Was Plato a Sociopath?

Republic cover

The Republic is Plato’s famous fourth century BC description of the ultimate just society.

I have just finished this book, and I loathed it.

The Republic begins by asking how we can identify morality. Plato sees morality as a set of rules. He suggests putting individual desires second to general interests, fostering unity, and playing your part in a society where there is rigid specialisation of roles. Plato, however, has no conception that morality might have less to do with rules and more to do with empathy.  Morality is actually an extension of the ability to understand how others are feeling, which tends to count against actions that are selfish or hurtful.  We also call empathy “having a conscience”.  The thing is Plato shows no ability to understand what other people are feeling.

In the sections where he condemns poetry, for example, it is the sense of empathy that really irritates Plato.    Reading Homer, or any other writer, he is appalled when he is made to feel the pain of others:

“When Homer or another tragedian represents the grief of one of the heroes, they have him deliver a lengthy speech of lamentation or even have him sing a dirge and beat his breast; and when we listen to all this, even the best of us, as I’m sure you’re aware, feels pleasure. We surrender ourselves, let ourselves be carried along, and share the hero’s pain; and then we enthuse about the skill of any poet who makes us feel particularly strong feelings … However, you also appreciate that when we’re afflicted by trouble in our own lives, then we take pride in the opposite—in our ability to endure pain without being upset. We think that this is manly behaviour, and that only women behave in the way we were sanctioning earlier… So,’ I said, ‘instead of being repulsed by the sight of the kind of person we’d regret and deplore being ourselves, we enjoy the spectacle and sanction it. Is this a proper way to behave?”

This is typical of much of Plato’s criticism of literature, which he sees only in terms of false representation of the world, rather than in terms of communication between people.

From this basic lack of empathy derives all the things I hated about The Republic.  Plato is able to dismiss the little people in society, lie to them about why exactly they have to accept their rigid role in life, let babies die if they are judged unworthy, let sick workers die for want of medical attention because if they are that sick they are better off dead. He can suggest that no woman keep her own child, or that people do not form stable marriages with each other.  Plato had no idea how people would be feeling in all these situations, and therefore is immoral in the way he talks about them.  Plato is only interested in controlling people, not understanding them.

Some readers might say that at least Plato understood the pain of women, when he famously argues that women should play an equal role alongside men in society.  But coming to this conclusion in no way involved Plato imagining himself as a woman, and feeling their frustration.  Instead, he looks at female dogs, sees them making good guard dogs, and thinks that society would be more efficient if it were to treat human females in the same way.

Today we use the term sociopath to describe an individual who cannot feel empathy.  These people are without conscience, live only to manipulate others, and are adept at hiding their nature.  What better place for a sociopath to hide than in a book on morality, which describes all kinds of ways in which people can be manipulated in society, from breaking up any possibility of power based on families, to brainwashing from an early age, to creating myths persuading them to accept their allotted role in life? The Republic could be a handbook for totalitarian regimes everywhere.

That’s why I loathed The Republic.

2 thoughts on “Was Plato a Sociopath?

  1. Empathy is understanding emotional context or understanding another person’s frame of reference their story . Psychopathy is defined by lack of emotions or emotionless , Platos ideal man was emotionless spock like man who was Rational and reasonable . The thing is platos works were based on metaphysical speculation . His ideal man was the ideal ruler absent of emotion and his republic was hierarchical. The ideal ruler ,s were in possession of the nous a non physical spiritual mind , that gave them exceptional reasoning capacity . Aristotle vied woman , slaves and manual workers devoid of reason and sort of instinctual creatures . He even viewed them as non citizens and only the male citizens in possession of the nous could participate in political discourse or decision making . The rest had to obey the laws and be used as tools of the rulers . His ideal state was hierarchical, Karl popper claimed he was the father of facism and he’s probably correct . What his theory says is that the rational self interested statesmen should be served by everyone else so they should be selfless unlike the leaders

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    1. Hello Lizhglasgow. Thank you for your interesting comment.

      With regard to the idea that sociopaths don’t feel emotion, that is true in the sense of many emotions, fear, joy, guilt – though they are very capable of feeling primal emotions such as anger, frustration, rage. I understand these are sometimes called proto-emotions, which erupt in the face of the denial of some perceived need. This is where I fail to see the sense of an argument that sets rationality and emotion as oppositions. The emotions linked to nationalistic fervour, for example, are very powerful, but they also serve to make people less understanding and accepting of others. An emotional person can still be cold and lacking empathy in their visceral response. An empathic person is probably going to be a bit quieter, more thoughtful, and rational.

      I was interested in what you had to say about Karl Popper. Was he speaking of Aristotle when he spoke of the father of fascism?

      I suppose I was uncomfortable that these thinkers are so generally revered. Of course you could argue historical context, but I would suggest that a feeling of empathy probably evolved a long way back in humanity’s development. It would be vital to working together – the only way for any sort of advanced civilisation to grow. So it’s not as if empathy is a new invention.

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