Plato’s “Totalitarian” State

I spent a few months re-reading Plato’s Republic with two friends, one a mathematician and the other a writer of fiction. I’ll write in due course about the mathematical and literary issues that arose; they were the most interesting topics we found. But it was necessary at first to get past some political hurdles. One of them was what might be called the ghost of Karl Popper and his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies.

In it Popper associates fascism and totalitarianism – ideologies that yield what he calls “closed societies” – with some ideas that are ultimately traceable to Plato (and to an extent to Aristotle, whom Popper also subjects to a lot of criticism): holism, essentialsm, and historicism.

Holism, roughly, is the idea that the whole is prior to the parts, that the parts depend on the whole, and that the function of the parts is to constitute the whole. As applied to political theory, this means that state is prior to the individuals in it and that the latter exist to serve the former.

According to Popper, this doctrine is expressed in Plato’s concept of justice, namely a well-functioning state. In Plato’s ideal city, everyone contributes to the state in ways to which they are best suited.

Essentialism is the idea that knowledge consists of an understanding of the unchanging and often hidden reality that is responsible for what we seem to observe in the empirical world. This is Plato’s idea of the Forms, which are discovered by rational inquiry not empirical observation.

Knowledge of politics, then, is knowledge of the true, essential Form of the state. Any real state is a more or less imperfect “copy” or approximation of the Form of Justice.

Among the imperfections of any real state is decay or decline – whereas the Forms are timeless and unchanging, their copies come into existence and pass away, undergoing change in accordance with intelligible laws of development.

In politics, this means that one should use one’s knowledge of these laws to, as far as possible, arrest change and keep the society stable.

This is best accomplished, Plato says, by establishing a rigidly controlled hierarchy at the top of which are philosopher-rulers, who keep citizens on the straight and narrow by controlling their education and popular culture and providing them with “noble lies” that reconcile them to their assigned roles in society.

All of this, Popper says, pretty obviously describes the ideologies of fascism and totalitarianism: the idea that the individual is subordinate to the state, that the state is led by an elite who possess a special knowledge of what is good for the people as a whole, that the state is responsible for the moral health of the people and should exercise complete control over education and communication to this end, and that economic activity should be centrally planned in accordance with the state’s objectives.

Note, however, that this sounds ominous to a great extent because we assume it’s false: the leaders say they know what’s good for the people and that they make decisions in the people’s interest, but of course they’re really in it for themselves and are dominating and enslaving the people for their own nasty purposes.

In the Republic, though, the philosopher-rulers really do know what’s best and they really do subordinate their interests to those of the society as a whole. In the ideal city, the people really are doing what they’re best suited to do.

It certainly make sense to see such a society as paternalistic or authoritarian. The basic reason for this, I think, is that Plato is modeling his ideal state on the household, an institution in which all of the members are presumed to have the same interest and over which the head of the household is presumed to rule in the interests of all.

Plato seems to be saying that the ideal state is one in which the citizens are one big happy family.

That model goes directly counter to what has become the default concept of the state in our civilization, which, as Aristotle, directly criticizing Plato, pointed out, we understand to consist of different kinds of people with different interests living together. The citizens of our states are adults; those of Plato’s state are like children.

That’s obviously not democratic, but it’s a stretch, I think, to call it fascistic or totalitarian.

And there’s another way in which Popper’s claim about the fascistic or totalitarian character of Plato’s Republic is wrong: it misrepresents the essential character of fascism and totalitarianism.

Popper associates fascism with tyranny, but – as he himself stresses and as his argument that Plato was proto-fascistic is intended to prove – there have been tyrannies throughout history. Totalitarianism is something new: it understands itself as a movement leading a society that is continually growing in power and changing its aims as the expression of the people’s infinite creative-destructive will.

Compare this to the ideal state imagined in the Republic, where a conservative stability was a primary value. The idea, to put it crudely but not inaccurately, is to keep things as they are.

In contrast, totalitarian societies are dedicated to destroying existing institutions, which are felt to constrain what should be the absolutely unlimited expression of the people’s will to power. The institutions thus destroyed are not to be replaced by other institutions, at least not permanent or even durable ones; the will must always overflow whatever it previously created as it expresses itself anew.

There’s nothing like this in Plato or anywhere else in the pre-modern world. Here’s Isaiah Berlin on the topic:

[This] is the whole heart of Fascism: what the leader will say tomorrow, how the spirit will move us, where we shall go, what we shall do – that cannot be foretold. The hysterical self-assertion and the nihilistic destruction of existing institutions because they confine the unlimited will … are a direct inheritance … from the romantic movement…. [The Roots of Romanticism, 145.]

Fascism and totalitarianism are distinctively modern evils.

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