Plato’s ‘Republic’; with its historical background

Whilst most of world leaders and politicians today approve democracy as the best form of political governance, nonetheless, this political system has never been immune to criticism as well. One of the most famous, and probably the strongest such criticisms, can be found in one of the best known books ever written, by one of the most prominent philosophers and political thinkers through out the Western history, Plato. It is widely acknowledged that Plato’s Republic ‘was probably written before 368 BC when the author was in his fourth to fifth decade’ (Galton, 1998, p. 264) with its title in Greek as ‘Politea, which can be rendered something closer to “forms of government” or perhaps “constitution.”’ (Columbia University, 2013). Republic is written in ‘the form of a Socratic dialogue which details the workings of Plato’s imagined ideal state (a meritocracy or “philosophocracy”), in so doing defining the imperfections in extant political methods’ (Hermes, 2011). Despite democracy was ‘arguably the greatest achievement of ancient Athens’ (ibid), in Republic, Plato ‘ranks both timocracy and oligarchy as favourable to democracy and maintains that only tyranny is a less preferable form of government’ (ibid). Meanwhile, in his real life, Plato actually lived and witnessed political turmoil and downfall of Athens, from ‘the golden age of Athenian democracy and power – under the rule of Pericles’ (Columbia University, 2013) in the second half of the 5th century BCE to the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE), which ‘resulted in Athens’ defeat and the temporary overthrow of Athenian democracy’ (ibid). In other words, ‘he saw an older, supposedly better, world crumbling around him, and he wanted to understand what had gone wrong and how it could be fixed’ (Wright, 2012).
This short essay would like to examine Plato’s counter arguments against democracy and for his ideal state explored in Republic, with the historical background – the downfall of Athens. mentioned above – in its consideration. At first, it will have a look at the history of Athenian democracy in the related period of time, mainly focusing on incidents that had effects on political views in those days. Then, it will deal with Plato’s criticism against democracy, from its origins to its maturity in his Republic. Subsequently, it will delve into ideas of governance suggested by Plato for his ideal state from various points of views, with occasionally comparing with political system and social norms practised in Sparta.

Radical Democracy

Therefore, it would be useful to review the course of history by winding the clock backwards to the glorious days of Athenian democracy, especially its culmination under the rule of Pericles, who ‘ was elected repeatedly to the office of Strategos during the period from 454 to 429 BCE – though not for every year during that period’ (Blackwell, 2003). By holding the office of Strategos, Pericles ‘was able to address the Athenians meeting in their Assembly on matters he deemed important’ (ibid) and his political achievement could be summarised as a couple of following points: ‘the so-called “Periclean Building Program”, which produced the monumental architecture we see today on the Athenian Acropolis, and the expansion of Athenian imperialism’ (ibid). Even though these achievements brought Athens glorious fame and prosperity for a time, it could be argued that whilst the latter consequently led to her catastrophic downfall by provoking the Peloponnesian War, the former may have contributed to undermine her political system by changing the course for enabling Pericles to stabilise his political status and power for a longer term. In other words, by holding the office of Strategos, Pericles ‘could introduce business for discussion in a meeting of the Assembly on his own authority, without going through normal channels’ (ibid) and consequently, he ‘could wield extraordinary influence over the affairs and policies of the city’ (ibid). Nevertheless, the office of Strategos was ‘one of the few in the Athenian democracy that was elected, rather than chosen randomly by lot’ (ibid) because ‘It was also the only office which an Athenian could hold for multiple successive terms’ (ibid).

