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Plato and Politeia in Twentieth-Century Politics

Takeshi Sasaki
p. 147-160

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1First of all, my paper is written for the Japanese general public rather than for an academic audience. At the same time, my agenda is not to present my interpretation of Plato. The basic goal of my lecture is to describe, from the perspective of intellectual history, how people have mobilized/misunderstood/criticized Plato on the basis of certain social/political interests.

  • 1 K. Popper 1945.

2When I began my studies in the 1960s, the most popular image of Plato for the student of social sciences seemed to be the image deriving from the first part of Karl Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies (The Spell of Plato).1 This work was clearly an intellectual product of the political experiences of the first part of the 20th century, dominated by the coming of the new political regime of totalitarianism. It tried to defend ‘our civilization’ against the new Leviathan by harshly criticizing some intellectual traditions of Western socio-political thought which seemed to encourage the coming of the totalitarian regime. In this context, Plato was singled out as one of the important sources of this regime, along with Hegel and Marx. This kind of argument changed the basic view that traditional Western intellectual history had continuously progressed toward the realization of humanity, liberty, equality, and eventually democracy. Popper identified some dangerous elements, which had to be prosecuted and excluded in the name of ‘our civilization’. While in the era of Cold War it was understandable for one to criticize Marx (and Hegel), it was not easy to understand why we had to condemn a philosopher of over 2000 years ago in the same way. But I was impressed by the fact there were serious barriers in the way for a political theorist to study Plato.

  • 2 Journal of Education, 1944.

3It is important to stress that Popper’s argument was not an isolated case. The growing threat of totalitarianism influenced the political arguments of many people, and many intellectuals who were not specialists in the study of Plato participated in the arguments for and against Plato. On the one hand, there was a tendency to defend Nazism in the name of Plato, while on the other hand some people connected the condemnation of Nazism and of Plato. A number of the pro/contra arguments in the Journal of Education (‘Was Plato a fascist ?’)2 illustrated how deeply Plato was caught up in the struggle of political confrontations in 20th century politics.

  • 3 E. Hobsbawm 1994.

4The problem is why Plato was caught up into this struggle, and what factors were responsible for this. This phenomenon cannot be understood without taking new trends of political thinking into consideration. The following presentation attempts to clarify some aspects of the changing faces of Plato in the ‘Age of Extremes’.3

The discovery of a new Plato and its consequences. From Nietzsche to Fascism

5The consensus until the end of the 19th century was that Plato’s thinking and the Politeia did not have any specific real-political implications. His argument in Politeia was characterized above all as a utopian, fanciful vision. At the same time, Plato was discussed mainly with regard to his relationship to Christianity as well as to philosophical systems. The dominant image of the ‘philosopher Plato’ was illustrated indirectly by the fact that the Nomoi and the Seventh Letter, which seemed to describe his political standpoint, were often treated as spurious writings. Of course, in the history of political thought there are some criticisms of Plato’s political argument among liberal thinkers such as Benjamin Constant etc., but we cannot find any criticism as heated and systematic as that of Popper.

6Since the second half of the 19th century, Western society has faced waves of industrialization and democratization, while feudal hierarchical society was gradually fading. The age of the masses arrived, with its strong flavor of materialism and egalitarianism. This trend stimulated the socialist movement on the one hand, but on the other hand it encouraged critical arguments against industrialization and democratization. While steady progress was expected and predicted among liberals and socialists, others warned strongly against the anarchic consequences of the pursuit of unlimited desire.

7At the time, the ancient Greek classics were still considered as providing the elite with a paradigm of humanity, and the experience of democracy in ancient Greece and its arguments seemed to supply a good example of how to cope with the realities of the 19th and 20th century. In this sense, Greek thinkers became as it were contemporary figures, and the natural consequence of this was mutual influence extending beyond the past and the present. Did the image of Plato change or not ?

  • 4 F. Nietzsche, Einleitung in das Studium der platonischen Dialoge.

8Friedrich Nietzsche is famous for his radical criticism of Western philosophical tradition, so that it was natural for him to criticize Plato as one of the founders of this tradition. But his relation with Plato is not so simple. He claimed that Plato should not be approached as an other-worldly system builder, but as a political figure, politician, and legislator fighting against the masses. According to Nietzsche, the fundamental duty of a philosopher lies in the ‘creation of value’, which depends on the ‘will to power’, and Plato was a figure who truly practiced this duty and embodied Nietzsche’s ideal of the philosopher. Nietzsche mercilessly discloses the ‘will to power’ of the weak behind liberalism as well as egalitarianism, and supports an aristocratic way of thinking. From his point of view, Plato seemed to be a personification of the aristocratic way of thinking, so that he expresses his sympathy with Plato’s value system. In this way, Nietzsche intuitively grasps the figure of ‘Plato as political man’. Simultaneously, he refers insightfully to the basic difference between Plato and Socrates, who is more sympathetic with the weak. In any case, Plato was a ‘noble’ and ‘godlike’ person for Nietzsche.4

  • 5 Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff 1919 and 1920.

