An Evaluation of Plato's Ideal State

Scientific Essay 2009 76 Pages

Politics - Political Theory and the History of Ideas Journal



1.1 Plato’s Life, from Politics to Philosophy.
1.2 The Threefold Task of Political Philosophy
1.3 The Quest for Justice in the Republic
1.4 The Best Political Order

2.1 The Nature of Justice
2.2 Justice as a Virtue
2.3 Plato on Justice
2.4 Conventionalist Conception of Justice

3.1 The Best Political Order
3.2 The Government of Philosopher Rulers
3.3 Plato on Man and Leadership
3.4 Leadership and the Right to Command

4.1 Leadership in the Light of Contemporary Society
4.2 Democracy and leadership.
4.3 Critique of Plato’s Ideal State
4.4 Conclusion



This work is an attempt to undertake an evaluation of Plato’s ideal state. It argues the position that there is a need to realign Plato’s ideal State to embrace the contemporary realities of today without negating its goal for a transformed society brought about by transformative leadership.

Plato posit that the human race will have no respite from evils until those who are really philosophers acquire political power or until, through some divine dispensation, those who rule and have political authority in the cities become real philosophers. Plato came to the conclusion that all existing governments were bad and almost beyond redemption thus he theorized for an ideal State. The ideal state, according to Plato, is composed of three classes. The economic structure of the state is maintained by the merchant class. Security needs are met by the military class, and political leadership is provided by the philosopher-kings.

In an attempt to re-evaluate Plato’s ideal state, this work re-emphasized the relevance of transformative leadership as a necessary tool for societal good and transformation. It urges for the adoption of the relevant areas of Plato’s concept of an ideal State anchored on the prevailing need and realities of the contemporary society.



Plato was born in Athens in 427 B.C. Until his mid-twenties, Athens was involved in a long and disastrous military conflict with Sparta, known as the Peloponnesian War. Although cherishing the hope of assuming a significant place in his political community, he found himself continually thwarted. Plato could not identify himself with any of the contending political parties or the succession of corrupt regimes, each of which brought Athens to further decline.

The son of wealthy and influential Athenian parents, Plato began his philosophical career as a student of Socrates. When the master died, Plato travelled to Egypt and Italy, studied with students of Pythagoras, and spent several years advising the ruling family of Syracuse. Eventually, he returned to Athens and established his own school of philosophy, the Academy. Plato tried to pass on the heritage of a Socratic style of thinking and to guide students’ progress through mathematical learning to the achievement of abstract philosophical truth.[1]

The pre-Socratic philosophers were mostly interested in cosmology and ontology; Socrates’ concern was the opposite. In 399 when a democratic court voted by a large majority of its five hundred and one jurors for Socrates’ execution on an unjust charge of impiety, Plato came to the conclusion that all existing governments were bad and almost beyond redemption. Thus he asserts

The human race will have no respite from evils until those who are really philosophers acquire political power or until, through some divine dispensation, those who rule and have political authority in the cities become real philosophers[2]

It was perhaps because of this opinion that he retreated to his Academy and to Sicily for implementing his ideas. Speaking about Plato’s academy, Taylor posit thus:

The founding of the Academy is a turning point in Plato’s life and in some ways the most memorable event in the history of European Science. It was the culmination of his efforts. It was a permanent institution for the pursuit of science by original research.[3]

Plato visited Syracuse first in 387 B.C, then in 367B.C, and with the general purpose to moderate the Sicilian tyrants with philosophical education and to establish a model political rule. But this adventure with practical politics ended in failure, and Plato went back to Athens.

His Academy, which provided a base for succeeding generations of Platonic philosophers until its final closure in 529 B.C, became the most famous teaching institution of the Hellenistic world. Mathematics, rhetoric, astronomy, dialectics, and other subjects, all seen as necessary for the education of philosophers and statesmen, were studied there. Some of Plato’s pupils later became leaders, mentors, and constitutional advisers in Greek city-states. His most renowned pupil was Aristotle. Plato died in c. 347 B.C.


