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Plato's Republic and George Orwell's 1984
Philosophy could be defined as the highest level of true clarity and understanding human thought can aspire to. It would thus seem strange to compare the ideal philosophical kingdom of Plato's Republic with George Orwell's 1984. Plato's writings form the cornerstone of Western philosophy, while Orwell's text tells of a totalitarian society where all free thought is stifled. However, the two men's versions of government, one utopian, the other horrific, spanning centuries of time, contain certain connections that will be elucidated over the course of this paper. This paper will examine the significance and the role of philosophy in both Plato's version of utopia and Orwell's horrific version of the future in 1984. It will suggest that both societies, rather than one being characterized as a philosophical utopia and the other a place where independent though is discouraged, both manifest a form of totalitarian philosophy. The citizens of both societies are encouraged to reject rather than accept doctrine passed down from the ruling class, and that philosophy is used as a means of control rather than of argument.
Plato views political repression in a positive fashion, as a means to encourage what he deems to be the highest form of philosophical thought. Orwell views this in a negative fashion, because rather than confirming any particular set of philosophical beliefs, he ultimately views a politically and philosophically pluralistic society in the most positive light. Plato and Orwell both illustrate a society in which power is held by a few, by individuals deemed to be superior, and a place where free expression, rather than encouraged, is stifled for fear of the discord and the danger it will bring to society. The greater good Plato attempts to uphold through this oppression, however, is higher philosophical understanding in the mind of the human animal. In contrast, the focus of the repression detailed in Orwell's society is that of protecting the security of the nation against others, and philosophical knowledge is not placed at a premium.
The repressive quality of Plato's society is presented in an apparently reasonable fashion in the Second Book of the Republic. Plato, through the mouth of Socrates, suggests in an ideal society, all individuals should be relegated to doing what they are best at doing. For instance, a shoemaker is forbidden to try his hand at farming or weaving or building. (2.2.375.b-c) He uses the example of a shoemaker to suggest that those who are best at a certain occupation ought to be the only ones who do that occupation. This apparently reasonable justification, however, is really being used as a defense that those who are best at something, such as governing, which for Plato is goes hand-in-hand philosophical understanding, ought to be the only ones who rule. Thus democracy is bad because it allows all to have a voice in the state's future, as opposed to merely those who are deemed most fit to govern. Democracy, in Plato's view is a bit like having individuals who are shoemakers herd sheep. It prevents those most gifted in philosophy from exercising their great craft upon to the whole of society. Of course, in practice, this apparently reasonable prohibition results in the state prohibiting a shoemaker from herding sheep if that shoemaker wishes to try his hand at a different occupation, of making a different personal choice. It also begs the question -- who is to chose those who are best at governing? Who decides who is the best at making a decision for all? For Plato, this is the philosopher, but not every might be so confident in this estimation.
Plato's society is dependent upon a division in humanity. He suggests there is an elite group of individuals, known as the Guardians, who will serve as the protectors and governors of this new, perfect world he is attempting to create. He makes an analogy between the Guardians and dogs, "particularly in the watch-dog " who is both savage and gentle (2.375.e) These Guardians will be selected because of their unique, superior natures (savage and intelligent, yet gentle at times) and raised as an elite. Their gifts will enable to bring philosophy in the society to its highest level, even though philosophical thought will only be practiced by a few.
In Book Three, Plato continues, explaining the education these rulers will receive. The first business of the ruling elite will be to "supervise," i.e. censor and control, the stories mothers and nursemaids tell. All myths shall be banned. Thus state control will infiltrate even the sanctum of the home. (3.377.e) This level of control of the personal life and dialogue of citizens is reminiscent of the opening scene of 1984, where Winston's daily calisthenics are watched by a television screen.
Plato's division of society into classes of those who are allowed to know and those who are not allowed to know is also reminiscent of 1984's division between the ruling powers, the highly controlled upper middle classes, of whom the protagonist Winston is a member of, and the 'proles' or lower classes, whom are largely uncontrolled in terms of their thoughts, except through state-sanctioned ignorance. "It was only an 'opeless fancy, / It passed like an Ipril dye, / But a look an'a word an' the dreams they/They 'ave stolen my 'eart awye!" This "driveling song" reflects Winston and Julia, had outlived the 'Hate Song' created by the elite powers to perpetuate their regime. (180) The 'Hate Song' like Plato's supervised nursery tales was a way to infect the minds of individuals living in a particular society with a particular kind of system of thought, although Plato's disinfected nursery rhymes obviously had a higher purpose, to teach children the baseless character of myth and the importance of logic. But Winston view's the woman's song locked in the past, with joy. "If there was hope, it lay in the proles!" Winston thinks this because unlike the culture of the children of his own class, the culture of the proles has remained relatively intact, despite state intervention. (181)
The class divisions in the society of 1984, like the class divisions of Plato's Republic in theory, are based on merit rather than upon birth. In 1984 this 'merit' to hold both power and to develop the culture approved and disseminated through society is determined by "examination, taken at the age of sixteen," much as Plato's Guardian class is determined by recognition by adults of the current the governing classes. (172) Yet the governing class is still an oligarchy. "A ruling group is a ruling group so long as it can nominate its successors. The Party is not concerned with perpetuating its blood but with perpetuating itself." (173) The party is concerned with perpetuating the ideology that allows it to remain in power, and nothing else. Unlike Plato's rulers, the party is not interested in truth. The pervasiveness of the false ideology and system of facts constructed is evidenced in the fact that Julia, Winston's younger lover, although she harbors seditious thoughts, still has little sense of the division between fact and fiction. She has known nothing else than the state-sanctioned lies of her culture. "She believed, for instance, having learned it at school, that the Party had invented airplanes." (127) This is evidence of the power, acknowledged by Plato, of what can occur when the state or some outside, governing entity has power over the stories told to children when they are very young. This power is much more sinister and more blatantly in evidence in 1984 by the spectacle of children gleefully informing upon their parents and neighbors. The child's speculations are based in state-constructed myths, rather than for the eradication of culturally constructed myths, as in Plato. Plato hopes to do away with mythology so the society's rulers can pursue a higher truth. Yet in both societies, it seems that children's loyalty is not to blood or love, but to the state and to their class and status in the hierarchy
Unlike Plato's Republic, the society of 1984 is utterly dependent upon lies. The state continually feeds its citizens different versions of the truth, of who is an ally and who is an enemy, of how the war is going, and expects its ignorant and fearful citizenry to swallow these constantly differing truths as whole. Even language is a lie. The populace must accept that the Ministry of Truth solely created to alter information for propagandistic consumption is always right, even when it changes its story from day-to-day. In the world of 1984 even language is a lie. The contradiction that Ignorance is Strength and that War is Peace is accepted because that is what is disseminated throughout the society -- if the lie is large enough, people believe it. The inner self of belief is controlled, the inner self that is of such concern for Plato in Book Five of the Republic, through the outer policing of action. Perhaps the most eloquent example of…[continue]
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