A little while ago I spent an evening with some friendly, intelligent fellows, most of whom I didn’t know well before I had a meal with them and an evening of boisterous disagreements over education, economics, religion, and politics. They all knew one another very well, and each knew his own views very well too.
I spend lots of time thinking about politics and economics and religion and education, as a glance through this blog will demonstrate. Still, trying to situate my convictions relative to those other perspectives at the table (which ranged from left through centre to right) was an unfamiliar experience.
If someone had asked me to define my political position, I would probably have said that I have a conservative heart, a libertarian head, and progressive goals, or something like that. I really am a mishmash of views that makes me partly sympathetic to each partisan corner, and makes me even more skeptical of each of them.
For some reason, that approach, which works perfectly well in the privacy of my own head, felt incredibly unwieldy during the conversation. I can’t say exactly why, but it was certainly true.
During the drive home afterward, I realized that my version of the ideal state would be something with some marked similarities to Plato’s famous “Republic” (or, better, “Callipolis”). There would certainly be some differences as well, but that’s to be expected, since I’m not trying to honour or adapt Plato so much as I am just trying to think through the ideal city as well as I can, using a brain that has been steeping in Platonic thought for several years.
If I were made the absolute legislator for some little state, and asked to come up with the best constitution I can, here’s the picture that first comes to mind for me. Every citizen would be simultaneously a farmer, a soldier, and a scholar, but each would also have to specialize in one of the three areas. The farmers would be mainly focused on producing food (mostly in organic ways that will build up the health of the soil), but would also receive periodic military training throughout their lives, and would periodically receive education in a course of studies over which they would have some control, again over the span of a life. The soldiers would mainly focus on military training and tasks, but would also be required to spend time working on farms occasionally and to understand how to produce food, and would also be enrolled in the same sort of lifelong educational programme as the farmers. And the scholars would research and write and experiment and debate, but would also be expected to receive periodic military training and to produce some amount of food.
Food and security would be plentiful, and the contemplative life would be made possible in a way that would benefit the intellectuals and the community. How would goods be produced? I think scholars would help with engineering and design, and the military would be in charge of producing the things that would be needed. Would there be money, elected offices? Yes to both, in systems carefully designed to incentivize people to strive for what is best for themselves and for the community.
I have not thought this through very carefully (and I’m sure I won’t do so anytime soon, since there’s no particular need), but something along these lines is really intellectually appealing to me. I’m not saying any existing country, Canada or the US or Russia or China or Iran etc, would benefit by adopting this model (not that there would be any chance of that happening!). But I find this imaginary state to provide a helpful frame of reference, at least at first blush.
One thing I love about this image is the way it is oriented, or at least could be oriented, to virtue. Many thinkers have spoken of farmers as a portion of a population that safeguards virtue. It is also common in the history of philosophy to connect virtue with martial training and military life, as is seen in some reflections on Sparta or Rome. And the highest sort of human virtue is the virtue of the contemplative life, the life of thought and reflection and knowing. A truly virtuous city can never be guaranteed, but it can certainly be encouraged.