APU Everyday Scholar Podcast

The Legacy of Plato, “The Republic” and Fascism

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn MercerDMA, Department Chair, Communication and World Languages and 
Dr. Terrence ThreadwellFaculty Member, Religion and Philosophy

Fascism as a concept has existed since there have been humans. The word was applied more specifically with the advent of fascism in the 20th century, but the roots go back thousands of years. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU’s Dr. Terrence Threadwell about the legacy of Plato’s “The Republic” and fascism throughout history.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we’re talking to Dr. Terrence Threadwell, faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. Today, our conversation is about Plato, “The Republic,” and fascism. Welcome, Terrence.

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: Welcome. Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

[Podcast: Is “The Communist Manifesto” Still Relevant Today?]

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, of course. When you pitched this podcast, Plato, “The Republic,” and fascism, how could I say no? Sounds like an absolutely wonderful topic. Very fascinating. Let’s jump into the first question, which is what is fascism and how does it relate to Socrates’ theory of a justice and the just city?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: Well, fascism, in a broad sense, without getting involved in the Italian, my Italian is nill, but fascism basically means a bunch of rods tied together with an axe in the middle. I think the idea is that unity with control. When we think about fascism, most people think about Mussolini or they think about Hitler, but actually, there have been several fascist regimes throughout history.

Socrates put forward this concept of this “just city” and he’s asked, “What is justice?” He says, “Well, let me deal with it in terms of a just city.” I think we need to remember that in Socrates’ time, it wasn’t Greece as a nation. It was all these little city states. They had their own government, their own police, and they’re the ones that controlled.

So, he uses that concept. Well, his concepts are really harsh. I mean, I teach introduction to philosophy, in which case we have Socrates in there and we look at the trial and execution. Most of my students think, “Oh, poor Socrates. Why was he executed?” But if you read “The Republic,” you’ll go, “Wow.” I mean, he deserved it. He really puts forward some really harsh ideas that we would find intolerable. We would not stand for it.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, and I love that. When you look at ancient Greek culture and civilization back then, it was, for lack of a better description, wild, like you said. Each city was its own little entity. So you had Athens, you had Thebes, and you had Sparta, and you had the Macedonians up north who, I mean really during the Great Golden Age of Greece, Macedonians were like backwater hillbillies.

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: Yeah. Yeah. That’s true.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So can you go into a little more detail of why was Socrates so harsh?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: Well, it’s really hard to say. Socrates regarded justice. I think let’s bring another person into the conversation here. A guy called Glaucon. Of all the people that Socrates met in this conversation, Glaucon was the one that really held his feet to the fire, kept on saying, “Well, Socrates, what does this mean? Explain that.”

I think Socrates came to the conclusion that the only way you can have justice is by having control. You really need to control all the elements. So, for Socrates, it was censorship, it was education, it was the structure of society, how do you set up? I mean, it really was a class cast society for Socrates. It’s probably because I think Athens was really quite wild at the time, as you said, a lot of people from outside were coming into Athens and there wasn’t that control then. I think Socrates sought control. That’s the key to it.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Now, for those who are listening and aren’t as familiar with ancient Greek civilization and the birthplace of democracy, was everybody able to vote in Athens or was it only a select individual of citizens?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: It was very select. In Greek culture, it really was the aristocracy. I mean, that’s where the word comes from, the Aristos. They were the ones who had all the power, the very high level. There was a controlling body. Now, there was a body of people in the third rank at the bottom, but actually, they were never told anything and they were never asked anything. No one said to them, “What do you think? Do you want to vote on this?” There was no vote there. It really was just really an empty vessel. It really didn’t do anything.

