Translated by Greg Johnson
In 1938, Georges Dumézil discovered, the existence of a veritable Indo-European “ideology,” a specific mental structure manifesting a common conception of the world. He writes:
According to this conception, which can be reconstructed through the comparison of documents from the majority of ancient Indo-European societies, any organization, from the cosmos to any human group, requires for its existence three hierarchical types of action, that I propose to call the three fundamental functions: (1) mastery of the sacred and knowledge and the form of temporal power founded upon it, (2) physical force and warlike valor, and (3) fruitfulness and abundance with their conditions and consequences.
On the social plane, one finds this tripartition in the whole Indo-European realm, from India to Ireland, the three functions corresponding schematically to the priest-kings, the warriors, and finally to the producers, peasants, and craftsmen. In traditional India, the Brahmins correspond to the first function, the Kshatriyas to the second, and the Vaishyas to the third. According to Julius Caesar, in the extreme west of the Indo-European realm, Celtic society was composed of Druids, of Equites or Knights, and Plebs, the people.
In ancient Greece, however, there had been a tendency quite early on to eliminate any trace of the trifunctional ideology. According to Dumézil, “Greece is not helpful to our case. Mr. Bernard Sergent made a critical assessment of the expressions of the trifunctional structure, isolated most of the time in the process of fossilization, that one might recognize there: it is next to nothing compared with the wealth offered by India and Italy.” However, an attentive reader of the works of Plato can find proof there of the survival of functional tripartition in traditional Greece.
The Platonic Ideal City
In the Republic, Plato discusses the ideal city, affirming that “the classes that exist in the City are the very same ones that exist in the soul of each individual.” According to Plato’s analysis of human nature, the human soul has three parts: reason, located in the head, which enables us to think; feeling, located in the heart, that enables us to love; and desire, located in the belly, that drives us to sustain ourselves and reproduce. Each part of the soul has its own specific virtue or excellence: wisdom, courage, and temperance. Justice is the proper relationship of the three parts. According to Plato, the constitution of the city is merely the constitution of the soul writ large.
Concretely, the philosopher distinguishes three functions within the city. First, “those who watch over the City as a whole, enemies outside as well as friends within,” the guardians, who correspond to the head, seat of intelligence and reason, the Logos. Then, the “auxiliaries and assistants of the decisions of the rulers,” who correspond to the heart, seat of courage, Thymos. Finally the producers, craftsmen and peasants, who correspond to the belly, seat of the appetites. “You who belong to the City,” Plato explains, “are all brothers, but the god, in creating those among you able to govern, mixed gold in their material; this is why they are the most valuable. He mixed silver into those who are able to be auxiliaries, and as for the rest, the farmers and craftsmen, he mixed in iron and bronze.”
Plato emphasizes that, “A city seems to be just precisely when each of the three natural groups present in it performs its own task.” Indeed, just as an individual must subject his stomach to his heart, and his heart to his reason, the crafts must be subjected to the art of the warriors, who themselves must be subjected to the magistrates, i.e., to politics—this last being inseparable from philosophy, for the magistrates must become philosophers.
Plato also distinguishes three kinds of political regimes, each of which is related to the one of the functions of the city and by extension with one of the parts or faculties of the human soul. Regimes ruled by reason include monarchy, government by one man, and aristocracy, or government by the best. “Timocracy” is Plato’s term for government by warriors, which is ordered by the noble passions of the heart. Regimes ruled by the lowest passions of the human soul and material appetites include oligarchy, or rule by the rich; democracy, or rule by the majority; and tyranny, the rule of one man who follows appetite, not reason.
Without a doubt, this Platonic ideal city resting on three strictly hierarchical classes, reproduces the traditional Indo-European tri-functional organization of society. Indeed, in Greece which completely seems to have forgotten tripartition, Plato entrusts the political life of the city to philosopher-kings, the guardians, assisted by a military caste, the auxiliaries, who reign over the lower classes, the producers.
Plato is convinced that only the guardians, i.e., the sages, have the capacity to use reason equitably for the community good, whereas ordinary men cannot rise above their personal passions and interests. On the other hand, the members of the ruling caste must lead an entirely communal life, without private property or family, as well as many elements of egoistic temptation, division, and, ultimately, corruption. “Among them, no good will be private property, except the basic necessities,” decrees the philosopher, who recommends, moreover, “that they live communally, as on a military expedition,” and who among the inhabitants of the city “they are the only ones who have no right to have money or gold, or even to touch them; they are the only ones forbidden to enter private homes, wear ornaments, or drink from silver and gold containers.”
“Because,” he adds, “as soon as they privately own land, a dwelling, and money, they will become administrators of their goods, cultivators instead of being the guardians of the city, and instead of being the defenders of the other citizens, they will become their tyrants and enemies, hated and hating in turn, and they will pass their lives conspiring against the others and will become the objects of conspiracy, and they will often be more afraid of their interior enemies than those outside, bringing themselves and the whole city to ruin.” Moreover, their children will be removed at birth in order to receive a collective military education.
This “Platonic communism,” a virile and ascetic communism that has nothing to do with the Messianic nightmares of Marx and Trotsky, is not unrelated to the national communitarianism of Sparta. As Montesquieu put it with some justice, “Plato’s politics is nothing more than an idealized version of Sparta’s.”
1. G. Dumézil, L’oubli de l’homme et l’honneur des dieux et autres essais. Vingt-cinq esquisses de mythologies (Paris: Gallimard, 1985), p. 94.
2. Ibid, p.13.
3. Platon, La République (Paris: Flammarion, 2008), p. 262.
4. Ibid, p. 199.
5. Ibid, p. 200.
6. Ibid, p. 201.
7. Ibid, p. 245.
8. Ibid, p. 205.
9. Ibid, pp. 205–206.
Source: Réfléchir & Agir, Winter 2009, no. 31.