The ideal state, according to Plato, is composed of three classes. The economic structure of the state is maintained by the merchant class. Security needs are met by the military class, and political leadership is provided by the philosopher-kings. A particular person's class is determined by an educational process that begins at birth and proceeds until that person has reached the maximum level of education compatible with interest and ability. Those who complete the entire educational process become philosopher-kings. They are the ones whose minds have been so developed that they are able to grasp the Forms and, therefore, to make the wisest decisions. Indeed, Plato's ideal educational system is primarily structured so as to produce philosopher-kings. Plato associates the traditional Greek virtues with the class structure of the ideal state. Temperance is the unique virtue of the artisan class; courage is the virtue peculiar to the military class; and wisdom characterizes the rulers. Justice, the fourth virtue, characterizes society as a whole. The just state is one in which each class performs its own function well without infringing on the activities of the other classes. Plato divides the human soul into three parts: the rational part, the will, and the appetites. The just person is the one in whom the rational element, supported by the will, controls the appetites. An obvious analogy exists here with the threefold class structure of the state, in which the enlightened philosopher-kings, supported by the soldiers, govern the rest of society.


According to Plato, an ideal state possessed the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, discipline and justice. One of the most fundamental ethical and political concepts is justice. It is a complex and ambiguous concept. It may refer to individual virtue, the order of society, as well as individual rights in contrast to the claims of the general social order[4].

In Book I of the Republic, Socrates and his interlocutors discuss the meaning of justice. Four definitions that report how the word “justice’’ is actually used are offered. Cephalus suggests the first definition. Justice is “speaking the truth and repaying what one has borrowed”[5] Yet this definition, which is based on traditional moral custom and relates justice to honesty and goodness; i.e. paying one’s debts, speaking the truth, loving one’s country, having good manners, showing proper respect for the gods, and so on, is found to be inadequate. It cannot withstand the challenge of new times and the power of critical thinking. Socrates refutes it by presenting a counterexample. If we tacitly agree that justice is related to goodness, to return a weapon that was borrowed from someone who, although once sane, has turned into a madman does not seem to be just but involves a danger of harm to both sides.

Cephalus’ son Polemarchus, who continues the discussion after his father left to offer a sacrifice, gave his opinion that the poet Simonides was correct in saying that it was just to render to each his due.[6] He explains this statement by defining justice as treating friends well and enemies badly. Under the pressure of Socrates’ objections that one may be mistaken in judging others and thus harm good people, Polemarchus modifies his definition by asserting that justice is to treat well a friend who is good and to harm an enemy who is bad. However, when Socrates finally objected that it cannot be just to harm anyone, because justice cannot produce injustice, Polemarchus became completely confused. He agreed with Socrates that justice, which both sides tacitly agree relates to goodness, cannot produce any harm, which can only be caused by injustice. Like his father, he withdrew from the dialogue. The careful reader will note that Socrates does not reject the definition of justice implied in the saying of Simonides, who is called a wise man, namely, that justice is rendering to each what befits him, but only its explication given by Polemarchus. This definition is, nevertheless, found unclear.

The first part of Book I of the Republic ends in a negative way, with parties agreeing that none of the definitions provided stands up to examination and that the original question “What is justice ?” is more difficult to answer than it seemed to be at the outset. This negative outcome can be seen as a linguistic and philosophical therapy. Firstly, although Socrates’ objections to given definitions can be challenged, it is shown, as it stands, that popular opinions about justice involve inconsistencies. They are inconsistent with other opinions held to be true. The reportive definitions based on everyday usage of the word “justice” help us perhaps to understand partially what justice means, but fail to provide a complete account of what is justice.

