Arguments and Counterarguments Regarding the Guardian Class in Plato’s Republic
In Plato’s Republic, Plato delineates the quest for the true nature of justice by leading the reader through a thought-experiment of a utopian city. At every turn, Plato’s mouthpiece Socrates is faced with opposition to his ideas about the city’s organization and must defend himself. Most notably, Adeimantus and Glaucon argue that the laws governing the guardians’ right to wealth, right to choice in mate, and right to private family life are not conducive to harmony. However, I would argue that Socrates provides counterarguments with sound logic to each of their concerns. Therefore, Socrates proves without a doubt that the laws concerning the guardians are beneficial to the lives and efficiency of the citizens.
While the main purpose of the Socratic dialogue in Plato’s Republic is to lead the reader to the true meaning of justice, Socrates and Glaucon discover that they must expand their discussion beyond that of the individual. Their idea is to “find out what sort of thing justice is in cities, and afterward look for it in the individual, to see if the larger entity is similar in form to the smaller one.” (Plato 369a 1-2) The pair works through hypotheses about the nature of this city before determining that a truly just city would be one in which the citizens not only are placed in positions for which they are best suited, but also exists in a state of harmony so that all citizens work solely for the good of the city. Socrates proposes that for this to happen, the protectors of the city, the guardians, must live truly and justly and in doing so, will experience the purest form of happiness. Furthermore, their honorable work allows a just, and therefore happy, society to exist for all citizens of the city, dubbed Kallipolis. In Book Three, Socrates establishes the hierarchical social system of the city.
Based on the lie of the metals (bronze for producers, silver for auxiliaries, and gold for guardians), the citizens of Kallipolis believe themselves to be destined for certain roles in the society. The most important class is that of the guardians, the men and women “whose nature is suited to that very practice [warfare].” (Plato 374e 3-4) Furthermore, Socrates asserts that, “Philosophy …spirit, speed, and strength as well, must all be combined in the nature of anyone who is going to be a really fine and good guardian of our city.” (Plato 376c 3-5) He believes that these traits make a person both a good fighter and a good peacekeeper, which are the two duties of a guardian. In order to encourage and develop these traits in the guardian class, the guardians must live by a set of strict rules laid out after careful consideration. While Adeimantus and Glaucon agree with Socrates about the hierarchical system and the qualities of the guardians, they raise concerns about the laws by which the guardians must live, specifically those regarding their right to ownership, privacy, and autonomy in family life. They claim that these guardians, prohibited from receiving any personal benefit from their positions, would be unhappy. Thus, Socrates must explain why these laws would not only produce effective guardians but would also make all the citizens of Kallipolis as happy as possible.
Adeimantus is the first to raise concern. He asks Socrates what he will say “if someone objects that you [Socrates] are not making these men very happy and, furthermore, that it is their own fault that they are not?” His main concern with Socrates’ plan is that the guardians cannot be paid for their work and will therefore neglect their duties. This is certainly a reasonable apprehension, but Socrates states that it is not the socialized lives of the guardians that leads to mediocrity, but the institutions of wealth and poverty. Plato, through Socrates, gives the reader two examples that demonstrate this point. First, that of a potter who has become wealthy. He asks Adeimantus, “Do you think that a potter who has become wealthy will still be willing to devote himself to his task?” and “Won’t he become idler and more careless than he was?” (Plato 421d 6-9) Next, he shows that poverty is just as debilitating to success as is wealth: “And surely if poverty prevents him from providing himself with tools…he will make poorer products for himself and worse craftsmen of his sons or anyone else he teaches.” (Plato 421d 13-15) In removing the factors that prevent craftsmen as well as the guardians from doing their best work, the city will universally flourish which naturally leads to universal happiness amongst the citizens of Kallipolis. The example of the potter, put forth by Socrates, acts as sound defense of the law prohibiting guardians from handling gold and silver in response to Adeimantus’ counterarguments.
Now that Adeimantus is satisfied with laws regarding wealth, Glaucon raises his concern with the laws regarding family systems, or lack thereof, in the guardian class. Countering Socrates’ statement that “all these women should be shared among all the men, that no individual woman and man should live together, and that the children, too, should be shared with no parent knowing its own offspring, and no child its parent,” (Plato 457 c10-d1-3) Glaucon responds, “That wave is far greater and more dubitable than the other, both as regards to its viability and its benefit.” (Plato 457c 10-d 1-5) Essentially, Glaucon is skeptical that the guardians will derive any benefit from this communal living style and demands that Socrates defend his plan.
Socrates starts with an argument for selective breeding for the guardian class; he outlines that “the best men should mate with the best women… while the opposite should hold of the worst men and women; and that the offspring of the former should be reared, but not that of the latter, if our flock is going to be an eminent one.” (Plato 459d 7-10) While this plan of purposeful procreation may seem to point to a corrupt system of laws or even a corrupt ruler, Socrates relates the deliberate pairing of guardian men and women to the practice of animal husbandry people use for their prize animals. This process is absolutely necessary in order to maintain the high quality of the generations because both animals and the guardians must be bred “from the best ones” and “from those in their prime.” (Plato 459b 1,3) The production of such superior children and the annihilation of the inferior children naturally leads to a guardian class made up of the efficient guardians, which makes them the most beneficial to the city and themselves, for they will “remain as free from faction as possible.” (Plato 459e 1-2)
The next of Glaucon’s contentions is that the communal rearing and living of the guardian class cannot lead to a happier city or happier guardians. Socrates counters this argument by saying that the guardian men and women, freed from the responsibilities of child rearing and the tendency of traditional family life to create factions within classes, would consequently live far happier lives than if they did not live in this communal manner. In fact, he compares the happiness of the guardian class to the happiness of Olympian victors. The athletes are given free meals from the city for the entirety of their lives and this system undoubtedly creates happiness for the victors. Following this logic, Socrates and Glaucon agree that the happiness of the guardians must be much greater for they are given not only free food from the city, but also socialized housing, child rearing services, and education. Furthermore, these freedoms allow the guardians to focus solely on their duty—to protect this just city from invasion by the unjust.
In setting up these strict and deceiving laws for the guardians, Socrates has planted the seeds for a just and harmonious society. The regulation of breeding, private ownership, and familial relations frees the guardians from forming factions that distract them from their duty to uphold the justice of Kallipolis. As Socrates says, “as for the pettiest of evils the guardians would escape… the flatteries of the rich by the poor; the perplexities and sufferings involved in bringing up children; the need to make the money necessary to feed the household.” (Plato 465 b12-13, c1-2) Consequently, the guardians “will escape from all these things, then, and live a more blessedly happy life than the most blessedly happy one.” (Plato 465d 1-2) In conclusion, Socrates’ laws for the guardians, oppressive though they seem at first, are absolutely critical in the maintenance of the excellent guardian class, which in turn creates a general happiness for the guardians as well as the population of Kallipolis as a whole. I would agree with Socrates in this respect, that this carefully constructed and maintained collective happiness is the true form of happiness when discussing a city’s virtue because this harmonious state is beneficial to a society seeking to maintain justice.
Plato, and C.D.C. Reeve. 2004. Republic. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.