Guide Plato: Political Philosophy (Founders of Modern Political and Social Thought)

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The first two chapters seek to justify the emphasis the volume places on the Republic , and orient the reader to the themes of that dialogue. Schofield expresses skepticism about the authenticity of Plato's Seventh Letter , which purports to situate Plato's political philosophy in the context of his visits to the Syracusan court of Dionysius I and his son. Schofield's distrust of this document is based on his astute observation that Plato is "the most reticent of philosophical writers" p. Having suppressed his own voice through the construction of dialogues in which he never speaks directly to the reader, why would he reveal himself so openly through the publication of a letter available to all?

That would be an "abrupt lurch out of his own carefully constructed literary persona" p. So Schofield counsels us not to read Plato as some of those who accept the authenticity of the Seventh Letter would have us read him: as someone who arrived at his views for purely personal reasons, that is, because of his disillusionment with Athens after the death of Socrates. Schofield's second chapter "Athens, Freedom, and Democracy" also works out the framework he will use for fitting together Plato's major political writings into a whole that is only roughly unified.

He seeks a position between that of Julia Annas, who finds in the Statesman a "newly sensible evaluation of democracy" p. What these authors miss, Schofield claims, is that Plato "shows comparatively little interest in constitutional theory or practice at any stage in his life" and was no less a political theorist because of that, just as Toqueville's Democracy in America can be appreciated for "the penetration of his account of American society and the American way of life" p.


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Using Michael Walzer's categories of "immanent" versus "rejectionist" social critiques -- criticism that works either from within or against a social system -- he portrays the Republic as rejectionist and the Laws as immanent pp. They are, in other words, devoted to different but not incompatible projects. In the Laws , Plato has elected to talk to his readers in language that unlike the Republic offers no challenge to the conceptual framework with which they are antecedently familiar" p.

Socratic Political Philosophy

In his third chapter "Problematizing Democracy" , Schofield turns to Plato's critique of democratic equality and freedom in Republic Book VIII, and to the criticism of democracy embedded in Book VI's analogy between statesmanship and nautical expertise a theme elaborated by the investigation of political expertise in the Statesman. Plato's strategy, as he sees it, is to show the weakness of a democratic ideal by pushing it to its extreme form.

Democratic freedom, so treated, promotes a permissive ethos that is at bottom anarchic. Schofield credits Plato with an insight into the logic of democracy: it inherently leads to a corrosive plurality of ways of life. Against Julia Annas, who takes Plato's caricature to be utterly false to the facts of Athenian life, Schofield insists that there was a widespread problem of law enforcement in Plato's Athens, as we can see, for example, from the ease with which Socrates could have been sprung from jail p.

Schofield also defends the Republic against a complaint made by Bernard Williams, who thought that Plato was committed to the silly idea that the diversity of values in a democratic city can be explained only if it is assumed that every democratic citizen is devoted to that plurality. Jowett, by contrast, took the expertise Plato required of a ruling elite to be otherworldly metaphysics.

Plato's insight, as Jowett saw it, was his recognition that the best rulers are those for whom political life goes against the grain of their true interests and personality. Schofield suggests that both versions of Plato are present in his works: the "scientific governor" inhabits the Statesman , with its emphasis on the architectonic structure of political expertise, whereas Jowett's otherworldly ruler lingers outside the cave of the Republic , and is loath to return to it.

If I understand Schofield correctly, he takes there to be an unresolved tension in Plato's thinking between the attractions of philosophy and the demands of justice. Schofield's fifth chapter "Utopia" astutely defends utopianism, as Plato conceived it, as a desirable and even inescapable element of systematic political reflection. He defines utopian thinking as "the imagining of a blueprint for a desired world which is nevertheless located in present-day concerns, with questions about practicability and legitimacy not necessarily excluded, but regarded as secondary" p. A large portion of this chapter is devoted to a discussion of the Republic's ideal of social harmony, which Schofield rightly views as one of the principal organizing ideas of Plato's political thought.

Against Aristotle's objection that Plato's goal of having all citizens feel each other's pains and pleasures is unworkable, Schofield notes that Plato "would not have been surprised by the phenomenon of millions throughout the world mourning … the death of the first pope of the globalized era" p. Chapter Six "Money and the Soul" begins with a passage from John Maynard Keynes's Essays in Persuasion : "When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance …. The condemnation of greed was of course not original to Plato; as Schofield notes, it was a commonplace of Greek drama and historical writing.

