Plato’s Republic assumes that by creating a balanced society with rightful leaders and rightful laborers, the Republic will be harmonious and stable. Plato assumes that “a man is like his city”: that a man in a tyranny will be “filled with much slavery and illiberality,” and that an individual in a perfectly balanced society – the Republic – will also achieve balance of the four cardinal virtues. This assumption – and other establishments of the Republic – deny the fundamental nature of humans as constantly changing and driven by desire, philosophy, and external forces. No government, no matter how just, can change the fundamentals of human nature. No education can so counteract basic desires and varieties in temperament as to form perfectly just, balanced individuals. Government can influence society and encourage behaviors and ways of thinking through education, legislation, and penalties, but great diversity of temperament (and therefore desire) will always exist. Innovation and change are core properties of the universe and of the human spirit, and erotic individuals such as Plato endorses as leaders of society are natural pioneers. Denying innovation limits the employment of individuals’ abilities and compromises any society, producing weakness and instability rather than the security and stability Plato values above all.
Plato’s system of education is designed to control tightly members of the Republic and is intended to ensure stability and harmony. However, this very control inevitably creates weakness and instability. The Republic is founded on the Noble Lie, a far-fetched creation myth worthy of a science fiction novel. It separates people according to natural abilities and talents through a system of extremely dubious practicality and sets them in restricted roles for life. Plato focuses on the Guardians in particular and almost completely neglects the other levels of society, saying only that they will become essentially moderate and balanced in such a society as the Republic. He allows only a philosophical and gymnastic education for the Guardians, believing that a proper ruler is a good judge based on wisdom, not on experience. Plato’s advocacy of philosophy as a means of producing good government and a just society certinaly has its merits. The philosophy of an education, especially for children, has a profound impact on the way people think as well as on what they think. However, denying the Guardians any practical knowledge of any domestic affairs at all, from food production to smithing, necessarily hobbles them as rulers and thus cripples the Republic. Limiting them to a closely monitored philosophical education inhibits their creative and intellectual talents by withholding the stimulation of multiple ideas and unpleasant truths. The effects of a system much like this can be seen in any totalitarian regime, in which party loyals lacking any actual knowledge of a field are given positions of power in it, and in which those who are successful within the system if not the entire population are brainwashed with a single philosophy or narrative.
Plato’s restrictions on private property and especially on private family life and even love itself are highly questionable to say the least, again denying fundamental human desires. Furthermore, basic happiness requires freedoms of enterprise and choice that Plato denies to citizens of the Republic. All of Plato’s restrictions will not create a stable, balanced republic: they will lead to tyranny or to anarchy.
Plato discourages innovation of any sort, claiming that any change would unbalance the Republic and push it towards disorder and downfall. While it is true that often changes in society increase unhappiness and injustice, they also frequently decrease these aspects and raise standards of living. Innovation made cheap fabric and clothing available, reducing the time women spent at home making clothing and enabling them to join the workforce, as well as providing a source of economic growth and employment in the garment industry and allowing even working-class people to have enormous wardrobes. However, these developments also devastated 16th-century English cottage industries, slashing the income of many thousands of households, and led to the great inequalities and injustices present in the Industrial Era in the Western world. Political innovation led from a feudal, tyrannical political system in the British Isles a thousand years ago through the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights to a constitutional monarchy and a society that’s one of the most open and stable around today. Social changes, like the Civil Rights Movement or today’s consumer culture, have also been momentous in the course of history and the progression of justice and social responsibility. Technological and medical innovation as well as societal changes and discoveries about justice, economics, and prejudices have enabled these changes and many other improvements in the standard of living.
Innovation is also key to foreign relations. Plato’s Guardians would not suffice to protect the Republic if it refuses to accept changes in technology or in politics. Accepting these changes enables societies to interact with their neighbors and play on the same field (for example, the Tagaeri, one of Ecuador’s two remaining isolated tribes, are completely unable to communicate or coexist with ‘modernized’ Ecuadorians). And encouraging innovation in technology as well as strength-building changes in politics or the military can ensure that a society stays one step ahead of its neighbors, something any nationalist like Plato should be concerned about. Lastly, innovation is key to survival in the most basic sense: any creature must be able to adapt to a changing environment in order to survive and thrive.
Clearly, many negative and unjust events have been the result of social and technological innovation since 350 BC. However, denying innovation stifles natural creativity, and no change can be tamped down for long. In Poland in 1980, the Solidarity movement forced a nominally unmovable government to allow changes in a society that had not seen economic growth or social, political, or technological innovation thirty-five years. The many different political systems in existence throughout history and the constant changes present in any society point to a “trial and error” explanation of history and progress. Of all the choices, changes, and innovations an individual imagines, only a small portion are enacted. Likewise, societies and leaders imagine and propose many social shifts or political movements which are carried out to various lengths. The most obvious example of a “bad” social innovation is the Nazi regime and all its global implications. Yet, however belatedly, this movement was stopped before its guiding philosophy succeeded. Since then – and largely in reaction to it – the societies affected by the Nazis and World War II have made extraordinary progress in justice and equality, affirming many values anathema to the Nazi philosophy. Humans have tried many other political systems, philosophies, and technologies, some of which lived very briefly and some of which entered the global consciousness and have participated in our evolving world ever since. Some of the most successful movements have been those which affirmed life, liberty, and equality, like the messages of Jesus, of the Buddha, and of democracy. This seems to point human progress in a particular direction. However, as these are all ideals which I personally hold strongly, I could certainly be writing my worldview into the apparent path of human progress. Violence and injustice have also been constant companions, but there always exists a counterstruggle, whether by Afghan militias seeking to protect their communities from guerillas, by abolitionists, or by the United Nations. The goal of life is life itself: not only to survive, but also to live, and to be happy, or at least content, with living.
Liberty and equality are key components of happiness, and allowing innovation and progress will – hopefully – continue to strengthen them.