9Here I wish to consider how Nietzsche’s attempt to transform Plato’s image was followed in the next stage of German scholarship. Ulrich von Wilamowitz -Moellendorf was an important figure in classical philology in Germany and he was very famous for his criticism of Nietzsche’s ‘Die Geburt der Tragoedie’. But his work on Plato from 19195 is interesting because it seems to explore the Nietzsche’s orientation to some extent. He protests against the academic trend to interpret Plato like a professor of philosophy and stresses the necessity to disclose what kind of person he was. Plato’s works are a manifestation of his life (Leben), so that it is more important to identify what he thought and what he did than to interpret his works. In his work, Wilamowitz visualizes Plato as an active person trying to influence his own society, rather than concentrating on building a philosophical system in an isolated situation. For him Plato was above all a political man, trying to reform the Greek world politically, but political circumstances prevented him from playing a political role, so that he was forced to live and remain as a philosopher. In a word, Plato was an ‘impeded political man’. He changed his original position that the Seventh Letter was a spurious work and tried to find the real Plato in the letter. In his work, Plato as an ‘impeded politician’ and as a philosopher still coexisted, but he reoriented the basic trend from works to person. In another work published after World War I, Wilamowitz referred to Plato to criticize anarchic egalitarianism, and stressed the necessity of elite rule in order to overcome social dissolution. Here it is not difficult to see that Plato has moved into the 20th century as a contemporary political figure, not as an ancient Greek political figure.

  • 6 K. F. Ringer 1969.

10WWI signified an important turning point. The War encouraged a kind of argument to separate Great Britain/France and Germany. In Germany the formulation ‘Deutschland versus West Europa’ became more and more popular. According to Ringer6 this situation brought about a serious split among the intellectually cultivated social classes who studied Greek and Roman classics. While the modern group accepted the realities of modern society and concentrated on reforming it, the ‘legitimate’ group stressed the dangerous aspect of democracy and egalitarianism and despised the parliamentary system. The latter group, moreover, supported nationalism and militarism. Wilamowitz was among the most prominent members of the ‘legitimate’ group.

  • 7 R. von Poehlmann 1893-1901, Geschichte der sozialen Frage und des Sozialismus in der antiken Welt, (...)

11Before moving on to the ‘legitimate’ group I would say that Plato was accepted as relevant by the modern group as well. Both cathedral socialists and social idealists were critical of individualism and of materialism, so that they showed a sympathetic attitude toward the arguments of the Politeia.7 According to their perception, Plato conceived of a state independent of class struggle, which enabled social reform from the standpoint of the whole. Plato’s so-called communism was appreciated positively as a symbol intended to assure the independence of state from society. They recognized that Plato was not egalitarian, but maintained that he correctly pointed out the function of the elite in the creation of a new organic community. This kind of mobilization of Plato was connected with the concept of social reform from above. They characterized Plato as a social aristocrat, differentiating him from modern aristocrats, who were thoroughly subject to Nietzsche’s concept of ‘master morality’ as well as the ‘will to power’. We will turn later to Plato’s relation to communist regimes.

12Among the ‘legitimate’ group, George’s circle produced a number of characteristic interpretations of Plato. They were deeply committed to aristocracy and romanticism. Their main interest lay in using biographical research to discover a ‘hero’ who embodied the ideal human being, and in pursuing/rebuilding the ideal of our life (Leben) in this world. While they despised professionalized, positivistic academic discipline (originating from Aristotle) because of its irrelevance to the reemergence of ideal life, they adopted Plato as their ‘hero’, who could provide a total understanding of our life. Plato was named ‘king of the spiritual kingdom (Reich)’. According to their understanding, Wilamowitz’s Plato was still dominated by the spirit of positivism, which should be overcome, and it was their obligation to disclose Plato as ‘a presenter and ruler of the spiritual kingdom’.

  • 8 H. Friedemann 1914.

13An important pioneer of Plato interpretation in George’s circle was Heinrich Friedemann’s book.8 It started out from their harsh antagonism to liberalistic, individualistic, materialistic society, full of decadence and chaos. In contrast, the ‘new spiritual kingdom’ sought to realize a new organic community of life depending upon a unifying principle, such as the idea of the good. The new community was to integrate every member perfectly into the system of rule and obedience. Each life is no other than the life of the whole acting in the individual. Plato is described as the legislator or ruler who made the idea of the good penetrate human reality. Friedemann asserted the important function of eros as a critical connecting power to vitalize this community continuously. Here Nietzsche’s main message ‘a philosopher is a legislator’ seemed to find a loyal follower. Despite the name ‘spiritual kingdom’, Friedemann’s main interest lay in the organization of new community of life and had no connection with otherworldly interest. It was not soul, but life (Leben) which should be taken care of above all. But we cannot find any serious analytic investigation of life itself.

