So, I wanted to share my final paper from my Ancient Philosophy 301 course where we had to make an argument. Well, I made an argument for anarchism. Granted, due to the topic at hand, I veered a bit from ancient philosophy, but I still looked the case for anarchism through the lens of Plato’s famed allegory of the cave. It’s a more elaborate fleshing out of my argument here. My paper was well-received by the professor; he cited it as “ambitious” and “interesting,” saying it could have been a thesis paper instead of a term paper. The formatting is not as advantageous as it would be normally on Word or whatever, but it should still be readable:
Plato’s Oversight with the Allegory of the Cave:
Or the argument for the viability of anarchism using Epicurean ethics
In the Republic, primarily via the allegory of the cave, Plato offers an insight into how he would arrange the hierarchy of society (the rulers and the ruled) as a repudiation of Athenian democracy predominant in his time. The rulers of society ought to be philosopher kings equipped with the requisite knowledge of society, having accessed and understood true reality, unlike the masses and most certainly, unlike the rulers of old that sought power rather than truth, knowledge and the acquisition of justice. In the following paper, I will demonstrate a formulation that had not occurred to Plato and which I argue ought to have occurred to him: no hierarchy at all; ergo, anarchy as a third option to Athenian-style democracy and rule by the philosopher kings. To do so involves examining a.) Plato’s oversight of anarchy in his considerations for the arrangement of society and b.) the legitimacy of anarchy as a third option for the arrangement of society. To do the latter means only to establish it as a viable option, not to make a full-fledged defense of every intricacy of how an anarchist society would operate, as that would go far beyond the purview of this paper’s goal.
Before addressing Plato’s allegory of the cave, it is worth going back to two other texts that provide the foundation for the allegory of the cave, Gorgias and Book 6 of the Republic. Much of Gorgias deals with a discussion between Socrates and Gorgias where Socrates attempts to get Gorgias to understand the folly of oratory and its implications for a society. The problem for Socrates is one need not be knowledgeable on the subject with which one acts as an orator for. That is to say, one need only possesses and properly utilize the power of persuasion to overcome the actual knowledge and truth spoken by the expert in whatever the subject matter is. Gorgias tells us, “The orator has the ability to speak against everyone on every subject” (457a). Simply put, then, the masses are easily persuaded by someone that doesn’t actually possess knowledge nor truth, but merely the ability to speak well. Since the masses can be easily persuaded away from knowledge and truth, such implications are dangerous and is therefore the reason Plato is resistant to Athenian democracy and seeks to establish his own form of societal organization. If the masses are easily swayed, then how wise are they in their decision-making? In other words, if the masses are largely ignorant, then it follows that the rulers they select through a democratic model of governance are likewise an embodiment of that ignorance. And for Plato, this means we get further and further away from truth, knowledge, justice and ultimately that sense of goodness we all have a “hunch about.”
In Book Six, Socrates offers his meditations on what the good is. The good is something inarticulate, but with which human beings strive toward, as we have a sense of its inherent quality. Mere replications of what the good is do no suffice, “No one is satisfied to acquire things that are ‘believed’ to be good” (505d5). Socrates goes on:
That, then, is what every soul pursues, and for its sake does everything. The soul has a hunch that the good is something, but it is puzzled and cannot adequately grasp just what it is or acquire the sort of stable belief about it that it has about the other things, and so it misses the benefit, if any, that even those other things may give (505e).
All of which leads to Socrates’ most important question, which is a foundational marker for the allegory of the cave and in which allows for the establishment of Plato’s conception of the arrangement of society when he asked, “Are we to accept that even the best people in the city, to whom we entrust everything, must remain thus in the dark about of this kind and importance” (506a)? There are three important threads of thought to parse and consider within Socrates’ question. First, there’s already a given assumption that the rulers – since they are the rulers – are obviously the best-picked people for the job, otherwise they would not be the rulers. Secondly, there is much within “to whom we entrust everything.” Already one ought to see how this would be antithetical to anarchism, but that it is also the justification, Plato believes, for his idea of rule. We ought not trust everything to people who quite clearly have not accessed the proper truth and knowledge of reality. Anarchism merely takes it a step further and posits that a.) entrusting power to a select few humans, no matter what they’ve “seen” and not just “seen” in the traditional sense of the word is a compromising social order and b.) there is a knowledge problem that even the best of the philosophers could not overcome, anyway. Third, the other justification presents itself for Plato’s organization of society: we’ve trusted rulers with rule, who do not know true reality; ergo, the formulation is simple: find people that have seen true reality. In other words, the problem is not so much with rule itself (as Plato doesn’t offer an examination of the inherent quality and dichotomy involved in ruling), but rather with the people ‘selected’ to rule. Society in actuality just hasn’t selected the “best” people for the job. Plato believes having philosophers that can access true reality overcomes that problem.
