Luke Holm earned bachelor's degrees in English and philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.
As mentioned in my analysis of piety in Plato's Euthyphro, the Greek philosophers Plato and Socrates are oftentimes imperceptibly interchangeable in their contribution to philosophical theory. As you read their ideas and texts, it is commonly acceptable to see the ideas and thought experiments as being presented by either/both philosopher(s). In Plato’s Republic, Plato transcribes a dialogue between the infamous Socrates and several of his followers. In the dialogue, Socrates is given the task of creating the perfect city. Although most of what is written is actually Plato’s views of a utopian society, the speaker is represented as Socrates, a renowned philosopher in Greek society.
In order to succeed in creating the perfect city, Plato, speaking through Socrates, develops his ideas on several different levels of thought. Since a perfect city would be run by a perfectly developed society, Socrates first analyzes the class divisions of the populace. As Socrates sees it, the perfect city would have its citizens divided into two separate groups, of which, the first group would be further subdivided within itself.
Plato's Three Classes: Guardians, Auxiliaries, and Craftsmen
The first group is called the guardians, who are sometimes referred to as rulers or philosopher-kings. The guardians are the military of the city. They must epitomize physical strength, spiritedness, and a love for learning. As Socrates further speculates upon the guardians, he then decides that they should be broken into subcategories themselves: complete guardians and auxiliaries.
The complete guardians are the highest class within Plato’s Republic. They are the rulers and “the ones who guard external enemies and internal friends” (Plato 99, ll. 414b). Complete guardians will be most knowledgeable; they will see to the good of the city before they see to themselves, because, essentially, they are the foundation of the city. The auxiliaries are the city’s soldiers. They are the “supporters of the guardians’ convictions” (99, ll. 414b).
Finally, Socrates states that the third class will be the farmers and craftsmen. This final class is not a shameful position in society. These people will be nearly as important to the city as the rest of the classes, for if there was no one to grow food or develop material goods, the rest of the city would surely fall like a tripod missing a leg.
Socrates' Single, Noble Lie
Next, Socrates realizes that the division of class in this manner may be upsetting to some. He does not want the citizens to feel as though they are being lumped into a wrong or unfair category. So, in order to avoid such chaos, Socrates brilliantly devises a single, noble lie. This lie will be for the betterment of the city; it is a lie that will result in good rather than evil: the myth of metals.
The “myth of the metals” as Professor Finch puts it, is a way to get people to accept their status within society as innate. Just as there have been other epics and tales that influenced the populace, the citizens of Plato’s Republic will be told, “Although all of you in the city are brothers, when the god was forming you, he mixed gold into those of you who are capable of ruling, which is why they are the most honorable; silver into the auxiliaries; and iron and bronze into the farmers and other craftsmen” (100, ll. 415a). Depending on whichever metal god gave you, that is your true place in society; it is honorable and one must do their duty to their fullest potential. Furthermore, to go against this decision would be to go against god himself.
In order to get the citizens to fully believe this fabrication, Socrates says he will persuade the people to believe their education and upbringing was merely a dream or figment of their imagination. He will not tell this to the current and mature part of society; however, this should be easily accomplished for “later generations, and for all other people who come after them” (100, ll. 415d). Like a dream, the people imagined and were deceived into thinking they had a family and upbringing aside from their true origins. In fact, the people have no real nuclear family; all people were conceived in the womb of Mother Earth and birthed directly into the city, which is their one and only true home.
Class Division: The Myth of the Metals
As Socrates tells Glaucon his plan, he is a bit hesitant to do so. In order to justify the fact that what he will be doing is telling a lie to an entire population that will persist through numerous generations, Socrates juxtaposes his lie with the many poetic fabrications of the past. While Socrates’ lie is deceiving, he claims that it is a much better lie than any other; for this lie results in the betterment of an entire city, while others give men false conceptions of the gods. Socrates states that unlike other tales and stories that “will produce in our young people a very casual attitude to evil” (73, ll. 392a), his single noble lie “would have a good effect, by making [the citizens] care more for the city and for each other” (100, ll. 415e). It seems as though Socrates has efficiently developed a lie that produces good instead of evil.
Telling the ‘myth of the metals’ will unite the population as a whole. If the people no longer believe they are part of different families, backgrounds, or classes, they will all become one single family. As one family, the citizens will see the city as their home and their birthmother; they were not produced by a woman, instead, it was the city that created them. Furthermore, Socrates’ lie will produce citizens who do a single job from childhood, and by doing so, they will be the best they can possibly be in their trade.