  • 9 E. Salin 1921.

14Edgar Salin9 describes the ‘spiritual kingdom’ as an embodiment of spiritual order/hierarchy, which should be definitely distinguished from the state as a power-relation.

15For Salin, Plato recognized the eternal principle, namely the idea of the good that penetrated the cosmos, the ‘spiritual kingdom’, and human beings in concentric circles. Naturally, therefore, Plato is not only a sage, but also a ruler of a ‘spiritual kingdom’ destined to organize every aspect of life. The main factor characterizing this kingdom is the harmony that results from the driving force of the holy center (the idea of the good). This community had a kind of caste system consisting of clergy, warrior and worker, but this caste system depended upon the difference of contribution to the community rather than upon birth. The ‘spiritual kingdom’ can be described as a community worshipping the idea of the good. Salin describes the Politeia as a political program for building the ‘spiritual kingdom’. The ‘spiritual kingdom’ appears at first in the form of voluntary association, but eventually political power will rise above it.

  • 10 K. Singer 1927; id., 1920; id., 1931.

16Kurt Singer also belonged to the George’s circle.10 He consistently rejected the kind of understanding of Plato that presupposed a highly differentiated modern academic world, and interpreted Plato as the founder of ‘new spiritual kingdom’ overcoming the fragmented situation of our life. The ‘new spiritual kingdom’ is situated in contrast to the dissolution of society and to the domination of instinct and wants. Singer describes the fundamental difference between Plato and Aristotle in the following way. Plato had no interest in exploring a highly professionalized academic discipline. His main interest lay in reforming the social system drastically according to the idea of the good. Plato concentrated on how human beings can live following the noble principle, and he was never hostile to eros, inspiration or the body. Singer characterizes Platonic philosophy as the expression of a political spirit, so that Plato mobilizes his intellectual capability in order to explore the eternal principle of state as well as of human being. George’s circle judged intellectual and academic activity from the standpoint of whether it could contribute to building a new life. Singer’s argument seeks to show that Plato’s thinking coincides with his basic conception of intellectual activity. The Politeia could function as a paradigm of the torch of hope, even in the darkest era. In another work, Singer discusses the interesting issue of who can be the bearer of the Platonic-Greek ideal in the contemporary era. His answer is very simple : only Germany can do so, while the liberal and utilitarian western countries cannot. Here we can identify the stereotype ‘Deutschland versus West Europa’ mobilized by the legitimate wing of German “mandarins”.

  • 11 S. Nanbara 1942.

17Here I would like to refer to a Japanese scholar who criticized the Plato-interpretation of George’s circle. Professor Shigeru Nanbara discussed this group in his book State and Religion (1942)11, where the understanding of Plato is mobilized as a good paradigm of the ‘total state’. At the same time he accused their interpretation of an inclination toward anti-rationalism and mythological argument. He indicates that their interpretation reduced Plato to the argument that while there is a mysterious intuition on the side of the ruling minority, there is simple subjection to it on the side of the majority. This kind of interpretation of Plato seems to be an extreme case of anti-rationalism. According to Nanbara, both the ‘hatred of scientific activities’ and the ‘contempt for knowledge’ originating in Nietzsche brought about a flood of mythological/anti-rationalistic arguments and political naturalism concentrating on power relations.

  • 12 P. Gay 1969.
  • 13 K. Hildebrandt 1933.

18It is said that Stefan George despised the Nazis as a caricature of his abstruse ideal, and died in Switzerland as an exile after refusing to support the Nazis. But some of his disciples became supporters of the Nazis, while others were victimized by the Nazi-regime. While some kept silence during the Nazi-regime, some others exiled themselves.12 George’s circle continued to produce their Plato interpretation after the Nazis came to power, and it is not easy to overlook a change of argument. Kurt Hildebrandt13 inherited the circle’s view that Plato discloses the way of life appropriate to eternity, yet on the other hand he began to incorporate the factor of nationalism and racism into the ideal community. Initially George’s circle tried to use Plato’s arguments as the revelation of a ‘spiritual kingdom’, but the Nazi’s basic dogma, ‘purity of blood’, began to invade the ‘spiritual kingdom’.

