Lex Solo has asked me to write a blog post about the forms of government in Plato’s Republic: 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:
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.
First Socrates tries to defend the view that justice is to be sought for its own sake. In other words, doing the right thing is in your best interest, doing wrong—even if you have the power to get away with it—will only harm you. That’s quite a claim.
In order to see what justice is and whether it is to be sought for its own sake, Socrates asks us to imagine the soul ‘writ large’ as a city. (We have every right to ask whether this analogy flies—can an individual soul be compared to the ‘soul’ of group of individuals?—but that’s another question for another day).
Socrates’ first attempt to scale up the soul is often referred to as the city of pigs. It’s a simple commune that has everything required to meet its basic needs, but few of the luxuries we’re used to. 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 more than what they need or what nature can provide. Anything but the simplest art forms—maybe a few happy folk tunes, for instance—are deemed not only frivolous, but dangerous. These simple communal people want for nothing (supposedly), but Glaucon, Socrates’ interlocutor, immediately finds this city repulsive and insists its inhabitants should have the luxuries which he thinks are necessary for a good life.
If we read this as a political work, Socrates is here endorsing a form of communism. Glaucon is criticizing Socrates’ ideal, calling it a life suitable only for livestock, not for humans. This criticism is marks a turning point. From here on out, the course of the Republic is irrevocably altered. What follows is a description of the ‘feverish’ Kallipolis, The Beautiful City—philosopher kings, noble lies, censorship…as well as equal opportunity and education for women—chock full of gloriously perplexing details; in short, all the stuff we think of when we think of the Republic. It’s easy to forget how it all started, but we should try to keep in mind that much of the book is a description of a polity which Socrates deems less admirable than his city of pigs.
All throughout he repeatedly calls The Beautiful City sick, feverish, unhealthy. And since this city is actually an analogy of the soul ‘writ large’, the implication is that we are sick, feverish, unhealthy.
The Beautiful City contains a flawed premise which brings strife and war upon itself: the human soul is a soul divided against itself.
The Beautiful City needs drastic corrective measures—philosopher kings and all the rest—to achieve some level of stability: the individual soul needs to give reason absolute authority to rule over the other two parts of our soul (thumos: ambition or spiritedness, which can be either noble or aimless, as well as appetite: desire for food and sex, basically).
After the idyllic city of pigs, we have nothing but war and strife on a grand scale, and this is what it means to be human. The repugnant concept of philosopher kings leads some to come away with the sense that Plato endorsed fascism, but when you compare the city of pigs to kallipolis, the opposite would seem to be the case; it would seem if he endorsed anything, it would be a communal lifestyle, in so far as it’s possible for us.
On the other hand, it was Socrates who endorsed the communal lifestyle. What did Plato think? That’s a tough one. There are many interpretations out there. I think he meant to say our lust for luxury is a part of what makes us human (if only we could be pigs!), which seems to suggest we, being who we are, will never realize a perfect state. The philosopher kingdom cannot last long. Which is to say, we can only ever hope to achieve an approximation of an ideal. The world of politics is a mess, but how could it have gotten that way without individuals who made it that way? (That said, I do believe he thought it more worthwhile to “know thyself” than to get involved in trying to change the world, but I’d rather not go there now.)
Here’s the takeaway:
Socrates’ city of pigs is the garden of Eden from which we have expelled ourselves (by seeking out more than what nature provides).
The Kallipolis is an origin story about human nature, the soul divided against itself.
We do in fact have desires for things beyond the necessities of life. This is what it means to be human, isn’t it? But how do we satiate our desires? Is it possible to achieve happiness in a sick soul?
Not all is lost. We have reason as our medicine, our guiding light, our means of tempering excess desire. By exercising moderation, we can achieve something like inner justice, which is the very definition of happiness. This happiness wavers—we’re only human, after all!—and it ‘degenerates’ from time to time when lesser influences take over, but with ever-renewed vigilance, we can perhaps bring about an imperfect—and maybe for that reason a more glorious and spectacular—harmony of the soul.