M. N. Roy Jawaharlal Nehru



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  • PLATO (428 OR 427 B.C-347 B.C.)



  • Influence of Socrates on Plato

  • Plato's meeting with Socrates was a turning-point in his life. Socrates, Plato's guide and master, was a person of grotesque, almost repulsive appearance : short and stout, with a snub nose, large prominent eyes, thick lips, full of wit and irony, ready to take a joke against himself, a good mixer, no respecter of persons. Plato, his disciple, presented a complete contrast. He had been brought up in comfort, and perhaps in wealth ; he was a handsome and vigorous youth—called Plato, it is said, because of the breadth of his shoulders ; he had excelled as a soldier, and had twice won prizes at the Isthmian games. Philosophers are not apt to develop out of such an adolescence. But Plato's subtle soul had found a new joy in the 'dialectic' game of Socrates ; it was a delight to behold the Master deflating dogmas and puncturing presumptions with the sharp point of his question ; Plato entered into this sport as he had in a coarser kind of wrestling ; and under the guidance of the old 'gad-fly' (as Socrates called himself) he passed from mere debate to careful analysis and fruitful discussion. He became a very passionate lover of wisdom, and of his teacher. "I thank God," he used to say, "that I was born Greek and not barbarian, freeman and not slave, man and not woman ; but above all, that I was born in the age of Socrates."

  • Plato was twenty-eight when the master died ; and this tragic end of a quiet life left its mark on every phase of the pupil's thought. It filled htm with such a scorn of democracy, such a hatred of the mob, as even his aristocratic lineage and breeding had hardly engen­dered in him : it led him to a Catonic resolve that democracy must be destroyed, to be replaced by the rule of the wisest and the best. It became the absorbing problem of his life to find a method where­by the wisest and the best might be discovered, and then enabled and persuaded to rule.

  • Meanwhile his efforts to save Socrates had marked him out for suspicion by the democratic leaders : his friends urged that Athens was unsafe for him, that it was an admirably propitious moment for him to see the world. And so, in that year 399 B.C., he set out. Where he went we cannot for certain say ; there is a merry war of the authorities for every turn of his route. He seems to have gone first to Egypt ; and was somewhat shocked to hear from the priestly class which ruled that land, that Greece was an infant state, without



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    1. stabilizing traditions or profound culture, not yet therefore to be taken seriously by these sphinxly pundits of the Nile. But nothing so educates us as a shock ; the memory of this learned caste, theoreti­cally ruling a static agricultural people, remained alive in Plato's thought,, and played its part in writing his Utopia. And then off he sailed .t

    2. The Justice and the State

    3. Plato returned to Athens in 387 B.C., a man of forty now, ripened to maturity by the variety of many peoples and the wisdom of many lands. He had lost a little of the hot enthusiasms of youth, but he had gained a perspective of thought in which every extreme was seen as a half-truth, and the many aspects of every problem blended into a distributive justice to every fact of the truth. He had knowledge, and he had art; for once the philosopher and the poet lived in one soul ; and he created for himself a medium of expres­sion in which both beauty and truth might find room and play—the dialogue. Never before, we may believe, had philosophy assumed so brilliant a garb ; and surely never since. Even in translation this style shines and sparkles and leaps and bubbles over. "Plato," says one of his lovers, Shelley, "exhibits the rare union of close and subtle logic with the Pythian enthusiasm of poetry, melted by the splend­our and harmony of his periods into one irresistible stream of musical impressions, which hurry the persuasions onward as in a breathless career."1


      1. 1 Quoted by Barker : Greek Political Theory (1918), p. 5.

      In pursuing his enquiries on the subject of virtue, Socrates had always before his mind the idea of a happier and better society which he hoped to persuade man to establish. Plato's interests were equal­ly practical. He felt, with that half-conscious conviction and self-assurance characteristic of the young, that he was cut out to be a great statesman, a master of men. Those companions with whom he mixed—the great men of the time—encouraged him to nourish such ambitions because they realized his unusual distinction of mind. His future thus seemed assured. But at the critical moment of his career, his beloved master was arrested on the charge of worshipping false gods and of corrupting the young. To Socrates himself, now a weary



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    1. old man, the event must have come as no great surprise ; he had expected—almost courted—it. But the effect upon his small band of disciples was devastating. From Socrates, Plato had derived the emotional stimulus that he felt he would need to transform himself from a mere politician, a party manager, into statesman of lofty ideals. He was to be the first man of his time to demonstrate the workability of a political plan based upon justice instead of self-interest. He was to be the instrument whereby the glory of Athens, now in danger from formidable external enemies, was to be regene­rated from within. The democratic regime under which he had grown up seemed to be cased upon false—that is to say, materialistic —values ; and when in turn that regime was overthrown and a new government of thirty reforms substituted for it, Plato, being personal­ly acquainted with many of the latter, had sincerely believed that the Athenian state would now at last recover its soul.

