Plato usually wrote relatively short pieces, like the Euthyphro, Meno, etc. In all his writings there are only two book length works, the Republic and the Laws. The Laws was the last thing Plato wrote, at eighty, and it is a grim and terrifying culmination of the totalitarian tendencies in his earlier political thought. It is also pretty dull, since Plato had all but abandoned his earlier lively dialogue format. The Republic, however, is the supreme product of Plato's most mature years, thought, and style. It contains virtually the entire universe of Plato's philosophy.
The word "republic" is from Latin: Res publica means "public matters" or "the state." In Greek, the title was the Politeia, which means the Constitution. But the Republic does not start out about politics. It is initially a familiar kind of Socratic dialogue about justice, just as the Euthyphro is about piety and the Meno is about virtue. The Republic is divided into ten Books. Each of these was originally what would fit onto one papyrus scroll. [By late Roman times, the scrolls were cut up and sewn together into codices, or the kind of bound books that we continue to use.] The entire first Book of the Republic may originally have been one of the standard early dialogues that Plato wrote about Socrates. Later it was expanded. Unusual features of the dialogue, however, are (1) that Socrates [note well that Plato continues to use Socrates to speak Plato's ideas in all his mature works] actually narrates the entire thing, (2) that he speaks with a large number of people, not just one, (3) that these include two brothers of Plato himself (Glaucon and Adeimantus), and (4) that, after the dialogue about justice proceeds in the fashion that we expect of Socrates, things take an unexpected turn: One of the characters, the sophist Thrasymachus, begins to object that he knows quite well what justice is, and that the kinds of definitions the others have been giving are nonsense.
Thrasymachus says, "I declare justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger" Republic 338c [W.H.D. Rouse translation, Great Dialogues of Plato, Mentor Books, 1956, p.137. The following two citations are Rouse's translation also]. Robbery and violence are normally called "injustice," but when they are practiced wholesale by rulers, they are justice, i.e. the interest of the stronger, the rulers. Thus, when we consider ordinary citizens, "the just man comes off worse than an unjust man everywhere" (343d). Since the rulers do not obey the principles they impose on the citizens, they are in those terms "unjust." So Thrasymachus says, "You will understand it most easily, if you come to the most perfect injustice, which makes the unjust man most happy, and makes those who are wronged and will not be unjust most miserable" (344a).
...Tyranny is not a matter of minor theft and violence, but of wholesale plunder, sacred and profane, private or public. If you are caught committing such crimes in detail you are punished and disgraced; sacrilege, kidnapping, burglary, fraud, theft are the names we give to such petty forms of wrongdoing. But when a man succeeds in robbing the whole body of citizens and reducing them to slavery, they forget these ugly names and call him happy and fortunate, as do all others who hear of his unmitigated wrongdoing. [Republic 344a-c, H.D.P. Lee translation, Penguin Books, 1955, p.73.]
Thus to Thrasymachus the tyrant is happy and fortunate, and he is so precisely because he breaks the rules ("justice") that he imposes on the weak. What the weak call "justice" is really slavery, and no one truly strong would act that way. Such sentiments are familiar in modern philosophy from the still popular and influential German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).
In Book I Socrates proceeds to refute Thrasymachus and does so. If the weak, after all, can prevent the strong from taking what they want or can prevent someone from becoming a tyrant, then they are the strong! Thrasymachus is finally quieted. At the beginning of Book II however, Socrates is told by Glaucon and the others that this was all too easy. They argue that anyone would be unjust, given the opportunity, just as Gyges seduced and murdered his way to the throne of Lydia, once he had found a ring that made him invisible, because everyone believes that injustice leads to happiness, if only one can get away with it. They want Socrates to prove that it is better to be just than to be unjust even if the unjust man is praised, celebrated, and rewarded and the just man is reviled, punished, and rejected. Socrates must prove that such a just man is actually happy and such an unjust man (a tyrant perhaps) is unhappy.