Plato's original contribution was to integrate the love of money into a general picture of human appetitiveness. He concludes with the observation that "the problem of how to restrain the appetites of the economic class remains with us" p. The seventh and last chapter "Ideology" is principally devoted to the theme of political deception in the Republic , and the replacement of such lies by the rational religion of the Laws.

Schofield is hard on Hannah Arendt, who wrote in "Truth and Politics" in support of Cornford's translation of pseudos as "bold flight of invention" and insisted that Plato's myth of the metals can "under no circumstances … be understood as a recommendation of lying as we understand it" p. He reminds us that Plato's eugenic program depends on what can only be called lies, and argues that although Plato's contemporaries were by no means absolutists, allowing deception in various circumstances, Plato was nonetheless challenging the norms of truth-telling of his society.

Plato's political philosophy

Schofield argues, furthermore, that the noble lie embedded in the myth of the metals is the "principal device" used to secure the philosophers' allegiance to kallipolis p. In any case, the Plato that I wish to appeal to is not primarily the Plato of the Republic , with which Rawls was certainly, if disapprovingly, acquainted, 1 but rather the Plato of the Laws , which Rawls would hardly have bothered with.

It is my hope that this procedure will cast a positive light on both sets of principles. Purely formally, we must imagine a group of people coming together to establish a mutually advantageous association.


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Then, although a society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, it is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interests. There is an identity of interests since social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts. There is a conflict of interests since persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed, for in order to pursue their ends they each prefer a larger to a lesser share. A set of principles is required for choosing among the various social arrangements which determine this division of advantages and for underwriting an agreement on the proper distributive shares.

Rawls is postulating a formal situation where a number of persons come together, presumably under the stimulus of some need or consciousness of inadequacy, to form a mutually beneficial society. Likewise, they may feel that they are pretty smart, but they do not know the IQ or level of education of anyone else. The next question is what would be the fundamental features of such an agreement. The main point is that the members of such a community agree to this principle of specialization, even at some cost to their own pleasure some might prefer to be broadly-based all-rounders, and think that they might derive greater profit from that , because on balance this is considered to be the best deal for the whole community, and the least worst for each individual member of it.

We might think that we would make a good all-round entrepreneur, but we cannot be certain that an even better and more ruthless one does not lurk in the undergrowth, who would put us out of business. What come-back do you have then? This means that a legislator has an opportunity for creating a new constitution — and this is, of course, why Plato has selected this option.

Their participation is voluntary, in that they do not have to join the colony, but once they sign up, they do not appear to have much further say in the constitutional arrangements. If they are not attracted by them, they can presumably still back out — though that possibility is not explicitly envisaged.

The Politics of Plato (video lecture)

We can, therefore, it seems to me, if we wish, simply elide, or at least de-personalize, the legislator, and substitute for him the exercise of reason by the colonists themselves. He condemns all existing states for legislating in a partisan way, dividing the state against itself and seeking to enshrine the dominance of some faction or other. Each side passes its time in a narrow scrutiny of the other, apprehensive lest someone with memories of past injustices should gain some office and lead a revolution.

I say that they do not know anything much about each other. All they need to ascertain is that each of them is committed to working out rationally the optimum arrangement for all concerned. While equality in at least some respects is an ideal to be striven for, inequalities of wealth and of initiative will have to be reckoned with. In founding Magnesia, Plato recognizes that prospective colonists will arrive with varying material resources, as well as varying characters. He provides for this by prescribing on the one hand that everyone accepted into the colony must receive a basic allotment equal to that of everyone else, but on the other hand that people may possess wealth up to four times the value of the basic allotment.

Every effort is to be made to preserve the sense of unity within the state. Rather, the guiding idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement.

Plato and Rawls on the Parameters of a Just Society

They are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association. As it turns out, they are two p. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others. The basic liberties, first of all, include political liberty the right to vote and to be eligible for public office , freedom of speech and assembly, and freedom of thought and conscience.

One might think that here Rawls, as a liberal democratic theorist, would part company sharply from Plato, but in fact, I would suggest, the difference is not so sharp as all that. In Magnesia, Plato certainly intends that all male citizens should vote, 13 and be eligible for most 14 public offices. He wishes his citizens to gather frequently at festivals and elsewhere, notably at their communal meals which are also provided for women, VI !

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We may not drive down whatever side of the road we want, nor may we drive through red lights. We may not recklessly pollute the environment, nor waste limited energy resources.

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And so on.