PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy

Lecture 6

 - Philosophers and Kings: Plato, Republic, V


In this last session on the Republic, the emphasis is on the idea of self-control, as put forward by Adeimantus in his speech. Socrates asserts that the most powerful passion one needs to learn how to tame is what he calls thumos. Used to denote “spiritedness” and “desire,” it is associated with ambitions for public life that both virtuous statesmen as well as great tyrants may pursue. The lecture ends with the platonic idea of justice as harmony in the city and the soul.

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Introduction to Political Philosophy

PLSC 114 - Lecture 6 - Philosophers and Kings: Plato, Republic, V

Chapter 1. The Control of Passions [00:00:00]

Professor Steven Smith: Today I have the impossible task of finishing the parts of the Republic that I have assigned for the class. And in the past sometimes, I’ve assigned a full two weeks to the Republic, which would be four lectures, but because I wanted to do some other things with the course as well, I had to cut the Republic by one lecture, and now I’m paying for that today. So I’m going to try to rush through, unfortunately, a number of the major themes regarding the creation of the just city, the creation of Kallipolis and then try to end the class by talking about, as I like to do for every thinker, what does in this case, what does Plato, what are his views on modern America. What does Plato say to us today?

But I want to start with what is one of the grand themes of the Republic, it is indicated in Book II by Adeimantus’ speech about self-control. It is introduced further by the claims of Socrates to control, to censor, to control the poetry and the arts of the city. And this is the big theme of what one might call “the control of the passions.” This is the theme of every great moralist from Spinoza to Kant to Freud. How do we control the passions? And it is certainly a large theme of Plato’s theory of justice in the Republic. Every great moral philosopher has a strategy for helping us submit our passions to some kind of control, to some kind of supervening moral power. And again, recall this is the theme raised at the beginning of Book II by Adeimantus, who puts forward an idea of self-control, or what he calls self-guardianship as his goal. How can we protect ourselves from the passion for injustice? And one of the things Socrates emphasizes is that the most powerful of those passions, the most powerful passion is that Socratic passion that he calls thumos, or what our translator has as spiritedness, anger, maybe what biblical translators call heart, having a big heart, having thumos and all of that implies. This is for Plato, the political passion par excellence. It is a kind of fiery love of fame, love of distinction that leads men and women of a certain type to pursue their ambitions in public life, in the public space. It is clearly connected this notion of spiritedness or this thumotic quality to our capacities for heroism and for self-sacrifice.

But it is also connected to our desires for domination and the desire to exercise tyranny over others. Thumos has a kind of dual component to it. It can lead us to a sense of kind of righteous indignation and anger at the sight of injustice, but it can also lead us in a rather contradictory way to desire to dominate and tyrannize over others. This is the quality that Socrates regards as being possessed by every great political leader and statesman, but it is also clearly a quality possessed by every tyrant. And the question posed by the Republic, in many ways, the question around which the book as a whole gravitates, is whether this thumotic quality can be controlled. Can it be re-directed, can it be re-channeled in the service of the public good? Socrates introduces the problem of thumos by a story, a particularly vivid story that I hope you all remember, where in Book IV he tells the story about Leontius at the walls.

“Leontius,” he writes, “was proceeding from the Piraeus outside the north wall when he perceived corpses lying near the public executioner. At the same time, he desired to see them. He wanted to see this grotesque sight, these dead bodies lying there. And to the contrary, he felt disgust and turned himself away and for a while he battled with himself and hid his face. But eventually overpowered by desire, he forced his eyes open and rushing towards the corpses said ‘see you damn wretches, take your fill of this beautiful sight’ ” 439c. That story that Socrates tells here is not one of reason controlling the passions, but rather one of intense internal conflict that Leontius felt. We see his conflicting emotions both to see and not to see, a sense that he wished to observe and yet he is at, in some ways, at war with himself, knowing to gawk, to stare at this sight. There’s something shameful about it and he felt shame. One example I particularly like of this was suggested last year, I think, by Justin Zaremby who said it’s the emotion we all feel when we’re driving down the highway, right, and we see a car crash or we go by a wreck and everybody slows down, right, they all want to see. What are they hoping to see? Well, they want to see blood, they want to see if there’s a body, they want to see how much damage has been caused. And we’ve all been in this, where we know that it’s shameful to look at this, just drive on, as Socrates would say “mind your own business,” and yet at the same time we feel, even against our will, compelled to look and think about that.

