temperate; it is a civil society in which all its citizens, by proper education, know their station in life, are happy in it, and voluntarily carry out their respective duties, each in support of all the others.
Likewise, the best individual life is one that is governed by intelligence and wise judgment, is committed to what is right and good, and so guards its own integrity, and it is temperate in providing for its needs. A perfect individual life is one that realizes the cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, and temperance and, lastly, justice, which harmonizes the other three.
Now Socrates advises his friends that the best city and the best individual life are not achievable in this world of becoming; they may, however, be approximated. In the life of cities and of individuals, the same three functions and motivations are at work. Cities are ruled, defended, and their needs provided; and in a similar way individuals live by intelligence, passion and desire. But not all this happens in proper harmony.
The fourth act of this philosophical drama is a review of the several kinds of cities and life that have evolved in human history, and to each type of city there corresponds form of individual life, a form of individual self-government. These are paraded across the stage in what Socrates imagines is a more or less descending order of excellence. First comes Aristocracy, the rule of the best, of individuals who come closest to approximating the intellectual power of a philosopher king, who put wisdom and justice above honor, wealth, and power. Another name for this is Meritocracy. The next in order of value is a Timocracy, the rule of those who put duty and honor first, where honor is connected with military excellence demonstrated in the defense of one’s country.
In my own memory, the individual who best exemplifies this honorable rule is Douglas MacArthur, whose whole life was a conscious expression of the motto of West Point, “Duty, Honor, Country.” But for all his greatness, MacArthur ran afoul of civilian leaders, among them George C. Marshall, another military commander, who later in civilian life became a great Secretary of State. This may help to understand the distinction that Plato wanted to draw between an Aristocracy and a Timocracy and their respective values. Plato suspected that someone who put honor first, however intelligent, was predisposed to act by impulse rather than by cool critical reason.
Another player in this game of high-level politics was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Like Marshall, Eisenhower made a successful transition to civilian life after exemplary military service, becoming president of Columbia University, after his first retirement from the military, and then president of the United States. I am reminded of Eisenhower’s farewell speech as president, in which he warned against the “unwarranted influence … of the military industrial complex.”
Aristocracy and Timocracy are in Plato’s judgment nearly perfect instances of civil government, but they are also the least likely to be realized or sustained under the present conditions of human existence. The other three: Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny are common in the world. The first two are more or less on the same moral plane, neither good nor bad, but a mixture of both. Tyranny is on the bottom of the moral scale, the exact opposite of the ideal. All three, in Plato’s judgment, are corrupt, but in the cycle of history, they exhaust the realm of possibility.
An oligarchy is the rule of the few, but in this case the few who rule are not the wisest or exemplars of honor, but the rich and economically privileged, and a major consequence of their rule is inequality, the division of society into rich and poor, “the haves and the have nots.” It is vulgar elitism. For the privileged, life is good and enriching, not only in riches, but also in all sorts of domestic, grand public improvements, and high culture, which they patronize and underwrite. Their wealth underwrites our great libraries, museums, and universities.
Yet the rule of the economically advantaged is according to Socrates, a cause of the greatest social evil, which is the impoverishment of the underprivileged, when an increasing number of the social body is forced to mortgage or sell all that they have to survive, causing them to become social outcasts, “belonging to none of its parts, called neither a moneymaker, nor a craftsman, nor a knight, nor a foot-soldier, but a poor man without means.”
To be impoverished is to be deprived of one’s means of subsistence. In the Laws, Plato writes approvingly of the practice in Sparta, introduced by their great lawgiver Lycurgus, whereby the state having acquired all the land within its domain, distributed to each householder an equal portion of it. This was a most tangible way not only of establishing equality among all citizens, but also of providing them with a ready means of subsistence. This original portion was supposed to be an inviolable possession. To become impoverished is to be alienated from one’s material heritage, of an essential means of subsistence, one’s homestead.
However, Plato seems to attribute more to being impoverished than this. He supposes that it is to be deprived of a useful role in society, to have no purposeful work or function in a state whose very principle is or should be that everyone’s proper function or work is doing something that is beneficial to all.
In an oligarchy, this principle of mutuality has been replaced or subverted by one of selfish enrichment and preferment. Oligarchy is an ancient practice, which is still with us, and the social ills that it causes are chronic and cruel. The rich and socially advantaged, supposing that they know what is best for all, enrich themselves and impoverish others. There are, however, remedies, chief among them is revolution.
According to Socrates, the democratic state originates when the many revolt against the few and endeavor to create a more just society. To be continued.

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