Plato's Justification for Class Division
In Socrates’ dialogue with Adeimantus, Socrates discusses poets’ ability to imitate circumstances. In his debate, Socrates states that “a single individual cannot imitate many things as well as he can imitate one” (78, ll. 394e). By saying this, Socrates means that a shoemaker is the best fit to make shoes and a farmer does his job best when producing food.
Neither the shoemaker nor the farmer should ever attempt to do one another’s job, because they would do so poorly, or, at the very least, do so without the job’s highest potential ever being fulfilled. “Each individual can practice one pursuit well, he cannot practice many well, and if he tried to do this and dabbled in many things, he would surely fail to achieve distinction in all of them” (78, ll. 394e).
The ultimate goal, then, is to have each citizen imitating a job, beginning at childhood, which is in direct accordance with their innate soul metal. Socrates feels that citizens “must imitate right from childhood what is appropriate for them” (77, ll. 395c). By having each citizen do a single job to the best of their ability, the city will begin to work like a single organism. Each person will be driven to do their job so that others may profit from them, and themselves from others.
The city will work like a unit, the good of the city will be the good of the individual, and whenever an individual deviates from their place in society, they will be shamed because they are going against their brethren and against god who placed the metal for their class within their souls.
In conclusion, it seems that Plato, as Socrates, has developed a solid foundation for the society within his perfect city. Although the populace will be lied to, it is a good lie that produces profitable results. By telling each citizen they have a specific metal in their soul that determines their status within society, Plato has strategically developed a way to have people fully satisfied with their roles in life.
In the end, the city seems to be working as a single unit; each person profiting from the other. While this approach may not work in the modern world, it is an interesting route for such a wise philosopher to take and is worth taking the time to consider and analyze closely. Is there a better way to conduct civilization? The question remains for us to think about. Until then, utopias remain more of a philosophy than fact.
Finch, Alicia. "Book 3: Myth of Metals." Lecture.
Plato. Republic. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 2004.
© 2017 JourneyHolm
ArthurJFelix on August 11, 2020:
You're asking the wrong question. It is irrelevant whether we think it is ethical or not as the ethics of it only apply to that society.
Ethics are not a fixed thing but instead evolve with a society. For example, in medieval times it was perfectly ethical to have a unelected ruling class who had the power of life and death over others as the logistical difficulties of voting plus the constant threat of violence in any power vacuum would mean a democratic society would be a disaster and would quickly collapse.
There is no fixed point of good or bad, just what is accepted at the time due to its benefits in that particular environment.
So what is good then is not necessarily good now. And the same for that society. It would be ethical for that society if it worked and ensured the society was able to outcompete other societies of the time and therefore survive and thrive. If and when the people found out it was a lie - ie if they had an Enlightenment - it may or may not continue to be ethical. If society rejected it and survived it would be seen as unethical, if society rejected it and collapsed then it would either be seen as ethical and brought back, or the society would be extinct and so it wouldn't matter either way.
Whether something is ethical or not is entirely the decision of society and is totally fluid. Society evolves like an organism and ethics are just part of the DNA. If an organism evolves a new leg and thrives then that mutation is good, if it dies out as a result it was bad. Same for ethics.
En Liri on July 09, 2019:
Let a judge be a judge, and not a shopkeeper nor a policeman, and a shopkeeper not a policeman nor a judge, and a policeman not a judge nor a shopkeeper. That is a perfect republic.
Zygmunt B on March 28, 2019:
"In fact, the people have no real nuclear family; all people were conceived in the womb of Mother Earth and birthed directly into the city, which is their one and only true home."
Most of your article is logic but these words, either are confusing purposely, or there is no logic...
JourneyHolm (author) on July 29, 2017:
Jennifer, I think your empathy for humanity is spot on. Plato is reasoning strictly from a philosophy similar to math. It's very structured and crisp...even though it's not. The idea of a society actually trying to structure itself in this way is interesting to think about. I always just took it as a thought experiment and never really a proposal for reality. I wonder if it would be successful? I'm sure Plato was way more intelligent that us, or maybe not?
I believe humans will create a utopia some day. It may be in our minds. It may be what we call heaven. Or maybe people will figure out that we never left "The Garden of Eden" and learn to live in harmony with the earth. Regardless, something's gotta give, right?
