the Rathouse
Series of Very Abbreviated Versions of Classical Philosophical Works for Very Busy People.
Chapter 6:      Totalitarian Justice


Plato promoted a highly influential and damaging theory of totalitarian or collectivist justice as an alternative to equalitarian or individualist theory.

He also created the myth that individualism is not compatible with altruism.

He effectively exploited weaknesses that are sometimes used to defend the protective state and equalitarian justice.

These weaknesses are the theory of natural rights and the social contract theory of human society.

The equalitarian theory needs to be described in the language of political proposals, in the context of the protective state.

Organisation of the chapter

The introduction to the chapter outlines Plato’s totalitarian program and notes how it has been idealized, even by some writers who were aware of its dangerous tendencies.

Section I describes how Plato recast the theory of justice to mean protecting the stability and the class structure of the state.

Section II raises and dismisses the suggestion that Plato’s theory of totalitarian justice corresponded with the customary Greek meaning of the term.

Section III restates the three key elements of the equalitarian theory and their opposites, which Plato defended.

Section IV states the program (articulated by Pericles in his funeral speech) of rejecting all doctrines of natural privilege and shows how Plato attacked this.

Section V defends the principle of individualism versus collectivism and shows how Plato’s brilliant rhetoric managed to identify individualism with selfishness, and altruism with collectivism. This leads to totalitarianism when combined with other elements of Plato’s program, including his theory of leadership.

Section VI explains the theory of the protective state, in contrast with Plato’s theory that the state is all-important. It also explains the language of political proposals as an alternative to the defective and confusing methods of essentialism and historicism. Essentialism means trying to establish the true meaning of terms (such as freedom and justice) and historicism is the error of explanation by origins (the genetic fallacy).

Section VII shows how the equalitarian theory of justice and the protective state were expounded by a younger contemporary of Plato. The ideas only survive in fragments of Plato’s early work and in some critical commentaries by Aristotle.

Section VIII explains the rhetorical devices that Plato used in his later and most influential works on politics (Republic and Laws) to suppress or misrepresent the ideas of individual freedom and equalitarian justice in favour of his totalitarian program.

From the top of the chapter

"The main elements of Plato’s political programme can be derived from his cardinal objective, to protect a stable state with rigid class rule. The principal elements I have in mind are:

(A) The strict division of the classes; i.e. the ruling class consisting of herdsmen and watch-dogs must be strictly separated from the human cattle.

(B) The identification of the fate of the state with that of the ruling class; the exclusive interest in this class, and in its unity; and the strict supervision and collectivization of the interests of its members. From these principal elements, others can be derived, for instance the following:

(C) The ruling class has a monopoly of things like military virtues and training, and of the right to carry arms and to receive education of any kind.

(D) There must be a censorship of all intellectual activities of the ruling class, and a continual propaganda aiming at moulding and unifying their minds.

(E) The state must be self-sufficient. It must aim at economic autarchy; otherwise the rulers would either be dependent upon traders, or become traders themselves.The first of these alternatives would undermine their power, the second their unity and the stability of the state."

In Popper's opinion, the programme can be fairly described as totalitarian. He noted some objections to that harsh verdict, such as Plato's desire for Goodness and Beauty,and his love of Wisdom and Truth. And the idea that the wise should rule, rather than the strong or a herediary monarch. And above all, the idea that the state should be founded upon Justice?

Popper noted the tendency to interpret Plato in the best possible light, even on the part of writers who were clearly aware of the totalitarian tendencies in his thinking. In addition, the idealization of Plato extended to many translations of the works, so that drastic remarks of Plato’s which do not fit the translator’s views of what a humanitarian should say are frequently either toned down or misunderstood. This starts with the translation of the title of Plato’s ‘Republic’, which has a liberal or even a revolutionary tone. However it could just as well be translated as ‘The Constitution’ or ‘The City State’ or ‘The State’.

Popper defends Equalitarian Justice by which he means equality before non-discriminatory laws.