In Book Six, Plato through Socrates arrives at what is essentially the foundational basis for the allegory of the cave; the juxtaposition between the soul which truly knows and the soul which is misled by a murky reality:
Well, think about the soul in the same way. When it focuses on something that is illuminated both by truth and what is, it understands, knows, and manifestly possesses understanding. But when it focuses on what is mixed with obscurity, on what comes to be and passes away, it believes and is dimmed, changes its beliefs this way and that, and seems bereft of understanding (508d5).
All of this thus far, how oratory illuminates the inherent flaw in Athenian democracy and how the rulers have their souls affixed to the obscurity of reality, sets the foundation for the allegory of the cave. The allegory of the cave, then, is a reflection of the masses: huddled prisoners within a cave, fixated on shadows projected onto a wall for them, not knowing any better (514a). Then by unexplained circumstances, one of the prisoners is freed (and it’s worth stressing Plato’s deus ex machina here, as he doesn’t give an explanation for who or what frees the prisoner). From this position of newfound freedom, the prisoner goes forth to experience, adjust (516a5) and then understand true reality and realize that what had been ongoing in the cave was in fact mere shadows of reality. Like any person that had seen the “true way,” the philosopher now goes back to the cave to tell the good news (the parallels to what Christianity would later pick up on with the Gospels is clear here), but ignorance breeds contempt and stubbornness for the disrupter of that ignorance. “Don’t you think he would count himself happy for the change and pity the others” (516c5)? Socrates continues:
And for anyone who tried to free the prisoners and lead them upward, if they could somehow get their hands on him, wouldn’t they kill him? (517a5).
From the allegory manifest the overall philosophical concept that is in disagreement with philosophical anarchism: collectivism. The concern for Plato is the city as a whole, not the well-being of each individual that makes up the city. In order to facilitate the best outcome for the city, we need to persuade and compel people. For a philosopher, the former is an inferred moral obligation, especially since presumably the philosopher has seen true reality, hence returning to the cave to tell the other prisoners what she has seen. On the other hand, the thought of compulsion – force and coercion – ought to repel the philosopher, for something cannot be considered truly good if it must be forced upon someone. If it is truly good, then it ought to find them by the first means (persuasion). Plato goes on to say, “It produces such men in the city, not in order to allow them to turn in whatever direction each one wants, but to make use of them to bind the city together” (520a). At least within Book Six, Plato devotes no space to identifying and further explaining what the “city” is and why it ranks more important than the will of the individual.
However, Dorter does add further insight into how Socrates views the formation of a city:
A city comes into being, as I believe, because it so happens that none of us is self-sufficient, but we lack many things…So when one person takes on someone for one need, and another takes on someone for another need, then, since many things are needed, many people gather in one area of residence as associates and helpers (Dorter, 8).
As one ought to see, Socrates’ view, as Dorter fleshes out, is not all too different from the Epicurean conception of mutual benefit, i.e., that justice arises from cooperation, not from the condition of destructiveness. However, there’s a logical leap that doesn’t seem to be explained: if I accept the premise, which I do, that the “city” (or community or a grouping of individuals) originates from the need for mutual benefit, the necessity of the state to facilitate the cooperation doesn’t fit. Or at least, more work is needed to explain where the state fits into the formulation. If I accept the Epicurean view, which I do, that humans have an innateness about not harming each other, i.e., mutual benefit, then the unnatural process would be evoking the construction of the state to maintain that natural order. As such, the burden is on Plato to prove its construction is needed.
Moreover, Socrates’ explanation of how the philosopher king becomes the philosopher king ought to further disturb:
But both for your own sakes and for that of the rest of the city, we have bred you to be leaders and kings in the hive, so to speak (520b5).