These definitions have to be supplied by a definition that will assist clarity and establish the meaning of justice. However, to propose such an adequate definition one has to know what justice really is. The way people define a given word is largely determined by the beliefs which they hold about the thing referred to by this word. A definition that is merely arbitrary or either too narrow or too broad, based on a false belief about justice, does not give the possibility of communication. Platonic dialogues are expressions of the ultimate communication that can take place between humans; and true communication is likely to take place only if individuals can share meanings of the words they use. Communication based on false beliefs, such as statements of ideology, is still possible, but seems limited, dividing people into factions, and, as history teaches us, can finally lead only to confusion. The definition of justice as “treating friends well and enemies badly” is for Plato not only inadequate because it is too narrow, but also wrong because it is based on a mistaken belief of what justice is, namely, on the belief grounded in factionalism, which Socrates does not associate with the wise ones but with tyrants[7]. Therefore, in the Republic, as well as in other Platonic dialogues, there is a relationship between conceptual analysis and critical evaluation of beliefs. The goals of these conversations are not merely linguistic, to arrive at an adequate verbal definition, but also substantial, to arrive at a right belief. The question “what is justice” is not only about linguistic usage of the word “justice,” but primarily about the thing to which the word refers. The focus of the second part of Book I of the Republic is no longer clarification of concepts, but evaluation of beliefs.

In Platonic dialogues, rather than telling them what they have to think, Socrates is often getting his interlocutors to tell him what they think. The next stage of the discussion of the meaning of justice is taken over by Thrasymachus, a sophist, who violently and impatiently bursts into the dialogue.

In the fifth and fourth century B.C., the sophists were paid teachers of rhetoric and other practical skills, mostly non-Athenians, offering courses of instruction and claiming to be best qualified to prepare young men for success in public life. Plato describes the sophists as itinerant individuals, known for their rhetorical abilities, who reject religious beliefs and traditional morality, and he contrasts them with Socrates, who as a teacher would refuse to accept payment and instead of teaching skills would commit himself to a disinterested inquiry into what is true and just. In a contemptuous manner, Thrasymachus asks Socrates to stop talking nonsense and look into the facts. As a clever man of affairs, he gives an answer to the question of “what is justice” by deriving justice from the city’s configuration of power and making it relative to the interests of the dominant social or political group. “Justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger”[8]. Now, by contrast to what some commentators say, the statement that Thrasymachus offers as an answer to Socrates’ question about justice is not a definition. The careful reader will notice that Thrasymachus identifies justice with either maintenance or observance of law. His statement is an expression of his belief that, in the world imperfect as it is, the ruling element in the city, or as we would say today the dominant political or social group, institutes laws and governs for its own benefit[9].

The democrats make laws in support of democracy; the aristocrats make laws that support the government of the well-born; the propertied make laws that protect their status and keep their businesses going; and so on. This belief implies, firstly, that justice is not a universal moral value but a notion relative to expediency of the dominant status quo/ group; secondly, that justice is in the exclusive interest of the dominant group; thirdly, that justice is used as a means of oppression and thus is harmful to the powerless; fourthly, that there is neither any common good nor harmony of interests between those who are in a position of power and those who are not. All there is, is domination by the powerful and privileged over the powerless. The moral language of justice is used merely instrumentally to conceal the interests of the dominant group and to make these interests appear universal. The powerful “declare what they have made - what is to their own advantage to be just”[10]. The arrogance with which Thrasymachus makes his statements suggests that he strongly believes that to hold a different view from his owns would be to mislead oneself about the world as it is.

After presenting his statement, Thrasymachus intends to leave as if he believed that what he said was so compelling that no further debate about justice was ever possible (Ibid, p.26). In the Republic he exemplifies the power of a dogma. Indeed he presents Socrates with a powerful challenge. Yet, whether or not what he said sounds attractive to anyone, Socrates is not convinced by the statement of his beliefs. Beliefs shape our lives as individuals, nations, ages, and civilizations. Should we really believe that justice [obeying laws] is really the good of another, the advantage of the stronger and the ruler, harmful to the one who obeys, while injustice [disobeying laws] is in one’s own advantage? The discussion between Socrates and his interlocutors is no longer about the meaning of “justice.” It takes the whole remainder of the Republic to present an argument in defense of justice as a universal value and the foundation of the best political order.


