the Rathouse
Series of Very Abbreviated Versions of Classical Philosophical Works for Very Busy People.
Chapter 4:      Change and Rest

In this chapter we encounter Plato's political program to arrest change and create a stable, totalitarian state. A significant body of ideas had to be defeated to win hearts minds to this task. These are the idea of the Great Generation of Athens, a movement whose spirit is captured in the funeral oration of Pericles. An extract from the speech can be found at the bottom of this page.

It should be noted as an aside that the Achilles heel of Athens may have been its empire and the heavy-handed way it treated its foreign dominions. That gives the story of the Great Generation an extra dimension of contemporary relevance but I will not pursue that for the time being.

Getting back to Popper’s exposition, starting with his précis of the chapter.

"To sum up. In an attempt to understand and to interpret the changing social world as he experienced it, Plato was led to develop a systematic sociology in great detail. He thought of existing states as decaying copies of an unchanging Form or Idea. He tried to reconstruct this Form or Idea of a state, or at least to describe a society which resembled it as closely as possible. Along with ancient traditions, he used as material for his reconstruction the results of his analysis of the social institutions of Sparta and Crete—the most ancient forms of social life he could find in Greece—in which he recognized arrested forms of even older tribal societies… His best state was to be reconstructed in such a way as to eliminate all the germs and elements of disunion and decay as radically as this could be done; that is to say, it was to be constructed out of the Spartan state with an eye to the conditions necessary for the unbroken unity of the master class, guaranteed by its economic abstinence, its breeding, and its training."

It seems that Plato’s achievement as a pioneer in sociology has been largely overlooked because his theories about the origins of society and the evolution of various forms of political organisation are presented by him in such close connection with his ethical and political demands.

His sociology combined speculation with acute observation of the events of his time, the clash between conservatives and democrats, the strains of social change (the "strain of civilisation" as Popper described it in Chapter 10), the wars fought by Athens and the shifting allegiances and civil war within Athens itself. The theory of Forms provided the framework for analysis with themes of universal flux and decay, of generation and degeneration. "On this idealist foundation Plato constructed an astonishingly realistic theory of society, capable of explaining the main trends in the historical development of the Greek city-states as well as the social and political forces at work in his own day."

Examples of his shrewd observation and speculative historical reconstructions include:

His theory of the primitive beginnings of society, of tribal patriarchy, and the typical periods in the development of social life.

Some of his insights into the role of the economic background of  political life and historical development; according to Popper a theory revived by Marx under the name ‘historical materialism’.

The law of political revolutions, according to which all revolutions presuppose a disunited ruling class (or ‘elite’).


The chapter contains five sections, of which the fifth is a short summary.

Section I

This shows how Plato used the Theory of  Forms to provide the foundation for his history, his sociological analysis and his political program.

Section II

Here Popper describes Plato’s theory of revolution and equilibrium, with some comments on the way the story changed somewhat over several dialogues as Plato’s Socrates drifted from the historical democrat towards the rather different figure who was the primary mouthpiece for Plato’s mature anti-democratic views.

The theory of evolution starts from the perfect state which deteriorates to timocracy (the rule of the noble who seek honour and fame), to oligarchy (the rule of rich families, to democracy (the rule of the many) and finally, at the end of the road, tyranny. For Plato, the fatal flaw that precipitated the descent to tyranny was the disunity of the ruling class and the key to designing the Ideal State is to eliminate all possible threats to the solidarity of the ruling class, whether from internal strife or attack from the lower classes.

For Plato, democracy was only one step removed from the worst of all worlds and he turned all his rhetorical skills against it.

"Plato’s description of democracy is a vivid but intensely hostile and unjust parody of the political life of Athens, and of the democratic creed which Pericles had formulated in a manner which has never been surpassed, about three years before Plato was born. Plato’s description is a brilliant piece of political propaganda, and we can appreciate what harm it must have done if we consider, for instance, that a man like Adam, an excellent scholar and editor of the Republic, is unable to resist the rhetoric of Plato’s denunciation of his native city. ‘Plato’s description of the genesis of the democratic man’, Adam writes, ‘is one of the most royal and magnificent pieces of writing in the whole range of literature, whether ancient or modern.’ And when the same writer continues: ‘the description of the democratic man as the chameleon of the human society paints him for all time’, then we see that Plato has succeeded at least in turning this thinker against democracy, and we may wonder how much damage his poisonous writing has done when presented, unopposed, to lesser minds ..."

"Of much greater merit, although it too is inspired by hatred, is Plato’s description of tyranny and especially of the transition to it. He insists that he describes things which he has seen himself; no doubt, the allusion is to his experiences at the court of the older Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse. The transition from democracy to tyranny, Plato says, is most easily brought about by a popular leader who knows how to exploit the class antagonism between the rich and the poor within the democratic state, and who succeeds in building up a bodyguard or a private army of his own. The people who have hailed him first as the champion of freedom are soon enslaved; and then they must fight for him, in ‘one war after another which he must stir up .. because he must make the people feel the need of a general’. With tyranny, the most abject state is reached."

Section III

Here is the sketch for the Ideal State, the Republic, often interpreted as a progressive Utopian program. The main thing is to avoid class war and so the structure is a rigid hierarchy, with the rulers and their auxiliaries at the top and the remainder of the population enslaved below. The mass of the people were of no interest to Plato and he even went to the extreme of prohibiting the rulers to legislate for the lower orders or have any concern for their petty problems (see the note below).

