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Plato’s Racial Republic


Republic (Robin Waterfield Trans.)
New York: Oxford University Press, 1994

Egalitarians have argued that notions of nation and race are largely modern constructs. Marxists in particular have typically claimed that Western ruling classes invented these ideas to consolidate the power of bourgeois states or as a mere pretext to divide the working class along (supposedly imaginary) racial lines and to oppress their colonial subjects.

It is then important to look at the actual record of discussion of tribe, nation, and race in our European tradition. In fact, hereditarian and ethnocentric themes have been present in Western thought from the beginning. An example of this would be Herodotus, the very first historian, who 2,500 years ago already defined being part of the Greek nation through four criteria: common religion, common blood, common language, and common custom.

In this article, I will give an account of racial and ethnic thought in Plato’s monumental philosophical treatise, The Republic, which is widely recognized as the founding text of the entire tradition of Western thought. I will demonstrate the following points:

  • Inequality: the idea that men are created unequal is absolutely pervasive throughout The Republic and is foundational to its ethics. Plato asserts that individuals have inborn differences in physique, personality, and intelligence, in addition to differences due to upbringing.
  • Heredity and eugenics: Plato notes that human differences are significantly heritable and so often refers to eugenic solutions to improve both society and elites, with explicit comparisons to animal breeding.
  • Patriotism: Plato argues that patriotism is a good and compares it with love for one’s family.
  • Greek racial/ethnic identity: Plato argues that “ties of blood and kinship” meant Greeks should not wage war on one another or enslave each other, reserving this for non-Greeks, and that their common identity should be cultivated through joint religious practices.

Plato’s Republic presents a powerful vision of an aristocratic racially-conscious state.[1] The ruling elite, known as the “guardians,” and to a lesser extent the wider citizenry would steadily improve themselves both culturally through education and biologically through eugenics. The elite would reach for the truth through constant reflection and dialectic, while both elite and masses would be conditioned through (civil-) religious education, being taught to consider the pursuit of these cultural and biological goods as a sacred moral imperative.[2]

Natural Inequality and Aristocracy

Plato takes inborn human inequality as self-evident. He writes:

When you distinguish people as naturally competent or incompetent in a particular context, don’t you mean that some people find it easy to learn that subject, while others find it hard? And that some people start to do their own broadly speaking original work in the subject after only a little study, while others can’t even retain what they’ve learned after even a lot of study and care? And that some people’s bodies are sufficiently subservient to their minds, while others’ are obstructive? Aren’t these the features — there are more too — which enable you to define some people as naturally competent, and others as naturally incompetent? (455b-c)

Plato refers to “stupid adults” (598c), to “slow-witted people” (526b), to “inferior members of the human race” (495c), and to “inferior kinds of people” (545a). He notes that children are born without reason and that “I’m not convinced some of them ever acquire reason” (441a-b). Moral and intellectual inferiority was partly inborn and partly due to miseducation. Plato however asserts that even good education cannot undo congenital imperfection: “Education is not capable of doing what some people promise. They claim to introduce knowledge into a mind which doesn’t have it, as if they were introducing sight into eyes which are blind” (518c).

Plato also recognized inborn physical and mental differences between men and women, considering women to be “the weaker sex in all respects” concerning warfare and statecraft (455e). (Nonetheless, Plato argues that women should have equal opportunity to be guardians or have any other role in the community, so long as they have the ability. This meritocratic “feminism” was quite radical given that women were largely segregated and excluded from politics in ancient Greek society.)

The recognition of human inequality for Plato was by no means intended to humiliate or harm the less gifted. Rather, the point was to organize society in recognition of these differences, as “different people are inherently suitable for different activities” (370a). Callipolis, his ideal city-state, is a meritocratic regime entirely oriented towards a kind of cognitive and moral sorting of the people, with the best (defined as the most intelligent, courageous, and moral) being selected to form part of the ruling elite of guardians. Failure to recognize inequality and, in particular, the excellence of the moral elite means the latter “end up living a life which is inappropriate for them and which isn’t true to their natures” (495c).

Recognition of the reality of inequality is then not only pervasive throughout The Republic but is central to the entire moral argument. Put simply: both a human soul and a society are made up of different, conflicting parts, some better than others; morality is when the better overcome the worse. Plato considered that this was achieved when a person or society was governed by reason, in alliance with nobler emotions, the latter subordinating mere pleasure and pain.[3]

Given all this, it is no wonder that Plato is contemptuous towards egalitarians. These are undiscerning and undiscriminating people who have bad taste, poor judgment, and low or no standards. Because egalitarian individuals (and the equivalent political regime, democracy) are unable to distinguish good from evil, Plato considers them among the most immoral, only one rank above a psychopath or a tyrant.[4]

Heredity and Eugenics

Plato recognizes that human inequality is not only inborn, but is substantially hereditary. This point is made on several occasions, sometimes quite strikingly. For example, if “a small, bald metalworker” happened to accidentally get rich and married “his master’s daughter,” their offspring would only be “second-rate half-breeds” (496a). Plato argues that philosophy “should be practiced by men of true pedigree, not by bastards” (535c). He also links physical beauty and mental goodness, arguing that his ruling class of philosopher-kings should be “within reason, people who are very good-looking” (535b). (This is perhaps a surprising statement given that Plato’s mentor Socrates, who makes the point in the dialogue, was considered quite ugly.)

