Plato's Republic

For a dialogue that began with a simple challenge to define justice, Plato's Republic covers a lot of philosophical ground. In his search for the ultimate meaning of justice, truth, and other absolutes, the author manages to introduce his conception of a perfect society. More importantly, however, Plato reveals his idealistic philosophy, best represented by his "myth of the cave."

Socrates, the author's protagonist, is unwilling to answer a question directly. Instead, true to the "Socratic dialogue" form, he asks his listeners to agree with each step in his series of posits. The result is a very long, drawn out discussion that eventually always traps Socrates' opponents into agreeing to a position they had previously disagreed with.

After a series of such arguments, he begins to create a "perfect state," in which the best part of each person's nature is maximized and the worst part minimized. He conceptualizes a city in which an elite few, called "Guardians," hold the power and responsibility of governing. From among this class of citizens, according to Socrates, must be drawn an entirely new kind of ruler - the "Philosopher King."

In his efforts to develop a society in which such seemingly contrary attributes (philosopher and ruler) will effectively combine, he creates elaborate systems of social rules for his hypothetical guardians. One of these systems is education, and it is when he begins discussing this that he reveals the radical nature of his idealist philosophy - truth, as most people know it, is merely a shadow. To explain this, he offers an analogy of a cave whose residents are restrained so that they can only see the back wall. Behind them is a low wall, a fire, and the opening of the cave, none of which can be seen by the residents. Outside the cave, the world is operating normally, and the activities of this "real" world cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The residents, of course, mistake the shadows for reality, and when they discuss the definition of justice, truth, good, bad, etc., amongst themselves, they are unknowingly referring only to shadows of the real nature of these things.

Real truth, according to Socrates, is as different from what most people mean when they discuss it, as a real person is from his shadow. In the same way, says Socrates, education must deal with the reality and not the shadows.

The philosopher, says Socrates, is that type of individual who is willing to break free and climb up out of the cave. To be of any use to anyone, however, the philosopher must descend back into the cave and attempt to relate the truth to his fellow residents. In the same way, his "Philosopher Kings" must descend from their education and participate in governing the state, an activity that would seem mundane to any person who had experienced "reality," but is nevertheless a necessity.

 

Aristotle's Politics

Aristotle's stated goal in writing Politics was to identify what form of government is " . . . best for all those who are most able to realize their ideal of life." He spent the majority of the first two books criticizing the Socratic/Platonic "Republic," after which he turned to three main forms of government and exhaustively analyzed their strengths and weaknesses.

According to Aristotle, all governments in existence are some variation of these three forms, which are monarchical, aristocratic and constitutional. He eventually narrows the three to the latter two, and discusses the manner in which they are manifested in real human politics. The manifestations (or as he calls them, "perversions") of the two pure forms are oligarchy and democracy, respectively.

At the end of Book VII, the author describes what he perceives as "the best state," which ends up being somewhat ambiguously situated between an oligarchy and a democracy, but with the primary distinction of being governed by citizens of the middle class.

For Aristotle, the form of government is not as important as who holds the power within that government. He does not see government as a system imposed on a group of people as much as a natural outgrowth of that group's demographics.

Aristotle gives ample support for his view by first identifying the key elements of politics, offering his definitions of a state, a citizen, and in a more obscure way, his conception of political power. In reaching his conclusions, he touches on the vitally important distinction between what government is designed to do and what it actually does.

He calls the oligarchy and democracy "perversions" because the individuals with the power in each are motivated by what is best for themselves and those they are similar to. In the case of the oligarchy, rich men rule and pass laws protecting other rich men. The poor, who rule the democracy, end up doing the same thing. Ironically, Aristotle could be described as the first socialist, because in his view, human society is divided by class structures.

For him, only the middle classes possess the ability to govern for the common good, which is the only truly just political virtue.

 

Augustine's City of God

Book 14, chapters 3 through 28 of St. Augustine's City of God, deals almost exclusively with human nature and how it relates to the metaphysics of Christianity. Augustine's view of human nature is a balance between the constrained and unconstrained, revolving around the individual's faith or lack of faith in God.

In City of God, the author presents his arguments in the form of two cities: the "city of man" and the "city of God." In his philosophy, both are concerned with achieving happiness and peace, but one is doomed to failure while the other is assured of success. In keeping with the traditional teachings of Christianity, Augustine asserts that eternal life, and the eventual perfection of the human spirit, is the free gift of God through faith in Christ.

Only those that accept this gift and choose to live in the "city of God" will reap these rewards. Those that do not accept this gift, and choose to turn away from God during their mortal lifetimes, will suffer an eternal punishment. The author argues that this eventuality is completely just and right by virtue of God's grace. For Augustine, there is no in-between - one is either in one city or the other.

Based on this metaphysical argument, the author explains that human nature is limited by it's own sinfulness. In fact, even those that live in the city of God are limited in how far they can progress toward "righteousness," which is Augustine's ideal of human nature, characterized by a ceasing of the conflict between the soul and the flesh. For the Christian, this limitation disappears after death, as God fulfills his promise by honoring that person's faith and completing the soul, removing the vices that plague mortal man.

So, in a sense, Augustine is saying that human nature is constrained in and of itself, and cannot achieve perfection, or righteousness, by it's own efforts.

On the other hand, it is unconstrained, for God created mankind to be perfect, so it must be attainable, for God does not make mistakes.

The difference, for Augustine and for millions of other Christians, is that human perfection is only attainable through faith in God, and it will never be realized until death or until the earthly return of Christ.

 

A. Huxley's Brave New World

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley offers a frightening glimpse into a possible future in which humanity has finally overcome its own nature. The author brilliantly details what such a world might look like to individuals living within it as well as how it might appear to those outside it. The title is taken from Shakespeare and is indicative to the irony of the plot, which is essentially a criticism of the human pursuit of happiness at any cost.

The question that Huxley poses to the reader is "which would you prefer?" Is it preferable to live within a savage world while maintaining your personal freedom, or to live in a utopia that requires your abject and total submission? Utopia seems to be what mankind is collectively pursuing, but to what end? What sacrifices must be made for its achievement?

The real question is not this, however. It is rather, "how do you define happiness?" In a strictly materialistic sense, happiness could be found in the Brave New World, but it means that the extremes of the human emotional experience must be eliminated. The proverbial baby goes out with the bath water.

Extremes such as romantic love are as undesirable to the "World Controllers" as hate-crimes. While its inhabitants live out their lives productively, they are denied the opportunity to rise above their genetically programmed station in life. Citizens of the Brave New World never feel sorrow, but they never feel joy, either. Free will is programmed out of existence and suppressed whenever it is reborn. Genetic engineering and Pavlovian conditioning combined with an opiate such as "soma," allows the government to maintain control over the people.

Huxley manages to capture the horrific nature of such a society, and through the eyes and mouth of "the Savage," he allows the reader to express his outrage. Outrage is the appropriate response, in my opinion.

Unfortunately, the Savage is not very well equipped to survive in the Brave New World while simultaneously maintaining his integrity. His instincts are correct - faith in a living God is certainly the best defense, in my opinion. His substitution for this is inadequate and reveals Huxley's simplistic understanding of religion in general and Christianity in particular. I would have written a much different ending.