History and Theory, Vol. 2, No. 1 (1962), 3-16.

Plato and the Philosophy of History: History and Theory in the Republic


Had Plato a philosophy of history? A number of Platonic scholars and critics assert that he had, and refer to Books VIII and IX of the Republic in support of their assertion. Adam, for example, in his commentary on these books uses the phrase "Plato's philosophy of history" on several occasions, sometimes guarding himself by putting the last three words in quotation marks but nowhere making an attempt to explain what they mean. His predecessor Nettleship had been more explicit. "These Books", he said,

have been called the first attempt to construct a philosophy of history. A philosophy of history implies that the historian can see certain laws or principles of which human history exhibits the working. Plato has taken certain inherent tendencies of human nature, and interprets Greek history in the light of them; not that the tendencies he describes were actually working alone, so that historically events would exactly correspond to his description, but that wherever he looks hi Greek society he sees symptoms of them working underneath.1

Barker repeated Nettleship's first sentence and added that while we must "repudiate any historical meaning for this sketch, we must not deny its historical bearing ... If [these books] are not history, they explain history, and show why history is the record, not of the perfect 'idea' of the State, but of its various and successive perversions."*

By "repudiating any historical meaning for this sketch" Barker presumably meant to deny that the passage in question was to be taken as simple history; Nettleship would have agreed. But this is emphatically not the opinion of Professor Popper, the fullest and most challenging of recent writers on the subject. Plato, according to Popper, was convinced that the ideal State he described in the Republic and referred to elsewhere had actually existed in the remote past, and his purpose in putting in the elaborate account of the decline of the state was "to describe both the original course of development by which the main forms of constitutional decay were first generated, and the typical course of social change".8 That Plato thought of the ideal State

1 R. L. Nettleship, Lectures on The Republic of Plato (London, 1929), 299. 1 E. Barker, Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle (London, 1906), 177. 8 K. R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 2 vols. (London, 1945), I, 33.


as having had historical existence we could see not only from the plain implications of the language of Books VIII and IX of the Republic, but also from what he said elsewhere in works like the Timaeus and the Laws. That Books VIII and IX were to be taken historically was shown by the fact that Aristotle took them in this sense, advancing historical counter-examples to mark his disagreement with Plato. The truth about this part of Plato's work was roughly as follows. With brilliant sociological insight Plato had managed to reconstruct the outlines of a primitive tribal society, a society far more simple than any which existed in his own day and one in which he would himself feel thoroughly at home. He had then gone on to show how this society, once disrupted, must have passed through a series of stages of degeneration, until we were presented with the political conditions of Plato's own time. But in advancing these theses Plato was not just being a somewhat speculative or, if we prefer the term, theoretical social historian; he was also a philosopher of history or an 'historicist'. He believed not just that things had happened in the way he described: they had to happen in this way. For history, in Plato's view, was governed by an iron law, the iron law of degeneration and decay. All historical change was change for the worse, and there was nothing that any human being could do about the matter, except perhaps to arrest the process at some particular point. Plato no doubt aspired to that in his more sanguine moments, and this marked a certain limitation in his historicism. But the latter doctrine was so ingrained in him that he could never have dreamt of the possibility of turning back the process permanently. If we compare this summary of the views of Popper with the remarks quoted from Nettleship, it will be apparent that very different things might be meant by ascribing to Plato a philosophy of history. Nettleship's description would be satisfied if Plato had done no more than point out certain constant factors governing social change, and offered an account of how they operate in typical situations. Plato on this view would be not so much a philosopher of history as a social scientist, whose task was to explain the phenomena of the political v/orld, in much the same way as a physical scientist has to explain the phenomena of the physical world. I say a social scientist and not a philosopher of history because it would clearly be possible for someone to take up such a position without believing that everything in history has to happen as it does, or that there is any single fixed line of historical development. To say that if a situation of type A occurs it will necessarily be followed by a situation of type B (the type of proposition which we may expect a social scientist to enunciate) is not to say absolutely that the second situation will occur; warned of the inevitability of the sequence, we may well take steps to prevent the occurrence of its antecedent. Now Popper, so far from denying that Plato can be viewed as a social scientist, is anxious to emphasize this aspect of his work; as he says (I, 47), there is much in Plato's writings which is commonly taken as "mere mythologi-


