Martin Luther vs. Plato

Imagine using a time machine to go back to the period of the classical thinkers like Plato and Martin Luther. When given the chance, what would you ask them? While the possibilities are practically endless, these two great philosophers revealed in their works, the circumstances and political and social atmosphere required to create and maintain a good society. It will be discovered how Plato’s ideas found in The Republic reveal what justice is in three realms, political, social and individual. The relationships between classes create a just society. It will be shown that while Martin Luther’s ideas on Christianity and the ideal society are vastly different than Plato’s, each great thinker contributes something to political thought that remains relevant today and elements of each author can contribute to a more ideal society, even in modern times.

History reveals that many systems of thought have existed and each following generation has viewed the world with a slightly different lens. While this is clear, many of the same social issues have been discussed since the beginning of recorded history. In order to get a clearer understanding and foundation for comparison, we must first focus our attention on the life and theories of Plato. It is said that political thought began to emerge around 400 B.C through the philosophical ideas created by Socrates. While he was very well known for his contributions to political thought, he never officially recorded his ideas for others to share. This is what makes Plato so important and a worthy subject of research, as he was the man to follow Socrates and was responsible for recording much of what is known about both Socrates and Plato’s ideas, as an offshoot of his teacher. Plato’s method of thinking was different than that of the thinkers who came before him. Authors note “Plato’s explorations of political questions in the form of written dialogues, or fictitious philosophic conversations, that are still admired for the beauty of their composition and studied for the depth of their wisdom” (Deutsch & Fornieri, 2009, p. 2). What is remarkable about this great thinker was his devotion to truth and justice, through continuous and deep reflection. Perhaps Plato’s most notorious political concepts are contained within his great work known as the Republic. In this work, he utilizes his creation of dialogues to evaluate many aspects of life, particularly of great relevance to our discussion, is the idea of a good society.

Throughout the Republic, Plato continues to utilize Socrates as a main character of his philosophical inquiry. Through the conversations with close friends and other well-known thinkers, he is able to bring up the ideas commonly held by others and follow up with reasons why these ideas are valid or not, and to what extent. During book one of the Republic, his conversation with others focuses on the meaning of justice, and commonly held notions of how to go about acting upon this idea. It is said “In response to Thrasymachus’contention that injustice is more profitable than justice, Socrates observes that in justice leads to faction or conflict among human beings, so that they cannot then cooperate with a view to a common enterprise” (Deutsch & Fornieri, 2009, p. 4). With this thought in mind, what can be said about the social and political climate that allows for the creation of order yet seeks to create harmony and find the good of the community? These ideas are discussed in further detail in book one and other sections of the Republic.

The nature of justice itself is only an intangible dream. What makes the ideal worthy of study is the practical application of the ideal settings in which justice can thrive and the common good can be met, thus creating the ideal society. One main concept discussed by Plato is the idea of social classes, giving way to a more productive society and one which allows specialized involvement of each member of society for a preconceived purpose. In this way, Plato also goes on to discuss the importance of the ideal society having appropriate rule. This can be established through a relatively unknown concept at the time. Plato believed that while each class had their purpose in this ideal society, the ruler should be a philosopher, capable of dialectic inquiry. Authors note;

He concludes by writing that those who become properly trained in argumentation must be tested in the city’s matters before being allowed to practice philosophy and rule the city…Plato argues through the allegory of the Cave and the divided line that philosophers possess true knowledge, and thus are best suited to be guardians (Lublink, 2011, p.5)

The idea of an educated and justice seeking ruler is not the only forefront of the just society but also includes three other classes, with could be said to be just as important. Many have argued the direct reason for acting just during very trying times as experienced by Plato and his fellow thinkers. Due to an imbalance of power and strength, injustice, as manifested through acting out on what one wants despite the chances of others getting hurt as a result, is not the ideal state of being for the common good. We should understand that “Rather than suffer this, the many agree to treat each other justly—not because they believe justice is good in itself, but rather because they fear being treated unjustly by others” (Deutsch & Fornieri, 2009, p. 5) This inherent need throughout society would benefit from a system intended on creating harmony. Perhaps one of the most interesting and important additions to the ideal city is out of the need to find a balance. By following this line of thinking it can be said,

Thus Socrates (as purposed by Plato) contends that the human community requires a division of labor according to which people work only at the jobs for which they are best suited by nature, or for which they have the greatest aptitude. ‘‘One man, one art’’ and ‘‘minding one’s own business’’ become fundamental principles of the Republic’s city in speech (Deutsch & Fornieri, 2009).

