Mill and Plato share a belief in something like “higher pleasures.” As a result, despite their great differences, both are really trying to do the same thing. Both advocate for a society that allows elites to pursue their own interests, at the expense of others. The result is that both are trying to create a society that is most beneficial to individual members of the elite.
It has been suggested that Plato and John Stuart Mill were partial to the “elite”: the most educated, wisest, and “truly” philosophizing members of society. This supposedly being at the expense of the “lower” members of society: the auxiliaries, warriors, and other military entities, and the uneducated, blue-collar workers. While both Plato and Mill prioritized intellectual and philosophical pleasures over those of more physical and temporary natures, neither prioritized the collective welfare of one social class over that of another. Rather, in writing about their ideas of what the ideal, perfect society would consist of; Plato and Mill explicitly focus on maximizing the welfare of society as a whole, not on specifically maximizing the welfare of any one of its particular components. In Kallipolis, the utopia dreamed up by Plato in The Republic, philosopher-kings make all the decisions in a society centered on justice and wisdom. The Kallipolisian auxiliaries are then solely responsible for enforcing these rulings onto the rest of the populace, which in turn, is solely responsible for producing goods and services for all of society. According to Plato (in the narration of Socrates):
Until philosophers rule as kings in their cities, or those who are nowadays called kings and leading men become genuine and adequate philosophers . . .
while the numerous natures that now pursue either one exclusively are compelled not to do so, cities will have no rest from evils . . . nor, I think, will the human race . . . I saw how very unbelievable [this] would sound, since it is difficult to accept that there can be no happiness, either public or private, in any other way. (Plato 166)
True philosophers, Plato argues, are best suited to rule out of everyone because they are lovers of wisdom. Very literally, the word “philosophy” derives from the Ancient Greek for “love of wisdom”. As there is possibly nothing that is “more intimately related to wisdom than truth” (Plato 178), true philosophers will always love and seek out truth while avoiding falsehood. “[R]ight from childhood, a genuine lover of learning must strive above all for truth of every kind” (Plato 178), says Plato. As they are not necessarily less virtuous than anyone else, while also being superior to all in the greatest virtue, truth, true philosophers are the best candidates to lead. Thus, only philosophers, Plato argues, are even capable of knowing what is truly “best” for all members of society.
The immediate objection to Plato’s crowning of philosophers, is that philosophers are not as useful and wise as Plato may think, and therefore, not the best candidates to rule. Plato responds to this by making an analogy to the true captain of a ship who may be called a “stargazer”, “babbler”, or a “good-for-nothing”, by those who simply do not understand the craft of navigation (Plato 181-182). Just as heads-of-state must take into account all factors – while tirelessly asserting the validity of each – in order to properly make decisions, a ship’s captain must also take into account all variables as well (the sky, stars, winds, etc.), in order to properly navigate a ship. True philosophers, true ship captains, true anything, for that matter, will often be doubted or even mocked by most of society, as most of society is ignorant of what it takes to truly master something. As true philosophers are better than anyone else at deliberately seeking and taking into account all variables of a certain problem, while always questioning any notion of certainty or dogma, they are the best candidates to make society’s most important and impactful decisions. Thus, it has been shown that Plato’s belief in philosophers is reasonable, as it is based on
strong argument, and not on any sort of inherent bias.
Even if true philosophers would be the best rulers, one still may argue that giving them this luxury life and power would lead to gluttony, abuse, and the pursuit of vested interests, at the expense of others and their interests (as often happens when humans are given great power). Plato counters this by stating that as true philosophers know what is truly best and are the most virtuous, then it follows that they are also the most just (as justice is a virtue) and will be better than all at avoiding vices. It is even possible to argue that if any one in Kallipolis is receiving the short end of the stick, it is the philosopher-king, as he/she is forced to takeover the extremely demanding job of solely ruling a state and is not allowed to own property (although the lowest class is responsible for sustaining the lives of the upper classes, they are only class that is allowed to own property and produce goods for themselves). Philosopher-kings and the “middle-class” auxiliaries would likely be able to live a much more luxurious life if they were not forced into these roles – which is significantly harder to assert for the lowest class. Therefore, by the modern definition of a “luxurious lifestyle” (i.e., much ownership of property), it seems that the lowest class prevails. Of course, with the lack of luxury comes the most power in Kallipolis, thus, the benefits of being in a certain class, seem to balance out evenly for all classes. As Plato reminds Glaucon: “the law is not concerned with making any one class in the city do outstandingly well, but is contriving to produce this condition in the city as a whole . . . making them share with each other the benefit they can confer on the community” (Plato 213). John Stuart Mill, a strong proponent of utilitarianism (some argue he brought the term into use) and democracy, is naturally even easier to defend. Although he was fond of representative and not direct democracy, Mill’s dislike of direct democracy was based largely on the practicality of it in countries with large populations during the time period (mid-1800’s) in which he wrote. On utilitarianism, Mill explains: “Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain.” (Mill 137). To
Mill, the correct action is always the one that maximizes the aggregate happiness of all beings, not just some beings, or one or two beings, etc. In the beginning of Considerations on Representative Government, Mill seems to advocate giving voting power in proportion to education level and perceived competence. This seems to unfairly benefit certain members of society while harming, and deafening, others. However, in the third chapter, Mill renounces his initial view in favor of a society in which voting power is perfectly shared and equal, and where participation is maximized at every possible opportunity. “It is a great discouragement to an individual, and a still greater one to a class, to be left out of the constitution,” he writes, “ . . . Giving [the individual or class] something to do for the public, supplies, in a measure, all these deficiencies [of uneducated, incompetent people]. If circumstances allow the amount of public duty assigned him to be considerable, it makes him an educated man . . . He is made to feel himself one of the public, and whatever is for their benefit to be for his benefit.” (Mill 254-255). In retracting his original view, Mill makes an impassioned case for complete voting equality. Mill’s strong faith in checked, true democracy, coupled with his great fear of tyranny, showed his determination to create a society in which no one was simply someone else’s expense. He was in favor of constitutional checks and worried deeply about “tyranny of the majority” which “leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul” (Mill 9). To keep this potential tyranny in check, Mill advocates free speech, thought, and discussion, intensely. He institutes the “harm principle”, in which citizens have absolute freedom until “[their] conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others,” (Mill 83) in which then, “society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion” (Mill 83-84). Furthermore, he thinks no opinions should ever be fully silenced under any circumstances, as silencing any opinion means silencing potential truth. Mill, maybe more so than any other political theorist in recent memory, consistently advocated for minority opinions, no matter how extreme. Although Plato and John Stuart Mill highly valued education and intellectualism, it would be irrational to suggest that they “played favorites”. In Plato’s utopia, there are balanced pros and cons for
being in each class. Philosophers rule because Plato successfully argued they would be best suited to optimize all of society’s well-being. Everyone’s well-being is thus taken into account equally. John Stuart Mill strongly emphasized the danger of majorities and the importance of minorities. In Mill’s ideal society, everyone is allowed to pursue anything they please, provided they do no harm to others in doing so. Thus, in conclusion, Plato and Mill aimed to construct societies that were equally beneficial to all individuals and social classes, and not particularly beneficial to any one individual or class.
Mill, John Stuart, and John Gray. On Liberty and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Plato. Republic. Trans. C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2004. Print.