Sunday, August 31, 2014

Politeia (Part IV: Cities and Souls)

Book VIII and Book IX

Having discussed the community of good and philosophical education in the excellent city, Socrates can return to the point he began at the beginning of Book V, before he was interrupted by Polemarchus and Adeimantus. However, as is often the case, the digression is not wholly digressive, since in the course of it Socrates already began what he had said he was going to do: explore the relation between justice in the city and justice in the individual. The just city and the just individual have both been developed in lockstep, so now he has only to consider the other kinds of city and the kinds of individual that are like them. He does this by looking at how the kallipolis can degenerate into timarchy, timarchy into oligarchy, oligarchy into democracy, and democracy into tyranny. (So much is coming together in these books that there is simply no way to summarize it all. I will merely note a few highlights.)

The kallipolis, being a truly just city in which all parts work for common good, has no intrinsic tendency to deteriorate (and thus neither does just character), but in a world of time and change nothing can happen perfectly. Over time, mistakes happen; if they are not corrected quickly enough, they accumulate. The disparity between being good and seeming good becomes more serious, as merely seeming good occasionally gets rewarded and actually being good gets shortchanged or even penalized. The temptation to focus on seeming good rather than being good becomes greater. When the individual gives into this temptation, he or she becomes a timarchical soul, and when the city's policy becomes dominated by such individuals, it becomes a timarchy.

Each city after the kallipolis has, in addition to the extrinsic cause of degeneration (accumulation of errors), an intrinsic tendency to degenerate. The timarchy, based on love of victory and honor, is driven by appearances, which are dependent on either luck or resources. Mere drive to accumulate resources is depreciated, but in practice a timarchy has a secret drive for accumulating these resources as means. As this expands in the face of difficulty, it tends to approximate more closely to a drive for accumulating resources just to increase resources. When this dominates city policy or individual life, the result is oligarchic.

Oligarchies are driven by the desire for having more, but they make a distinction among desires: some desires are taken to be dominant and preferable to others, namely, those closely linked to accumulation. An oligarch will exercise considerable self-discipline if profit is on the line, but doing this in practice requires a split life. This manifests as a divide between the accumulating part (in the city, the rich) and the part that sacrifices for the sake of accumulation (in the city, the poor). For this to work, the rich city must give the poor city reason to think that it is benefiting from the arrangement: bread and circuses. But over time, the poor city demands more and more. Eventually it demands, and keeps demanding, more than the rich city can actually give. The poor overthrow the rich and redistribute everything. In the individual, the same overthrow happens; the individual grows tired of sacrificing so many pleasures, and begins to pursue not merely secure pleasures but luxurious pleasures.

This is democratic life, devoted to letting as many parts pursue as much as they can. In the city, this means letting each individual do whatever he or she pleases, as much as possible -- this 'as much as possible' is determined by allowing any pursuits that are harmless and disallowing what is harmful to other pursuits. This makes for an apparent win-win situation for everyone, but in reality it can only work as long as there is perfect agreement about what is harmless and what is harmful. The democratic life by its nature, however, has nothing that can guarantee this agreement. Disagreements about which pleasures are harmless and which are harmful accumulate; coherence is actually maintained only by force -- people with shared standards gang up on those who do not conform to those standards and pressure them to back down into an at least superficial conformity. At some point, however, some part or other of the city has the means to pander to a large portion of the city, and thus can go as far as it wants in eliminating opposition, and then we have tyranny. The tyrannical soul is the one that indulges its strongest desires without any significant restraint.

City Governing Principle Coherence in Pursuit of Good Dominant Element in Soul Motivating/Restraining Factor (=What Counts as Progress)
Kallipolis Philosophy/Virtue Completely One City Reason Being Good
Timarchy Honor/Reputation Approximately One City Thymos (Spirit) Seeming Good
Oligarchy Profit Two Cities (Rich & Poor) Necessary Appetite Accumulation
Democracy Toleration Each Individual a City in Loose Alliance Luxurious Appetite Diverse Pleasure
Tyranny Rule Every Individual a City at War Brutal Appetite Arbitrary Force

But when these characters are put on the large scale of a city, we can clearly see ways in which this is a real degeneration. The city, or the individual, becomes increasingly incoherent, descending into increasing conflict. Moreover, despite the apparent proliferation of pleasure as the degeneration continues, the more limited the pleasures become; less and less of the individual, or the city, is actually given any satisfaction. It becomes less and less a matter of every part working for the best good of every part and more and more a matter of constant struggle of every part even to have good at all.