Three classes each have their own role in the ideal society. The Artisans purpose is to create goods that can be used by the rest of society. Next, there must be citizens willing to lay their life on the line and protect the public as well as carry out orders of the ruler. Finally, the ruler is meant to be full of wisdom and seek justice. This is why the ruler should ideally be a philosopher. In some ways, the ruler would be known as the true guardians of the city. Authors state “The city’s guardians must be ‘naturally dialectical’, which means that they must be capable of achieving the kind of unified vision described in the allegory of the Cave” (Lublink, 2011, p. 5).

Not only is the class system an important part of the ideal society, other subjects work to form elements that either add or take away from achieving this end. Other virtues are important for the individual as well as the whole society and can be particularly important for the ruler.

These ideas are the emphasis on self-discipline to control physical desires, the value of dialogue, and the requirement that leaders of the ideal state must have acquired adequate knowledge, sufficient experience and wisdom that comes from reaching a mature age before they can start their work as rulers (Lotter, 2003, p.190)

The notion of the importance of wealth in the idea society is also discussed by Plato, and is imperative in understanding his political thought. Not only does this notion allow for the betterment of the citizens but also perpetuates Plato’s notion of seeking and being just. Plato uses dialect found in the Republic to speak on important issues concerning individual morality and thus, also introduces us to circumstances which would either create the ideal society or prevent it. In speaking with an old man in the beginning of the Republic, Plato (technically his characters) question the value of old age and in doing so, gets the response that some money is necessary to help aid morality and good behavior. Authors note “By implication Plato is saying that a lack of money-poverty-makes it very difficult to live a moral life. Adequate resources to escape poverty thus seem a prerequisite for living Plato’s moral life” (Lotter, 2003, p. 192). Other important subjects relevant to fostering the ideal city according to Plato include education and the development of the youth. Perhaps he believed that raising the youth required careful planning and deliberate introduction to certain ideas. Deutsch and Fornieri note;

Both the formation of character in the young and the preservation of character in the mature, it seems, require that some things not be heard. Thus the city in speech, the just city, requires a regime of censorship or public control of speech and artistic expression (Deutsch & Fornieri, 2009, p.13).

The ideas developed by Plato are ones which may seem foreign to the modern society but used and adapted accordingly could serve to bolster a stronger economy and create a just community of loving and caring citizens. The practical application of such ideas will be discussed later in terms of how our modern society may benefit from reverting to classical modes of thought.

Many philosophers have learned and adapted theories of previous great thinkers while some have looked at an issue or concept in a completely different way. Given the time gap between Plato and Martin Luther, it would be easy to assume that the theories held by each would be drastically different even when attempting to find solutions to similar problems. The theories held by Martin Luther will be the next topic of discussion. A central focus of Luther’s is the idea of giving an order to the balance between politics and Christian thinking. It is through his ideas on Christianity and just actions that we may understand what he may have believed to be the ideal society. He is well known for his actions in resisting the Catholic Church and many of their political expressions of authority over the common people. Authors note the extremist views of the church during the time of Martin Luther in stating “By the end of the Middle Ages such religious claims over the political realm had been formalized in the clearest and most extreme fashion in the idea of absolute papal supremacy” (Deutsch & Fornieri, 2009, p. 145) It was Luther who played a significant role in changing the tide of roman catholic rule and thus helped changed the political culture of the era.

An important concept to understand is the basis of Christian belief and distinction between Roman Catholicism and Lutherans ideas. Previous thinkers like Aristotle developed the notion of learning to cultivate virtuous and moral behavior through equally virtuous and moral deeds. Authors note;

Theologians from Aquinas down to Ockham and Gabriel Biel had adapted this teaching in various ways to limit the biblical teaching concerning the fallenness of human nature and thereby to define a role in the economy of salvation for the moral efforts of human beings” (Deutshce & Fornieri, 2009).