The rest of the Republic answers this challenge. It does so by way of an analogy. Socrates says that it is difficult to distinguish what is going on in the soul, but it is easier to see what is going on in the state. Thus the state will be examined by analogy to the soul. Now we would say that the state is the macrocosm (makros, "large," kosmos, "universe"), the large scale analogue, and the soul is the microcosm (mikros, "small"), the small scale analogue. When matters are sorted out for the state, then the soul can be understood in its own right.
As it happens, Plato ends up using the theory of the soul that he also proposes in the Phaedrus. The soul, on this view, has three parts, which correspond to three different kinds of interests, three kinds of virtues, three kinds of personalities --
"Spirit" is in the sense of a "spirited" horse. Plato thinks that this is the energy that drives the soul and may be used to reason to keep desire in line. Temperance, or moderation, will mean the limitation of desires. The word "temperance" is now a little archaic, and it tends to suggest "temperance" as it came to mean abstention from alcohol, as was advocated in the early days of this century by Cary Nation and the Women's Christian Temperance Union, who brought about Prohibition. The three parts of the soul also correspond to places in the body: reason to the head, spirit to the heart, and desire to the organs of desire, mostly in the abdomen. Plato simply made a good guess that reason had something to do with the brain. There wasn't a lot of evidence about this; and many people, including the Egyptians and Aristotle, thought that intelligence was centered in the heart. When the Egyptians mummified bodies, they actually used to throw the brain away, while the heart was carefully prepared and replaced in the body. Remember later in the course to compare Plato's parts of the soul and social classes with the doctrine of the gunas and the varnas later in Indian philosophy.
Now, Plato was originally looking for justice, but justice does not appear in the list of virtues. The answer is that justice applies to them all in the sense of their organization. Reason (and the philosophers) should be in control, with the help of spirit (and the warriors). The philosophers and the warriors are thus the "Guardians" of Plato's ideal state. This does not seem like a familiar sort of definition for justice, but the result, Plato says, is that each interest is satisfied to the proper extent, or, in society, everyone has what is theirs. The philosophers have the knowledge they want; the warriors have the honors they want; and the commoners have the goods and pleasures they want, in the proper moderation maintained by the philosophers and warriors. The root of all trouble, as far as Plato is concerned, is always unlimited desire.
John E.E.D. Acton, or Lord Acton (1834-1902) famously said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Even Plato was aware of this and that commoners might be envious of the power of the Guardians, desiring it for themselves so as to obtain greater goods and pleasures. Thus Plato proposes a set of rules for his Guardians that would render their position undesirable to the commoners:
When I used to live in Honolulu, occasionally I liked to visit the State Legislature when it was in session. The Hawaii State Capitol is unique, with an open central courtyard instead of the traditional dome and rotunda. On each side of the courtyard, you can look through windows down into sunken chambers for the two houses of the legislature. When the legislature is in session, you can enter a visitors balcony through doors in the windows. You sit in the balcony, however, on hard wooden benches, like church pews, while the legislators below sit on huge, stuffed, reclining, leather chairs that look good enough to sleep in -- and you will often see the lawmakers, indeed, sleeping in them. This has always struck me as just the opposite of what Plato would have required. It is the visitors, the commoners, who should have the comfort and the "servants of the people," the politicians who should have the Spartan conditions.
With these views about nudity, the Greeks were all the more impressed with India when Alexander the Great arrived there and found naked holy men. These were Jain monks, and others, who had renounced the world even to the extent of renouncing clothing also. The Greeks called them the gymnosophistai "naked philosophers"; and Greek philosophers like Pyrrho of Elis, who was with Alexander's army, reportedly spent a great deal of time talking with them. Pyrrho, at least, seems to have actually picked up some ideas from Indian philosophy thereby. Naked monks still exist in India. They are called digambara or "sky-clad," since the sky is their only covering.
Of all the serious criticisms that can be made against Plato's ideal state, I think that a couple of the most telling are that his theory involves two serious internal contradictions:
Taking Plato's theory at face value, however, does not answer the whole challenge originally posed by Thrasymachus. This might give us a definition of justice, after a fashion, but it does not show why it is better to be just or why the just person is happier. Plato does that in Book VIII of the Republic by examining "imperfect" states. He imagines what would happen if his ideal state decays.