Well, let me just go back a little bit. You couldn’t challenge the aristocracy. They were always there. So it’s a bit like the British system where you can vote in the House of Commons, but the House of Lords, they’re always there. They never change.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love it when we have conversations about ancient Greek democracy or the English Parliament, because we realize that the types of democratic governments we have today are actually a slow evolution throughout time. Where, when you look at the ancient Greeks, like you were saying, for the average person, it was not a good deal. If you’re the rich person, you were in charge, you had votes, you were invested into what was going on. But if you were one of the poor people or, heaven forbid, who lived outside of the city, then you just had to go along with it. The aristocracy, as you said, they called all the shots. Now, this leads us to the second question is what are some fascist traits in “The Republic?” Censorship education, racial purity, a strong guardian race, no public ownership.

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: His structure was the concept of the philosopher king. So the philosophers were at the top level. If you were a philosopher, you were at a top level. He believed that there was a midsection, what they called the Guardians. That’s a really interesting group. That was the military group, really strong, really powerful. Then you’ve got the working people at the bottom.

Socrates didn’t believe in private ownership. So there was no ownership. You didn’t own your home. You didn’t own anything. It was all provided for you by the state, even your children. If you gave birth to children, they were put into, I suppose, a children’s home, a state-run children’s home. They were trained up in the ways of Socrates.

But the interesting thing as well with Socrates is this concept of education. Education for Socrates wasn’t given to everybody. Education was for the elite Guardians, as they called them, this middle group that I think he really saw a bit much like Hitler’s race, really a pristine race of people who were perfect in every way, pretty strong, masculine, fighters. He saw them as being the key. Education was for them. Obviously, the philosophers already knew everything that there was to know.

So, he trained them in two things: gymnastics, was one thing, which was physical wellbeing. Then other subjects like music and philosophy. So they were well-versed in things. But he really kept it really to a fine point. He didn’t want them to know everything, which comes into that point of censorship where he really tries to cut out those things that might come in opposition to what he believes.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s fascinating because as you’re talking about this and so many people read “The Republic” and read Socrates and all the ancient Greek philosophers, but if you describe the governments that they lived in, most people would be abhorred. They would not want to live in a structure like that. Now, they had democracy, which is good. So there’s some power to some people versus say, just a tyrant. They’re usually uplifted because of like a national emergency, correct?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: Right. There were periods of time as well where there was a tyranny. It was complete oppression. They had those periods of time, like I suppose all countries do. Yes.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. It is interesting that today, I don’t know if it’s the translation, but they translate it as a tyrant, who is that person who’s supposed to help us get through a hard time. But even with that translation, I remember reading that years ago, you could see how, if you uplift one person to, “help a country get through something,” they could easily take that power and become tyrants.

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: That’s true. One of the things that Socrates promoted was this concept of no private ownership, because he thought to himself, “If there’s no private ownership, people will then look to the fatherland or the motherland and offer their life as a sacrifice.” So the guardians were expected to give everything for that city state, literally. They had nothing to lose, which is pretty some of the ancient Greek soldiers were in the military for years. They had no family.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: When we learn about ancient Greece, we usually think of the Spartans. It’s usually presented as a very totalitarian, maybe even fascist state, where the military elites are the best of the best. Then Athens is usually portrayed as the philosopher city. But, in everything you described, it sounds like Athens, I’m not going to say was much better because I don’t want to say one was better than the other, but it’s not like they gave, “civil liberties” to people.

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: No, and that’s true. I think really when you look at “The Republic,” you can see why they executed Socrates because he was stirring up, he was promoting ideas and they were alien to those in Athens and probably some of the younger people thought, “Hmm, that’s a good idea. We need to look into this deeper.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I was just going to ask you, why was he executed?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: Well, at the very end of “The Republic,” there’s a section in there where he talks about the systems, the oligarch, tyranny, democracy. He talks about the failures in that system. So, I’m sure that some of the elders in Athens, some of the structure leadership thought to themselves, “Hmm. He’s talking about us. He’s saying that our system is a failure.”

I think they saw him as a threat. He was a threat to the status quo that was in Athens at that time. They didn’t want change, they didn’t want anybody to come against them. They just wanted the things to work out as they had been for a long time.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That totally makes sense. That leads us to the third question, which we’re already in. How and why does the just city fail the role of democracy, the oligarchy, the democracy, and the tyranny? So you started talking about that, if you want to expand on that.

