Plato’s Republic and the Idea of Golden Mean and Moderation: Analytical Essay

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Knowledge can be depicted in many ways. In Plato’s foundational text on Western philosophy and justice, Republic, true knowledge is represented in terms of permanent and immortal truths that can be represented only by the absolute reality of Forms; whereas in John Milton’s biblical epic poem, Paradise Lost, knowledge is symbolized by an all-knowing God and the Tree of Knowledge. In Thomas More’s socio-politically driven narrative, Utopia, access to knowledge is for everyone and it is complemented by religious faith; whereas in Mary Shelly’s pioneering science-fiction work, Frankenstein, the pursuit of knowledge is seen as a solitary effort and we see a man pushing beyond the limits of conventional knowledge and creation set forth by God. Knowledge takes on various roles and there is a difference in the distribution of knowledge in society that allows for myriad variations in social structure and hierarchy, but more interestingly we also see a diversification of the interactions between the individual and the collective. It is fascinating to see this phenomenon. How does the role and distribution of knowledge in Plato’s Republic, Milton’s Paradise Lost, More’s Utopia, and Shelly’s Frankenstein cause differences in social structure and hierarchy, and how in turn there is a difference in the interactions between the individual and the collective?

Approaching this topic and analyzing these books in natural chronological order is very convenient as we can see a clear progression of ideologies and also examine the important historical contexts surrounding these works. Beginning with one of the most influential works on Western philosophy, political theory, and justice, published approximately around 380-381 BCE, we look at the Greek philosopher Plato’s Republic. This book explores different ideas concerning ancient Athenian society through the method of the Socratic Dialogue. Through the Socratic Dialogue, Plato presents the reader with “proofs” and arguments that showcase the characteristics of an “Ideal State.”

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Plato presents us with the idea of an Ideal State that deals with knowledge interestingly and unexpectedly. One would imagine that in a perfect society there would be no restrictions on anything. It would be a place where individual freedom would be paramount. So, knowledge like anything else would be freely accessible to anyone and everyone. However, we see in Republic that knowledge in distributed unequally among the citizens of this society. This creates a spectrum in terms of the amount of knowledge that a person possesses. A spectrum like this is what enables the formation of a social hierarchy with Producers at the lowest end with only the knowledge required for their jobs and the Philosopher King at the highest end with perfect knowledge. It is important to understand what knowledge really means in Plato’s world so that we can see how there is the creation of a spectrum. The concept of knowledge, true knowledge, is eternal and is based on the Theory of Forms. An Ideal Form is the purest and most intangible form a thing and a concept. Everything in the real, tangible world around us is a shadow of the Ideal Form (a table in the real world is an imperfect shadow of the Ideal Form of a table). They are at a level of knowledge that can only be accessed by the Philosopher King (Kotsonis 2019a). This restriction is what causes the spectrum to form.

The effect of a society with the existence of a knowledge spectrum like the one in Plato’s Ideal State is that it allows for a separation of power from the people at the lower part on the spectrum. The Guardians and Philosopher King who have more knowledge than the Producers have more power than the Producers. In Plato’s Ideal State, this is justified as there is the belief that all knowledge cannot be handled by everyone and some knowledge (such as the knowledge of Forms) can only be accessed by a few. So now we see the formation of a social hierarchy based on power which indirectly stems from the difference in “access” knowledge. The fact that some people cannot handle complete knowledge is also tied with the Greek idea of the Golden Mean and the idea that “goodness is good for what is as it should be.” A person at a certain level should stay in their level, pan metron Ariston meaning “all excellent things must be limited.”

Now it is also important to know that in Plato’s Ideal State, the success of the State is what matters. All individual actions are for the betterment of society as a whole. This is also a form of restriction on individual freedom. While Plato encourages specialization amongst the Producers and focuses on the fact that people should do what they are most talented at, the extent to which this is applied results in the exercising of the power of the Guardians. If a child born in a family that specializes in occupation “A” is actually talented in occupation “B” then it is the role of the Guardian to observe this discrepancy and move the child to a family that specialized in occupation “B” (Kotsonis 2019a). This is supplemented by Plato’s idea that children should be common for everyone in society. We can see this paralleled by the Greek thirst of putting everything in their place, categorizing things, and a quest for stability. This brings about the stark contrast in the value given to the benefit of society and in the value of individual freedom.

So, in Plato’s Republic, we see that the society envisioned by Plato is characterized by an unequal distribution of knowledge that leads to the creation of a power dynamic between the masses and the leaders. It is also a society that places supreme importance at the benefit of the collective causing indirect restrictions on individual freedoms.