19In the Nazi era it is quite easy to see that Plato was understood as a saviour of the Volk, and the Politeia was read as a text to legitimize racism. This meant a concord between Plato and Hitler. In particular, the education system of the leader group in the Politeia was often interpreted as a good symbol of ‘aristocracy of spirit, character, blood and race’. Racists such as Hans Friedrich Karl Guenther referred to Plato quite often in order to justify their own arguments. In this way, the concept of romantic community of George’s circle was replaced by cold-blooded racism under the Nazi regime. The furious discussions in the Journal of Education I referred to in the introduction resulted from this kind of understanding of Plato in Germany.

Criticisms of Plato

20Here I discuss three examples of famous criticism of Plato. It is characteristic that these criticisms were not carried out by specialists in Plato. They rely on more general intellectual interest in reconsidering the status of Plato in the whole context of Western tradition.

  • 14 W. Fite 1934.

21The first of these is The Platonic Legend (1934)14 by Warner Fite, Professor at Princeton University. This book protests against the tradition of Plato’s godlike status in Western tradition and claims consistently that Plato is an anti-modern, anti-democratic, anti-Christian thinker. Like Wilamowitz, Fite tries to understand Plato in a historical context, and interprets the Politeia as a political document. His main interest lies in making clear how the basic ideas of the Politeia are anti-liberal and anti-democratic. According to his interpretation, the Politeia defends strong caste system incompatible with ‘open opportunity’. As to male/female relations, Plato’s idea is dominated by a eugenic and utilitarian point of view, which has no relation to the Christian and liberal tradition including Platonic love. He is a serious defender of virtues, but a fearful enemy of freedom, plurality and individuality.

22Fite affirms that Politeia should be understood not from the viewpoint of abstract philosophical interest, but from the standpoint of class interest as well as party interest, because Plato continued to be a friend of his distant relatives such as Critias and Charmides who played a key role in destroying Athenian democracy and in replacing it by oligarchy. According to Fite, Plato’s ultimate interest was to reestablish the rule of gentlemen in Athens, but he correctly recognized that it was impossible simply to reintroduce the old aristocracy. Thus, the basic idea of the Politeia was to establish a ‘new aristocracy based on scientific arguments’ and to create a new ruling class. In this sense, the Politeia was fundamentally an anti-democratic treatise, and Plato’s continuous criticisms of democracy and pro-Spartan stance illustrated his basic orientation.

23Fite also pays attention to the concept of the rule of knowledge and of experts. Political art is considered as an art based on true knowledge, and the true politician should be sharply differentiated from the amateur politician. For Fite, the fundamental idea of the Politeia lies in the realization of true experts and their rule in society, which is eventually reduced to utilitarian efficiency. In the contemporary situation, Fite finds that the Soviet Union seems to follow this basic idea. He affirms that Lenin and Stalin belong among the great leaders of scientific rule. This means that Plato’s idea has only peripheral relevance, lacking all relevance to civilized societies such as ancient Athens. According to Fite, Plato’s ideal city consists only of children, so Plato’s idea was not very effective in relation to political realities. In fact Plato belongs among the peripheral, reactive political figures. In this way Fite has demoted Plato from a godlike status to a peripheral one.

  • 15 R.H.S. Crossman 1937.

24R.H.S. Crossman’s Plato Today (1937)15 was originally broadcast by the BBC, so the book was published for a large audience. Crossman begins by giving a clear description of the drastic change of our relation to Plato and his Politeia after WWI in the following way. “Before the First World War, the Republic was often treated as the ‘Ideal State’ which Plato never intended to put into practice. Its whole conception seemed far-fetched and remote to a generation which assumed liberal ideas as self-evident truth of human nature. A world which believed that, under the flags of science, general education, and democracy, it was marching to perfection, could not swallow Plato’s estimate of the common man, or seriously approve his educational programme… Because Plato was a famous philosopher, he was rarely condemned as a reactionary resolutely opposed to every principle of the liberal creed. Instead, he was elevated to a higher rank, and became a idealist, remote from practical life, dreaming of a transcendent City of God.” But war has changed all that. “Plato’s so-called ‘idealism’ is now seen for what it is – a grimly realistic estimate of the moral and intellectual capabilities of the masses. Knowing what class-war and revolution mean, we can understand why Plato advocated dictatorship to prevent them. Having some experience of the effects of propaganda, we can treat ‘noble lie’ not as an amusing fantasy but as an extremely practical instrument of government. Our modern objection to Plato is that he is much too ‘realistic’ in his analysis of human nature.” The social crisis and turmoil after the War forced people to recognize the striking similarity between the age of Plato and their own era. So Plato’s argument seemed to be more relevant and sensitive to their society.