And think about that and this case of Leontius the next time you, for those of you who have driver’s licenses, are next driving on the highway and see something like that. It is the thumos that is the cause of–that should be the cause of your shame at slowing down to look. Sometimes we can’t help but slow down because everybody is slowed down in front of us, we have no choice. But anyway, that incident, that story that Socrates relates is connected to the fact that Leontius is a certain kind of man. He regards himself as proud, independent, someone who wants to be in control of his emotions but isn’t. He is a soul at war with himself, and potentially therefore, at war with others. And what the Republic tries to do is to offer us strategies, maybe we might even call it a therapy, for dealing with thumos, for submitting it to the control of reason and helping us to achieve some level of balance, of self-control and moderation. And these are the qualities taken together that Socrates calls justice, that can only be achieved when reason is in control of the appetites and desires. Again, a question the book asks is whether that ideal of justice can be used as a model for politics. Can it serve as a model for justice in the city?

This connection he has established between justice in the city and justice in the soul, what are the therapies or strategies for solving injustice in the soul or imbalance of some kind in the soul? Can those be transferred or translated in some way to public justice, to political justice, justice in the polis? Right? You with me on that so far?

Chapter 2. A Proposal for the Construction of Kallipolis [00:08:53]

So, on the basis of this, Socrates proposes how to proceed with the construction of Kallipolis, and he does so through what he calls three waves. There are three waves, three waves of reform, so to speak, that will contribute to the creation of the city. The first of these waves is, you remember, the restrictions on private property, even the abolition of private property. The second, the abolition of the family, and the third wave being the establishment of the philosopher kings. Each of these waves is regarded as in some way necessary for the proper construction of a just city. And I’m not going to speak about all of them, but I do want to speak a little bit about, because it has particular relevance for us, his proposals for the co-education of men and women that is a great part of his plan, especially related to the abolition of the family, that men and women be educated in the same way, right.

The core of Socrates’s proposal for equal education is presented in a context that he knows to be or suggests will be laughable. It will certainly be seen that way, he suggests, by Glaucon and Adeimantus. There is no job, he states, that cannot be performed equally well by both men and women. Is Socrates a feminist? Gender differences, he says, are no more relevant when it comes to positions of political rule than is the distinction between being bald and being hairy. Socrates is not saying that men and women are the same in every respect, he says, but equal with respect to competing for any job at all. There will be no glass ceilings in Kallipolis. The first, in many ways, great defender, the first great champion of the emancipation of women from the household. But this proposal comes at certain costs, he tells us. The proposal for a level playing field demands, of course, equal education.

And here he says that men and women, being submitted to the same regime, will mean, among other things, that they will compete with one another in co-educational gymnasia. They will compete with each other in the nude because that is the way Greeks exercised. They will compete naked in co-educational gymnasia, think of that. Furthermore, their marriages and their procreations will be, he tells us, for the sake of the city. There is nothing like romantic love among the members of the guardian class. Sexual relations will be intended purely for the sake of reproduction and unwanted fetuses will be aborted. The only exception to this prohibition is for members of the guardian class who are beyond the age of reproduction, he tells us, and they, he says, can have sex if they’re still able, with anyone they like. A kind of version of recreational sex as a reward for a lifetime of self-control. Child-bearing may be inevitable for women but the rearing of the child will be the responsibility of the community or at least a class of guardians and common daycare centers. A sort of variation of Hillary Clinton’s book that “it takes a village to raise a child,” comes right out of Plato apparently. No child should know their biological parents and no parent should know their child. The purpose of this scheme being to eliminate senses of mine and me, to promote a kind of common sense of esprit de corps among the members of the guardian class, “a community of pleasure and pain,” Socrates calls it at 464a. What we are creating is a community of pleasure and pain. I will feel your pains, and of course you will feel mine.