"The problem of avoiding class war is solved, not by abolishing classes, but by giving the ruling class a superiority which cannot be challenged. As in Sparta, the ruling class alone is permitted to carry arms, it alone has any political or other rights, and it alone receives education, i.e. a specialized training in the art of keeping down its human sheep or its human cattle (In fact, its overwhelming superiority disturbs Plato a little; he fears that its members ‘may worry the sheep’, instead of merely shearing them, and ‘act as wolves rather than dogs’. This problem is considered later in the chapter.) As long as the ruling class is united, there can be no challenge to their authority, and consequently no class war."

To ensure the internal unity of the rulers, the master class, there is special education (treated in the next section and the chapter on Leadership) and there is communism to eliminate economic interests. The State itself would be self-contained and isolated,  with no trade and commerce with other nations. All property is to be held in common and the same applies to women and children. Here is a truly remarkably progressive program to eliminate the family!

"No member of the ruling class must be able to identify his children, or his parents. The family must be destroyed, or rather, extended to cover the whole warrior class. Family loyalties might otherwise become a possible source of disunion; therefore ‘each should look upon all as if belonging to one family’. But even the common ownership of women and children is not quite sufficient to guard the ruling class from all economic dangers. It is important to avoid prosperity as well as poverty. Both are dangers to unity: poverty, because it drives people to adopt desperate means to satisfy their needs; prosperity, because most change arises from abundance, from an accumulation of wealth which makes dangerous experiments possible. Only a communist system which has room neither for great want nor for great wealth can reduce economic interests to a minimum, and guarantee the unity of the ruling class."

Section IV

This section describes the origin, breeding and education of the ruling class. The origin is very much a matter of mythology and Plato speculated about the conquest of farmers by a warrior class of hunters (See the note below for more detail on this).

Here we encounter the strong element of racialism in Plato’s thought. The rulers were essentially a master race and it was vital to maintain the purity of the race along with it overwhelming monopoly on power and its internal unity.

"The breeding and the education of the auxiliaries and thereby of the ruling class of Plato’s best state is, like their carrying of arms, a class symbol and therefore a class prerogative. And breeding and education are not empty symbols but, like arms, instruments of class rule, and necessary for ensuring the stability of this rule. They are treated by Plato solely from this point of view, i.e. as powerful political weapons, as means which are useful for herding the human cattle, and for unifying the ruling class."

"To this end, it is important that the master class should feel as one superior master race. ‘The race of the guardians must be kept pure’, says Plato (in defence of infanticide)."

One of the problems that Plato had to address was the need to instil the right balance of fierceness and gentleness in the rulers so they could handle dangers from inside and outside the State, without being aggressive with each other or monstering the human sheep. The right breeding is essential and also a judicious balance between music and gymnastics in the education of the young. There are some amusing restrictions on the kind of music that is acceptable (see note) and there are less amusing limits placed on creative writers who would be subjected to strict censorship with the threat of  banishment  from the State.

Selected notes

29 For Plato’s advice against legislating for the common people with their ‘vulgar market quarrels’, etc., see Republic, 425b-427a/b; especially 425d-e and 427a. These passages, of course, attack Athenian democracy, and all ‘piecemeal’ legislation in the sense of chapter 9. * That this is so is also seen by Cornford, The Republic of Plato (1941); for he writes, in a note to a passage in which Plato recommends Utopian engineering (it is Republic 500d, f., the recommendation of ‘canvas-cleaning’ and of a romantic radicalism; cp. note 12 to chapter 9, and text): ‘Contrast the piecemeal tinkering at reform satirized at 425e ..’. Cornford does not seem to like piecemeal reforms, and he seems to prefer Plato’s methods; but his and my interpretation of Plato’s intentions seem to coincide.

43 The idea that nomads or even hunters constituted ‘the original upper class is corroborated by the age-old and still surviving upper-class tradition according to which war, hunting, and horses are the symbols of the leisured classes; a tradition which formed the basis of Aristotle’s ethics and politics, and which is still alive, as Veblen (The Theory of the Leisure Class) and Toynbee have shown; and to this evidence we can perhaps add the animal breeder’s belief in racialism, and especially in the racial superiority of the upper class. The latter belief which is so pronounced in caste states and in Plato and in Aristotle is held by Toynbee to be ‘one of the .. sins of our .. modern age’ and ‘something alien from the Hellenic genius’ (op. cit., III, 93). But although many Greeks may have developed beyond racialism, it seems likely that Plato’s and Aristotle’s theories are based on old traditions; especially in view of the fact that racial ideas played such a role in Sparta.

41 (1) Plato’s attitude towards music, is, fundamentally, that one must ‘beware of changing to a new mode of music; this endangers everything’ since ‘any change in the style of music always leads to a change in the most important institutions of the whole state. So says Damon, and I believe him.’ (Rep., 424c.) Plato, as usual, follows the Spartan example. Adam (op. cit., vol. I, p. 216, note to 424c20; italics mine; cp. also his references) says that ‘the connection between musical and political changes .. was recognized universally throughout Greece, and particularly at Sparta, where .. Timotheus had his lyre confiscated for adding to it four new strings’.

From the funeral speech of Pericles.

"It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment."

"We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Again, in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons; although usually decision is the fruit of ignorance, hesitation of reflection. But the palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those, who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger."

"In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility."

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Karl Popper