Analyzing Plato's Perfect Society in "Republic"
As mentioned in my analysis of piety in Plato's Euthyphro, the Greek philosophers Plato and Socrates are oftentimes imperceptibly interchangeable in their contribution to philosophical theory. As you read their ideas and texts, it is commonly acceptable to see the ideas and thought experiments as being presented by either/both philosopher(s). In Plato’s , Plato transcribes a dialogue between the infamous RepublicSocrates and several of his followers. In the dialogue, Socrates is given the task of creating the perfect city. Although most of what is written is actually Plato’s views of a utopian society, the speaker is represented as Socrates, a renowned philosopher in Greek society.
In order to succeed in creating the perfect city, Plato, speaking through Socrates, develops his ideas on several different levels of thought. Since a perfect city would be run by a perfectly developed society, Socrates first analyzes the class divisions of the populace. As Socrates sees it, the perfect city would have its citizens divided into two separate groups, of which, the first group would be further subdivided within itself.
Plato's Three Classes: Guardians, Auxiliaries, and Craftsmen
The first group is called the guardians, who are sometimes referred to as rulers or philosopher-kings. The guardians are the military of the city. They must epitomize physical strength, spiritedness, and a love for learning. As Socrates further speculates upon the guardians, he then decides that they should be broken into subcategories themselves: complete guardians and auxiliaries.
The complete guardians are the highest class within Plato’s Republic. They are the rulers and “the ones who guard external enemies and internal friends” (Plato 99, ll. 414b). Complete guardians will be most knowledgeable; they will see to the good of the city before they see to themselves, because, essentially, they are the foundation of the city. The auxiliaries are the city’s soldiers. They are the “supporters of the guardians’ convictions” (99, ll. 414b).
Finally, Socrates states that the third class will be the farmers and craftsmen. This final class is not a shameful position in society. These people will be nearly as important to the city as the rest of the classes, for if there was no one to grow food or develop material goods, the rest of the city would surely fall like a tripod missing a leg.
Socrates' Single, Noble Lie
Next, Socrates realizes that the division of class in this manner may be upsetting to some. He does not want the citizens to feel as though they are being lumped into a wrong or unfair category. So, in order to avoid such chaos, Socrates brilliantly devises a single, noble lie. This lie will be for the betterment of the city; it is a lie that will result in good rather than evil: the myth of metals.
The “myth of the metals” as Professor Finch puts it, is a way to get people to accept their status within society as innate. Just as there have been other epics and tales that influenced the populace, the citizens of Plato’s Republic will be told, “Although all of you in the city are brothers, when the god was forming you, he mixed gold into those of you who are capable of ruling, which is why they are the most honorable; silver into the auxiliaries; and iron and bronze into the farmers and other craftsmen” (100, ll. 415a). Depending on whichever metal god gave you, that is your true place in society; it is honorable and one must do their duty to their fullest potential. Furthermore, to go against this decision would be to go against god himself.
In order to get the citizens to fully believe this fabrication, Socrates says he will persuade the people to believe their education and upbringing was merely a dream or figment of their imagination. He will not tell this to the current and mature part of society; however, this should be easily accomplished for “later generations, and for all other people who come after them” (100, ll. 415d). Like a dream, the people imagined and were deceived into thinking they had a family and upbringing aside from their true origins. In fact, the people have no real nuclear family; all people were conceived in the womb of Mother Earth and birthed directly into the city, which is their one and only true home.
Class Division: The Myth of the Metals
As Socrates tells Glaucon his plan, he is a bit hesitant to do so. In order to justify the fact that what he will be doing is telling a lie to an entire population which will persist through numerous generations, Socrates juxtaposes his lie with the many poetic fabrications of the past. While Socrates’ lie is deceiving, he claims that it is a much better lie than any other; for this lie results in the betterment of an entire city, while others give men false conceptions of the gods. Socrates states that unlike other tales and stories which “will produce in our young people a very casual attitude to evil” (73, ll. 392a), his single noble lie “would have a good effect, by making [the citizens] care more for the city and for each other” (100, ll. 415e). It seems as though Socrates has efficiently developed a lie that produces good instead of evil.
Telling the ‘myth of the metals’ will unite the population as a whole. If the people no longer believe they are part of different families, backgrounds, or classes, they will all become one single family. As one family, the citizens will see the city as their home and their birthmother; they were not produced from a woman, instead it was the city which has created them. Furthermore, Socrates’ lie will produce citizens who do a single job from childhood, and by doing so, they will be the best they can possibly be in their trade.
Plato's Justification for Class Division
In Socrates’ dialogue with Adeimantus, Socrates discusses poets’ ability to imitate circumstances. In his debate, Socrates states that “a single individual cannot imitate many things as well as he can imitate one” (78, ll. 394e). By saying this, Socrates means that a shoemaker is best fit to make shoes and a farmer does his job best when producing food.
Neither the shoemaker nor the farmer should ever attempt to do one another’s job, because they would do so poorly, or, at the very least, do so without the job’s highest potential ever being fulfilled. “Each individual can practice one pursuit well, he cannot practice many well, and if he tried to do this and dabbled in many things, he would surely fail to achieve distinction in all of them” (78, ll. 394e).
The ultimate goal, then, is to have each citizen imitating a job, beginning at childhood, which is in direct accordance with their innate soul metal. Socrates feels that citizens “must imitate right from childhood what is appropriate for them” (77, ll. 395c). By having each citizen do a single job to the best of their ability, the city will begin to work like a single organism. Each person will be driven to do their job so that others may profit from them, and themselves from others.
The city will work like a unit, the good of the city will be the good of the individual, and whenever an individual deviates from their place in society, they will be shamed because they are going against their brethren and against god who placed the metal for their class within their souls.
In conclusion, it seems that Plato, as Socrates, has developed a solid foundation for the society within his perfect city. Although the populace will be lied to, it is a good lie which produces profitable results. By telling each citizen they have a specific metal in their soul that determines their status within society, Plato has strategically developed a way to have people fully satisfied with their roles in life.
In the end, the city seems to be working as a single unit; each person profiting from the other. While this approach may not work in the modern world, it is an interesting route for such a wise philosopher to take and is worth taking the time to consider and analyze closely. Is there a better way to conduct civilization? The question remains for us to think about. Until then, utopias remain more of a philosophy than fact.
Finch, Alicia. "Book 3: Myth of Metals." Lecture.
Plato. Republic. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 2004.
Do you think Socrates' single, noble lie is a necessary choice for the greater good of society?
Introduction to Socrates' Perfect Society
© 2017 Luke Holm