But this is sufficient ground for answering the challenge Glaucon and Adeimantus had originally proposed, namely, to show that justice was better in itself as well as in its consequences. This is summarized in the Myth of the Beast of Many Heads: when the human head (reason/lovers of wisdom) unites with the lion head (spirit/lovers of honor) to cultivate the multiform beast (appetite/lovers of wealth), all parts benefit, because reason or philosophical rule is the only thing that can take into account the good of every part. If other parts try to dominate, the good of reason is necessarily shortchanged and, equally necessarily, the rest can achieve only an imperfect coherence -- parts start working against each other. When the multiform beast dominates, it can't even maintain coherence in itself, much less the whole, and everything gets shortchanged, even harmed on its own terms, except, in the end, by luck. What is more, it has by the same token become clear that only where philosophical education is involved is there any clear grasp of what is genuinely good or not; the degenerate states are precisely states in which other things are allowed to interfere with, and take precedence over, understanding.

  Additional Remarks

* One way to understand the idea behind the division of constitutions is to see them as answering a significant question: How can a city be as effective as Sparta, but in the realm of virtue? The kallipolis is in this sense a very idealized Sparta, one devoted not to victory and war but to wisdom and justice; it is therefore governed not by warriors but by those who are to wisdom what warriors are to victory, i.e., philosophers or lovers of wisdom. The timarchy is the Spartan self-image. The oligarchy is the imitation Sparta set up by many oligarchs in various cities, including Athens. The democracy is the Periclean vision of Athens. But this is all quite crude; the correspondence is not intended to be exact, because all real cities consists of populations that are mix of the citizens of these ideal cities, and the overall policy of the city is determined by whichever kind of citizens happens to dominate.

* The description of the rise of the tyrant in 565c and following appears to be a highly idealized depiction of the rise of the tyrant Pisistratus in the sixth century BC (the tyranny thus created was ended by the return of democracy, which is depicted -- albeit in a deliberately ironic and incorrect way -- in Hipparchus.

* The mathematical argument for the philosopher having a life 729 times more pleasant than the tyrant's is notoriously difficult to follow. However, 729 is significant in that it is both a square and a cube (3 x 3 x 3 = 27 x 27). Thus the tyrannical man's happiness is flat, but the philosophical man has a volume of happiness; he is quite literally more well-rounded in his pleasures. 729 also seems to have had some significance for the Pythagoreans as a symbol of human life, which seems to be the point of the comment at 588a. Notice, however, that Glaucon seems more amused than convinced by the argument, that Socrates immediately puts the emphasis not on the pleasure but on gracefulness (euschymosyne), beauty (kallei), and excellence/virtue (arete) -- the pleasantness is just a sign of these things, and in these things the philosophical life is immeasurably greater.

* Notice that, in fact, education has not stopped being the main theme of discussion: the degeneration series is presented as a degeneration in education, and the conclusion of the whole is in part that when dealing with children we should "establish a constitution in them, just as in a city, and--by fostering their best part with our own--equip them with a guardian and ruler similar to our own to take our place" (590d).

Book X

Socrates returns to the discussion of music, poetry, and physical education, by discussing how the argument to this point has confirmed his original arguments about the foundational education for the just city. The governing issue throughout the previous books has been that of the disparity between appearance and reality; thus it shows that the key principle of education needs to be that of getting the student to grasp what is really good and not what is merely an imitation of it. The problem with much of what passes for education (in terms of music, poetry, physical education) is that rather than being concerned with what is really good, it has a democratic character -- it is devoted to pleasing as many as possible. Thus it takes on the features of democratic life, and only manages to reflect justice and goodness in the very indirect way democratic life does. Participating in it plays more to our multiform beast than to anything else, and this can cultivate a degenerative imbalance in our lives. But we should be guided instead by what is really good; "we mustn't be tempted by honor, money, rule, or even poetry into neglecting justice and the rest of virtue" (608b). This is a matter of health of life: just as disease is disorder of body, so vice is disorder of life, and they both tend toward destroying what has them.

But this provides a context for looking at the relation between justice and Hades, which was first raised in Book I and was restated by Adeimantus. The soul, what it is that makes us alive, is itself apparently indestructible, being the sort of thing that in philosophy can have kinship with indestructible truth and goodness. In facing the challenge raised by Glaucon and Adeimantus, Socrates had to find a way to describe justice independently of its appearance and reputation; but it is nonetheless true that justice does have a good appearance and reputation among gods and men, and we should expect the gods to favor it in the long term. When we do we see that not only is injustice degenerative in itself, unjust people are like those who run very well for the first part of a race but fail to run well the longer the race gets, sometimes even failing in this life itself, among human judges, but especially failing after it when the judges are divine.