cal or Utopian speculation" and which ought to be interpreted as "sociological description and analysis". Plato was "one of the first social scientists and undoubtedly by far the most influential" (I, 29). But he was not just a social scientist. Elaborating this point, Popper explains that the social and political thought of Plato reveals two incompatible attitudes, that of the social engineer or social technologist who tries to find out by rational means how to mould or alter social institutions in accordance with men's wishes and aims, and that of the historicist who believes in "a science of immutable historical tendencies" (I, 17). A social engineer must believe that the course of history can, sometimes at any rate, be changed as a result of men's efforts; an historicist must hold that it never can. And it is Popper's contention that the historicist element in Plato's thinking was the dominant one, with the result that all his efforts to discover what constitutes health in the body politic were carried out against a background which in effect precluded any application of their results. He never had any serious thought of bringing the ideal State into existence, because he knew that it had already existed in the past and that it was beyond the power of men to escape the iron law of decay. Popper further accuses Plato of having what he calls an "historicist methodology", i.e. a belief that all sciences, and particularly the social sciences, must be pursued by historical methods (I, 64). According to Plato, he tells us in a discussion of the Platonic Forms, "the essence of a thing is to be understood by its nature, i.e. by its historical origin" (I, 192). And in one extraordinary passage he speaks of Plato's "view of the world" as being "fundamentally historical" (I, 195).

The extravagances of these last three opinions are so obvious as scarcely to need comment. How, we wonder, is it possible to characterize the thought of a philosopher who held that only unchanging objects are real as "fundamentally historical"? Where in Plato's works do we find the search for essences pursued historically? How are we to square the thesis that Plato believed in historicist methodology either with the various accounts of method given elsewhere in his dialogues or with what is said or implied about geometry and the other sciences in Book VII of the Republic"? But though we can feel confident enough that Popper's attack on Plato's historicism cannot stand in its entirety, his central point may nevertheless remain intact unless we can provide an alternative reading of those books of the Republic on which he lays so much stress. It is such a reading that I shall now attempt. I shall argue that it is quite wrong to take Books VIII and IX of that work as history of any sort, despite their narrative form; they embody, in my view, the results of a complex piece of social analysis, the exposition of which had been begun by Plato long before he came to this particular part of his work. The Republic as a whole, if we exclude its opening and closing books, embodies and expounds a theory of political and personal behaviour; Books VIII and IX contain an important part of that theory, but by no means


the whole. It will be seen that this position has some affinities with that of Nettleship, though I doubt if Nettleship saw its full implications or expressed it with anything like due precision. Plato on this account of the matter was, as Popper rightly stressed, a social scientist, but not quite such a naive or confused social scientist as Popper supposed. He was not, in my view, a philosopher of history of any sort, though I shall allow at the end of my article that he may have held general views about history of a kind which it was at the time conventional to hold. But that he took such views sufficiently seriously to warrant being described as an historicist, seems to me extremely dubious.

Perhaps I should add that in attacking this particular feature of Popper's interpretation of Plato I am by no means wishing to attack the whole of that interpretation. On the contrary, I think that Popper is quite often right where previous commentators were wrong. His picture of Plato as a totalitarian is, to my way of thinking, nearer the mark than, say, Nettleship's picture of him as a mild nineteenth-century Liberal or Joseph's as a right-thinking early twentieth-century Wykehamist. But I am not concerned to discuss the rights and wrongs of this opinion here.

It will be convenient and perhaps helpful to begin with a very brief recapitulation of the argument to be examined. Book VIII starts at a point where Socrates, who is by this time engaged more in a monologue than a dialogue, is supposed to have completed his sketch of the ideal State, begun in Book II. The excursion into politics was undertaken in the first place because it was held that study of the state would enable Socrates and his interlocutors to understand the nature of the human soul, since the state is, as it were, the soul writ large. The enquiry into the human soul was ultimately aimed at deciding the question raised in the first book, which was the happier, the just or the unjust man. Having shown what a just (by which we may perhaps best understand a morally healthy) state and a just man are, Plato now has the task of contrasting them with other sorts of state and man. He mentions at the outset that there are four main types of state and man to consider, and he proceeds to bring them forward successively. But instead of being content, as we might have expected him to be, to describe each in isolation from the rest and contrast it with his own ideal, he makes it his business to show in each case how it develops from the one previously considered. Thus we are shown how timocracy, government by men of honour, develops from the ideal State once full-blown communism is abandoned by the ruling class and men begin to get the idea of their own personal importance; how timocracy in turn passes into oligarchy, the rule of the rich, as the love of gain replaces honour as the dominant motive and those who are well-born but without substantial means are excluded from the government; how the carrying further of this process divides the State into a small group of 'haves' and an