Recent economists in the area of Public Choice theory [e.g. James M. Buchanan and the Virginia School of Public Choice], have described how the politicization of economic goods inevitably creates increased public conflict as the sense grows that wealth is something to be seized and distributed through state action. As everyone comes to believe that their prosperity depends on political success and consequent government largess, such a dynamic will tend to destabilize democracy, since in politics there are always losers and they begin to think that they are victims of the regime and have no stake in it. Capitalism is often disparaged as a system with "winners and losers," but the losers in capitalism are just the unsuccessful businesses, while the winners do win by providing what is most agreeable to consumers. In politics, the "winners and losers" are both consumers, and the losers are those who are then legally robbed to pay off the winners, who have the power of the state to take what they want (if you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can at least get Paul to vote for you). One would think that the United States Constitution shuts off any drift towards a regime of seizure and redistribution because of the "Takings" clause of the Fifth Amendment: "Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." The Takings clause, however, was an early casualty of enthusiasm over the New Deal and has steadily eroded ever since. It is only now that a movement has developed, and received some attention from the Supreme Court, to enforce it -- though the recent Kelo v. City of New London decision represents a setback.
For Plato's argument, the tyrannical state is the final refutation of Thrasymachus. It is clearly the most unhappy kind of state. Thrasymachus, of course, can argue that he doesn't care. It is Plato's analogy, not his. All that matters is whether the tyrant himself is happy or unhappy. Plato's answer to that is to identify the nature of the "tyrannical personality": since the tyrant is subject to completely unlimited desire, he can never be satisfied with anything he has. He will always want more. That is also the answer in a famous scene in the 1948 movie Key Largo, with Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. Robinson is a gangster holding a hotel full of people, including Bogart, hostage. Bogart at one point asks him what he really wants out of all this. Robinson can't say, so Bogart, like Socrates, makes a suggestion: is it that what he really wants is just more? Robinson says, yes, yes, he wants more, more! That is the tyrannical personality.
In our century, it is not hard to find tyrannical personalities to fit Plato's description. Both Hitler and Mussolini were undone by their inability to be satisfied with their successes. When Hitler had conquered France, there was only one country left in the world at war with him, Britain. Stalin's Soviet Union was busy mollifying Hitler by supplying him anything he needed. If Hitler had been content to absorb his conquests and develop Germany's potential, there is no doubt that he would have been in little danger for some time to come. He destroyed himself because he just had to invade Russia. Similarly, Mussolini was cautious enough that Italy remained neutral when Britain and France declared war on Germany for invading Poland. He lost his caution when he saw France defeated and decided to jump on Hitler's bandwagon. It meant, literally, his death. Otherwise Mussolini might have ridden out the war and died peacefully in bed, like his colleague the dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco.
Franco, however, is one of the people who spoils Plato's argument. Hitler really wanted Franco in the war. And he knew that Franco, and Spaniards in generally, really wanted to recover Gibraltar, after over two hundred years, from Britain. [Gibraltar was captured by Britain in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession and ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 -- one of the British admirals leading the capture had the extraordinary name of "Clowdisley Shovell."] Since Gibraltar was a thorn in the side of German and Italian operations in the Mediterranean, Hitler told Franco that if Spain entered the war, German troops would take Gibraltar and then give it to Spain. It was the kind of offer Franco couldn't refuse, but he did. Franco knew how to limit his desire, but that didn't prevent him from being a serious tyrant -- and now we know that Hitler's own envoy to Franco, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, was actually advising him against accepting Hilter's offer! [Eventually, in 1944, Hiltler learned that Canaris had been working against him and had him executed.] Worse is the case of Josef Stalin, who had an uncanny ability to bide his time and to take advantage of every opportunity. To the embarrassment of Western leftists, World War II itself began with Hitler and Stalin actually partitioning Poland between them. When Stalin subsequently invaded Finland, there was a moment when it looked like the Soviet Union might join Germany as the common totalitarian enemy of the Western democracies. When Stalin became an ally of the West instead (when Hitler invaded Russia), he could cash in his position with a post-war empire than would have been the envy of the Tsars. Poor Poland, whose fate called Britain and France to war in 1939, and whose exiled citizens fought bravely in many of the major actions of World War II, including many Polish pilots in the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain, was at Yalta left to Stalin without argument by Franklin Roosevelt and remained a vassal state of the Soviet Union until 1989.