Thus we come to the Myth of Er, which manages to pull together strands from many other afterlife myths found in plate (e.g., the Myth of Judgment in Gorgias, or the Myth of the Chariot in Phaedrus). Part of the point of it is to depict a way of seeing each choice as having great weight and importance. Every just choice lays out a direction of progress that extends out much farther than we might imagine, and the farther one goes in that direction, the greater the difference in value between a just and an unjust life. Injustice requires extraordinary myopia.

Thus we come to the final conclusion of the dialogue, summed up by Socrates:

But if we are persuaded by me, we'll believe that the soul is immortal and able to endure every evil and every good, and we'll always hold to the upward path, practicing justice with reason in every way. That way we'll be friends both to ourselves and to the gods while we remain here on earth and afterwards--like victors in the games who go around collecting their prizes--we'll receive our rewards. Hence, both in this life and on the thousand-year journey we've described, we'll do well and be happy. (621c-d)

  Additional Remarks

* Notice that the good life is, Aristotle-like, understood as a choice of a mean between extremes (619a).

* The afterlife myth here is given the justification that seems to be the usual justification for afterlife myths in Plato (cp. Gorgias especially); it is less about what actually happens after one dies than about providing a way to see more clearly the soul "as it is in its pure state" (611c).


Quotations are from Plato, Republic, G. M. A. Grube and C. D. C. Reeve, trs. Hackett (Indianapolis: 1992).


  1. Enbrethiliel12:46 AM


    Let me try this again . . .

    I came over as soon as I read your tantalising comment on my Oryx and Crake post, and now I feel like the naughty pupil who studied the Cliff's Notes instead of the actual text. =P

    Do you know what these five cities remind me of? Those personality quizzes
    that tell you what "type" you are. Like "Which Platonic city would you be most at home in?" I'd probably end up in a democracy, sadly. And I know exactly where I'd place a lot of the people I follow on Twitter--though it's probably not where they fancy they'd go! LOL!

    But I have been torn for some time over my desire to live and let live and my desire for that ideal "village" that Sheila and I have been discussing on my blog. On the one hand, I don't want to force anyone to do anything; on the other hand, I really wish that I could agree on the good with everyone close to me. I long for a kallipolis. But every time I try to brainstorm a way to make my community something closer to one, I end up with something closer to a tyranny. =P Which probably wouldn't surprise Plato, aye?

  2. branemrys11:18 AM

    Completely a side note, but I have students who are too young to know what Cliff's Notes are!

    It does see a lot like a personality quiz, doesn't it? It would be possible to make up questions just like a magazine version. Most academics are timarchs at heart, although many masquerade as democrats, due to the fact that academia and the military are probably the only major timarchical institutions left in most of the Western world. Exactly like Plato's timarchs, academics tend to take it as obvious that they should be able to use other people's money! And, of course, exactly like Plato's timarchs that slowly makes them cede power to the people who actually have the money. It's impressive how much of the dysfunction of academia can be traced to its being a timarchy in a world favoring oligarchies and democracies!

    Plato certainly does think democracies slide into tyrannies for exactly the reason you suggest. I think Plato's view is that it's all well and good to 'live and let live' -- but that can only possibly work if we already agree on what kinds of lives to live, because otherwise we just start canceling each other out. And the only way to start changing a society to a different one is to live your life as if you already were a citizen of the society you want to be. I doubt that Socrates' or Plato's contemporaries would have found it a very palatable prescription -- the Thirty Tyrants are killing people in the streets and the solution is just to act as if you were already a just citizen in a just society!

  3. Enbrethiliel1:55 PM


    And I have a younger brother who doesn't even know what the movie Clueless is. (Answer: it was my first exposure to Cliff's Notes! LOL! I think the notes that were popular when I was younger were called Barron's Book Notes--not because Cliff's Notes were already outdated but because their publisher had a deal with the biggest local bookstore chain or something.)

    What you have to say about academia reminds me of a similar and even more scathing critique in my latest John Taylor Gatto book. He makes a great case for modern teachers being in cahoots with big business, graduating good little employees rather than well-rounded human beings, because after the teachers deteriorated to valuing grades (the appearance of goodness) over learning (actual goodness), it was a piece of cake to deteriorate to prioritising the paychecks.

    By the way, what happens when you bring this up in the classroom? Do you get in trouble?

  4. branemrys2:55 PM

    It doesn't come up often (I only occasionally teach the Republic), but I don't get in trouble! I have had a student or two ask me if I hated my job, though -- I told them I love my job, which is why I still do it even when everything else is not very favorable for it.


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