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ON PLATO’S COMMUNISTIC THEORY.
By J. L. RATCLIFFE, B.A.
Good with bad
The dialogue, which is known as the Republic, has for its object the discovery of the “true nature of justice and injustice.” But since it is easier to read large characters, it is decided to trace in thought the gradual formation of a city, that the way in which justice and injustice enter may be marked. Plato never forgets what is the object of all his speculations, and often recalls his companions if they are going into detail irrelevant to the main purpose.
Whether or not it is true that ideals are painted by the elimination of all supposed imperfections in the real, it is undoubtedly true that Plato was profoundly impressed by the evils which were preparing the Athens of his day for the yoke of the conqueror. His keen observation is never more strikingly in evidence than in those inimitable books of political pathology, in which he traces the course of the ruin of the perfect state. By a succession of deteriorations the state, where justice holds sway, is shown to end in that “most beautiful of all commonwealths," despotism, the rule of injustice. The amusing sketch which he gives of democracy, the next to despotism in the career of ruin, is a remarkably clever caricature of the Athens, made familiar to us by Demosthenes, the Athens whose glory had passed away.
For individualism and its attendant evils were supreme. The state was neglected. Whereas in the days of Pericles all took a pride in embellishing the city, Plato saw his compatriots “build fine large houses, and furnish them in corresponding style."* We cannot perhaps do better than let Plato tell, in his own humorous way, of the lamentable condition into which, in the fourth century, Athens had sunk.
What of her citizens ? “First of all, are they not free, and does not liberty of act and speech abound in the city, and has not a man license therein to do what he will ? And clearly where such license is permitted, every citizen will arrange his own manner of life as suits his pleasure. Again, consider that in this state you are not obliged to hold office, though your talents may be equal to the task: and that you need not submit to government if you
dislike it, or go to war when your fellow-citizens are at war, or keep peace when they keep peace, if you do not want so to do: and again, consider that though a law forbid your holding office or sitting on a jury, you may, nevertheless, do both the one and the other should it occur to you to do
How magnificently such a commonwealth refuses to trouble itself in the least about the previous pursuits of those who enter on a political course, whom it raises to honour, if only they assert that they wish well to the commons.” † The citizens of this “agreeable, lawless, parti-coloured commonwealth, which deals with all alike on a footing of equality whether they be equal or not,” I "end by making light of the laws themselves, in order that, as they say, they may not have the shadow of a master." S “Beggars and persons who hunger after private advantage take the reins of government with the idea that they are privileged to snatch advantage from their power." || The ignorance of those who controlled the affairs of state called forth the ridicule of Plato as of Socrates before him. The mutinous sailors who bind the captain, and will not take on board the true pilot, are the men who ruled Athens.* The simile of the huge and powerful monster, whose caprices are ever humoured by its keepers, reveals the arts of the demagogues in winning over the powerful Athenian assembly to their side for the furtherance of their own exclusive interests. +
* Par. 419.
† Pars. 557, 558.
§ Par. 563.
|| Par. 521.
In such a commonwealth, thought Plato, injustice had an almost uncontested course. What, then, did he conceive to be the essence of justice ?
Briefly, the performance of appropriate function. Every man, every thing has its place; justice demands that every man and every thing should remain in its place. Whosoever undertakes tasks for which he is not fitted, or shrinks from that for which he has peculiar abilities is, to Plato's mind, unjust. Justice reigns in the soul, when each of the component elements, the rational, the spirited, and the appetitive, fulfils its assigned duty, and does not attempt to usurp another's place. If there is not complete unanimity as to the right of the rational element to claim the obedience of the spirited and appetitive, then injustice is laying the foundations of her throne. So, in the state, unless the auxiliary and productive classes, which correspond to the spirited and appetitive elements of the soul, acquiesce in the rule of the philosopher-king, injustice reigns. But how is she to be ejected ? How are the evils, which are welding the chains of an intolerable tyranny, to be remedied? How is that huge and powerful monster to be kept in subjection, and taught that its whims and caprices are not always to be studied ? How are the ablebodied citizens to be persuaded to put off their indolence, and prepare at need to take the field in support of the true ruler ? How, in fine, is the philosopher-king, the true pilot, to be established at the helm of the state ? Was any remedy at hand ?
+ Par. 493.
* Par. 488.
Linquenda tellus et domus et placens
Uxor. Communism was no novelty in Greece. Plato's mythological Atlantis had been, to some extent, realised in the Lipara Islands, where, at the beginning of the sixth century, colonists from Rhodes and Cnidus founded a state on communistic principles. Part of the citizens tilled the land, and part guarded the coast. The common-meals, which prevailed in the Dorian cities of Crete and at Sparta, were, at any rate, a step in the right direction, and are mainly accountable, we may suppose, for the approval with which Plato regards those states.* Above all, there was growing up at Athens a partiality to communism among the poorer citizens, a partiality which was the almost inevitable outcome of the spread of individualism. For great poverty prevailed by the side of great riches. The poor, unable to find leisure for politics through the necessity of finding for themselves a livelihood, fled to communism as that which alone had power to make their boasted liberty something more than mere liberty to die, and their vaunted equality with the rich a thing of fact.
Communism, too, was Plato's panacea. But communism carried to its logical conclusion.
The remedy which he would apply to the evils of the body politic is not less heroic, not less drastic than those which he recommends for the evils of the physical body. A good physician, he thinks, should not make use of drugs when there is need of the knife.
“If the constitution of the state is to be carried to perfection, it must recognise a community of women, a community of children, and of education in all its branches; and, in like manner, a community of pursuits in peace and war. Its kings must be those who have shewn the greatest ability in philosophy, and the greatest aptitude for war. As soon as the rulers have established their position, they are to take the soldiers, and settle them in dwelling-places of a certain description, in which, by our direction, no private rights are admitted, but which are the common property of all. They shall not hold any such property as is commonly held at the present day, but in their capacity as trained soldiers and guardians they ought to receive, in return for their guardianship, year by year, from the other citizens, the maintenance required by their position, and devote their attention to the whole state, including themselves." *
* Par. 544.
Plato anticipated great opposition, as well he might, to his scheme; he expected “ large numbers of by no means contemptible assailants to rush desperately upon him without a moment's delay, after throwing off their upper garments, as it were, and grasping the first offensive weapon that comes in their way.”+ The opposition is in the main as strong to-day as it was two thousand years ago. In their haste the assailants seize weapons which are often out of date; yet many a telling blow may be dealt.
Before considering the proposal in detail, we may note that it is not all in the state that are forbidden to hold private property. This is sufficiently clear, one would think, from the provision made that the other citizens shall render to the guardians, in return for their services, the maintenance required by their position. But since there seems to linger doubt in the mind of so considerable a scholar as Jowett, it will be perhaps excusable to point
* Par. 543. + Par. 474.