Copyright © 1998 by Ralph F. Couey
Throughout human history, philosophers witnessed the worst parts of man's inhumanity to man. In response, they strove to construct, at least in a theoretical sense, an outline for what was perceived at "the ideal state." One of the first of these efforts is embodied in Plato's epic work "The Republic."
This exercise, interestingly enough, grew out of a discussion centering on the nature of justice. Socrates and the elders quickly reached the realization that in order to properly define justice as it relates to the individual it was necessary to consider the larger question of the nature of the state's view of justice. The attitudes of the state shape the attitudes of its citizens, so in order to nail down what constitutes a just man, one must account for the state's definition of justice.
In our modern world, punishment for crime is meted out in accordance with the way the state's laws have been molded by culture. In Singapore, for example, theft is punished by caning; in Somalia, by the amputation of a hand; in America, by a stern lecture from an overburdened Judge and perhaps a few weeks in a climate-controlled corrections facility with satellite TV and three squares per day. In each of the above examples, the punishments reflect the respective culture's highly subjective view of justice.
Today, of course, we can take advantage of the long view not only of history, but through the images and impressions of other contemporary cultures through electronic eyes in order to properly contextualize these very basic questions. In contrast, the view of Classical Civilization was necessarily myopic, there being no GNN (Grecian News Network) to expand their limited view beyond the eastern Mediterranean.
The concept of Socrates' ideal state is essentially a layered design, beginning with four craftsmen and eventually becoming an aggressive army bent on territorial aggrandizement. In the beginning, however, he starts with four craftsment: farmer, carpenter, weaver, cobbler. In his view, this constitutes the basic human needs. Socrates also identifies two principles which become keystones of the ideal state. First of all, that every person has a separate and distinct group of talents, abilities, and characteristics, which he defines as "nature." This group is what determines the individual's vocational path. Secondly, it is more efficient if talented individuals perform their particular function for the whole society, rather than each individual attempting to do every task themselves. I find agreement in both.
Every human arrives in this life with a set of genetically-inspired specialties. Even coming from the same set of parents, each child has a different set of abilities, likes and dislikes, mirroring either parent, or another ancestor. Perhaps my own experience might illuminate this point. I have a daughter who consistantly earned low grades in math and always struggled with languages. My son, on the other hand, does calculus in his head and speaks Korean fluently. But while he has seemed less concerned for the feelings of those around him, my daughter demonstrates a high degree of compassion and empathy for others. These clear opposites, although coming from the same parents, clearly demonstrate the diverse concept of human nature. How they will utilize those talents and abilities is a product of nurture. Indeed, a big part of parenting is getting each child to recognize their own uniqueness and how to develop that into a productive path of life.
It is difficult, if not impossible to force a human into an activity or job for which they are manifestly unsuited. Even if they can somehow learn the tasks associated with the job, they will never be as qualitatively or quantitavely productive as someone who possesses the natural talent. Harry Connick, Jr. was a jazz virtuoso at age 8. Comedian Jack Benny spent decades practicing the violin and, by his own admission, barely acheived mediocre. Ambition and hard work can make up some ground, but generations of humans great and pedestrian, famous and anonymous has shown that whatever "it" is, it must be with you when you are born. In my experience, it is neither nature nor nurture alone, but a combination of the two which determines the ultimate path of a child.
It is this genetic specialization that segues naturally into Plato's second keystone. Division of labor is not only a good business practice, it is good common sense. If you want a task done correctly, you must go to the specialist in that field, the one with the talent and enthusiasm for accomplishing the job. People have come to me on occasion to write radio advertising. I enjoy the freedom of creative writing. I'm told that I'm good at it. But numbers befuddle me, so if these same people wanted me to do their taxes, then the IRS Enforcement Division would suddenly have more work than they could do. So along with millions of others, I've taken to heart the advice of Clint Eastwood's character Harry Calahagn: "A man's got to know his limitations."
Both of these concepts are sound for this day and age. The only change I might suggest is in the identification of the four craftsmen:
1. Engineer: Formulates ideas and provides a scheduled direction
2. Craftsman: Executes the Planners ideas into reality
3. Accounter: Allocates current resources for the Creator and identifies future available resources for the Planner
4. Teacher: Identifies and trains new engineers, craftsman, accounters, and teachers.
With these four, dynasties could be built.
In any perusal of historical writings, regardless of the subject, allowances mut be made for the environment in which the ideas were conceived. Acknowledging that fact, there are still elements of The Republic that modern readers find objectionable. First and foremost is the idea existing in Classical Civilization that slavery was somehow right and normal. Today we view that as reprehensible. Over the years, we have learned that every human life has an inherent value which must be treasured.
Also, Socrates' explanations of the four virtues are curiously incomplete when mirrored against modern civilization. He defines courage as "...knowing right from wrong and who the enemies are." Today, we view courage as not only knowing right from wrong, but standing up for or against those ethics. It is in the modern pragmatic context of actions speaking volumes which defines our concept of courage.
Temperance, "to be master of oneself," carries forward to our time in a general way. Today we find far more virtue in the discipline of self, rather than the Greek notion of controlling the lower classes.
Justice is defined as "...one man should practice one thing only, the thing to which his nature was best adapted" and also, "...doing one's own business, and not being a busybody..." This could be one of the difficulties in translating not only words, but concepts from one language to another. Our modern concept of justice is more far-reaching, perhaps finding a home under the phrase "Equal Justice Before the Law." To us, justice is more the equal application of laws and equal access to opportunity.
Socrates now defines wisdom as what remains after the first three virtues have been identified. He also mandates that wisdom is the exclusive province of the rulers. Today, we recognize wisdom as the hard-won and sometimes bitter fruit of a lifetime of experience and of equal value no matter what the station in life the source occupied.
Socrates' vision of the Ideal State may have been logical and right for the time a place of its formulation. However, when applied to the ever-shifting tapestry of modern civilization, it is useful only as an historical tool.