To ensure that there is never controversy over who should rule, Socrates suggests telling all citizens a useful fiction, usually termed “the myth of the metals.” The myth contends that all citizens of the city were born out of the earth. This fiction persuades people to be patriotic. They have reason to swear loyalty to their particular plot of ground and their fellow citizens. That plot of ground is their mother, and their fellow citizens are their brothers and sisters. The myth holds that each citizen has a certain sort of metal mixed in with his soul. In the souls of those most fit to rule there is gold, in those suited to be auxiliaries there is silver, and in those suited to be producers there is either bronze or iron. The city must never be ruled by someone whose soul is mixed with the wrong metal; according to an oracle, the city will be ruined if that ever happens.
The people must be told that though for the most part iron and bronze people will produce iron and bronze children, silver people silver children, and gold people gold children, that is not always the case. It is critical to observe the next generation to discover their class of soul. Those who are born to producers but seem to have the nature of a guardian or an auxiliary will be whisked away and raised with other such children. Similarly, those born to guardians or auxiliaries who seem more fit as producers will be removed to that class of society. Although the just society is rigid in terms of adult mobility between classes, it is not as rigid in terms of heredity.
Plato ends the chapter with a brief discussion about housing provided for the guardians. The guardians, we are told, all live together in housing provided for them by the city. Guardians receive no wages and can hold no private wealth or property. They are supported entirely by the city through the taxation of the producing class. One last useful fiction that will be told to the guardians is that it is unlawful for them to even handle gold or silver—that it is impious for them to mix earthly gold and silver with the divine silver and gold in their souls. Socrates’s reasoning is clear: if the rulers are permitted to acquire private property, they will inevitably abuse their power and begin to rule for their own gain, rather than the good of the entire city.
Analysis: Book III, 412c-end
Most first-time readers of The Republic are shocked by how authori-tarian Plato’s ideal city is. In this section, many of the authoritarian aspects come to the fore. Personal freedom is not valued. The good of the state overrides all other considerations. Social classes are rigid, and people are sorted into these classes with no thought to their preferences. Of course, Plato would object to this latter claim by saying that each person will find their class most pleasing to them since it is best suited to their nature. Nonetheless, they are given no input when the state determines what life they will lead. A citizen’s fate—producer, warrior, or ruler—is decided at an early age, and no provisions are made for individuals to shift classes as they mature.
Those labelling the ideal city authoritan can also point to state-controlled propaganda in the form of the myth of the metals. The irony is that for someone who claimed to value truth so highly, Plato has little trouble justifying wide-scale deception. The good of the state overrides all else, including the importance of truth.
But rather than draw back from this authoritarian utopia in horror, we might do well to suspend judgement for the time being. As we read through The Republic, we should ask ourselves why we value personal freedom so highly and what we might be sacrificing by placing such a high priority on freedom.
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