25Crossman’s image of Plato is not very much different from Fite’s, insofar as Plato was seen as a defender of aristocracy who tried to rebuild aristocracy on a new intellectual foundation. The new foundation was supplied by the philosophy of Socrates, for whom truth derives only from reason. By this new foundation, aristocracy was legitimized by an eternal and universal order. Plato sympathized with the Spartan constitution, but he clearly recognized it was necessary to provide a ‘civilized Sparta’ in order to be accepted by the masses. The philosopher king thesis was presented to make leaders more self-regulating, based on their own spiritual capability as well as on their knowledge. While class-politics was eradicated by the separation of political power and property, Plato appealed to propaganda or the ‘noble lie’ to rob the masses of their liberty. According to Plato, every man can be happy under the dictatorship of the true aristocracy and the rule of the best, so Crossman says. His Academy can be seen as the headquarters of an open conspiracy to establish aristocratic dictatorship in Greek world, and the Politeia is no more than its Manifesto. The commander-in-chief is Plato himself.

26For Crossman Platonic philosophy is “the most savage and the most profound attack upon liberal ideas”. It denies every basic axiom of ‘progressive’ thought and challenges its ideals. Equality, freedom, and self-government are condemned as illusions. Plato claims that man should be more realistic, and be free from such illusions. The perfect state is not a democracy of rational equals, but an aristocracy of inequalities among men. Crossman admits repeatedly that liberal ideas are losing their effectiveness, and a kind of spiritual revitalization is necessary. In this situation, a growing number of people are showing a more serious interest in the ‘dictatorship by the best’. In this context, the battle of Plato has gained a real political meaning.

27Half of his book is allocated to a fictional account of how Plato would view the contemporary European political regime. Plato begins his visit with Great Britain. He is troubled by the different meaning of the concept of democracy, but soon he recognizes that British regime is in fact an aristocracy depending upon the natural submissiveness of the poor, and that good government is preferred to self-government there. The British system can enjoy its stability by mobilizing a ‘noble lie’ such as self-government, individual freedom, parliamentary system, and change of power. Plato does not think the British have the best political system, but recognizes that they have a ‘less vicious’ one. Plato consistently criticizes the attempt to introduce true democracy (popular government) in Great Britain because his experience of democracy was so terrible. He found eventually that “the safest defence against real democracy is the ‘noble lie’ of Representative Government”.

28Next Plato visits the Soviet Union, with its communistic system. Was Plato a communist ? Crossman says no in various respects. Plato would not be in sympathy with modern socialism, which is based on economic justice and workers’ control, even though he would be ready to recognize the failure of capitalism. He would say that the problem of economic justice is not the real problem, and control by the workers could not improve the situation very much. Insofar as socialism is a product of class warfare, it cannot overcome it. The basic objective of the government is to change the heart of men, so that Plato would feel only disgust for the Communist glorification of material and technological advance. Plato would consider that the United States and Russia shared a common aim (acquisitive instinct), in spite of difference of political system, a difference in method alone.

29According to Crossman, Plato would be interested in the Russian experiment even though the doctrine of communism is the fiercest enemy of true philosophy. Above all, he would be strongly impressed with “a self-conscious attempt to plan human society in accordance with a clear philosophy of life”. He would recognize that “the rulers of Russia are indeed philosopher-kings who have organized their State on clear-cut philosophical principles”. So there would be a good possibility that Plato would praise the socio-political system of the USSR. Moreover the educational program of the Politeia could be accepted by the Russian government, and Plato would admire the Communist Party organization, whose members were “subjected to military discipline, and schooled to accept without question the philosophy and the policy of its leaders”. Then Crossman discusses the similarity between Plato and Lenin. Both of them agree that philosophy and science should be mobilized to change social reality, and believe that such changes are feasible. At the same time, neither is reluctant to use power ruthlessly in order to abolish vested interests. “Plato believed the philosopher must become king : Lenin achieved it.” Plato would not pay much attention to the theory that supported a more genuine democracy in communism. Rather he would praise Stalin’s very skillful use of a ‘noble lie’ such as democracy and proletarian freedom at a proper time, on the basis of a profound contempt for the stupidity of the common people. His praise of Stalin seems to be more impressive when we consider the series of great purges in 1930s Russia. In describing Plato’s visit to Russia, Crossman suggests that the communistic regime is the real embodiment of the idea of philosopher king in the 1930s, and that Plato’s observation of Russia is more realistic than the official doctrine of communism such as the proletarian dictatorship and the death of the state.

