The following text is based on a transcript by V. S. of a lecture on Plato’s Republic. As usual, I have edited his transcript to remove excessive wordiness.
Plato’s Republic is one of the greatest philosophical works. If you were to make a small list of the most influential books in all of history, clearly the Republic would have to be near the top. It’s one of those books that contains an account of everything, like the Bible, like Dante’s Inferno. It’s a book about the whole, and it has had an absolutely enormous influence ever since it was written, particularly in the West, although now that Western civilization has effectively been globalized, it has a global reach and a global influence. Given the enormous influence of this book, we all should read it. To have read the Republic is a cornerstone for being a well-educated person.
But what is the Republic about? Many people think that’s obvious. The Republic of Plato is a book of political philosophy. Its title in Greek is Politeia and is translated as “republic.” That sounds like politics. If you open the Republic you will find all kinds of discussions of political issues.
The dialogue begins with the question “What is justice?,” which occupies the first book and really all the rest of the Republic as well. When you get into the second book, the topic becomes the founding of cities. Socrates and his companions talk about the nature of culture, the founding of civilization, and the unfolding of civilization towards some kind of completion. As it turns out, the complete and best form of civilization is described as a city that has three classes. There’s a working class, a warrior class (the soldiers and policemen, called guardians), and then a ruling class, who are philosophers, of all things.
The education of guardians and of philosopher-rulers is laid out in great detail in the Republic. There is also an extensive discussion of the marital and family relationships that exist amongst the ruling class. There is no such thing as the private family or private property among the rulers. Children are raised by the state in common. Property is held in common. Sexual pairing is determined by lottery, so that personal preferences don’t enter into it. No one knows their own children or their own parents, because that would create conflicting loyalties. When people know their own offspring and parents, this provides them with objects of loyalty over and above the state, and the ruling class is to be bred to have no conflicting loyalties that would get in the way of their allegiance to the public good.
As it turns out, though, we discover that one simply can’t leave to chance who ends up running societies. Every society has to have some mechanism by which we can assure that the best people rule. The mechanism by which the best come to rule in the Republic has two forms.
One is an educational mechanism by which the brightest minds are promoted, and it doesn’t matter from what class they come. Even the children of the working classes, if they are extremely bright, can be promoted. And the children of the upper classes, if they’re very stupid, can be easily demoted and gotten out of the way.
But before education there comes a breeding program, a eugenics program, which is run in secret by the rulers. And although the warriors, the guardians, think that their matings are being determined by random chance, by lottery, actually the lottery is rigged in such a way that scientific breeding takes place to improve the overall quality of the herd, of the stock. The aim is that eventually the ruling class would be as distinct from the working class as well-bred Dobermans are from mutts that you find in the pound.
Sounds like a lot about politics.
Then when you get to books VIII and IX of the Republic you find that the reasons why this ideal sort of state would break down are laid out, and it has to do with the impossibility of calculating what they call the “nuptial number.” Commentators can make no sense of it, which may be the whole point. Could Socrates have anticipated the idea that a planned society will always founder on the “calculation problem”? Namely that central planning requires that we collect and take into account more data than is humanly possible. Therefore, such an ideal state inevitably degenerates.
What follows is a description of cities into which the ideal state would degenerate. Five cities are discussed. There is one best city plus four degenerate ones. The best city degenerates, necessarily, into a regime called timarchy or timocracy, which is a city ruled not by philosophers but by warriors who are concerned primarily with honor. This regime degenerates into oligarchy, where the rich rule, which is still better than what comes after it, the democratic regime where the many rule. Finally, there is tyranny, the very worst regime, which comes about as a necessary consequence of the internal forces of democracy. With tyranny, one hits rock bottom, and the only place you can go from there is up. So, the hope is that history will begin to cycle back through. This, again, sounds like an extremely interesting political teaching.
Book X of the Republic, the final book, begins with a discussion of philosophy and poetry. This theme is discussed earlier on in Republic II, but it is revisited with a vengeance when Socrates argues that for the good of the city poets will have to be expelled. His critique is specifically of what you might call art for art’s sake, a particular take on poetry that claims that poetry is somehow an autonomous, self-justifying end-in-itself, and that the poets don’t need to look to any higher authority to guide their activities. The only authority they look to is their own inspiration.
Plato thinks that this is a terrible idea, because it places poetry above philosophy, whereas on Plato’s account everything should be subordinated to philosophy. All the arts need to be subordinated to philosophy because philosophy pursues wisdom, and if you don’t have wisdom then you can’t use any art rightly or properly. Wisdom is what bends all the arts towards the good or orients them towards the good.
When poetry insists that it can stand on its own and be autonomous, it is really saying that it doesn’t have to be good, or that it sets its own standards of the good. Plato thinks that this is very bad for a society, and so he thinks that poetry has to become not autonomous but what we can call ministrative. Poetry has to be subordinated to philosophy and used to edify people morally.
