Plato's American Republic: 'Complex Marriage', 'Male Continence' and the Selection of the Perfect Partner Were All Themes Propounded by a 19th-Century Cult in New York State. Clive Foss Explores the Influence of Plato's Republic on John Humphrey Noyes and His Perfectionist Movement

By Foss, Clive | History Today, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Plato's American Republic: 'Complex Marriage', 'Male Continence' and the Selection of the Perfect Partner Were All Themes Propounded by a 19th-Century Cult in New York State. Clive Foss Explores the Influence of Plato's Republic on John Humphrey Noyes and His Perfectionist Movement


Foss, Clive, History Today


In recent years, a debate has been raging in the United States over the definition of marriage. For traditionalists it is an arrangement made between one man and one woman. Their opponents advocate a broader view encompassing same-sex couples. Even the most extreme of them, however, never come close to the proposals of Plato in the fourth century BC or the system born of the Greek philosopher's ideas put into effect by a once notorious 19th-century cult leader, John Humphrey Noyes.

Plato's Republic begins with an investigation of justice, with his teacher Socrates leading the discussion. Socrates first posits that a division of labour is essential, with all those necessary for a successful common existence devoting themselves to their special tasks. Since the state will have to fight wars--this was ancient Greece, after all--it will need trained warriors who will practice no other occupation. He calls them the Guardians; they will protect and essentially rule the state. The Guardians must be brave, serious, temperate, healthy and indifferent to wealth. A comprehensive education that trained both body and mind would instil virtue in them and banish the luxury and vice that lead to corruption. When they have completed their training they become rulers. The younger ones, still in their long process of education, will be auxiliaries who carry out the orders of the Guardians, while beneath them lies the class of farmers and craftsmen. A peculiar ideology will justify this stratification: the people will be told that they are gold, silver or bronze by nature and that their place in society is ordained.

The future Guardians must be removed from everything that might lead to disharmony. To that end, they should live the austere life of the military camp. They must not own houses or land, for possession of wealth, Socrates argues, inevitably leads to the discord, jealousy and hatred that can disrupt society. The Guardians will have no property and live a communal existence; the rest of the citizens will provide their support. To ensure social stability every citizen will stick to his own trade or occupation and avoid meddling with matters for which he is not qualified. This stable society will guarantee justice--the aim of the entire exercise.

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Socrates goes on to advocate ever more radical changes, the first involving women. In most of the Greek states, women were secluded and played no part in public life. The ideal Republic would be different; since they have the same inherent qualities as men, women should receive the same education and participate equally in running the state. They should share the lives of the men, live in the same communal houses and meet at the common meals. Since having men and women live together in close quarters could raise jealousy and discord, Socrates proposed a solution parallel to his treatment of housing and money, that the wives and children of the Guardians were to be in common and that no parents were to know their own children, nor children their parents. He advocated a programme of eugenics, analogous to the breeding of hunting dogs or birds, where the best of either sex would be united as often as possible, and the inferior with the inferior as seldom. The braver and better youth might have greater facilities of intercourse with women and father as many sons as possible.

The products of these unions were to be segregated at birth: officials would entrust the best children to nurses who lived in special buildings, while the children of the inferior, or any deformed infant, would be put away and never seen again. The parents would not know which were their children or vice versa, so that family ties would be replaced by those of community. In this way, the state (or at least its ruling class) would constitute one large family and discord, the enemy of all good societies, would disappear. Communality of property and families would destroy the basis for disputes as the distinction between 'mine' and 'not mine' disappeared; and with it would vanish lawsuits, assaults and all similar evils. …

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Plato's American Republic: 'Complex Marriage', 'Male Continence' and the Selection of the Perfect Partner Were All Themes Propounded by a 19th-Century Cult in New York State. Clive Foss Explores the Influence of Plato's Republic on John Humphrey Noyes and His Perfectionist Movement
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