The Republic




About Plato

Plato was an Athenian, an aristocrat, connected with the ancient royal family. He was born in 428 BC and grew up during the Peloponnesian War (431 BC - 404 BC). His experience of politics was thus not of Pericles, but of the demagogues like Cleon and Hyperbolus. Several of his relatives were involved in anti-democratic politics, especially Critias, his uncle, who was one of the Spartan-appointed "thirty tyrants" after Athens lost the war. Plato himself was not a supporter of democracy and admired the more organised constitution of Sparta.

The final straw was when Socrates, whom Plato admired immensely for his teaching and way of life, was executed in 399 BC - at the age of 70 - for "corrupting the youth" (i.e. encouraging them to criticise what they were taught, and to think for themselves). He left Athens and visited Libya (for mathematicians) Egypt (for prophets and mystics), Italy (the Pythagoreans) and Sicily (where, as tutor to the royal family, he failed to put his ideas into practice: he was sold as a slave - but was freed by a Libyan friend who also gave him money to buy some land back in Athens).

On this land (about 380 BC) he founded the Academy - so-called because it was in the middle of beautiful parkland near a grove sacred to an old hero called Academus. There he stayed (apart from two more equally disastrous trips to Sicily), discussing philosophy and teaching students both male and female until his death at the age of 81. It is said that in the course of his long life no one ever once saw him laugh. [I suspect he was just too cunning to let anyone catch him at it!]


Plato's Socialist Republic?
Revelations about attempts to purify the race by enforced sterilisations in Scandinavia - a program that endured in Sweden until as recently as 1976 - have prompted research into British socialist thinkers' ideas on Eugenics. Many make Plato's proposals look extremely tame: Shaw favored "selective breeding"; Bertrand Russell suggested the issue of color-coded "procreation tickets" to avoid contamination of the race - anyone breeding with a holder of the wrong-color ticket would face a hefty fine; HG Wells was enthusiastic about the removal of "detrimental types and characteristics". Even many reformers were motivated by Eugenic rather than humanitarian motives: the Webbs wanted free milk for the future working class because of the kicking it had received in the Boer War. Marie Stopes' birth-control was not about female emancipation, but to reduce the numbers of the proletariat. JM Keynes was keen to enforce it on the workers who were "too drunken and ignorant" to control their own numbers. [Guardian 30 August 1997]