ever increasing group of 'have-nots', who finally revolt and seize the government, instituting a regime in which all men are equal and everyone is at liberty to do whatever he wishes; finally how tyranny is set up when an influential demagogue, thwarted even under this system in doing whp.t he wants, appeals to the people on the pretence that his enemies are plotting against him, and is granted a bodyguard which he uses to establish complete personal domination. Corresponding to these accounts of changes at the political level are a series of accounts of changes in individual men, interspersed with vivid sketches of the different types of character and society -timocratic, oligarchic, democratic and tyrannical — involved.

In summarizing this argument I have used the timeless present throughout. But Plato, sometimes at any rate, uses past tenses to describe the changes, as if his object were to state something which actually happened. The ideal State, he says, gave way to timocracy, which gave way to oligarchy, and so on. This is, of course, the basis on which Popper builds his interpretation. It would seem that Aristotle too, as already mentioned, took Plato to be enunciating a series of general propositions about past history. This is why when Aristotle arrives at his discussion of the Republic passage in the Politics (V, 12) he objects that things are by no means so simple as Plato's account would suggest. Plato speaks as if 'oligarchy', 'democracy', etc. were terms with a single, simple meaning, whereas the truth is that they each embrace many different kinds of thing. He speaks again as if there is only one pattern of political change, and as if the whole process must come to a stop once tyranny is reached. But even tyranny, if we examine actual historical cases, tends to turn into something else; what is more, the something else can be anything you please: it was another sort of tyranny at Sicyon, oligarchy at Chalcis, democracy at Syracuse, aristocracy at Sparta and Carthage. Aristotle put forward other criticisms designed to show that the conditions Plato picked out as vital in bringing about political change, for example the concentration on money-making in oligarchies, were not universally found in states with constitutions of that type, or again were found in other forms of state which were nevertheless politically stable. In all this Aristotle assumes that Plato in the Republic must have been trying to do what he himself was attempting in the central books of the Politics, namely to discuss what makes for stability and instability in different types of constitution, and to do it on a strictly empirical basis. His objection is in effect that Plato has been much too slapdash: his oversimplified description will not bear confrontation with the facts. And there is no doubt that if this had been Plato's aim Aristotle would have been entirely correct. Nor, for that matter, can it be denied that the way in which Plato puts out his view, readily lends itself to Aristotle's interpretation; to think of him as asserting that oligarchy always and only changes into democracy, and so on, is by no means extravagant.


Even so, it is quite incredible that Plato did intend his propositions to be taken in the way Aristotle takes them. However little interest he took in detailed constitutional history, he must have known that there were occasions when changes occurred which did not fit the patterns he laid down. The tyranny of Pisistratus at Athens, for example, about which we can scarcely suppose him to have been ignorant, replaced a form of oligarchy and was itself replaced by a form of democracy. But if he was not meaning to put forward a series of empirical generalizations, what was Plato doing in the passage we are examining? It is at this juncture that commentators begin to tell us that the historical framework in which Plato has chosen to present his ideas should not be taken "too literally".4 "The real order of development which he describes is a 'logical order', and is primarily determined by psychological and not by historical considerations", says Adam, who adds that "Plato here employs narration primarily and chiefly as a vehicle or instrument for expressing the results of psychological analysis, and not because he believes that political development always and inevitably follows the same lines".5 Barker too has recourse to the word 'logical' in dealing with the difficulty.8 Plato, in his view, is "neither writing history nor generalizing from history", though he is "implying" that "the ideal State will change, and if it changes by a logical series of changes, will change in the way that he suggests". This, says Barker, is part of the answer to Aristotle; the other part is that "even from a historical point of view, Plato's sequence may be vindicated, if we regard not the exception but the general rule of constitutional change". The "actual logic" of Greek history may not bear him out exactly, but perhaps surprisingly the history of medieval Italy does.

It seems to me entirely.correct to say that Plato was professing to give a logical order of development in his account of the procession of constitutions; we need, however, to clarify the contrast between 'logical' and 'historical' in this connection. I suggest that the statement that Plato put forward a logical as opposed to an historical sequence should be taken to mean, quite simply, that he told us what ought to happen in theory, not what did happen in practice. A logical sequence is the sequence we should find if everything happend as it theoretically should; again, it is the sequence we should find if we were to be confronted with a pure case of the change in question. The object of Plato's discussion in Books VIII and IX of the Republic is to deal with pure cases of political change, on the basis of a theory about the springs of human action. That things do not always work out in that way in real life, is not in itself a valid objection to him.

