Jennifer Tolbert Roberts
Athens On Trial
Although Plato's metaphysics bring with them a rejection of all existing forms of government, posited as these governments are on misperceptions of truth that by definition are unreal and therefore decaying already at their inception, they carry the most severe implications for democracy, of which, as Cleon so bitterly complained over the question of Mytilene, change and flexibility are integral parts. Plato's expulsion of the poets from his ideal state must also be seen in the context of the important role played in the education of Athenian citizens by attendance at tragedies. It was tragic drama that afforded Athenians an opportunity to ponder and debate many of the same issues that arose in Plato's dialogues, and it is curious whether Plato wished to expel the poets precisely because he knew the kind of issues that tragedies stirred up in the minds of citizens or because he failed to grasp tragedy's educative power.
The natural diversity that for Pericles had made Athens into a vital, throbbing entity served Plato's state rather as a means of assigning each individual to his or her proper station on the great assembly line of the polis. Relegating to lesser classes the varying talents that produce material goods, Plato frees his guardians from the demands of diversity and endows them with the leisure to become a united front of enlightenment. Although he sees artisans as possessed of a variety of different skills, the politike techne appears to him as unvariegated and homogeneous. If a carpenter and a cobbler were to exchange trades, Plato complains, the result would be poor carpenting and cobbling, and the same will happen if a cobbler or other artisan seeks to change roles with a ruler or to add the ruler's function onto his or her own (Republic 434A-C). Among the individual crafts, in other words, important distinctions exist, but the politike techne is indivisible. Where democratic theorists had seen diversity as the strength of the democratic polis, Plato's ideal state draws its strength rather from the uniformity of vision in its ruling class.
But if Plato's opposition to democracy must be traced in part to his intellectual authoritarianism, it must also be viewed in the context of class prejudice. Despite Plato's determination to lend an air of abstraction to his work and to cast his wisdom as universal and absolute, knowing no bounds in time or space, his writings nonetheless make plain that he was distinctively a Greek aristocrat who shared numerous traditional convictions with the bulk of his class. These convictions included blithe acceptance of slavery; an inability to see a political structure larger than the polis; a preoccupation with physical beauty (pace the high-minded idealism of the Symposium); a strong belief in heredity; and a disdain for manual labor that sometimes extended to contempt for any form of earning a living and for all those whom circumstances compelled to support themselves. The last two of these bear directly on Plato's view of democracy, though it is not clear precisely what relation they bear to each other. Beside Plato's insistence that children in his ideal state who are accidentally bom into the wrong class will be transferred into the proper station, we must place his conviction that such accidents will be rare, for his careful plan for eugenic intra-class breeding makes clear the expectation that as a rule guardian parents will produce babies who are guardian material, and others will not. Above and beyond the factor of heredity, moreover, Plato stresses the debilitating nature of hard work of a nonintellectual variety. In book 5 of the Republic, Plato attacks the sophists by complaining that such men address themselves to the multitude, and 'the multitude can never be philosophical. Accordingly it is bound to disapprove of all who pursue wisdom; and so also, of course, are those individuals who associate with the mob and set their hearts on pleasing it' (493E). When men like this corrupt noble natures, he argues, then philosophy, like a maiden deserted by her nearest kin and bereft of her natural protectors, is open to debasement by the unworthy. For, Plato writes (in a passage as jarring to twentieth-century admirers of Greek ideals as the Thersites episode in the Iliad), in such cases some 'poor creature who has proved his cleverness in some mechanical craft, sees here an opening for a pretentious display of high-sounding words and is glad to break out of the prison of his paltry trade and take sanctuary in the shrine of philosophy,' a pursuit that even in its present debased form
still enjoys a higher prestige, enough to attract a multitude of stunted natures, whose souls a life of drudgery has warped and maimed no less surely than their sedentary crafts have disfigured their bodies. For all the world they are like some little bald-headed tinker, who, having come into some money, has just got out of prison, had a good wash at the baths, and dressed himself up in a new coat as a bridegroom, ready to marry his master's daughter, who has been left poor and friendless. Could the issue of such a match ever be anything but pitiful base-born creatures? (495D-E)