Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Plato's Republic vs. 1984

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Philosophy could be defined as the highest level of true clarity and understanding human thought can aspire to. It would thus seem strange to compare the ideal philosophical kingdom of Plato’s Republic with George Orwell’s 184. Plato’s writings form the cornerstone of Western philosophy, while Orwell’s text tells of a totalitarian society where all free thought is stifled. However, the two men’s versions of government, one utopian, the other horrific, spanning centuries of time, contain certain connections that will be elucidated over the course of this paper.

Both writers focus on a society in which repression is one of the main functions of government. Plato views this repression in a positive fashion, Orwell in a negative fashion. Plato and Orwell both illustrate a society in which power is held by a few, by individuals deemed to be superior, and a place where truth, rather than encouraged, is stifled for fear of the discord and the danger it will bring to society. The greater good Plato attempts to uphold through this oppression, however, is higher philosophical understanding in the mind of the human animal. In contrast, the focus of the repression detailed in Orwell’s society is that of protecting the security of the nation against others.

The repressive quality of Plato’s society is presented in an apparently reasonable fashion in the Second Book of the Republic. Plato, through the mouth of Socrates, suggests in an ideal society, all individuals should be relegated to doing what they are best at doing. Well, we forbade our shoemaker to try his hand at farming or weaving or building and told him to stick to his last, in order that our shoemaking should be well done. (..75.b-c, p.14) Those who are best at a certain occupation ought to be the only ones who do that occupation. This apparently reasonable justification, however, is really being used as a defense that those who are best at something, such as governing, ought to be the only ones who rule. Thus democracy is bad because it allows all to have a voice in the state’s future, as opposed to merely those who are deemed most fit to govern. Democracy, in Plato’s view is a bit like having individuals who are shoemakers herd sheep. Of course, in practice, this apparently reasonable prohibition results in the state prohibiting a shoemaker from herding sheep if that shoemaker wishes to try his hand at a different occupation, of making a different personal choice. It also begs the question�who is to chose those who are best at governing? Who decides who is the best at making a decision for all?

Plato creates a division in humanity. He suggests there is an elite group of individuals, known as the Guardians, who will serve as the protectors and governors of this new, perfect world he is attempting to create. [T]here are natures which combine the qualities we thought incompatible…In different kinds of animal, but particularly in the watch-dog to which we have compared our Guardian. For you must have noticed that it is a natural characteristic of a well-bred dog to heave with the utmost gentleness to those it is used to and knows, but to be savage to strangers?’ (.75.e, p.17) These Guardians will be selected because of their unique, superior natures (savage and intelligent, yet gentle at times) and raised as an elite.

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In Book Three, Plato continues, explaining the education these rulers will receive. Then it seems that our first business is to supervise the production of stories, and choose only those we think suitable, and reject the rest. We shall persuade mothers and nurses to tell our chosen stories to their children, and by means of them to mould their minds and characters which are more important than their bodies. The greater part of the stories current today we shall have to reject. (.77.e., p.11)

This division of society into classes is reminiscent of 184’s division between the highly controlled upper classes, of whom the protagonist Winston is a member of, and the ‘proles’ or lower classes, whom are largely uncontrolled in terms of their thoughts, except through state-sanctioned ignorance. It was only an ‘opeless fancy, /It passed like an Ipril dye, /But a look an’a word an’ the dreams they/They ‘ave stolen my ‘eart awye! This driveling song reflects Winston and Julia, had outlived the ‘Hate Song’ created by the elite powers to perpetuate their regime. (180) If there was hope, it lay in the proles! Winston thinks this because unlike the culture of the children of his own class, the culture of the proles has been allowed to remain relatively intact. (181)

The class divisions in the society of 184, like the class divisions of Plato’s Republic in theory, are based on merit rather than upon birth. This ‘merit’ is determined by examination, taken at the age of sixteen, much as Plato’s Guardian class is determined by recognition by adults of the current the governing classes. (17) Yet the governing class is still an oligarchy. A ruling group is a ruling group so long as it can nominate its successors. The Party is not concerned with perpetuating its blood but with perpetuating itself. (17) It is concerned with perpetuating the ideology that allows it to remain in power. The pervasiveness of this ideology in the minds of the elite rulers is evidenced in the fact that Julia, Winston’s younger lover, although she harbors seditious thoughts, still has little sense of the division between fact and fiction. She has known nothing else than the state-sanctioned lies of her culture. She believed, for instance, having learnt it at school, that the Party had invented airplanes. (17) This is evidence of the power, acknowledged by Plato, of what can occur when the state or some outside, governing entity has power over the stories told to children when they are very young. This power is even more sinister and more blatantly in evidence in 184 by the spectacle of children gleefully informing upon their parents and neighbors. The child’s loyalty is not to blood or love, but to the state and to their class and status in the hierarchy

The society of 184 is utterly dependent upon lies. The state continually feeds its citizens different versions of the truth, of who is an ally and who is an enemy, of how the war is going, and expects its ignorant and fearful citizenry to swallow these constantly differing truths as whole. Even language is a lie. The populace must accept that the Ministry of Truth solely created to alter information for propagandistic consumption is always right, even when it changes its story from day to day. In the world of 184 even language is a lie. The contradiction that Ignorance is Strength and that War is Peace is accepted because that is what is disseminated throughout the society�if the lie is large enough, people believe it. The inner self of belief is controlled, the inner self that is of such concern for Plato in Book Five of the Republic, through the outer policing of action. In part five of Book Four, Plato even states Our whole object was to steep them in the spirit of our laws like a dye. (4.40.a, p.00)

Plato claims that the purpose of his Republic shall be truth. Children shall be told monitored myths, carefully edited so that no fantastic acts of the gods, for instance, are passed on to the next generation. we must forbid anyone who writes a plat about the sufferings of Niobe…to say they are acts of god, (.80.a, p.15) Yet as is evident from his policing of the expression of individuals, his society would be dependent upon censorship to function. The individual’s expression, even to the individual’s own children, would be so controlled that freedom of thought and speech would be impossible. Truth was not the objective of the society delineated in 184, but the determination of truth in Plato’s Republic is formed by such a narrow oligarchy that it would seem free debate would be an impossibility, deemed a luxury only for the individuals in control of the society. And for those individuals to maintain their control, it would be in their interests to keep society and even perhaps their own philosophical within quite narrow terms, for that society to continue to function intact.

At the end of 184, it is revealed that even those leading the repressive regime know the absurdity of what they do, yet continue to maintain the lies because they believe lies are necessary for society to function. Human life is misery, yet O’Brien’s insistence that four is five is considered a necessary misery for the world to continue. Plato seeks truth yet the limits he creates for a society designed to protect and disseminate philosophical truth seem so frighteningly limited that four becoming five seems like the inevitable outcome of the restrictions he imposes.

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