My Little Republic: Plato is Magic

Socrates, first among Bronies.

[Enjoy this article on the Platonic allusions of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic from Starswirl the Goateed – Ed.]

The popularity of the television show “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” among the Brony community is based on the show’s depth: Well-developed characters, complex plotlines, and numerous allusions to other works. However, My Little Pony is not simply the story of talking, pastel-colored equines living in a place called “Ponyville”; it is also the most detailed allegory of Plato’s Republic ever written. Everything from Plato’s ideas on utopian society and government structure to his Platonic Forms has representation in MLP’s Equestria.

Plato’s Republic, written in the fourth century BCE, is his most famous dialogue. Throughout most of his writing, Plato uses his teacher Socrates as a character who argues with various people about great questions of philosophy. Although the character Socrates is the one speaking in the Republic, consensus among scholars holds that that the ideas of Republic are those of Plato, not Socrates. In Book One of Republic, Socrates is challenged to prove that it is worthwhile to live a just life. To prove that justice is rewarding, Socrates decides to examine it on a larger scale than that of an individual. Since a state is a collection of individuals, he spends the majority of Republic envisioning the development of the most just city-state, a sort of utopia. It is this ideal city that resembles the Equestria of My Little Pony so closely.

Equestria and Kallipolis

The hypothetical utopian city-state of Republic is named “Kallipolis”, or “beautiful city”. Plato explains that the city starts simple and gradually grows more complex. He begins by claiming that Kallipolis follows one key principle: The division of labor. This is a central theme throughout Republic; ability determines government positions and placement in social classes. Plato argues that every individual is particularly good at one thing; everyone trying to produce a small amount of many different goods for themselves would be inefficient; rather, individuals producing a large amount of only one good would be far more effective.

As Plato put it:

“We must infer that all things are produced more plentifully and easily and of a better quality when one man does one thing which is natural to him and does it at the right time, and leaves other things.”

Republic, 2.370c

In Equestria, ponies come of age when they receive a “cutie mark”, a symbol representing their natural talent. It is the most important factor in determining the course of a pony’s life. In Equestria, ponies can do the one thing depicted on their flank with exceptional ability, a specialization of labor Plato could only have dreamed of.

Originally, Plato’s Kallipolis needs only a class of producers who provide vital goods or services: Farmers, carpenters, bakers, doctors, and artisans. However, over time, the population’s desire for luxury forces the creation of entertainment professions, such as actor and poet. Plato includes these professions with the producers as they operate in the same way as the producing class, working for private enterprises and “producing” private goods. With a growing population, it becomes necessary for the city to acquire more land, and with increasing wealth, there is increased threat of invasion. For both of these reasons, Plato says that a military becomes necessary for Kallipolis. Members of this military class, the “Guardians”, must be strong enough to defend the city, but also gentle in their demeanor towards their own citizens, lest they begin to oppress the producers. Plato compares the Guardians to guard dogs: Like a dog, a Guardian is gentle and friendly to his friends but fierce to his adversaries. Despite their athleticism, Guardians must, Plato says, hold a desire for wisdom.

Plato states that a governing class is needed to lead Kallipolis and he then divides the Guardians into two classes. The first, termed the Auxiliaries, serve the rulers of the state and act as a sort of military. The second is made up of those select few who, through years of trials, demonstrate the ideal qualities to rule. From this point forward in Republic, “Guardian” refers only to the latter, ruling class. Members of both these classes, to deter corruption by the desire for wealth, are allowed to hold very little private property. Since children often inherit the abilities of their parents, there is a loose hereditary nature to these classes.

To keep people happy with their place in society, Plato argued for the promotion of the “Myth of the Metals”, the claim that citizens are somewhat literally born from the earth of their nation. By supporting their nation, they are thus supporting their family. People are imbued with an essence of metal, which determines their social status in society. Each citizen must follow, for the sake of their country, the role in life determined by this metal; those with iron or bronze souls are predestined to work in the producing classes, while those of silver and gold will make up the Auxiliaries and Guardians. This is an example of a “Noble Lie”, a fictional myth portrayed as fact to encourage moral behavior.

