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A curious Relation between Plato, Sun and their Paternalism

The Parthenon in Athens(left) and the building of the Nationalist Government of the Republic of China in Nanjing (right)

The connexion between Plato and Sun Yat-sen is certainly one that would not be obvious at first. Plato lived many millennia before Sun and was one of the most influential philosophers of Ancient Greece. Sun, on the other hand, was a revolutionary and the man that would forever change China at the beginning of the twentieth century. Plato lived in a democracy and sought to point out its flaws, whereas Sun was adamant to establish a democracy that would replace the dying Manchu Qing Empire. What the two men have in common, however, is that both have been accused of being anti-democratic. For Plato, the case is made due to his support of aristocracy as an ideal form of government (which, one ought to admit, is practically a cardinal sin in our day and age), whereas for Sun it is his “dictatorial tendencies” in his national establishment programme. In spite of the popularity of these attacks, they fundamentally originate in an over-simplistic view of both men — their ideas originate not from a want of oppression, but from a certain paternalism from which both men saw as the source of a free and stable society.

In Plato’s Πολιτεία[1], Socrates’s analogy of the Five Regimes is a progression that is fundamentally built on the harm of unrestrained self-interest. This self-interest, if left unchecked, would lead the decline of a Καλλίπολις[2] to the state of tyranny, where the πόλις[3] is ruled under the interests of the tyrant alone. His intentions for such an interpretation are already clear by the names he uses for the five different regimes. The first, Aristocracy, is the reign of the fittest, where the rulers would act as the guardians of the people and restrain themselves from material desires, save for the wages with which they maintain their sustenance. Timocracy is the rule of honour, by which Socrates implies that the rulers fulfil their desire for honour instead of living the restrained life. From this, a select few are able to govern based on their possession of wealth. As the people tire of this rule by the wealthy, a democracy is formed, in which the lack of restraint for self-interest is at its zenith. At this point, people seek to rule themselves through the pursuit of freedom, as this would allow them self rule in the form of doing whatever one wants. Chaos ensues due to the pursuit of freedom at all cost and tyranny as the power of a single man seeks to re-establish order.

What is most suggestive of his paternalism, however, is the framework with which Plato’s Socrates explains the decline of the regimes. This is especially shown with the transition between Aristocracy to a Timocracy, for which the reasons were not clearly laid out. By having this ambiguity, however, Socrates seeks to demonstrate that the design of an aristocracy is “hard to be moved” (546a), or in layman’s terms, “too good to fail”. Since the philosopher-kings are well-educated to see what is truly good for the ruled, they would be able to apply this education, resulting in a government that is both fair and just. To placate the desires of the philosopher-kings themselves, the idea of the noble lie is essential. With the philosopher-kings restricted from material possessions, they are prevented from furthering their own power in the realm of wealth, but the noble lie means that they would place confidence in their ability as the fittest to rule. With the concerns of the rulers addressed, the populace still needs to be made content with such a system. The “noble lie”, or the myth knowingly propagated by an elite to maintain social harmony an agenda, helps with the acceptance of the ruled in accepting the governance of the philosopher kings. As for the interests of the ruled, they may rest assured, since their rulers are designed to be mere guardians of the city, that the philosopher-kings do not have the power to oppress them. However, this does not mean that the ruled may run their desires without restriction, as the rulers would be able to keep the ruled morally in check. The rulers restrict the ruled for their best interest and the ruled can both accept the reign of the fittest whilst knowing that their powers are immune to abuse. The sophistication of this system, thus, only allows for its decline from its improper execution, cementing the fact that this paternalistic relationship between the rulers and the ruled is the strongest form of government.

However, this does not suggest that the concept of freedom is absent from the Platonic mind, nor does it make Plato anti-democratic as a whole. In his discussion of democracy, democratic freedoms come as the people free themselves of the oppression that the wealthy oligarchs exert over them and thus establish a society without compulsion. Plato’s Socrates also concedes that the democratic regime would appear to be the fairest: all kinds of people may coexist under this regime without any problems, whilst a strict hierarchy between the ruler and the ruled does not exist. Nonetheless, the greatest problem in a democracy is that the aforementioned aristocratic checks do not exist. The lack of a force of compulsion means that there is nothing that helps the πόλις decide between the necessary and unnecessary desires. The people will act according to their own whims in the name of freedom, disregarding any notion of social cohesion and order. Once an order under which all may agree ceases to exist, the harmonious image of democracy is replaced by conflict. A state of chaos that may only be ended by the leadership of a single man takes over.