This may sound paradoxical, but many respectable parallels to Plato's procedure can be adduced. Take, for example, the case of economics. Many

4 H. D. P. Lee, Plato, The Republic, translated (Harmondsworth, 1955), 312.

5 J. Adam, ed., The Republic of Plato, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1929), II, 199.

6 Barker, op. cit., 177.


laymen find economics a puzzling subject because economists deal in such evident abstractions. They speak, for example, of the economic man who buys in the cheapest market and sells in the dearest, when in practice, as we all know, people often buy at the local shop for sentimental reasons and sometimes lower the price to their friends when they sell. It looks here as if the facts of economic life contradict and discredit economic theory. But the truth is that they do nothing of the sort. Economists are concerned, or perhaps we should say theoretical economists are concerned, not so much with what does happen in the economic sphere as with what would happen if everything went as it does in the simplified models they consider. In constructing such models they are at liberty to disregard actual circumstances to a remarkable extent, in the belief that concentration on the operation of a small number of factors will prove illuminating. In point of fact it could prove illuminating in two different ways: either by bringing out and making intelligible the working of the basic forces which are taken to underlie the complex phenomena of actual economic systems, or by studying what would happen if we had to deal with a type of system significantly different from any which we do encounter. In both cases the hope is that light will be thrown on what actually occurs. The economist's aim is to explain everyday economic facts, yet to explain them not by providing a detailed causal account of every individual happening, but by showing the nature of the mechanism which lies behind them and expounding the theory on which it works.

Economics is perhaps unique among modern social sciences in having a theoretical structure which is at once highly developed and widely accepted. But the feature of it which I have tried to describe has its parallels in the physical sciences. Thus mechanics too may be said to be concerned not with what actually occurs, but with what would occur if everything happened as it theoretically should. The student of that subject does not give his main attention to the actual objects which real people roll down particular sloping surfaces; the fact that such objects are often impeded in their course by being sticky or not quite round, and that the 'inclined planes' down which they run are seldom if ever perfectly smooth, may very well be a matter of total indifference to him. The objects whose behaviour he sets out to examine are in a sense highly theoretical entities; they exist nowhere in the world, though they would exist if we could somehow remove certain features of the things we meet with in real life. The fact that we cannot remove these features turns them into abstractions, or merely 'ideal' objects. But this circumstance in no way diminishes their utility in explaining actual mechanical phenomena. Ballistics is a highly instructive study, even though the paths described by balls which live tennis players hit and projectiles which live soldiers fire are none of them pure cases in the text-book sense.

There are, of course, important differences between the social and the physical sciences, which turn on the fact that in the former we are concerned


with men's rational decisions and in the latter only with physical happenings. But though this circumstance affects the nature of the conclusions we expect from them, it has no bearing on the point with which I have been concerned. Every theoretical science, social or physical, works with the method of abstraction; which is to say that it considers not actual facts but deliberately simplified systems, not concrete but pure cases. The simplification may, needless to say, be more pronounced in some cases than in others; again, there is a point beyond which it cannot be properly taken, since whilst it is true that no theory of this sort is open to direct empirical confutation, all such theories must equally claim empirical application or at least empirical bearing if we are not to dismiss them as idle products of the imagination. There is indeed a sense in which even a theorist of this sort has to have a close eye to the facts. But we should not let this aspect of the matter blind us to the irrelevance of a simple appeal to fact when it comes to estimating the value of such theories. Nor should it cause us to overlook the logically striking circumstance that every science of this kind is a complex theoretical structure, insofar as it not only singles out factors which determine what happens in concrete cases, but also shows how these operate together. It is because such a theoretical account can be given that men can claim on the basis of this sort of knowledge to have genuine understanding of the phenomena they set out to investigate, as opposed to the simple ability to manipulate them successfully which familiarity and observation might provide.