"I think that most of us, especially those whose general outlook is humanitarian, mean something like this: (a) an equal distribution of the burden of citizenship, i.e. of those limitations of freedom which are necessary in social life; (b) equal treatment of the citizens before the law, provided, of course, that (c) the laws show neither favour nor disfavour towards individual citizens or groups or classes; (d) impartiality of the courts of justice; and (e) an equal share in the advantages (and not only in the burden) which membership of the state may offer to its citizens."

Plato’s Republic is probably the most influential book on justice until Rawls' big book in 1972. It underpins the programs of both outright totalitarians and also the warm and cuddly program of social justice, which also undermines equalitarian justice in a slower but equally deadly manner. For example, affirmative action policies for various ethnic or racial groups in the US represent the most obvious form of official racism in that nation since slavery was abolished.

The presentation of Plato’s argument is very interesting because he chose to avoid any mention of equalitarian justice, though in previous dialogues such as Georgias he had actually defended it. This is an interesting and illuminating oversight which Popper subjected to close investigation, noting that the equalitarian theory had been well formulated by Lycophron, a younger contemporary of Plato (nowhere named by Plato) and reported by Aristotle (himself no friend of equality and freedom).

Platonic justice: keeping your place in the social hierarchy

"The city is founded upon human nature, its needs, and its limitations. ‘We have stated, and, you will remember, repeated over and over again that each man in our city should do one work only; namely, that work for which his nature is naturally best fitted.’ ‘The city is just .. if each of its three classes attends to its own work.’ But this statement means that Plato identifies justice with the principle of class rule and of class privilege. For the principle that every class should attend to its own business means, briefly and bluntly, that the state is just if the ruler rules, if the worker works, and if the slave slaves (...)The state is just if it is healthy, strong, united — stable (...) Behind Plato’s definition of justice stands, fundamentally, his demand for totalitarian class rule (...)The humanitarian theory of justice can be summarised in three main demands or proposals, namely (a) the proposal to eliminate ‘natural’ privileges, (b) the general principle of individualism, that justice applies to individuals rather than groups and (c) the principle that a major function of the state to protect the freedom of its citizens."

Plato, in opposition, supported (a) the principle of natural privilege, (b) holism or collectivism, and (c) the imperative of maintaining the stability of the state.

Equalitarianism is the demand that the citizens of the state should be treated impartially, that is, they should be equal under the law. It is important to note that his is a proposal and if it is not realised in fact, it still remains an objective and it is not a criticism of the principle to point out that there may be “one law for the rich and another for the poor.”

Plato’s principle of justice was, of course, diametrically opposed to all this. He demanded natural privileges for the natural leaders. But how did he contest the equalitarian principle? And how did he establish his own demands?

This is where Plato exploited some of the best-known formulations of the equalitarian demands. These were spelled out in the language of ‘natural rights’, and the ‘natural’, meaning biological, equality of men. This is unhelpful because people are equal in some respects and very unequal in others. Further, as explained in the previous chapter, nothing follows from the facts of the matter in any case.

"Plato quickly found that naturalism was a weak spot within the equalitarian doctrine, and he took the fullest advantage of this weakness. To tell men that they are equal has a certain sentimental appeal. But this appeal is small compared with that made by a propaganda that tells them that they are superior to others, and that others are inferior to them. Are you naturally equal to your servants, to your slaves, to the manual worker who is no better than an animal? The very question is ridiculous."

"Summing up, it can be said that Plato never underrated the significance of the equalitarian theory, supported as it was by a man like Pericles, but that, in the Republic, he did not treat it at all; he attacked it, but not squarely and openly."

Individualism and collectivism

The exposition begins with some examination of the terminology.

"The term ‘individualism’ can be used (according to the Oxford Dictionary) in two different ways: (a) in opposition to collectivism, and (b) in opposition to altruism. There is no other word to express the former meaning, but several synonyms for the latter, for example ‘egoism’ or ‘selfishness’. This is why in what follows I shall use the term ‘individualism’ exclusively in sense (a), using terms like ‘egoism’ or ‘selfishness’ if sense (b) is intended. A little table may be useful:'

(a) Individualism is opposed to (a') Collectivism.
(b) Egoism is opposed to (b') Altruism

Plato’s gambit at this point was to collapse the table and make out a case for the inevitable conflict or tension between individualism and altruism.

