Notorious is the ‘platonic communism’, to the point that thinkers like Karl Popper see in Plato’s Politeia the source of all European totalitarianisms. In the critique of Popper there is in reality no refusal of Plato, but of a Plato misunderstood, and it is a refusal that adds to the tradition of misunderstanding.
Plato gives a constant orientation, and not without preconditions: those who criticize the platonic city, neglect an element most crucial, that there is no valid course towards the ideal, if it is based on violence. There is no parent, brother or child by force.
Plato uses just a way, almost (and even) a myth, to say to all who can hear, ‘start seeing beyond your child, and your wife’, if you love them, extend yourself to the value of each and every child, not because this is an imperative, but because this is the fulfillment of what you already are – if you love your child indeed.
The evidence showing Plato’s regard for freedom, is ample. In Politicus:
“The differences of men and actions, and the endless irregular movements of human things, do not admit of any universal and simple rule. And no art whatsoever can lay down a rule which will last for all time... And when an individual ruler governs neither by law nor by custom, but following in the steps of the true man of science pretends that he can only act for the best by violating the laws, while in reality appetite and ignorance are the motives of the imitation, may not such an one be called a tyrant?”; (More)
In the very ‘communist’ Politeia:
“The soul which is under a tyrant (I am speaking of the soul taken as a whole) is least capable of doing what she desires... and the tyrannical soul must be always poor and insatiable... always full of fear... Is there any state in which you will find more of lamentation and sorrow and groaning and pain [than in a tyrannical state]?... Reflecting upon these and similar evils, you held the tyrannical state to be the most miserable of states?... And when you see the same evils in the tyrannical man, what do you say of him? I say that he is by far the most miserable of all men.” (More)
When a regime uses a seemingly ‘platonic’ ideology to tyrannize, we don’t see Plato in action, but the action of that regime.
Think it otherwise: if the Bible became the ground of papal terrorism, mass murdering and torture, should we say that the Bible is totalitarian? We’d rather search what is it that enables a totalitarian interpretation of even the most open and non-totalitarian books (there is a nazi interpretation of Meister Eckhart, if you don’t know), and there are more ways of misunderstanding, no less dangerous. Plato first observed that books can be our worst enemies, and friends of dubious value anyway.
It is important for us to know his whole experience and perception of the world, because only then we are able to understand Plato’s seemingly absurd suggestions. To stay to the ‘communist’ issue; if he presents his paradigm in a way that makes it seem not only an ideal condition, but almost a reality right here right now, this he does in order for the ideal to be distinguished from the imaginary: it is not a wish, although an ideal for us, for itself is indeed a reality, in which there is no separation between ‘mine’ and ‘yours’.
“With a view of securing as far as we could the best breed, we said that the chief magistrates, male and female, should contrive secretly, by the use of certain lots, so to arrange the nuptial meeting, that the bad of either sex and the good of either sex might pair with their like; and there was to be no quarrelling on this account, for they would imagine that the union was a mere accident, and was to be attributed to the lot?” (Timaeus 18d-e)
First of all, there has to be no quarrelling. With the precondition of unanimity, which precludes tyranny, anything else must be considered, and the essence of the specific idea of intercourse, is that the like should be with the like – bad with bad, good with good. Being (supposedly) wise, the leaders can use the lot in order not to displease the worse citizens. There is no hereditary goodness, so that, “while they were all growing up the rulers were to be on the look-out, and to bring up from below in their turn those who were worthy, and those among themselves who were unworthy were to take the places of those who came up.” (Timaeus 19a)
Of course you may think that you know the truth while you are just deceived, and you can pretend that you want to protect and respect even bad citizens, while you plot in favour of your interests. All these have nothing to do with Plato glancing at some hints of ideal conditions, where respect is respect, wisdom is wisdom, truth is truth, etc. If we read the text as a possible political plan of our next government, we can not understand it.
The main idea is that knowledge of real goodness should decide our relationships, and not a whim or any other interest except goodness and what is closer to goodness, to the degree that is closer. It is another issue who can judge what is good, etc., and is also obvious that such a judgement for Plato is not favoured by pure democracy, just as in a person’s mind not all notions, concepts, feelings, intentions, etc are of the same value, nor are they to be judged by their multitude and accidental hold; besides this, the reality of goodness is not alone, there are more involved (wisdom, courage, sobriety, faith, philosophy, etc), there are inferior and superior values, so that the better type of their union is the ruling of the superior with the participation of the lesser values, and even the bad ones, with the condition (at least) of preserving and growing the basic foundation, that is, unanimity. An oligarchical democracy is I think close to what Plato thinks, as resembling how a wise person governs his own mind.
Plato is saying that our decision should be formed by our knowledge of the good and if such a knowledge does not exist in us, deformity follows necessarily. Therefore, first there is knowledge, kinship and essential unity, and these qualities by themselves form a society where everyone grows to his best. Plato sees the ideal city as he sees a man, whose best elements govern in a natural, fundamental, spontaneous unity the whole of his life.
Totalitarianisms invert this, by trying (or pretending they try) to construct in violence what should be the very start and foundation upon which anything else is built, that is, a growing foundation, not a contrivance and supposed ‘creation’. On another post (detachment in friendship) there is explained to what kind of citizens Plato speaks. To the degree that we are not this kind of citizens, any attempt to build a ‘perfect’ city, is in vain, as our violence and (religious or secular) totalitarianisms prove. The democracy of the western world is most close to Plato’s idea of the best government.
The problem of our democracies is not that they are oligarchic, if Plato is right, their problem is that our best elements are not that good, and our worse elements become even governors. Institutions are formed by this condition, which necessarily is revealed in increase of disharmony, inequity, corruption, cruelty, ignorance, individualism, etc. There is no remedy in this. We become what we are, good or bad, and our democracies is the natural way to achieve it – with the necessary precondition that unanimity precedes, remains and grows. There is no oligarchy that would impose our betterment.
Nihilism, revolutions, totalitarianisms... all of these show that our societies are not natural, they lack unanimity to a degree so high, that even our democracies, a temporal compromise rather than unanimity, by favouring the lower in us create the breakups of tomorrow, a process continuous – forming, dissolving, reforming... struggling to fulfill the will of the like to be united with the like.
Cf. Plato’s supposed despotism, detachment in friendship, Plato home page