To return now to Plato, the suggestion I am making is that he was in effect attempting in the Republic to treat politics as a theoretical science, in the way in which economics and mechanics are theoretical sciences, and that he went about his task, much as the exponents of these modern disciplines do, by constructing and exhibiting the working of a simplified model. The purpose of Books VIII and IX is to show part of the mechanism in operation. Plato chooses what seems to us the strange device of putting out his results in the form of a continuous narrative, instead of enunciating a series of abstract general propositions as his modern counterpart would. But that nothing significant turns on this fact can be seen from the reflection that the subject whose vicissitudes he purports to describe is not a particular state, but simply 'the state', i.e. something universal. And if further confirmation of this were wanted it could be found in the thought that other subjects too could, at a pinch, be treated in the Platonic manner without thereby being transformed into history. . "The Trade Cycle" would be one possible title for a monograph in this style; "A Day in the Life of an Atom" might be another.

It should be noted that the study of politics must be theoretical for Plato if it is to lay claim to scientific status. Described at their own level, the phenomena of politics are objects of 'opinion' only; a fact which at once


puts out of court any suggestion that he might allow that history could be scientific. Nor are matters improved if we pass, with Aristotle and most modern students of political institutions, from the bare description of political facts to their classification and the framing of generalizations. What Plato would have thought about that we can gather by recollecting his harsh treatment of the men in the Cave who note regularities in the shadows which appear before them and attempt on this basis to predict what will come up next. Even if their predictions turn out to be correct, Plato will not agree that they have knowledge. Indeed, their whole method is fatally wrong, since, like the empirically-minded astronomers and students of harmonics in Book VII of the Republic, they rely on their eyes and ears when they ought to be using their intelligences.

But how can politics be treated scientifically in a manner which would satisfy Plato? An answer to this question is to be found by looking at what he actually does in the Republic. In Books II and III he paints a simplified picture of political life, the main purpose of which is to bring out the paramount importance of three different elements in society - rulers, warriors and workers. Next in Book IV he tries to explain the emphasis he lays on these particular elements by advancing a theory about the fundamental springs of human action, and by associating the three classes distinguished above each with one of these. It is worth noting that this theory is not completed in the well-known discussion of the Tripartite Soul, but is elaborated and carried further in the treatment of 'necessary' and 'unnecessary' appetites (in VIII, 558d and IX, 571a). Most of the Republic consists in showing what happens, both to society and to individual men, as one or other of the different springs of action is uppermost. There is, according to Plato, a state of natural equilibrium in which the three work in harmony: reason has overall charge, pride or self-respect backs it up, the appetites are duly subordinate. This is the state of affairs Plato describes as 'justice in the soul'; its counterpart in the state is found when wise men rule, loyal soldiers back up their decisions, and the rest of the citizens accept these decisions as authoritative. It seems likely that Plato thought of the question "When is the soul in a just condition?" as one which could be answered by simple inspection of the facts, much as a modern engineer might think of the question "When is such-and-such a machine in proper working order?" But the soul is not always in a just condition, nor does the situation of the state always answer to that described in the sentence before last. To help us understand souls and states which deviate from the norm, Plato presents us, in Books VIII and IX, with a series of pictures of successive degeneration, in which, after reason is removed from its proper position, first one element and then another take over control. The object here is to show in graphic fashion what would happen in limiting cases, when a single principle, say that of the maximization of profit, dominates society, or when a man indulges each of


his desires without making any effort to differentiate between them. Plato both describes limiting cases of this sort and gives an account of the typical circumstances in which each such case would come into existence or give way to its successor.

Adam in my view is thus quite correct in arguing that Plato's procedure in Books VIII and IX of the Republic is determined by his psychology or, as we may express it less misleadingly, by his account of the springs of human action. Where he falls down is, first, in not laying sufficient emphasis on the fact that the doctrines of these books are an essential pendant to views expressed earlier in the Republic and must be read along with these, and, secondly, in not stressing the schematic nature of Plato's account. The model of the soul which Plato constructs in Book IV is clearly a simplified model: Plato himself allows that there may be other 'kinds' or 'forms' besides the three he has selected for attention (443d). His excuse for concentrating on these three would doubtless be that they are the most important of human motives; he certainly has no need to say, nor in my opinion would he say, that they are the only possible ones. He could allow again that individual men are more complicated than his analysis suggests: they are not all simple mixtures of reason, spirit and appetite, nor is it the case that in every individual person one of these three must be permanently uppermost. Just as there may be said to be a dominant ethos - a spirit of license, for example - in a society without every individual member of that society being affected by it, so it may be with a man. But these concessions do nothing to diminish the utility of his analysis, provided that it is agreed that he has identified motives of central importance. The simplified account he gives may serve to illuminate more complex cases, and can do so just because it is simplified. And this is true not merely of the part of it which is concerned with normal and natural conditions in the soul and the state, but also of the part which treats of deviations from the norm. The fact that the conditions Plato describes in Books VIII and IX are, to put it crudely, somewhat exaggerated is not a proper objection to him. If he exaggerates at all, it is only in the sense in which the economist exaggerates when he talks about economic men or perfect competition, knowing very well that actual economic agents and systems are nothing like so simple.

