Plato, America, and Thanksgiving


What hath Plato to do with Thanksgiving? Read on!

Earlier in our semester we read from Plato, who argued for a propertyless utopia which he called “The Republic.” Having no property, there would be no division or fighting among the people but perfect harmony with everyone working for the whole (end of ch. 7 – beginning of ch. 8).

Plato’s idea was (indirectly) tried by the early pilgrims to America, who initially held land and goods communally instead of privately. It was a dismal failure. Most of the colonists died of famine.

Plymouth Colony’s Governor William Bradford reflected on the scene, laying the blame on who? None but Plato! —

“The failure of that experiment of communal service, which was tried for several years, and by good and honest men, proves the emptiness of the theory of Plato and other ancients, applauded by some of later times – that the taking away of private property, and the possession of it in community, by a commonwealth, would make a state happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God…community of property was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment which would have been to the general benefit.”

Plato’s idea of communal property had failed spectacularly. So, what did the Pilgrims do? They threw out the old system. After Thanksgiving in 1623, Bradford said, “The Governor, with the advice of the chief among them, allowed each man to plant corn for his own household…So every family was assigned a parcel of land. This was very successful…for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn, which before would allege weakness and inability, whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”

In other words, they threw out Plato’s communal Republic and tried private property and greater liberty. It required more work but became a bountiful success that paved the way for the first Thanksgiving.

We can learn from the ancients, even if sometimes it is what not to do!

Happy Thanksgiving!

P.S. If you would like to read more of this particular episode, check out chapter 3 of this book or you can read the broader history of Thanksgiving in this book.


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