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Plato: The world’s earliest spatial planner?

Book review by Jens den Boer


The Republic is arguably Plato's most famous works and many of the issues and ideas presented in the book have defined Western civilization throughout the ages. The book and its ideas are still regular topics of discussion amongst scholars and philosophers in today’s day and age.


Before we can discuss the ideas presented in The Republic, a little bit of context is necessary to grasp perhaps better the ideas presented in the book. Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived in ancient Greece, in the former city-state of Athens. He likely wrote the Republic around 428 BBC which was quite a tumultuous time for ancient Greece since during these years the city-state of Athens and the other Greek city-states were involved in two wars. In the first war, Athens and the other Greek city-states were vastly outnumbered but, miraculously came out victorious against the Persian Empire. However, once the war was over, the Greek city-states started fighting amongst themselves, and Plato watched the unfolding of civil unrest and the hardships of war within his city-state. During this time, Plato’s mentor, the philosopher Socrates was executed which shocked Plato greatly. Socrates was most likely a real person that existed, but he never wrote any of his wisdom down. Plato, as Socrates’ student, took it upon himself to not let his master die in vain and so ‘The Republic’ came into being. 


The death of Socrates as painted by French painter Jacques-Louis David in 1787. Image from (Rattini, 2019)


The Republic is written as a dialogue between Socrates and other people that he encounters throughout the book. Socrates’ style of dialogue is very intriguing and unique in the sense that Socrates always seeks absolute truths in the discussions he holds, not relative solutions. Socrates is famous for his ‘What is it?’ questions in which he tries to grasp the entire scope of certain subjects which can sometimes result in him rambling on for pages, attempting to decipher the true meaning of something. What is it like to be old? Or what is justice? These are topics frequently discussed throughout the book. In his search for absolute truth, Socrates and his companions frequently try to refute their own statements. Socrates, for example, defines justice as living an honest life and living up to your legal dues. While this definition may sound very reasonable, Socrates then hits the reader with a curveball and asks them if they would return a borrowed axe to a person who suddenly became a madman. It is your legal obligation to return the axe, but would you still do it knowing the person became a madman?


Socrates and Plato as the members of The School of Athens, painted by Raphael (1509–1511). Image from (Milojković, 2022)


Socrates discusses the importance of justice in the individual as Socrates tries to make the case that justice in the individual is synonymous with justice in the state. He spends a large portion of the book describing his version of the ‘ideal state’, hence why the book is named ‘The Republic’. One of the first governance ideas Socrates lays out in the book is the importance of the common good and achieving it through specialization. Plato believed that each citizen should specialize in one thing and one thing only, in this way, Socrates believed that society will run on maximum efficiency. He uses the example of a doctor and a shoemaker. The shoemaker will always be better at making shoes than the doctor will be, and the doctor will always be better at healing people than the shoemaker will be. It would be foolish for them to waste time and energy learning the other’s craft while they can focus on perfecting their craft. I believe Socrates certainly makes a fair point, especially in the context of efficiency, and I find it interesting to relate this to my study and the field of spatial planning, Socrates calls for specialization whereas we as spatial planners are anything but specialists, our strength lies in being an all-rounder, having a wide perspective of knowledge. Perhaps Socrates hadn’t taken the spatial planning profession into account while building his ideal society. I could certainly not imagine an ideal society without spatial planners. 


Portrait of Socrates from an unidentified artist. Image from (Museum of Fine Arts Boston, n.d.)


Like today’s spatial planners and landscape architects, Socrates realizes the importance of social cohesion in his state. He defines it as an integral part of the success of his ideal state. In the book he describes social cohesion as “The result of the common feeling of pleasure and pain which you get when all members of a society are glad or sorry at the same successes and failures.” Socrates envisions establishing this social cohesion among his citizens through some common education for both men and women, ensuring a common feeling of responsibility for their fellow citizens and the state as a whole. 


Education is a recurring theme in the book, Socrates’s way of educating may come across as something synonymous with censorship as we know it in today’s society. He spends a large portion of the book discussing censorship and how it would take form in his ideal city.  I must say it took me by surprise when Socrates openly encouraged censorship in his city. The case for censorship in the ideal state stems from the need for more land to ensure food and other resources for the state’s citizens. To acquire the aforementioned land, Socrates introduces us to a new class: The warrior class. For this class to do their job properly, Socrates proposes censoring certain songs, poems, or stories that would perhaps negatively impact their performance in battle. Examples are anti-war poems or other works that put war in a bad light. This way of censorship is quite similar to the war propaganda that was prominent during the twentieth century and perhaps still is today.


Plato is surrounded by students in his Academy in Athens. Mosaic (detail) from the Villa of T. Siminius Stephanus, Pompeii, 1st century B.C. Roman National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Image from (McIntosh, 2022)


And who is to be the ruler of this unique state? Socrates, perhaps being a bit of an elitist, proposes that the ideal ruler for the ideal state would be the philosopher. Not just anyone could become a ruler in Socrates' ideal state, however. Potential subjects would be selected while still very young and would undergo rigorous mental and physical training all to turn them into true philosophers who seek truth above all else! Interestingly though, the perfect ruler to Socrates would be the person who would want to rule the least. The way Socrates defines his perfect ruler in this instance can be compared with the help of an analogy of a boat. On the boat, without an established captain, the entire crew is arguing about who should be captaining the ship, the person fit to steer the ship is focusing on what needs to be done, looking at the stars and trying to navigate the waters instead of arguing, however, since he does not take part in the pointless arguing, he will never captain the ship. 


Living in Socrates' ideal state on the one hand would seem quite harmonious to me, everyone does their part and looks out for each other. No one is above anyone else and people are all respected equally. It would be a peaceful solution to the tumultuous time Plato found himself in while writing this book. However, the state heavily relies on censorship and strict rules to function smoothly. This raises the question: can a state truly be considered perfect when its very foundation rests on the suppression and censoring of others? 


References

Rattini, K. B. (2019, March 11). Who was Socrates? Culture. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/socrates

Milojković, M., MA. (2022, February 5). Socrates’ answer to Plato about the difference between love and marriage. Medium. https://medium.com/lessons-from-history/socrates-answer-to-plato-about-the-difference-between-love-and-marriage-f3350aa0b637

Portrait Head of Socrates. (n.d.). Museum of Fine Arts Boston. https://www.mfa.org/article/2021/portrait-head-of-socrates

McIntosh, M. (2022, April 16). Knowledge, Art, and Education in Plato’s Republic. Brewminate: A Bold Blend of News and Ideas. https://brewminate.com/knowledge-art-and-education-in-platos-republic/

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