Any poet who doesn’t wish to write morally edifying poetry under the guidance of philosopher-censors will have to leave the city. This means that the Tupac Shakurs would have to leave the city. The Beatles would have to leave the city. Dante wouldn’t have to leave the city because, of course, he’s all into edification.
The end of the Republic is somewhat disconcerting. It ends with a strange myth about the afterlife. In this myth, people have the potential to choose the kind of life that they would like lead in their next incarnation. The dialogue concludes on this oddly apolitical note. But I want to argue that actually the whole purpose of the Republic is to lead up to this issue of choosing one’s life, of what kind of life is most choiceworthy.
The theme of choosing your life appears throughout the Republic. It appears in Book I, Book II, Book VII, Book IX, and Book X. There are different ways of formulating the choice of lives. It’s the choice between the private life and the public life, the philosophical and the political life, the life of justice versus the life of injustice, the contemplation of reality versus the manipulation of appearances.
The manipulation of appearances is the life of sophistry, whereas the contemplation of reality is the life of philosophy. The sophists were teachers of rhetoric. They basically taught one to massage and manipulate the truth, and facsimiles of the truth, in order to persuade people to do one’s bidding. Sophists manipulate appearances, whereas philosophers contemplate reality, then act on the basis of reality.
There is the choice between the authentic and the inauthentic life. A choice between knowing one’s self versus knowing others, pleasing one’s self versus pleasing others. It’s the life of Odysseus versus the life of Achilles. That’s one way in which it is posed. And there’s the life of Socrates versus the life of Thrasymachus. Thrasymachus is a sophist who appears in the first book of the Republic. All of these are different ways in which this choice of lives is posed.
There is a Homeric subtext to the entire Republic. Specifically, it has to do with the Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Odysseus slaughters some animals, pours their blood into a trench, and has a mystical descent into the underworld. The Greek word for this descent is katabasis. Odysseus goes down to the underworld, and he sees the shades of many dead people.
One of the dead men he sees is Achilles. Remember that Achilles was given a choice of lives. He was given the choice between a long, anonymous private life and a short, glorious public life, and he took the short, glorious public life. Achilles was the paradigmatic Greek public man. He spent his entire life oriented towards public deeds: conquest and competition and the pursuit of honor and power.
Yet when he died and went down into the underworld, he came to regret his choice. Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather break sod for a peasant on the surface of the Earth than be king among the dead. This is a repudiation of the political life for the lowliest of private lives.
This is very important for understanding the Republic, because the Republic itself is a katabasis, a descent into the underworld. The first word of the Republic is kataben, “I went down.” And the lesson of the Republic is the same lesson learned by Achilles: that the public life of striving for honor is not worth choosing.
The Republic is a literary work by Plato, but it’s based on actual events that took place in the life of Socrates. Plato had a brother named Glaucon, and when he was coming of age, Glaucon went to the public assembly where the citizens of Athens were deliberating on some matter, and he tried to get up before the crowd and harangue them. He was obviously bent on leading a public life. He wanted to be a politician. Why?
Because in Ancient Greece the political life was how one pursued glory. Public men would vie for positions of responsibility in the city-state, and once they had attained these positions of responsibility, they would strive to acquit themselves well and to be acclaimed and receive honor and glory from their fellow men. Of course, they tried to gain as much power and wealth as they possibly could. Often times their careers would be cut short by death, often violent death, at the hands of rivals who were struggling after the same things.
Plato’s family was very concerned with Glaucon because he seemed to be excessively hubristic, excessively arrogant, and this was not a good strategy for long-term survival. Glaucon had all the qualities of the most infamous associate of Socrates, namely Alcibiades, who in his pursuit of glory ended up being a traitor to Athens and eventually was assassinated when he was relatively young. It was very clear that the family of Plato and Glaucon did not want their son following the same path. So, according to Xenophon, in his book Memorabilia, they asked Socrates to talk to Glaucon and to talk him out of this obsession with politics.
Glaucon is the central character, the central interlocutor, of the Republic, aside from Socrates himself. If you read the Republic carefully, the entire argument is constructed around the education of Glaucon, and its aim is to lead him away from the political life, the public life, to the private life or the philosophical life.
So the Republic is about what is the best life for a human being. It’s not about politics. Those who say it is about politics are guilty of a superficial reading. There’s a lot about politics in it. But it’s not fundamentally about politics.
The Republic is fundamentally about the question “What is the best life for a human being?” Only two choices are really considered: the life of philosophy and the life of politics. The life of making money is not considered at all. In ancient Greece, it was never considered an option for a gentleman to go into business or the crafts. The only truly respectable life was politics.
But Socrates and Plato made philosophy a respectable alternative to the political life for the Athenians. What we find here is Socrates actually pleading the case for the philosophical life as the best way of life for a human being.
In order to make that argument, Socrates and Plato have to argue about the nature of justice. The initial question in the Republic is “What is justice?” The Greek word for justice, dikaiosune, has two meanings. Aristotle discusses this in his Nicomachean Ethics. The first sense of justice is simply what you would call political justice, which has to do with treating other people properly, fair dealing with others. It’s an interpersonal relationship. Justice is governing your interpersonal relationships morally.