    2. "I thought," he later explained in one of the most interesting of his letters, "that it (the rule of the Thirty) would substitute the reign of justice for the reign of injustice, and so I gave it my closest attention to see what it would do. And I saw these gentlemen with­in a very short time make the democracy they had destroyed seem like a golden age ! I was deeply disgusted and dissociated myself entirely from this deplorable government. Shortly afterwards the Thirty were turned out and their regime destroyed. Once again I was filled with a desire to take an active part in politics. It was not surprising that those revolutionary times resulted in personal reprisals of violent character ; but on the whole the restored democracy exer­cised considerable moderation. And yet, as ill-luck would have it, certain influential persons brought an action against Socrates. The charge was an outrageous one, of which Socrates was completely innocent. They accused him of irreligion, and on this account the jury condemned him to death."

    3. Henceforth Plato was to entertain towards politics and the pro­fession of statecraft feelings of unconcealed revulsion. "The more I considered it," he wrote, "and the older I grew, the more difficult appeared to me to be the task of decent government. Traditions of honesty and the actual observance of law alike were degenerating in Athens with surprising rapidity, and when I saw how chaotic the political situation was, I felt completely baffled. . . .Finally I came to the conclusion that every state without exception is badly governed, and that the state of legislation is everywhere so deplorable that no improvement is possible w:thout drastic reconstruction combined with some very good luck, vnd so I was forced to extol true philo­sophy and to declare that through it alone can real justice both for the state and for the individual be discovered and enforced." And he concluded with the following profound observation : "Mankind will find no cessation from evil until either the real philosophers gain



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    1. political control, or else the politicians become by some miracle real philosophers."

    2. He saw, as Socrates had taught him, that the most urgent and difficult of all reforms was that to be undertaken within man himself, a reform that should ultimately extend to all mankind, embracing both Greeks and barbarians, slaves and free men. That a truly just society could be established within measurable time, he was too dis­illusioned to believe. A long period of education must prepare the way for any such millennium. Nevertheless, if his ideals were pro­nounced too lofty to be realized, he was convinced that no goal less lofty was worth pursuing. Greek civilization could survive, he believed, only through the kind of spiritual renewal that would render impos­sible a repetition of the scandal of Socrates' persecution. Indeed, the test of a just society was simply whether it would foster and honour its great reformers and teachers, or whether, out of gross ignorance on the part of the masses or from fear of exposure and ridicule on the part of a few tyrants, it would seek to muzzle them. Plato's Political Theory : The Way to Good Life

    3. Taking his clue frorr Socrates that the aim of philosophy is to prescribe the kind of life most likely to promote the happiness of man, Plato realized that such a subject of enquiry depends for its clarifica­tion upon the answer to the questions : What kind of a being is this creature, man, that he should need to be concerned with his own happiness ? What distinguishes him as a living entity from the rest of creation ? In seeking to answer these questions, Plato pursued his speculations to a point where Socrates, content to 'shelve' metaphysi­cal matters, or at best to interpret them in an allegorical fashion, had called a halt. Never wholly forsaking his early political ambitions, Plato earnestly sought to combine his loftiest notions with plans for a social system or Republic wherein *he human spirit, destined for im­mortality in another sphere, might develop its latent capacities.

    4. In short, Plato's political theory was concerned not so much with a state that should promote the material well-being of its inha­bitants with a system capable of opening the way to the good life by providing the maximum incentive to it. Here his attitude differs from that of the most modern writers. Today's man's idea of good­ness and badness are generally supposed to be matters private to himself. The good life is something to be lived apart from, and often in spite of, the social system of the day. Religion, for instance, is a private affair, a matter for the individual conscience. To Plato this division of life into a public and a private sphere was not to be tole­rated. Politics and morals were also the same. Bad politics leads to bad behaviour. The good life was possible only in the good state,' which he always called as the ideal state.

    5. 2 For Plato, the State signifies the City State of his day.



