It was 1961, the height of the Cold War and I was 17. Arrogant, rebellious, a cynical Machiavellian, I believed that all the world needed was sufficiently manipulative leaders to outwit Communism. So when they taught me Plato’s tripartite theory of goodness, the soul and the polis, I disagreed. Now that I am 71 and the world is more peaceful, I see the usefulness of Plato’s theory as a diagnosis of what is wrong with society and how to fix it.
According to Plato, the state consists of three parts – rulers, guardians and citizens. Each part has its own distinctive virtue: rulers should be wise, guardians courageous and citizens industriously temperate. (Today we would call this work-life balance.) The state has justice when the virtues exist in the appropriate part and the parts separate themselves. If police, soldiers or other civil servants insert themselves in the citizens’ trade, or if citizens resort to violence and do not leave coercion to guardians, there is corruption and injustice.
These are very useful ideas for explaining Third World poverty. Petty regulations, the necessity to pay bribes, business violence, even the absence of land registries go a long way to explain underdevelopment. But even rich peaceful societies with well-trained guardians seem mired in slow progress. What’s wrong?
I think Plato would look with astonishment at the sheer enormity of what has been accomplished through the diffusion of wisdom from the ruling part to ordinary citizens. People like Steve Jobs have produced mountains of brands and supply chains at good prices. It nearly all went wrong in 2008, but the leaders were wise, made the right interventions and prevented the Great Recession from becoming another Great Depression. Economies are growing again, albeit slowly.
Except for weaponry, the diffusion of wisdom to guardianship has been slower. One of the reasons for this is that courage is a paradoxical virtue. A person cannot be too wise or too temperate. Nor can a state. But courage can be excessive, leading to over-optimism for aggressive projects. Too many unproductive wars. Too much surveillance. Too much incarceration. Too many backward countries that are now narco-states.
How to fix this? Plato would say look to your own soul. Understand your own violence and curb it. Educate your guardian part. Avoid scary stories. Inspire yourself with beauty.
It has taken me 50 years to see that, smart as they are, we cannot always rely on our political leaders for effective strategy. When the manipulative quick fixes run out, we have the option of Platonic justice. I am becoming less Machiavellian as I age.Tweet