The Idea and its knowledge

Our eye receives the light and reflects the light, but it is not the light and did not make the light. Rather, Helios radiates the light; he gives things color and visibility, and our eyes the ability to see them. In the same way, the idea is the cause of good. She is the queen of the spiritual, as the sun is of the world of sense. Indeed she even brought this forth, and set the light and the sun as her image in that world. Only through her is the distinction of good and evil, of truth and falsehood, as through light comes the difference of color. Our spirit bears witness to the idea, but is not the idea; but by her it has received its ability to detect these differences. And were she to retire from the world, it also would no longer know good and evil, as when the sun goes down, the eye no longer distinguishes between colors and objects, although apparently the power of distinguishing lies in itself. This is Plato’s parable.[1]

So the idea has an existence and therefore a quality, a determinateness other than the capacity in ourselves that, by its aid, sees its effects. And it must also be recognized as an independent entity in this way. Just as now no one investigates the eye in order to observe the sun and the light or to prove their existence, so Plato infers and finds the essence of goodness not from reason; but it itself is the first and original that there is, and of which the spirit has knowledge; not that it has to be there because some ground in ourselves made it necessary. The laws and the organization of the eye in themselves are nothing, power and activity aroused in it only by the light which ensures vision. Only through the idea is the power aroused that sees good and evil, the contemplation of the spirit [des Geistes]. It is not placidly there, as sight is not placidly there in the eye, and does not have its possession in itself. Rather, it simply is, while it absorbs the object, like the rays of light, outside itself. Are not light and color nothing than what is already in the organization of vision, from whence should it have its peculiar luster and the joy that it infuses in the viewers? Now, if the idea is something outside of the seen and the determinations of the mind, why should it be limited to the paucity of the same, why should the good and righteous be merely formal, an epitome of general rules without special content? The idea in fact works according to its own nature, and there is nothing in the way of it being of inward splendor and immense wealth, like the sun, and its rays breaking into manifold colors.

Influence on the doctrine of state

With Plato, therefore, justice is no rule or system of rules, but a full picture of manifold, quite determinate activity. Hence his republic is the pattern of specific treatment. He shows us his citizens in the whole activity of their lives, how they meet their needs, what is their employment, what are their spiritual aspirations, how they are educated and informed, what they think is good and estimable or bad and shameful. The constitution and form of the state appears in indissoluble unity with this particular life. They can as little be transferred to other citizens as these could live under a different constitution. It is impossible to eliminate and delineate what in this state is the eternal, the ideal, and what is of accidental appearance. For if one were to derive a principle from it and hold to it as the true, eternal in itself, one would by no means hit Plato’s meaning. It is not that the individual should surrender to the whole, whereby suchlike in such nakedness appears to him as being the true and magnificent; what matters is only the particular manner of surrender, the specific manner of activity, as it is conducted through all the diversity of human activity. The ideal is so determined and individual, determined even for the moment in which it is presented, that it contains as a substantial part even the mind and the value of the ruling persons, who in fact change, while the general principles of the constitution remain. Wise people are worth more than wise laws, so judges every simple man: it appears here in a scientific work, and it pertains to the idea of this state, that the wise (philosophers) govern it. In fact, for the mutual relations of its citizens there should be no rules at all. The secure judgment of well‑bred men will decide on it in the particular case. Hence, the notion that the general principles that the state professes in its laws, and presents in its constitution, contain the just, is quite far from the mark. The just does not aim for this inertness, the architecture of public life; rather, the just is a living condition, it consists in the particular action of the moment. The scientific course followed by Plato, by which he discovers, tests, demonstrates institutions, is nothing like logical inference, by which, from given determinations, others arise of necessity. Their real success he checks by whether a situation arises that he desires for the whole. Because if the idea of the good and the just is something other than the organization of the mind, who would have forced it always only to desire a third when two preceding require it, and not much rather the whole, freely with a single will, regardless of how many its components might be? In the logical conclusion, the connection is similar to a building, where the lower always carries the upper, without being carried by it; in contemplation, however, which is aroused by the idea, a living body, in which each member holds and carries the other, is at the same time also held and carried by it. The analogy that Plato uses between the unity of the people and the state, however, makes it apparent that he does not seek the unity of the concept, but of the living. His picture of the state emerges in one step at the same time in all parts, complete, in the world, like wisdom from the head of Zeus.

