Plato's Republic is Not Communist

Before I read the Republic I had heard that what Plato proposes in it is basically a communist society -- no property, no family life, everyone hands their children over to the government at birth and they are raised without knowing their parents. When I actually read it, I found that Plato was much more reserved about these matters than I had thought.

Private Property


In the first place, he does not say everyone should give up their private property. He only says the Guardians of the state should give up private property, and not all of it, but only some: "none of [the guardians] should have any property of his own beyond what is absolutely necessary." (Republic Book 3) That part about "what is absolutely necessary" is broader than you might think. It includes an income: "they should agree to receive from the citizens a fixed rate of pay, enough to meet the expenses of the year and no more." (ibid.) Later, he mentions that people should provide food for the guardians and not make them grow it themselves, which is another benefit of being a guardian.

Plato thinks the guardians should live in community with each other and on public land, and not have their own houses, or luxuries. They reminded me of monks, actually. The ordinary citizens, in contrast to the few guardians who rule them, are perfectly allowed to have property, and one of Plato's dialog partners summarizes this point: "other men [in your Republic] acquire lands, and build large and handsome houses, and have everything handsome about them...you were saying just now [that] they have gold and silver, and all that is usual among the favourites of fortune." (Republic Book 4) The guardians don't, though.

The guardians are also not Forced to be guardians if they don’t want to be. Certain children are raised to be guardians, but they aren’t selected unless they want it: "we must enquire who are the best guardians of their own conviction[s]...[who] think the interest of the State is to be the rule of their lives." (Republic Book 3) And if they try the life of a guardian and decide they don’t like it, they can choose to leave the rank and go into the lower classes voluntarily: “[He] who leaves his rank...should be degraded into the rank of a husbandman or artisan.” (Republic Book 5)

By my reading, you don’t Have to be a guardian if you don’t want to, and you can get Out of it if you don’t like it. If I’m right in my reading (and I might not be), that’s not communist at all. The part about not having property Sounds communist, but it’s different because it’s voluntary. If you want property, you can join the rank of people who freely earn it, but if you are able to take the higher road, you should accept a communal leadership role so as to serve your community without self-interest. That’s not all that different from what monks do, in my opinion, so to me, it’s very defensible.

Women


On women, Plato doesn’t say that there are no gender differences, in fact he says there are: “They will say: … 'do not the natures of men and women differ very much indeed?' And we shall reply: Of course they do. Then we shall be asked, '[Should] the tasks assigned to men and to women...be different, and such as are agreeable to their different natures?' Certainly they should.” (Republic Book 5) What he was trying to point out was that women are not Inherently incapable of being leaders, soldiers, and philosophers, and therefore we should not prevent the capable ones from doing those things. (Our Catholic tradition has many female leaders and philosophers, and a few female soldiers.)

Plato even mentions several of the important differences between men and women, and some of them have consequences for gender roles in his republic. For example, he says, “[In] the art of weaving, and the management of pancakes and preserves...womankind does really appear to be great...for her to be beaten by a man [in these matters] is of all things the most absurd.” (Republic Book 5) Women are also usually weaker than men: “Men and women alike possess the qualities which make a guardian; [but] they differ...in their comparative strength or weakness. … [M]any women are in many things superior to many men, yet on the whole [they are weaker].” (Republic Book 5)

This has a consequence for their gender roles: “in the distribution of labours the lighter are to be assigned to the women, who are the weaker natures.” (Republic Book 5) But they are not to be discriminated against if they can do a job just as well as a man: “the lighter [jobs] are to be assigned to the women...but in other respects their duties are to be the same.” (Republic Book 5) While Plato’s view is not Exactly the same as the Catholic view (especially when he says guys and gals should exercise in the nude together), it has a lot of defensible elements, and in many ways I think it approaches the Catholic view: men and women have equal dignity, but also differences, and these differences are valuable parts of who we are as men and women.

Family Life


Regarding family life, I found Plato to be just as wrong and extremely communistic as everyone else does. With this exception: he himself acknowledges that this is the part of his social theories where he has the most doubts about being right. “Many more doubts arise about this than about our previous conclusions. For the practicability of what is said may be doubted; and [whether it] would be for the best, is also doubtful.” (Republic Book 5) His friends encourage him to tell them his thoughts on family life anyway, and he replies, “[Your] encouragement...would [be] all very well [if] I myself believed that I knew what I was talking about…[but I am] only a hesitating enquirer...the danger is...that I shall miss the truth where I have most need to be sure of my footing, and drag my friends after me in my fall.” (ibid.)

Indeed, I think “fall” is exactly what he does, for he proposes that all children should be handed over to the government and never know their parents, just as everyone says he does in all the summaries of this book. And I think that is a horrible policy. But it is comforting to know that he was less sure of himself on these points than on any other. So I don’t blame him as harshly as others do. He has his main character warn his friends that he might very well be wrong on this point, and in fact he tells them that he would rather have just left it out: “I foresaw this gathering trouble, and avoided it.” (Republic Book 5) “[I] was only too glad that I had laid this question to sleep, and was reflecting how fortunate I was [to avoid it].” (Republic Book 5) But his friends made him speak, and he spoke a lot of errors.

We can learn from this too: if you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything at all! Otherwise you could wreck your whole political theory for failing to see that, in this one point, you’ve hit rock bottom in the barrel of bad ideas. Anyway, those are my lengthy thoughts on Plato’s Republic.