Moving approximately two thousand years, from the 4th century BCE to the 16th century CE, we come to the time of Sir Thomas More. Thomas More’s groundbreaking political and philosophical satire, Utopia, deals with the journey of the fictional Thomas More and his discussions with various other characters like his friend Peter Giles and, philosopher and explorer Raphael Hythloday. We see Hythloday describe to More and Giles the wonderful island nation of Utopia. A nation set in the New World and separate from all the political and religious problems facing European nations, especially Tudor-ruled England. It is described as a nation that is closest to perfection in its social organization and systems.

Thomas More, like Plato, describes to us his concept of a perfect state, Utopia. The way they deal with knowledge and its distribution, however, is very different. In Utopia, everyone has free access to knowledge as everyone is educated equally. This creates a society that does not have a knowledge spectrum that distinguishes citizens and puts them in different classes. While there is a political hierarchy, it is not based on the distribution or access to knowledge. All children in Utopia are provided with a thorough education so that everyone has equal opportunity in terms of exploring their talents and interests in free time (which there is a lot of in Utopia as everyone works just six hours a day and whiling away free time is severely punishable). Citizens who excel in intellectual pursuits could be exempted from physical labor and just pursue their interests. In More’s Utopian society, compared to Plato’s Athenian society, knowledge is understood differently. In Utopia, knowledge, and education were considered the basis for the cultural and moral development of individuals. Rational and intellectual pursuits were what drove the citizens of Utopia. More also emphasizes that in Utopia religion along with rational thoughts were essential in the proper functioning of society. The belief that there was an afterlife in which people were assessed based on their previous actions is what had the Utopians practice and adhere to all moral, civil, and ethical laws. So proper and universal knowledge is essential in allowing Utopians to create an open and communal environment.

While there are differences in how More and Plato handle knowledge, More and Plato share similar ideas concerning the individual and the collective and corporatism. The concept of boundaries and moderation (similar to Plato’s Golden Mean) is also present in More’s work. It is however important to note that as shown above that the distribution of knowledge doesn’t necessarily cause this to happen, it is caused by the role of knowledge. The role knowledge plays in Utopia is that of various virtues and ethics. More has showcased various scenarios in Utopia that show how there could be unintended consequences when one doesn’t follow or exercise these virtues. It is the job of the elected officials, the Syphogrants and the Traniborto, to make sure that all laboring citizens are engaged in their own works and are not idling away their time. More does not address happiness; he ignores it as he does not think of them as very important; he is a very religious man and shuns all types of luxuries; he derives from the Greek rule of the Golden Mean where all extremes are removed from society (Kotsonis 2019b). Laws are extremely strict in Utopia; this creates an atmosphere where citizens are indirectly controlled to do what is beneficial for society. This can also be seen as a disregard of individual freedom and feelings. It is true that the society provides it, citizens, with ample (almost unparalleled when brought alongside 16th century Europe) resources and free time but the society is so result-oriented that it does not see issues in limiting freedoms and strictly enforcing laws that put collective benefit above individual freedom.

In Sir Thomas More's Utopia, we see that the 'near-perfect' island nation of Utopia possesses equality in the access of knowledge for its citizens, the lack of a knowledge-based power dynamic. We still, however, see the existence of a politics-based social hierarchy that implements rigorous laws and punishments that rein in certain individual freedoms in favor of societal service.

Advancing to the 17th century and from socio-political satire to perhaps the greatest epic poem in the English language, we shall now look at John Milton’s Paradise Lost. This biblical poem in blank verse about the Fall of Man, God, and Satan is an epic poem in every right and has shaped cultural images of many aspects of the bible. Milton begins at the first conflict in human history, the conflict between Adam and Eve, how they took a step away from God and begin a journey to get back to God (Kotsonis 2019c)

The way to analyze the concept of knowledge and social structure in Paradise Lost is slightly different from the other books as we aren’t presented with a political analysis of perfect societies. Here we are required to look at details within the narrative arc to derive points that give us the necessary insight. Knowledge in Paradise Lost exists in the form of God, the being with complete knowledge, and the Tree of Knowledge. Eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was strictly prohibited by God and it was the tasting of this fruit that was the very cause of the downfall of Adam and Eve, it was their disobedience. The thing that this represents is that Eve and then Adam had “tasted” knowledge. While in Paradise, Adam and Eve existed with limited knowledge and just obeying the directions of God and living a life of innocence. However, after tasting knowledge they somehow become conscious of things around them. This is not just a direct violation of one of God’s rules but also shows the breaking free from their innocence. They now have to face God’s wrath – leave Paradise and struggle on Earth until humans gain complete knowledge and become one with God. Now that we have seen the concept of knowledge as it exists in Paradise Lost, we can see that there is a steep wall between humans and knowledge. God actively dissuades Adam and Eve from eating from the Tree of Knowledge and it is only after Satan tricks Eve into craving knowledge from the tree that we see the events unfold. We know for a fact that Adam is curious by nature.