30Third, Plato visits Germany to analyze this new regime. During his visit, Plato is supposed to write to Aristotle, because Aristotle would be helpful to classifying this regime. First of all, Plato recognizes that the message of National Socialism is full of such ‘noble lies’ as that every evil results from Jews. Then Plato happens to face the reality that he himself is mobilized in National Socialism, for a professor confesses in public that he studied Plato according to liberal prejudices, but has recently published a new book titled Platon und der Ursprung des Nationalsozialistischen Staatsgedankens for the consolidation of National Socialism. The professor went on to say that Plato advised the revolution which Hitler achieved, and rejecting democratic Athens he praised Sparta in terms of its military training and its educational system.

31He continues tediously, affirming that “Sparta was Plato’s ideal, and it is our Nazi ideal, too” and so on. Eventually the audience expresses its dissatisfaction with this long speech, and he is ordered to leave the platform. Later Plato interviews him and corrects his misunderstandings of Plato’s doctrine one by one. At the same time Plato utters a harsh critique of German philosophers, insofar as in Germany the ‘noble lie’ was assumed to be superior to philosophical truth, and philosophers were flattering politicians rather than being leading politicians. If this tendency were to continue, Plato predicts, the ‘noble lie’ would dominate without limits, and Germany would be thrown into tyranny rather than regenerate. The basic motives of the new rulers are ambition and power, so that Plato tells Aristotle that the National Socialist State seems to be ‘a mixed constitution containing elements of both timocracy and oligarchy.’

32Plato’s fictional visits to communist and fascist regimes displays how Crossman tries to answer the problem of the coincidence, or lack of coincidence, between Plato and both these political systems. It is characteristic that Plato has no sympathy with fascism. In any case, the report of the visits illustrates the impact of realist Plato very clearly. Crossman finally discusses the problem of the relationship between Plato and liberal democracy. First of all, he examines Plato’s so-called realism. Plato starts out from the recognition of the irrational nature of the common man on the one hand, while on the other he designs the new regime presupposing the presence of exceptionally gifted statesmen. But Crossman stresses that this presupposition is extremely unrealistic and far from realities of human life. In fact, Plato overlooks the basic reality that politics is necessary because no extraordinarily gifted personality exists in this world. Plato, basing himself on wrong presuppositions, makes the highest demands of the rulers and requires absolute submission of the governed, who are to abdicate their own self-realization. Owing to his bias, in fact, Plato puts supremely wise statesman and ‘real’ gentleman in the same category. So “Platonism, because it is at once too ideal and not ideal enough, becomes the rational apologia for reaction”. At the same time the basic problem of Platonic political thinking is that Plato cannot realize that the main issue is not replacing one dictatorship by another, but replacing dictatorship by a constitutional system and rule of law, because the ancient Greek situation was too dominated by harsh power battles to allow Plato to realize this basic change of perspective. In connection with this argument, Crossman criticizes the thesis of the philosopher king, in which absolute truth should be imposed upon the masses. The dictatorship by philosophers violates the nature of philosophical research, because human reason cannot reach infallible and absolute truth. Crossman recognizes it is time to review the democratic regime free from the prejudices of old liberal axioms and to consolidate its intellectual position anew in a turbulent situation. In spite of these criticisms, Plato’s arguments can contribute to this consolidation through their realistic, shrewd observations. In other words, liberal democracy has no good prospect unless it can survive Plato’s intellectual challenge.

33Finally, I come to a brief discussion of Popper’s arguments. His book picks out Plato as one of the key intellectual enemies to “our civilization” which is “aiming at humaneness and reasonableness, at equality and freedom”. While our civilization aims at an “open society” which would liberate the critical powers of human beings, its enemies try to defend a “closed society”. At the same time, Popper thinks we live in a critical stage of historical transition from a ‘closed society’ to an ‘open society’, so that he criticizes some forms of social science and philosophy which claim to prophesy the course of historical events by discovering laws of history. This way of thinking, namely historicism, implies the historical inevitability of totalitarianism. So historicism is also a main target of his attack in this work. Yet it seems difficult to incorporate Plato into the category of historicism, which originates in 18th or 19th century. Popper tries to solve this difficult problem by providing the interpretation that Plato did not write his Politeia as a design for the future, but simply tried to identify his ideal state in the beginning of the history. In other words, Plato was an absolute defender of the past and an antagonist of historical change itself. According to Popper, Plato’s ideal state at the beginning of the history is a kind of tribal society as well as a Spartan state and caste state, which consists of a ruling class having absolute power and of the group of livestock simply subjected to the ruling class. The main aim of the ideal state was to prevent the danger both of change and of decay. This aim could be realized by a strongly unified ruling class, whose members are not only racially superior but also are educated and trained so thoroughly that they can remain as a unified group of warriors without being disturbed by internal conflict. Thus, the ideal state for Plato was Sparta, not Athens.