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    1. Plato was dissatisfied with the Athenian democratic system and the Greek civilization, and he wrote a number of Dialogues, such as, Crito, Apology, Euthyphro, Laches, Lysis, Charmides, Phaedo, Gorgias, Meno, Protagoras, Phaedres, Symposium, Euthydemus, and Republic. In his later years he wrote the Theateus, Parmenides, Philebus, Sophist, Statesman, Laws, and the half-finished Critias. Of that the greatest is the Republic, which is also regarded as the greatest book in the history of Political Thought. It is this book in which he discusses his ideal state. In fact, it is this book in which we find his metaphysics, his theology, his ethics, his psychology, his pedagogy, his politics, his theory of art. Here we shall find problems reeking with modernity and contemporary savor : communism and socialism, feminism and birth-control and eugenics, Nietzschean problems of morality and aristocracy, Rousseauian problems of return to nature and libertarian education; Bergsonian elan vital and Freudian psycho-analysis—every­thing is here. It is a feast of the elite, served by an unstinting host. "Plato is philosophy, and philosophy Plato," says Emerson ; and awards to the Republic the words of Omar about the Koran : "Burn the libraries, for their value is in this book."8

    2. The Republic : Concepts of Knowledge and Government

    3. The fundamental idea of the Republic came to Plato in the form of his master's doctrine that virtue is knowledge. His own unhappy political experience reinforced the ideal and crystallized it in the founding of the Academy to inculcate the spirit of true knowledge as the foundation for a philosophic statecraft. But the preposition that virtue is knowledge implies that there is an objective good to be known, and that it can, in fact, be known by rational or logica. investigation rather than by intuition, guesswork, or luck. The good is objectively real, whatever anybody thinks about it, and it ought to be realized not because men want it but because it is good. In other words, will comes into the matter only secondarily ; what men want depends upon how much they see of the good, but nothing is good merely because they want it. From this it follows that the man who knows—the philosopher or scholar or scientist—ought to have decisive power in government, and that it is his knowledge alone which entitles him to this.


      1. 3 Emerson : Representative Men, p. 41.

      Plato started by dividing the citizens into three classes : the common people, the soldiers, and the guardians. The last, alone, are to have political power. There are to be much fewer of them than of the other two classes. In the first instance, it seems, they are to be selected by the legislator ; after that, they will usually succeed by heredity, but in exceptional cases a promising child may be promo­ted from one of the inferior classes, while among the children of guar­dians a child or young man who is quite unsatisfactory may be



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    1. degraded. This dividing of tasks and securing the most perfect performance of each—the specialization of function which is the root of society—depends upon two factors, natural aptitude and training. The first is innate and the second is a matter of experience and educa­tion. As a practical enterprise the state depends on controlling and interrelating these two factors ; in other words, upon getting the best human capacity and developing it to the highest degree by the best education. The whole analysis supports the initial conception : there is no hope for states unless power remains in the hands of those who know, first, what task an ideal state requires, and second, what here­dity and education will supply the citizens fitted to perform them.

    2. Thus, Plato's theory of the state can be divided into two main parts : first, that government is an art depending on exact knowledge of which the philosopher-ruler is only capable, and, secondly, that knowledge can be taught. Logically the second part is a premise for the first. This we can very well understand by further analysing Plato's mind on the problem of good government.


      1. Republic, p. 556,

      2. Ibid, p. 557.

      3. Protagoras, p. 317.

      4. Republic, p. 565.

      Plato came to believe that every form of government tends to perish by excess of its basic principle. Aristocracy ruins itself by limiting too narrowly the circle within which power is confined. Oligarchy ruins itself by the incautious scramble for immediate wealth. In either case the end is revolution. When revolution comes it may seem to arise from little causes and petty whims : but though it may spring from slight occasions it is the precipitate result of grave and accumulated wrongs ; when a body is weakened by neglected ills, the merest exposure may bring serious disease.* "Then democracy comes ; the poor overcome their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing the rest: and give to the people an equal share of freedom and power."8 Even democracy ruins itself by excess—of democracy. Its basic principle is the equal right of all to hold office and determine public policy. This is at first glance a delightful arrangement; it becomes jisastrous because the people are not properly equipped by education to select the best rulers and the wisest courses. "As to the people they have no understanding, and only repeat what their rulers are pleased to tell them ;' '• to get a doctrine accepted or rejected it is only necessary to have it praised or ridiculed in a popular play. Mob-rule is a rough sea for the ship of state to ride : every wind of oratory stirs up the waters and deflects the course. The upshot of such a democracy is tyranny or autocracy; the crowd so loves flattery, it is so 'hungry for honey', that at last the wiliest and mos' unscrupulous flatterer, calling himself the 'protector of the people rises to supreme power.7



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    1. The more Plato thought of it, the more astounded he was at the folly of leaving to mob-caprice and gullibility the selection of political officials—not to speak of leaving it to those shady and wealth-serving strategists who pull the oligarchic wires behind the democratic stage. Plato is found complaining that whereas in simpler matters—like shoe-making—we think only a specially trained person will serve our purpose, in politics we presume that everyone who knows how to get votes knows to administer a city or a state. When we are indisposed we call for a trained physician, whose degree is a guarantee of specific preparation and technical competence—we do not ask for the handsomest physician, or the most eloquent one ; well then, when the whole state is ill should we not look for the service and guidance of the wisest and the best ? To devise a method of barring incompetence and knavery from public office, and of selecting and preparing the best to rule for the common good—that is the problem of political philosophy.