Although Plato didn't know about such a variety of tyrannical personalities, he seems to have felt that his ultimate argument about the unhappiness of the tyrant was not strong enough. To seal the argument, he ended the Republic with a myth: the Myth of Er. Er was supposed to have been a soldier who was struck down and left for dead in a battle. When the bodies were collected after ten days for burning, Er revived and said that he had seen the reward of the good and the punishment of the wicked in the hereafter. After the judgment of the gods, the souls of the dead went to a place of reward in heaven or a place of punishment in the underworld. Since Plato believed in reincarnation there were no eternal rewards or punishments -- except for an evil few who were not allowed out of Hades. All the others had to face the prospect of their next life, and they were given the opportunity to choose the character of their next life from a variety of alternatives.
The Republic thus ends rather lamely with the argument that we better be good or the gods will punish us. We hardly needed to go through the whole book just to be told that. But in the midst of this there comes a very striking moment. Er describes the souls choosing their next life. The first one he sees doing this chooses badly -- the life of a tyrant who is fated "to eat his children and suffer other horrors" [Republic 619b-c, Rouse p.420]. Plato's comment about this reveals an important principle of his thought: This was a person who had lived a good life and had just returned from a reward for it in heaven. But, says Plato, he had "some share of virtue which came by habit without philosophy." That is how Rouse puts it, p.420. Lee's translation is, "having owed his goodness to habit and custom and not to knowledge," p.399. The terms in Greek are aretê, "virtue"; ethos, "custom," "habit" (only one word in Greek); and philosophia. So Rouse's translation is more literal.
This was a prescient critique of Plato's own student Aristotle, who later believed that virtue actually was a matter of habit and that the good had no independent nature to know, as Socrates and Plato had thought. Plato, of course, can allow for Aristotle's kind of virtue, but he regards it, as at the end of the Meno, as a matter of correct opinion only, not knowledge. The shortcoming of that kind of virtue is that, being habitual, it is effective only in habitual circumstances. In unfamiliar circumstances, where novel cases of good and evil must be recognized, the person does not possess the knowledge that would make that recognition possible. Socrates had asked Eurthyphro for a definition of piety so that he would "look upon it" and "use it as a model" (Euthyphro 6d) to recognize novel cases of piety and impiety. The soul that picks the terrible life of a tyrant obviously has no model and doesn't know what it is doing. This is why Meno actually makes a good observation at Meno 97c, when he says, "he who has knowledge will always succeed, while he who has right opinion will sometimes succeed, sometimes not." Although Socrates oddly disagrees with this, the point is to be well taken that right opinion will only work for a limited sphere of possibilities, the familiar ones, while knowledge will always work.
In the end, probably the most enduring image of the entire Republic, as an expression of Plato's view of life and the world, is the Allegory (or Simile) of the Cave. This occurs in Book VII (at 514), following his discussion of the Divided Line (in Book VI), which illustrated the levels of knowledge and reality in the discussion of the nature of philosophy and the good. (At right, the Divided Line is in black and the elements of the Allegory of the Cave are in red.) Plato says that we are all like prisoners chained up on the floor of a cave. We are so restricted that we can only look in one direction, and there we see shadows on the wall that seem to talk and move around. We and our fellow prisoners observe, discuss, and remember what these shadows do or say. But, what happens if we happen to be released from our chains? We stand up and look around, and we see a fire burning at the back of the cave. In front of the fire is a low wall, and on the wall puppets are manipulated, which cast the shadows that are all we have ever seen. So suddenly we realize that all the things we have ever known all our lives were not the true reality at all, but just shadows [skiai -- significantly the same word that occurs at the end of the Meno, when Plato says that the statesman who can teach his virtue and make another into a statesman will be like the only true reality compared with shadows (100a)]. But there is more. There is an exit from the cave, which leads up to the surface. There we are at first blinded, but then begin to see trees, animals, etc. which in the cave were only represented by puppets. Eventually we notice that all those things exist and are knowable because of the sun. Returning to the cave, we would at first be blinded by the darkness, and our fellow prisoners would have no idea what we were doing or saying -- they would probably regard us as insane -- but we could not, of course, take them seriously for an instant.