34Popper recognizes that Plato was thinking in the stage of dissolution of tribal society, and he came to Socrates’ philosophy in order to grasp the norm of human nature. In this sense the Politeia was originally intended as the recovery of the natural order, but Plato conceptualizes an organic community in which only a tiny number of elite can realize the nature of human beings. This basic design should be contrasted with the principle of universalism and equalitarianism supported by Christianity and humanism, according to Popper. Popper displays no interest in how Socrates’ philosophy is realized in the Politeia. His main interest is to stress how strongly this community is dominated by Plato’s longing for tribal society. According to Popper, the reality of Plato’s community is the rule of the strong over the weak, so that there is only biological naturalism. In other words, Socrates’ philosophy has almost nothing to do with it.

35Popper characterizes Plato’s programme as consisting of five elements : namely strict division of class, identification of the fate of the state with that of the ruling class, monopoly of military virtue and training by the ruling class, censorship of all intellectual activities of the ruling class and self-sufficiency of the state. Criticizing Crossman’s argument, Popper says that “Plato’s political programme, far from being morally superior to totalitarianism, is fundamentally identical with it”. The objections against this view are “based upon an ancient and deep-rooted prejudice in favour of idealizing Plato”. Giving a typical example, the translation of Politeia by Republic in the English speaking countries has helped to cultivate the image that Plato must be a liberal. Plato’s doctrine supports a radical statism which can be characterized as an intentional attack against egalitarianism and individualism. The main problem is the spell of Plato as “a teacher of morals” so that “his ethics is the nearest approach to Christianity before Christ”. He claims that the spell of Plato is one of the causes that help spread totalitarian mentality.

36Popper also pays attention to Plato’s inclination to utopian social engineering. This social engineering is designed as a tool to reverse the basic historical trend of Greek society from ‘closed society’ to ‘open society’. His doctrine is part of a counter-revolutionary attempt against the egalitarianism, humanism and universalism realized in Athenian democracy. The great spirit of Athenian democracy was embodied by Pericles as well as his mentor Socrates, while Plato continued to belong to the group of the Oligarchy. Plato in fact betrayed his mentor Socrates. For Popper, the Politeia is a political document for reform instigated by strong personal ambition and self-love. Behind Plato’s theory of the philosopher-king, Popper tries to identify a strong longing for power, which reminds us of the Nietzsche’s stress on ‘will to power’ in philosophical thinking.

An ending

37The controversy about Plato is a historical product of the era in which people could no longer understand the tradition of Western intellectual history as a harmonious and seamless development. In fact, this kind of controversy was repeated many times in Western intellectual history. Friedrich Nietzsche, a symbol of the rejection of harmonious development, set the basic standard by mobilizing Plato against liberalism and democracy (egalitarianism) as the glorious achievement of the modern era. The clash between tradition and modernity is revealed. It can encourage a doubt about the universal authority of liberalism and democracy and an interest in the possibility of a new revolutionary regime. The 19th century was characterized as the century of liberalism, but in reality its liberalism consisted of various heterogeneous intellectual trends. At the beginning of the 20th century its status quo position was challenged in different aspects and its crisis intensified very rapidly. The decline of economic liberalism definitely accelerated its crisis. The criticisms of Plato I refer to here reflect the crisis of liberalism in the first part of the 20th century. In other words, liberalism is forced to reconsider its real standpoint and to change. The impeachment of Plato is seen as a symbol of the self-purification of liberalism.

  • 16 J. Wild 1946; id., 1953. L. Strauss 1959.

38After WWII a number of books were written in order to defend Plato. One of the interesting responses claims that totalitarianism is a product of the modern philosophy revolting against the tradition of classical philosophy as represented by Plato.16 Modern philosophy brings about relativism, materialism, historicism and positivism, which eventually provide totalitarianism with a good springboard. Here, the assessment of Plato is totally different from that of Popper and his followers. This kind of argument seeks to impeach the moderns from the viewpoint of traditional philosophy, and both individualism and democracy are seen as problematic in the face of tradition. This formulation contributes to weakening the absolute confrontation between totalitarianism and liberalism. Plato is indirectly separated from modern affairs as the representative of the philosophical tradition.

39Even in the postwar era, the model of Plato’s philosopher-king, namely the intimate relations between philosophical truth and political power, continued to be a relevant problem. As Crossman’s fiction indicates, the problem was still a real issue under the Cold War.

  • 17 C. E. Merriam 1925.

