Sunday Extra | Plato, God, women and politics

Sunday Extra | Plato, God, women and politics


Benjamin Franklin famously defined this country's new government as "A republic, if you can keep it."

Our nation's framers reinterpreted ancient Roman republics (509-27 BC), whose leaders were publicly chosen to govern "for the good of the people." Differing from the pure citizen democracy embraced by Athens during its Golden Age (460-320 BC), our constitutional republic is "kept" by the Electoral College.

Plato lived during that Golden Age and criticized both oligarchy and the Athenian democracy. The lowest depth to which governments can fall, he wrote, is tyranny. Ambition and greed — the driving motives of tyrants (Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin) — overpower reason and humanity. Athens' unwieldy democracy disappeared under the Alexandrian Empire. Meanwhile, along with mentor Socrates and disciple Aristotle, Plato laid the foundations for Western political philosophy.

His enduring work, "The Republic," examined the ideas of justice, wisdom and moderation. Socrates defined the pursuit of wisdom as virtue; Plato expanded that to the pursuit of good itself. Only the few who embrace this quest, he opined, were fit to govern. Similar to our three branches of government, the chief functions in Plato's ideal state — deliberative, executive and productive — would be separate and rightly performed. Until political power devolved to those wise enough to pursue justice and "the common good," Plato believed, humanity would struggle.

Plato and Aristotle considered all forms of art or skill to have purpose, whether poetry, medicine or war. Paramount was the royal art — the art of statesmanship: devotion to the common good. America's checkered diplomatic history honors George Marshall, Dean Acheson and David Bruce as statesmen, but precious few others.

As founder of the Academy, an early university model, Plato promoted equal education for women and men. Gender was not to bar women from the highest offices — a revolutionary proposition in a males-only democracy. Aristophanes' period comedy, "Women in Parliament," also demonstrates that gender equality is far from a recent movement.

Scholars also consider Plato a visionary of Western religion and spirituality. In an era of belief in anthropomorphic Olympian gods and an afterlife underworld, Plato endorsed the monotheistic theories of Xenophanes (570-495 BC) and Pythagoras (570-475), expanding their concept of a transcendent deity to belief in an immortal soul and even reincarnation.

Observing our republic today, Plato would be dismayed that big money influences the election and votes of many politicians who place party loyalty and re-election above judicious governing. The insatiable desire for money rather than commitment to the common good, Plato taught, brought down oligarchies. Will the cascade of millions to today's warring political parties destroy our republic?

Our ineffectual politicians must realize that true statesmanship elevates what is right over personal ambition, and that separation of church and state never precludes honoring the official motto appearing by law on our currency: In God We Trust. Otherwise, avarice — the worship of wealth and materialism — will inevitably push aside altruism and the Golden Rule. Whoever trusts in God recognizes that Ecclesiastes 1:9 is prophetic: "There is nothing new under the sun."

Peter T. Tomaras is a writer and hotel consultant. His email is