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: In “The Republic,” there are several things. There’s one interesting point, really, which is his medical ethic. If you get sick and you are not contributing to society, they can suggest you go off to the country somewhere, which is a colloquial term for euthanasia, they’re going to put you down.

But what Socrates thought was, “These guardians, these men and women that are strong and want to fight, we’ve got to find a way of controlling that desire, that power.” So, Socrates thought that mathematics was the key. He had this system and it really takes some getting your head around when you read it. But it was this mathematical system of really controlling the men and women completely. But he found out in the end, that sexual desire could not be controlled. Remember that sex was only allowed to the guardians, not to the working people and not philosophers, just the guardians, these perfect people.

He found out, “Well, that ain’t going to work. Sexual desire is powerful. Cannot control that. I know what we’ll do. We’ll send everybody out of the city above the ages of 10 to the country.” In other words, executed, euthanasia. We’ll start afresh with those 10 and below so that we can train them in the ways of “The Republic” and it really is a fascist system. Really, if anything, Greece as a nation, even to this day, tends to have fascist tendencies within its government. It’s really, really strange.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Fascism and the desire for control, it seems like it goes hand-in-hand with human nature. In the sense that when a government comes about that is fascist, I would say, it’s not that surprising, because there’s always going to be a certain segment of a population that will have fascist tendencies, if not just overt fascists. Again, we always talk about Mussolini. I always think of Franco, the “one successful fascist government” that was not destroyed by another government. Not that living under Franco was a good thing, but he did live a life.

Then countless, countless military dictators and fascists that have been around in the last several generations or throughout all of history. As we’re talking about Socrates, when we look back at what his thoughts, because he didn’t write anything down, correct?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: That’s correct. I mean, did he exist? It is strange that a person has that much intelligence didn’t write a single thing down.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. Which really, and I love how you said that, is like, did he exist? Because he would be the perfect foil to create these ideas, like the works of Plato and everybody else, where here is this person who had all these ideas that allows you to play with these ideas without, it’s not me. It’s Socrates. It’s actually a brilliant idea. So, I love this conversation about Socrates and ancient Greece. So how do we apply all these ideas to today?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: Well, I would suppose critical thinking is going to be a key to it. We’ve got to encourage people to think critically. And right in the middle of Plato’s “Republic” is this analogy of the cave, a very well-known analogy where the people are facing a war and behind them is people that are projecting images onto the wall. Then eventually, one person escapes, goes outside, and finds out, “Wow, I’ve been told a lie. It’s not the truth.” Then he has to go back in and tell the others. That was the hard part because they didn’t want to believe. They’d been so indoctrinated.

The thing is that most countries in the world have what I call a foundational story that people believe, they believe it wholeheartedly. Well, perhaps yeah, every now and again, we need to look at some of these nations around and say, “Well, what is that? What is the fact?”

I mean, we spoke last time about Marx and we think, “Okay, well, communism is over. The USSR is finished.” We still have Russia, but having been there and spoken to people, they haven’t changed. There is still really that communist mentality in their thinking. That’s the hard part, isn’t it really? You can change a regime, but can you change the thinking of people?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No. I completely agree. We see that with the challenges of not only today, but just throughout history, like you said, with this former Soviet Union when it fell and, of course, great debate of why it failed, et cetera, et cetera, why communist countries typically don’t succeed. But, really, and then what it teaches the people, like for the current Russians out there, are they living in a country that allows them to express themselves or have freedoms, or are they being controlled by an oligarchy, by a strong man? Then at the same time, are a lot of them just trying to live their life because they have no choice? So they just had to try to survive.

