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The Politics of Plunder in Plato's Republic

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Tags Media and CultureWorld HistoryInterventionismOther Schools of Thought

03/31/2010Anders Mikkelsen

There is evidence that Plato's Republic is an exposition of the logical consequences of basing civic and personal life on injustice. It condemns political life based on institutionalized injustice — specifically theft and plunder. This evidence contradicts the idea that Socrates' discussion of an imaginary polis — Greek city-state — is a model for an ideal, just society.

The title is The Republic, or Politeia in Greek, yet the primary theme is not politics. The work is a dialogue about justice and whether the unjust man is happier than the just man. The middle of the dialogue contains a discussion of politics and a hypothetical polis in order to define justice. When the dialogue is viewed as a whole, there is evidence that Plato's fictional Socrates is using irony to ridicule the views of justice expressed by the Athenians in the dialogue.

The dialogue contains strong, short, and often-overlooked statements by Socrates that the imagined "ideal" polis is based on injustice and crime — specifically theft and plunder. Socrates demonstrates that a polis featuring tyranny, lying, censorship, elitism, and communism is the logical implication both of the Greek characters' ill-formed ideas of justice and of their undeveloped love of justice.

Constructing the Polis

The dialogue begins with the characters discussing justice. They have trouble defining justice and question the benefit of justice for man. Socrates says he will create an imaginary, ideal polis as a teaching device. The polis will help them understand justice and injustice by showing them on a larger scale.

The polis did not mean to the Greeks only the city-state's government. It meant the city in all its aspects, in the sense of the community or society, as well as what we call "government" or "the state."

Socrates' discussion runs as follows: exchange is the root of the polis. A basic community is composed of people living together and producing for their "needs," including food, shelter, and clothing. The polis is a purely economic arrangement.

The argument continues: Division of labor is key. A community requires many members to meet the basic needs of everyone. Farmers need people who make tools. Retailers and merchants are required. Even with large numbers there is dependence on outside imports just to provide the basic needs, defined as food, shelter, and clothing. There is no mention of priests, rulers, nobles, kings, officials, slaves, taxes, censors, guardians, philosopher kings, etc.

Hearing no objections, Socrates tells the audience he has illustrated justice. He makes this clear by asking, "Where, then, is justice, and where is injustice, and in what part of the State did they spring up?"[1]

The reply is, "Probably in the dealings of these citizens with one another. I cannot imagine that they are more likely to be found anywhere else." This is a key point: everyone is living justly in a society of free cooperation, free enterprise, and free trade.

Socrates goes on to state that the people will live within their means and will not have too many children, "having an eye to poverty or war."[2] Socrates emphasizes that this is a functioning community with farmers, tradesmen, and paid laborers cooperating to supply basic wants, with no need for slaves and rulers.

Justice has been illustrated in Book II. Yet the dialogue continues for many more books because Socrates' audience is not satisfied with justice.

Glaucon's Luxurious Polis

Glaucon does not see the value of the just polis. His reaction to this polis is scornful: "if you were providing for a city of pigs, how else would you feed the beasts?"[3] He says, "you should give them the ordinary conveniences of life. People who are to be comfortable are accustomed to lie on sofas, and dine off tables, and they should have sauces and sweets in the modern style." He is intensely interested in living in what was then the lap of luxury.

Socrates says that when we see how a "luxurious state" is created

we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the State is the one which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at fever heat, I have no objection.[4]

Socrates is clear that Glaucon's luxurious state is undesirable — it is at a "fever heat," and is opposed to a "healthy constitution." Socrates plays along with Glaucon. He mentions all the luxuries people will desire, including gold and ivory that must be procured. Glaucon agrees this is important — he wants to know how people will be given luxuries. The word "give" is actually used.[5] Glaucon does not ask how the people can gain these luxuries through their own efforts or how they are produced in the first place.

Socrates leads Glaucon through a chain of arguments: This luxurious state requires many more people to create all the luxuries. The country is now too small. The polis will inevitably go to war to seize its neighbors' land to gain wealth. Glaucon finds none of this objectionable.

How Justice and Injustice Originate

Glaucon agrees that going to war to seize land is necessary. Typically, seizing land is considered as stealing and unjust, and this is a dialogue about justice.

This may have been even more unjust to Greek ears than it would be, say, to those Europeans of the modern era reading Plato and used to the numerous wars waged by kings for land, and the idea of the right of conquest. Greek culture, like many others, saw the basis of all morality and religion in respect for boundaries and limits. Greek society was based on private farms and sacredly independent poleis. Poleis never unified or merged. It is hard to imagine anything more immoral to Greeks than using force to overturn sacred boundaries and limits.

Ancient Greeks did not fight wars of conquest the way European kings did. Socrates' modest proposal to seize land appears ironic and outrageous — similar to proposals seen as outrageous today, such as invading countries for their oil or living space and selling enemies into slavery.

