In his dialogue The Republic, Plato introduces an ideal concept of a city-state. It is based on three different classes of citizens: the workers, the Guardians, and the Rulers.
The worker class, the most numerous and least powerful, consisting of common people, is not discussed in the dialogues in any significant capacity. The workers are allowed to have private property, wealth, and to live their lives as they choose, if they don’t surpass their predefined role.
The Guardian class, which consists of military trained and educated people, has only one main function, to protect the city. They can be compared to watchdogs, hostile to outlanders but loyal to the city-state. They are not allowed to own any property nor accumulate any amount of wealth.
The Ruler class (or the Guardian proper) is formed of specially selected Guardians, who possess certain outstanding characteristics, which give them natural right to rule over other classes. To sustain this strict hierarchy within the society and to allow the classes to function properly, Plato suggests a myth should be told to all citizens.
Plato surrounded by students in his Academy in Athens by unknown author
The myth states that all people are born from the same place, the earth, but hold a different kind of metal within their souls. Bronze is for the worker class, silver is for the Guardians, and gold is for the Rulers. The metal in their souls remains unchangeable throughout their lives, and so does human nature. Therefore, each person must live out their predefined destiny: an artisan must live a life of an artisan, a Guardian must live a life of a Guardian, and they can never change their roles or interfere with each other.
To illustrate Plato’s concept of the ideal city-state, you can imagine the whole city as a human body, where head represents the Rulers, arms represent the Guardians, and legs represent the worker class. The body can function properly if each part of it fulfils only its natural purpose. Humans might try to walk on their arms or stand on their heads, but their capacity to function efficiently will be impaired. The same happens in the city-state, if one of the classes tries to overtake the functions of another.
Plato by lentina_x
However, how can Plato achieve this balanced cooperation between classes? He suggests there should be a particular kind of education for the Guardians, which will develop their good nature, so that they would willingly do what they are destined to do by their innate disposition. Although he does not mention any education for the worker class, he argues that the way the Guardians are brought up affects the functioning of the whole society.
The role of education in Plato’s city-state is to shape the personality of the Guardians and to maximize their efficiency and utility. They must develop a mentality that will allow them to dedicate their lives to defending the city-state and its citizens, to value their duty above everything, to obey orders of the Rulers, and to see no other option but to wish to live their lives as they are prescribed by the metal in their souls.
Although the main purpose of the Guardians is to protect the city-state and to fight with outlanders, Plato believes that before training their bodies to excel in military disciplines, Guardians should train their mind. The first step of education for young Guardians are stories that mothers and nurses tell them in their early childhood. These stories are carefully selected by the Rulers to create a solid foundation for personality of the future Guardians and forge their beliefs and values.
Failing to correctly represent gods and heroes in these stories might result in Guardians disrespecting or disobeying authority. Stories that explore ambiguous moral situations, such as unjust people escaping punishment, just people being punished or people being immoderate in fulfilling their bodily desires, might lead the Guardians to develop unacceptable flaws by Plato’s standards. To create perfect, loyal, fearless warriors, Plato suggests the strictest censorship both in education and culture.
Pieces of knowledge that distort the shaping of personality of the Guardians must be banned. Nobody, except the Rulers, must have access to this kind of knowledge. If young Guardians hear the myth about Zeus banishing his father Cronus to Tartarus, they might start to question their own attitude towards their older brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. As a result, they might develop a flawed mindset and will not be able to fully trust their leaders and follow their orders without hesitation.
View of Athens with Hadrians Aqueduct by Cassas Louis-Francois
After centuries of ethical debates and fighting for human rights, this harsh censorship seems inhumane. From a modern standpoint, we can argue that censorship is depriving the citizens of Plato’s imaginary city-state of their happiness and intellectual freedoms. However, Plato never defined individual happiness as the end goal of his ideal society. He does not leave any option for the individuals to desire to fight for their rights or to live any other life than the one they are destined. The Rulers tell the citizens that their only purpose is to do one’s job and to do it well. The Guardians do not doubt it and cannot accept any alternatives, neither do the workers. In fact, if they hesitate and start to question the Rulers, it would no longer be the ideal city-state anymore. The ideal city-state, as imagined by Plato, functions as one indivisible mechanism, and its overall well-being is more important than the well-being of individuals. No part of this huge mechanism questions its function, because the aim of each part is to fulfil its duty to the society in the best possible way.
Plato defines a happy society as a just one, focusing on overall efficiency and usefulness, rather than on individual fulfilment of its citizens. To create a just society, everybody must fulfil their duty without question. Therefore, if everyone follows their duty, the society can achieve happiness, which in the end, according to Plato, justifies the strict censorship and neglect of individual freedoms.
1. Plato (2007). The Republic. 4th ed. pp.40-46, 67-100, 249-267. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
2. Nickolas Pappas (1996). Plato and The Republic. pp. 65-70. London: Routledge.
3. Dillon, A. (2004). Education in Plato’s Republic. Retrieved 19 March, 2022: https://www.scu.edu/character/resources/education-in-platos-republic/
1. Image 1. Unknown Author (n.d.) Plato surrounded by students in his Academy in Athens [Photograph].
2. Image 2. lentina_x (2009) Plato [Photograph].
3. Image 3. Cassas Louis-Francois (1813) View of Athens with Hadrians Aqueduct [Photograph].