But there’s a broader sense of justice that isn’t an interpersonal kind of justice but, if you will, an intrapersonal kind of justice. Justice is a kind of relationship that you have not with other people but with yourself. A good English translation of this sense of justice is righteousness.
What is righteousness? Righteousness, ultimately, refers to all-around virtue. Virtue is understood as primarily a matter of the proper ordering of the soul. So, it’s an inner state. It’s a kind of relationship, but not a relationship between you and others but between one part of you and other parts of you within your soul. In the Republic Plato gradually transforms the topic of justice from the political sense of justice to this broader comprehensive spiritual sense of justice: righteousness. He exploits the ambiguity of the Greek word for justice.
The challenge that Socrates has in the Republic is to argue that the life of the philosopher is better than the life of the politician. To do this, he argues the hardest possible case. The challenge is to show that a just man, a person who is just in his soul, a man of good character, is better off than an unjust man, a man of bad character, even if the just man is not recognized for his justice but instead is punished for it, and the unjust man is not recognized as unjust but instead is rewarded for his injustice.
What Socrates has to argue is that justice is intrinsically valuable such that you’d want to be just, even if you didn’t get any rewards for being just, and even if all the proper rewards for being just were distributed to those who were unjust.
My favorite example of such an inversion is the treatment of Bill Clinton and Ken Starr, who investigated the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Starr is, by all accounts, a just and decent man. Yet he’s been smeared mercilessly as an evil man, and people have treated him as such. Whereas very few people really believe that Bill Clinton is a good man—aside from maybe Bill Clinton himself, in his state of utter delusion. No one believes that Clinton is a good man. Yet during the whole impeachment crisis, a substantial number of citizens treated him like he was a decent man. He got all the rewards of being a decent man, even though he wasn’t. Whereas the most decent person in the whole sordid scandal was treated the worst.
Now Linda Tripp is being prosecuted as a criminal. There’s another example. One of the few people in this whole sordid mess who behaved morally and prudently, and she’s being prosecuted as a criminal. Monica, the person who suborned perjury, is not being prosecuted as a criminal. Instead, she’s being given an advertising contract from a diet company and being paid $10,000 for each . . . What is it? A ton or a pound? . . . that she loses. I guess it’s a pound.
You see these kinds of shocking inversions all the time. What Plato wants to argue in the Republic is that Ken Starr is better off, and would be better off, even if they hung him up and gouged out his eyes—than Bill Clinton, even though he will be treated with all the respect and dignity due the President or former President of the United States for the rest of his life. Ken Starr would still be better off than Clinton, even though all just rewards have been sent to the wrong guy.
The question is who is really better off? Plato wants to argue that the just man is better off even if he receives no rewards for his justice, even if he’s punished as if he were a scoundrel, whereas the unjust man is still not to be envied even though he’s never punished for his injustice, even though he might be rewarded as if he were just.
The life of the just man is choiceworthy regardless of any extrinsic rewards or punishments that accrue to it, just as the life of the unjust man is not choiceworthy regardless of what extrinsic punishments or rewards accrue to it. Now, that means that Plato has to argue that being just is intrinsically as opposed to instrumentally good and that being unjust is intrinsically as opposed to instrumentally bad.
An intrinsic good is good in and of itself, whereas an instrumental good is only good for some purpose beyond itself. Many people will argue, for instance, that honesty is the best policy, which means that honesty is instrumentally good. It’s useful as a matter of policy to be honest. But some people would argue that it’s not just the best policy, it’s just the best, period. There’s something intrinsically good about it. Plato wants to argue that virtue is intrinsically good. Another way of putting it is that virtue is its own reward.
How does Plato argue this?
First, we must establish that virtue and vice are things that inhere inside the human being. Where do you find them? Virtue and vice dwell in the human soul. Socrates says that we have to understand the structure of the soul. We have to understand the soul’s nature and its parts and how the parts function together harmoniously to produce health or disharmoniously to produce illness. Once we understand this, we will understand what virtue is, because virtue is the health of the soul, and vice is the sickness of the soul.
The trouble is that the soul is intangible, invisible. If it has size at all, it’s very small. So, how do you see something that is very small, or something that can’t be seen at all, for that matter? You need something analogous to it that is large and visible. What is offered as the large, visible analogue of the soul—the soul writ large—is society. So, the political theme enters merely as an analogy for the soul. The structure of the city is treated as analogous to the structure of the soul, and by exploring the large visible structure of the city, we can throw light on the intangible, invisible structure of the soul. This is how the political enters into the Republic.
There is a long discussion of the nature of a city. By the end of Book IV, a solution is proposed to the question that is raised in Book I which is whether justice is intrinsically good or bad and what justice is. So, by the end of Book IV, the question of the Republic is answered.
But then we get a long digression, and this digression occupies Books V, VI, and VII. In V, VI, and VII, we get the most astonishing political proposals of the Republic. Namely, that wives and children should be held in common, the abolition of private property, and the rule of the philosopher-king. Here we encounter the most famous part of the Republic, namely the Parable of the Cave, and the images of the divided line and the sun which are used to lay out Plato’s metaphysical scheme. And all of this is a vast digression from the main argument of the Republic.