The emphasis is mine. Much like how compelling and the good life are at odds with each, so, too, is instilling at odds with the good life. That is to say, there is a difference between what Socrates talked about in Gorgias regarding teacher-conviction and the value of education (455a) versus the notion he brings forth here of breeding specifically those who will be our leaders and kings (which is a further play on Plato’s overall idea that people will be bred for specific roles within the society). The point of philosophy and of understanding what is meant by the “good life” is that an individual comes to it, not that it comes instilled into him or her. For again, if it must be “bred into you,” then its inherent goodness seems tainted.
Up to this point, I ought to make clear that I am in agreement with Plato that the inherent flaw of democracy is two-fold: a.) that the masses can be easily fooled and manipulated to making terrible choices as a majority-collective unit and b.) in doing so, one of the outcomes is picking corrupt, flawed rulers that most certainly care more about power than they do truth, knowledge and justice. Where my disagreement lies is Plato’s alternative – the philosopher kings bred to that specific purpose and prioritizing the city over the individual – and complete oversight of no rulers as a third alternative. Therefore, it will be necessary now to explore that third alternative.
A starting point for seeing the third alternative is one I’ve thus far hinted at it, but it further offers a counterpoint for how we can value the individual over the city (individualism): Epicurus. Epicurus’ ancient collections of maxims, XXXI states:
The justice of nature is a pledge of reciprocal usefulness, [i.e.,] neither to harm one another nor be harmed (Inwood & Gerson, 35).
In the anarcho-capitalist/libertarian/classical liberal tradition, reciprocal usefulness by another name is often called the non-aggression principle (NAP), i.e., one cannot initiate aggression against another without due cause (say, self-defense). Another name by which we understand this inherent reciprocity in human nature is the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them unto you.” While we can most certainly can think of exceptions to this, as we can with any philosophical maxim, like Kant’s categorical imperative, as a general philosophical guiding point, it shines a light on that third alternative. Epicurus’ XXXI contradicts the notion of “compelling people” for the whole of the city. In other words, more plainly put, it is not from the “city” this inherent reciprocity derives; ergo, it is not from the city where justice derives. It is inherent within the natural order of human beings. Since the city is the construction around this inherent natural order and not the other way around, subordinating the inherent justice within individual human beings to this collective construction is fallacious.
In, “Meddling in other men’s affairs: the case for anarchy,” Gerard Casey articulates that political theory is bound by one singular, predominant myth: the necessity of the state (or in Plato’s vernacular: the city) (46). By its inherent quality as a state, that is, by its ability to organize as a “state,” and in the words of Socrates, compel people against their normal wants, it must a.) have a monopoly on so-called legitimate force, i.e., where the state can initiate force, if we, as an individual were to, it would be considered illegitimate and b.) in some sense, the people for which the state governs must buy into the legitimacy of that legitimate force in order for it to be so legitimate. Casey puts the logical formulation this way:
- X (peace, security et al.) is a necessary condition for human flourishing;
- Only the State can provide X [emphasis his];
- Therefore, the State is necessary (46).
The only caveat one could see Plato amending to this is with the second statement, adding in, “Only the State can provide X, so long as the State is comprised of philosopher kings that have seen true reality and possess the requisite knowledge and sense of justice.” In other words, Casey’s three-step argument for the legitimacy of the state and more specifically, why Plato overlooks the idea of philosophical and political anarchism is explicitly within the word “only.” Only the state can provide X. So, either the State is providing X through flawed democracy or it is (to him preferably) providing X through philosopher kings.
Further adding to Epicurus’ maxim, Casey also argues that our relationships with other people derive outside the sphere of positive law (46). That is to say, our continued existence on the most basic of levels can only continue if we hold to the maxim and the need for mutual benefit and cooperation. Moreover, Casey addresses the notion that without a state, there would be discord and disorder, i.e., chaos. With the state, there is already these things, so the state fails at its fundamental and central function of preventing internal violence among humans. So, the argument isn’t so much that the state is the only method by which to ensure our first proposition, but rather that it would do better than the alternative of no state, i.e., by this admission, it’s establishing an alternative, for one can only be better than something else if it is being compared to it. However, Casey takes it a step further in his preliminary reflections, arguing that the existence of the state itself not only fails to prevent the violence for which it’s said to be created, but it adds and perpetrates violence that otherwise would not be capable if it weren’t for its monopolization of force:
The number of people killed in the twentieth century in state-sponsored conflicts is, at a conservative estimate, about 175,000,000; although impossible to say for definite, it can reasonably be judged that the number of people killed in the twentieth century by what we may call normal criminal murders, muggings, and so on is nowhere near that number (46).