Before Pericles came into the power, there was an era called Cleisthenic democracy, in which ‘only those who could afford to participate in political affairs did so’ ( There was also ‘a traditional perception of Greco-Roman culture held that only those who participated in the military defense of their societies could claim the right to participate in political life’ (ibid). In this circumstance, Pericles made a drastic change by enabling ‘thousands of landless, poor Athenian males, the thetes (landless free commoners), to participate in the democracy’ (ibid) with introducing so-called Radical democracy, in which ‘Athenian citizens were paid by the state to participate in public affairs’ (ibid). In practice, ‘The role of the thetes in the Athenian fleet and in the construction of the Athenian empire gave them newfound legitimacy in politics’ (ibid). Moreover, Pericles even ‘created allowances for public festivals, fees for jury service and other grants and gratuities’ (ibid). In this way, Pericles created a political system ‘in which poorer voters voted in massive numbers to support his political agendas’ (ibid), nonetheless, such radical ‘development marked a dramatic transformation in the character of Athenian society, its population, and its social structure’ (ibid).
Before moving to the next stage, it would be noteworthy to point out his talent as an orator as it has been said that ‘Pericles was merely one of ten elected Generals. His “policies” came into effect merely because his office afforded him a platform from which to address the Demos, and his evident talents as a speaker allowed him to persuade the Demos to adopt his ideas as their own (Blackwell, 2003). Pericles suddenly dies of plague at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 429 BC, before he could ‘train other politicians adequately to assume the reins in his place. After more than 17 years of direction by one man, the Athenian democracy became at a loss to know how to pursue the war or to maintain the empire that Pericles had created’ (

Athens’s downfall

One of the earliest criticisms against Athenian democracy that having been heavily modified by Pericles, came from ‘an Athenian writer whom we know familiarly as the “Old Oligarch”… His short and vehement pamphlet was produced probably in the 420s, during the first decade of the Peloponnesian War, and makes the following case: democracy is appalling, since it represents the rule of the poor, ignorant, fickle and stupid majority over the socially and intellectually superior minority, the world turned upside down’ (Cartledge, 2011). However, such criticism from ‘an oligarch’, who might have represented the traditional ruling class now facing the problem of losing its dominance in politics, did not seem to be heard because ‘at the time of writing, Athens was the greatest single power in the entire Greek world’ (ibid) and ‘the ultimate source of Athens’ power was its navy’ (ibid), which relied on the arms of the thetes, in effect ‘the poorest section of the Athenian citizen population(ibid).
Nevertheless, as the war continued, Athenian politics changed its course in the following way:

‘In 415, after an interlude of relative peace in the war between Athens and Sparta, the Demos of Athens undertook an invasion of Sicily. This adventure was an utter disaster, resulting in the destruction of an Athenian fleet and an army of Athenian citizens… In the aftermath, certain citizens took steps to move the government of the city away from the radical democracy that—they thought—was leading the city to ruin… Shortly thereafter, in 411 BCE, the Athenians brought an end to their democracy and instituted an oligarchy by, first, appointing ten “Commissioners”… These Commissioners proposed a new Council, consisting of 400 men, with service limited to the wealthier citizens… This oligarchic government lasted only four months before it was replaced by another government in which the power was in the hands of 5000 Athenians’ (Blackwell, 2003).

In summary, By 413, the argument ‘in favour of radical democracy was beginning to collapse, as Athens’ fortunes in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta began seriously to decline’ (Cartledge, 2011). In 411, an oligarchic regime was established by ‘the formidable intellectual Antiphon,… (whose) regime lasted only a few months, and after a brief experiment with a more moderate form of oligarchy the Athenians restored the old democratic institutions pretty much as they had been’ (ibid).