In modern terms, Plato's description of the cave bears an uncanny resemblance to a movie theater. There we do indeed sit in the dark with our fellow movie goers, not looking at them but at the screen. Instead of a fire and puppets, we have a projector light and film. Instead of shadows, we have focused images -- much more compelling than shadows, but something about whose possibility Plato did not have a clue. But what we see on the movie screen, in turn, usually bears no more resemblance to reality than what Plato expected from the shadows on the cave wall.
The freed prisoner is, of course, the philosopher. The cave itself represents the world of Becoming and its fire the physical sun in the sky. The world on the surface outside of the cave represents the world of Being, where the individual objects are the Forms. Two peculiarities of the Allegory of the Cave, however, are the status of the shadows, as opposed to the puppets, and the nature of the sun. If the puppets are the actual objects in the world of Becoming, then the shadows must be people's opinions. We do mostly go through life paying attention to people's opinions rather than to the things themselves, so that is suitable. Plato, of course, thinks that even the things themselves are like shadows of the Forms. The sun, in turn, is a unique kind of Form: the Form of the Good. This is a unique moment in Plato's writings, since he does not elsewhere single out any Form as different in kind from the others, and he does not elsewhere pay any sustained attention to the good as such. He has already said in the Republic (at 506) that he cannot really give a definition of the good. He will only give us an analogy, that the good is to knowledge and truth what the sun is to light and sight.
Then what gives the objects of knowledge their truth and the mind the power of knowing is the Form of the Good. It is the cause of knowledge and truth, and you will be right to think of it as being itself known, and yet as being something other than, and even higher than, knowledge and truth. And just as it was right to think of light and sight as being like the sun, but wrong to think of them as being the sun itself, so here again it is right to think of knowledge and truth as being like the Good, but wrong to think of either of them as being the Good, which must be given a still higher place of honor....
The Good therefore may be said to be the source not only of the intelligibility of the objects of knowledge, but also of their existence and reality; yet it is not itself identical with reality, but is beyond reality, and superior to it in dignity and power. [508e-509b, Lee translation, p.273.]
This is suggestive and intriguing, and Plato's own students wanted to hear more. Once Plato even promised to give a lecture on the good. But when the day came, all he did was do a geometry proof. So we are left at a kind of incomplete pinnacle of Plato's thought, with a sense of how important in reality the good is, but with mostly metaphorical statements about it. That was either the best Plato thought he could do or, like the Pythagoreans, he thought that his most serious views should not be spoken in public. Later the Neoplatonists would simply conclude that the Form of the Good was God, but there is no hint of that in Plato. He goes so far and then, like Parmenides, leaves us to continue the quest.
Plato's actual argument for why we should be just suffers from a fundamental misconception. He is always recommending justice from prudential considerations, i.e. we should be just because of our own best interest, either to be happy (the main argument) or to avoid the punishment of the gods (in the Myth of Er). If there is a difference between moral and merely prudent action, however, Plato has misdirected us. Instead, morality may require actions that are not in our self-interest. This is agreed upon by Immanuel Kant, Confucius, and even the Bhagavad Gita. Thus, Confucius holds that righteouness, , is to do what is right, regardless of the consequences. That is how Kant defined the "categorical imperative," the moral command (the imperative) that is to no ulterior purpose (i.e. it is categorical). Similarly, the Gita says, "Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward. Work not for a reward; but never cease to do thy work" [2:47]. This might not satisfy Thrasymachus; but then, with someone of that sort, while we may argue the issues, the ultimate point is not alone to persuade him, but to stop him. That is the surest way to prevent the tyrant from being happy.