The objections to Socrates, are of course, you know, raised as early as by Aristotle himself, in the very next generation. How can we care for things, how can we truly care for things that are common? We learn to care for things that are closest to us, that are in some way our own. We can only show proper love and concern for things that are ours, not things that are common. Common ownership, Aristotle argues, will mean a sort of common neglect. Children will not be raised better by putting them under the common care of guardians or in daycares but they will be equally neglected. But it is in this, and you can think about that, about whether that’s true or not, but it is in the same context of his treatment of men and women that something else often goes unnoticed and that is Socrates’s efforts to rewrite the laws of war, because of course the guardians are being trained and educated to be guards, to be warriors, to be members of a military class.

In the first place, he tells us, children must be taught the art of war. This must be the beginning of their education, Socrates says, making the children spectators of war. Children will be taken, he seems to suggest, to battles and to sites of where fighting is going on, to be spectators for them to become used to and habituated to seeing war and what everything that goes on. Not only is expulsion from the ranks of the guardians penalty for cowardice, but Socrates suggests there should be, listen to this, “erotic rewards for those who excel in bravery.” Erotic rewards for excellence in bravery. Consider the following remarkable proposal at 468c, “and I add to the laws of war,” Socrates writes, “that as long as they, the guardians, are on campaign, no one whom he wants to kiss should be permitted to refuse. So that if a man happens to love someone, either male of female, he would be more eager to win the rewards of valor.” That is to say as a reward for bravery, exhibited bravery, the hero should be allowed to kiss anyone they like while they are on patrol, male or female. A particularly puritanical editor of Plato from the twentieth century writes in a footnote to that passage, “this is almost the only passage in Plato that one would wish to blot out,” his sensibilities were offended by this notion. But I wonder what kind of, if this might even make a powerful incentive for military recruitment today. What do you think? Well, think about it. I don’t know.

Chapter 3. Justice [00:17:34]

So, at long last, we move from the education of the guards to justice. What is justice, we’ve been questioning asking ourselves throughout this book in which Plato has been, Socrates has been teasing us with. At long last we come to this thing. The platonic idea of justice concerns harmony, he tells us, both harmony in the city and harmony in the soul. We learn that the two are actually homologous in some way. Justice is defined as what binds the city together and makes it one. Or he puts it another way, consists of everyone and everything performing those functions for which they are best equipped. Each of the other citizens, Socrates says, must be brought to that which naturally suits him, which naturally suits him, one man, one job, he says. So that each man practicing his own which is one, will not become many but one. Thus you see, he says, the whole city will naturally grow up together.

Justice seems to mean adhering to the principal, justice in the city, adhering to the principal of division of labor. One man, one job, everyone doing or performing the task that naturally fits or suits them. One can, of course, as you’ve already imagined, raise several objections to this view and again Aristotle seems to take the lead. Plato’s excessive emphasis on unity would seem to destroy the natural diversity of human beings that make up a city. Is there one and only one thing that each person does best? And if so, who could decide this? Would such a plan of justice not be overly coercive in forcing people into predefined social roles? Shouldn’t individuals be free to choose for themselves their own plans of life wherever it may take them? But however that may be, Plato believes he has found in the formula of one man, one job, a certain foundation for political justice. That is to say, the three parts of the cities, workers, auxiliaries, guardians, each of them all work together and each by minding their own business, that is doing their own job, out of this a certain kind of peace and harmony will prevail. And since the city, you remember, is simply the soul at large, the three classes of the city merely express the three parts of the soul.

The soul is just, he tells us, when the appetites, spiritedness, and reason cooperate with reason, ruling, spirit and appetite, just as in the polis, the philosopher-king rules the warriors and the workers. The result, he tells us, is a kind of balance of the parts of the whole, right. Justice is a kind of harmony in which the three parts of the city and the three parts of the soul are direct expressions of one another. But that formula forces us to return to the original Socratic question about the harmony of the soul and the city. Is the structure of a city identical to the structure of a soul? Are they really identical? Well, maybe, maybe not. For example, every individual consists of three parts, of appetite, spirit, and reason. Yet each of us will be confined it seems to only one task in the social hierarchy. I assume what Socrates means by that is though each individual will, each of us, embody all three features of soul, appetite, spirit, and reason, only one of these will be the dominate trait in each of us. Some of us will be dominantly appetitive personalities, others will be dominantly spirited and so on. But even still when we think of it, if I am a member of the money making class, I am still more than simply a bundle of desires and appetites, just as a member of the warrior class would be clearly more than mere thumosor mere spiritedness. So, to confine the individual, it seems, to one and only one sphere of life would seem to do an injustice to the internal psychological complexity that makes each of us who we are.

