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Utopian literature is ubiquitous enough to constitute its own sub-genre of fiction – and to contain its own spinoff subcategory of dystopian literature. The term “utopia” comes from the title of St. Thomas More’s utopian work and derives from the Greek οὐ τόπος, or “not a place.” That is, utopias are thought-experiments, products of conjecture to illustrate an ideal as though it were embodied in reality. Dystopias, from δυσ τόπος, or “bad place,” is an anti-utopia, equally imaginary, but instead envisioning an embodiment of evil, usually to advocate for its opposite ideal.
Plato is considered among the first utopian thinkers based on the ideal city he describes in the Republic, and among twentieth-century dystopias the world of
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World has been particularly influential. Less well known, however, are both Platos’ and Huxley’s later works, the Laws and Island, respectively. These two late works address the same themes as their earlier and better-known counterparts and treat those themes from an opposite view.
This essay will compare these early and late works of Plato and Huxley and compare not just the works, but how both authors treat their utopian visions differently between their earlier and later works. In both authors’ visions, idealism is favored, but practicality wins in the end.
Plato: the Republic and the Laws
Plato’s Republic is considered one of the foundational texts of Western philosophy. Like the vast majority of Plato’s dialogues, he presents it as a conversation between his mentor Socrates and Glaucon, Polemarchus, Thrasymachus, and Adeimantus – all students of his – along with Polemarchus’s father Cephalus.
The dialogue begins with Cephalus discussing how in his old age he can dedicate himself to justice to prepare for the afterlife. Socrates then asks his interlocutors to define justice, to which Thrasymachus infamously responds that, effectively, “might makes right.” From there the discussion turns towards justice and injustice in an individual, and Socrates suggests the city (that is, a nation) as a metaphor to seek how justice enters into the soul of an individual.
Thus Plato begins his thought experiment of constructing an ideal society. Different roles are needed, and the task of leading and defending falls to a class of “guardians.” Because the guardians must have knowledge to distinguish friend from foe if they are to protect the city, they must be philosophers and therefore trained as such.
In discussing the role of the guardians, Plato, always through the guise of Socrates, discusses their education and the role art and poetry are to play. Because God is good and therefore eternal, the traditional Greek myths have no place in Plato’s city, and poetry should represent only virtue to encourage its imitation.
Plato then discusses the “noble lie” that is to be the foundational myth of this ideal state: people possess different qualities of character, analogized to gold, silver, and bronze. Because these “metal” qualities are not hereditary – a gold child may be born to a bronze parent and vice versa – Plato asserts his infamous injunction that the guardian class hold property and even wives in common so that none may see another as master or slave.
Once the ideal city is presented, Plato, through Socrates, poses the question, “Is all of this practical?” He provides the famous answer: yes, “if philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers.” Philosophers are those who see past the forms to the ideals. To illustrate this principle, Plato gives his famous analogy of the cave, in which viewers are chained to see only shadows cast on the wall in front of them from the light entering the cave behind them. The shadows are the physical realm of everyday perception; the unseen objects casting them are the ideals they cannot see. The philosopher is the one who turns around and sees the ideals, and it is the duty of education to “return to the cave” and show others the ideals behind the forms.
From this discussion of the ideal, Plato returns first to his ideal city, comparing the forms of government in descending order of happiness: first the guardian, then the timarch (one who seeks honor), then the oligarch (one who seeks riches), then the democrat (one who seeks public approval), and lastly the dictator (one who seeks power).
For Plato, man possesses a tripartite mind, consisting of reason, passion (or spirit), and desire (or appetite), and describes the function of law as taming the passions and desires of those who cannot do so themselves. Expanding on this tripartite nature, Plato holds the ideal itself superior to its embodiment, which is in turn superior to a representation of that embodiment. Because poets and painters deal in representations, they are two steps removed from reality and appeal to the passions, the worst side of human nature. Thus Plato’s further infamous injunction to “expel all poets from the republic.”
From there Plato concludes the dialogue with a discussion of the soul. The mind is immortal, and a defect (immorality) does not destroy it. Good and bad souls are nonetheless judged, then either blessed or purified, then reincarnated, as the soul is immortal.