History of Philosophy
In his Discourses Upon the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, Niccolò Machiavelli, more famous for The Prince, describes the "various kinds of states" in a fashion similar, but in some important ways different, from Plato. Plato's description (at left) is really a thought experiment of how his ideal state, the Aristocracy of philosophers, would decay. His description is generational, that unworthy children fail to perpetuate the virtues of their parents. Thus, the Timarchy is produced by children who value themselves just for their honor and ability to use force, the Oligarchy is produced by children who decide to use their force to become wealthy, the Democracy is produced by children who think they have a right to that wealth just by being citizens, and the Tyranny is produced by children whose total lack of discipline and restraint produces a chaos that is only ended by one of their number seizing personal power. True to his generation, the tyrant uses his power to take whatever he wants. Plato's description is often psychologically true of many specific events and persons in history.
Machiavelli's description is also generational, but it also introduces another principle, and it results in a kind of conclusion foreign to Plato's thinking. The principle that Machiavelli introduces is simply that of a classification by the distribution to power, i.e. power is exercised by one, by a few, or by the many. This is a useful device, and is used here in the theory of Liberties in Three Dimensions. Thus, power exercised by one is a Monarchy, by a few, an Aristocarcy, and by the many, a Democracy. However, Machiavelli allows that there are good and bad versions of each of these, reserves these terms for the good forms, and introduces "Tyranny," "Oligarchy," and "Anarchy" for the bad versions of rule by one, the few, and the many, respectively. These terms are conveniently schematic and descriptive and ignore a utopian possibility like Plato's government of philosophers.
Upon the scheme, Machiavelli imposes his generational thought experiment, beginning with a "state of nature" origin for Monarchy of a sort that we still find later in Thomas Hobbes. The good monarch, however, is succeeded by corrupt rulers who begin to use their power for their own gain, becoming tyrants. The tyrant is then overthrown, and the rebels decide to retain power among themselves collectively, producing an Aristocracy. The aristocrats are succeeded by a generation that again begins to use its power to oppress the people, producing the Oligarchy, and so they end up getting overthrown like the tyrant. Now political power passes to the people, making for Democracy. Unlike Plato, Machiavelli, does not view democracy per se as worse than the other "good" forms of government. Indeed, Machiavelli includes a chapter in the Discourses (Book II Chapter LVIII) on how "The Multitude is Wiser and More Constant than a Prince." The propensity of Democracy to decay into Anarchy, which Machiavelli describes in much the same terms as Plato, is therefore no more a failing of Democracy than the similar propensities were of Monarchy and Aristocracy. The only difference might be in the next step: Plato sees a tyrant benefiting from the Anarchy produced by Democracy, while Machiavelli brings his thought experiment full circle by having Anarchy, which mimics the "state of nature," followed once again by Monarchy. As a matter of historical fact, we have no difficulty finding chaotic conditions that led to both tyrants (Hitler) and virtuous monarchs (Diocletian).
Machiavelli's thought experiment, like Plato's, would seem to be entirely pessimistic. Plato's only hope would be his government of philosophers where precautions are taken to prevent the principle of hereditary succession from beginning. Machiavelli also sees hereditary succession as a source of evil; but, as a realist and a historian, he does not imagine that it can be long prevented, especially when people are inherently bad. His solution for the corruption of the "good" governments must therefore come from a different direction.
