Plato has said some marvellous things on self-government, showing that this interior government should be aristocratic, that is to say, ruled by what is better over what is worse. By the better he means what in each of us knows and understands; while the people, within us, are our angers, desires and needs. I would like people to read the Republic, not to talk about it, which is to find what is usually said about it, but to learn the art of self-government and of establishing justice within oneself.
His principal idea is that when human beings govern themselves well, they find they are good and useful to others without even having to think about it. This is the idea of all morality; the rest is merely a policy of barbarians. When you see human beings made peaceful and helpful towards others through fear alone, you do establish, it’s true, a kind of order in the state; but in each person, it’s just anarchy; one tyrant is installed in place of another; fear holds greed in prison. All the evils ferment within; exterior order is unstable. Then come riots, war, an earthquake, and in the same way that the prisons spew out the condemned, so within each of us, the prisons are opened and monstrous desires take over the citadel.
This is why moral lessons based on calculation and prudence are weak, if not worse. Be charitable, if you want to be loved. Love your neighbour, to be loved in return. Respect your parents, if you want your children to respect you. This is merely how the streets are policed. Everyone waits for the right moment, the opportunity to act unjustly and with impunity.
I would speak quite differently to the young lion cubs, as soon as they begin to sharpen their claws on manuals of morality, on catechisms, on all customs, on the bars of the cage. I would say to them: « Fear nothing. Do what you want. Accept no slavery, no golden chain, nor chains of flowers. Only, my friends, be kings within yourselves. Do not abdicate. Be masters of your desires and anger as well as of your fear. Practice keeping your anger under control, as a shepherd keeps his dog under control. Be kings over your desires. If you’re afraid, walk calmly towards what frightens you. If you’re idle, give yourselves a task. If you’re lethargic, keep up exercise. If you’re impatient, give yourselves balls of thread to unravel. If the stew is burnt, give yourself the royal luxury of eating it with a good appetite. If sadness seizes you, declare joy within yourselves. If insomnia makes you twist and turn like a fish on the grass, practice remaining immobile, and sleeping to order. After that, my good friends, since you will be kings within yourselves, act royally and do what seems to you to be good. »
April 4, 1910
English translation copyright © Michel Petheram