One direct way of stating the heart of the question might be: is there sufficient textual evidence and support for the assertion that Plato's Republic contains meritocratic elements?

A second and larger concern here would be if so, because of this meritocracy, and not to mention the absence of slavery, the Republic could be considered in some sense democratic, at least perhaps moreso than the ostensible democracy of Greece, limited of course to land-owning males -- and perhaps in this context it might make sense to ask whether this "real" democratic element is present in our contemporary democracies.

In a way this question comes down to the following one: does the Republic include a meritocratic analysis of the population at every stage of psychic development? A possible equivalent today might be global universal education, which every child could gain entry to -- although higher levels would involve passing increasingly rigorous tests.

In other words, could the ostensible aristocratism betrayed by Plato's advocacy of the "noble lie" of the myth of the metals -- that certain people are gold, others silver, yet others bronze, etc. -- be read on the contrary as reflecting not a base classism (or worse a vulgar racism) but rather and perhaps counter-intuitively the very heart of the radically progressive or democratizing-meritocratic impulse that is the engine of the Republic?

Is there in the Republic a global selection over the population for traits that could be optimally deployed in various roles or functions within the society? What about the very negative authoritarian dimension of the Republic, the expulsion of poets and artists; as well as the de jure caste system which would seem to strongly favor an aristocratic interpretation rather than a democratic one?

I guess I want to graft the "democratic" onto a different chain of signification, and point to the inner radically democratic (because meritocratic) moment in the Republic where, at least from the perspective of a child, everything is possible: all possible paths are potentially open to everyone. What makes it "just" and "fair" is precisely this lack of socio-economic barriers to individual growth and development. I don't want to paper over the negative dimensions and palpable distaste for the "masses" that is present in Plato's text here; but does it seem at all justified to make this case for a possible democratic recuperation of the Republic?

Apologies for the length here. Just to reiterate the basic question: is there textual evidence for meritocratic social advancement and organization in Plato's Republic? (And if so -- as a secondary concern, that is really the motivation for the first question -- is it then reasonable to further characterize this aspect or impulse of Plato's thought as effectively democratic in some ways; might it be reasonable to say this meritocracy relates to what it means to have democracy?)

  • Interesting question and although my instinct is to cry "no!", since the Republic is not fresh in my mind and I had not approached it with that perspective, you may be right in part. However, I am puzzled by your conflation of meritocracy and democracy. These are two very different sorts of concepts, are they not? For instance, is not "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." consistent with meritocratic principles? So are you just asking about equality of opportunity or rather the broader set of rights typically included in Democracy?
    – Rex Kerr
    Jul 22, 2012 at 23:09
  • @Rex yes, equality of opportunity is the fundamental concern here; so, rephrased: (1) is the republic meritocratic in the sense of providing equality of opportunity? (2) for bonus points: more broadly, what is democracy without this equality? Does it really deserve the name?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jul 24, 2012 at 19:06

3 Answers 3


There is in fact definite textual support for the Republic being a meritocracy, and indeed through the noble lie of metals. However, I do not think this gives it even a tinge of democracy, as Socrates makes it clear that all the power ultimately lies in the guardians, a small and exclusive group of virtuous people.

When he is describing the noble lie of the metals (wherein it is preached that all people have come from the earth, and they are either of the type gold, silver or bronze), Socrates comments that:

Because you're all related, although for the most part you'll produce offspring like yourselves, it sometimes happens that a silver child will be born from a golden parent, a golden child from a silver parent, and similarly all the others from each other. Hence the god commands the rulers first and foremost to be of nothing such good guardians and to keep over nothing so careful a watch as the children, seeing which of these metals is mixed in their souls. And, if a child of theirs should be born with an admixture of bronze or iron, by no manner of means are they to take pity on it, but shall assign the proper value to its nature and thrust it out among the craftsmen or the farmers; and, again, if from these men one should naturally grow who has an admixture of gold or silver, they will honor such ones and lead them up, some to the guardian group, others to the auxiliary, believing that there is an oracle that the city will be destroyed when an iron or bronze man is its guardian. (415a-c, Allan Bloom translation)

Here the meritocracy of the city can clearly be seen; although a caste system exists, Socrates explicitly states that children do not have to have the same caste as their parents. If a good, wise "gold" child is born to "iron" craftsmen, the guardians will notice as they watch all the young, and will appropriately assign the child to become a guardian. People are assigned places directly based upon their merits, and nothing else. Indeed, Socrates made it clear at the genesis of the city in speech that each person should do only what they're best at, whatever that happens to be.