Then we have a strange segue at the beginning of Book VIII back into the political with what I can only describe as a mathematical farce, the nuptial number, which is the argument that the political regime that has been described merely to illustrate the structure of the soul cannot actually exist, and if it did exist it would degenerate into the four known forms of political regimes that they saw around them which are timarchy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny.
Then what happens in Books VIII and IX is a very careful, detailed description of the different types of souls that are characteristic of the citizens of these four degenerate regimes. In turns out that just as there is a strict analogy between the best city and the best soul, there is a strict analogy between degenerate cities and degenerate souls. Degenerate cities give rise to degenerate souls that are corrupt in the exact same way as the city, just as degenerate souls give rise to appropriate cities. There’s a kind of circular causation at work here. Oligarchy raises up oligarchical men, and oligarchical men demand more oligarchy.
The leading factor, though, is the soul. Timarchy degenerates into oligarchy when the souls of the rulers degenerate into oligarchical souls. So, the driving force of history is really human character, the human soul, and when people’s characters begin to change, the kinds of regimes that they live in will change, too. Thus, we find a whole philosophy of history and culture in these two books. At the core of this philosophy of history and culture are the different transformations that the human soul can undergo.
Then, at the end of Book IX, finally, Socrates brings us back to the question of what life do we choose. At this point, Glaucon is willing to choose the life of philosophy rather than the political life. In effect, the argument of the Republic is completed.
Then we have Book X, which is almost an appendix where you have side-by-side an attack on autonomous poetry, poetry for poetry’s sake, and a myth that is an example of poetry with an edifying aim. So, there’s something interesting about that last book. It attacks poetry, and it is poetry. After attacking poetry and arguing for the banishment of the poets, Plato then gives a poetic work, the Myth of Er, as a model of what poetry will be like in a perfected society. The Republic is just loaded with myths—myths and parables and stories. It not only contains myths, but it also theorizes about the importance of myth—why one would tell such tales.
Plato did write a dialogue called Laws, where he lays out more of his real political philosophy. It doesn’t really bear much resemblance to what you find in his Republic. The reason for that is, again, that the Republic isn’t really about politics. It’s about the soul. We have to read this as an exercise in what Plato in the Phaedrus calls psychagogy. Psychagogy just means the art of leading souls.
All of Plato’s dialogues are psychagogical because you have Socrates working with a particular human being who has a particular kind of character and particular psychological or spiritual needs. Socrates is trying to craft the speeches he gives and tailor them to the soul of the person he is speaking to in order to lead that person in the direction of health or virtue, which boil down to the same thing when you’re talking about the soul. Leading the soul to health is the same as leading it to virtue. This means that there are all kinds of hyperbolic and bizarre stories and proposals put forward in the Republic, but these things have to be read in terms of the underlying psychagogical project.
I think it will be clearer if I talk a bit about the structure of the soul that Plato discusses in the Republic. Plato claims that the soul has three parts. The parts of the soul are reason, spirit, and desire. Now, for Plato, these parts of the soul all have their appropriate “loves,” if you will, or needs. The soul is directed towards particular things in the world. It loves or needs the things that satisfy it. Reason has a particular love. Reason loves the truth. Spiritedness loves honor. And desire loves the necessities of life.
The basic structure of the soul is that it has three parts. But all of these parts are directed towards particular things needed for its satisfaction. Plato calls this directedness of the different parts of the soul towards their specific satisfactions love or eros. So, he speaks of the different parts of the soul having different loves. Love of victory or of honor, which characterize spirit. Love of gain or the necessities of life or money, which characterize desire. Love of the truth or love of wisdom, which are characteristic of the rational soul.
The different parts of the soul can relate to one another in essentially political ways, by which I mean in terms of ruler and ruled. Plato believes that human beings have a certain amount of freedom. Our basic freedom is to establish one part of our soul as the ruler over the others. We have a certain choice of the character that we have, the kind of life that we’ll lead. We make that choice by understanding the parts of the soul, then choosing which part will rule. There are three basic types of men for Plato: men ruled by reason, spirit, or desire.
What we get in the Republic is an extraordinarily exaggerated image of a soul ruled by reason, namely the philosopher-king, and also of a city, namely what is called the Kallipolis or ideal city, the “city in speech,” the republic in the Republic, which is ruled by reason, too. At the core of the Republic, then, is the image of the philosopher as a superlatively rational human being and of the ideal utopian city as the kind of city where reason in the form of philosopher-kings rules over other human beings.
There are all kinds of things that go wrong, though, when you establish the absolute dominance of reason in society. Plato illustrates these problems in the Republic by proposing things like the community of wives and children and the philosopher-king—or what he treats as an extraordinarily paradoxical, preposterous claim, namely the equality of the sexes, specifically the equality of the sexes among the guardians. Basically, he is talking about women in the military.