    2. The Problem of Psychology

    3. But behind this problem of political philosophy lies the problem of psychology. There is an urgent necessity to understand the nature of man and change his psychology before we start with the work of establishing an ideal state. Plato writes in the Republic that "govern­ments vary as the characters of men vary:. . . .states are made out of the human natures which are in them."8 The state is what it is because its citizens are what they are. Therefore, we need not expect to have better state until we have better men ; till then all changes will leave every essential thing unchanged. "How charming people are !—always doctoring, increasing and complicating their disorders, fancying they will be cured by some nostrum which somebody advises them to try, never getting better, but always growing worse.. . . Are they not as good as a play, trying their hand at legislation, and imagining that by reforms they will make an end to the dishonesties and rascalities of mankind—not knowing that in reality they are cutting away at the heads of a hydra ?"* In fact, we cannot build Utopia with young people corrupted at every turn by the example of their elders. We must start, so far as we can, with a clean slate. It is quite possible that some enlightened ruler will empower us to make such a beginning with some part or colony of his realm. In any case, we must give to every child, and from the outset, full equality of educational opportunity; there is no telling where the light of talent or genius will break out; we must seek it impartially everywhere, in every rank and race. The first turn on our road is universal education.


      1. Ibid., p. 544.

      2. Republic, p. 425.

      One cannot fail to be astonished at the amount of space which



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    1. Plato has devoted to education in the Republic, and at the meticulous care with which he has discussed different studies in it. He frankly admitted that the state was first and foremost an educational institu­tion. He called it 'the one great thing.' If the citizens are well-educated they will readily see through the difficulties that beset them and meet emergencies as they arise. So striking is the part played in Plat o's ideal state by education that some have considered this to be the chief topic of the Republic. Rousseau said that the book was hardly a political work at all, but was the greatest work on education ever written. Obviously this was no accident but a logical result of the point of view from which the work was written. If virtue is knowledge, it can be taught, and the educational system to which it is the one indispensable part of a good state. From Plato's point of view, with a good system of education almost every improvement is possible ; if education is neglected it matters little what else the state does.

    2. Plato's Plan of Education

    3. Plato's plan is, therefore, for a state-controlled system of com­pulsory education. His educational scheme falls naturally into two parts : the elementary education, which includes the training of young persons up to about the age of twenty, and culminates in the beginning of military service : and the higher education, intended for those selected persons of both sexes who are to be members of the two ruling classes and extending from the age of twenty to thirtyfive.


      1. 10 Republic, p. 375.

      The plan of elementary education given in the Republic was rather a reform cf existing practice than the invention of a wholly new system. It combines the training usually given to the son of an Athenian gentleman with the state controlled training given to a youthful Spartan. The curriculum is divided into two sections, gym­nastics for training the body and music for training the mind. For the first ten years of life, education shall be predominantly physical ; every school is to have a gymnasium and a playground ; play and sport are to be the entire curriculum . and in this first decade such health will be stored up as will make all medicine unnecessary. But mere athletics and gymnastics, Plato thought, would make a man too one-sided. "How shall we find a gentle nature which has also great courage ?—for they seem to be inconsistent with each other."'0 We do not want a ration of prize-fighters and weight-lifters. Perhaps music will solve our problem : through music the soul learns harmony and rhythm, and even a disposition to justice ;" for "can he who is harmoniously constituted ever be unjust ? Is not this, Glaucon, why musical training is so powerful, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the secret places of the soul, bearing grace in their



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    1. movements and making the soul graceful ?"u Music moulds character and, therefore, shares in determining social and political issues. It is valuable not only because it brings refinement of feeling and cha­racter, but also because it preserves and restores health. There are some diseases, Plato writes, which can be treated only through the mind12: so the Corybantic priest treated hysterical women with wild pipe music, which excited them to dance and dance till they fell to the ground exhausted, and went to sleep; when they awoke they were cured. The unconscious sources of human thought are touched and soothed by such methods : and it is in these substrata of behaviour and feeling that genius sinks its roots.

    2. It is easy to exaggerate the influence of Sparta, particularly, upon Plato's theory of elementary education. Its most genuinely Spartan feature was the dedication of education exclusively to civic training. But its content was typically Athenian, and its purpose was dominated by the end of moral and intellectual cultivation. In fact, Plato's plan of training represents an Athenian, not a Spartan conception of what constitutes an educated man. "Any other con­clusion would have been unthinkable for a philosopher who believed that the only salvation for states lay in the exercise of trained intelligence."13

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