Let’s examine that problem from a slightly different point of view. Socrates tells us repeatedly that justice in the city consists of each member, each citizen fulfilling his task in the social division of labor, in the social hierarchy. But this seems to be a very far cry, does it not, from the kind of justice he talks about in the soul that consists in what we might think of as sort of rational autonomy or self-control where reason controls the passions and the appetites. In fact, the vast majority of citizens in even the platonically just city will not necessarily have platonically just souls. The harmony and self-discipline of the city will not be due, it seems, to each and every member of the city but rather will rely on the guardian class, that special class of philosopher kings who will rule, let it be recalled, through selective lies, myths, and other various kinds of deception. So how can it be the case if at all, that you could have a just city, that is to say a city where everyone is performing their own task, they’re following the division of labor, and yet very few of those members will have, so to speak, platonically just souls, that is to say, souls dominated by a kind of self-control or self-guardianship? That would certainly not be true of the members of the artisan class or the military class for that reason.

So the question, that question is posed, that objection is posed by Adeimantus, you remember, at the beginning of Book IV. “What would your apology be Socrates,” Adeimantus says, “if it were objected that you’re hardly making these men happy, these people just,” he says at 419a. Adeimantus is concerned that Socrates is being unfair to the auxiliaries and the guardians, giving them all the responsibilities but none of the rewards, none of the pleasures that would seem to be the reward of responsibility. How can a citizen of Kallipolis live a just or happy life if he or she is deprived of most of the goods or pleasures that we seek? Socrates gives a rather lame response. In founding the city, he says, we are not looking to the exceptional happiness of any one individual or any group but rather to the city as a whole. And Adeimantus appears to accept that response, oh yes, I forgot we are concerned with the happiness, the justice of the whole. But his question is still one that lingers and one that Plato includes for a purpose.

What about, how can you have a platonically just city if most people in it, certainly most people of the auxiliary class are deprived of the pleasures and the goods that we desire? It’s a question that lingers and one might wonder whether Socrates ever successfully answers that question. He silences Adeimantus in some way as he silences Thrasymachus earlier; that is not always to say that their objections have been answered.

Chapter 4. The Philosopher-King [00:26:28]

And that leads, as it were, to the third and final wave of paradox of the Kallipolis which is the famous proposal for the philosopher-king. What is Plato without the philosopher-king? What is the Republic without the philosopher-king? Unless the philosophers rule as kings or those now called kings, genuinely philosophize, there will be no rest from the ills for the cities, he says, right? Socrates presents this proposal, again, as outlandish. He says he expects to be drowned in laughter. And this has led some readers to suggest that the proposal for philosophers’ kings is ironical. That it is intended as a kind of joke to, in many ways, discredit the idea of the just city or at least to indicate its extreme implausibility.

The question is why does Socrates regard philosophic kingship as required for Kallipolis, for the just city? Let me say, I am by no means convinced that the idea for the philosopher-king is an impossibility or is intended as a kind of absurdity. Plato himself, remember, made a number of trips to Sicily to serve as the advisor to a king there, Dionysius, and all of these missions failed and left him deeply dispirited. The ambition in some ways to unite philosophy and politics has been a recurring dream of political philosophy ever since Plato. Socrates says he will be drowned in laughter but many other people have taken this dream or this aspiration very seriously. Consider one thinker, and I will, I’m going to read you a short passage and I’m going to come back to this again later in the semester, from Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, chapter 31 of Leviathan, where Hobbes gives us a very personal statement about his intention in writing this book.

