Plato’s State

Robert is reading Plato’s Republic. The Republic is divided into “Books,” which, as it turns out, are divisions that were created by people long after Plato died.  Each Book is essentially what we would think of as a chapter.  Robert has read through Book VI.

In Book V, Plato digresses from his main arguments about the nature of a justice and explanation of the just state. Early in this book Polemarchus interrupts Socrates and  requests that he explain his off-hand remark in Book IV that in such a state marriage, wives, and children must be “governed as far as possible by the old proverb: Friends possess everything in common.” (424).  Socrates addresses this request through Book VII and in doing so makes what he knew were very outrageous proposals for communism of property and the destruction of the “nuclear” family. In the ideal state, according to Socrates, wives would be  held in common, resulting children brought up by the state rather than their biological parents, and men and women with the same natural ability should receive the same education and training and do the same kind of work. Females would be members of the ruling class (the Guardians).

In Plato’s time the proposal was as controversial and impractical as its sounds now (all except the females being members of the ruling class part). The oldest critique of Socrates’ proposal that we have comes from Aristotle. In the Politics, Aristotle addresses the notion of communal upbringing of children by saying that children should not be held in common because “that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.  Everyone thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect something which he expects another to fulfil; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.  Each citizen will have a thousand sons who will not be his sons individually, but anybody will be equally the son of anybody, and will therefor be neglected by all alike.”

Aristotle is also against the idea of commonality of property, at least in the extreme. In arguing against it he says: “How immeasurably greater is the pleasure, when a man feels a thing to be his own; for surely the love of self is a feeling implanted by nature and not given in vain, although selfishness is rightly censured; this, however, is not the mere love of self, but the love of self in excess, like the miser’s love of money; for all, or almost all, men love money and other such objects in a measure. And further, there is the greatest pleasure in doing a kindness or service to friends or guests or companions, which can only be rendered when a man has private property.”

Anyway, Robert is mentioning all of this because he really likes the way the same book, the Republic, is analyzed by so many people through history.  We all are connected through the analysis of the Western philosophical canon. When Robert reads a work by Plato at his kitchen table and tries to understand it and judge its proposals, he’s doing the same thing Aristotle did thousands of years ago. Maybe Aristotle sat at his kitchen table too.  Although, probably not one bought at Ikea.