Today, Western liberals are ambivalent about Plato. On the one hand, liberals claim they are the heirs of Greco-Roman civilization and philosophy, and as Alfred North Whitehead famously said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” On the other hand, Plato is denounced by some – notably the Jewish thinker Karl Popper – as the ancient originator of “totalitarianism” and the archetypal enemy of the “open society.”
Fascists in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany eagerly claimed the pedigree of Plato. The philosopher, like the fascists, was obviously a communitarian elitist and not an individualist democrat. The French historian Johann Chapoutot goes so far as to write, “The official philosopher of the Third Reich, the man who could simultaneously offer substance and political prophecy was not Nietzsche, but Plato.” Indeed, National Socialist intellectuals such as Hans Günther, Werner Jaeger, Fritz Lenz, Adolf Rusch, and Richard Darré cited Plato. Some wrote entire books on the subject, such as Joachim Banns’ Hitlers Kampf und Platons Staat and Kurt Hildebrand’s Platon, Der Kampf des Geistes um die Macht. Hitler’s press officer, Otto Dietrich, would plead in his repentant post-war memoirs that he had seen in National Socialism “the mirage of a classless Leader State such as Plato had celebrated in his Laws.”
The liberals often agreed that there was considerable overlap between Platonism and Nationalism Socialism, and so condemned Plato like Popper did. The liberals’ incomprehension of and hostility to Plato goes at least as far back as the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson was disgusted by Plato’s Republic, writing to John Adams, “While wading thro’ the whimsies, the puerilities, and unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this?” Jefferson blamed Plato’s prestige on his popularity among the obscurantist Christian priesthood. If one considers that Jefferson was one of the most influential liberal statesmen of all time, perhaps this is an appropriate response. (In contrast, Adams wrote that the American Revolution was based on “the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason.”)
A few liberal classicists tried to salvage Plato, however, such as Glenn R. Morrow, who emphasized the importance of the rule of law in Plato’s otherwise firmly authoritarian final work, the Laws. The Communists, in contrast with the liberals, competed with the fascists in claiming the Platonic heritage. I do not find this very defensible: Plato is an emphatic inegalitarian. The communism of property and wives described in The Republic is an aristocratic one, reserved for the ruling elite, a proposal he in any case does not repeat in his more practical work, the Laws.
There is no question that the regimes described in The Republic and even in the more moderate Laws have strictly nothing to do with what we mean today by “liberal democracy.” There is precious little in Plato’s thought that I can see which is compatible with such as ideas as “human rights,” “all men are created equal,” or “individual liberty.” Plato is clear: the better should lead the worse, individual interests must cede to those of the community, and the enlightened should establish laws aiming at systematic cultural improvement through education and training, and biological improvement through eugenic population policies. Scholars endlessly debate about the extent to which Plato’s Republic was meant as a practical proposal. What is less often pointed out is that Plato’s more practical Laws are almost as authoritarian and communitarian in approach, the regime being admittedly moderated into a “mixed constitution” with democratic and aristocratic elements, somewhat akin to Sparta. In the Laws, Plato explicitly praised Sparta as the happy medium between Athenian egalitarianism and Persian despotism.
So far, so “totalitarian.”
All this needs to be qualified, however, with a very important caveat. Plato did not come up with most of this stuff as part of some crazed, megalomaniacal dream of his. As is clear from Aristotle’s Politics, it is not merely Plato who is “totalitarian” in comparison with modern liberalism, but indeed all politics in the Greek city-state. The Greeks in general believed that there was no separation of private and public life, and just about everything about individuals’ lives could be regulated if it was deemed to be for the good of the community. In particular, ensuring the reproduction of the population in appropriate numbers (neither too high, nor too low) and in high quality (eugenics) was recognized as one of the most important duties of the state, which was notably responsible for the institution of marriage. In Sparta, this went so far as the lawgiver mandating rewards for citizens who had many sons and requiring the killing of all deformed newborns. In democratic Athens, the law could also be very intrusive, such as Solon’s banning women from weeping loudly at funerals. The philosophers considered the state’s highest role to be the education and training of the citizens in virtue. In general, “citizenship” for the Greeks did not mean a set of “rights” to do as one pleased or to be treated the same as everyone else, but rather it consisted of the elaboration and enforcement of the rules of the polis, to whose disciplines all were subject. Citizenship for the Greeks meant not individual liberty and equality, but in Aristotle’s worlds, “to rule and be ruled in turn” (Politics, 1317b). Arguably, Plato is often merely systematizing the practice of politics which the Greeks took for granted.