However, in 406, during the period of this restored democracy, Athens experiences ‘the biggest single practical blunder in the democracy’s history: the trial and condemnation to death of all eight generals involved in the pyrrhic naval victory at Arginusae. The generals’ collective crime, so it was alleged by Theramenes (formerly one of the 400) and others… was to have failed to rescue several thousands of Athenian citizen survivors. Passions ran high… during a crucial Assembly meeting, over which Socrates may have presided… The resulting decision to try and condemn to death the eight generals collectively only hastened Athens’ eventual defeat in the war’ (ibid). Eventually, ‘In 404 BCE, the Spartans caught the Athenian fleet on the beach at Aegospotamoi (“Goat Islands”) and destroyed it. After a period of siege, while the Spartans blockaded the harbors of Athens, the city surrendered, and its fortunes fell into the hands of the so-called Thirty Tyrants. These were Athenians selected by the Spartans to form a puppet government by the Spartans (Blackwell, 2003).Though this tyranny ‘lasted only one year before pro-democracy forces regained control of the city’s affairs’ (ibid), it should be pointed out that the Thirty Tyrants included Critias, one of Plato’s relatives. Soon after the restoration of democracy, in 399, Plato’s mentor Socrates ‘ was charged with impiety… and, a separate alleged offence, corrupting the young’ (Cartledge, 2011). In other words, Socrates was condemned for his religious views ‘were deeply unorthodox, his political sympathies were far from radically democratic, and he had been the teacher of… Critias’ (ibid). In the trial, Socrates didn’t do ‘anything to help defend his own cause, so that more of the 501 jurors voted for the death penalty than had voted him guilty as charged in the first place. By Athenian democratic standards of justice,… the guilt of Socrates was sufficiently proven’ (ibid). This trial and the execution of Socrates took place in front of his disciples’ eyes and thus ‘it helped decisively to form one of democracy’s – all democracy’s, not just the Athenian democracy’s – most formidable critics: Plato’ (ibid).

Plato’s criticism against democracy

Plato, as a young man, began his writing career most likely being passionately provoked by the death of his mentor Socrates. He grew up in Athens through the political turmoil with the Peloponnesian War in its background. During that period, he must have witnessed a couple of fatal political wrong doings – the execution of eight generals in 406 and of Socrates in 399 – both took place under the rule of democracy, which eventually led Athens to the defeat in the war. Plato must have formed his political views based on some intellectual anti-democrats during that time, including his mentor Socrates and one of whose pupils Xenophon. It is said that these intellectuals, including Plato himself, allegedly argued that ‘the majority of the people, because they were by and large ignorant and unskilled, would always get it wrong. In these intellectuals’ view, government was an art, craft or skill, and should be entrusted only to the skilled and intelligent, who were by definition a minority. They denied specifically that the sort of knowledge available to and used by ordinary people, popular knowledge if you like, was really knowledge at all. At best it was mere opinion, and almost always it was ill-informed and wrong opinion’ (ibid). Moreover, probably taking an example of Pericles into their account, they viewed that the masses were ‘easily swayed by specious rhetoric – so easily swayed that they were incapable of taking longer views or of sticking resolutely to one, good view once that had been adopted. The masses were, in brief, shortsighted, selfish and fickle, an easy prey to unscrupulous orators who came to be known as demagogues. Demagogue meant literally ‘leader of the demos’ (‘demos’ means people); but democracy’s critics took it to mean mis-leaders of the people, mere rabble-rousers’ (ibid). Ultimately, Xenophon concluded in a fictional conversation between Pericles and Alcibiades, in his work Memoirs of Socrates, that ‘democracy is really just another form of tyranny’ (ibid).

