The Republic According to Plato

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The Republic According to Plato
by John Frost

           There is nothing like reading The Republic by Plato in the original Greek.  That’s what I did in Philosophy Class at St. Louis University.  Of course, I didn’t read the entire massive work, just the methods (dialectic discussion) and main conclusions.  The dialectic style which purported to arrive at the truth by a method of questions and answers between students and the teacher regarding the question:  What is the best form of government, all things considered?  Many governmental forms were rejected such as tribal, theocracy, pure democracy, elected representatives, hereditary kings and queens, dictators with absolute power, councils of shared power, and many more.  The treatise proposed three classes of citizens:  the guardians (police and military), the laborers and producers and the rulers.  It supposed that the population was well-informed, peaceful (not engaged in war), and benevolently ruled.

The conclusion finally arrived at regarding the best ruler was a powerful philosopher-king.  The “philosopher” part assumed that the king was just, knowledgable of the truth and a great communicator.  The “king” hinted at a hereditary aristocrat with far reaching powers.  There was a natural selection process for attaining power and the belief that the successful traits could be inherited.  His decisions would always be the best one possible along with the power to enforce them.

The treatise was compiled in 385 BC and accounts for the dominant form of government then and now, namely, a strong-man, dictatorial ruler.  Witness this form of government which seems to pervade most of the world.  Remnants remain even in modern countries.  Consider the Royal Family of Great Britain, the dynastic King of Japan, various Presidents, Pharaohs, Mullahs, Sultans, Emirs and so on.  No matter what the title, their method of operation is the same.  They are powerful.  They direct the Military class, they set up systems or perpetuate them which are popular and adapted to the culture, beliefs and desires of the society under their control.

For centuries this form of government seemed to work.  However, the pitfalls soon became apparent.  The unanswered question was this:  “Does Might make Right or does Right become Might?”  Soon, the belief in the supremacy of a system led to wars as one leader and his people became convinced that their system was the best system for all, including their neighbors who, in turn, felt the same way.  History has been and still is dotted with wars, conflicts and all sorts of struggles for power (military and economic).  Consider Afghanistan, Macedonia, Tibet and Yemen.

Here we are today in America.  We might be described as a Representative Republic.  We are governed by elected representatives divided into two bodies, one based on population and the other based on the States in the Union.  Elections are staggered but no term limits are applied.  The President is elected, not by popular vote, but a system meant to preserve states rights in a fair and wise manner (the Electoral College).  The structure includes an independent Judiciary which upholds the Constitutionality of Laws and makes legal judgements on issues arising out of the Constitution but not included or contemplated in the original words.  Each part of our “experimental” form of government is meant to share power and through a system of checks and balances lead to a continuation of our nation.  Although our system has prospered, it has not shown the desire to extend that power by military conquest.  Defense and military aid are allowed but aggression is not.  The Greeks, the Constitutional Founders, however, did not contemplate the Nuclear Age, unresolved and unproven issues such as global climate change, and plagues, diseases and drugs.  The Founders and Signatories of our Constitution, if alive today, might be calling for a Constitutional Convention to rewrite massive sections of the Document and Bill of Rights.  After all, its rationale at the time was to create a more perfect union.  Modification of the Constitution is difficult requiring the approbation of two-thirds of the States, difficult at best.

One last word, even the Greeks knew that any government must rest on a well-informed populace.  Our great experiment in government is upheld by our education system which some suggest may be broken.  I believe that when Federal Government makes higher education “free” that the purse strings will include indoctrination of federal social policies (dictated curriculum, created by those in power at the Federal level).  It started with student loans and Federal Guidelines for curriculum.  Recent discussions have included the role of faith-based, independently funded by tuition, public gifts and support from foundations.  One might ask, how will they survive in competition with “free” government supported colleges.

I have hope that the natural law will eventually correct our system where it fails.

 

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