40At the same time we cannot overlook the interest of positivism in the Plato’s model. Positivism in the first part of the 20th century tended to pursue the basic goal of materializing the results of scientific research by mobilizing political power. In fact the dissolution of traditional society and the growth of mass society brought about a number of social issues to be solved by the growing power of the state and by its planning. Positivists seemed to be tacit supporters of Plato’s model. In fact one of the founders of American Political Science, Charles Merriam, said that it was time to discuss education and eugenics in relation to the problem of ‘what kind of person should be produced’, and referred to Plato as the great pioneer of this kind of thinking.17 This phenomenon illustrated how liberals in the first part of the 20th century were still deeply involved with the problem ‘what kind of people should be produced’. In this sense it is not difficult to identify some common ground with communism as well as fascism. The concept of social engineering was also very popular in the mid-20th century. Thus, Plato’s sympathizers in the 20th century were not limited to George’s circle. The controversy over science and its role can therefore imply some kind of criticism of Plato. As Hayek’s case suggests, scientism is contrasted with spontaneous order or market mechanism, which is totally foreign to Plato.

  • 18 H. Arendt 1958; id. 1963.

41The intimate relationship between philosophical truth and political power is discussed and reexamined closely by Hannah Arendt.18 She classifies human activities into three categories, namely labor, work and action. As is well known, labor is an activity intended to make our biological reproduction possible. In contrast to it, work is seen as the artisan’s activity of processing materials, and producing something independent of our life according to a model in his brain. Action is considered as a network both of language and of display of the freedom and of individuality plural human beings. According to Arendt, politics belongs to action originating from voluntariness and trust, mostly far removed from violence. Plato’s basic problem is to try to understand politics (the expression of freedom) in terms of the model of work. She recognizes very well that the space of action is continuously full of change, and neither stability nor predictability is to be expected. According to Arendt, this frustration seduced Plato to replace politics by the model of work. His philosopher-king is a typical case of this replacement, and he tries to fabricate an everlasting polis according to the idea of the good. It is natural for the work model to treat its materials freely, but if its model is introduced in the human area, it can justify the violent treatment of human beings. Moreover the truth is monopolized by the ruler, so that there is no room for action consisting of plural subjects. If a political system were fabricated according to the model of work, the role of violence would inevitably increase. Arendt claims that a series of modern revolutions provide us with dreadful examples. Her thesis, the replacement of politics by the work model, results from the fundamental human condition rather than from criticism of democracy. In this sense Plato’s argument is deeply rooted in human nature.

42Political thinking of the second half of the 20th century can be definitely characterized as a flight from the spell of Plato. The main players are such concepts as spontaneous order, the market, plurality of the subject, pluralism (from interest-group pluralism to identity pluralism) which replace the fabrication of a political system according to a specific model. These concepts shared the common agenda, either in the name of freedom or in the name of efficiency, of decreasing the power of government that had been increased in the first half of the 20th century. Their pressure was strong enough to destroy and to dissolve the most powerful political regime originating in the first half of the 20th century, namely the communist regime. Globalization gave these concepts visible reality, and the idea of freedom and equality seemed to be absolutely dominant.

43Yet the orientation of historical dynamism is highly changeable. Might not the weakening or dissolving of the political/economic system constructed under the influence of the spell of Plato( ?) increase instability and unpredictability ? If Plato’s intellectual stance of understanding politics through the model of work originates from a deep irritation with the instability and unpredictability of politics, are we preparing for the way to the next round of the spell of Plato ? As the sudden collapse of financial markets shows us, the historical pendulum required a more powerful commitment on the part of the government. As far as the industrialized countries are concerned, most people are facing more instability and unpredictability than before. On this occasion, the controversy over Plato in the 20th century asks us what we could learn from the experiences of the 20th century and how we can make a wiser decision than our predecessors.

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1 K. Popper 1945.

2 Journal of Education, 1944.

3 E. Hobsbawm 1994.

4 F. Nietzsche, Einleitung in das Studium der platonischen Dialoge.

5 Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff 1919 and 1920.

6 K. F. Ringer 1969.

7 R. von Poehlmann 1893-1901, Geschichte der sozialen Frage und des Sozialismus in der antiken Welt, and G. Adler 1923, Geschichte des Sozialismus und Kommunismus von Plato bis Gegenwart.

8 H. Friedemann 1914.

9 E. Salin 1921.

10 K. Singer 1927; id., 1920; id., 1931.

11 S. Nanbara 1942.

12 P. Gay 1969.

13 K. Hildebrandt 1933.

14 W. Fite 1934.

15 R.H.S. Crossman 1937.

16 J. Wild 1946; id., 1953. L. Strauss 1959.

17 C. E. Merriam 1925.

18 H. Arendt 1958; id. 1963.

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Takeshi Sasaki, « Plato and Politeia in Twentieth-Century Politics », Études platoniciennes, 9 | 2012, 147-160.

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Takeshi Sasaki, « Plato and Politeia in Twentieth-Century Politics », Études platoniciennes [En ligne], 9 | 2012, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2014, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/etudesplatoniciennes.281

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