Yet in this dialogue on justice, seizing land is not justified, but agreed to as a necessity by Glaucon. Socrates condemns seizing land: "now we have discovered war to be derived from causes which are also the causes of almost all the evils in States, private as well as public."[6]

"Are suits decided on any other ground, but that a man may neither take what is another's, nor be deprived of what is his own?"
– Socrates

Much later in the dialogue Socrates defines justice with the question, "Are suits decided on any other ground but that a man may neither take what is another's, nor be deprived of what is his own?"[7] Clearly Socrates believes seizing land is unjust. In the previous polis we saw where justice originates. Now we see where injustice originates: people like Glaucon believe we should war against our neighbors for gain.

Socrates has switched from exploring a polis based on acquiring wealth through the economic means to one acquiring it via political means. To illustrate justice and injustice, Socrates proceeds to expand on the luxurious polis. The radical ideas on politics are the logical implications of the idea that the polis is to be based on plunder. Logically, Plato is saying politics is essentially plunder — an idea associated more with Bastiat and Voltaire and classical-liberal class analysis than with ancient Greeks.

Glaucon's Worldview

It is not stated directly why Glaucon eagerly agrees that wars of conquest are logical and necessary. We can speculate and use evidence from the text.

It is likely Glaucon sees wealth as something to be "given" to the people. Wealth cannot be created by the people, it must come from an outside source.

A zero-sum worldview made sense in ancient Greece: most histories tell us that even well-to-do Greeks in cosmopolitan, free cities lived fairly Spartan lives. The world was very poor. Nowadays, by contrast, impoverished places like Hong Kong can in a few decades become quite wealthy through voluntary integration with the world economy. While Socrates gives evidence that he is simply an ascetic who condemns wealth, numerous citizens living in luxury required slaves or other subjects to create wealth for them.

From reading the beginning of the dialogue, we do have a good sense of Glaucon's general worldview. This can help explain why Glaucon does not step back when Socrates suggests stealing land to fund Glaucon's polis, nor when Socrates says that war and almost all other evils in the polis stem from the same cause. Earlier, Glaucon says,

They say that to do injustice is, by nature, good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greater than the good.… This they affirm to be the origin and nature of justice; — it is a mean or compromise, between the best of all, which is to do injustice and not be punished, and the worst of all, which is to suffer injustice without the power of retaliation.[8]

Socrates can be seen as playing with Glaucon just as he does with many others in order to expose their ideas. Socrates knows Glaucon will accept a polis based on plunder and full of extreme ideas, because the residents of this hypothetical polis would suffer no injustice, which would be an evil. On the contrary, they gain by injustice, which is seen as good. For Glaucon, justice is not good in itself, but a compromise to avoid evil. The highest good would be to commit injustice with impunity.

Socrates uses aspects of the polis, similar to what we call the state, to illustrate the corruption of justice in the minds of Athenians. He takes advantage of the human tendency to excuse actions ostensibly done for public gain that would be condemned if done for private gain.

The Implications of Glaucon's Ideas or Lack Thereof

Glaucon believes that the highest good would be to commit injustice with impunity, including fighting wars to seize wealth. How then can a state survive with impunity?

Socrates continues his argument roughly as follows: war requires men to fight, and the division of labor means a soldier class is the most effective. These are called Guardians. They will keep the polis safe from enemies seeking revenge or plunder.

Socrates points out the inherent potential for class conflict — the Guardians could plunder the polis itself. He asks how we keep the fierce soldier class from being a threat to the community itself. This gives Glaucon cause for concern. The idea of a separate class of soldiers was also unusual in Greece — citizens were the soldiers.

Socrates keeps pushing the logical implications. He suggests that education and ideas must be censored. He compares the Guardians to dogs. He says that Guardians cannot lead normal lives with possessions such as money, houses, and families. Viewed ironically, these proposals are intended to startle a complacent reader into thinking.

Plato suggests in his other works that those who regulate and have power in the state should not use money. Money and wealth corrupt. The powerful will use their power to gain wealth. Plato apparently also thinks little of money being in the hands of any citizens. In a society where citizens were the small class who wielded political power, Plato probably saw that the combination of citizens' power and love of money corrupts the citizens. It is possible Plato even made the explicit argument that if citizens did not want to give up power, then they would have to give up money.

In The Republic, too, Plato argues through Socrates that the Guardians' lack of possessions like money, houses, and families prevents the Guardians from being corrupted by the desire for possessions. Glaucon's polis requires the creation of an entire class of people with lives radically different from those of free Greeks: no longer shall free men, citizens, and those who fight and bear arms be one and the same.

The dialogue continues from there with well-known results. Because Glaucon believes there is no way for the community to achieve wealth and luxuries without seizing wealth, the dialogue's hypothetical community is distorted unrecognizably. Ironically the polis' most important members live in a state of communism — there is little luxurious about the state for them. Socrates even discusses the decline of the polis, which would not happen if the polis was a healthily functioning ideal.

The Corruption of Athens

Socrates' opponents throughout the dialogue are incapable of recognizing or objecting to legalized or institutionalized injustice. They were earlier incapable of seeing the benefits of justice in itself. His opponents have no sense of justice — and no way to resist Socrates' arguments. Socrates is well-known for using irony to expose his opponent's ideas as ridiculous. By accepting one outrageous proposal after another, their moral vacuum is betrayed. While Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth, there is much to illustrate that Athens was corrupt to the core.