Why does Plato make these proposals? Well, one of the reasons is precisely to show the limitations of reason in ruling the soul and in ruling the city. Because he shows the extraordinary deformations of spiritual and political life that take place if they are ruled entirely by reason. But on the other hand, he’s very much concerned to implant within Glaucon this idea of being entirely ruled by reason.
By the end of Book IX, Socrates has convinced Glaucon that the kind of city ruled by philosophers could never come into existence. But Glaucon is just as much convinced that the kind of soul in which reason rules can and should come into existence and that he should strive to make himself as rational a human being as he possibly can be.
Why does Socrates do this? Is it because Socrates thinks that the healthiest soul is the kind of rational soul he presents in the Republic? The kind of rationality Socrates praises is oddly bloodless and mathematical. Why does he try to implant this kind of ideal into Glaucon’s mind if he gives reasons along the way that this might not be the healthiest thing?
This brings us to the psychagogical intent of the Republic. To understand this, we have to take a detour through Aristotle who gives us an explanation of how this kind of education works. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle talks about how every virtue is a mean between two extremes, two vices. One is a vice of excess and the other is a vice of defect. You thought that you only had one vice to worry about. But actually with every virtue there are two vices to be avoided, which is why Aristotle said being virtuous is hard. You go a little too far, and you’re in one vice. You fall short, and you’re in another.
Let’s concretize this with an example. Consider the virtue of courage. The vice of excess associated with courage is foolhardiness, which is a kind of excess courage, whereas the vice of defect is cowardice. The foolhardy man has too much fighting spirit. The cowardly man has too little. Courage is the mean. Practical reason is the ability to discern the mean. Thus discretion really is the better part of valor. Indeed, discretion is the better part of all virtues, because it allows you to hit the mean.
Aristotle gives a couple bits of helpful advice for becoming more virtuous, and one bit of advice is absolutely fundamental for understanding Greek philosophy: If you tend towards the vice of excess, the way to get to the mean of virtue is to aim for the opposite vice of defect.
Say a stick is bent, and you want to straighten it. How do you straighten a bent stick? You dampen it, then apply pressure to bend it back to the opposite extreme, and it ends up becoming straight. Or if you’re aiming at a target, you aim a little above the bull’s eye, because you know that gravity will then bring your arrow down to the point that you want to reach. This is the rule of thumb that Aristotle gives for moral education.
In the Republic, reasonableness and spiritedness are related to one another as vice of excess and vice of defect. Glaucon is characterized by an excess of spiritedness, and the way for him to correct his excess of spiritedness is to aim for the opposite extreme, which would be an excess of rationality.
I hate to use examples like this because people will think of me as a vulgarian, but let’s talk about Star Trek.
Consider Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy. Mr. Spock represents an excess of rationality, whereas Dr. McCoy has an excess of what you might call spiritedness. He’s emotional. He gets angry a lot. “Spock, you and your Vulcan logic!” and “These people are butchers!” One of the manifestations of spiritedness is a propensity to anger. Dr. McCoy really is excessively spirited. He’s always getting out of hand. Spock is a typical Vulcan, and I guess McCoy is supposed to be typically Scots-Irish.
Now, Dr. McCoy really needs to moderate his anger. He needs to become less spirited, less irascible in the same way that Glaucon needs to be less spirited and less irascible.
So, how could McCoy aim to be a more moderately spirited person? He could imitate Mr. Spock. You would never recommend anybody imitate Mr. Spock if you thought he would actually become Mr. Spock, because Mr. Spock is not an ideal person to be either. But if a person’s temperament is diametrically opposed to Spock, and the proper state is somewhere between him and Mr. Spock, then by aiming at Mr. Spock, you would end up getting to the mean which is the proper state.
Of course, if you have the two extremes of under-acting and over-acting, then you’d have Leonard Nimoy aim for William Shatner, and somebody would be a happy medium in between. The Captain would be more of a happy medium between McCoy and Spock. In fact, he functions that way in many of the episodes. Star Trek will now seem much richer to you, I hope. Plato has become impoverished, but Star Trek has become enriched through this analogy.
Socrates is trying to implant within Glaucon the desire to be more Spock-like. Not because he thinks that Glaucon can become Spock-like, or because it is a good thing to be Spock-like, but because he thinks that Glaucon needs to aim at that in order to get himself closer to what he really should be, which is an absent and unspecified middle position.
This unspecified position, which is never explicitly discussed in the Republic, is actually Plato’s model of the healthy soul, and, by analogy, it’s his model of the best city. This brings us to one of the most extraordinary characteristics of Plato: the way Plato teaches.
Plato writes in his Seventh Letter that he never set forth his own philosophy in any of his writings. That’s a pretty extraordinary statement for one of our greatest philosophers to make. But the question is: If Plato never wrote down his philosophy, then why in the world are we reading these dialogues?
Well, he never wrote it down, but you can infer his philosophy from the dialogues not just by reading what he says, but also by looking at what he does. The dialogues are not doctrines or compendia of doctrines, but they are psychagogical or spiritual dramas.
