Plato on the origin of the state Notes for January 31

Main points

We discussed two broad questions.

  1. What problem does the state solve? I treated this as equivalent to: why would people form a state if they didn’t have one?
  2. What is the source of conflict?

Many authors think that the state is a solution to conflict. For them, the answer to the second question leads to the answer to the first. For Plato, by contrast, conflict is a product of a kind of state, specifically, the luxurious state. (I should add that many readers think that he did not regard the first city as a realistic possibility; if so, the qualification I introduced in the previous sentence is unnecessary.)

The division of labor

I said that there are two paths to a division of labor. The path that Plato took involves the common good. People join societies in order to meet their own needs, but divide labor in order to meet the common good. They do so because they have different natural talents.

The other path to a division of labor involves nothing more than the pursuit of individual interest. This explanation of the division of labor holds that different individuals take up different tasks because that is the best way of promoting their own interests. There is no reference to the common good as the cause of the division of labor in this story, though, of course, the common good is an effect of the division of labor.

For an example of a philosopher who described the second path, we can’t do any better than Adam Smith. Smith’s An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations begins with the division of labor. Here is his description from the second chapter of how it came about.

This division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.

… man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self–love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.** Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Vol. I ed. R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner, vol. II of the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981). Ch. II.

What about the difference in talents? Smith says that it’s the result of a division of labor, not its cause. Natural differences are minor. Significant differences come about only after people specialize in particular tasks and learn different skills. That was what Joe said about the division of labor.

The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps,a very much alike, and neither their parents nor play–fellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance. But without the disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, every man must have procured to himself every necessary and conveniency of life which he wanted. All must have had the same duties to perform, and the same work to do, and there could have been no such difference of employment as could alone give occasion to any great difference of talents.†† Smith, Wealth of Nations, Vol. I, Ch. II.

Now, why are Smith’s arguments so directly applicable to Plato’s points? Well, Smith almost certainly read his Plato.

Just as we are doing.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2008. It was posted January 30, 2008.
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