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Paradoxes in Plato's Doctrine of the Ideal State1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2009

Raphael Demos
Harvard University


The initial paradox is simple: The ideal state, as Plato describes it, is composed of un-ideal individuals. Both the warrior class and the masses are deprived of reason and must be governed by the philosopher-king. How can one legitimately call a community perfect when so many of its members are imperfect ? My point here is logical; the word ‘ideal’ is used in a self-inconsistent manner.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 1957

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2 Perfection obviously is what Plato calls virtue—excellence or A person may be complete—have all three parts of the soul—and be imperfect. Conversely, while incomplete, he may be perfect, i.e. virtuous in respect of that part of the soul that he possesses. In my present statement of what makes an individual ideal, I have omitted any reference to the harmonious co-operation of the various parts according to their rank. This last is justice, the very foundation of all the other virtues (R. 433 b). If I omit special mention of it here in my list of definitions, it is only because it does not affect the paradoxes which I am propounding.

3 Foster, M. B., The Political Philosophies of Plato and Hegel, 1935.Google Scholar

1 Plato, referring to a city consisting only of good men, implies that it would have a government (R. 347 d); it is possible, of course, that he is speaking carelessly.

1 He refers to it as a divine pattern and a heavenly model (R. 500 e). Plato vacillates on the question whether his ideal state is capable of realization. Thus he says that, while difficult of realization, it is not impossible (R. 502 c). At the same time he says that the ideal city can be found nowhere on earth-as we have just cited. So with the philosopher-king. He is found rarely; perhaps he has existed in the remote past or exists now among the barbarians (R. 491 b, 499 d). But elsewhere Plato says that the city is not like a beehive with a natural head which is recognized as superior (Politicus 301 e).

1 It is interesting to note that, later on (R. 540 c), when the account of the ideal city has been concluded, Glaucon calls Socrates a sculptor. Compare the reply of Socrates to Adeimantus with Descartes's argument that the imperfection of man does not imply imperfection in God: ‘A better comparison could be drawn between the man who would like to have the whole of the human body with eyes, in order that it might appear more beautiful, because no bodily part is more beautiful than the eye, and him who thinks that no existing creatures ought to be liable to err, i.e. should not be wholly perfect.’ (Reply to Gassendi's Objections; Concerning the Objections to the Fourth Meditation, p. 257 in Selections from Descartes, edited by Ralph M. Eaton, Scribner's.)

2 There is a relevant doctrine of ideality (completeness,) in the Timaeus (41 b, c) which, while analogous to the one already explained, is different from it. We are told that the universe would be incomplete unless it contained some mortal (and hence inferior) creatures. ‘In order to be complete, the universe must contain every kind of animal.’ In this passage, we find an early statement of the concept of the Great Chain of Being, according to which perfection is constituted by the inclusion of all degrees of perfection (or imperfection).

1 ‘There is a pattern laid up in heaven for him who wills to see, and seeing, to found a city in himself’ (R. 592 b).

1 ‘A city is just when the three types of nature in it do each their own work … Then we shall expect that the individual has these same forms in his soul… if he is rightly called by the same name as the city’ (R 435 c).

2 First suggested to me by my student and friend, Edward French, in his Senior thesis at Harvard College, on Plato's Republic.

1 Cf. Protagoras 322 c, d. According to the myth Zeus, fearing that the race of men might be exterminated because of internal strife, sent Hermes to impart justice and reverence to men. Hermes then asks how he should make the distribution: whether as in the arts where one man, say a doctor, is adequate for the needs of many who are not skilled in medicine, or whether he should distribute justice to all. And Zeus answers: to all. Now, although Plato has chosen to put this doctrine in the mouth of Protagoras—not of Socrates—it is not unreasonable to suppose that the myth expresses Plato's own views. Notice the similarity of some of these views to what is uttered by Diotima, Symp. 203 c-e.

2 Plato describes the of the many as consisting in the double fact that, on the one hand, they obey their rulers, and on the other that they are, themselves, rulers of their bodily appetites (R. 389 d). Speaking of the individual, he says that wisdom is the knowledge of what is advantageous to each of the three parts of the soul and to the soul taken as a whole (R. 442 c). Plato, in arguing that women are entitled to all the duties and privileges of citizenship, makes the point that individual natures and innate abilities are defined in terms of relevant pursuits. ‘We did not mean “same” and “different” in an unqualified sense but we were attending to die sort of sameness and difference that was pertinent to the pursuits themselves’ (R. 454 d). So I am arguing that the lack of intelligence in the warrior and the worker is pertinent solely to the technical pursuit of governing.

1 That the first is not the whole of courage is hinted at in R. 429 b.

1 It must be said that the evidence in the text of the Republic is ambiguous and not clearly in favour of the position I have taken. Plato can be quoted on both sides, (a) The philosopher-kings will be craftsmen of civic liberty (R. 395 c); among their duties are those of deciding who belongs to which class (R. 433 c, 434 a-c), of enforcing the rules of eugenics (R. 459 b, ff.), of conducting lawsuits (R. 433 e), and planning the scheme of education. Although opinions differ, these functions may be regarded as falling within the province of government. See also R. 484 b, 500 d, and 572 b, according to which the rulers are concerned with ordaining and preserving the laws and pursuits of the city. (b) But, on the odier side, quite a number of passages may be cited in which Plato, instead of restricting the rulers to civic functions, includes matters of private life within their purview. Thus, we are told that the duties of the rulers involve both private and public affairs (R. 500 d, 501 a). Also, it is the philosopher who grasps the idea of the good (R. 506 a). Finally, Plato seems to make no provision for the higher education of the masses, but this may well be because he did not propose this topic to himself in the context of the Republic.

2 Essays in Ancient and Modern Philosophy, by H. W. B. Joseph; especially chapters iv and vi. The reader of diis book will have noted a considerable similarity between Joseph's views and mine. In fact, the inter pretation I have proposed was suggested to me from my reading of Joseph.

3 Let me emphasize that his relation to his duties as a citizen is a matter on which the individual will have to make his own decision. In this connexion we may recall that according to Plato, when a man is in wardly just, he will be well disposed towards his fellow-men; in other words, inward justice leads to external justice, to fairness, and to the discharge of social obligations (R. 443 e, 442 e-443 b). Also, Plato defines in the state as the willing consent of each class to rule the odier classes or to be ruled by the philosopher-king (R. 431 e).

1 For my various quotations from the Shorey, Lindsay, and Comford. text, I have relied on the translations of

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