Platonic Irony

I’m continuing to think about Plato’s Republic and how I’m coming to believe that there is a good deal of irony behind Plato’s “political prescription.”  Yesterday, I posted on communal marriage in the Republic and how it casts a shadow of a doubt on any rigid interpretation concerning whether Plato writing exclusively about what is best for the individual human soul, or the community.  This got me thinking about a couple of issues.

First, Plato may have viewed communal marriage as the lesser of two evils between not having a mate for live vs. the fierce jealousies and political rivalries that marriage was inevitably a part of in his day.  I can almost see him thinking out loud with his friends over a glass of wine, “what’s a little casual sex compared to the destruction that Oath of Tyndarus and the Trojan War brought about?”

However, I think that line of thought ultimately fails for a number of reasons:

 I don’t think Plato thought that people would be reading his works 2400 years into the future from when he wrote them.  In other words, he didn’t write the Republic to us or for us.

I’m more of an interested reader than an expert on this, but the more I think about it, the more inconceivable it is to completely remove the family from any kind of government, anywhere, anytime, in the centuries before Christ.  Again, I’m no expert on classical Greek social structures, but if they were anything like their Roman counterparts, the paterfamilias was the chief social unit.  These were essentially extended families led by a patriarch.  For the upper classes, these units were the building blocks of society and the units who kept society stable.  This resulted in each city-state having an oligarchy who maintained power and influence.

Essentially, the change that Athenian democracy made was that it expanded the oligarchy.  There was nothing like universal male suffrage extended to the citizens of Athens.  Plato’s “democracy” was nothing like the democracy that we know today.

Also, the proposed government of the Republic lacked the tools for social control that later revolutionary governments would have.  In the 400’s BC, there was no means of constant state surveillance such as what we find in George Orwell’s 1984.  And there is no thought of pacifying the proletariat with medication or meaningless activities like we find in Brave New World.  Apart from constant state surveillance, mass communication of propaganda, and the possibilities for social control that technology brings, it doesn’t seem that Plato’s Republic is feasible.

Finally, Plato leaves many essentials for human flourishing out of the Republic.  In place of faith, he proposes a religion subservient to the needs of the state.  He redefines marriage and family, which have traditionally been the social units of human flourishing.  Then, there is the whole question of being an individual within a community.  Both individuality and community are essential for the good life.  Yet, Plato subsumes each individual as merely a part of the community, while 21st century urban society tends to make individuality the ultimate priority to the exclusion of the flourishing of the community.

I think what Plato wants to do is to engage us in these questions rather than providing answers for us.  I’m not sure he really tells us what he thinks, but instead, intends to provoke us so that we will think about what is necessary for the good life.  If you have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear from you!

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