Category: Philosophical theories

20th century political theories and Plato

Throughout the twentieth century platonic philosophy becomes the subject of various hermeneutic approaches. The politico-ideological Plato constitutes the emblem of various intellectual currents and pursuits whereas towards the end of the century it is the school of analytic interpretation that comes to prevail.

Coming to terms with the integration of Platonism into the intellectual and ideological schemas of the twentieth century presupposes the knowledge of hermeneutic and methodological issues raised during the 19th century either in Great Britain or in continental Europe. Schematically, the early 20th century bequeaths Hegelian metaphysics and its political entailments as the preeminent tool of interpretative analysis. Hegelianism was particularly exploited by the school of British Idealism, which had its headquarters at the University of Oxford. Benjamin Jowett was the leading figure of Platonic studies in the later nineteenth century. He offered the first reliable translation of the Platonic corpus in English while opposing Plato as the "father of idealism" to the utilitarian, secularized Platonism of George Grote and John Stuart Mill. Jowett's Platonism was Hegelian in the sense that he thought of Plato and Hegel's philosophical systems in terms of congruence and complementarity - i.e., they relied upon the solid frame of transcendental idealism. His interpretation was embedded into broader epistemological, metaphysical or moral schools of thought by the idealist philosophers T.H. Green, B. Bosanquet, F.H.Bradley, D. Ritchie, E. Barker and G.R.G. Mure in a process that reached up to 1930.

To Barker (1874-1960), the works of whom mine the political dimensions of Plato's thought, Plato professes the reconnection of ethics with political praxis and civil life - a connection that to the mind of British idealists had been sundered because of the empirical-mechanistic rationale permeating the Enlightenment, the influence of Herbert Spencer and Victorian radical liberalism. A certain perception of Plato concerning the man of politics in terms of a moral crusader was fostered by Barker, whereas the practice of government was seen to be a disinterested public office fit for a paternalistic intellectual elite. This new Platonism spearheaded a revolutionary idealistic sociocracy and the perception of the state as an entity far superior to individual freedom. Plato was put to the service of the upcoming political ideology of socialism (and new forms of social co-perception along with an enhanced interpretation of the concept of equality), fortified, though, by the transcendentalist armoury of German Idealism. Barker's innovative studies on ancient Greek philosophy were steeped in the politicised neo-idealism of the era. Plato was made to come to terms with the 20th century and keep up with contemporary philosophic thought while, at the same time, there emerged a form of idealistic Plato worship. Idealists turned to Plato in a transitional period of human history laying their hopes on the revival of the values of classical philosophy and the ancient city.

Platonism has been gradually and unavoidably involved in the ideological conflicts of the 20th century, especially after the breaking out of WWII. Now, since a European political, supra-empirical idealism thought of Plato as its source of inspiration and spiritual founder, it was only natural that Plato himself would attract the critical rigour of his detractors. A first poignant criticism of Plato can be found in the work The Metaphysical Theory of the State written in 1918 by the liberal thinker Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse (1864-1929).Hobhouse regarded the Platonic idealism that permeated the political philosophy at the beginning of the twentieth century as "corrosive academic orthodoxy." According to him, it turned against the ideals of humanism and democracy that inspired the Enlightenment project. During the war, the preeminent political philosopher Cyril Edwin M. Joad (1891-1953) criticised heavily the idealistic perception of the state as a soulful moral and political hyper-entity in his monumental Guide to the Philosophy of Morals and Politics (1938). To the degree that the last generation idealism determined itself in terms of the fulfillment of "the platonic prophecy," Plato and the classical philosophy of the city were considered anathema to the liberal thinkers. And all the more so when Plato was presented by several German studies clad in the fascist cloak in the role of preacher and herald of totalitarianism.

The Platonic conception of politics and pedagogic philosophy were zealously taken up by the Nazi intelligentsia and propaganda. In the circles of Stephan George (George-Kreis) Plato was applauded as the perennial founder of a timeless Reich. The bibliography is too extended to register here. Indicatively, Hans Leisegang(1890-1951) mentions that to Nazi supporters Plato was the inspired "founder of a new civilisation, a leader who could mould the characters of men," i.e., the creator of a superior race. Joachim Bannes, in his Plato's State and Hitler's Meinkampf (1933), stressed the correspondence between the political programme that Plato's The Republic adumbrated and Hitler's Mein Kampfand the views expressed therein on the reconstruction of the German nation on an entirely new basis(organicist conception of society, racial superiority, the Spartan ideal, authoritarian leadership, eugenics etc.) Karl Popper's anti-Platonism deconstructs a long tradition of Platonic and neo-Platonic idealisation. The Platonic myth crumbles temporarily. There is a considerable number of texts critical of Plato that precede Popper's but the Viennese thinker sums up in a philosophically precise and penetrating spirit the various criticisms expressed so far. In the form of a sweeping criticism, Popper dissects Plato's "totalitarianism" in its various facets. Plato's political programme is seen to be dictated by the "dangerous" philosophical dogma of "utopian engineering" or "historical prophesy." According to this foundational principle, political praxis should aim at the realisation of the ideal state. The consequent radical social reform would demand a strong oligarchic authority and central control akin to Friedrich von Hayek's "collectivist planning." This way, Popper's critique goes, Plato delineates a "closed" and static society on the basis of a "mystical notion of the Good," which results in the wide use of propaganda, racism, xenophobia and lack of freedom.

Eminent classicists, Platonists and political philosophers such as F.M. Cornford, G.C. Field, R. Levinson and J.D. Wild took up the task of restoring Plato's reputation. Politically, it is war conflicts, the redrawing of the global political map, the Shoah and the Cold War that mark the period between 1920 and 1970. In the context of the history of ideas, it was the pursuit of the right methodological approach for the interpretation of politico-philosophical texts that was at stake during the period. Leo Strauss (1899-1973) participated actively in this debate. For Strauss and the school of thought he initiated, Plato sought to move beyond the populist doxa. His political philosophy turns into "science" and grounds the validity of philosophical claims to a comprehensive social reform. Strauss brought to the fore once more Plato's demand for the integration of knowledge into political praxis and the functional role of science in regard to the process of social change. This way, the Jewish-American thinker criticised forcefully what he regarded as "ideological misinterpretations" or misreadings of Plato's thought while at the same time defending the timeless and transhistorical validity of the philosopher's political thinking. He facilitated, therefore, the process whereby Plato's project was seen to be relevant to the ideological debates of the 20th century.

Author: K. Demetriou
  • Demetriou, K. "A legend in Crisis: The Debate over Plato’s Politics." Polis 19 (2002)
  • Lane, M. Plato’s Progeny: How Plato and Socrates still Captivate the Modern Mind. London, 2001.
  • Tigerstedt, E.N. Interpreting Plato. Stockholm, 1977.
  • Szlezák, T.A. Reading Plato. London, 1999.

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