In Equestria, ponies are divided into three “classes”, which are also loosely hereditary: The Earth Ponies, Pegasi, and Unicorns. The episode “Baby Cakes”, showing an earth pony couple giving birth to one Pegasus and one Unicorn, suggests that there can be change between generations, but the surprised reaction of the Mane 6 suggests that this is unusual. Earth ponies act as the producing class; Applejack the farmer and Pinkie Pie the baker both fit into this role of producing goods. With the exception of air shows and magic acts, Earth ponies also dominate the entertainment industry as the producers do in Kallipolis; the quartet that plays at the Grand Galloping Gala is entirely Earth pony, as is the entertainer Sapphire Shores.

Continuing with this model, Pegasi are equivalent to the Auxiliaries. Both are militaristic (although there is no standing army in modern Equestria, early Equestrian history referenced in “Hearth’s Warming Eve” depicts this side of the Pegasi), seek glory, and have great athletic abilities. Despite the absence of an army, the Pegasi still aid the rulers by occupying lesser government positions or providing public goods services: Controlling the weather, providing short notice security against threats in the case of the Wonderbolts, and controlling the common mail service. Rainbow Dash is a clear embodiment of the ideal Pegasus, especially after she takes up literary interests in “Read it and Weep”. Perhaps overly arrogant, she remains friendly with her allies, pugilistic with her enemies, and loyal to Celestia.

The greatest challenge with connecting the pony sub-species with Kallipolis’s three classes comes with the Unicorns. Twilight Sparkle, a Unicorn, is clearly undergoing training and education akin to that of one of Kallipolis’s Guardians in training; like a Guardian, she lives in a publically owned building that was temporarily given to her, the Ponyville Library. However, as far as has been revealed, she is alone in her training for future leadership. Equestria has two heads of state, and they are of the few living members of the mysterious Alicorn race. Other Unicorns, like Fancy Pants, occupy positions of importance in society, but they hold private property and receive no special treatment from Celestia.

While much of Republic is timeless, certain parts describe a social order that only existed in Classical Greece. There will always be under Plato’s system a producer class, a civil servant and military class, and a ruling class, but the specifics change with the times. On Earth, the industrial revolution allowed labor power to be collected into a small area; this made it far easier for businessmen to control the production of goods. A factory owning class, termed the bourgeoisie by Karl Marx, acquired much wealth and soon became the dominant social class. The limited presence of machines seen in the show, like the Super Speedy Cider Squeezy, suggests that Equestria is beginning a period of industrialization.

The Unicorns of My Little Pony hold most of their power through business, acting as the Equestrian bourgeoisie. Only Unicorns can run newly invented magical machinery. A few, like Flim and Flam, try to industrialize agriculture with their more efficient methods of production. The combined cultural and economic elite in Canterlot high society mirror the bourgeois elite of the 19th century. In this way, Unicorns are rulers, but in a more modern sense.

Equestria’s founding myth, depicted in “Hearth’s Warming Eve”, likely has some basis in historical fact. “Windigoes”, beings who feed off hatred to create cold, wintery conditions in Equestria, are almost certainly fictional, as no episode depicts a temperature drop when there is conflict. Similar to the “Myth of the Metals”, the myth of the Windigoes acts as Equestria’s “Noble Lie” by discouraging disputes between the sub-species and encouraging everypony to accept their place in society.

In book III and part of IV, Plato enters a remarkable level of detail in describing which books and poems should be permitted, and which ones censored. The question, he claims, is vitally important. The safety of Kallipolis depends upon a virtuous Auxiliaries and Guardians, and they must be given the proper moral teachings in their youth. Firstly, it is stated that all works must depict the Gods as being all-good and without vice. Secondly, all heroes must not only have no fear of death, but they must also not treat it as tragedy. Finally, all literature and artwork must depict heroes as conforming to the other virtues of the Guardians, such as honor, reason, and moderation.

Fictional literature exists in MLP but receives little attention. The only novel shown in detail in the show is “Daring Do and the Quest for the Sapphire Stone”, from a popular adventure series. The title protagonist, Daring Do, is a Pegasus. She is fearless, clever, and she has remarkable physical prowess and speed. There exists a clear dichotomy in the story between the evil, overconfident antagonist and the virtuous Daring Do. As depicted in the show, literature in Equestria promotes the values and ideas that create good Auxiliaries (or Pegasi.)