Hobbes wrote, “I am at the point of believing that my labors will be as useless as the commonwealth of Plato.” He seems to be rather despairing about whether this book is actually going to have any affect. “I’m in the point of believing it will be as useless as the commonwealth of Plato,” for he also is of the opinion that it is impossible for the disorders of state and change of government by civil war ever to be taken away until sovereigns be philosophers. But after admitting his despair about the possibility of realizing his ideas and practice, Hobbes continues as follows, “I recover some hope,” he says, “that one time or other, this writing of mine may still fall into the hands of a sovereign who will consider himself without the help of any interested or envious interpreter. And by the exercise of entire sovereignty in protecting the public teaching of it, convert this truth of speculation into the utility of practice.” So there you have Hobbes talking about his own book, expecting or at least hoping it will fall into the hands of a sovereign who one day, again, without envious or self-interested interpreters may, may one day become a practical source of guidance for statecraft. Here it is Hobbes taking Plato’s suggestion very seriously, and we see this again very much in the history of political philosophy in thinkers like Rousseau, or Marx, or Nietzsche, or Machiavelli all of whom sought to gain the ear of political leaders and convert their ideas into some kind of practice.

But most of the objections to Plato’s particular form of the philosophic kingship really are centered on the practicality of his idea. And beyond this, there is the problem with the very cogency of the idea itself. Consider the following, can philosophy and politics actually be united? It would seem that the needs of philosophy are quite different from the demands or requirements of political rule. Can you imagine Socrates willingly giving up one of his conversations for the tedious business of legislation and public administration? Can one imagine that? The philosopher is described by Plato as someone with knowledge of the eternal forms, lying behind or beyond the many particulars. But just how does that kind of knowledge help us deal with the constant ebb and flow of political life? It seems not enough that the philosopher have knowledge of the forms but this knowledge has to be supplemented by experience, by judgment and by a kind of practical rationality. Was Plato simply unaware of this, I can’t believe that. I don’t believe that. So the question is, what kind of unity was he expecting of philosophy and politics?

Anyway, philosophers are not purely thinking machines but they are also human beings composed of reason, spiritedness, and appetite. Will not even philosophers, one might ask, given the possibility of absolute power be tempted to abuse their positions? Maybe, maybe not, who knows. So these are the questions, these are at least among the questions that Socrates or Plato, the author of the book, deliberately poses for us to consider. So what is the doctrine of the philosopher-king intended to prove? Must the massive effort to construct the city in speech in order to understand justice in the soul? Is it a philosophical possibility? Does he hold it out as a real possibility or must it be considered a failure in some way or that if the dialogue does end in failure what can we learn from that? Those are questions I want you to consider.

Chapter 5. What Are Plato’s Views on Modern America? [00:33:26]

But for now, what I want to do is talk about Plato’s democracy and ours. What does Plato teach us about our own regime? Could Plato have imagined such a regime? I think in many ways he can and he did. In one sense, the Republic, and I’ve given some indications of this today, seems to be the most anti-democratic book ever written. Its defense of philosophic kingship is itself a direct repudiation of Athenian democracy. Its conception of justice, minding one’s own business, is a rejection of the democratic belief that citizens have sufficient knowledge to participate in the offices of government. To be sure, Athenian democracy is not American democracy. Plato thought of democracy as a kind of rule by the many that he associated with the unrestricted freedom to do everything that one likes. This seems in many ways to be quite far from the American democracy based on constitutional government, systems of checks and balances, protection of individual rights, and so on. The differences between Athens and Washington seem to be very far. And yet, in many ways, Socrates diagnoses very powerfully an important condition of modern democratic life with which we are all familiar.

Consider this passage in Book VIII of the Republic that I encourage you to read but is not on your assigned list. Socrates writes in Book VIII, 561c, “speaking of the democratic soul, the democratic man, he also lives along day by day gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time, drinking and listening to the flute.” Today we have different kinds of music to substitute for the flute but you get the point. Drinking and listening to the flute, at another time downing water and dieting, now practicing gymnastics and again idling and neglecting everything, and sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophizing. Often, he engages in politics and jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to his mind. And if he ever admires any soldiers, he turns in that direction. And if money-makers in that one and there is neither order nor necessity in this life but calling this life sweet, free, and blessed, he follows it throughout. Is that image of life at all familiar to us? Doing anything you like, it seems to be the opposite of the platonic understanding of justice as each one doing a special function or fulfilling or doing a special craft. Just doing whatever you like and calling that sweet, free, and blessed throughout.