Luther believed that the Roman church used this thinking to control the citizens of the community in expecting them to do certain deeds, all of which did not necessarily help the individual gain religious salvation. According to his famous posting on the church door at Wittenberg;

For this reason most people are necessarily deceived by that indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of release from penalty… Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who says that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences (Fordham, 2013).

It is with this focus that we could take elements of Luther’s beliefs to create the ideal society, through the actions of the individual affecting the rest of society.  Luther does not use his ideas to deny the just and helpful actions of individuals in society yet he understood that these actions could not lead to salvation but nonetheless could lead to a better society. Authors state “ At the same time, the very meaning of good works shifts from an emphasis on sacramental performances, dependent upon the authority of ordained priests, to ordinary service addressing the mundane needs of one’s neighbor” (Deutshce & Fornieri, 2009). In a way, Luther believed that if society was made up of true Christians, who did good deeds and worked towards the betterment of all mankind, there would be no need for traditional leadership or kingship. Another concept covered by Luther was the idea of resistance to tainted authority. He allowed the community to resist the powers of the ruling class if they were to work against the things that were commanded as Christians. It is on this reformation of thought that Martin Luther’s political thoughts are based and despite the fact that they may not hold outwardly obvious relations to political application, the very society created by followers of Luther’s ideas would in fact result in a more ideal society, an important focus of political ideology.

After examining some key points of each philosopher, we can see how each topic discussed can stand alone and also be useful in understanding the larger picture. Each philosopher’s perspective establishing justice, the ideal citizen and the proper use of authority and morality, work to form the ideal society. While the topic is the same, the methods of getting there differ from thinker to thinker; therefore a comparison is needed for further reference. Luther’s ideas were not inherently political while Plato’s did appear to have a more obvious political tone. Both philosophers spoke adamantly about justice yet it was defined in different terms and was manifested in different ways. Luther’s ideas were based mostly off of the recognition of Christian based values and teachings while he spoke out about Roman Catholicism and their political use of papal authority. Plato focused more on establishing a class that helped the ideal society through the division of labor and ruler being distinctly capable of virtuous and moral dialectic thought. To this end, the ruler must be a philosopher to be an effective guardian (ruler). Plato spoke about the role of each person in society in the terms of this separation of jobs based on specific abilities yet Luther used the idea of Christian virtues and actions to establish that everyone should be ministers of Gods words despite the current separation of priests and laity. He believed in the concept of the priesthood of all believers. Plato also spoke about communism of property in regards to the way in which the guardians lived. Luther did bring up concepts regarding the order in which power was established for secular and religious authority and worked against the traditional established ideas of his time and spoke up about the authority of the individual citizen to resist tyrannical authority. This type of resistance did not appear to be a significant idea held by Plato.

While these two philosophers had different ideas on what could lead to the ideal city or society, each author was a product of their era. Luther’s reform and ideas of the importance of Christian beliefs has been an element that has stood the test of time. To some extent, Christian virtues are still seen as an important commodity among political actors. Plato’s idea of the just city is one which may be more practical in theory than in reality when it comes to modern day society, yet many elements of his works hold important relevance to today. Earlier accounts of an attempt to utilize elements that mirrored Plato’s republic were only somewhat successful to say the least. It had been termed the perfectionist movement in the 19th century and was a cult type setting established by John Humphrey Noyes. One element that was derived from Plato’s republic was the sharing of property and wealth. Authors state “From the mid-1840s on, therefore, they agreed to share all their belongings, giving their goods and money over to the community and in turn being supported by it” (Foss,2010, p.4). This was similar to the concept of community forced upon the guardian class of Plato’s republic. Other elements from family relations to sexual partners were dictated by rules which could be seen in both Plato’s Republic and Noyes’s society. Regardless of this early attempt to follow Christian teachings and elements of Plato’s political ideas, the Republic has implications for the 21’st century.

