The Guardians —socially ideal, yet naturally flawed
In his work “Republic”, Plato sets forth the characteristics of the guardians of his utopian city, Kallipolis, through Socratic dialogue. He explains how the city is divided between craftsmen, guardians, and rulers, each vital to the efficient functioning of human life. While describing the guardians, the “protectors” of the city, the reader is led to agree with Socrates’ substantiated reasoning that explains how they must possess a set of specific physical qualities, and also demonstrate a “spirited soul” (Plato 375b6). Plato delves even deeper in the construction of this social faction, by presenting Socrates’ ideas on how the guardians should be educated, and in what limited conditions they should live in, to make the city steer clear of malfunctioning and to ensure happiness in Kallipolis. Plato thus successfully makes the reader envision an ideal guardian, constructed through solid philosophic claims. However, it is possible to challenge such an “ideal” image of a guardian, by arguing that Socrates’ definition of “happiness”, deprives humans from their natural drive to seek multiple disciplines— something which is claimed in “Republic” to lead to “ruin” (415a5).
Plato introduces the idea of the “guardians” by depicting the need to “…select, if we [Socrates and Glaucon] can, which sorts of natures, suit people to guard the city” (274e6-7), and takes the reader by the hand to present what seems to be an unflawed description of the “perfect” guardian. Socrates begins by stating that guardians must be “…sharp-eyed, quick to catch what they see, and strong, too…” (375a5-6) and they must also then, “…be spirited” (375b7-8). At the same time, Socrates claims the guardians must be “…gentle to their own people and harsh to their enemies” (375c1). The words “strong” and “gentle,” used by Socrates to describe the guardians, work as a juxtaposition—thus they seem impossible to be expressed by one individual. In order to settle this form contradiction however, Socrates introduces the allusion of hounds, who are “…gentle as can be to those they are familiar with and know, but the opposite to those they do not know” (375e1). Hence, it is by making reference to an animal, common symbol of nature itself, that Socrates sets forth the ideal image of the balanced guardian, which the reader can now agree, is naturally achievable.
After establishing the principal characteristics of the guardians, Socrates continues to outline how they must be educated to have “…a blend of musical and physical training” (412a4) that will harmonize the body and the mind, preventing them to “…do evil to the other citizens” (416c6-7), given their advantages. At this point, Socrates makes the image of the guardians one that the reader will most likely agree is ideal, as he carefully points out how they are to be free of negative intentions. Furthermore, Socrates then explains that these guardians must be taught to believe that they were “…down inside the earth being formed and nurtured” (414e6-7) before they were born, and that “…he [god] mixed gold into those of you [guardians] who are capable of ruling…silver into the auxiliaries; and iron and bronze into the farmers and other craftsmen” (415a4-6). Socrates paints the image of an efficient society composed of a hierarchy where each individual has its own faction and position. Socrates further explains that “…for the most part, you [the guardians] will produce children like yourselves” (415a7), suggesting that once part of a specific faction, the offspring of the guardians of Kallipolis will most likely continue to live in the same faction. This way, Socrates makes the reader envision an efficient society, where, in Socrates’ words, a person is “…assigned one job for which he has a natural aptitude…and he is to work at it his whole life, free from having to do any other jobs” (374c1). Socrates adds that no guardian should “possess any private property” (416d5), nor should they have living quarters or storerooms that are not open for all to enter at will” (416d5). Here, Socrates establishes some limitations that he explains are reasonable. If the guardians are not deprived of these commodities, they will use their advantages and become more than just guardians, but also “managers and farmers” (417a5), and would have more “internal than external enemies” (417b1). The reader most likely agrees that this is ideal, as Socrates points out that the guardians are able to focus their entire energy in the well-functioning of the city and that they will not acquire riches that will disorient their tasks. The reader can recall that their “naturally balanced nature” (strong and gentle) makes them able to express all of it.
It could be stated that on the surface, Socrates has created a perfect image of the “protector of the city.” However, when analyzing the personal lives of these guardians, I fail to envision an ideal one, and agree with the character of Adeimantus when he claims that Socrates is “…not making this men very happy” (419a); “…the city belongs to them, yet they derive no good from the city” (419a10). Even though Socrates explains that the goal is not to “…make one group in it outstandingly happy, but to make the whole city so as far as possible” (420b5-6), to say that the true approach to “happiness” comes from a collective perspective is not natural in human beings.
Socrates starts to introduce the guardians by alluding to a hound, which since the beginning convinced me that it is ideal and reasonable for the guardian to have “strength” and “gentleness,” now that it is found in nature. However, Socrates then departs from his allusion to nature, and begins constructing an overly synthetic image of the guardians. It is against nature itself, to limit an individual to perform only one duty for their entire lives (which Socrates presents as ideal). This is evidenced by continuing to use the example that Socrates began using: the allusion of the hound. Even though the animal does resemble both “strength and gentleness”—ideal in a guardian, does it not hunt for its own food, find shelter, and protect itself from other animals? This is a clear example then, that it is natural to perform a variety of tasks. By applying this same natural behavior in humans, who have more complex lifestyles, is it not logical to say that they should be able to have their natural drive to pursue more than one discipline or job, if they want to and can? It becomes unreasonable then, to say that by depriving humans from their nature, they will achieve true “happiness.” Socrates connects his claims to the concept of nature only to make the reader agree with the initial image of the ideal guardian at the beginning, and then deviates from this concept when it is no longer convenient to make a reference to it.
Moreover, the “happiness” that Socrates claims is present under the guardians’ efforts, is not achieved under a natural system. Rather, it is achieved by deceiving the guardians that their job was “pre-selected” by god, which Socrates himself asserts is a “…single, noble lie that would, preferably, persuade even the rulers themselves” (4146). Hence, when Socrates claims that his system would lead to happiness, it can be claimed that his definition of “happiness” is synthetic, and that truly, the inhabitants of this city will only believe that they are happy, because they are deceived by Socrates’ “noble lie,” and lead to believe their position and role in life is favorable. True happiness among humans cannot exist when depriving the right to behave naturally and restricting humans to one monotonous occupation for an entire lifetime. Socrates claims that the guardians would be “…free from having to do any other jobs” (374c1), but after approaching such claim with critical analysis, it is understood that they would not be “free” from doing other jobs, but confined to do the same one for a lifetime.
Plato’s allusion to the natural world at the beginning then, substantiates his claims with evidence. With a critical analysis however, the reader can use the very same allusion to unravel that Socrates’ philosophical presentation of the ideal guardian is flawed: naturally, the guardians would not achieve legitimate ‘happiness,’ as not only are they being restricted from the inherent drive to have more than one occupation, but are also deceived to make them approach the idea of ‘happiness’ from a mechanical point of view (the efficiency of the city leads to happiness). By adhering to the allusion of nature then, it can be stated that Socrates’ formation of the guardians is unjust, rather than just.
“I have neither received nor given unauthorized assistance during the completion of this work.”
Reeve, C. D. C. Plato Republic. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 2004. Print.