Lex Solo has asked me to write a blog post about the forms of government in Plato’s Republic, and instead of giving a simple explanation of these, I had to go off topic: Was Plato’s Republic truly a political work? Was he really anti-democratic? Here is some of what I had to say on the matter (the original post on Lex Solo’s blog with the explanation of political forms is here):
Is the Republic a work in psychology?
YES. A lot of people read the Republic as primarily political (given the title, and the fact that it’s taught in political theory classes, and quotes like the one below, it stands to reason) without giving much thought to the questions that kick-start the whole enterprise. But I’m not sure we can take Plato’s political theories here at face value. We must keep in mind that the turning point in the dialogue is when Socrates stops his questioning and begins a rare exposition in which he tries to defend the view that justice is sought out for its own sake. Might does not make right. Doing the right thing will make you happy—quite a claim!—and doing the wrong thing, even if it seems enticing, will only harm you. The individual’s pursuit of justice as happiness is ‘writ large’ for the sake of clarifying the issue. We are to imagine a perfect city as a metaphor for the perfect soul. (We have every right to ask whether this analogy flies, but that’s another question for another day).
The first attempt to “scale up” the just soul is supremely simple. Often referred to as the city of pigs because of its lack of luxuries, it’s grotesque simplicity is the cornerstone of Socratic aesthetics. Each person in the community specializes in a particular skill, such as farming or carpentry, and ‘minds his own business’. There is no need for warfare because no one seeks out anything in life except the bare necessities of food and shelter, etc. Anything but the simplest art forms—maybe a few happy folk tunes, for instance—are deemed frivolous. These simple communal people want for nothing, but Glaucon, Socrates’ interlocutor, finds this city repulsive and insists on an expansion into luxuries which he thinks are necessary for a good life.
Who doesn’t want to enjoy a nice glass of un-watered-down wine from time to time, right? Maybe a little Tomme de Savoie to go with it?
Who knew you’d have to go to war for it.
From here we move on to the rest of the Republic, which Socrates describes as being in a ‘feverish’ state in which war is necessary to achieve the goal of luxury. A glorious exposition of forms of government, education of the ruling class, etc, follows. So glorious we often forget why we started. At this point it’s important to recognize that what is described from here on out is no longer ideal in the strictest sense, but somehow degenerate, sick. And this premise we should remember to take as a parallel in the human soul.
After the city of pigs, we have nothing but war and strife on a grand scale. Because of our lust for luxury, because of our natural greed, we will never realize a perfect state. The forms of government devolve, degenerate, because of this natural greed. The philosopher kingdom cannot last long.
Many first-time readers of Plato come away thinking the philosopher kingdom is Plato’s ideal polity and that he was nothing but a fascist. It’s certainly true that anti-democratic strains appear here and elsewhere in Plato. But what do we make of the fact that Plato has Socrates include equal rights for women in his just city? There’s definitely more at play here than what meets the eye. Despite what I.F. Stone says on the matter, I don’t believe Plato’s anti-democratic tendencies here reveal what he thought a just government would look like. We have very little idea of what he thought about equal rights and slavery, as not much detail can be gleaned from a project that is not at its heart a pragmatic political treatise.
Socrates’ city of pigs is the garden of Eden from which we have been expelled. Let’s take this back down to the psyche. To achieve a city of pigs within myself, I would have to stop lusting for anything but bare necessities. In reducing my desires to this simple state, I could achieve happiness.
But then I’d be a pig.
And yes, your dog is your superior. But everyone already knows this. (Scroll down to the dog question).
The truth of it is, we have desires for things beyond the necessities of life. This is what it means to be human. How do we satiate our desires? Is it possible to achieve happiness in a sick soul? Should we start a war with life, seeking goods outside ourselves, chasing fame and wealth and pleasure? No, because in the end, we come up dissatisfied. But dammit, it’s who we are.
Not all is lost, though. We have reason, the only medicine that will cure the ailment of being human. Using reason as our guiding light to temper our excess desire, we can in our moderation achieve something like inner justice, happiness. This happiness wavers—we’re only human, after all!—and it degenerates from time to time when other influences take over, but a renewal, a vigilance, can perhaps bring about an imperfect—and maybe for that reason a more glorious and spectacular—harmony of the soul.