In the Republic Book V, Plato outlines his view of what an ideal society would look like. Several controversial assertions are made here. For instance, he declares that women and men will work alongside one another in training to become guardians (an assertion which would have been shocking at the time)and that spouses and children be held in common. He also develops the idea that the population will be regulated in a manner much akin to the rearing of cows and other farm animals. Regarding guardians especially, a plethora of radical ideas are postulated—ideas which very well may meet with very stiff resistance in a democratic environment such as that. It is also implicit in many of the writings towards the end of the Republic, that philosopher kings will operate with the same level of power and autonomy which regular monarchs enjoy, with the only difference being that they are better suited to rule by virtue of their wisdom. With the need to enact potentially unpopular policies, coupled with the abolition of democracy entailed by a single monarch, we are led to the logical conclusion that there will be the need for a variety of tactics to be employed by the monarch for his perceived benefit to the people. Tactics which some may denounce as unsavoury. Such perspectives on rule are often termed Machiavellian.
Machiavelli was a 14th-15th century Italian historian, politician and philosopher, who lived during the tumultuous portion of history known as the Renaissance. In Italy this period was especially violent and bloody, with several political conflicts and rivalries erupting with devastating consequences
The Machiavellian theory of politics necessary to uphold Plato’s Republic is one that would be difficult to agree with in today’s world. He firmly believed that to maintain peace and retain power, any action, no matter how morally reprehensible should be permitted in the defence of the stability of the state. His mantra: The Ends justify the Means. Machiavelli makes several allusions to torture and cruelty as integral in the development of a reputation that would deter any dissent. At this point, one might jump in and point out that a huge part of Platonic dialogue revolves around how best to be morally upright. Does this not stand in defense of the position that the philosopher king will not commit unjust actions? The response to this is simple. Philosophy is diverse, with no hard and fast rules. A philosopher king will be enabled by his training to think critically about the world around him, but that is no guarantee that he will always do what is right. It is possible to rationalize all manner of atrocities as “necessary evils” or prerequisites for the “general good”. History is riddled with examples of very intelligent people, doing terrible things with full conviction that their actions were necessary. We need not look far for this. In the Republic itself we hear through Socrates, Plato’s view that any babies born outside of the annual breeding festival are to be killed. One need not even consider his justification for this, to be repulsed by such a notion, and understand that it is inherently wrong. Well intentioned philosophers can sometimes find themselves on the slippery slope towards tyranny and debauchery.
The primary reason, why Machiavelli’s idea of politics would not suffice for us in today’s world–as it would not have served in ancient Greece– is that the medieval era was characterised by institutionalised dictators, and the serf system. The citizens of medieval states did not expect democracy or even the pretext of it. They expected to be ruled and to obey the dictates of their king (or equivalent ruler), under the strictures of the ‘Divine Right of Kings’. Post democracy, this is no longer the case. People are well aware of their rights, as citizens of a state, and expect to be consulted in some form about decisions that affect them. For this reason, while it may have been feasible to instate a philosopher king prior to a democracy, post democracy, the same cannot be said. A state can never revert once it has gone down the path of political pluralism. It is for this reason that the establishment of a king in ancient Greece would be so unpalatable and why (as a necessary consequence), tactics like those described in Machiavelli’s The Prince must be employed.
Political stances like this are not uncommon even in today’s world, and the lessons they teach are intuitive to grasp. One can think of many examples of politicians who adopted Machiavellian socio-economic policies, and met with violent deaths. Colonel Gaddafi is a very good example of a leader who began with good, politically acceptable policies that gained him popularity from his citizens and recognition from the international community, but soon allowed his administration to slip into the vices of Machiavellianism. Much of his time in power was spent taking steps to kill democracy (which goes back to the point I made earlier about the impossibility of attempting to transition backwards away from a democracy as Plato intends). He was described by U.S politicians in an intercepted message as being a “master political strategist” as he slowly and carefully moved members of his family into powerful positions in the economy and in Libyan government itself to consolidate power around the Gaddafi family. He then (necessarily) began silencing the voices of detractors, through methods that Machiavelli would applaud. In 2009 and 2011, Libya was ranked the most censored nation in the Middle East, as aggressive steps were taken to throttle the voice of anyone who dared to speak out. This, coupled with public corporal punishment set in motion the events that would eventually end in the demise of the Libyan leader.
This I hope serves as a brief introduction to why Plato’s utopia can (and arguably never should) become a reality.