This essay will describe and analyse Plato’s ideas regarding political organisation, including democracy as well as other ’imperfect societies’, and examine whether these ideas have any relevance nowadays.
Plato – one of the greatest and most influential of all Western philosophers – was born c. 427 bc in Athens and died in 347 bc. He came from a family which was aristocratic, rich and distinguished on both sides. Along with his teacher, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the foundations of natural philosophy, science, and Western philosophy. The major achievements of Plato were a large collection of philosophical writings and the foundation of the Academy, which was the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Plato’s written philosophy is always cast in dramatic form – either a dialogue or a monologue sometimes reporting others’ dialogues. Plato was inspired by Socrates as the ideal figure of philosopher and was much influenced by his thinking. In the dialogues Plato never speaks in his own voice; instead Socrates is mostly the main figure. There is also considerable controversy as to how exactly his writings are to be interpreted.
Reading Plato’s dialogues, however, one must remember, that he was writing within a different political and cultural context, thus in some respect Plato’s political thinking might seen alien to us. The Greek world of Plato’s time was divided into small, independent, warring city-states (polis). In the direct Athenian-style democracies, every citizen had the right and the duty to participate directly in the decision-making processes. Citizens were exclusively adult males who had been born in Athens. Citizenship was not granted to women, slaves or resident aliens; in Athens there were probably about 30,000 citizens (out of 250,000 inhabitants). The Athenian democracy had two distinguishing features: firstly the allotment (selection by lot) of ordinary citizens to government offices and courts, and secondarily the Assembly of all the citizens. While most of the officers, magistrates or judges were allotted, the generals (strategoi) and a few other officers were elected.
The Assembly, which actually took decisions, voted on all major issues and passed laws. When it met, about once a week, every citizen could have his say, speaking for as long as he liked – until people got bored and pulled him off the platform (Smith, 2005, pp. 61-67). However perhaps only 5,000 out of all citizens would regularly attend the meetings as some citizens, who were living outside Athens could not take part because of the distance they would have to cover. Solution for this problem was delegating a representative from each village who would take care of their interests.
In 399 bc when a democratic court voted by a large majority of its 501 members for Socrates’ execution when he was brought before them by a private individual on a charge of impiety, Plato came to the conclusion that all existing governments were bad and that no one could take part in political life and retain his integrity under existing conditions (Rowe, 1995, pp. 19-20). Socrates execution was the main factor in Plato’s final decision not to take the kind of active role in politics, which might have been expected from somebody in his status. His disillusionment with contemporary politics increased as he came to know better the man active in public life and saw more clearly the instability of the laws and customs of his own an other cities. He decided that politics needed expert rulers, who should not come to it merely by accident, but must be carefully selected and that only philosophical reflection could enable one to see what was right and just in both public and private life.