Jefferson was never shy about his execration of Plato. He told John Adams (5 July 1814) that reading Plato’s Republic—fraught with whimsies, puerilities, and unintelligible jargon—was “the heaviest task-work I ever went through.”
It is not so astonishing that Jefferson would have had such an unsympathetic, even hostile, view of Plato and his Republic, as Jefferson was a practical man and, one could argue, Plato was quixotic—especially in Republic. Nonetheless, what is astonishing is that Jefferson could be so unsympathetic to a work that contains sentiments on morally sound government that are remarkably similar to his own both in substance and sentiment.
In at least four key respects, Jefferson’s republicanism seems very much to follow the schema of Plato in Republic. Overall, each has a moral vision for the state—for Plato, his republic, for Jefferson, his republicanism—and the possibility of each bringing into existence his ideal depends on four factors: full participation by all members of a state, a certain structure or scheme to be put into place that guarantees that each state is optimally virtuous, the governance of the most important affairs by the worthiest and best citizens, and an innovative and elaborate system of education to en-sure success.
The first commonality is full political participation on behalf of all members of a political community. When all citizens fulfill their duties to their fullest capacity, the state thrives. When the state thrives, each citizen will thrive, or nearly so.
For Plato, full participation requires that the polis itself has self-control (Gr., sōphrosynē), a certain sort of mastery over pleasures and desire, and self-control comes through the recognition that all persons—Plato’s laborers, guardians, and complete guardians or rulers—must subordinate their wants and do what they can for the good of the polis. Guardians must protect and rule; laborers must agree to be protected and ruled. In that sense, self-control, a property of both person and their polis, is a sort of harmony. “Is there any greater evil we can mention for a city,” Socrates says, “than that which tears it apart and makes it many instead of one? Or any greater good than that which binds it together and makes it one?”
For Jefferson, full participation requires that every citizen has some degree of participation in governmental affairs—the many, at the level of wards; the better, in the schools, in the higher levels of government, and in employment that lends itself readily toward human progress. “Every man,” says Jefferson, must be “a sharer in the direction of his ward republic, or of some of the higher ones.” Every man must be “a participator in the government of affairs not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.” Full participation requires that every male citizen be educated at some minimal level—the amount and degree of education being commensurate with the extent of each person’s political participation and each person’s needs.
The second commonality is that a well-running state must have a certain order or structure. Once constructed, it must be run in a manner that allows for integrity of its structure—i.e., it must con-tinue to function in a politically responsible and morally sensitive manner. That structure need not imply any particular sort of constitution.
For Plato, there are five sorts of personality types, which are divided neatly into laborers and guardians, and only the guardians’ class, from which the rulers or complete guardians emerge, are edu-cated. Though each group has its role and each of these roles is critical, the role of the highest class, the rulers, is most important in allowing for even the possibility of any degree of functional unity in a republic, once the republic is established. Thus, for Plato, justice is system-driven and all persons play an important role, but the system is secured from the top-down—i.e., because of the virtue of the rulers, guaranteed by their pedigree and education. The system guarantees that there will be virtuous persons and virtuous persons ensure the virtue of the polis.
For Jefferson, there are the “laboring” (husbandmen, merchants, etc.) and the “learned” (educators and politicians). The division is not decided by birth or wealth, but by the rise of character and talent through perseverance, labor, and opportunity. Like Plato’s republic, justice is system-driven in that Jefferson advises that there be four tiers of government and he proposes educational re-form to prompt political participation and to function as a check on political corruption. Thus, unlike Plato’s republic, the structure is secured principally from the bottom-up. It is the citizens’ education and participation at the level of ward governments that offers a stringent check on the ambitions and wants of those governing and excludes from offices greedy plutocrats and tyrants.
The third commonality is that a state runs best when the best persons govern.
For Plato, a healthy republic is possible only on condition that there be at least one fully virtuous person—though typically there will be many—who consents to subordinate his happiness for the good of the state, and thus, to rule. That person—one whose soul is ordered, organized, and divine because of the order, organization, and divinity of his objects of study, will be a king that is a philoso-pher and a philosopher that is a king. Says Socrates: “No city, constitution, or individual man will ever become perfect until either some chance event compels those few philosophers who aren’t vi-cious … to take charge of a city, whether they want to or not, and compels the city to obey them, or until a god inspires the present rulers and kings or their offspring with a true erotic love for true philosophy.” The structure of Plato’s republic, with its unique edu-cational system, is put into place to ensure that the best persons (aristoi), both men and women, are in the position to govern.
For Jefferson, four tiers of government—wards, counties, states, and the nation—will be in place so that everyone has some participatory role in governing and that the morally superior—i.e., the natural aristocracy (aristoi)—will most likely be encouraged to govern at the higher levels. Jefferson writes: “The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to man-age the concerns of the society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?” The way to ensure that the naturally best and not the artificially best rule is to leave the election of governors in the hands of the people, suitably educated.
The final commonality concerns need of an elaborate and systemic approach to education.
For Plato, education is reserved for the guardians only and consists of a few years of physical training and harmonics. For those guardians that possess higher capacities, there are many years of mathematical training, 15 years of practical training in ruling, and five years of training in dialectic. The education of rulers ends at the age of 50, when they are ready to rule. “At the age of fifty, those who’ve survived the tests and been successful both in practical matters and in the sciences must be led to the goal and compelled to lift up the radiant light of their souls to what itself provides light for everything” an untenebrous vision of the form of the Good. He continues, “[Then] they must each in turn put the city, its citizens, and themselves in order, using it as their model.” Overall, the education of the complete guardians is thorough and rigorous. It aims to teach love of toil, truth, self-control, and greatness of soul.
For Jefferson, education conforms to the needs of each citizen. He writes to his nephew, Peter Carr, “It is highly interesting to our country, and it is the duty of its functionaries, to provide that every citizen in it should receive an education proportioned to the condition and pursuits of his life.” There is ward-schooling for the many, college-schooling for them with greater promise, and university-schooling for those persons, for instance, who will be politicians and professors. As with Plato, Jefferson’s elaborate system of education had two aims principally in mind: the development of civic virtue and intelligence and obedience to just government.
There are obvious disanalogies, of which space prohibits an articulation. Those notwithstanding, there seems to be little reason to believe that key features of Plato’s ideal republic in Republic were incorporated in Jefferson’s own vision of a thriving republicanism.