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'Who guards the guardians' is a phrase lifted from the satirical poet Juvenal Satires, (and not as I thought from Plato). The context here is marital infidelity, but Juvenal being a (satirical) poet - it wouldn't take a great deal to convince me that he's talking politics too.

Its often used in reference to the section of Platos Republic where he tackles the question of political corruption.

Is it fair to say that in Platos Republic he answers this by relying on virtue, that is the guardians refrain from selfishness (they guard themselves from themselves) by relying on the noble lie? That is they are taught by the educators of the city to not act in their own interests, but the interests of the whole.

Could one answer this by setting up two opposing sets of guardians - each watches the other. But then what stops them from acting in concert? If they do we're back to one set of guardians, except of course they've allowed themselves to have been corrupted because they're acting in concert - so the situation is worse than the original context.

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Your question seems to have few parts, so I'll go through it one piece at a time:

Is it fair to say that Plato's answer to Juvenals question 'who guards the guardians' - is that they themselves do?

Yes. In The Republic, the guardians are the ultimate authority, and they rely on their own virtue to maintain the state of the whole Republic. This is ultimately why the "Decay of State" occurs, wherein the perfect Aristocracy/Monarchy decays to a Timocracy, which decays to a Democracy, which ultimately collapses into a Tyranny. Though the guardians can keep the populace in order, it's impossible to make them incorruptible themselves, and especially as new guardians come along Plato points out that there is increasing room for error. Ultimately something has to go wrong somewhere in the guardian's self-regulation. There's a whole page of complete mathematical gibberish (which I will cite once I have access to my book) that Plato uses to "argue" for the inevitability of decay, which is summarized by the paraphrase "even the aristocracy will erode with time."

Is it fair to say that in Platos Republic he answers this by relying on virtue, that is the guardians refrain from selfishness (they guard themselves from themselves) by relying on the noble lie? That is they are taught by the educators of the city to not act in their own interests, but the interests of the whole.

Basically. The Noble Lie, which says that all people are of the same earth but have just been born with different constitutions (Iron, Silver, Gold), was invented by the first guardians. From then on it was taught as truth to everybody, including the new guardians, and because of this myth they feel like the whole city is their kin, and give up their selfishness to protect their family. Unfortunately for the city, such myths are always vulnerable to someone's disbelief, and when that happens the whole system will collapse.

Could one answer this by setting up two opposing sets of guardians - each watches the other. But then what stops them from acting in concert? If they do we're back to one set of guardians, except of course they've allowed themselves to have been corrupted because they're acting in concert - so the situation is worse than the original context.

As you notice, it looks like there will always be a way for things to fall apart; and that's why Plato says they always will fall apart, eventually. There may be different implementations of The Republic's model, but they will never been incorruptible. One note: you suggest two "opposing" sets of guardians, but I think it helps to see Plato's guardians as autonomous agents, each on their own. Thus the single group of guardians already is many different "opposing" people keeping themselves and each other in check.

  • Does this mean that Plato has a cyclical theory of the city - that it asserts itself, then it remains stable, and then finally decays. Then the whole cycle repeats itself? – Mozibur Ullah Jun 14 '13 at 17:06
  • @MoziburUllah Well, it's interesting you should ask that, because I actually had pretty much the same question a while ago. I'm not totally sure whether Plato thinks it's cyclical, reversible, or final, but the first seems most likely. – commando Jun 14 '13 at 18:10
  • Its hard to believe that Plato would use mathematics to justify his claim. Are you able to quote that page? – Mozibur Ullah Feb 21 '14 at 22:36
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This will seem a bit off-topic, but it is quite relevant to the question, and how to read the Republic generally

It is important to remember that the city is founded in speech: the discussion begins by talking about justice simply, then becomes a discussion of the just man, and finally the city is used as magnified example of the man. Remember that throughout the Republic, we are still looking for the just man, using the city as a sort of parallel illustration.

The motivations for embellishing the city of speech are normally rooted in real, individual concerns: the city of sows was unacceptable to Glaucon; there were no relishes, and he enjoys his pleasures. But, at the beginning of Book V, the entire group, including, I believe, Thrasymachus, compel Socrates to relate the what happens to the women and children, a topic Socrates seemed to ignor. Book V begins with the group of interlocutors whispering to one another about what Socrates passed over in conversation; they elect to have him elaborate on what happens to the women and children in his city (on a side note this is the second time that Socrates is compelled to do something by the demos of the discussion--the first being at the Piraeus). Of course, these logistical details are more than a little ridiculous. The city was founded in speech as an analog to the man. How, where, and why would women and children fit into this analogy? That is, not only is this city a city in thin air (see Aristophanes' Birds for what may well be Plato's inspiration for the Republic, or at least its setting in air), but it is supposed to be a likeness to the just man.

To read Platonic dialogues as though they're treatises or promoting certain doctrines is to misread them (see Plato's Seventh Letter). The entire question of whether the city in the Republic would work, or could exist, is a product of misunderstanding the dialogue.

With that said, I would bet that Plato would laugh quite a bit at the question; but, then, he would feel compelled to fill in the details for Juvenal.

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A different time and place, but James Madison seems to address this question in Federalist #51.

The people of the new republic, the Anti-Federalists most vocally, were concerned that a strong government would devolve into an oppressive aristocracy or monarchy.

Madison argues that by creating three jealous branches - executive, judicial, and legislative - the government will guard itself. Not through a Socratic notion of virtue, but though self interest and greed. The legislature, designed as the most powerful branch will be divided again to prevent overreach into a senate and a house. Madison asserts:

"...The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

The last quote: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." seems to be an attempt to answer that vexing question - if virtue isn't enough, what is? His answer seems to be a properly constructed government.

Establishing distinct branches of government, all with an eye towards their own power will, in theory, prevent audacious power grabs by another branch.

This theory is useful, but dangerous. By creating a system whereby each branch jealously protects their own power, while coveting more, gives incentive to the strongest branch to expand at the expense of the existing branches. In other words, the only time the guardian-over-guardian approach will be sufficient is when each branch is essentially equal in power and when each branch is incentivized to guard their power rather than accumulating more of it.

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To answer your last question would mean that we'd need to traverse two millennia worth of political philosophy. The currently accepted position is that Democracy is the best safeguard against corrupt guardians. Even though that seems to be a false position.

It is my personal opinion that the best answer to your question is the constitution of the USA along with its amendments. Most notably the rights to criticise government, keep and bear arms, and seek your own happiness.

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