Pet Peeves and Plato’s Politics

Earlier this year, I finally got around to finishing Plato’s philosophical treatise, The Republic. Though written almost 2500 years ago, in many ways it speaks into contemporary issues as if it were written yesterday.

Unfortunately, in the meme-driven world of social media, it has become commonplace to paraphrase and/or wrongly attribute quotations online. This is one of my biggest pet peeves! While I acknowledge that paraphrasing can be a useful way to introduce difficult concepts, I think it matters very much who said what, and in what manner and context it was said. One of the biggest recipients of what I call “the meme treatment” is Plato.

Yesterday, in trying to determine the genuineness of a quote that appeared in a meme on Facebook, I came across an article called “Five Surprisingly Hip Political Ideas from Plato”. It’s short if you want to read the whole thing, but I thought I’d re-post just the quotes in case you’re in a hurry:

  1. “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”
  2. “The curse of me and my nation is that we always think things can be bettered by immediate action of some sort, any sort rather than no sort.”
  3. “There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, until philosophers become kings in this world, or until those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.”
  4. “Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.”
  5. “When the tyrant has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing more to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other in order that the people may require a leader.”

Each of these quotes appears (and is attributed to Plato) on just about every “famous quotations” site on the Web. Unfortunately, only one of them is a genuine Plato quote. And as you’ll see, I’m not sure the author did her homework in rounding up these “ideas”, hip as they may be.

Here is what I have determined to be the “real” version of the above quotes, and I’ve added citations in case you’d like to look them up in context:

  1. “But the chief penalty [of good men who refuse to lead] is to be governed by someone worse if a man will not himself hold office and rule.” [Republic, Book I, line 347c]
  2. “The curse of me and my nation…” The quote is accurate; the source is not. [Though the Internet widely attributes this quote to Plato, I was skeptical. It took me a while to track it down, but thankfully, according to The Columbia Book of Quotations this phrase is rightly attributed to Ezra Pound, in a 1920 letter to James Joyce.]
  3. “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils — no, nor the human race, as I believe — and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.” [Republic, Book V, line 473c]
  4. “Laws are made to instruct the good, and in the hope that there may be no need of them; also to control the bad, whose hardness of heart will not be hindered from crime.” [Laws, Book IX]
  5. This is the one accurate quote from the above list. [Republic, Book VIII, line 566e]

In the final analysis, I think the paraphrases of the first and third quotes do justice to the original, though I’d still prefer to see some acknowledgement that they are paraphrases.

The second quote doesn’t even remotely resemble anything Plato ever wrote, as far as I can tell. Ironically, Ezra Pound was a poet (and thus would have been excluded from Plato’s ideal Republic) who, shortly after writing the letter the quote is from, became disillusioned with America and ultimately became a Fascist living in Mussolini’s Italy. Something tells me neither he nor Plato would approve of the attribution of his work to a philosopher that could hardly have a more different political ideology!

The fourth quote in the top list is the one I’ve seen most commonly as an Internet meme, and the one I was looking up yesterday. While it’s true that Plato did say something vaguely similar in Laws, I think the paraphrase misrepresents what Plato was really saying. The “good” do need the law, both for instruction in what is right, and for the restraining of the “bad” (this is actually quite similar to the first two of the three uses of the Law proposed by John Calvin and other Reformed scholars as a way to understand God’s moral law). As the quote normally appears, it more closely resembles something written by an Anarchist, Ammon Hennacy: “Oh, Judge, your damn laws! The good people don’t need them, and the bad people don’t obey them, so what good are they?” It may seem a subtle distinction, but Plato also believed there was but a subtle distinction between democracy and anarchy, which ultimately degenerate into tyranny… a far cry from the Republic he envisioned!

If you take nothing else away from this post (a distinct possibility!) I hope I’ve been able to impart to you some of my extreme skepticism toward quotes that appear on the Internet without citation. And be forewarned, Facebook friends… I’ve got a couple weeks off from both work and school, and plenty of time to indulge my meme-busting urge to research the authenticity of things that show up on my news feed!

Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.

6 comments on “Pet Peeves and Plato’s Politics

  1. Charlotte says:

    Had to look long and hard for a good translation to post with a clever meme today. I wish I could say I was surprised to discover your post. Very revealing!

    I homeschool my son and thought the memes would be an excellent visual aid for a 14 year old as we begin to explore Plato’s works. Thank you VERY much for posting these citations. Our lovely bound books are not easily searchable in this manner. Guess I’ll get the kindle version as well.

  2. John Gardner says:

    Reblogged this on John Gardner, Virtually Speaking and commented:
    Are these political statements from 2500 years ago still valid???? Good…..but sad.

  3. jude says:

    Thanks for spending the time you did in writing this. Because of the ease in the dissemination of information (and especially disinformation) on the Internet, the above unsourced quotes attributed to Plato will now live forever as de facto Platonic statements. Few will spend the time to actually research the sources as did you and as am I.
    I fear the day is not too distant when we won’t be able to trust what books tell us, either. Until then, we must carry on. Welcome to 1984.

  4. college_student says:

    Thanks, this got posted on my FACEBOOK today and I was skeptical so did a search and found this site. I, like you, am tired of replying to friends and others about the misinformation that is so easily spread over the net.

  5. NatalieYo says:

    I found your post while researching the origins of one of the quotes credited to Plato. It was for my Typography class.It seems he did not say it, and as for previous comments I can assure you that there are still those that will try to find the truth in the millions of generalizations and lies posted on the internet.

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