Given the reality of inborn hereditary human inequality, Plato considers the decision as to who should reproduce to be a matter of public interest.[5] There is a public interest in the composition of the gene pool. As such, Plato makes a muscular argument for eugenics, both positive and negative. He makes an explicit analogy with animal breeding:

I’ve seen lots of hunting dogs and fine birds in your house [. . .] Isn’t it true that although they’re all pedigree creatures, some of them prove to be exceptionally good? [. . .] So do you breed from all of them indiscriminately, or do you take care to choose the outstanding ones as much as possible? [. . .] And wouldn’t you expect the result of failure to follow this breeding program to be the deterioration of your strain of birds and dogs? [. . .] We’re going to need really exceptional rulers if the same principle applies to humans too. (459a-b)

Plato draws the conclusion: “sex should preferably take place between men and women who are outstandingly good, and should occur as little as possible between men and women of a vastly inferior stamp. [. . .] This is how to maximize the potential of our flock” (459d-e).

Similarly, Plato argues that exceptional men, particularly warriors, should be rewarded with more sex:

And the main privilege and reward that any young men who are good at fighting or at some other activity ought to receive is the right to sleep with the women more frequently, so that as many as possible of the children are fathered by this kind of person [. . .]. (460b)

Many of these specific policies are so radical that Plato probably meant for them to be understood as utopian. Indeed, he explicitly states that the regime conceived in The Republic may not be realizable.[6] The point however is the principle: given the reality of heredity, improving the gene pool (or the breed or the race) is a moral good. Plato thus argues powerfully for regulating sex and reproduction, and not leaving such matters to the animalistic whims of individuals: “undisciplined sex (or undisciplined anything for that matter) is a profanity, and the rulers won’t allow it” (458d-e).[7] This program also justifies the state in drafting the youths it raises into the regime: “We’ve bred you” (520b).

Plato also argues for negative eugenics. This radical subordination of individual interest to the community seems extreme and unjust to our time. But the ancient Greeks lived far more difficult and violent lives. As a result, virtually all Greek city-states regarded excess population as undesirable and took measures against this, including the practice of infanticide. The most systematic in this respect were the Spartans, who would leave deformed newborns to die. Plato argues that children of the worst parents and those who are congenitally disabled should be segregated[8] from the elite, “otherwise our breed of guardians will become tainted” (460c).

Plato elsewhere notes that Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, was “a public-spirited person” because

he didn’t try to use diet gradually to drain and fill bodies which were diseased to the core, and so be responsible for a person having a long and horrible life and in all probability producing children with the same afflictions [. . .] Such a person does neither himself nor his community any good. (407d-e)

In line with ancient Greek practice, even in democratic Athens, Plato radically subordinates the interests of the individual to those of the community on which he depends:

Socrates:[9] These two practices [legal and medical] will treat the bodies and minds of those of your citizens who are naturally well endowed in these respects; as for the rest, those with a poor physical constitution will be allowed to die, and those with irredeemably rotten minds will be put to death. Right?

Glaucon: Yes, we’ve shown that this is the best course for those at the receiving end of the treatment as well as for the community. (409e-410a)

Plato argues that enforcement of these eugenic measures could be achieved through religious education or myth. The parenting of low-grade children would become a religious taboo (my emphasis):

We’ll say he has sinned against both gods and men by fathering a child who (if the matter goes unnoticed and the child is born) will not have been affected by the rites and prayers which the priestesses and priests and the whole community pray at each wedding-festival — for every generation of children to improve on their parents’ in goodness and value — but will instead have been born under the influence of darkness and dire lack of self-control (461a-b).

Family and Patriotism

The Republic meditates at length upon the problem of how to make people love their city-state and serve it disinterestedly. With striking parallels to Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, Plato argues that public-spirited government can be promoted through (civil-)religious education and appeal to family sentiment/patriotism.

