Thursday 5 December 2013

Plato's Utopia

My personal impressions on readings about Plato’s Utopian ideology. This post only skims through the periphery of the ideology outlining a basic understanding and its relevance today. This post is a continuation of my earlier posts on Socrates and Greek political environment in 5th century BC. So, Athenian democratic system is not elaborated again here.

All of us would know Socrates; and most of us would know Plato was his brightest disciple. In my earlier posts, I had elucidated how Socrates was against the then prevailing form of democracy in Athens. As a result, he ended up in the wrong books of the rulers and was sentenced to death.

After Socrates' demise, Plato realized his life could also be at risk - there was suspicion that Plato being from an aristocratic family would share Socrates' reservations against democracy. To escape prosecution, he set out of Athens to explore the world. Egypt and Italy were among the countries he visited. He was awed by the relative development of economical and political system of Egypt. Egypt, then under the Pharaoh's rule, was a primarily agricultural economy ruled by a theocratic class (priesthood). It is common in all older kingdoms for rulers and priests to have a close nexus. In Italy, he observed the idea of a small group of learned scholars trained to live simple lives with no materialistic interests but exercise command over the country. There are also some indications that he might have also traveled East to India.

After 12 years, he returned to Athens, matured and wise by his travels and experiences and started teaching philosophy. Known for his poetic verbose, he put knowledge into poetry; science into art, ideology into daily practice. He wrote a series of books on various ideas on ethics, truth, justice, morality, governance, etc - the most important among being The Republic, a treatise on what should be the order and state of a country. Here, he paints his idealistic view of a just, noble and ideal society; what we have now come to associate with Utopia.

Plato (and Socrates) had reservations on the democratic system of Athens. He opined that ruling a country is not everybody's cup of tea; and hence should be reserved for only the capable (discussed in detail in earlier post on Socrates). But again, this should not be seen as an endorsement of aristocracy. His idea of Utopia revolves around the notion that every person has a specialized skill or trait and that trait should be identified and honed up towards excellence. He wished to build an ideal city where social classes are built around skill specializations created around people’s traits (In today's capitalistic world, this idea may sound too primitive and obvious, but we are talking about 4th century BC here).

Let's dive in a bit to see the finer points of his Utopian idea. This is where it gets dreamy and impractical; but towards the end of this writing, we'll see these ideas were in vogue to certain degrees in few countries (and continue to be so).

Utopia envisages 4 classes of society - the guardians (rulers and policy makers), the soldiers (peace keepers), the merchants (who conduct trade with outside world), the masses (produce food and commodities). This, as we can see, is similar to the Indian societal classification of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Sudras. But the similarity stops there.

Utopia’s premise is equality of education and trait-based profession. To implement Utopia, the basic prerequisite is Communism - equality of choice with no regard for emotions/partiality. The purest of human bonding is the mother-child relation; but it's also the most emotional and partial. A mother (and father) would always prefer the best for their child, and tend to promote them in spite of their limitations. For the success of Utopia, this bonding and partiality had to be cut off.

In Utopia, one's profession is determined by his traits. Every child will be separated from their parents, and put through the rigor of physical and mental education. Education will be physical for 10 years (games, gym, warfare, etc). Once the body is strengthened, mental and skill based  education (science, philosophy, trade, agriculture, etc) is imparted for the next 10 years. So, by the age of 20, every child would have received basic education. They are then rigorously evaluated; and based on capability, their profession is determined, and further specialized education is provided before they start practicing their profession. This process ensures education for all and communism of choice. A ruler's child and a cobbler's child would go through the same education; and if so be their talents, the cobbler's child would end up a ruler and ruler's child a cobbler. This is the grind-stone of Utopia's equality - equality of education, gender and opportunity.

So, by the age of 20, a youth chosen for guardian class enters the ruling council, gets trained and becomes part of the ruling council. The council devices policies and ideologies to govern the country. The soldiers support the council in maintaining peace and tranquility. The merchants trade with outside world and bring in the riches. The masses do farming and produce food. There will be utmost equality and democracy within the professions so that there is no complacency and that only the best hold the top notches. Since profession is chosen based on a person's passion/ inclination, every one is expected to perform at their best, contributing to the overall well-being of the country.

Education may give one his profession; but will it stop greed? Man's prime vice is greed; he aspires to acquire more than what he needs. A merchant will look to bend the policy of the rulers to evade taxes. A soldier being the strongest will attempt to take control of the country (we see it in today's military coups). A guardian may try to extend his control over the ruling council and influence policies to further his plans. So, how does one save Utopia from the rivalry between the classes and from Man's greed?

This is where Plato invented his 'royal lies' - the dogmas of theocracy, the belief in an omnipresent super-natural power. Plato proposed that the guardians should be void of any materialistic or carnal (sexual) desires to reach heaven. The soldiers should consider themselves at the service of the nation; any desire to subvert power would throw them in hell. And so, will the merchants if they violate rules of trade profession. The masses were the easiest to be indoctrinated as their agricultural profession is very much at the mercy of the elements. So indoctrination that violation of their profession's guidelines would enrage the Gods and thereby bring in famine/flood was sufficient enough to keep the masses in check.

So, even in an Utopian society, we see there is a need for indoctrination to keep Man's greed and desire in check. This, I see, as the beginning of orthodox religion in European society.

As we can see, Plato's Utopia is too ideal to be practical. Greed and carnal pleasures are primitive traits of humans. It's next to impossible to expect guardians/ theologians to get over basic instincts. Today, the scandals involving religious heads show the tussle of man's spiritual question with his basic instincts. It's also impractical to expect, at least a ruler to give up his child soon after birth, and not worry about what he may turn out to be; this world has seen very few philosopher kings. Hence, we rarely see true democracies in the world; and some autocracies ruled by able dictators faring better than democracies. As much as I know, China seems to follow a governing model similar to the ruling council proposed by Plato.

I would say the merchant class and general masses at least have taken some strides towards utopia. Today's capitalism can be seen as an extension of the freedom of trade and economic policies envisaged in Utopia; however, it could become overkill without proper moderation by the political class.

The general masses have achieved more liberation towards Utopia in Industrial age.
Europe is the best example to demonstrate here. In the middle ages up to the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church (theologians/ guardians) had absolute sway over politics of most of Europe; even warring countries (soldiers) would kneel down in front of Pope and obey his orders. This was due to the total reliance of their economies on agriculture. Agriculture's dependence on the elements, and the perceived notion of the Church influencing or enabling the elements through God's intervention kept the continent subservient to the Church. But with the arrival of Industrial Revolution, and man being able to control nature or at least predict nature through science, the control of the Church slowly whittled off in Europe. As more and more third world countries turn to modernization from traditional agriculture, we can see indoctrination and religious control easing away. Utopia as a whole continues to be a dream, more due to man's own limitations than the ideology's fallacies.

So, what became of Plato? Well, he almost fell prey to the fallacies of his own ideology. Dionysius, the ruler of an Italian state Syracuse, invited Plato to set up an Utopian society in his country. But when Plato suggested the change should start from the palace alluding that the king should give up dynastic autocracy, he was imprisoned and sold into slavery. He was then bought back by his followers and taken to Athens. He later died peacefully within the safety of his home city at the age of 80.

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