Needless to say, fascists could easily find rationales for many of their actions in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. The Hitler Youth, positive and negative eugenics, expulsion or enslavement of aliens, the Ministry of Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment: all this could be justified by referring to Greek philosophy, if they indeed improved the cultural and biological character of the people.
I am not saying that classical philosophy necessarily leads to fascism. What I am saying is that there is substantial overlap, and from a certain chauvinistic late-liberal point of view, just about everything but liberalism itself is “totalitarian.” The stringent disciplines of the Greek polis and even of Plato’s city-states are normal for traditional societies, in which individual behavior for most was constrained by family, religion, and rank. The authoritarianism of the Greek polis is merely the extension of familial discipline and solidarity to the entire city through the laws established by the family fathers in concert. The authoritarianism of Plato’s Republic, I believe, is similarly an extension of the pious self-discipline of the Socratic philosopher and the monastic order to the entire city. What, the extremely regulated and self-disciplined life of a monk is freedom, you say? I understand this will be incomprehensible to those who believe that “freedom” means, for instance, having the opportunity to get drunk on a whim.
We can also safely say that Hannah Arendt’s claim that “Nazism owes nothing to any part of the Western tradition, be it German or not, Catholic or Protestant, Christian, Greek, or Roman,” is patently false.
Classical political philosophy and modern fascism thus share an adherence to an authoritarian and hierarchical communitarianism. However, I would also emphasize the obvious differences between National Socialism and Platonism.
Firstly, the one-party state with a powerful, charismatic dictator as proposed by fascism is not really compatible with the ideal citizenship of the Greek polis or of Plato’s Laws. Under fascism, there is citizenship, but this is reduced to one’s role in the bureaucratic hierarchies in the Party and the State, ideally the best being systematically promoted to leadership. It has no equivalent to the Greek assembly, where all qualified citizens are present and vote in elections. Both Hitler and Aristotle, the latter no doubt speaking for many educated Greeks, believed that power and rights should be commensurate with one’s contribution to the community. But fascism and the Greek-state have very different ways of putting this citizenship into practice.
The fascist party-state is much closer to the ideal regime in The Republic, Callipolis. The regime of the Guardians can be considered analogous with the Party (the enlightened leadership) and the SS (the enforcers). However, I would argue that Hitler’s regime significantly differs from Plato’s simply because it is not a philosophical one, but a passionate one. Hitler’s Party was a populist mass organization which achieved power and sustained itself through appeals to emotion, above all through the Führer’s own inspiring oratory. In contrast, Plato’s Callipolis is ruled by dispassionate and almost ethereal philosophers.
Plato’s notorious attacks on the poets and Homer in particular could also be justifiably aimed at Hitler: the poet’s masterful manipulation of the public’s emotions overpowers their reason and blinds them to reality. Hitler himself was well-read and something of an intellectual, but he was obviously not of a philosophical temperament, but rather of an artistic one. No one would deny that he had an incredible ability to intoxicate himself and his followers through the power of the spoken word, inspiring all who would listen to join together and sacrifice in an epic struggle for greatness.
Secondly and more briefly, Hitler’s highest end in politics was evidently the maximization of his racial state’s power, notably military power. Plato and Aristotle considered martial states to be superior to those dedicated to commerce or pleasure, but still second to the best state: that dedicated to philosophy.
A third difference: Plato and Aristotle put a high value on the rule of law. By this, they did not just mean the modern attachment to rules and procedure, but rather a basic law which stipulates and trains the citizens for a specific way of life. Hitler was quite contemptuous of law. (I would also note that Hitler did agree with the philosophers in believing that there was a law of nature, a law with which politics should be in harmony.)
All in all, I would not saddle Plato with Hitler. Though I do believe – in my mystical moments, listening to Dan Houser or watching Aguirre, the Wrath of God – that, through the dark mists that necessarily shroud human existence, Plato and Hitler saw the sublime rays of the same glorious Sun.
If one must look for ancient antecedent to Hitler, it was not Plato, but Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver. In both Sparta and the Third Reich, one has militarism, natalism, eugenics, and unabashed rule over racial inferiors. Hitler himself wrote in his unpublished Second Book, “Sparta must be regarded as the first ethnostate.” Observers such as Ezra Pound also noted the similarity between the two states.
Of course, in one sense, to compare philosophers and statesmen is inappropriate. Plato was drafting paper-polities, Hitler was building a great state and empire. Plato and Aristotle achieved almost nothing in the field of practical politics to actually realize their ideals, whereas Hitler knew astonishing, if brief, success, founding a worldview which continues to haunt the Western mind to this day. Hitler’s passion and poetry were necessary to this, the same passion and poetry which undid him, when he made enemies of too many great nations and treated the Slavs like Lycurgus’ helots rather than as cousins and allies against liberalism, Communism, and Semitism.