Forms and Elements

But there is a problem: Why would the Guardians agree to live a lifestyle renouncing possessions and pursuing truth? To this, Plato answers that the Guardians are philosophers (5.473c-d). This class of “philosopher-kings”, Plato says, will rule the state wisely promoting the interests of the populace as a whole. Plato defines a philosopher as one who can comprehend a higher level of understanding, one who understands Beauty itself as opposed to something beautiful. Plato calls these lofty ideas “Forms”, and they are among his most confusing concepts.

Plato argues that Forms are immaterial and exist in a higher level of reality. The Form of X is entirely X, unlike anything else; for instance, the Form of Justice is entirely just, thereby giving the definition of justice. In his Symposium, Plato wrote that a Form “is not anywhere in another thing…but itself by itself with itself” (Symp. 211b). There is one superior Form that gives existence and meaning to other Forms: The Form of the Good. For centuries, scholars have tried to understand what exactly this special Form is. Plato equated the Form of the Good to the sun in the “Allegory of the Cave”, contained within Book VII of Republic. In this allegory, Plato describes a man imprisoned in a cave, seeing the shadows of objects on the walls and thinking them the extent of reality. One day the man leaves the cave and sees real objects. But he can only see and understand those objects thanks to the light of the sun, the Form of the Good. The Good gives understanding to the world, but this is not its only function. In the Phaedo dialogue, Plato wrote, “The Good…must embrace and hold together all things.” (Phdo. 99c)

Many scholars agree that The Good is a sort of Harmony. They have pointed out that Plato’s utopia relies upon harmony to keep the three classes in cooperation. Harmony is the coexistence of multiple forces working cooperatively; a harmonious order is the opposite of chaos. If strife rose between the classes, Kallipolis would degenerate. The Good, by “embracing and holding together all things”, acts as this sort of order. In illuminating the world, The Good makes the universe ordered, more perfect.

Princess Celestia and her subjects hold harmony as the ultimate pursuit; natural chaos, such as free movement of clouds, was artificially removed from Equestria to allow for a more ordered, harmonious existence between creatures. Just as Kallipolis depends upon peace between the three social classes, Equestria is a nation founded upon the peaceful union of the three sub-species. If conflict were ever to develop between them, Equestria would quickly degenerate. Celestia focuses on promoting harmony, the supreme virtue, as opposed to any other virtue in Equestria. Interestingly, Celestia’s cutie mark is the sun, the physical representation of The Good. Celestia is clearly a philosopher-queen (or princess).

Equestria’s Harmony is composed of six elements: Honesty, Loyalty, Laughter, Magic, Kindness, and Generosity. These elements are, in a way, Forms; all of them can only exist in a state of Harmony (The Good). Understanding them takes great effort. Celestia sent Twilight Sparkle to Ponyville not to simply make friends, but as a test to see if she could comprehend the Elements. She and her friends each represent one of these elements, but none are as complete as the Form they represent. Fluttershy may be very kind, but she is fallible, and her kindness is certainly not on par with that of the Element (Form) of Kindness.

Events from “Hearth’s Warming Eve” illustrate the Allegory of the Cave, reinforcing the view of Harmony as The Good. The episode features a play based on Equestrian history. Before Celestia ruled, the different pony sub-species had separate tribes that frequently fought each other. In the play, strife forces ponies of different tribes to take refuge in a cave; their choice of refuge is not just coincidental. Unable to see beyond their ignorance and failing to understand Harmony, the ponies suffer in the cave from the ravenous winter, which the inharmonious cannot see even as ice envelops them. It is only through the embrace of Harmony that ponies are able to drive the back the onslaught of cold. After the thawing of the ice, ponies leave the cave and become enlightened.

Plato’s Equestria

It remains unknown whether these similarities to Plato’s Republic were Easter eggs placed by a philosophically minded writer or whether they exist by mere chance. Whatever the case, one can only imagine that Plato would be delighted at the similarities between My Little Pony and Republic. Not only has Hasbro supported Plato’s claims about utopian states from over 2300 years ago, but it is also teaching the messages of Plato’s ideal society to modern youth through a fictional tale that is easy to understand without sacrificing the complete message. If Plato could see MLP, then the true meaning of the show, the praise of a government as close to perfect as is possible, would resonate with him, even if he could not understand the modern American humor.

Yet, Plato did see the society of “My Little Pony” in the confines of his own mind. Instead of ponies, there were humans; instead of Equestria, there was Kallipolis. And although he never ate a single cupcake, Plato saw and loved the world of Equestria.