Equal Opportunity in the Republic

Plato thinks that in the Republic Justice is to be found because all persons are treated equally in that each is given a social position and vocational place suited to his/her talents. Do you agree that Plato’s arrangement satisfies what may be called “equal opportunity?”In the Republic Plato outlines a society whose values are radically different from those we possess in western societies today. Plato believes that the “good” will be achieved through justice and that justice can be delivered by structuring a society in a hierarchical manner such that each person is assigned a job based on his/her greatest talent. Justice, while it may seem to be in the same spirit as many of our western democratic views ends up clashing with our most basic inalienable right, in a word freedom. It is for this reason that the values espoused in the Republic, namely justice, happiness, equality etc… Come into direct opposition with our own culturally esteemed values of freedom. One might say that the Republic is sympathetic to our views in that we both claim to value “equality”, “justice”, “goodness” but the fact is that the two social orders are similar only in the words through which they decide to define their cultural values. In essence, the words, justice, equality, freedom, happiness only have relevant meaning within the context of the societies which define them. Now, the question of whether “equal opportunity” exists within the Republic becomes fairly clear.Because Plato’s social order does not value equality as we define it the issue of “equal opportunity” can only be assessed in terms of Plato’s views and our own. From Plato’s point of view equal opportunity absolutely exists in the republic. Every citizen has exactly the same opportunity in the Republic that is of course that they have one opportunity; the opportunity to do whatever the state decides they are best at. Guardians have the right to be guardians, farmers to be farmers, cobblers to be cobblers etc… The same reality exits in terms of character, those who are of gold character have the right to be gold, silver’s the right to be silvers, and bronze the right to be bronze. In other words all people are equally denied rights of social and political mobility.This is where the split between societies becomes apparent, while we can use the term “equality of opportunity” in both cases the reality is quite different. We in the west hold the view as the American declaration of independence puts it ³we hold these truths to be self evident that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness² Because we in the west for the most part believe that all men are created equal, equal opportunity means that we all start out on the same grounds and its up to us where we end up. In our eyes Plato’s society makes no room for social mobility, equal opportunity cannot exist there.From equality, justice seems to be the logical next topic to assess. Justice is obviously an important part of the republic, indeed it was the reason the republic was created and a means to achieving the good. In the Republic this justice is achieved again by the social hierarchy, on the assumption that people doing what they are best at will act in a just fashion, rulers are trained for decades to become as just as possible. Justice flows from the citizens themselves and needs not come from an outside institution.In our society justice is approached through a court system which attempts to apply our laws in the fairest way possible, hopefully without bias. We view it as something dealt out by an authority not to be acted out by citizens, we seek it in a court of law rather than in our own lives. These examples are radically different portrayals of justice and once again both are correct within their own context but cannot reconcile because each bases its definition of justice on different things. For example, if a person who was classified as gold in Plato’s society were to have some kind of dispute with a person of bronze or silver character, when it came time for an authority to rule it would seem only natural that the person of gold character be given preferential treatment and in all likelihood the ruling would go in favor of the gold person. We from a modern western prospective would call this outrageous, we would say that justice must be blind and that it certainly cannot be achieved if the two parties are not considered equal from the outset.In the republic happiness flows from justice, justice created by social order which defines happiness as fulfilling one’s place in society. To be happy in the Republic is to have someone tell you that you are happy. We have a much different definition of happiness in the modern west, namely we call happiness any number of things. We feel that happiness is different for each individual, and provide for that in our definition, because we feel that it is different for each individual we say that the freedom to choose what makes us happy and the choice to peruse it. In our society even a person who occupies his/her role perfectly can still be perfectly miserable and likewise a person who fills no useful role in society can achieve great happiness. Again the two views on the same thing come into direct conflict. Plato’s happiness, like his justice and his “equality of opportunity” are simply different from ours.The examples of equality, justice and happiness all point to one conclusion; that while Plato attempts to form absolute definitions of intangibles he becomes ensared in the trap of relativity. He cannot escape the fact that these values can only be defined within a context. In attempting to escape this fact he only creates a fictional context in which to present them, thus negating much of their useful application as absolutes. The Republic, while being different from a polis such as Athens, still carries its own values which define the intangibles in its own context.

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