Plato, like ancient Greek society in general, took family extremely seriously. He lists among the tyrant’s sins: “on his tongue and in his unholy mouth is the taste of the blood of a kinsman” (307). In The Republic, Plato imagines a society in which members of the elite would be selfless because they all belonged to one single family (notably through the utopian institution of wife-sharing). The guardians would be selected from those children showing selflessness and patriotism:

They have to demonstrate love of their community while being tested in both pleasant and painful circumstances, and make it clear that they won’t shed patriotism whatever ordeals or fears they meet with, or whatever changing situations they endure. Anyone who is incapable of retaining it is to be excluded, whereas anyone who emerges from every test without impurities (like gold tested in fire) is to be made a ruler and given privileges and rewards in life and in death. (503a)

More generally, Plato argues that the entire society could be conditioned to think of itself as one extended family through the teaching of a religious myth:

What I’m saying is . . . I’m not sure where to find the gall or the words to tell the story . . . I’ll be trying above all to convince the rulers themselves and the military, and secondarily the rest of the community, that all the nurture and education we provided happened to them in a kind of dream-world; in actual fact, they were at that time being formed and nurtured deep inside the earth, and their weaponry and their equipment in general were also being made there. When they were finished products, the earth, their mother, sent them up above ground; and now in their policy-making they must regard the country they find themselves in as their mother and their nurse, they must defend her against invasion, and they should think of the rest of the inhabitants of the community as their earth-born brothers. (414d-e)

Each guardian, a member of the ruling elite, does not see another guardian as a “stranger” but as “a father or a mother, a son or a daughter, a grandchild or a grandparent” (463c). That family feeling would be particularly powerful during warfare:

[The guardians] are highly likely to fight well against enemy forces, in so far as they are highly unlikely to abandon one another, since they regard one another as brother, father, son, and call one another by these names. [. . .] I am sure this would make our militia completely invincible. (471d)

Significantly, Plato lists a failure to distinguish between citizens and foreigners as one of the characteristics of a regime which is degenerating towards egalitarianism: “it starts to make no difference whether one is a citizen or a resident alien, or even a visitor from abroad: everyone is at the same level” (563a). Those who lack discernment and identity are no longer able to distinguish between those who share their blood, culture, upbringing, and civic responsibilities, and those who do not.

Racial/Ethnic Solidarity Among Greeks

Plato had a very strong sense of Greek identity which was both cultural and racial (or ethnic). In a striking passage, Plato argues that war between Greek city-states should be considered limited internal “conflicts,” whereas truly brutal “war” should be reserved for war with non-Greek outsiders:

Greeks are bonded to one another by internal ties of blood and kinship, but interact with non-Greeks as people who are foreign and live outside their domain. [. . .] When Greeks and non-Greeks fight, then, we’ll describe this as warfare, and claim that they are natural enemies and that the term “war” should refer to this type of hostility. But when Greeks get involved in this kind of thing with other Greeks, we’ll claim that they are natural friends, and that in a situation like this Greece is diseased and in conflict, and we’ll maintain that the term “conflict” should refer to this type of hostility. (470c-d)

Plato argues that Greeks who wage brutal war with one another should not be considered “patriotic,” again using a family analogy: “if they were [patriotic], they would stop short of ravaging their nurse and their mother” (470d). Instead, argues Plato, Greeks should “reserve for non-Greeks the treatment Greeks currently give one another” (471b). Practically, Greeks should not enslave, humiliate, or ruin each other:

Socrates: Do you think it’s right for communities of Greeks to enslave other Greeks? Shouldn’t they do their best to prevent any other community from enslaving Greeks and make the norm to spare anyone of Greek stock, for fear of themselves being enslaved by non-Greeks?

Glaucon: It’s absolutely crucial that they spare Greeks.

Socrates: Not only should they not own Greek slaves themselves, then, but they should also advise other Greeks to follow their example.

Glaucon: Yes. That should encourage them to concentrate on non-Greeks and leave one another alone.

Socrates: And we won’t be taking arms and armor to our temples as trophies either, especially if they came from Greeks, if we’re the slightest bit interested in being on good terms with other Greeks. We’re more likely to be afraid of the possible pollution involved in robbing our kin of their weapons and taking them to a sacred site, except when the practice is divinely sanctioned. [. . .] What about devastating the land and burning the homes of Greeks? [. . .] I think they’ll avoid both practices and only steal the annual crop. (469b–470b)

The mere theft of crops was preferable to permanent damage as, “it smacks of aiming for reconciliation rather than perpetual warfare” (470e).

Furthermore, beyond the political boundaries of the city-state, Plato argues that Greeks could cultivate their common identity and feeling of kinship through shared religious practices: “Won’t they feel warmth for their fellow Greeks? Won’t they regard Greece as their own land and join all other Greeks in their common religious rites?” (470e).

