Magazine | June 03, 2019, Issue

Plato: The First Socialist

Bust of Plato in the library of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland (Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

Socialism may be hotter than Kendrick Lamar among undergraduates these days, but socialism isn’t the new new thing. It’s the oldest of old things. It’s older than Bernie Sanders and Grandpa Simpson combined. (Try imagining everything Sanders says in Grandpa Simpson’s voice, especially when he’s railing against the variety of deodorants or shouting that there were banks in post offices half a century ago. It works.) Long before Barack Obama blew the socialist dog whistle in saying, “We are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people,” even before Woodrow Wilson said that government is “a living thing” and “no living thing can have its organs offset against each other, as checks, and live,” Plato provided both with their model: “Unity is the greatest blessing for a state, and we compared a well-governed state to the human body.” That’s right, government workers aren’t just those nice folks who collect your taxes or fail to fix your potholes, we’re all parts of the same body or family. Say something like “I don’t trust the government,” you might as well be saying you hate your mama, or your left hand.

Youngsters who think of “ancient history” as “the period when human beings bought music on CDs” could usefully study Plato’s Republic. True, every student has been assigned this book for the last 2,400 years, but I’ve got a feeling today’s youth aren’t actually reading it. If they were, they’d realize socialism is such a lame and crusty old act it should be relegated to the Tuesday-afternoon lounge show in Reno, not celebrated on the national stage.

In The Republic, Plato makes the case for an ideal society using a Soc puppet: “Socrates,” who is really just Plato, had serious reservations about democracy, which he thought the second-worst form of government, barely ahead of outright dictatorship. His ideal was rule by a class of the professionally wise, those rulers or philosopher-kings deeply trained in both bureaucratic administration and thinking through what’s best for all of us. In other words, Plato was very much a guy who’d rather be ruled by the Harvard faculty than by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book. Harvardocracy was pretty much his plan.

And what might this Harvardocracy dream up, when hoi polloi have been relegated to their proper place of grateful subservience? Oh, just some tinkering around the edges of society. There would be no literature allowed except the state-produced kind. Privacy would be banned. All property would be held in common. Children, too, because it takes a village to raise a child. No child would know who his parents were and no parent would know who his children were. Also, psst, though you’d be “randomly” assigned a mate, it wouldn’t actually be random; the Harvardocracy thinks it best for eugenics purposes if the stupid, ugly people marry each other and the beautiful, smart Harvard people marry each other. So the lottery system will actually be fixed behind the scenes. If you were planning to trick people like this, it may have been unwise to tip them off by publishing the fell scheme in advance. This may have been the first instance of someone saying the quiet part out loud.

“We’re in this together” is, ordinarily, a vapid political cliché, best reserved for times of war, but Plato, like socialists to come, wanted a communal feeling to be society’s permanent mode of thinking: “When one citizen fares well or ill, men will pronounce in unison the word of which we spoke: ‘It is mine that does well; it is mine that does ill.’” Everyone will feel the same things: “By virtue of this communion they will have their pleasures and pains in common.” Not a lot of room for individualism here. You and I are just two spoonfuls of undifferentiated goop in the social porridge.

Like today’s extreme planners, Plato disguises much social engineering by calling it simple concern for what is just, and in taking away so much of what free people value he promises in turn a higher freedom, freedom from worries, “the pains and pangs which men experience in bringing up a family, and in finding money to buy necessaries, . . . the evils of so many kinds.” Follow Plato’s program and your “life will be blessed as the life of Olympic victors and yet more blessed.” Everybody gets to be Michael Phelps.

Plato is a bit more honest than today’s socialists in that he acknowledges some wee trade-offs along the path to gold medals for all. The “offspring of the inferior,” and even those children of the guardians who don’t measure up, will be taken away to some “mysterious, unknown place” and left to starve. Plato compares his ruling class to doctors, and don’t doctors prescribe a little harsh medicine sometimes? Plato’s idea of medicine is a regime of official lying, a little state deceit being in the people’s long-term interest.

Of the citizens, Plato’s Socrates asks, “Shall they be a family in name only, or shall they in all their actions be true to the name? For example, in the use of the word ‘father,’ would the care of a father be implied and filial reverence and duty and obedience to him which the law commands?” In the Obama era, each year on Tax Day some neo-Platonist would pen a patriotic ode in which he extolled the joy of expressing his commitment to the warm bosom of the state. You will pardon me if I don’t feel that much filial reverence for the IRS.

This article appears as “The First Socialist” in the June 3, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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