Now, Plato as a matured philosopher and a political thinker, launches more sophisticated counter-arguments against democracy, fundamentally by ‘putting into question the peoples’ ability to rule justly’ (Hermes, 2011). First of all, ‘The Athenian belief that all men are equal and so should have an equal opportunity in politics is severely criticised by Plato’ (ibid) because those elected by popular vote are ‘not the wisest and ablest… but the demagogues best versed in oration and rhetoric’ (ibid), who have ‘no skill or aim other than the desire for power itself’ (ibid). Subsequently, Plato accuses ‘Democratic governance, with its ultimate goal being liberty’ (ibid) of being ‘prone to the rise of anarchy and rebellion due to a distinct lack of discipline, sense of duty and respect for order’ (ibid). In short, ‘Pervasive liberty means that people are free to do what they desire, not what they are suited to… In this way a democratic society is one which obeys its basest wants… those of food, sex and money, above the more civilly beneficial elements of the psyche: reason and indignation’ (ibid), therefore, ‘the fundamental ideal upon which democracy is built’ (ibid) is to be blamed because ‘full liberty leads to anarchy’ (ibid). Finally, and most importantly, Plato points out inherent class tensions as his ‘most damning criticism of the democratic system. Plato makes evident the disunity between the classes, with a distinct lack of respect and discipline in the ordinary citizen for authority. This stems from the lack of incentive for the ruled to submit to the decisions of the rulers’ (ibid). In summary, Plato argues that ‘outright liberty and political equality do not provide true happiness and justice for the majority of citizens or in the state itself’ (ibid), in line with this, he ‘values overall happiness and justice far more than liberty’ (ibid) of individuals. As a result, ‘An important element of Plato’s imagined utopian city is that people must commit to the profession in which they have natural talent. This corresponds to a sense of social justice and a unified and efficient society, a level of cohesion which Plato does not believe can be achieved in democracy’ (ibid). Consequently, Plato ‘advocates rule by not the greatest orator or panderer but the greatest and most morally righteous of citizens’ (ibid) – in other words, philosopher kings.

Plato’s ‘just state’ consists of three classes

Having established logically sound criticisms against democracy, now Plato begins to build up his hypothetical ideal state. In doing so, it is said that one of his key elements in  Republic is ‘to put forth a conception of the “just state”‘ (Wright, 2012). The definition of justice, according to Plato, is ‘“To do one’s own business and not to be a busybody is justice.” (Republic 433b.)’ (ibid) Therefore, it follows that ‘In the just state, each class and each individual has a specific set of duties, a set of obligations to the community which, if everyone fulfils them, will result in a harmonious whole (ibid). The idea seems like corresponding to Plato’s philosophical world view that ‘everything in nature is part of a hierarchy, and that nature is ideally a vast harmony, a cosmic symphony’ (ibid), therefore, the just state should be hierarchical like nature and individuals should be ‘ranked according to their aptitudes, and definitively placed in the social hierarchy’ (ibid) because ‘justice consists in fulfilling one’s proper role – realizing one’s potential whilst not overstepping it by doing what is contrary to one’s nature’ (ibid).
In Republic, Plato discusses further details of his ideal state, which consists of ‘three major classes, corresponding to the three parts of the soul. The guardians, who are philosophers, govern the city; the auxiliaries are soldiers who defend it; and the lowest class comprises the producers (farmers, artisans, etc)’ (ibid). In this class society, ‘People are allowed to have only one occupation – namely that for which they are best suited by nature’ (ibid), and since ‘Only what is conducive to temperate living is encouraged… Neither wealth nor poverty is permitted, as each leads to vice’ (ibid).
Interestingly enough, the notion of this ideal state consists of three major classes, which is simply divided in governors, soldiers, and all the rest, seems to share some similarities with the political system of the winner of the war, Sparta.

Sparta was governed by ‘two hereditary kings from two separate families… The kings were also priests of Zeus and they sat on the council of elders known as the gerousia. This body consisted of 28 over-60 years of age males who held the position for life. The gerousia led the citizen assembly, probably proposing issues on which to vote and it was also the highest court in Sparta. The assembly (Ekklēsia) met once a month and was open to all citizens who voted by the simple method of shouting. There was also an executive committee of five ephors (ephoroi) chosen by lot from the citizen body, able only to serve for a maximum of one year and who were ineligible for future office… Just how these different political elements interacted is not known for certain but… It may also explain Sparta’s reputation as being a conservative state slow to make decisions in foreign policy’ (Cartwright, 2013). In terms of soldiers, all Spartan citizens were subjected to ‘a strong emphasis on military training and frugal living in communal mess halls where simple food such as barley meal, cheese, figs and wine were the norm. From the age of seven, males had a militaristic upbringing known as the agōgē where they were separated into age groups and lived in barracks. These youths pursued rigorous athletic and military training which became even more demanding from the age of 20, when they joined common mess halls (syssition)’ (ibid). Spartan citizens ‘did not indulge in farming (nor agricultural) activities themselves but devoted their time to military training, hunting, war, and politics’ because the role of producers were the lot of lower classes, namely helots and periokoi’ (ibid).