Jennifer Mugrage from Columbus, Ohio on April 12, 2017:
Luke, thanks for this summary of a part of Plato's Republic.
Considering how famous and influential The Republic has been, I was appalled when I actually read it. Plato's utopia is strictly controlled, right down the fact that the guardians are not raised in families but in a communal situation (basically an orphanage). People are allowed only the minimum of private property, no choice (as you say) in vocation, only very restricted music, and basically no religion (lies about the gods), or art. In short, Plato thinks he can create a perfect society by stripping away everything that makes people human and that makes human life worth living.
I can forgive Plato for his - what I can only call - appalling ignorance of human nature because he lived in a very aristocratic, pagan society. He had never been exposed to the Hebrew Bible or to Christian teachings, which so humanized the world. He also, thankfully, never lived to see his vision actually tried in places like Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.
His reasoning seems to make so much sense if you assume that people are pure logic machines who only need to be purged of messy things like emotion and love for their families, their property, beauty, humor, and the spiritual. But as it turns out, we aren't.
Please forgive the rant ... this topic pulls my chain. Whenever someone starts talking seriously about trying to set up a utopia, all I can say is ... RUN!!!
Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on April 05, 2017:
The Toba eruption has been linked to a genetic bottleneck in human evolution about 70,000 years ago, which may have resulted from a severe reduction in the size of the total human population due to the effects of the eruption on the global climate.
According to the genetic bottleneck theory, between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago, human populations sharply decreased to 3,000–10,000 surviving individuals. It is supported by genetic evidence suggesting that today's humans are descended from a very small population of between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs that existed about 70,000 years ago.
JourneyHolm (author) on April 05, 2017:
Jay C, as I remember it, Plato suggested that all children gain a basic education, but that there be strict censorship of fiction, literature, and poetry, as he believed this distorts a child's ability to judge and think properly. Those who are most inclined, at a unspecified point, to think philosophically, will later be trained in the higher levels of education. Those who are essentially dumb, by Plato's standards, will then begin their training in whichever caste system they are put in (as told by the myth of the metals).
On another note, as to the second part of your comment, does the Toba Theory suggest that humans were somehow begotten outside of incest prior to the volcanic explosion? How many people do they believe survived the ice age? I've heard it's estimated that about 10k people are needed to repopulate the planet (have enough genetic diversity to avoid incestual problems).
Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on April 05, 2017:
Hello Luke. The question of class in my mind is whether there is movement among classes. Was there universal education? The son of a philosopher is not necessarily as smart as the father. Did Plato suggest testing to establish the class? I could buy that.
Is War necessary? No, not from the standpoint of the individual. Only the ruling class believe their underlings should go to war to preserve the existing ruling class.
Is it a lie to say we all come from the same place and are family? No, now we have scientific evidence we all come from a small group. This is known as Ribo-Eve.
According to the Toba Catastrophe Theory, about 76,000 years ago Mount Toba (in Indonesia) exploded with a mega eruption and caused a volcanic winter across the globe. This winter extinguished all types of Man except what exists today.
To reproduce they had to commit incest and that is what caused birth defects today, including mental illness. So, Yes, mental illness has plagued Mankind for tens of thousands of years.
JourneyHolm (author) on April 05, 2017:
Jay C, I completely agree that many of Plato's theories of a perfect society fall short to my line of thinking as well. I think his idea was that since the highest class would be the greatest philosophers (along with having experience in war), they would know the repercussions of war, would be able to philosophize whether war was a necessity, and then would make highly educated choices for the good of the community (as they will always put the community before themselves). My main contention with Plato's theories was the lie. In my opinion, to base a society off of a lie destines it for disaster. On another note, I wonder if mental health in Plato's time was as big of a problem as it is today?
Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on April 03, 2017:
"The complete guardians are the highest class within Plato’s Republic. They are the rulers and “the ones who guard external enemies and internal friends” (Plato 99, ll. 414b)....... The auxiliaries are the city’s soldiers. They are the “supporters of the guardians’ convictions” (99, ll. 414b).
Where to begin? First he creates a Caste system and then he makes it military. I am opposed to both. We need to Progress from Bronze Age thinking into the Modern Era.
Progress from "Warrior" thinking to "Peace Officer" thinking. Warriors kill enemies upon command of another. Peace Officers arrest Individual criminals without the intent of harm. The least amount of force is used.
Plato also does not address the main affliction of society, Mental Health.