The Economics Analysis of Plato

Analysis

But analysis comes in after all. There is a relation between the painter’s Venus and the facts described by scientific anatomy. Just as Plato’s idea of ‘horseness’ obviously has something to do with the properties of observable horses, so his idea of the Perfect State is correlated with the material furnished by the observation of actual states. And there is no reason whatever to deny the analytic or scientific character—remember: we do not attach any complimentary meaning to either of these words—of such observations of facts or relations between facts as are enshrined, explicitly or by implication, in Plato’s construction. Reasoning of an analytic nature is still more prominent in a later work, the Nomoi (Laws). But nowhere is it pursued as an end in itself. Consequently it does not go very far.

Plato’s Perfect State was a City-State conceived for a small and, so far as possible, constant number of citizens. As stationary as its population was to be its wealth. All economic and non-economic activity was strictly regulated—warriors, farmers, artisans, and so on being organized in permanent castes, men and women being treated exactly alike. Government was entrusted to one of these castes, the caste of guardians or rulers who were to live together without individual property or family ties. The changes introduced in the Nomoi are considerable—chiefly they are compromises with reality— but they do not touch the fundamental principles involved. This is all we need for our purpose. Though Plato’s influence is obvious in many communist schemes of later ages, there is little point in labeling him a communist or socialist or a forerunner of later communists or socialists. Creations of such force and splendor defy classification and must be understood in their uniqueness, if at all. The same objection precludes attempts to claim him as a fascist. But if we do insist on forcing him into a strait jacket of our own making, the fascist strait jacket seems to fit somewhat better than the communist one: Plato’s ‘constitution’ does not exclude private property except on the highest level of the purest ideal; at the same time it enforces a strict regulation of individual life, including limitation of individual wealth and severe restrictions upon freedom of speech; it is essentially ‘corporative’; and it recognizes the necessity of a classe dirigente—features that go far toward defining fascism.

The analytic background, such as it is, comes into view as soon as we ask the question: why this rigid stationarity? It is difficult not to answer (however pedestrian such an answer may sound to the true Platonist) that Plato made his ideal stationary because he disliked the chaotic changes of his time. His attitude to contemporaneous events was certainly negative. He hated the Sicilian tyrannos (though we must not translate this word by tyrant). He almost certainly despised the Athenian democracy. Yet he realized that tyranny grew out of democracy and was, in any case, the practical alternative to it. Democracy, in turn, he interpreted as the inevitable reaction to oligarchy, and this again he traced to inequality of wealth, the consequence, as he thought, of commercial enterprise (Politeia VIII). Change, economic change, was at the bottom of the development from oligarchy to democracy, from democracy to tyranny (of a popular leader), that was so little to his taste. Whatever we may think of Platonic stationarity as the remedy, is there not a piece of—almost Marxian—economico-sociological analysis behind that diagnosis?

References:

1. Schumpeter, Joseph A. History of Economic Analysis. New York: Oxford UP, 1954. Print. 55 – 56.

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Filed under History of Economic Analysis

2 responses to “The Economics Analysis of Plato

  1. Pingback: History of Economics Analysis | Irrepressible Thought

  2. Pingback: History of Economics Analysis | Gedanken zur Geschichte

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