Plato and eugenics

The system used for upbringing Spartan soldiers might have inspired the following account recommended for Plato’s ideal state; that ‘the traditional form of the family should be done away with. Men should have women and children in common, such that no man knows who his children are or has excessive love for one woman in particular. Even mothers are not allowed to know who their children are. Their children are taken from them after birth, and they are given other children to suckle as long as they have milk’ (Wright, 2012). Furthermore, in terms of reproduction, Plato even goes further to seemingly the field of eugenics, when he says ‘the best of either sex should be united with the best as often [as possible], and the inferior with the inferior as seldom as possible’ (ibid), which may remind of Spartan practice of ‘killing weak and deformed infants’ (ibid).
In Republic, Plato also argues about ‘the policy of ensuring “judicious matings”‘ (Galton, 1998). In which, ‘He proposed that marriage for the guardian classes (guardians were the premier class of Athenian citizens, selected by their natural capacities and attainments to govern the state) be abolished and that provision be made for men and women of the same natural capacities to made. He drew an analogy with the selective breeding of sporting dogs and horses in order to obtain the desired stock… Inferior members of the guardian classes should be discouraged from reproducing. Only the best of the offspring should be kept in the guardian class and the inferior children should be relegated to the civilian classes’ (ibid). As for child bearing, he continues that ‘The newborn children were to be taken from their mothers and reared in special nurseries in a separate quarter of the city. Family life was to be discouraged as it provided a distraction from the business of governing, of defending or extending the city state by conquest. Any children born defective would be “hidden away” in some appropriate manner. This may actually a euphemism for instance. However neither infanticide nor exposure as practised in Sparta and other Greek cities was recommended by Plato for his republic’ (ibid).

Plato and gender equality

Whilst eugenics is largely approved in his ideal state, when it comes to make differentiations in each individuals, sexism seems to have little room for Plato, who suggests ‘women in the guardian class should receive the same education as men, so that the best of them can assist in war and governance’ (Wright, 2012), despite the background where, ‘the ancient Greeks held a rather low opinion of women’ ( DuBois, 2007). Plato’s argument for gender equality could be acknowledged as a logical extension of his fundamental principle for the ideal state, in which, ‘jobs and functions in an ideal state ought to be distributed according to one’s nature, inclination, and capability’ (ibid). Then he asks ‘if anything aside from physiology separates men and women; he soon concludes not’ (ibid). Therefore, men and women ‘are endowed equally with “natural capacities” for all “administrative occupations,” including the Guardianship (rule) of the city as well as its defense (sic), and that there is no sufficient difference between them to justify the exclusion of women from the most important duties of the state’ (ibid). Even though he believes that ‘since women are traditionally the physically weaker of the sexes, nature also dictates they be given a “lighter share” of these duties in keeping with their (assumed) level of strength’ (ibid), in terms of providing fair opportunities, ‘Plato advocates a system of equal education for men and women being raised as Auxiliaries (soldiers) and Guardians (philosopher-rulers)’ (ibid).

Again, it is quite interesting that referring to the education of the guardian class, Plato gives a suggestion that ‘women ought to be allowed to exercise naked in the gymnasia (athletic training-grounds) alongside the men as part of their physical education regimen, to keep them healthy and fit for military service’ (ibid) since this particular practice coincides with what could be seen among Spartan women, who ‘could enjoy athletics (done in the nude like men), and even drink wine’ (Cartwright, 2013). It is also worth to mention that ‘Women in Sparta had a better lot than in other Greek city-states. In Sparta they could own property which they often gained through dowries and inheritances. In fact, women became amongst the richest members of society, as their men were killed in the many wars, and eventually controlled 2/5th of Spartan land. In addition, Spartan women could also move around with reasonable freedom… All of these freedoms would have been unacceptable in other Greek poleis’ (ibid). Even though it could be assumed that Plato might have taken some ideas from Spartan politics, in terms of gender equality, it has been pointed out that he ‘obviously held women in a lower regard than men’ (DuBois, 2007); for instance, he ‘posits that cowardly or immoral men are reborn as women’ (ibid), therefore, he could be regarded to have advocated ‘a “proto-feminist” viewpoint’ (ibid) at the best.

