Plato on freedom and beauty

Plato explores the concepts of freedom and beauty from very unconventional angles in Republic; unusual in the context of both contemporary and modern understandings of the two terms. Freedom to a contemporary audience of Athenians could be defined as the ability to think and do as one pleases. Plato explores and ridicules this definition through Socrates’ description of the ‘free’ man; one who goes about “putting all his pleasures” and appetites, whether necessary or indulgent, “on an equal footing”, “dishonouring none but satisfying all equally” (358, 561b). This life, according to Plato, carries “neither order nor necessity”. In the realm of politics, he vehemently expresses the belief that “democracy’s insatiable desire for what it defines as the good”, namely freedom, is “also what destroys it”. Plato’s own hypothesis on freedom is strongly juxtaposed to that which the people “call total freedom”. For him, the concept only gains meaning when set into the context an entity. Socrates establishes through his dialectic that “we do not allow” man “to be free until we establish a constitution in” him.

This relationship between the adherence of rules and principles, and freedom [which could be seen as contrary to the modern understanding of freedom] is one that also reflects in Plato’s opinion on the role of the individual within society. Plato’s conception of freedom is very much functional – according to him, a man is truly free when he is fulfilling his role to the state to the best of his abilities. The utilitarian perspective that Plato maintains on freedom also extends to his attitude towards the concept of beauty. It is best expressed when he says that “if the fine habits in someone’s soul and those in his physical form agree and are in concord with one another”, “wouldn’t that be the most beautiful sight?”. Beauty in the state is, similarly, when all classes work together harmoniously – from the philosopher kings through to the auxiliaries and craftsmen.

One particular area in which Plato’s opinion on freedom diverges from our modern ideas of it is in his plans for the education of the demos in his kallipolis. The ideas that he explains predominantly in book 3 concerning the ways in which the guardians of the state should be brought up would seem radical in any modern concept – the mass censorship and lying that he proposes go against the ideas of freedom as we know them. But to Plato, the resulting harmony within the classes and the ability that each individual gains to best fulfil their role in society eclipses the need for individuality.

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