Plato’s political Philosophy is a blend of rigorous social nihilism and political affirmation. The nihilism springs from his desire to cleanse the political State of all the influences he saw as destructive of political unity. The mission of the Political community is the means whereby all the native powers and excellences of the individual are brought to fruition[11].

Although large parts of the Republic are devoted to the description of an ideal state ruled by philosophers and its subsequent decline, the chief theme of the dialogue is justice. It is fairly clear that Plato does not introduce his fantastical political innovation, which Socrates describes as a city in speech, a model in heaven, for the purpose of practical implementation[12]. The vision of the ideal state is used rather to illustrate the main thesis of the dialogue that justice, understood traditionally as virtue and related to goodness, is the foundation of a good political order, and as such is in everyone’s interest. Justice, if rightly understood, Plato argues, is not to the exclusive advantage of any of the city’s factions, but is concerned with the common good of the whole political community, and is to the advantage of everyone. It provides the city with a sense of unity, and thus, is a basic condition for its health. “Injustice causes civil war, hatred, and fighting, while justice brings friendship and a sense of common purpose”[13].

In order to understand further what justice and political order are for Plato, it is useful to compare his political philosophy with the pre-philosophical insights of Solon, who is referred to in a few dialogues. Biographical information about Plato is fairly scarce. The fact that he was related through his mother to this famous Athenian legislator, statesman and poet, regarded as one of the “Seven Sages,” may be treated as merely incidental. On the other hand, taking into consideration that in Plato’s times education would have been passed on to children informally at home, it seems highly probable that Plato was not only well acquainted with the deeds and ideas of Solon, but that these deeply influenced him.

The essence of the constitutional reform which Solon made in 593 B.C, over one hundred and fifty years before Plato’s birth, when he became the Athenian leader, was the restoration of righteous order, eunomia. In the early part of the sixth century Athens was disturbed by a great tension between two parties: the poor and the rich, and stood at the brink of a fierce civil war. On the one hand, because of an economic crisis, many poorer Athenians were hopelessly falling into debt, and since their loans were often secured by their own persons, thousands of them were put into serfdom. On the other hand, lured by easy profits from loans, the rich stood firmly in defense of private property and their ancient privileges. The partisan strife, which seemed inevitable, would make Athens even more weak economically and defenseless before external enemies.

Appointed as a mediator in this conflict, Solon enacted laws prohibiting loans on the security of the person. He lowered the rate of interest, ordered the cancellation of all debts, and gave freedom to serfs. He acted so moderately and impartially that he became unpopular with both parties. The rich felt hurt by the reform. The poor, unable to hold excess in check, demanded a complete redistribution of landed property and the dividing of it into equal shares. Nevertheless, despite these criticisms from both sides, Solon succeeded in gaining social peace. Further, by implementing new constitutional laws, he set up a “mighty shield against both parties and did not allow either to win an unjust victory” (Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution). He introduced a system of checks and balances which would not favor any side, but took into consideration legitimate interests of all social groups. In his position, he could easily have become the tyrant over the city, but he did not seek power for himself. After he completed his reform, he left Athens in order to see whether it would stand the test of time, and returned to his country only ten years later. Even though in 561 B.C Pisistratus seized power and became the first in a succession of Athenian tyrants, and in 461 B.C the democratic leader Ephialtes abolished the checks upon popular sovereignty, Solon’s reform provided the ancient Greeks with a model of both political leadership and order based on impartiality and fairness.

Justice for Solon is not an arithmetical equality: giving equal shares to all alike irrespective of merit, which represents the democratic concept of distributive justice, but it is equity or fairness based on difference: giving shares proportionate to the merit of those who receive them. The same ideas of political order, leadership, and justice can be found in Plato’s dialogues.