All of the arguments concerning the kinship of the often warring Greek city-states are equally valid for the European nation-states. Indeed, Christianity long unified Europeans spiritually and culturally. If Western civilization and the European peoples are dying today, perhaps the single most important contingent reason is that Europeans failed to sufficiently recognize their kinship with other Europeans.

For understandable emotional reasons tied to the psychology of ethnocentrism (under which people tend to identify with a local ethnicity/nation, typically delimited by language, rather than a wider genetically-defined racial group) and due to the realities of petty-state politics, nationalists of the past, while often identifying the radical otherness of Africans and Asians, also typically failed to genuinely recognize fellow Europeans as kin peoples.[10]

I emphasize however: fratricidal war among Europeans was by no means solely caused by misguided nationalists. War among Europeans long predates the era of nationalism. And even in the era of nationalism, mainstream, often universalist ruling elites were frequently the leading actors in pursuing wars among ourselves. Furthermore, during both world wars, racially-conscious Europeans were those most opposed to conflict.

European Guardians

To this day, Plato is revered as the founder of the Western philosophical tradition — no doubt the most sophisticated in the world, and is still in the running as perhaps the greatest philosopher of all time. Thus, for we heretics, it is comforting to know that such a great figure should take so seriously notions of race and nation: genetic influences on behavior and thus the composition of the gene pool as a self-evident matter of public interest, patriotism as an extension of family feeling and an obvious good, a respect for the sacred defined as that which advances the interests of the entire group, and the importance of solidarity among kin peoples. Ethnocentric and hereditarian thought has the finest pedigree. We are in illustrious company.

Plato had a reputation as a man whose head was stuck in the clouds contemplating abstractions. Yet I am struck by the “modernity” and practical implications of many of his arguments. He posited an ideal society ordered and cultivated through comprehensive education, good music, rigorous mental and physical exercises, religious myths and rituals, and eugenics. Plato’s social program is both refreshingly cognizant of basic human realities and decidedly holistic and systematic. The goal was to prevent the bad, defined as a society or individual who was of bad “breed” and “uncultured,” and to promote the good (559d-e).

At bottom, argues Plato, a good human society is ultimately defined as one with good culture and good genes. Is anything at once so obvious and yet so viciously denied by the current egalitarian-individualist ruling establishment? Inspired by Plato, one can easily imagine the creation of a military-spiritual order of “European guardians,” drawn from the best individuals from all of our nations in mother Europe and the European diaspora, zealously dedicated to the cultural and genetic improvement of our people. That may seem utopian today. But the twenty-first century is still young.

[1] Of course, one must be careful not to take everything Plato says in The Republic literally. The work is chiefly an exploration of human psychology and the nature of morality. The discussion of politics is presented as an analogy for the human soul: the ideal city-state (Callipolis) is meant to serve as a macro-scale model which can help one explore what the ideal human soul might look like. Some of Callipolis’ more bizarre policies — wife-sharing among the ruling elite, the banishing of all children above ten at the city’s foundation — must be understood as measures necessary to imagining this utopia. In particular, these measures ensure perfect unity among the elite (no longer being divided by family or property), mirroring the unity of reason in an individual, and perfect education of the new generation. For the modern reader, The Republic is perhaps best read as an intellectual exploration through thought experiment, analogous to science fiction. None of the above, however, detracts from the wider point that inborn inequality, eugenics, patriotism, and Greek racial/ethnic identity were important to Plato’s thought.

[2] Schopenhauer and Tocqueville incidentally made largely analogous arguments on the role of (civil-)religion in educating and moralizing the masses.

[3] As an example: an alcoholic may suffer immediate discomfort from lack of drink, even though his reason knows he should abstain. His pride might assist his reason in resisting temptation.

[4] Plato’s portrayal of democracy is incidentally one of the most powerfully damning accounts I have ever read.

[5] How can wonder: given the biological and genetic basis of human existence, how could the composition of the current and next generations’ gene pools not be considered a matter of public interest?

[6] Given ongoing breakthroughs in biology however, it seems even humane eugenics will become more and more practicable, I think in particular of the possibilities of embryo selection.

[7] Plato incidentally seems to equate the profane with whatever is harmful to the community: “our next task is to ensure that marriages are as far removed from profanity as possible — which will happen if they contribute as much as possible towards the community’s welfare” (458e).

[8] Or perhaps left to die, the language is not explicit.

[9] Socrates is the main character in most of Plato’s dialogues. In each case I attribute the points Socrates makes to Plato.

[10] One should bear in mind that Europeans’, and indeed all humans’, ethnocentric instincts and emotional systems largely evolved in our prehistoric past when societies generally were not larger than a tribe. In such a context, a common language likely would have been a good marker of ethnic kinship and genetic similarity. In a modern context, the ethnocentric instinct appears to allows the broadest possible identification with linguistically-defined nations.