During the latest seminar one of the questions posed to the class was whether Plato’s Republic laid the groundwork for totalitarianism. A nice little debate ensued, but was unfortunately cut short by the end of class. During class I argued that yes, Republic was partially to blame for totalitarianism. Now that isn’t saying that it was the sole cause. Hundreds of social, economic, political, and philosophical factors throughout the course of history contributed to the creation of totalitarian states, but surely the fact that one of the most highly regarded works of philosophy is basically a love letter to totalitarianism must have had some impact.
As soon as Plato begins describing his ideal city, the Kallipolis, he starts to limit the freedoms of it’s inhabitants. He creates a hierarchy of laborers, soldiers, and philosophers, and establishes that each class must only do that which it is best suited for. Obviously Plato selects philosophers as the rulers, being himself a philosopher.
The residents of Kallipolis are limited not only in what they can do, but in the very stories and melodies that they are allowed to hear. This is because Plato decides that the poetic stories of the gods and heroes, while entertaining and beautiful, ultimately corrupt their listeners and strip them of the platonic virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. By depicting the gods as liars or the heroes as cowardly Plato fears that citizens will mimic that bad behavior. This very paternalistic approach absolutely reeks of totalitarianism.
While discussing poetic narration and mimicry Plato gives an example of an extremely wise, gifted man, who is able to perfectly imitate many things. While acknowledging that his performance would be beautiful and amzing, he says the man would be turned away from the city in favor of a less interesting poet who would conform better to his totalitarian story guidelines.
When discussing a man who prolonged his life through medicine and healthy living, Plato decides that he should have given in to his illness and died. He justifies this by saying that if you are preoccupied with staying alive, you won’t contribute to society and therefore would be better off dying.
Perhaps most importantly, Plato makes the case that Kallipolis isn’t meant to bring great happiness to any individual resident, but that by functioning perfectly it would allow each person to be “as happy as their nature allows”. This focus on the system over the individual is a core part of totalitarianism and Plato absolutely adores it.