The Republic has been a favorite target of Platonism’s detractors, who point to the strict communism among the guardian class and his infamous “expulsion of the poets” as both inhumane and unhuman. The criticisms, however, fail to account for the primary purpose of Plato’s discussion. Plato’s purpose is not to discuss how to govern an actual city, but to govern an individual soul. The city only serves as a extended metaphor for the soul’s moral guidance.
The central discussion of the Republic is the exposition of the concept of the ideal as truth beyond the representations perceived by the senses. Just as the ideal exists independently of its representations, Plato’s ideal city exists independently of actual cities. Plato is not offering advice on how to govern a city, but presenting his ideal city as a metaphor to discuss how to govern a soul.
But Plato did not leave actual government of a city undiscussed. He addresses that subject at length in his Laws. The Laws is both Plato’s last and his longest dialogue, and also the only one not to feature Socrates. It comes from a very different place and achieves a very different goal from the Republic.
Plato’s Seventh Letter provides some autobiographical background for the years leading up to the Laws. On a visit to Syracuse in Sicily, Plato befriended Dion, the brother of the ruling tyrant. When Dion’s nephew, Dionysius II, became tyrant in 367 BC, he was completely inexperienced in public affairs, and Dion summoned Plato to instruct his nephew. Dion, however, increasingly detested his nephew’s luxurious lifestyle, and Dionysius began to regard his uncle with suspicion. Plato was caught in the middle of this dispute, and was forced to flee Syracuse when Dionysius suspected him of disloyalty. Despite this, he returned to Syracuse for a third visit to test whether his former student had learned anything. Disappointed, he returned to Greece. In Olympia, he found Dion, now in exile, preparing an expedition to overthrow his nephew. Dion requested Plato’s support, but Plato refused, as he had received Dionysius’s hospitality. Dion’s invasion would prove a success; in 357 BC he overthrew Dionysius and installed himself as tyrant, only to be assassinated three years later by Calippus, another student of Plato.
The Laws originates from Plato’s perspective of having participated in – and likely being jaded by – power politics. Far from the “pure” philosophy for individual edification in the Republic, the Laws is practically oriented.
Whereas the Republic is a dialogue between Socrates and young men, the participants in the Laws’ dialogue are three men explicitly described as elderly: an unnamed Athenian; Cleinias, a Cretan; and Megillus a Spartan). The dialogue is also set at Knossos in Crete, as the characters follow the path Minos took to receive dictation of his laws from Zeus.
The dialogue begins by discussing the differences between the Athenian and Spartan systems as background for choosing laws. Plato, an Athenian, favors the Spartan constitution as preserving balance between the kings, ephors (elected overseers), and the gerousia (assembly of elders). By contrast, Plato views the Athenian constitution as having devolved into mob rule.
While the Spartan and Cretan argue that laws should be ordered to war, the Athenian believes laws should instead be ordered to virtue, both the human virtues of health, beauty, strength, and wealth, and the divine virtues of good judgment, self-control, justice, and courage. Plato’s Athenian then states the purpose of the dialogue: “The real difficulty is to make political systems reflect in practice the trouble-free perfection of theory.”
Plato then begins a general discussion of political theory: of the evolution of the nation from a Hobbesian “every man a law unto himself” to a “primitive city” dictated by religious and family custom, to at last a nation-state; of the necessity of excluding the ignorant from office even if accomplished and clever and conferring office on the wise even if illiterate; of the two “mother constitutions” of monarchy, taken to an extreme in Persia, and democracy, taken to an extreme in Athens; and of proportion as the necessary virtue to guard against arrogance and injustice. The lawgiver should therefore frame his code with an eye on freedom, unity, and wisdom.
Cleinias the Cretan then asserts that his nation is constructing a new colony and that he is a member of a committee charged with composing a legal code, and suggests that the three characters construct an imaginary community for Crete to use as a framework.
Again the conversation turns towards generalities, this time about legislation. The best legislator is a dictator who demonstrates self-control and leads by example, subject to an admonition:
“We should run our public and our private life, our homes and our cities, in obedience to what little spark of immortality lies in us, and dignify this distribution of reason with the name of ‘law.’ But take an individual man or an oligarchy, or even a democracy, that lusts in its heart for pleasure and demands to have its fill of everything it wants – the perpetually unsatisfied victim of an evil greed that attacks it like the plague – well . . . if a power like that controls a state or an individual and rides roughshod over the laws, it’s impossible to escape disaster.”