This theory, then, draws to the result of Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People[5], or the ideology formulated by the Sun after his setback in preserving the republic. An understanding of the context of early Republican China is important here. Sun was undoubtedly the leader uring the movement to overthrow the Manchu Qing as epitomized by the Xinhai Revolution, he was hesitant about becoming the leader of the Republic after the Revolution. His revolutionary colleagues, deeply respectful of Sun’s leadership and efforts, were willing to push him to accept the great responsibility. The hands of the revolutionaries were nonetheless forced. Since the late Qing Dynasty was a time of imperial expansion at great expense of China, the revolutionaries, who were overthrowing a status quo that favoured western imperialist interests, feared the threat of foreign intervention and wanted to end the fighting as soon as possible. Eventually, their “saving grace” came the willingness of then-Qing Prime Minister Yuan Shikai to force child Emperor Puyi’s abdication in exchange for the Republican presidency. His terms were met by the desperate revolutionaries, who hoped to quickly establish a democracy in a country that had been by Imperial rule for more than two millennia at this point. Yuan eventually showed his quisling side to the republicans as well, going as far as crowning himself as Emperor for 83 days, only to abdicate after serious opposition from Sun, his Guomindang and other forces. His fall from grace, however, did prove to de-stabilize the country, forcing Sun to reorganize the Guomindang and to build up forces for national reunification.

During this reorganization of the Guomindang, Sun systemized the Three Principles of the People, including his paternalism, as a part of his “lesson” from his earlier setback. Where Plato found a theory of decline theory presented by Plato, Sun sought to do the opposite in his Outline for National Construction[5], where he devises the transition from a tyranny to a democratic regime ruled by the fittest. This divided the construction of the modern Chinese nation into the stages of Military Rule, Political Tutelage and Constitutional Rule[6]. Military Rule is where the entire country would need to be reunified by defeating the warlords’ forces. Afterwards, Political Tutelage relies on a dictatorship of the educated to properly educate the populace in the spirit of constitutional order. Once this is complete, it is presumed that the people are converted from the tyrannical mindset of the Empire to the democratic mindset of the Republic.

As laid out in the Outline, the period of Political Tutelage is of special concern for this discussion of paternalism. Firstly, a small group of people (here implied to be the members of the Guomindang) would be educated in constitutionalist theory analogous to that of a noble lie, whilst incorporating the Imperial practice of examinations to confirm their knowledge. This education, thus, is designed to structure those who undergo this process into the officials tasked with governing the people and upholding the system, much like how the philosopher-kings are to bear the responsibility of preventing aristocracy’s decline into timocracy alone. After passing the examinations, they become local officials tasked with the propagation of the noble lie to the populace. This is so that the rulers were tasked with enforcing education of the noble lie to the public, which was needed for popular obedience and to advance the ideal of democracy into their more tyrannically-wired minds. Sun, however, did make a significant improvement from the ideals of Plato’s Socrates in his political tutelage theory. Since all members of the society had to be educated in the functioning of the state, the ruled were also granted the ability to elect their officials (who, unlike those in ancient Greek and modern liberal democracies, had to come from the pool of the aforementioned educated members of society), the ability to recall elections of those deemed unfit to rule, the ability to launch initiatives and the right to referenda. In comparison to the more segregated Platonic system, Sun’s system seems much more democratic, to the point where one may begin to question its inclusion under a discussion of paternalistic policy. One must remind oneself, however, that the design of the system was meant to fit democracy into an aristocratic model akin to the Platonic definition, as well as the pre-requisite of popular knowledge of the noble lie that is already in place.

Despite the subtle differences between the two men’s ideas, their focus on paternalistic thought to build their ideal societies remains constant. Plato offered his scepticism of democracy and designed his Καλλίπολις to specifically maintain the rule of the fittest for fear of tyranny. Sun, on the other hand, offers a response to fit a supervisory aristocracy into a democratic regime and a possibility to reverse the decline as featured in Plato’s Five Regimes. Both, unfortunately, remain aspirations rather than tangible governments, with Socrates forced to commit suicide and Sun having passed away from liver cancer before China’s reunification under his disciple Chiang Kai-shek. Even with Chiang, however, Sun’s aspiration would only be completed in Taiwan after his retreat from the communists, whereas the Mainland continues under Communist tyranny to this day.


[1] The Republic, as it is known in English.

[2] kallipolis in the Latin Script; refers to the ideal society as devised by Plato’s Socrates.

[3] polis, in the Latin Script; refers to the city as a political community.

[4] To avoid confusion between the ideology the eponymous book of 《三民主義》(Sanmin Zhuyi) that is treated as the main source of this ideology, the English translation of “Three Principles of the People” is used instead.

[5] Known in Chinese as the《國民政府建國大綱》(Guomin Zhengfu Jianguo Dagang).

[6] 軍政、訓政、憲政 (Junzheng, Xunzheng, Xianzheng) in its original Chinese.