by the Editor, April, 2008
I was born in a tiny subsistence community in the Western Highlands of Scotland in which most people earned a precarious living from crofting and fishing. We had very little money; but we were not really poor because we could feed and clothe ourselves with minimal assistance from the great world beyond the steep narrow winding mountain road on one side and the sea on three others. So long as there were plenty of fish in the sea, if seedtime and harvest did not fail, and if we properly tended the birds and animals which provided eggs, meat, wool and leather, we could survive with a little help from our neighbours. The inter-personal co-operation essential for the preservation of life bred a deep sense of mutual trust and community loyalty. The only service provided by the County Council was a primary school with two excellent teachers. One doctor and two District Nurses provided an emergency service for the few hundred people in a score of hamlets scattered along about forty miles of rough coast road, most of which was little wider than a cycle lane. Nearly all heavy goods were transported by sea, with the result that every boy grew up well acquainted with the vagaries of the wind, the ebb and flow of the tide, and the phases of the Moon.
The only representative of governmental law and order was one elderly Police Constable who enjoyed what must have been close to the cushiest job in Scotland because every would-be miscreant knew that antisocial behaviour inevitably incurred a bad reputation with the neighbours who really mattered. You will understand why, for me, central government might not have existed until the war which broke out in Europe when I was six. I was, however, wide awake to the extent to which the preservation of life in all bodies was dependent on the benevolence of Mother Nature who supplied breathable air and potable water as well as the benefits already mentioned. I deeply regret that these fundamental facts would almost certainly be less obvious to me if I were starting my childhood in Applecross today.
The war entailed sacrifice of some of the best of our young men and imposed a hitherto unheard-of burden of taxation on the local fishermen who were paid previously unimaginable prices for their catches. The war and the wireless together promoted an extended sense of loyalty to the United Kingdom as personified by the King, Queen, and Winston Churchill. Wartime restrictions and post-war national poverty necessitated stringent economies and taught everybody but politicians the need for prudent selfless generosity stopping well short of reckless prodigality.
It has been well said that taxes raised to pay for a war are never lowered in the ensuing peace. The post-war socialist government took the opportunity of a swollen cash flow to bribe favoured sections of the citizenry with other people's money and simultaneously (perhaps unintentionally) to impose an artificial, doctrinaire, bureaucratically administered sentimentality on natural human life. No subsequent government except that of Lady Thatcher has had the courage to attempt to reverse this disastrous process which has on various occasions taken the state to the verge of bankruptcy and, as I write, has just about done so again.
As a result of post-war continuation of military conscription, I eventually found myself appointed a military "guardian" of the State as an officer in the Royal Navy, in which my loyalty was tested in various ways for over twenty-five years. I learned to respect and trust my "elders", i.e. my superior officers, and was seldom disappointed. I was privileged at one stage to be a close observer of the "toils and pains and conflicts" by which recruits to the Royal Marines were, and are still being, tested. I am left in no doubt that the British armed forces are collectively "gentle to their friends but dangerous to their enemies" and that the great majority of their individual members reap invaluable personal benefits from their training and varied experiences. What I cannot help but doubt is the wisdom of sending them to fight far from home where they can do nothing to guard their friends but are certain to make new enemies.
My experience of military service convinces me of the validity of the quotations from Chapter IV of the Republic at the head of this essay, and makes me quite certain that much of what Socrates taught therein can usefully be adapted and extended to meet the superficially different problems of rulership in the world of the third millennium CE.
For twenty-five years, the Royal Navy gave me a purpose in life. All other considerations, including marriage and family, were subordinate to the Navy's requirements. It may seem paradoxical, but looking back I appreciate that this was a liberating condition in that it enabled me to concentrate on doing my duty and saved me from being distracted by a multitude of decisions concerning my home and family which I had no option but to leave to my wife. The fact that she, my three children, and (currently) three grand-children are still in close and harmonious contact with one another and with me is ample evidence that people tend to thrive if they are not needlessly interfered with.
When I left the Navy in late middle age, I quickly realised that no civilian employer was going to give me a "job" carrying the level of trust and confidence that I had enjoyed during my service life. I suddenly had to accept total responsibility for myself and the welfare of my still dependent family. I had in Socrates' terms become an ordinary "householder". Having cast around and tried a few things without becoming very enthusiastic about any of them, I eventually realised that what I needed was to find a new purpose for my own life.
