Author Archives: tillman dierkes

Republic and Totalitarianism

During the latest seminar one of the questions posed to the class was whether Plato’s Republic laid the groundwork for totalitarianism. A nice little debate ensued, but was unfortunately cut short by the end of class. During class I argued that yes, Republic was partially to blame for totalitarianism. Now that isn’t saying that it was the sole cause. Hundreds of social, economic, political, and philosophical factors throughout the course of history contributed to the creation of totalitarian states, but surely the fact that one of the most highly regarded works of philosophy is basically a love letter to totalitarianism must have had some impact.

As soon as Plato begins describing his ideal city, the Kallipolis, he starts to limit the freedoms of it’s inhabitants. He creates a hierarchy of laborers, soldiers, and philosophers, and establishes that each class must only do that which it is best suited for. Obviously Plato selects philosophers as the rulers, being himself a philosopher.

The residents of Kallipolis are limited not only in what they can do, but in the very stories and melodies that they are allowed to hear. This is because Plato decides that the poetic stories of the gods and heroes, while entertaining and beautiful, ultimately corrupt their listeners and strip them of the platonic virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. By depicting the gods as liars or the heroes as cowardly Plato fears that citizens will mimic that bad behavior. This very paternalistic approach absolutely reeks of totalitarianism.

While discussing poetic narration and mimicry Plato gives an example of an extremely wise, gifted man, who is able to perfectly imitate many things. While acknowledging that his performance would be beautiful and amzing, he says the man would be turned away from the city in favor of a less interesting poet who would conform better to his totalitarian story guidelines.

When discussing a man who prolonged his life through medicine and healthy living, Plato decides that he should have given in to his illness and died. He justifies this by saying that if you are preoccupied with staying alive, you won’t contribute to society and therefore would be better off dying.

Perhaps most importantly, Plato makes the case that Kallipolis isn’t meant to bring great happiness to any individual resident, but that by functioning perfectly it would allow each person to be “as happy as their nature allows”. This focus on the system over the individual is a core part of totalitarianism and Plato absolutely adores it.


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No half measures!

During discussion around Odeipus’ guilt I found it interesting when it was suggested that Oedipus was guilty of criminal negligence (I’m very sorry I don’t remember whose idea this was). I found this to be a very compelling argument because in my mind, Oedipus doesn’t do nearly enough to prevent the horrible prophecy from coming true.

It might be arrogant for me to think that Oedipus could have done anything to prevent his dark destiny, but I would argue that it is far more arrogant for him to take such small steps in avoiding it. Indeed the only way he tries to prevent the prophecy from coming true is to move away from his hometown. For a man as supposedly smart as Oedipus, this seems like a rather feeble attempt to thwart the will of the gods. He didn’t even  receive a vague ” Your future holds great peril”-esque prophecy. He was told exactly what would happen and as such should have taken the necessary steps to avoid it.

If, while working at an airport, you get a message that a specific plane will explode that day, it would be reasonable to cancel the flight. If at that point Zeus sends a lightning bolt to destroy your plane while it’s on land then no one would hold you responsible. If however you take the Oedipal route and only give the plane an extra 5 minute spot check, and the plane explodes in flight, you would clearly be to blame.

As the unlucky recipient of an incest prophecy it might just be a good idea to avoid sex. Now if this is too tall a task perhaps Oedipus could have at least confined his romantic pursuits to women who were less than 10 years his senior or perhaps even younger than himself. This would be less foolproof though as the greek gods wouldn’t have had much of a problem making a woman appear younger. Nevertheless it would probably be more effective than a zip code change.

In a similar vein, not killing men old enough to be your father, or even avoiding murder altogether would be a great way to avoid patricide.

Even in a world where godly intervention is commonplace, human beings have a responsibility to avoid causing bad things to happen. If and when their efforts fail they can curse the gods and lament their misfortune but in order to do so they first have to put in an honest effort to prevent it.

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