Finally, in Plato’s ideal state, ‘There is no private property or money except insofar as it is necessary, among the lower classes; therefore there will be no disputes about what belongs to whom – just as there will be no disputes about which women belong to whom, and who one’s children are. In general, the goal Plato is aiming at is that everyone thinks of everyone else as a member of their family, such that there is little or no strife between people and they all desire the same thing – which is harmony, temperance, gentleness toward fellow-citizens’ (Wright, 2012) because the ultimate purpose of attempting to establish an ideal state in his work Republic was, as it has been quoted above, ‘to put forth a conception of the “just state” (ibid), which can bring ‘a harmonious whole’ (ibid) as a result.

Thus, this short essay tried to examine Plato’s arguments on democracy and his ideal state. It started off with looking at the historical background of Athenian democracy, where renowned orator Pericles’s attempts to establish Radical democracy led to a political turmoil and eventually to Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War to Sparta. Meanwhile, it also followed the arguments of intellectual anti-democrats during the war time, to which Plato was involved, and found their mistrust in masses, who are prone to be misled by demagogues. Subsequently, it focused on Plato’s matured criticism against democracy in his Republic and picked up his doubt on ‘peoples’ ability to rule justly’ and his denial of civil liberty and political equality for these would lead to anarchy. It further delved into some other ideas suggested for his ideal state, especially focusing on its class system, eugenics, and gender equality and in each topic, it could find some degree of similarity between Plato’s accounts and practices in Sparta, the winner of the Peloponnesian War. Finally, it briefly looked at another important element for Plato’s ideal state regarding to private property and, with referring back to his conception of the ‘just state’, drew a conclusion that ultimate purpose of Plato’s ideal state is to bring ‘a harmonious whole.’


Blackwell, Christopher W. (2003), “The Development of Athenian Democracy,” in Adriaan Lanni, ed., “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context” (Center for Hellenic Studies On-line Discussion Series). Republished in C.W. Blackwell, ed., Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy (A. Mahoney and R. Scaife, edd., The Stoa: a consortium for electronic publication in the humanities []) edition of January 24 (electronically accessed 03/07/2014)

Cartledge, Paul (2011), Critics and Critique of Athenian Democracy, BBC – History – Ancient History – Greeks – Athens and Democracy (last updated 17/02/2011, electronically accessed 25/06/2014)

Cartwright, Mark (2013), Sparta, Ancient Hisotry Encyclopedia (electronically accessed 01/07/2014)

Columbia University (2013), Plato 429 BCE – 347 BCE, Columbia College – The Core Curriculum – Republic (electronically accessed 01/06/2014)

DuBois, Edward C. (2007), Plato as a Proto-Feminist, transcending silence…, Department of Women’s Studies, Univcrsity at Albany – Archives – Spring 2007 Issue (electronically accessed 15/06/2014)

Galton, David J. (1998), ‘Greek theories on eugenics’ Journal of Medical Ethics 24; 264-265, (electronically accessed 17/06/2014)

Hermes, Tom (2011), Plato’s Critique of Democracy, CLIO – A Journal for Students of History in the Australian Capital Territory (electronically accessed 07/06/2014)’s+Critique+of+Democracy

Purdue University (year unstated), Radical Democracy in the Age of Pericles (electronically accessed 17/07/2014)

Wright, Christopher C. (2012), Philosophy Now, a Magazine of Ideas Issue 90 (May / June 2012), Plato’s Just State (electronically accessed 08/06/2014)

This entry was posted in Ancient Greece, Books, News and politics, philosophy / theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s