Plato wanted a guardian class of rulers and defensive warmakers and saw such a closed, though not hereditary, class as the only viable means of safeguarding the philosophic virtue of the rulers, while to him the virtue of the ruled lay in obeying the rulers who served them.
Two truths about human society stand in balance: one is completely acceptable in this egalitarian society, while the other is ignored or rejected. The former is that all people are equally valuable in the eyes of God, because He loves all relentlessly whom He has created and endowed with a spirit as well as a body. The latter is this: equality in human worth and dignity notwithstanding, people are not alike in goodness and degree to which they are filled with the Holy Spirit in thought and feeling and action. In this way some people are “better” than others, though not because they deserved to be.
It is true, then, that there is nothing bad about the idea of social hierarchy itself, but an insular class set to rule would easily come to view the lower classes, the producers, as only a necessary evil. This is always the problem of the upper class: how to prevent it from surveying the other classes with contempt? For there will ever be an upper class, recognized or not. There will always be people to lead and people to follow. Ultimately disparities exist not only in social hierarchy, just or not, as well as in individual integrity and ability to guide others.
Since social hierarchy itself is not sinful if people fulfil their roles in love and faithfulness, the problem really does lie in making the best hierarchical structure with distribution of powers that prevents abuse of power as far as possible. It is a problem, this one, that has faced human society from the beginning of earthly government.
But it is different for Plato’s society and a society where the people can be holy by God’s power and grace, even though they also fall by their human infirmity and rebellion against God. Those who follow Christ are called to think about holiness whether or not they are part of the guardian class. Plato wrote under the assumption that we all had to pull our own weight by human strength alone in cultivating virtue. But Christ’s rule in the Christian’s heart orders societies.
Jesus the Saviour of the world said the first will be last and the last will be first. It was He who gave us servant leadership, He who showed us what it was like, He who gives us power by His salvation to follow Him in doing it. He also calls people from every class and condition to be holy as He is holy, saving them from the misery of their sin, high and low. No longer does philosophic virtue, the individually good life, have to be jealously guarded from pollution from an otherwise shepherdless lower class.
Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Col. 3.11)
This is why education for the disciple of Christ should resemble a Platonic guardian’s, why the Protestants during the Reformation strove to educate their sons and daughters in the liberal tradition and included such “impractical” things as the study of classics. After all, what are the humanities for? Isn’t technological progress all we need? No, for the sciences point to the Creator and move the pupil to love of wisdom and true knowledge, while the humanities wrestle with what progress is worthwhile true progress and teach the pupil to be deliberate and not hasty.
A holy people can choose holy people to lead them in paths of goodness, truth and beauty. A cultivated class of upright rulers can serve the people with love and patience, even, by God’s grace, humility.