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.

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