If you read the dialogues as compendia of positions, you find that Plato seems like a rather extravagant and goofy fellow. Plato believes in communism and in eugenics and in censorship, and things like that. How disreputable. “Thank God we’ve progressed beyond Plato!” Plato becomes an odd sort of footnote, essentially irrelevant to the modern consciousness, because we are all so sure that we’ve progressed beyond him, and he’s a sort of intellectual pygmy compared to anybody who lives today who happens to be in tune with our superior culture. So, any second-rate mind who’s in tune with our modern culture can feel superior to Plato. Frankly, I find this sort of attitude irritating. But you get this with college undergraduates, who patronizingly suggest, “Well, wasn’t Plato just a product of his time?”
Well, yes, but nothing important about anybody is really a product of his time. If Plato were merely a product of his time no one should read him. And insofar as Plato was a product of his time, he fails to be a philosopher, because what is essential about the philosophical ambition is precisely to become untimely, to transcend one’s time and place and make statements that are true universally.
Plato’s dialogues, if read as spiritual or psychagogical exercises, can lead us to an understanding of Plato’s views if we can follow where he’s leading our souls. Because the effect of the Platonic dialogues, the state of mind the dialogues lead us to, is Plato’s real philosophy.
There are four dimensions of Plato’s dialogues that must be taken into account to understand Plato’s teaching: the words, the events, the characters, and the spiritual effect. We don’t fully know Plato’s philosophy by treating the dialogues as mere compendia of arguments and myths. The dialogues are also stories, with characters and events, which the reader must also take into account. Moreover, as the dialogues unfold, the arguments and stories within them have an effect on the characters. The dialogues don’t just change the participants’ thinking. They also reorient their souls. And when the reader grasps the spiritual transformation taking place within the characters in the dialogue, that brings about spiritual changes in the reader as well.
The meaning of Plato’s dialogues cannot be grasped through any of these elements taken in isolation. The meaning is, rather, the total effect of all these aspects of the dialogues on the soul of the reader. Once you put this total effect into words, you have arrived at Plato’s teaching.
So, what would be the best soul for Plato? The best soul for Plato isn’t a soul simply ruled by reason, spirit, or desire. The best soul is ruled by a kind of fusion of rationality and spiritedness. What does that mean?
Spiritedness for Plato is directed towards values or ideals. But in the simplest forms, spiritedness is directed towards values. There are many things that humans can value. Our ability to value is extremely fluid and polymorphous. But the first thing that anybody seems to value is one’s self.
A spirited attachment to the self is not, however, what one would call an instinct for self-preservation. Why is that? Such an instinct would be a desire. Desire is the prompting to maintain life, to gain the necessities of life. You could talk about a life instinct, but spiritedness isn’t a life instinct. A spirited attachment to the self is not an attachment to one’s physical existence. It’s an attachment to the idea of the self. Spirit is an attachment to ideal values, unreal, non-concrete ideal values.
What is the idea of the self? It’s one’s self-image. When one forms an attachment to one’s self-image one can call that one’s sense of honor, one’s self-esteem. But along with this notion of self-esteem comes the concept of honor.
The clearest example of this is when someone treats you in a way that doesn’t fundamentally accord with your image of yourself. What happens when somebody does that to you? If you think well of yourself, and somebody cuts you off in traffic or barges in front of you at a movie theater or pushes you aside with his overladen basket in the grocery store, what’s the reaction that you have? Anger. You feel dishonored, disrespected, and you get angry. So, anger is always connected with the spirited part of the soul. It gets angry over ideals that are not properly respected, including the ideal of one’s self.
The trouble with spiritedness is that it’s a somewhat undiscerning capacity to value. So, for instance, even murderers and psychopaths have a certain attachment to themselves, a certain fondness for their selves that goes over and above their self-preservation instincts. You also form spirited attachments to things that are close to you like your family and your friends.
What we call sentimental attachments are spirited attachments because they are affixed to things that are intimately connected with and almost definitive of one’s identity. So, there’s a broadened sphere of the self. One gets upset when somebody attacks a member of one’s family. If somebody disrespects your sister, you get angry over that. If somebody says “Your momma wears army boots,” you might want to knife them.
But sadly some families are just packs of wolves. Some people would be better off being raised by wolves than by their own parents. And yet people still form attachments to them. Or attachments to one’s hometown. Or one’s native tongue. Or one’s homeland. Spiritedness forms attachments that are somewhat undiscriminating as to the true and proper things that one really ought to value.
When writers like Adam Smith talk about moral sentiments, they are really referring to is this part of the soul. Let’s not treat it as mere sentiment, though, because there are some sentiments that are good. When you talk about sentimental attachments you are talking about attachments to things that are familiar and old. These things are very much caught up with your sense of self, your personal history. But sentimentality can easily take on a negative, dark quality because is often connected to a false sense of innocence, including one’s own innocence.
But, on the other hand, the last thing you want is a human being who is not fundamentally oriented towards values—values over and above creature comforts and self-preservation. Human beings can be turned into very mean animals by devoting themselves to creature comforts and self-preservation. People can be enslaved by their desires.