  • “Tell if ye saw how came I thus, how here.
  • Not of myself: by some greater Maker, then,
  • In goodness and in power preëminent.
  • Tell me, how may I know him, how adore,
  • From whom I have that thus I move and live,
  • And feel that I am happier than I know!” (Milton 2005, 8.277-282)

He wishes to know more and asks the Angel Raphael about his creation and God. However, Adam suppresses this curiosity because of God’s commandments. We can now clearly see the inequality in the distribution of knowledge that exists in this case. This also makes apparent the power dynamic that exists between God and humans. This idea is also supported by the fact that the only way humans can gain redemption is that they struggle and obtain complete knowledge so that they can become one with God. So, knowledge is a very important factor in the idea of human progression.

Similar to Republic, in Paradise Lost we see a power dynamic and a knowledge spectrum with innocent humans at the lower end and a supreme God at the higher end. God who knows and has created everything – past, present, and future – determines and dictates the laws of the Universe. God’s first creation Satan continuously disobeys God and is certain to remain in Hell for his sins. However, we see that after seeing various visions of the future from Archangel Michael and the survival of Noah and his family, Adam is motivated to forever obey God after the original sin no matter how long it takes. The difference in the two cases showcases the subtlety of this hierarchy as obedience to God also plays a vital part in it. The difference here when compared to Plato is that Milton allows for the possibility for the hierarchy to be reset if humankind achieves perfect knowledge; then humanity is also on the same level as God. Analyzing the interaction between the individual and the collective is a bit more complicated here. Initially, there is no “collective” as such as there are only two human beings; but it is Eve, an individual, – it is she who recommends to Adam that they split up and specialize in their work, and she who first tastes the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge – whose actions cause the Fall of Man and the creation of a collective. So, we do see that the individual’s actions were essential for change and progress (albeit this change would lead to great pains, especially for Eve and following women) but later on there is an emphasis on the collective effort in order for the advancement of humanity.

John Milton’s Paradise Lost is an epic poem that places great importance on knowledge and hierarchies (obedience) and how they can change depending on the progression of our human society, it also has an intricate system of individualism and collectivism. The book also shows how an initially subdued human society through massive struggle (it will get much worse before it gets better) could eventually reach a state of freedom.

Forwarding from a 17th-century biblical creation story to an 18th-century science-fiction creation story, we land at Mary Shelly’s innovative and genre-creating novel Frankenstein. Frankenstein deals with the account of Victor Frankenstein who in his pursuit of science creates artificial life, in the form of a monster, defying restrictions placed by God. It is a story of individual ambition and how science is being deployed with the idea that the human condition can be improved.

The quest for knowledge is one of the main driving forces in Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein is an ambitious scientist who after the death of his mother isolates himself and conducts scientific experiments in hopes of being able to create life. Frankenstein’s isolation is of note over here, it juxtaposes the fact that an individual who is all alone and has distanced himself completely from his friends and family is trying to create another individual. Shelly really highlights the ambition of individuals in Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton. Both are extremely ambitious men in search for knowledge. However, both differ in the fact that in the end, Walton considers the value of the people around him (his ship’s crew) and puts a limit to his knowledge by turning back and ending their Arctic expedition, whereas Frankenstein despite knowing the consequences of his individual actions disregards them and still continues his journey of pursuing the monster he created, while bringing harm to the people around him. Victor Frankenstein can be paralleled to the Greek mythological character, Icarus – a person who is so absorbed in their actions that they do not realize that they are a danger to themselves – as his ignorance of the people around him and his determination to kill the monster at all costs is what ultimately leads to his death (Kotsonis 2019d). Frankenstein’s last words to Walton are: 'Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries (Shelly 2008, 295). This is the moment when Frankenstein realizes the consequences of his obsession and says that it is better to stay within the limits as an unchecked individual ambition would lead Walton to a state like that of Frankenstein, death. This line is extremely interesting as it agrees with all the previous three books we have looked at, Plato’s Republic and the idea of Golden Mean and moderation, More’s Utopia and the idea of putting society before everything, and Milton’s Paradise Lost and that there need to be limited to the knowledge and actions of human beings.

While it might be said that a citizen of the Ideal State practically internalizes the idea that all their actions are for the benefit of the State and they are free in their own right as whatever they freely willed to do would be inherently beneficial to society. It strengthens the idea that it is the collective that matters.

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