If what I have been saying is broadly correct, Plato is certainly neither writing history nor advancing a philosophy of history in Books VIII and IX of the Republic; he is completing a theory of politics begun in the early part of his work. And the fact that he puts out his results in these later books in narrative form, is no more significant than is the corresponding fact that, in Books II to IV, Socrates and his interlocutors pretend to be founders of a particular city ("our" city) and imagine people coming together for mutual comfort and protection, dividing tasks, setting up a defense force, and so on.


No-one takes this part of the Republic as historically intended; we all know that here at least Plato is employing a device with which he could have dispensed. The reason why he employs this way of putting his point presumably lies in its dramatic force: by thinking of a state being constituted for the first time, we can bring ourselves to see clearly what is essential to the running of a state. But we could get the same general result by straight analysis, as other theorists of politics have (Hobbes, for instance). Similarly, in Books VIII and IX Plato chooses the narrative form for dramatic effect: by putting what he has to say in the shape of a Rake's Progress, he brings out with startling clarity the lessons he wants to teach. When we compare the vivid and indeed unforgettable pictures Plato paints in these books with the unappetizing generalities proffered by present-day social theorists, we may think him very wise to have adopted this procedure. But it was not necessary for him to use it, nor is it one which is peculiar to him; on the contrary, it is constantly employed by didactic writers of every sort. If there is no temptation to take, say, The Pilgrim's Progress as a work of history, there should be no temptation to take this part of the Republic as history either.

Professor Popper said, in a passage already quoted, that Plato intended in the books under discussion to describe the original course of development by which "the main forms of constitutional decay" first came about. I can see no justification for this statement. Quite apart from the fact that Plato did not live under a tyranny, which would presumably have to be the case if the narrative were to be taken as serious history, the thesis that the ideal State existed at the beginning of history finds no support in the Republic. Books VIII and IX, as I have just tried to show, can be interpreted without making any such assumption, and it is difficult to see how the rest of the work would make sense at all if it were accepted. But even if Plato had believed that the ideal State came at the beginning, it would not follow that he thought the actual course of history corresponded precisely to that set out in Books VIII and IX, or even that the latter gave what Popper elsewhere calls "a simplified historical sketch of the actual decline of the ideal city of the past" (I, 195). As Barker says correctly, though Plato's ideas in this part of his work have a bearing on history, he is not writing history in these books. If he is not writing history at all, he cannot be writing simplified history. Popper is nearer the mark when he says (continuing the first passage referred to) that Plato is occupied with "the typical course of social change". As I have argued above, he is concerned with what happens in typical or pure cases, as opposed to what happens in particular historical cases. But to grasp the full significance of this, it is necessary to see that his approach to the problem was in no sense that of an historian.

It is astonishing that Popper came so near to seeing the truth about this aspect of Plato's thought and nevertheless finished up so wide of the mark.



He was certainly percipient in saying that Plato made important contributions to sociology, and in particular in emphasizing that the construction of the ideal State is not just a piece of Utopian speculation. Again Popper saw that one object of the passage on the decline of the soul and the state was to formulate laws governing social change or, in more pretentious terms, to set out a social dynamics. But his concern with the historicist bogey, combined perhaps with over-insistence on his own sociological thesis about the origins and nature of Plato's ideas, served to obscure these valuable insights. He confused the thesis that there are general laws governing political change with the very different thesis that everything that happens in history has to happen as it does. Plato held the first view, but it is by no means clear that he was seriously attracted by the second.

I have put this last point cautiously, because I want to admit in conclusion that there are some grounds for ascribing to Plato a philosophy of history, if this term is taken to mean a general view about the direction which history is taking. I suspect that, in common with many Greeks, Plato was inclined to accept a pessimistic view of historical change. The Hesiodic account, according to which history begins with a Golden Age and then proceeds through stages of deeper and deeper degeneration, perhaps seemed to him to express the broad truth of the matter; he accepted it as many nineteenth-century writers accepted the converse doctrine of historical progress. Had he been invited to subscribe to the doctrine that things are getting worse and not better, he would probably have done so without many hesitations. The question is, however, whether this makes him a full-blown historicist.