For Plato, like for Solon, the starting point for the inquiry about the best political order is the fact of social diversity and conflicting interests, which involve the danger of civil strife. The political community consists of different parts or social classes, such as the noble, the rich, and the poor, each representing different values, interests, and claims to rule. This gives rise to the controversy of who should rule the community, and what is the best political system. In both the Republic and the Laws, Plato asserts not only that factionalism and civil war are the greatest dangers to the city, more dangerous even than war against external enemies, but also that peace obtained by the victory of one part and the destruction of its rivals is not to be preferred to social peace obtained through the friendship and cooperation of all the city’s parts[14].

Peace for Plato is, unlike for Marxists and other radical thinkers, not a status quo notion, related to the interest of the privileged group, but a value that most people usually desire. He does not stand for war and the victory of one class, but for peace in social diversity. The best is neither war nor faction - they are things we should pray to be spared from but peace and mutual good will. Building on the pre-philosophical insights of Solon and his concept of balancing conflicting interests, in both the Republic and the Laws, Plato offers two different solutions to the same problem of social peace based on the equilibrium and harmonious union of different social classes. If in the Republic it is the main function of the political leadership of philosopher-rulers to make the civil strife cease, in the Laws this mediating function is taken over by laws. The best political order for Plato is that which promotes social peace in the environment of cooperation and friendship among different social groups, each benefiting from and each adding to the common good. The best form of government, which he advances in the Republic, is a philosophical aristocracy or monarchy, but that which he proposes in his last dialogue the Laws is a traditional polity: the mixed or composite constitution that reconciles different partisan interests and includes aristocratic, oligarchic, and democratic elements.



The word Justice may be used to refer to just conduct or the quality of being right and fair. This is the sense of justice that is employed when we appeal that all human beings should be treated with justice. Justice may mean treat fairly as implied in the expression ‘‘do justice to’’. In other words, justice is synonymous with fair treatment.[15]

We note that the term justice is as old as man. The minds of the masses, the oppressed, the down-trodden and the slaves are yearning for justice. Justice is a legal, ethical and ontological term. It is a common and living concept and the question of justice is a perennial one.

The enterprises of the analysis and elucidation of the concept seems to us to be a very difficult one because of cluster of varying notion of it. Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher, saw the ambiguity and the cluster of meanings associated with the concept Justice, thus he asserts,

“Now it appears that the words justice and injustice are ambiguous; but as the different senses covered by the same name are very close to each other, the equivocation passes unnoticed and is not comparatively obvious as it where, they are far apart. [16]

It is really difficult to arrive at a universal understanding of the concept of justice. According to John Hospers, Justice can be taken to mean equal treatment or treatment in accord with deserts.[17] It can also be seen to be as unanalysable concept just as G.E. Moore’s Concept of ‘Goodness’. According to G.E. Moore, The term ‘good’ is meaningful yet indefinable; it refers to an independently existent quality, yet it is unlike the natural qualities of the sensory world, and finally, certain propositions containing the term ‘good’ are true by self evidence, even though they may not be known by any individual. Our concern is whether the concept of justice can be defined in this way, that is, like the concept of ‘goodness’. Whichever is the case, ‘justice talk’ is a talk about justice in relation to human beings, rights and liabilities. In other words it is a societal issue or question. In every society, people have conflicting claims and interests. It is in the attempt to settle and reconcile these conflicting claims and interests that the issue of justice arises.