The Republic

Plato’s replica according to his archetype, or someone  else’s according to his republic, is therefore completely different than according to abstract concepts and the more recent doctrines of state. The latter can be called the replica of rest, the former the replica of the deed. The replica of rest, namely, is subsumption, juxtaposing rules with no self‑content and therefore lying ready at hand for any content – for example, equal freedom – and some indifferent substance given outside of it – such as landholding, commerce, whatever it might be. But the model does not impart a detached rule to this replica, that it only needs to imbibe, and no material is sufficient for it that was not first formed through and through according to the idea. Any logical head could therefore choose to introduce the justice of Kant or Hegel into a country, but whoever would undertake the formation of a state according to Plato or to a legal philosophy developed in the same sense would have to be equipped with creative power. Therefore, the former replica must also mimic the model of rest. To wit, the actual institutions must mathematically cover the general principles of justice, and can do this too. But the latter must mimic the model of the deed. The same spirit, the same effect must prevail in the replica as in the type. And so the painter’s image of man can and ought not be equal in terms of ruler and compass, but the one should have the same effect as the other, i.e., the painting should bring forth the same perception in the viewer as the person painted. The question of feasibility is therefore the most incongruous measure one can apply to the republic of Plato. For the meaning is not that these laws are to be literally implemented in a state  as he designed it, but that a real state bear the same spirit in it, engender the same mind in its citizens, and through its institutions exercise the same impression on the beholders as upon him who designed it. This is feasible, and if it cannot not be achieved to that extent, at least nothing stands in the way of states so making their institutions as to approach it. And yet, in fact, this idea of the Platonic state is none other than what really moved the Greek states, that in the period of their luster and their excellence together imitated it with greater or lesser success.

It has become prevalent in recent times to look at the real shape of things as the sole representation of the good and the just, and to provide an existence not for things without the idea, but also not for the idea without things. It has even been attempted to attach the Platonic ideas to this relation. But according to Plato, although the idea did bring about all things, its own existence is not conditioned by that which it produced; it is not just an aspect, foundation, form, or motive power of the product, but a real independent existence, like the sun, which would still be sun even if there were no objects for it to illuminate, no growth for it to unfold, and no eye to look upon it. To Plato the dissatisfaction of any great mind by earthly things is obvious. His ideal is nowhere in the world, as even his own visualizations could not show how things stood to his mind’s eye. The reality that does not contain it, should first only strive to form itself after it. His knowledge is therefore not the same as that of a knowledge that is in the existing order, but of one that currently is outside of him, that only in the future perhaps will be in him – it therefore is pre‑vision.

This image of the state in Plato’s mind’s eye is the abundance of manifold forces corresponding to the human community, each fully unfolded in its own way, and all, in the entirety of all their activities, oriented to a goal, gained from an ordering sense in proper measure. “Justice” (we would could more correct translate: perfection) for the state is precisely what it is for the individual. The first requirement is, that each develop their innate aptitude undisturbed, so that no force remains hidden, and all the wealth placed in the nature of man unfolds itself. The other is that each person be referred to his proper place and move about in this. The last, finally, is that these diverse aspirations and achievements hedged against each other are all mastered by a single will and interest – that the state also be a state.

