Friday, May 8, 2009

The Republic by Plato

If Plato could be put into a time machine and brought to the twenty-first century, he would find many things to surprise him. Electricity, votes for women, competitive hot-dog eating — and the title of his most famous work, the Republic. For a start, he would not understand it: it's Latin, not Greek. And if someone translated it for him, he would probably be rather astonished to find it attached to his book.

The book was titled in Greek Politeia, which referred to the polis, or city-state, and can be rendered ‘the state’, ‘affairs of the state’ or, more broadly, ‘the life of the people’. Foreign translations give some idea of how far the title of the Republic has strayed from its origins: it is Der Staat in German, De Staat in Dutch, Stat in Slovak, Ustava (‘Constitution’) in Czech and Valsts (‘the State’) in Latvian. The book was intended as a manual on the good governance of a particular type of Greek political unit. It explored the political models on offer at the time, rejected all of them, and came to one, single, surprising conclusion.

Of the available models, timarchy was judged to be the best of a bad bunch. This was the system currently prevailing in Sparta, in which a small class of landed warriors lived amidst a slave-population, the helots, subduing them by means of military dictatorship and athletics. Oligarchy, the next most desirable, was government by a wealthy minority of unelected bureaucrat-politicians. The next was democracy, in which there was government by popular demagogues. The lowest of all, tyranny, was a state in which one terribly unhappy man, ‘surrounded by boyfriends and girlfriends’, enacted the destruction of the state through his own personal moral degradation.

Socrates/Plato, having demolished the opposition, then described his ideal state. This was an entirely theoretical polity, one ruled by ‘Guardians’, or specially-trained philosopher-rulers. The Guardians, unelected and set apart from the rest of the population (the Workers) from birth, would be bred eugenically by means of ‘marriage festivals’ (in fact state-sponsored orgies, since marriage was not their main purpose, but acts of intercourse by the fittest individuals). They would receive philosophical training for fifty years before being allowed to emerge and govern. A sub-set of the Guardians were the Auxiliaries, who would exist to keep order and prosecute wars. In order to keep the Workers loyal, a founding myth (sometimes translated as a ‘noble lie’) would be deliberately fabricated, ‘the Myth of Er’.

The title of the Republic, then, is rather strange: Plato’s ideal state is about as far away from representative republican democracy as it is possible to get. The reason lies essentially in the very great swathes of time that have elapsed since it was first translated. In its first Latin translation the title was Respublica, a word similar in meaning to Plato’s Politeia, and signifying ‘public matters’ or ‘matters of state’. Our modern word ’republic’, meaning democratic government shorn of unelected bodies, evolved from the term respublica, and its evolution in meaning twisted the meaning of Plato’s title. The Republic used to be a good translation, but evolved into a mistranslation.

Plato: The Republic (translation, introduction and notes by HDP Lee, Penguin, 1955)

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