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The Foundations of Plato's Great Society

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The Guardians

The first task in the construction of this ideal society is to identify the fundamental needs of man: food, shelter, and clothing and to assure they are sufficiently provided. Next is the division of labor which is the structure by which these necessities are to be provided along with a simple system of trade to be able to satisfy the need that the State cannot provide. After these basics are provided, Plato believes that each man needs to be assigned a single occupation that suits his natural inclination instead of leaving every man to work separately for his every need. His specialization would be determined by how well or how poorly he does in his education; the advanced and intelligent person would become philosophers, the strong and courageous would become auxiliaries, and the rest would become the producers, or workers.

Plato begins on the right track by first expressing the basic needs of men then following up on them. Economics shows that specialization is a key for civilizations to be able to become extremely productive and Plato hit it right on the head here. People should specialize in an occupation that best suits that person so that the State as a whole can benefit from the skills and attributes of that individual. The only thing is that the citizens probably would not have their choice as to their occupation; rather they would have to do whatever they are best at, but not necessarily what they want to do.

Poetry, Literature, and Music

Guardians start their education with music and gymnasium. The music takes the forms of different kinds of restricted arts. The only acceptable subjects for poetry and literature are strictly didactic in that they teach the guardians the four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Neither men nor gods may be depicted acting in an ambiguous, morally undesirable manner. As for music, Plato endorses a musical style that is simplistic and fortifying and that would move the guardians toward virtuous behavior. He extends these aesthetic criteria to all State arts, not only literature and music. Beauty and pleasure for their own sake are disallowed, as well as laughter.

Although the education of the guardians appears to be excessively rigid and controlling, it must be remembered that they are the State's most important citizens. Therefore, no possible means of corruption can be overlooked. But Plato's argument against literature is vulnerable because of its short-sightedness. By isolating individual passages from such great works as the Iliad and the Odyssey and criticizing them for their lack of virtues and morals, he overlooks the true value of the work as a whole. In its entirety, the works are not only ultimately moral; they also present and dramatize the inevitable interaction between good and evil.


The second part of the guardian's education, gymnastics, is started when the philosophers have finished their beginnings of music. Plato insists that physical training should be governed by the same rigorous temperance as music. No exceptions are to be made for the weak or ill. They shall survive only with some small amount of attention form a doctor or none at all. Plato is particularly adamant in his opinion on health and sickness; he has an elite, "only the strong will survive" mentality. A reformed State is not what Plato is trying to create; rather he is constructing an ideal state and, for that, he must have elite citizens, especially guardians. Physical training not only consists of exercise and training, it is also a philosophy of the body.

This is a great approach in developing the guardians. One reason to throw physical training into the mix is that it will slowly and silently weed out the weak and the feeble. The other reason is that the rulers of the State must be strong and powerful just as much as they are wise and knowledgeable. Most of the great leaders of the past have had some kind of militaristic background so it is of no surprise that Plato wanted his leaders to have some physical training. And if those that pass here fail later on down the line, they can be utilized as the auxiliaries since they have already passed the rigorous and demanding physical training program.

The Allegory of the Cave and the Guardian Education

After this basic background, the guardians are introduced to many sciences as a kind of amusement so as not to discourage children from learning. Arithmetic, geometry, solids in motion, astronomy, and music are all part of the curriculum for these young guardians. Gradually, the most promising children are tested; those who succeed move onward. At twenty, the candidates begin a comprehensive study of the fore mentioned subject. At thirty, the most accomplished of the remaining are instructed in the art of arriving at the truth through a path of logical arguments for five years. After this, they take an office for fifteen years and gain knowledge and experience throughout their tenure. If the candidate has proven himself worthy enough in all fields, he becomes a ruler of the State and a true guardian. In this way, the guardian appears, after fifty full years, as the only individual competent and worthy of ruling the ideal State. To Plato, he is perfect, or at least the complete and just ruler Ð'- the philosopher-king.

Plato is able to explain this process more easily through the allegory of the cave. Imagine a dark cave in which a group of prisoners, chained in such a way that they are not allowed to move their heads, stare at a wall all day. Because of a small fire, the prisoners are able to see the shadows of their captors and objects they present projected on the wall. Having always been in the cave, they believe the shadows are true; likewise, the echoed voices they hear, they also believe to be true. (This is the life of the normal and commonplace citizens. They see nothing but "the shadows on the wall.") Then one day a certain prisoner is released. (The guardian) The secrets of the cave are



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