His inspiration turns out to be a historical one, the Roman Republic, which, although followed by the Empire, nevertheless endured for several centuries and accomplished great things. The strength of the Republic, according to Machiavelli, depended on its combination of the devices of the "good" forms of government:
I say, therefore, that all these kinds of government are harmful in consequence of the short life of the three good ones and the viciousness of the three bad ones. Having noted these failings, prudent lawgivers rejected each of these forms individually and chose instead to combine them into one that would be firmer and more stable than any, since each form would serve as a check upon the others in a state having monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy at one and the same time. [The Prince by Nicollo Machiavelli, With selections from THE DISCOURSES, translated by Daniel Donno, Bantam, 1981, p. 94, boldface added]
The Roman Republic thus had monarchical authority in the Consuls, aristocratic authority in the Senate, and popular authority in the Tribunes. In Machiavelli's phrase, "...since each form would serve as a check upon the others," we see the introduction of the idea of checks and balances as means to prevent the corruption and oppression of government. If people cannot be good, then we must have a government where the interests and power of some work to secure the conscientiousness and honesty of others. This idea is later expanded by 17th and 18th century thinkers, until we have the great system of the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary, and the States and the Federal Governments, designed as checks upon each other in the United States Constitution. That this system has now failed to actually protect freedom and virtue is a consequence of historical circumstances, failure in the original design, and changing, fallacious, unsympathetic ideology. Nevertheless, it is clear that the principle is sound and is able to secure responsible government for extended periods. The fallacy in Plato is exposed: the problem is not who is in power, since none is wise.
Over time, of course, what we see is that the ingenuity of those in power never ceases to undermine the limitations of their power, and the cupidity of some citizens never tires in the hope of extracting the substance of their less politically powerful fellows. Our challenge, then, is simply to perfect the design and prepare the ground so that, when the next Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson come along, it may be put to the test -- hopefully to even more enduring results.
As it happens, Machiavelli was not the first to admire Roman government as succeeding through the sort of "mixed" constitution that had originally been described by Aristotle. Such a view of Rome began at least with the Greek historian Polybius (c.200-120 BC), who saw the Roman Republic in one of its more successful periods (as a hostage from the Achaean League), before civil wars began to unhinge its institutions.
Return to text
Machiavelli and the Moral Dilemma of Statecraft
History of Philosophy
Prospero I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set soaring war. To the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt. The strong-based promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up
The pine, and cedar. Graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, op'd, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure. And when I have required
Some heavenly music (which even now I do)
To work mine end upon their senses, that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
The Tempest, William Shakespeare, Act 5, Scene 1:42-57
The "Ring of Gyges," which confers invisibility, is used in Plato's Republic as a thought experiment to argue that a person with such a ring, whether previously just or unjust, would use it to commit as many crimes as necessary to get what they want [Book II, 359d]. Plato does not agree with this. The argument of the rest of the Republic, consequently, is that the just man would not be tempted by invisibility to commit crimes, because he would know that crime itself makes one unhappy and that he is better off to remain just.
The issue of the ring has recently emerged in popular culture, with the Paul Verhoeven movie Hollow Man [Columbia Pictures, 2000]. In publicity and documentary interviews, Verhoeven explicitly invokes Plato to explain the theme of the movie. However, the moral of the film appears to be quite the opposite of what Plato intended. When actor Kevin Bacon becomes invisible, he very soon begins committing rape and murder. It may be that this was the result of flaws in his character, but such a question is unanswered by the story, since there is no comparison with anyone who resists the temptations of the power conferred by invisibility. One is left to suppose that anyone would act this way, and Verhoeven appears to see that as, indeed, the point. We would not know from Verhoeven's statements that Plato had something different in mind.
A fictional character who displays Platonic virtue is Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan in Shakespeare's The Tempest. In the epigraph above, Prospero provides a rather chilling catalogue of his powers, which apparently extend to raising the dead, and which in the play have called forth the storm that delivers his enemies to his island of exile. Prepared for a terrible revenge, Prospero instead forgives:
Prospero The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They, being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further.
Act 5, Scene 1: 27-30
Having merely righted the wrongs done, regained his Dukedom, and arranged the marriage of his daughter Miranda to Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples, Prospero surrenders his power. Although certainly "the rarer action" in history, this does happen, from the retirement of Diocletian to the refusal of a Third Term by George Washington.
Return to Republic
The Tempest, by William Shakespeare
Kings of Lydia
History of Philosophy