The table shows that is not the case. "Collectivism is not opposed to egoism, nor is it identical with altruism or unselfishness. Collective or group egoism, for instance class egoism, is a very common thing , and this shows clearly enough that collectivism as such is not opposed to selfishness. On the other hand, an anti-collectivist, i.e. an individualist, can, at the same time, be an altruist; he can be ready to make sacrifices in order to help other individuals."

"Now it is interesting that for Plato, and for most Platonists, an altruistic individualism (as for instance that of Dickens) cannot exist. According to Plato, the only alternative to collectivism is egoism; he simply identifies all altruism with collectivism, and all individualism with egoism. This is not a matter of terminology, of mere words, for instead of four possibilities, Plato recognized only two. This has created considerable confusion in speculation on ethical matters, even down to our own day."

The identification of individualism with egoism gives Plato a stick to beat individualism while defending collectivism by the appeal to our feeling of unselfishness. 

The humanitarian, protective theory of the state

"In a clear presentation of this theory, the language of political demands or of political proposals should be used; that is to say, we should not try to answer the essentialist question: What is the state, what is its true nature, its real meaning? Nor should we try to answer the historicist question: How did the state originate, and what is the origin of political obligation? We should rather put our question in this way: What do we demand from a state? What do we propose to consider as the legitimate aim of state activity? And in order to find out what our fundamental political demands are, we may ask: Why do we prefer living in a well-ordered state to living without a state, i.e. in anarchy? Now if we ask our question in this way, the reply of the humanitarian will be: What I demand from the state is protection; not only for myself, but for others too. I demand protection for my own freedom and for other people’s. I do not wish to live at the mercy of anybody who has the larger fists or the bigger guns. In other words, I wish to be protected against aggression from other men. I want the difference between aggression and defence to be recognized, and defence to be supported by the organized power of the state (...) I must give up my ‘freedom’ to attack, if I want the state to support defence against any attack. But I demand that the fundamental purpose of the state should not be lost sight of; I mean, the protection of that freedom which does not harm other citizens. Thus I demand that the state must limit the freedom of the citizens as equally as possible, and not beyond what is necessary for achieving an equal limitation of freedom."

Among the critics of the protective theory, Popper refers to Aristotle, Burke and modern Platonists who think that the state has more important things to do than just protection, it should be a moral guardian as well, and maybe also an object of veneration. However Popper suggested that the demand for the state to act as a moral custodian would be the end of the individual’s moral responsibility, and that it would not improve but destroy morality. It would replace personal responsibility by various moral fads and fashions that prevail among the rulers for the time being, so it is better that the morality of the state should be controlled by the citizens than the opposite. “What we need and what we want is to moralize politics, and not to politicize morals.”

"Plato seems to have succeeded in persuading most of his readers, and at any rate all Platonists, that the protectionist theory here developed is identical with the ruthless and cynical selfishness of Thrasymachus; and, what is more important, that all forms of individualism amount to the same, namely, selfishness. But it was not only his admirers he persuaded; he even succeeded in persuading his opponents, and especially the adherents of the contract theory. From Carneades to Hobbes, they not only adopted his fatal historicist presentation, but also Plato’s assurances that the basis of their theory was an ethical nihilism (...) Now it must be realized that the elaboration of its allegedly selfish basis is the whole of Plato’s argument against protectionism; and considering the space taken up by this elaboration, we may safely assume that it was not his reticence which made him proffer no better argument, but the fact that he had none. Thus protectionism had to be dismissed by an appeal to our moral sentiments — as an affront against the idea of justice, and against our feelings of decency."

Previous chapter Nature and Convention                            Next Chapter Leadership

START Portal to the Condensed OSE

The Open Society and its Enemies
Karl Popper