Accordingly, citizens are divided into two main classes, one for the lower functions of material needs (the farmer, belt-cutter, potter, etc.), the other for the higher functions of military protection and spiritual leadership – the “Guardians.” The separation occurs in an equitable manner if each is allocated the position to which he is called by his nature. Accordingly, even in the lower class, employment is not left to individual choice but according to aptitude and capacity, thus ensuring that each activity will be brought to perfection. Equally, citizens are classified in the higher or lower class according to their higher or lower nature, their moral and intellectual gifts. For some souls by nature have gold mixed in them, others silver, others a baser metal. But the distribution in the two classes is hereditary because only a noble line yields noble offspring, and here precaution is taken against degeneration. However, this does not rule out members of the higher class becoming demoted if they degenerate, while members of the lower, if they ennoble themselves, become elevated to the higher. The lower class is further left out of consideration. It forms, according to the Greek manner, the base layer that is lowered into the enveloping earth in order for the splendor of the building to rise above it. The ruling class of Guardians alone is actually the state, in it alone the perfection of human common life is presented. Its members are relieved of any common concern and employment; the state meets the need. From childhood on they receive the most thought-out education; gymnastics and music bring all their physical and intellectual aptitudes to maturity, every great mind is nourished in them, every disturbing impression is kept away. Thus, imitative poetry itself is excluded because it endangers truthfulness and dignity.

The full development of the forces and the resulting proper distribution thereof has impressed upon it the seal of perfection by the unity of the goal that they serve. Everything is to be directed to the whole, to the state, not to any own personal (private) interest. Citizens are not ends in themselves but merely a means for the state. In particular, the higher class of the guardians, in which the perfect state is depicted, imposing this utter self‑renunciation and unconditional surrender on the whole – they are absolutely not allowed to have any particular interest. They are not allowed to travel on their own business, are not to make use of gold and silver, are to have no personal wealth. Even the bond of family is abolished among them. Marriages are holy, says Plato, but the most sacred are those most conducive to the state. Therefore the community of women and children should be introduced so that one should not have any more of a concern and a desire for those that concern him alone, rather than all others. No one is supposed to know who is his father, who is his son, one is to consider everyone to be father and son, so that a family love pervades the entire community. Only then will the state really be a state; all actual states did not deserve the name, because in each one there are several states, especially two, a state of the rich and of the poor, but actually there are countless, namely as many as there are individuals.

Therefore this state, preferably in its truest elements, the class of guardians, is to contain all the noble powers, bravery, wisdom, gentleness, love of country, etc. But each of them has to get to the position that they are appointed by nature to assume, and maintain it. Insight has to take the decisions, bravery has to execute them, strength that is determined by the idea of lordship must decree, those destined to serve must obey, and care is to be taken that none overstep one’s own area into another’s. Herein lies justice in the strict specific sense. But if this measure is kept, and if the scattered activities are to remain focused on a goal, it is necessary that the wise men stand at the head of the state – those who are not determined by the desire for money and delights, fear of death, but, equipped with strength of mind, with memory and mind are focused on the knowledge and execution of the good, who therefore do not look to appearance, but to the truth, above the changing and transient, and only strive after what is permanent and eternal. These, imbued with the greatness of the ideal and incapable of selfish volition, will share in the entire intricate motion of the animating rhythm. In them the summit of the Platonic state is reached, as it were in an unrelenting enthusiastic devotion, with which the people worship the idea of the good in the glory of the state that they form and which they present.

Assessment

What Plato calls the justice of the state is rather only the beauty thereof. Because that distinguishes the just from the beautiful: in the beautiful, the fullness of manifold existence is unconsciously united and without satisfying the parts. But the just grants every being an own existence, satisfaction and independent movement, so that it itself may freely engage a whole in the larger whole. This, however, is not found in the state of Plato. He sacrifices the human being, his happiness, his freedom, even his moral perfection. Because this state exists only for the sake of itself, for the glory of its appearance, and the citizen is only destined as a serving member to fit himself into the beauty of its structure. So it has a representative character. It is a work of art that seems to be there less for its own parts, than for the spectator.

But it is an eternal law that even true aspiration, when in its particularization it injures another, it at the same time destroys itself. By the very fact that Plato disregarded the interests of the individual, he is prevented from attaining what for him is overriding, the inner harmony of the state.

