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Ancient Greek Literature Research Paper

Greek Literary free essay example

Though literary tendencies appear in a number of works of ancient Greek literature, Plato The Republic is by far the most important classical Greek work in terms of its influence on writers in the later utopian tradition in Western literature. One could make a good argument that The Republic is the founding text of this tradition, and it is certainly true that later writers of utopias from More to Wells draw heavily upon Plato’s ideas. The Republic is a philosophical treatise concerned primarily with the question of justice and with the living of a just life. Its principal emphasis, then, is on the conduct of individuals. However, the book relies quite heavily on analogies between the individual self and the political state, suggesting repeatedly that the rule of one’s own self by each individual is a procedure quite similar to the rule of the state by political leaders. Thesis Plato’s comments on the ideal behavior of individuals thus have clear political implications, and his exploration of individual behavior leads quite naturally into a description of the ideal state.

The most important political principle of Plato’s ideal state is rule by an enlightened elite, highly trained and educated for the role and endowed with a philosophical turn of mind that presumably assures the wisdom of their policies. Plato’s commentary is principally concerned with the training and duties of this elite class, the Guardians. The Guardians themselves are divided into two major groups (Kochin 12). The larger group (sometimes referred to in the texts as “Auxiliaries”) includes civil servants and a permanent military force, skilled in the art of war and dedicated to the task of defending the state from external enemies. There are, however, also hints that the military Guardians would be charged with keeping civil order within the state as well. The most important virtue of these Guardians is courage. However, those Guardians who show a gift for rational and philosophical contemplation are eligible to become Rulers, who are charged with making the important policy decisions that the lower orders of Guardians will then carry out and enforce (Mcneil 43).

In a direct response to what he saw as the corruption and decadence informing his contemporary Athens, Plato insists that the Guardians must be freed of the desire for luxury and material gain, ruling purely in the interest of wisdom, justice, and the greater good. Guardians are thus allowed no private property. They live and eat together, holding even women in common, removing incentives to rule for selfish gain (Kaske 508). The lower classes of workers and artisans are, on the other hand, allowed a certain amount of private property. It is possible to say that all of their material needs are guaranteed by the state, though these guarantees do not extend to luxuries. For all classes, self-restraint is a central virtue, though in the lower classes control and moderation of one’s own desires are explicitly linked to the virtue of obedience, while in the upper classes such restraint is linked to wise and just rule (Pappas 39).

Much of The Republic is dedicated to a description of the system of education of the Guardians, as proper education is deemed essential to the development of the knowledge and skills needed to rule and administer the state. The educational process consists of several tiers, depending upon the talents and inclinations of individual students. Education for children of Guardians begins at an early age, with small children between the ages of three and six being taught carefully chosen myths that help to indoctrinate them in the official ideology of the state. The body is trained as well as the mind, and from ages seven to ten emphasis is placed on gymnastics and on the development of a strong, healthy body and of the physical skills needed for later military service (Benitez 41). For the next three years, reading and writing are taught, and ages thirteen to fifteen are devoted primarily to training in music and poetry. Mathematical sciences are taught between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. During this course of study up to age eighteen, instruction is carried out with as little compulsion as possible in an effort to inculcate a genuine love of knowledge and learning in the young students. On the other hand, the material being taught is carefully controlled to assure that the students do not develop ideas or opinions contrary to those of the state. From ages eighteen to twenty, however, training becomes much more rigid; these years are devoted to intense training for military service (Gerson 18).

After age twenty, most students assume their roles as Guardians, especially as soldiers. However, a select group of students continue their education, studying an extensive and advanced course of mathematics that lasts until age thirty. After this course is completed, a still smaller group of elite students goes on to study dialectics and moral philosophy for another five years, while less gifted students (Gerson 18). Assume administrative posts in the government. These elite students then engage in an extensive program of practical training, assuming subordinate government posts until age fifty, after which time the most successful of this group can go on to become Rulers, dividing the remainder of their time between philosophical contemplation of the Good and serving on the supreme governing council of the state (Gerson 71).

Several aspects of Plato’s vision seem particularly forward-looking for his time. For example, his advocacy of an extensive state-sponsored system of education that would allow students to advance on the basis of merit anticipates many modern educational ideas. On the other hand, Plato’s merit system is open only to children of Guardians. The children of workers and artisans do not seem to have access to this “public” educational system at all. Meanwhile, Plato has no objection to the continuation of the system of slavery that was already such a prominent part of Athenian society. Plato would allow women to be educated and to participate in government, eligible to hold even the highest posts. But he still speaks of women almost as a form of property when describing the communal life styles of the Guardians. Indeed, many aspects of Plato’s ideal state provide inspiration not only for later utopian fictions, but for dystopian fictions as well. Plato’s philosopher – kings rule with absolute power, and much of their mission consists of assuring that individual differences of opinion are not allowed to interfere with the smooth operation of the state (Gerson 18). “philosophers [must] become kings…or those now called kings [must]…genuinely and adequately philosophize” ( The Republic, 473c). Thus, Plato’s “enlightened” educational system shares many characteristics with later dystopian programs of conditioning, while the elitism of Plato’s conception and the attempts of the Rulers of Plato’s state to censor art and to suppress new or subversive ideas have a distinctly dystopian ring to the modern ear. Indeed, Plato’s rejection of poets as a potentially disruptive force has become one of the more notorious aspects of his ideal society from the point of view of modern literature (Gerson 12).

From the standpoint of dystopian fiction, the most important aspects of Plato’s ideal state are the total subjugation of individual desires to the needs of the state and the extensive intrusion of the state into the private lives of its citizens. In addition to their training/indoctrination in the official ideology of the state, the Guardians live an entirely communal existence, having virtually no private life apart from their public responsibilities. In particular, they have no families, because of the notion that loyalty to one’s family might interfere with one’s dedication to the state. Moreover, though women are held in common in the sense that they are not to be considered the private property of individual males, for purposes of breeding the actual sexual activities of the Guardians are strictly regulated according to methods similar to those used to breed animals (Pappas 101). For example, men who distinguish themselves in war or other services to the state are to be rewarded by being allowed to beget as many children as possible, potentially with several different wives, thus presumably assuring that superior lines will be propagated. Meanwhile, any children deemed inferior or defective are to be expelled from the ranks of the Guardians and forced to join the lower classes. “[A] true pilot must of necessity pay attention to the seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft if he is really to rule a ship” (The Republic, 487e).  This quote shows that in order to prevent resentment over the choice of mates, Plato suggests that the Rulers should pretend to choose mates by drawing lots while in actuality fixing the outcome of these drawings according to eugenic principles (Pappas 132).

In sum, the book vividly portrays that Plato’s ideal state would lead to a maximum of happiness for all of its citizens, a goal that would remain central to subsequent utopian thought. However, his suggestion that individual freedom should be sacrificed in order to assure this happiness would become a central concern of dystopian fiction. Moreover, certain aspects of his plan for an ideal state seem extremely impractical. There are no assurances (other than their philosophical education) that the Rulers of the state would not be corrupted by their considerable power. Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that the masses of citizens in the state would accept the rule of the Guardians in the unquestioning way that Plato seems to assume. It is evident that The Republic is a philosophical reflection and not a practical plan, though Plato evidently hopes that his ideas can have a concrete impact on Athenian society. Indeed, the clear political engagement of Plato’s text sets the tone for the writers of both utopian and dystopian texts in the centuries to come.