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: I think really people today, I always have a phrase, “Don’t know, don’t care, don’t tell me.” I don’t want to know. I don’t want to challenge the system because there’s a price to pay with any revolution. Marx didn’t pay the price, but others who followed him to bring about that revolution paid it with their lives. So, Socrates was one of those too. He promoted this concept and was executed. So, today, we want to stand up against any kind of tyranny, we’ve got to be prepared to actually give everything to it. Most folks won’t do that. They’ll say, “No, not for me.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So here’s a question is say, there was a tyranny in front of us and we fight hard and we overthrow the tyranny. Who’s to say, what we put in its place will be any better, or who’s to say the next leader, who was that person who got us through the great struggle, doesn’t turn into a tyrant?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: It’s true. Russia was a classic example of that, where you had the oligarchy of the Czars and the serfdom of the people that was replaced with communist regime that eventually became tyrannical with Stalin. Is that better than what was there? Well, in some ways they had food, I suppose, but that is a good question.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: One thing you said about the foundational stories of the U.S. are very interesting in which people believe in wholeheartedly, and for some people, they are living in the cave. Now, I oftentimes call history sometimes “mythology” because there’s a certain aspect of our history, which is a mythology. It’s actually not true, but we believe it with all of our hearts and to a point that’s okay, to a point.

With the USSR going from the Czars to communists, they helped educate the entire population, the country was industrials. So from 1911 until 1939, the country completely changed, the industrial output went up crazy. But how many millions and millions and millions of people paid the price for that? When you look at utilitarianism, if you wanted to throw that out there, it is not worth it. People’s lives are not worth more industrial output.

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: No. In the case of when he came in power, he put tremendous pressure on the people to meet requirements in terms of grain, wheat, and corn, and the farmers couldn’t do that. They couldn’t meet that goal. So, they put their own food in to meet that goal.

Then he said, “Well, we need to produce steel, iron.” So they put their machinery, melted it down so they could meet the criteria. So what happened? Millions of people died, starved to death. It’s a failed regime, isn’t it really? I think Plato deals with that because Plato says that the one who ends up being the captain of the ship is the one least qualified for the position. And the ones that can steer the ship, don’t want the job, that they don’t want to be the captain.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that because what I’ll often say is our political leaders are often not the best of us. I think that parallels perfectly because oftentimes, when you have someone who is very reflective and thinks about others and thinks about history, they usually don’t have political ambition because they don’t want to put themselves through that. They don’t care to make millions of dollars. They don’t care to be a narcissist, be on a stage and giving these two-hour long speeches, because they just want things to work.

But the ones who then go on and do get the power, are usually the ones that they desire it so much that they continue to get more and more power. So many conflicts, it seems like throughout history, are just stemming from the conflicts of “great people.” I’ll use that horrible term from the late 19th century that guided so many people, “the great man theory” that history is guided by the great achievements of certain men, at the time it was men. But then those people just helped butcher millions because of ambition, because I want this little piece of land and then you have it, but I want it.

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: Yeah, that’s true. The whole concept of colonialism, imperialism, Great Britain, we call it Great Britain, the British Empire, but it did some horrific things. It didn’t value people. It had a strong class culture. In fact, really in some ways, that would almost fit in quite nicely with Socrates, this idea of the army being the ones that rule and if people rebel, well, you just massacre them, you just kill them. Just terrible.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Our ancestors were not nice people, for lack of a better description. Survival of the fittest means that typically those people were extraordinarily brutal. I oftentimes wish that we would learn more philosophy to learn from the past to have a shared culture. “Back in the day” a lot of Europeans had that because they all studied the same things. They studied Greek philosophy, Roman philosophy, and they studied the Bible. So a lot of people had that common knowledge, but it’s not really that anymore. I wish today here in America, we would study more World War I history. But World War I is such a good lesson to be learned because there’s a war that didn’t have to exist. From your perspective, being from England, how is World War I still in the English culture?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: It really is not. People don’t talk about it. They don’t think about it. Occasionally, it’ll come up, some battle that took place, but very few people, I would say, actually know the history behind the whole European culture at that time. It just isn’t discussed. It’s old history. People don’t want to get involved in that kind of thing, do they? They don’t want to know, but it’s fascinating. It really is.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It is fascinating. Again, even just thinking about today and these podcasts will live on forever per se, where there’s the conflict in the Ukraine, and you think, why are people fighting over this piece of land that Ukrainians and Russians have been fighting over for centuries? Yet, here we are, again. They’re fighting over it, again.

