The Rulers and the Ruled

Both of the utopian societies that are portrayed in Plato’s The Republic and Thomas More’s Utopia have a hierarchy in which there is a clear difference between the State or island’s ruler, and the ruled. However, the ruler’s powers and responsibilities differ greatly due to the respective utopias’ structure and organization. In The Republic, we can observe a rigid class organization with the philosopher king as the absolute ruler. In Utopia, there exists a ruler, but in a scheme which is much more malleable. These differences in the structure of power in the utopias depicted reveal the respective author’s society and situation in which they live, and consequently reveal their motivations in writing these books.

            These philosophers agree that there needs to be a special class that holds power over the citizens of the utopia. In the Republic that Plato describes, these rulers are the philosopher kings; those that were handpicked from childhood and rigorously educated and molded to be in the elite class throughout their lives. These philosopher kings possess absolute power, and are assumed to know what is best for the State. In Thomas More’s utopia, those that are the most educated and qualified are chosen to lead regardless of upbringing or social status. Because there is less social rigidity in this rendition of utopia, the citizens who chose to have a role in governing the island are able to collaborate with the rulers. This in turn creates a system of checks and balances that is absent in the Republic.

This disparity in ruling structure is inherently a product of the time period in which the author lived and also his experiences. After witnessing the execution of his teacher, Socrates, at the hands of the government of Athens, Plato lost confidence in democracy and human nature. As a result, Plato structures his ideal State in a way that would minimize the power of the uninformed many, and emphasize the rule of the educated elite. Consequently, the stability of the State would be valued over the happiness of individuals. The Utopia in Thomas More’s work is also a product of his experience. The dictator-like operations of the Catholic Church in addition to the actions of the English monarchy caused him to desire a more collaborative and open method of government in his utopian society. As a result, the citizens of Utopia were encouraged to explore various fields of knowledge while contributing to the city.

While both authors strove to create an ideal society, they came to a vastly different conclusion. The term “perfect” is not set in stone; the definition changes with the time period based on what is deemed “imperfect” by the thinker who is affected by his or her influences, experiences and position in society. This is reflected in Plato and Thomas More’s differences in the structure of power in their respective utopian societies.

Relationship between the ruler and ruled

In Plato’s The Republic and More’s Utopia, both writers examine the relationship between ruling class and the ruled within a just society. Within each work, both classes are bound by the mutual sacrifice and duty that perpetuates justice, but the writers’ individual experiences with different forms of governance lead them to diverge when discussing the control that the ruled have over their rulers.

In both Utopia and The Republic, sacrifices on behalf of both the rulers and the ruled forge solidarity between members of the two classes. Plato and More agree that just as every man has a talent to offer, every man must also forsake certain pleasures to promote the functioning of the society as a whole. This is why in neither work do rulers have more wealth or luxury than those they rule over, for justice in both societies demands equal distributions of happiness and material goods among members. Rulers in both works also have a duty to be a guide for other citizens to follow. Just as Plato’s philosopher kings must descend back into the cave to lead others to enlightenment, magistrates in Utopia must encourage industrious spirit among citizens by performing manual labor.

However, their experiences with democracy and monarchy lead Plato and More to defend different forms of government, resulting in different powers that the ruled have over their rulers. Plato critiques democracy and believes that leadership roles ought to be filled by those whose intrinsic talents are best suited to the job. Thus, citizens are unable to elect their rulers. Because each member of society is fated to perform a certain role regardless of his own desires, there is an irreconcilable divide between the rulers and the ruled, for no ruler can ever be removed from power, and no ordinary citizen can ever rise to the level of a ruler. In contrast, More’s version of governance allows for social mobility. After living under a monarchy for his entire life, More promotes a democratic republican form of government wherein citizens elect a number of magistrates who then make decisions – such as selecting the prince – with their interests in mind. The ruled can revoke the power of the magistrates if they are thought be be unjust or abusive. This check on the power of the ruling class ensures balance and an equal distribution of power throughout the society that is essential to maintaining justice.