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Table of Contents
THE MYTH OF THE METALS (414c-417b)
Throughout The Republic one of Plato's primary goals is to unify social experience. He perceives a variety of conflicting elements in the constitutions of states and souls, elements that prevent harmonious functioning. Thus, he seeks to reorder experience in order to eliminate sources of conflict. A "class society" (which Plato's just state is) has an inherent source of discord: The largest class of the state-merchants, farmers, craftsmen, peasants, and others who form the state's economic foundation-may not accept rule by the elite order of the guardians. In turn, some of the guardians may resent the lack of personal freedom and lack of private wealth imposed by their position. The problem, then, is how to educate the members of each class to respect and to accept their stations in the life of the state.
To promote unity in the state Socrates proposes a myth, which he calls a "noble lie." This myth, the Myth of the Metals, will be propagated for two reasons: to illustrate that all people are brothers and sisters born of the same earth (autochthons), and to impart a sacred authority to the unequal status of the three classes.
The myth goes like this: In reality, during all of the years of their education and training, the young Athenians are within the earth being molded with proper equipment for doing their life's work. When their education is finished the earth, mother of all of the citizens, delivers them to the land so that they can protect her.
Even though all citizens are brothers and sisters, the supreme deity fashions the young Athenians with three different materials, some more precious than others. The rulers have gold in their veins; the warriors have silver; the producers have iron or brass. Once the people are fashioned, they cannot change their basic characteristics, nor can they ignore their responsibilities to mother earth. Yet there may be, on occasion, golden children born to silver parents and brass children to golden parents. When this happens the children will be quickly appointed to the class in which, by nature, they belong.
NOTE: One of the key issues of the Myth of the Metals is what is sometimes called the nature-nurture problem: Are people born with certain abilities and characteristics (nature/heredity), or do they acquire these through experience and training (nurture/environment)? In this myth Plato reveals that he believes men are by nature unequal. His educational plan (the nurturing process) functions to determine which children have the potential to guard and then to develop this existing potential. Plato believes that children of guardians will usually inherit the potentials of their parents. But he also knows that often the children of parents with good character and high intelligence lack their parents' qualities. On the other hand, children of ignoble parents sometimes exhibit superior abilities. Therefore, Plato makes provisions for social mobility based upon the demonstration of the children's inherent potential during their basic education, during the time when mother earth is nurturing each child in accordance with his nature.
What do you think about this myth? Has Socrates provided an acceptable rationale for having a "class society"? Will the people believe the myth? Glaucon thinks that the first generation of the just society will not accept it, but that their sons and grandsons will. Socrates remains skeptical on the myth's acceptance but hopes that it will help make the people "more inclined to care for the state and one another."
Socrates abruptly returns to the city's economic and educational composition. Besides having the proper education, he says that the guardians (both the auxiliaries and the rulers) must not possess any private property or personal wealth. Their food, clothing, and housing will be of the simplest kind- communal and provided by the state. Why? To prevent jealousy and corruption.
The guardians are public servants. In the private sector, however, the householders and other producers can own property and have money. The producers lack prestige; the guardians lack possessions. Thus, each class has its benefits and disadvantages.
In the next book, the discussion of the just city is continued.