That is how I gravitated (i.e. was "drawn") to becoming a freelance practitioner specialising in the application of computers to administrative purposes. This in turn led me to try to express my love of my country and my loyalty to Natural Law and justice to the best of my ability in these Web pages, which I offered to the world as a contribution to holistic education. The continuing extension of this project now constitutes my supreme purpose during what remains of life in this body.
In Book IV of the Republic, Socrates and company discuss how to ensure as far as possible that the ruler or rulers of the State have the good of their country and its citizens as their supreme purpose in life. This problem still awaits solution. If our present-day rulers were subjected to suitable "toils, pains, and conflicts" before, rather than after, they acquired high office, I wonder how many of them would make the grade. [Please see A Democratic Recipe and Devolution in Britain Ed.].
Socrates here begins by posing the question of how rulers are to be selected, and immediately casts doubt on the validity of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity", the mantra of the pseudo-democrat ever since the French Revolution. Liberty and fraternity are OK, and I concede that all citizens should ideally be equal "before the Law". The snag is that people are in reality far from equal by nature, and that the most important inequalities are in their souls, not in their bodies.
It was concluded in the previous chapter that education is primarily for the soul. Hence tests of fitness to rule must include not only trials of so-called "physical" strength and courage but, even more importantly, exposure to various forms of temptation so that individuals whose moral strength proves inadequate to the supreme task of rulership may be weeded out before they can do too much harm.
Socrates and company recognised that such tests would further stratify those who had already been provisionally selected for guardianship, and proposed that the title of "guardian" should be reserved for the highest class which should constitute the armed services and the police. The remainder, designated "auxiliaries", we might suppose to constitute what we in the UK call the "Civil Service".
We must imagine that in Plato's Greece as in modern Britain, envy, covetousness, and corruption were probably rife. Also, just as in modern Britain, few among the population recognised that such vices could successfully be combated only by the opposition of virtuous spiritual properties in the soul. Socrates therefore feels obliged to emulate the alchemists and resort to a metallurgical analogy using gold, silver, bronze and iron to illustrate the salient spiritual facts of life. We all know that iron rusts all too readily. The other three metals are resistant to tarnish, i.e., "corruption"; but gold is in that respect superior to silver and silver superior to bronze which, being an alloy, is impure by its very nature. We may reasonably surmise that it was from this analogy that "The Golden Rule" Do not do unto others what you would not have them do to you got its name.
Socrates advises that, having been selected, guardians must be segregated from ordinary commercial life to minimise the risk of losing personal probity by contagion. When not at war, they should be fed and housed by the State and paid a fixed salary just sufficient to cover their bodily needs. They should have no personal possessions: any guardian acquiring private property should become a husbandman subject to the toils and tribulations of ordinary life. Thus guardians would be protected from alluring distractions and, satisfied with single-minded devotion to preserving the integrity of their country and maintaining good order within it, make the most significant and honourable contribution to the well-being of the State as a whole. Monastic austerity is therefore taken to be the best means of safeguarding the "golden" integrity of the guardians.
We must wait until the next chapter of the Republic to discover what Socrates might have to say about women being recruited as guardians and required to go to war in the same conditions as soldiers, sailors, and airmen; but I wonder in passing why no collective name has yet been coined to include the women who serve in the air force. Could it be because no-one can live in the air for very long? If so, why cannot our three armed services be reduced to two?
Whatever our personal opinions may be, Socrates' thoughts in this chapter regarding strategy in war, diplomacy in peace, and not biting off more than they could comfortably chew, deserve careful attention by present-day politicians.
It also occurs to me that a barracks in Westminster where Members of Parliament with constituencies outside London could live during the Parliamentary week would not only save the tax-payer a lot of money but would also protect MPs from the temptation to line their pockets out of over-generous and under-audited living allowances.
The question of "social mobility", so frequently discussed in British political circles at the time of writing, is dismissed lightly as a matter that can safely be left to education and nurture.