The philosophers were quite conscious that to actualize their theoretical ideals was no easy thing and was something beholden to the vagaries of fortune. Hitler was no scribbler but a spiritual lawgiver and political leader, on par with Muhammad or Lenin, doing in the sphere of policy and ideology what Lycurgus had done in that of basic law. Both Plato and Aristotle had written that the exceptional lawgiver will, in establishing or transforming a regime, be a temporary sovereign dictator. Both Plato and Aristotle argue that a supremely good man of almost impossible perfection but, if only by chance (he must occur eventually on a long enough time scale), should rule supremely as a lawgiver (see Laws 681d, 710a-712a). Aristotle writes of the supremely good man, “There can be no law governing people of this kind. They are a law in themselves” (Politics, 1284a3). And: “It is surely clear that [the one best man] must be a lawgiver” (Politics, 1286a21).
Hitler was obviously not such a man, however. Though he’d made an effort while Hindenburg was alive, in the depths of the war he even lacked the self-control to go to bed on time, reading books and watching films until four or five in the morning and getting up around noon. This was a nightmare for his aides.
However, Plato does say of Lycurgus that he “combined human nature with some of the powers of a god” (Laws, 691e). And while poetry is inferior to philosophy in the pursuit of truth, nonetheless, “poets as a class are divinely gifted and are inspired when they sing, so that with the help of Graces and Muses they frequently hit on how things really happen” (Laws, 682a).
In conclusion, perhaps it is also worth noting the disagreements between late-liberalism and classical philosophy. The Greeks were certainly tempted by egalitarianism, with recurring claims that all had an equal claim to rule. This view is explicitly rejected by their philosophers, however. Plato and Aristotle’s denunciations of egalitarianism and individualism are among their most damning and eloquent. The Greeks have much to say on the evils of belly-chasing, comfort-clinging, effeminacy, decadence, luxury, and those eternal crabs who are driven to drag down the best of humanity into a collective slop bucket out of spite and envy. I cannot read Plato and Aristotle’s warnings without thinking of the downward slide of Western culture since the 1960s, if not earlier. Much of the truth is necessarily unpopular, and what was unpopular then must necessarily become much more so today, given how childish the average Westerner’s character has become.
Personally, I think this whole affair is more embarrassing for modern liberals than it is for Plato.
Aristotle (trans. Ernest Barker & R. F. Stalley), Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
Plato (trans. Trevor Saunders), Laws, in John M. Cooper (ed.), Plato: Complete Works (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 1997).
1. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: Free Press, 198 ), Part II, Chapter 1, Section 1.
2. Johann Chapoutot, Greeks, Romans, Germans: How the Nazis Usurped Europe’s Classical Past (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016), p. 195.
3. Otto Dietrich, The Hitler I Knew: Memoirs of the Third Reich’s Press Chief (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2010), p. 91.
4. Glenn R. Morrow, “Plato and the Rule of Law,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 14 (1940), pp. 105-126. Morrow lists a few of the National Socialist books dedicated to Plato. Clyde Murley, another classicist of that era, in an article attacking the National Socialists and Communists, went so far as to argue that Plato was really a democratic individualist. I find this extremely forced and unconvincing. Murley overlooks Plato’s explicit negative eugenics and makes light of Plato’s muscular advocacy of censorship (notably against what we would today call pop culture):
There is some censorship and some propaganda in the Republic. We may not like that. But it is benevolent in intent, and people are to be told as close an approximation to truth as they can understand and will act on. If there are tactful subterfuges, they are merely a device, like the physician’s device in Lucretius – of coating the edge of the cup containing bitter medicine . . .
Clyde Murley, “Plato’s Republic, Totalitarian or Democratic?,” The Classical Journal, Vol. 36, No. 7 (April 1941), pp. 413-420.
5. Hannah Arendt, “Approaches to the ‘German Problem’,” in Essays in Understanding (New York: Schocken, 2005), p. 108.
6. I leave aside the speculative question of whether the Third Reich could have evolved in a less populist and more philosophical direction. We see a clear elitist tendency over time:
- Power is seized by inspiring a critical mass of the German people and a historic compromise with the traditional conservative/military elites.
- Power shifts to a new elite, selected for their patriotism, willingness to sacrifice, and ideological soundness.
This shift was embodied by the fall of the SA and the rise of the SS. The SS’s power and the constant wars in the East were meant to prevent the inevitable slouching into bourgeois materialism and individualism. SS-Reichsführer Himmler was a quite schoolmasterly type, very interested in history and spirituality, and he planned special meditative retreats for his men. There were also a good many genuine intellectuals among the SS, such as Werner Best.