As for some sort of testing, it too is partially articulated in 413, as Socrates talks about how guardians must be tested for strength of conviction:

So we must watch [potential guardians] straight from childhood by setting them at tasks in which a man would most likely forget and be deceived out of such a conviction. And the man who has a memory and is hard to deceive must be chosen, and the one who's not must be rejected, mustn't he?... And again, they must be set to labors, pains, and contests in which these same things must be watched... then, we must also make them a competition for the third form, wizardry, and we must look on. Just as they lead colts to noises and confusions and observe if they're fearful, so these men when they are young must be brought to terrors and then cast in turn to pleasures, testing them far more than gold in fire... And the one who on each occasion, among the children and youths and among the men, is tested and comes through untainted, must be appointed ruler of the city and guardian.

Here, Socrates is talking about testing guardian candidates for steadfastness in the right convictions. He proposes a three part test in which the subjects are placed in situations where first, they may be deceived against their convictions, second, they may give in to pain and lose their convictions, and third, they may give up their convictions to pleasure or fear. These sorts of tests would make up much of Socrates' method for picking out guardians.

However, this meritocratic system does not make the Republic democratic. There is a concrete barrier between the guardians and the rest: the former make all the decisions, and the latter obediently follow. The ruled have no say in what happens, so there is no power allocated to the masses at all. Perhaps it could be said that the guardians are democratic within themselves, but that's sidestepping the entire purpose of democracy, and is really describing an aristocracy (which is how Socrates envisions the ideal state).

The only real element of democracy that is palpable in the Republic is the egalitarianism that comes in such a meritocracy; if this is what you mean, then yes, the Republic is in a sense democratic. However, I do not think it's fair to characterize the Republic as "sort of" democratic on such a basis, as it leaves out the defining element of democracy, which is allowing all to have a say in government.

Thus, while the Republic is very meritocratic, it is not democratic in any familiar sense of the term.

  • 1
    Thanks so much for the careful response. Yeah, this was a pretty confused question in retrospect I think. I guess I might be trying to point to how patently (socially, economically) undemocratic the lack of equality of oppourtunity seems to me.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Oct 3, 2012 at 3:48
  • This is correct, but I would add that The Republic specifically contrasts the republican form of government with democracy, which is presented as one of the lower forms of governance, one small step removed from tyranny. Dec 15, 2014 at 20:51

Maybe it would be useful to ponder on Plato's life for a second, especially considering that the Republic is his most mature work, where Plato at last speaks for himself, not anymore impersonating Socrates.

Plato's relatives and friends were killed or chased by democrats, then transforming Athens in a state of anarchistic pseudo-democracy. The state was essentially in ruins, civil war was near, Peloponesean war not far ahead.

Plato had been expatriated three times, both by democrats and by despots. He ended up despising tyranny as well as democrat demagogues who flattered the masses. So, after decades of reflection, devised "The Republic" as an aristocratic and meritocratic regime, where flattery as well as tyranny simply would not be possible. The ruling class was composed by highly educated individuals belonging to an elite, studied Sciences and Ethics, well in their fifties. Access to ruling class was simply impossible for a mere individual, as is expected in a democratic regime.

"The Republic" has therefore few commonalities with Democracy; but many with meritocracy and aristocracy.

  • 1
    While I agree that The Republic probably represents Plato' own views far more than those of Socrates, and to a far greater extent than earlier dialogs, it is NOT the case that he is no longer impersonating Socrates in this dialog (a claim which can be accurately made for some of Plato's other work, but not this one). You should also note that while Republic arguably is Plato's most "mature" work, it is not in fact one of the last that he wrote. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plato ) Dec 15, 2014 at 20:46

The two first waves hold a key revealed in a methodological sub-section: the logos or principle of intelligibility of the whole section.

In the first wave, the keyword is nature (physis) and in the second wave, it’s community (koinonia). Physis is nearest to the inferior part of the soul, and koinonia or harmony is the keyword that awaits the task of the soul's median to manage the potential conflit between passions and reason. More specifically:

The question in the discussion on collective education of men and women is the problem of the nature of man, who represents form, and woman who represents matter according to the thought of generative process at the time. What Plato may want to suggest, is that it’s not worth denying the material dimension or the spiritual dimension of our nature, to want to limit man and everything real to the assembly more or less complex of matter, or trying to elevate the status of some disembodied and liberated idea of the matter. Man must instead start by recognizing his true nature; to be accepted as he is: namely a material and spiritual being, male and female, each component of its nature having found its proper place and to bring its specific contribution to the development of its being.

The discussion on the community of women and children concerns the activity of man: children can be viewed as a figure of the product of the combined activity of form and matter, that is to say our actions. What’s suggested here is that a man will mount to nothing as much as he considers each of his actions satisfactory to a part of his being at the expense of others. He must look at all his actions as the product of all his being and act in a manner that each part of himself always finds in his conduct his part of satisfaction.

Both waves taken in context, the domination of reason in the third wave is not pure rationalism but the realization of the superior part of our soul as the most apt to lead, not to crush the two others, but as a master fit to his name, acting in the best interest of everything, spirit and matter, body and soul, in accordance to will.

  • 1
    I fail to see how this actually answers the question.
    – Rex Kerr
    Jul 26, 2012 at 14:48

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