We note that some major formulations of justice are base on formal equality. A considerable analysis of justice is also based on considerable social ideals like merit, work, need, rank, legal entitlement and others. In the same vain, the Greek word for just means “observant of custom or of duty, righteous; fair; honest; legally right, lawful; what is due to or from a person, deserts; rights; what one ought to do. According to Edward Allen Kent, “Justice seems to entail the conflict of competing claims and not infrequently the clash of powerful social interest with the right of individuals ensured from time to time in the mechanism of reason d’etate”.[18]

The history of philosophy, embracing ethics, politics and jurisprudence also shows that no particular analysis of justice seems to suffice without qualification and exceptions. Philosopher’s age-long interest in the concept of justice and the attendant formulations of the concept does not mean that we human beings do not have our individual intuitive, a-priori knowledge of what justice is all about. However, philosopher’s interest could be accounted for on the basis of their desire to explore and search for a universally consistent criterion or standard of justice. For example, John Rawls’ theory of justice and walterism are a reconstruction of liberalism which has complete trust in man while democratic socialism is a reconstruction of Marxism which does not trust man, but regards him as a species which needs to be tamed and controlled. It is the desire to set the criteria or standard of justice that led to the recent formulations of what is called procedural justice.

These “consist in employing correct methods to develop rules of conduct, to ascertain the facts of a particular case, or to devise a total dispositive judgment”[19] In recent times, judicial procedure has undergone noteworthy reforms in terms of the formulation of “due process of Law” in united states and other democracies. The requirement of due process is that “no one must be accused of violating a rule of behaviour unless he could have ascertained the existence and meaning of the rule before he committed the challenged act”. In any case, due process insist the modality of implementing the formula of justice. We consider it pertinent at this point to consider some major views on the analysis of the concept of justice.

The primary aim of this chapter is to examine the concept of justice as presented by various thinkers in different epochs. For a good understanding of what justice means, a proper analysis and understanding of what it means from the perspective of different schools and philosophical epochs such as the classical, medieval, modern to contemporary periods will be attempted. Though this work may not make an exhaustive analysis of the concept of justice, it will at least analyze some proposition about the concept with which that of Plato will be critically examined and compared.


Plato’s greatest achievement may be seen firstly in that he, in opposing the sophists, offered to decadent Athens, which had lost faith in her old religion, traditions, and customs, a means by which civilization and the city’s health could be restored: the recovery of order is in both the polis and the soul.

The best, rational and righteous political order leads to the harmonious unity of a society and allows all the city’s parts to pursue happiness but not at the expense of others. According to Plato, the characteristics of a good political society, of which most people can say “it is mine”[20], are described in the Republic by four virtues: justice, wisdom, moderation, and courage. Justice is the equity or fairness that grants each social group its due and ensures that each does one’s own work . The three other virtues describe qualities of different social groups. Wisdom, which can be understood as the knowledge of the whole, including both knowledge of the self and political prudence, is the quality of the leadership.


[1] Fine, Gail (ed): Plato I: Metaphysics and Epistemology and Plato II: Ethics, Politics, Religion and the Soul. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999

[2] Plato: The Republic. Harmondsworth, Peguins. 1955, p282

[3] Subratu M and Sushilo R: A History of Political thought, Plato to Marx. Prentice-Hall of india Private Limited. New Delhi. 2006. p. 342

[4] Berki, R.N: The History of Poliical Thought: A short Introduction. London: Dent. 1977. p.156

[5] Plato, Op.Cit, p.7

[6] Ibid, p8

[7] Ibid,p.14

[8] Ibid, p.7

[9] Ibid, p.19

[10] Ibid,p.18

[11] Nisbet,R. The Social Philosophers. New York: ThomasY crowell Co. 1973.p25

[12] Plato: Op.Cit. p394

[13] Ibid, p35

[14] Ibid, p.176

[15] Hornby A.S:Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary of Current English. Oxford: University Press. 1985.p.461

[16] Betty, R:Aristotle’s Ethics, Londonm: Pengun Books. 1948 p.172.

[17] Hosper, J : An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. 1981.p.613

[18] Edward, A.k : Law and Philosophy. Readings in Legal Philosophy, New York: Meredith Corporation. 1970. p.45

[19] Stanley I.B: Justice in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol 3&4 New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.

[20] Ibid, p.176


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evaluation plato ideal state




Title: An Evaluation of Plato's Ideal State