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: I think it’s because the Ukraine itself is almost the bread basket. It’s the fertile land. It has all the minerals and the oil, whereas parts of Russia are desolate and empty.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: If anybody wants to learn a truly horrible part of history is look up the Holodomor, the made up and I say, not made up, it was real, but then the Soviet authorities created this genocide essentially of Ukrainians by taking away their food and millions of people died. Going back to the communist and the Soviet Union is like, they bumped up productivity and industrialization, but at what cost? Millions of Ukrainians, millions of Kazakhstan, millions and millions of people, and not even talking about the Gulags and in the great purges of the thirties, it is sad, so sad that they took really interesting ideas of Marx and then just twist it into, well, just brutal, brutal regimes.

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: It is amazing. That whole area of history where Marx, you had Stuart Mills you had all those people that were around, all those great thinkers who were putting forward some great ideas, warning people of industrialization, making sure that was a benefit to the people and not oppressive. Well, if we had a tyrannical government, you and I wouldn’t be here right now. We’d be in the Gulag.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. That’s one of the things I always get very disappointed about the political dialogue. Everybody’s calling each other a fascist and I wish they would read the history of what a government that is a fascist actually is.

In a fascist state, you can’t disagree with the government. As you said, you’d be in a Gulag. Having that open dialogue and being able to criticize, no matter what, allows people to be free and, more than that, allows them to live.

Something you said earlier where the ancient Athenian government wanted to regulate sex. So often throughout history, everybody’s trying to regulate something like that, something like sex. Let people do what they do and you know what? People are going to be happy.

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: Well, I think it was Glaucon who spoke to Socrates and said, “Well, I disagree with you. If you allow people to do what they want to do,” and he uses the ring of Gyges as example, the guy who found the ring, that when he put the ring on, he became invisible and he did all these bad things. And Glaucon said to Socrates, “If you let people do what they want to do, they’re going to be bad, they’re going to be evil.” So you got the opposite name of Socrates who says, “Okay, we’ll have control. We’ll have this system.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Which is so perfect because it shows you the desire to control and then the inherent distrust, I guess, of human nature.

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: That’s true.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: In which existing and being human is a balance of assuming positive intent that the person across from you, your neighbor, are good people and that, by not controlling people, you’re actually able to get more productivity and they’ll be happier. You just don’t regulate their entire lives.

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: I think that’s what Marx looked at. Marx had the idea of encouraging people with a utopia kind of concept. You wouldn’t lose out. You’d actually get more free time, more recreational time, less hard work. It could be a great life. It’s never going to happen because in the background, there’s always the tyrannical, there’s always the oligarchy, there’s always somebody in the background. I think Stuart Mills said, “I don’t mind you having a bigger piece of the pie, just leave some there for other people.” Perhaps today, there are people who would say, “No, I want all the pie. I’m just going to leave you the crumbs.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s true. Some people veil that in capitalism is working because, “I can have all the pie.” But I think in a good quasi-capitalistic state, I’ll say quasi, people need to have their crumbs. It allows the people with a large share of the pie to make more money. They don’t make money without the average person. It’s an absolutely wonderful conversation, Terrence. Any final words?

Dr. Terrence Threadwell: No, I think we need to make sure that we don’t find a Socrates in today’s culture. If we do, we need to speak up against it because we don’t want that kind of tyrannical control. I think we find that at times. When something happens, like we get a major disaster or a terrorist incident, the government, not just in America, but probably around the world, their idea is to tighten down control and so we lose some of our rights, we lose some of our privileges. I think we need to hold onto those things as they’re something to be valued. So, the Constitution of America is something to be valued. It isn’t perfect and it could be worked on, but at least as a start, it’s a foundational document to work with.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I couldn’t have said anything better and absolutely wonderful conversations today, Terrence. Today, we’re speaking with Dr. Terrence Threadwell about Plato, “The Republic” and fascism. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. Thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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