The lack of values is nihilism. The rule of pure reason in the soul is in danger of becoming nihilistic. A concern simply with facts, with the logical, with the mathematical, with the rigorous, leads to scientists who say, “This is just a morally neutral activity. We’re just hired brains, and we’ll work for anybody. We’re not concerned with ethics. We’re concerned with simply getting to the facts.” This morally cowardly or nihilistic attitude has been transformed into a kind of moralistic mission, a high calling and purpose, a kind of religion of science.
The possibility of a Mr. Spock strikes me as deeply disturbing. Since pure reason—reason understood as a mere calculative faculty—doesn’t give rise to values, but people still have to act, the Mr. Spocks end up being ruled, oftentimes, by their basest desires. There’s an alliance between amoral, scientific rationalism and hedonism.
Here, again, I will lapse into Star Trek. Just think of Mr. Spock. What makes Mr. Spock tick? It’s kind of hard to understand what motivates him. Being in a ship that explores the cosmos and collects facts is the perfect place for a Vulcan. But every seven years Mr. Spock goes insane and runs amok when his desires take over. He oscillates between a distracted scientific rationalism and an unhinged hedonism.
Another example of this from pop culture is an episode of The X-Files that I call “The Robot Cockroaches from Outer Space” episode, because I forget the episode’s real name. In one scene a sexy female entomologist, a bug scientist, is talking to Fox Mulder in a darkened lab at night. She says, “I admire insects. They don’t have any pretensions. They just eat and sleep and breed, and that’s it.” At that point, you expect the two of them to tear one another’s clothes off. Because that’s what it’s leading up to.
Here again we have a scientific mind that sees values as essentially subjective and arbitrary and thus unworthy of any respect, teamed up with a kind of hedonism that thinks that animals are superior because they lack morality and self-consciousness. Human beings have this strange tendency to erect systems of values that tamp down on purely physical impulses like sex. Cockroaches don’t write love sonnets or commit suicide over broken hearts. They just reproduce and die in a sort of blissful unconsciousness. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we were that way?
We live in a culture where there’s a tag-team routine between pure science, which sees through values and creates an atmosphere of cynicism, and a carnivalesque, hedonistic popular culture that’s all too happy to have all these pretenses torn away, because after all these things get in the way of our satisfaction.
There’s something deeply disturbing about a mind that’s ruled by pure reason, because pure reason needs to be ruled itself. It needs to be ruled by an orientation towards what is good. Nothing we excogitate is unconditionally good. There are all sorts of ideas and inventions that maybe shouldn’t exist, if we think in terms of oughts, of what is good. The activity of reasoning itself needs to be governed by an orientation towards the good, towards values.
The Platonic view is something like this: The mind that is ruled by an orientation towards ideals, bereft of reason, could be swept up by irrational enthusiasm. But at least it’s idealistic. At least it’s open to the good, however mistaken it might be about it. Whereas the mind that is exclusively rational without a value orientation is capable of seeing through the difference between truth and falsehood, but it has no values to guide its activities. So one needs a kind of fusion of value orientation with rationality. One needs, in short, knowledge of the good. One needs an orientation of the rational soul towards the good and by the good.
The whole reproductive regime of the Republic is a picture of a world where human attachment is annihilated except for attachment to the city. It’s an inhuman and unrecognizable world, based on the rule of a pure functional rationality that insists that human beings have one aim, which is to perform their function in society, and everything that competes with that aim has to be eliminated in the name of mechanical perfection. Thus natural human love of one’s own, our preferences for things other than society as a whole—our families, our friends—must be uprooted. It’s a kind of engineering mentality. There’s something insane about that. Especially when you apply it to human beings.
The proposal about sexual equality is made in total abstraction from the body. We’re talking about putting women in the military, and the first thing that Socrates proposes is that physical differences are absolutely irrelevant. Only mental faculties should be taken into account. What a preposterous notion! We’re talking about soldiers and the police. Why would one abstract away from the body? Well, if one has a kind of autistic bloodless logicality, these aren’t differences that make any difference.
Then there’s the discussion of wives and children in common and community of property: the communist proposals. Again, these illustrate the impropriety of abstracting away from natural human partiality. Such partialities are just part of human nature. They could be good or bad, but they can’t be gone. All of these weird proposals are there precisely to illustrate the limits of a kind of bloodless rationality in ruling over of life.
These proposals are not Plato’s actual policy prescriptions, and he knows they are problematic if taken as such. They are instead offered as psychagogical exercises to help Glaucon. However, I wish to argue that reading the Republic as a psychagogical exercise still points to Plato’s true model of the best regime.
You find this claim in Socrates: To know what’s good is to do it. If you know what is right, and if there are no forces preventing you from acting on it, then you do it. Virtue is a kind of knowledge of the good. With virtue, it’s possible to bring knowing—rationality—together with the good. It’s possible to educate our sentiments, to educate our spiritedness, to imbue it with the capacity to distinguish between truth and falsehood in the realm of values. This is at the core of what Platonic philosophy is about.
