Published Humanitas, Volume XX, Nos. 1 and 2, 2007

Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent. —George Orwell, “Reflections on Gandhi”

The argument of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is simple: man is a weak, pitiful creature unable to achieve peace or happiness unless he submits to the rule of the few superior beings capable of determining his social destiny for him. This argument has been seen—correctly, I think—as an adumbration of the totalitarian regimes that emerged in the twentieth century; but it also continues a tradition of utopian thinking that began with Plato.

The Republic is generally accepted as the first utopia—a depiction, that is, of the ideal state. But the exact nature of that state—the premises on which it rests and the contempt that it displays for the abilities of ordinary men—is, because of Plato’s great prestige, too seldom recognized. His utopia is predicated not on the great mass of mankind’s becoming wise or good, only obedient. In this regard, the Grand Inquisitor stands as Plato’s direct ideological heir. The Republic, we recall, begins as an investigation of justice in the individual, of the nature of the just man; only subsequently does it address the matter of the just state. Plato’s just state proves to be one in which the three strata of society—rulers, soldiers, and workers (banuistics)—each performs the specific social function that “nature” suited it for and only that function: rulers must rule, soldiers guard, workers work. The harmony that results from this natural division of social labor Plato calls justice. Analogously, the just individual is the one in whom the three faculties equivalent to the three social strata—reason, will, and appetite—are properly ordered. That person, the one ruled by his reason, nature meant to be a philosopher-king; those dominated by one of the other faculties belong in one of the other classes, which include, of course, the vast majority of the citizens of the Republic. Indeed, this distinction provides the rationale for the whole hierarchical arrangement of Plato’s utopia, and the implication is unmistakable: only the philosopher-kings are truly just men, everyone else falling short, in varying degrees, of the ideal psychic structure. Only these figures, their inner lives properly regulated, are meant by nature to rule the rest, just as the head rules the body. “A multitude,” Plato asserts, “cannot be philosophical,” a capacity reserved for a select few.

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