There is a passage at the beginning of Book VIII of the Republic (545d) which is important in this connection. Socrates says:

How then, Glaucon, will our city be changed, and how will the auxiliaries and the rulers come to dissension with each other and among themselves?

And he answers that they must "like Homer, pray the Muses to tell us how dissension first began". The Muses are then imagined to be speaking hi "a lofty tragic style", their first words being as follows:

That a city so constituted should change is difficult; but since decay is the lot of everything that has come into being, even this constitution will not abide for ever, but will be dissolved.

This is the beginning of what Popper calls "Plato's Story of the Fall of Man" (I, 183), and it certainly seems from it that the Fall is inevitable. It further seems that once decline sets in nothing will stop it. But before placing too much weight on these conclusions certain caveats should be entered.

In the first place it most be noted that the crucial words "decay is the lot of everything that has come into being" are spoken by Socrates not in his own person but as the alleged mouthpiece of "the Muses". This means, I suggest, that they are no more to be taken as expressing literal truth than is


the rigmarole about the "Number" which follows. As Plato himself points out, the Muses put their sentiments in "lofty, tragic style", and poets, as we know, do not speak on oath. No doubt Plato was meaning here to express a commonplace with which he may well have sympathized, but it is one thing to say this and quite another to take the phrase as a serious declaration of his considered view. This gets confirmation from a further point, that the words in question refer not just to history or human affairs but to everything which 'comes into being'. Plato makes it quite clear that the Muses are referring to the fortunes of all living things: "plants that grow on the earth", "animals that live on its surface", and even "the divine creature itself", which apparently means the world as a whole viewed as a living organism. Decay is, it would seem, the inevitable lot of all of these. In putting out this highly general view, Plato would seem to be speaking not as a serious philosopher but in the sententious manner of the early cosmologists, men who, quite properly, wrote down their thoughts in verse. If decay is the lot of everything which comes to be, it certainly follows that all historical change must be for the worse; but until we know the status of the former proposition that of the latter must remain doubtful. The comparison of Plato with believers in progress breaks down at this point, for men like Condorcet thought they could deduce their thesis that things are getting steadily better from an inspection of the facts of history, whereas these are clearly irrelevant, except by way of confirmation, to the view with which we are now concerned. Finally, it must be emphasized that even if we take Plato's declaration about universal decay as meant with complete seriousness and insist that he was well aware of its implications for history, we can still not conclude that it covers everything he had to say about the course of historical events. There is evidence from several passages - if Adam is correct it is to be found in the speech of the Muses itself - that Plato was inclined to a view of history which made it in the final account neither regressive nor progressive but cyclical. In the myth of the Politicus the world-ship passes successively through phases where God's hand is on the tiller and phases where it runs by itself; in the latter it begins well and then gets increasingly out of control, only to come under divine influence again when things are really bad. On the assumption that Plato thought he was living in a phase of the second kind this suggests a philosophy of pessimism in the short run, combined with a long-run view which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Of course the difficulty about this is once more that we do not know how seriously to take it; the very fact that Plato puts his thought here in the form of a myth implies that he could not find a satisfactory literal expression for them. But if we are to speculate about his underlying attitude to historical change this evidence can be taken into account as properly as any, for the truth is that he makes no pronouncement on the subject which we can accept at its face value with full confidence.


Popper points out a number of circumstances which may have bred in Plato an attitude to change which was generally pessimistic: such facts as that he was himself a man of noble birth, living at a time and in a city where less and less attention was paid to aristocratic claims. It seems to me perfectly possible that such factors had an influence on him; we can well imagine him looking back over history as he knew it and reflecting that things were much better in the good old days. And he may have been, and perhaps was, deeply sceptical about the possibilities of finding any real improvement in the future. But it is one thing to take up such a standpoint and quite another to be an historicist in Popper's sense of the term. His-toricists believe that the course of history is fixed: there is nothing men can do to alter it. But there are many people who grumble about things getting steadily worse and who would none the less refuse to commit themselves to that sort of view. Whatever his private sentiments about historical change, it is in this class that I believe that Plato falls.

University of Edinburgh

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