Solon also noted the Athenians' desire for plunder:

The ambition of the rich knows no bounds; the most wealthy wish to grow yet more so. Who may be able to assuage this insatiable greed! They respect neither sacred property nor public treasure; they plunder all, in defiance of the sacred laws of justice.[9]

What is Justice?

Socrates does in fact reach a conclusion about justice: "Yes, we often said that one man should do one thing only. Further, we affirmed that justice was doing one's own business, and not being a busybody; we said so again and again, and many others have said the same to us."[10]

He continues his dialogue with Glaucon:

SOCRATES: And are suits decided on any other ground, but that a man may neither take what is another's, nor be deprived of what is his own?

GLAUCON: Yes, that is their principle.

SOCRATES: Which is a just principle?[11]

Followed by

SOCRATES: And is not the creation of justice the institution of a natural order and government of one by another in the parts of the soul, and the creation of injustice the production of a state of things at variance with the natural order?[12]

As we can see, this conclusion about justice implies that a polis based upon theft of neighbors' land is unjust and therefore undesirable.


In The Republic, Socrates uses the polis to illustrate justice. His healthy polis is rejected by Glaucon, who wants luxuries. Socrates creates a new, feverish polis to illustrate justice and injustice. This new polis depends on theft of neighbors' land for prosperity — an action defined by Socrates as injustice.

But Glaucon accepts this policy of theft, caring more for luxury than justice, and failing to see how prosperity might flow from justice. Socrates then shows Glaucon the logical implications of his ideas by illustrating how a polis that benefits the citizens at the expense of others would work. These many ideas are radical and shocking to his Greek audience.

Many of the unorthodox measures, such as communism, that Socrates suggests are required to prevent class conflict, wherein one class of citizens in the polis would directly exploit the others. Ironically, the state is not very luxurious for the elite forced to live under communism.

The decline of the polis through various stages down to tyranny is discussed. When Socrates has finished exposing the logical consequences of his audience's ideas, Socrates returns to the concept of justice. He neatly illustrates justice as each man's right to his own property and injustice as taking or depriving a man of his property. Socrates points out that this is the ground on which lawsuits are decided in court.

Socrates' conversation illustrates the logic of the politics of plunder and injustice in the polis. Socrates is able to do this because of his audience's lack of a definition of justice. Some may find it hard to believe that Socrates would spend so much time on an imaginary city that he condemns, but the Socratic method depends upon demonstrating ideas by walking the student through the steps and allowing bad ideas to reach their logical illogical conclusions.

The audience is unable to reject ideas that Greeks and many other people found to be shocking and radical. Socrates can be seen as piling injustice on top of injustice till his audience opens its eyes to what they believe. While sections of The Republic may imply that Socrates' hypothetical polis with Guardians was a blueprint for Plato's ideal society, The Republic contains statements to the contrary that condemn the feverish and luxurious polis. Plato's Republic can be seen as an exposition of an unjust social order, one that uses plunder, ostensibly to benefit the people. Politics in Plato is a politics of plunder.


[1] Plato's Republic, II.372a. Benjamin Jowett's translation, 3rd Edition, 1908. Note that the translator cannot help using the word State to describe a community with no evident state.

[2] Plato's Republic, II.372c. Benjamin Jowett's translation, 3rd Edition, 1908.

[3] Plato's Republic, II.372d. Benjamin Jowett's translation, 3rd Edition, 1908.

[4] Plato's Republic, II.372e. Benjamin Jowett's translation, 3rd Edition, 1908.

[5] Plato's Republic, II.372d. Benjamin Jowett's translation, 3rd Edition, 1908.

[6] Plato's Republic, II.373e. Benjamin Jowett's translation, 3rd Edition, 1908.

[7] Plato's Republic, IV.433e. Benjamin Jowett's translation, 3rd Edition, 1908. Also see IV.433a. Justice is defined as minding one's own business, though one's own business could be construed as belonging to a rigid guild or class.

[8] Plato's Republic, II.372e. Benjamin Jowett's translation, 3rd Edition, 1908.

[9] Solon is quoted from Francis Neilson's discussion of Plato's Republic in his book The Eleventh Commandment. His discussion was discovered on the web in the midst of writing this essay. It makes many of the same arguments as this essay.

John Taylor Gatto, in his Underground History of American Education, first brought to my attention the idea that Socrates might not find the second polis in The Republic desirable.

The irony of The Republic is further discussed here.

[10] Plato's Republic, IV.433a. Benjamin Jowett's translation, 3rd Edition, 1908.

[11] Plato's Republic, IV.433e. Benjamin Jowett's translation, 3rd Edition, 1908.

[12] Plato's Republic, IV.444d. Benjamin Jowett's translation, 3rd Edition, 1908. In the previous paragraph, Socrates defines disease as a violation of the natural order. He then defines injustice as similarly a violation of the natural order. He also defined the second luxurious city as a feverish city, which is to say a diseased violation of the natural order. This is additional evidence that Socrates is linking the second city to injustice. If the city is unjust, it cannot be just without Plato contradicting himself.

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