Something of a veil is drawn over the manner in which segregated guardians might generate identifiable offspring, but it is implied that "the possession of women and the procreation of children ... will follow the general principle that friends have all things in common". Personal prejudice born of experience makes me hesitate to agree with Socrates here. I can imagine no development more likely to undermine morale and the comradeship which is an absolute necessity in an efficient fighting force. I think of my wife as an equal partner, not as a mere "possession", and I remain quite convinced that the family is a more "natural" method of begetting and nurturing children than some sort of bastard-rearing co-operative could possibly be. However, I must try to keep an open mind as I continue to read this astonishing book.
I do, however, strongly agree with Socrates that sexual relations, like all personal interactions, should not be a matter for prescriptive legislation; neither should the state interfere with the organic family or seek to buffer the natural consequences of irresponsible promiscuity. All responsible citizens have an interest in keeping the peace and in safeguarding the welfare of their families, friends, and neighbours. I am confident that the "elders" among today's householders would contrive to do so with minimal help from the "guardians" if they did not feel themselves handicapped by foolish "welfare" and "human rights" legislation, the principal aim of which seems to be to protect individuals from suffering the painful natural consequences of their own misdeeds.
If the generality of citizens were sufficiently educated to follow the Golden Rule, the State would naturally tend to function as a self-repairing machine requiring little more than occasional oiling rather than the sort of continual legislative overhaul to which Britons have become accustomed since 1946. Each individual would naturally gravitate towards the "use for which nature intended him, ... do his own business, and be one and not many".
Justice could then more clearly be seen as a matter of "minding one's own business" but in such a way as to cause no injury to anyone who posed no threat to it. The combined spiritual virtues of wisdom, courage, and temperance would be recognised as constituting a sound foundation for justice in persons and in states, and should head the curriculum in all schools.
The trinity of virtues referred to in the previous paragraphs, as well as the many other trinities commonly encountered in life, point to what seems to be a Universal Law. The Triangle of Forces is the most important symbol in statics. It implies that three forces are required to produce and maintain a durable phenomenon.
The operation of the Rule of Three can be discerned most clearly in our personal lives. We find ourselves in particular circumstances. We think of ways in which these circumstances could be improved, and we desire changes to bring the new circumstances into being. We reason about possible practicable ways of effecting such changes. If we feel sufficiently passionately about our projection, we will ourselves to work to bring it about and make it a new fact of life. Then, of course, we desire further changes to make our cicumstances still more congenial; and so the process continues.... But the three forces of desire, thought, and will (or passion) are always discernible in human activity. Socrates and company discuss the need for the same three principles, or metaphysical forces, to balance one another in producing a stable soul.
Such metaphysical forces elude precise definition. Plato puts them in the order: passion, desire, and reason. As stated above, I myself prefer desire, reason, and will because will is what sustains the passion or emotion (energy in motion) needed to keep the work progressing until the desired objective is attained but, of course, reason is required again to determine when and where to stop.
The essential point is that two opposing forces can produce only to-and-fro motion as in a tug-of-war, the stronger blindly overcoming the weaker and, if over-enthusiastic, risking falling over a precipice because only the weaker opponents can see whither the stronger are moving. This is illustrated in the ups and downs of the Stock Market as the mood of its participants oscillates wildly between extremes of greed and fear. The presence of a third force introduces the possibility of much greater, but more orderly, variety in controlling a continuously variable dynamic equilibrium. A judicious combination of desire, reason, and will (or wisdom, courage, and temperance) enables the individual and the state to respond autonomically and appropriately to the ever-changing circumstances of Life.
The problem of so-called "representative" democracy, even with a multi-party system, is that there are only two forces in play. These forces are love and fear, and they cannot be adequately represented only by the presence of absence of a cross on a ballot paper. Whatever mixture of emotions influences the voter, there is no means of assessing the quality of the mental process, if any, that results in the cross being where it is. A ballot is, at best, merely a "snapshot" of "public opinion". As this important subject is discussed in Book V of the Republic, I shall defer further comment. However, I cannot but feel that abolition of the hereditary principle as a significant element in the constitution of the "Upper House" in the British Parliament will in time be seen to have been a grievous error, and that what currently passes for "democracy" in the UK requires fundamental reconstruction before it can constitute a sound foundation for good governance. [See also The Law of Three and Trinity in Masonic Lecture XXVI. Ed.]