Plato would even like his state to represent a higher harmony than nature, indeed the highest. But it can only do that by existing at the same time as a realm of freedom, so that the beauty of its structure is not merely there like nature, but of the willing, of enthusiasts created in each moment anew for it. But this is made impossible by the institutions themselves. Nowhere is a right and a choice granted to the citizens, everyone has a position he must fill, rather than that he should fill. No protection of the person, but only of the abilities [Anlagen] which he possesses, even against his will, so that here as well, it is not himself who is protected but the archetype for which those abilities are used. In fact, with the least it is even intended or ensured that they partake of the knowledge of the greatness which they represent. Because the class of rulers has withdrawn from it everything that is an object of human control, possession, and desire, even the possibility of devoting themselves to the state is taken from them. It makes of them destitute rather than noble people. Harmony, as Aristotle interposes, does not refer to the same tone always being struck, but that many notes are struck in harmony. Thus, the state must not merely be one, as Plato would like, but at the same time also many, in order to achieve beauty and harmony. It must consist of men who freely choose to act of their own will. While Plato gives this up, he even pushes his state below the level of natural beauty.

When he does not take the happiness of its citizens into account, for example, does not worry whether the class of guardians will be satisfied with the position he allots them, even when he allows the infirm who are unable to serve the state to die, and even banishes the doctors that would eke out a useless life for them – for he even believes a justification for [life] to be required – the intactness of the whole will of itself bring about the happiness of individuals, and it does not matter whether this or that class is taken care of, but only whether the state corresponds to its archetype.

But that the happiness of the people exists, and that a particular concern be taken thereto, as an end in itself and not a means to some other end, also pertains to the complete picture of the state. But hardships of that other sort are entirely unattractive. The force of nature goes about destroying living existence, and yet remains sublime and beautiful. Yet human institution cannot imitate its relentless passage without breaching meaningfulness. Aristotle criticizes Plato for educating his warriors like dogs, to be mild to locals, rough and hostile to strangers, because an ungentle disposition is nowhere befitting. This institution in itself is of no interest to us; but in it the great question comes to a head, whether the perfection of man or of the state takes precedence. Plato is not concerned with the human perfection of the warrior, but with the development of military power in the state. He promotes the contradiction of that disposition of a natural hatred against non-citizens because the human mind tends to gain greater strength in the direction that it pursues unilaterally. More disturbing than this is the education of women to male activity, to war and national defense. No one is permitted to become what he should be as human by nature, but only that by which the state has the greatest profit. Not only is the consummation of the individual sacrificed to the state, but even the consummation of human relations and aspirations, for which it is requisite no less than for the state that they satisfy that for which nature has determined them.

The bond of family is abolished so as to avoid any special interest. Poetry is banished, because, while it imitates the humble as well as the exalted, is not such as to promote the purity and lawfulness of the soul, which this state requires. The unity and cohesion of the state is no atonement for the fact that in itself high aspirations are lacking and sacred relations are desecrated. The Platonic state would have achieved a higher beauty if Plato had sought not merely beauty and enthusiasm, but also freedom and humanity. For the good, even according to Plato, must be of an even higher beauty than even the beautiful.

A sublime spirit runs through all these institutions of public life, the demand of unconditional boundless devotion without reference to itself. However, with the State being made the object of this devotion, the unconscious structure is set over the people, which cannot respond, nor can it even feel, this devotion. How much truer and friendlier is the saying: “Man is not for the sake of the law, but law for the sake of men”!

Plato’s doctrine is not free of the road to perdition that, while he pursues the idea, he insensibly imputes the ideal to it. Ideal, namely, is the humanly thought-out perfection in distinction to the perfection intended by God’s command and purpose. The ideal therefore does have a trace of exaltation over reality, with all the bad and the common that adheres to it; but it also has a trace of conflict with and violation of the natural order and thus true perfection, whereby it even falls short of reality. In this way, Plato with human thoughts forms a perfection through devotion to and renunciation in favor of the state, which, while elevated over selfishness, nevertheless violates the right of personality and the vocation of gender and the bond of family, as ordained by God’s law.

Despite all this, Plato’s doctrine of the state remains a model and an upbraiding teacher for subsequent times through its true goals, absent from subsequent science – the positive development of forces, the beauty of the design, and the inner spirit and enthusiasm which it recognizes as demands of public life.

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[1]In the Republic, Book VI.