On Agrarianism and Slavery – Part III

In the fourth century B.C.E. the philosopher Plato wrote a treatise titled On Justice, in which he seeks to present his understanding of how the qualities of justice and virtue emerge in a human being. This treatise became his most famous piece of writing and is popularly known as The Republic.[i] Plato probes the notion of how the qualities of justice and virtue, and of goodness itself emerge in a human being. To do so he thought it would be good to make the rhetorical shift of first looking at how those qualities emerge in a city-state; in a republic (hence the popular title). Plato famously employs this shift in focus; from the individual human being to the city-state, asserting that a human being and a city state, are analogs of one another. He asserts that a city-state is like an individual entity; only larger, and that a human being is really a society of values and desires; only smaller. Plato tells us; to look at the city-state as a representation of a human being is like seeing the human being with all of her or his desires and ambitions under a magnifying glass.[ii] It is to see them writ large.


Plato discusses of the origin of the city-state. He does this, not as a historian, but as a philosopher. The emergence of city-states is something that begun to take place nearly two-thousand five-hundred years earlier; in a time we think of as pre-historical (because there are no written records).[iii] Even though Plato is not a historian he has something to say about how human society became organized into cities. His insight comes from his synthesis of all of the data available to him; data which for him was historical, mythological and rooted in practical knowledge, drawn from direct observation[iv].


Plato  says that: “a city comes to be because none of us is self sufficient, but we all need many things…our first and greatest need is to provide food to sustain life…our second is for shelter, and our third for clothes.[v]” He then goes on to suggest that a city-state must be able to meet each of these needs, and that at a minimum it would have about five people: a farmer, a builder, a weaver, a cobbler and a doctor.[vi] A little further into the discussion he submits the idea that these four trades are not enough to sustain a city-state; because each trade requires tools that are unique to itself and that the production of these tools is a special skill unto itself, and so carpenters and metal workers, cowherds and shepherds, other craftsmen and other herders will also be needed,[vii] to form the city-state.


Plato delineates the notion that different people have different natures, that these natures are fixed, and that each person should be placed in a trade according to that nature. He reduces this to the idea that; just as a person is a single being, so should they have a singular occupation,[viii] a specialization. It is on the idea of specialization that the division of labor is based.


Plato elaborates on this model. In the dialog he begs agreement from his audience, and receives it; that no city-state could possibly have all the materials they need to live a quality life, and for this reason it would be necessary not only to have craftsmen, farmers, and herders, but to have people who specialize in importing and exporting goods from other city-states; whom he calls merchants, those engaged in the specialized labor of trading. He then argues for the necessity of having people in the marketplace to buy and sell the goods that the craftsmen, farmers and herders produce, and which the merchants have brought to the city-state through trade. Plato asserts that these people are those who specialize in handling money. He calls them retailers, and he asserts that “they’ll usually be people whose bodies are weakest and aren’t fit to do any other work. They’ll stand around the market exchanging money for the goods of those who have something and then exchanging those goods for the money of those who want them.”[ix]


Plato explains the necessity of having people in the city who have no skills at all; who are merely strong, “other servants (he says) whose minds alone wouldn’t qualify them for membership in our society but whose bodies are strong enough for labor. These sell the use of their strength for a price called a wage and hence are themselves called wage earners.”[x]


In this way Plato continues to describe the various components of the social organism that is the city-state. In the dialog, he and his audience agree that the organism they have described to this point would be a healthy city, but not a particularly large or luxuriant one. It would be small and ordinary, uninspiring and nothing at all like Athens, the city-state in which this discussion is taking place, and the closest to their ideal. So in order to get to the issue of justice, what it is and where it lies (which is the point of the dialog), they agree that they must enlarge the city-state even further, and add to it a long list of other professions, other goods, and other services than we have already enumerated, which must also be available in the city-state.[xi]


Plato continues to build the model city-state into a place which has so much wealth that it must be protected, and that the defenders of the city-state, a “guardian-class” as he calls them, must specialize in warfare. Protectors, defenders, guardians; by whatever name you call them, they are a warrior-class.


Plato says that; like farmers who farm, and weavers who weave, like cobblers and herders who are engaged in their respective trades, soldiers must be engaged in soldiery.[xii] He enters into a lengthy discussion of how a soldier must be educated; in order to ensure that they be fair minded people, not given to greed, neither lustful nor hot-tempered.[xiii] Plato asserts that the process of educating the guardians, and then testing them through years of service, will ultimately reveal the final class of people who should rule the city-sate; a “golden-class” of people whom he calls the philosopher-kings.[xiv] Through this analysis Plato asserts that there are essentially three classes of people: the rulers of the city-state belong to the golden-class, the guardians of the city-state, its warriors; belong to the silver-class. Farmers and other craftsmen belong to the class of bronze and, or iron. He asserts that these classes would by nature be hereditary, but that on occasion a golden-child will be born to another class and vice versa. In which case; the golden-child, who is born to an iron-craftsmen, should be lifted up and honored, while the bronze child born to a golden-parent should be cast out without pity. It is in the lives of these golden-people that he believes true justice will be found, and through whom it will flow.


[i] Plato, Complete Works, The Republic, edited by John M. Cooper and D.S. Hutchinson, trans. by G.M.A. Grube and C.D.C. Reeve, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 1997.

[ii] Ibid., p. 1008.

[iii] It occurs to me that on a time line that stretches from the origins of the earliest agricultural city-states; through the present day, Plato is at the mid-way point of that delineation. It has been roughly two thousand five hundred years since he lived and wrote.

[iv] The Greeks of his day were a colonial power. They had been for several hundred years; establishing colonies all throughout the Mediterranean region. Plato would have had knowledge of all of the things and people that would be necessary to establish a city from the ground up.

[v] Plato, Complete Works, The Republic, p. 1008.

[vi] Ibid., p. 1009.

[vii] Ibid., p. 1009-1010.

[viii] Ibid., p. 1009.

[ix] Ibid., p. 1010.

[x] Ibid., p. 1011.

[xi] Ibid., pp. 1011 – 1013.

[xii] Ibid., p. 1013.

[xiii] Ibid., p. 1013 – 1050.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 1100, “Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide …cities will have no rest from evils…nor, I think will the human race.”


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