This account should be instantly recognizable as the state of modern democracy in some ways. There exists, as Plato and Socrates clearly understand, a very real tendency within democracy to identify the good human being, the good man with, you might say, the good sport, the regular guy, the cooperative fellow, you know, someone who goes along and gets along with others. By educating citizens to cooperate with each other in a friendly manner, democracy seems, so Plato is suggesting, they stand in danger of devaluing people who are prepared to stand alone, of rugged individualists who will go down with the ship if need be. It is precisely this kind of creeping conformism, this kind of easy going toleration, this sort of soft nihilism that democracies tend to foster in which not only Plato, but modern thinkers like Emmerson, and Tocqueville, and Mill, John Stewart Mill, very much warned about.

What bothers Socrates most about our democracy is a certain kind of instability, its tendency to be pulled between extremes of anarchy, between lawlessness and tyranny. It is in this section of the Republic, Adeimantus asks, won’t we with Aeschylus say whatever comes to our lips? Won’t we say with Aeschylus whatever comes to our lips? The idea of having the liberty to say whatever comes to our lips sounds to Plato like a kind of blasphemy. The view that nothing is shameful, that everything should be permitted, to say whatever comes to our lips… There is a kind of license that comes from the denial of any restraints on our desires or a kind of relativistic belief that all desires are equal and all should be permitted. Plato’s views on democracy were not all negative, to be sure. He wasn’t only a critic of democracy. It was, after all, a democracy that produced Socrates and allowed him to philosophize freely until his seventieth year. Would this have been permitted in any other city of the ancient world? And he surely would not be allowed to philosophize in many cities and countries today.

Remember the letter that Plato wrote near the end of his life, when he compares the democracy to a golden age, at least in comparison to what went after. Plato here seems to agree with Winston Churchill that democracy is the worst regime except for all the others. It’s the worst that’s been tried except for everything else. So what is the function of Kallipolis, this perfect, this beautiful city? What purpose does it serve? The philosopher-king, he tells us, may be an object of hope or wish but Plato realizes that this possibility is not really to be expected. The philosophic city is introduced as a metaphor to help us understand the education of the soul. The reform of politics may not be within our power but the exercise of self-control always is. The first responsibility of the individual who wishes to engage in political reform is to reform themselves. All reform seems to begin at home. And we see this very vividly when we look at so many politicians today in public scolds who teach us and who are hectoring us about living a certain way of life, living a certain, living according to their likes and then we will find out of course something very shameful about them. I’m thinking of a couple of people in particular, I won’t mention any names in the public sphere. Plato’s judgment seems to be “you need to reform yourself before you can think about reforming others.” This is a point that is often lost in the Republic, that it is first of all a work on the reform of the soul.

That is not to say at all that it teaches withdrawal from political responsibilities, it does not. Philosophy and certainly Socratic philosophy requires friends, comrades, conversations. It is not something that can simply be pursued in isolation. Socrates understands that those who want to reform others must reform themselves, but many who’ve tried to imitate him have been less careful. It is easy to confuse, as many people have done, the Republic, with a recipe for tyranny. The twentieth century, and even the beginnings of our own, is littered with the corpses of those who have set themselves up as philosopher-kings, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Khamenei, to name just some of the most obvious. But these men are not philosophers. Their professions to justice are just that, they are professions or pretensions expressing their vanity and their ambition.

For Plato, philosophy was in the first instance, a therapy for our passions in a way of setting limits to our desires. And this is precisely the opposite of the tyrant who Plato describes as a person of limitless desires who lacks the most rudimentary kind of governance, namely self-control. The difference between the philosopher and the tyrant illustrate two very different conceptions of philosophy. For some, philosophy represents a form of liberation from confusion, from unruly passions and prejudices, from incoherence. Again, a therapy of the soul that brings peace and contentment and a kind of justice. And yet for others, philosophy is the source of the desire to dominate. It is the basis of tyranny in the great age of ideologies through which we are still passing.

The question is that both tendencies are at work within philosophy and how do we encourage one side but not the other. As that great philosopher Karl Marx once asked, “Who will educate the educators?” It’s the wisest thing he ever said. Who will educate the educators, who do we turn to for help? There is obviously no magic solution to this question but the best answer I know of is Socrates. He showed people how to live, and just as importantly, he showed them how to die. He lived and died not like most people but better, and even his most vehement critics will admit to that. Thank you very much. I’ll see you next Wednesday, and we’ll start Aristotle.

[end of transcript]

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