Plato’s “The Republic” – Katie Shauberger

The author of The Republic, Plato as featured in Raphael's School of Athens c. 1509-10. English Mathematician and Philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato"

The author of The Republic, Plato as featured in Raphael’s The School of Athens c. 1509-10. English Mathematician and Philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

Many people are required to read The Republic in college, but when I was reading it for an honors course on the great books of society, I discovered a few parallels that I would like to share for those who have not had the privilege of experiencing Plato’s great work. While The Republic is known for its conception of the “perfect city,” as the text moves into the comparison of governments, the passages give an extended metaphor for the governance of one’s soul as well. Within Socrates’s outline of social hierarchy, governance, and the search for a definition of justice, there is a connection to the different parts of the soul with each argument on justice or governmental structure given by his interlocutors.

Towards the beginning of the description of the city in The Republic, a hierarchy is laid out, consisting of three classes: the workers (or drones), the auxiliary, and the guardians. To explain the social hierarchy to the workers, an analogy is created, that each person has a metal within their soul, bronze/iron, silver, or gold, in connection with the worker, auxiliary, and the guardian class respectively. Through this analogy, Socrates creates a society without class movement, emphasizing the specialization of the individual and the permanence of each soul’s capabilities. The bronze/workers are labeled as money-loving, striving to buy the physical things they desire to fulfill their appetites for individual gain: a sense-based reality. By Socrates’s definition, these people are unfit to be rulers and need the guidance of the guardians. The silver/auxiliary class is made up of honor-loving souls driven by passion, who find money-grabbing to be vulgar but knowledge-seeking to be pointless. The auxiliary class is considered above the workers and is allowed a higher education, but its members are not fit to lead. The auxiliary class consists of those who are given the opportunity for higher knowledge and deny it, remaining in the world of the senses. Finally, the gold/guardians are the souls who seek true knowledge. According to Socrates, the guardians should guide the people and the city into prosperity and justice because their souls are capable of temperance and balance. These elite are invulnerable to the temptations and distractions that lead to injustice.

Socrates uses different governmental stages to describe the decline of the Republic. In the transition from aristocracy to tyranny, we are given an outline of why the guardians must be so particularly taught and guided. A true aristocracy is a government controlled by leaders whose souls are driven by the form of the good, creating a truly just city. If the rulers do not have such souls, the city will collapse. Because philosophers, who seek truth and justice beyond their worldly senses, are the only individuals able to hold their souls and hence the city together, they are the leaders of the aristocracy.

socrates 2

Socrates as pictured in The School of Athens.

However, if the leaders allow honor and passion for war to outweigh their search for truth, Socrates says that a fall to a timocratic government will occur. In Socrates’ example, the leader is one who cherishes victories and war instead of quandaries. This connects to his interlocutor Glaucon’s argument about the form of justice: that those who seem just in reputation can get away with injustice. In this metaphor, if the leader only has the reputation of keeping a soul governed by the form of the good but instead secretly shuns knowledge for more materialistic pursuits, he will lead the city to ruin.

The next fall of the city, to oligarchy, is another transition of focus within the soul: from honor-loving to money-loving. This is an easy step, because war leads to spoils, which in an imbalanced city breeds jealousy and injustice, echoing Cephalus’ argument about the form of justice: that wealth brings happiness and harmony, especially with old age and that justice is simply speaking the truth and paying off any debts owed. Socrates’s answer is that the truth is not always easily seen. He gives the example of the oligarchic soul, giving leadership to the rich even when they are not the most fit for the position. Those who owe debts are not necessarily less qualified to govern than those who have gained much, even when leaders have gained their material wealth through just actions. No matter what the intent, a money worshiping society is on a pathway to the appetites of the drones, the bronze souls, instead of pursuing knowledge and justice.

Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix c. 1830. This painting commemorates the people's victory in the July Revolution of 1830. One of the most iconic depictions of revolution, Liberty Leading the People also characterizes the transition from the Enlightenment to the age of Romanticism in European art.

Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix c. 1830. This painting commemorates the people’s victory in the July Revolution of 1830. One of the most iconic depictions of revolution, Liberty Leading the People also characterizes the transition from the Enlightenment to the age of Romanticism in European art.

Many times, the transition to either an oligarchy or a timocracy leads to revolution. The people recognize the leader’s inability to govern justly and take the matters into their own hands. As we have seen recently, that does not always lead to a quick and easy recovery or to a new government that supports the will of the nation. This is illustrated in Plato’s fourth step to democracy. Democracy is defined by a sense-fulfilling soul that focuses on pleasure above all else. In the city, Socrates states that a democracy is created out of a revolution by the drones, “when the poor are vicious, kill or expel the others, and give the rest an equal share in the constitution and the ruling offices.” A democratic city is full of freedom, but also enforced mediocrity, which creates a tendency for those who enact laws to be criticized beyond what is natural or licensed. Beyond that, Socrates argues that criminals will walk around with the just, as they are free to do so within their rights, because in a place where tolerance is too high, balance and justice cannot be contained. In the same way, one who overindulges his appetite for physical things continues to rot both physically and spiritually. Someone with a democratic soul continuously searches for more in order to fill a constant void and exhausts himself in the process. Democratic leaders persuade other souls to follow their path of indulgence, planting temptation within those who may otherwise strive for good. The democratic city connects to Adeimantus’s argument that justice is simply a device to be praised even when it comes in the form of injustice, in this case, pulling others into injustice through the spoils such a life brings. But just as the indulgence in ignorant pleasures will harm the body, the unjust actions will also catch up to the soul, leaving it tattered and wanting for more.

Finally, we are given the tyrant. When the city acquires too much, but continues to ask for more, it looks to a popular leader, someone to create rules within the chaos. In The Republic Plato states: “extreme freedom cannot lead to anything but a change to extreme slavery.” The leader of a tyrannical government seems to be in extreme freedom but is fixed in self-imposed slavery to injustice. A tyrant holds power that he did not earn by just means, and over time, the people will realize this injustice and rebel again. He must continuously proliferate injustices and safeguards to hold his subjects and himself prisoner within his system of power or else he is destroyed. He will often subsequently be expelled by the city, which is why Thrasymachus’s accusation that justice can only be held by the strong is incorrect, for when someone justifies injustice through power, they end up imprisoned or destroyed by their actions. Likewise, a soul that is caught up in power becomes bound by the means it took to get there. This soul is lost and until it rejects a superficial meaning of life, it will continue without purpose or connection.

As I have outlined the fall of the perfect city, there are clear connections to the tripartite soul. Without an understanding of the soul, Plato proposes that it is impossible to have rulers able to govern, warriors who will not become tyrannical, or citizens who will not strive to overthrow their government in order to quench their thirst for material wealth. For us who live in a democracy it is hard to accept that our form of government is considered one of the lowest on Plato’s scale. While I believe his ideas are based on logic, I would also put forward that within freedom there lies not only chaos, but also opportunity. When looking to democratic governments such as Japan, Germany, or the United States, I see countries filled with innovation. In fact, in Bloomberg’s list of the top ten most innovative countries, only one was not a considered a full democracy, and in a globalized world innovation is crucial to the success of a state. Innovation ties into the soul analogy as well, it can be seen as producing new material for the sake of reward, but in a broader sense it is an exploration of humanity and how science connects to society. The difference is that our form of democracy does not assume that people have a specific ‘nature’ which cannot change; it allows opportunity for anyone to pursue justice and knowledge. The ideal form of democracy would be a government that fully represents the people and allows those who strive for innovation and knowledge to improve society. Through the freedoms of a true democratic government, people are not trapped but enabled to reach their full potential.


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