The law should be supreme. That is, winners do not deprive the losers and their descendants from power. Laws must favor the good of the state and not any particular section of the community. Rulers must be servants of the law and the government the slave of the law.
In the Laws’ ideal state, the law safeguards against excessive accumulation of wealth. Land is evenly divided initially, and the parcels are inalienable – they may not be sold, subdivided, or merged. Holding excess gold, silver, or foreign money is also prohibited, with any excess confiscated by the state. This system, however, is not communistic. Plato expressly enjoins, “Indiscriminate equality for all amounts to inequality, and both fill a state with quarrels between its citizens.” Equality therefore consists of justice: “granting the ‘equality’ that unequals deserve to get.”
The Laws, like the Republic, has a class of “guardians of the law” – elected this time – and a separate council to balance the monarchic and democratic systems. As for the laws themselves, they should consist of a text and a preamble to persuade of their necessity. Courts should have three grades of courts: “If a litigant is dissatisfied with the judgment of this court, he may apply to a second, but if the first two courts are both unable to settle the argument, the verdict of the third must close the case.”
Education is to be public and universal (including for girls), and to include not only music, physical exercise (including dancing), and mathematics, but literature as well.
Regarding crimes, Plato first addresses crimes against the state – political crimes, as we would call them today – and states, “[T]he first need is to let the man in the street play his part in judging them. A wrong done to the state is a wrong done to all its citizens . . . .” For Plato, crime is “involuntary:” the combination of a “voluntary” act and an “involuntary” mental state; punishment (including the death penalty) is to “cure” the criminal. Causes of crime range from the emotional to the intellectual (ignorance), with the desire for pleasure falling between them.
Plato’s criminal code does not provide for much imprisonment; the main punishments are death, banishment, restitution, a fine paid to a temple, and public opprobrium. Plato also criminalizes three “heresies:” that the gods do not exist; that they exist but are unconcerned about human affairs; and that they exist and are concerned but can be influenced by sacrifices and supplications. Plato has far less to say about property and commercial law, but it is noteworthy that he presumes the existence of slavery in his state.
Plato then closes his dialogue similarly to the Republic, with a discussion of the soul. “No mortal,” Plato says, “can ever attain a truly religious outlook” unless he grasps two doctrines: (1) that the soul is immortal and controls the entire world of matter; and (2) that reason is the supreme power among the heavenly bodies. It is essential, therefore, to “frame consistent rules of moral action” and provide a reasoned explanation for them. “No one who is unable to acquire these insights and rise above the level of the ordinary virtues will ever be good enough to govern an entire state, but only to assist in government carried on by others.”
Plato’s Laws differs significantly from his Republic – not because they are inconsistent nor because Plato’s views changed over time, but rather because the two works serve very different ends. The ideal state of the Republic is a thought experiment that serves as a vehicle to a greater discussion of individual virtue. The Laws expressly sets up a constitution and laws to govern a state: a state constructed “from scratch” as a new colony; not a new system to reform an existing state.
The Laws is eminently practical, the application of Plato’s philosophical principles to human conditions as they exist in reality. The governing concerns are balance and proportion: the ideal state as a balance between the extremes of monarchy and democracy, and of justice itself as a balance of human and divine virtues. Plato’s system is designed to prevent accumulation of wealth and power into too few hands, from his division of land into inalienable plots to his prohibition on accumulating money to his system of different councils serving as a check on each other. The entire system is designed not only to achieve balance, but to preserve it. Underlying all of this, though, is Plato’s acknowledgment that once any society puts individual or partisan interests before the state, it is doomed.
Significantly, many ideas proposed by Plato have become standard practice in the contemporary Western world: laws including an explanatory preamble; a three-tiered court system; public education; and a rehabilitative theory of punishing crimes. In practice our world looks quite different from the one envisioned by Plato, but in that respect even Plato’s practical constitution is still an ideal, and the government systems today are mere representations of the ideal.
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