The idea that mature age brings knowledge and helps calm the desires, choosing moral obligation and conversation over desires, is one which we currently hold, to a small degree, in America. Presidents are meant to be over a certain age, most likely to have experience enough to have gained wisdom and understanding. President Clinton made it painfully clear how important control over physical desires can be when it comes to an ideal society and acting as rulers. His inability to remain faithful to his wife had gotten in the way of his moral and political obligations. The role of money and wealth is in fact an important discussion to be made in regards to the ideal society both back then (Plato’s era) and in modern times. In many ways, money is necessary to live a life where other ideas and actions can be perused. If someone is in constant need of money, they may be more willing to act immorally to get it and thus individual justice and society’s justice is lost. An important idea of wealth found in ideas by Plato also discusses the concept of having too much wealth. In America, there is a significant gap between the rich and the poor and this may be why there is a sense of jealousy, discontentment and immoral behavior. Statistical analysis shows that there is a disparity between crime committed by certain races, who tend to be minority and live in areas of high poverty and little distribution of wealth. Immoral acts are committed in an attempt to gain power and provide for oneself, a concept that was meant to be controlled in Plato’s republic.

In some ways, politicians seem to rely on the fact that the majority of society has no formal training and does not necessarily know what is being spoken. Society members are not well versed in the ability to follow Plato’s method to the truth and therefore, modern day politicians are capable of easily leading and misleading the average voter and citizen. Authors state “Plato’s warning in Republic VII is thus a warning about the practice of dialectic in general, and especially a warning about practicing dialectic with or in front of young people “ (Lublink, 2011 p. 9)..Plato seemed to believe that those who blindly seek the truth, (let us say from dialectic questioning politicians) will become more lost than they had been before and will most likely be at the mercy of those providing the information. This has become a major problem with the media and politics today, that the average person is bombarded by information, and will likely trudge through to find the truth only to get lost. Plato also believed in public control of speech and artistic expression. In a modern society this does not exist in most cases. While we do have the FCC who regulates certain mediums like the lyrics of music deemed inappropriate, our society’s freedom of speech allows the expression of the utmost ridiculous ideas and concepts. This can be seen by evaluating the purpose of music and certain television shows. The youth could become corrupt through daily exposure to these mediums and popular culture plays a large role in the socialization of society. This has seemed to create a less than ideal society. Perhaps we would benefit from the regimen of controlled public speech and artistic expression purposed by Plato yet the reality is that Americans are too set in their ways to relinquish this right they deem inalienable, as set forth by the constitution. Despite the goodness it may cause, we are blind and dumb to the far reaching consequences of our actions.

Luther’s contribution to modern thought is also important. America is purported to be founded on Christian beliefs. The constitution was written to be vague enough to allow for interpretation of specific laws according to the situation at hand. It is a living document that is the law of the land in modern times. As a whole, our society has become less and less religious and our political correctness has attempted to establish a clear cut line between church and state. It is based on Luther’s religious focus that I believe many of our society’s problems could be remedied. His ideas on the relevance of Christian virtues would allow us to treat others like we want to be treated; the golden rule. His ideas of resisting tyrannical rule also come into play in our modern society. At times, some rulers may come across as being manipulative and may lie to gain control. Luther’s ideas of resistance in accordance with morality and the harmony of the community would serve the best interest of our nation.

Upon understanding the main concepts of Plato and Martin Luther, we realize that certain blanket problems existed even during their days and will continue to exist well past ours. While the problem of the ideal society can be examined and reached by changing different elements of that society, the combinations and actors will determine which route is necessary in a dynamic society like the United States.  We may understand the importance and relevance of these two philosophers’ ideas yet their practicality may not be as tangible as we may wish. A stubborn society will be one who is not open to new ideas or even ones which were well established in different times throughout history.

 

References

Deutsch, K., Fornieri, J. (2009) An Invitation to Political Thought. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth

Fordham (2013). 95 Theses. Retrieved from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/luther95.txt

Foss, C. (2010). Plato’s American Republic. History Today, 60(12), 36-42

 

Lotter, H. P. (2003). The significance of poverty and wealth in Plato’s Republic. South African Journal of Philosophy, 22(3), 189-206

Lublink, S. (2011). Who May Live the Examined Life? Plato’s Rejection of Socratic Practices in Republic VII. British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 19(1), 3-18. doi:10.1080/09608788.2011.533009

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