There is further consideration that goes back to Plato putting much stock in the “city,” which again he does not define. The “city” in Plato’s context is seen as this higher order, otherwise there would be no need to subordinate the individual to its collective flourishing. And yet, as Casey points out, it’s useful to remember that the “state” does not actually exist within this higher order. At its most basic understanding, “The government is simply a name for a particular group of people acting, or being willing to act, in particular ways at a particular time and place” (47). Controlling a particular arbitrary region and then monopolizing that region should not confer some higher status and legitimacy on that force. And more importantly, if this group known as the state are other people such as, then it follows that they ought to be bound by the same “rules” or the Epicurean maxim, that we are.
If it is presumptively wrong for me to initiate aggression against you, it must be presumptively wrong for those people calling themselves the government to do so. If someone wants to make the contrary case, then the burden of proof resides with him (47).
Within at least the parameters of the Plato readings, I see no space in which Plato makes the argument that the “city” is rightly given a higher moral status whereby what the city rulers do is more legitimate and more moral than what those within the city (the ruled) would do. Even more, not only does Plato ignore this, he argues that there can be such a thing as “good government” (521b5). It may be the case that in the machinations of the government, it may do something “good,” but it derives its ability for machinations from an inherent ugliness: the monopolization of force and compulsion. Moreover, since it derives its machination from that ugliness, Plato’s fix of merely getting the “right” and “best” people to govern that ugliness is a losing proposition.
In, “Can anarchy save us from leviathan?” Andrew Rutten looks to anarcho-liberal, Anthony de Jasay, to make the case – that is to say, again, that it’s at least an alternative – for anarchism. de Jasay adds a nuance to the Epicurean maxim of reciprocity by accounting for even the most “brutally calculating egoist.” He says:
Whether at work or at play, most of us find ourselves dealing again and again with the same people. This fact makes a huge difference for strategic behavior. Put crudely, the knowledge that we see people again gives us a powerful incentive to be nice to them, because if we are not, they may not be nice to us in the future.
While it is certainly not enough that we are merely good because we fear what others may do to us, it is a starting point on which to demonstrate an alternative to the state, i.e., there is an incentive mechanism that ensures that we can conduct ourselves without the state guiding the interactions. Moreover, in rejecting Plato collectivism, that is not to say man is an island and operates as if so, nor that social cooperation is a negative. After all, the entire idea of the Epicurean maxim of reciprocity rests upon the need for social cooperation. In other words, we need not be forced to obey the dictates of the state or our philosopher kings because it is in our interest to obey.
In establishing an alternative to Athenian democracy with philosopher king rule, Plato overlooks the other alternative: a society without rulers. I have argued that Plato overlooks this alternative and consideration because Plato’s focus is on ensuring better rulers rather than questioning the inherent quality and necessity of rulers at all. His formulation derived from the allegory of the cave rests solely on breeding better rulers.
[1.] Friedrich A. Hayek’s article, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” which I examined in my third Textual Analysis is helpful here. Hayek said, “An essential part of the phenomena with which we have to deal: the unavoidable imperfection of man’s knowledge and the consequent need for a process by which knowledge is constantly communicated and acquired.” The philosopher can never hope to have perfect knowledge; Plato is utopian.
[2.] There are certainly objections to this point, such as forcing a baby to eat or sleep. However, there’s an appreciable difference between a baby and a grown adult capable of exercising rationality and free thought.
Casey, Gerard. “Meddling In Other Men’s Affairs: The Case For Anarchy.” Economic Affairs 27.4 (2007): 46-51. Business Source Complete. Web.
Dorter, Kenneth. “The Divided Line and the Structure of Plato’s Republic.” History of Philosophy Quarterly 21.1 (2004): 1-20. Print.
Hayek, Friedrich A. “The Use of Knowledge in Society | Foundation for Economic Education.” FEE Freeman Article. Foundation for Economic Freedom, 1 May 1996. Web.
Inwood, Brad, and Lloyd P. Gerson. The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994. Print.
Rutten, Andrew. “Can Anarchy Save Us From Leviathan?.” Independent Review 3.4 (1999): 581. Business Source Complete. Web.
Zeyl, Donald J. Gorgias. N.p.: Hackett, 1987. Print.