The best kind of soul, therefore, is a soul that is primarily oriented towards values, but is purified by and educated by reason in such a way that it becomes discriminating between true and false values. It represents a kind of fusion of rationality and spiritedness.
But the ruling principle seems to be spiritedness. Spiritedness is the final ruling factor for the simple fact that reason has to be ruled by values. Yet, at the same time, your value orientation needs to be informed by reason, to be educated by reason, to be made subtle by reason, and to have its illusions purged away.
Now, let’s ask what kind of city would be analogous to that ordering of the soul. It would be a city ruled by spirited types, but these spirited types would be liberally educated. They would be educated by philosophers to be discerning about issues of truth and falsehood. It would be a city ruled by gentlemen, gentlemen who go to school and get liberal educations from philosophers.
Now let’s stand back and look at the whole drama of the Republic: That is exactly what we see. We see an ambitious young gentleman being educated by an older philosopher. The best kind of regime is not the rule of philosophers, nor the rule of mere spirited barbarians, but the rule of spirited men who are educated by philosophers.
The concept of spiritedness, thumos, first appears and is developed in Books II, III and IV. Thumos is located in the chest. In the Timaeus, Plato associates the three parts of the soul with three parts of the body. There’s reason which is in the head, spiritedness which is located in the chest where the heart and lungs are, and desire which is located in the belly.
Why is thumos associated with the chest? Because when you get angry your heart beats. When you hear stirring music, like a national anthem, you feel it in your chest. So, there’s actually a physiological meaningfulness to locating this capacity to value in the heart and lungs.
It turns out that whenever Glaucon is described he is characterized as being spirited. Glaucon is described as erotic, musical, and spirited, and when these topics come up, Glaucon is the one who discusses them.
The musical dimension of Glaucon is what makes him susceptible to liberal education, because as it turns out music refers to all the liberal arts, all of the things having to do with the muses. So, the best regime is a society where you have gentlemen who are educated in the liberal arts by the philosophers, but the philosophers don’t rule.
Alfarabi was a Medieval Arabic philosopher. This is Leo Strauss on Alfarabi’s commentary on Plato:
We may say that Alfarabi’s Plato eventually replaces the philosopher-king who rules openly in the virtuous city by the secret kingship of the philosopher, who being a perfect man precisely because he is an investigator, lives privately as a member of an imperfect society which he tries to humanize within the limits of the possible.
The philosopher is a person who strives for spiritual perfection in the midst of a society that he doesn’t expect to become perfect, but he seeks to humanize that society as much as possible. How? Ultimately, by educating its rulers.
The Republic tries to make clear that the analogy between the city and the soul is extremely useful, but that it ultimately breaks down when you talk about philosophy, because there can be no city that’s analogous to the philosophical soul. There’s a kind of incommensurability of the interests of philosophy and the city. There’s never going to be a complete harmony between the interests of philosophy and the interests of society.
Why is that? There are two important reasons.
First, for Plato, every society is ultimately partial, parochial. Even the best societies are going to have an Us or Them quality to them, whereas philosophy can’t be limited by those kinds of considerations. Philosophy is cosmopolitan.
Second, every society needs to make some opinions authoritative. Every society has to have basic, unquestioned presuppositions that the average functioning citizen simply believes in if the society is going to work. But philosophy can’t have any unquestioned presuppositions. You can’t let certain things go undiscussed. So, the interests of political stability are always going to be inimical to the interests of philosophical investigation.
One of the things that the Republic tries to teach is precisely this disanalogy, the fact that there will never be a society analogous to the soul of the philosopher, and that philosophers will always, therefore, have to live in imperfect cities. But if you look at what Socrates does in the Republic, he’s trying to improve that imperfect city by educating the minds of its ruling class.
 A student asked about the relationship of Plato’s critique of poetry to the defense of poetry in Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago and the film based upon it. This is my answer:
What the Communists objected to is any notion of private life or values. Poetry seems to be such a private thing. Zhivago is writing love poems about Lara. But poetry can exist even if it is private in some sense. I don’t think the idea of privacy would be bothersome to Plato, but the idea of purely entertaining poetry, or poetry for its own sake, or poetry that is actually lurid, prurient, corrupting—justifying itself by saying the artist doesn’t have to bend before any higher standards: This is the kind of stuff that Plato wants to rid the city of.
But, of course, there were poets writing Red poetry. “My love is a tractor tilling the soil. My love is smoke from the factory oil.” That kind of poetry. The best kind of love story was between a worker and a peasant. Those were always the best. Those are the most socially approved. The hammer and sickle love stories.
 I hate The X-Files because of the combination of cynicism and credulity that it tries to spread through our culture. It’s also boring and farcical. The characters never grow. After seven years of seeing aliens and all manner of vampires, Scully just couldn’t be the same sceptic that she was at the beginning.
 Leo Strauss, Introduction to Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 17; cf. “Farabi’s Plato,” Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume (New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1945), p. 384.
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