002 : Plato’s Republic

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Who is a true philosopher, according to the illustrious ancient Greek thinker Plato? Should a philosopher be knowledgeable only, or virtuous also? Does the term wisdom cover both those states? 

In Episode 1, we talked about Plato’s theory of soul and the five types of the individual soul. And today it is very convenient to speak of the philosophical character, his way of life and knowledge more deeply. As in my first talk, I base our discussion today on Plato’s masterpiece Republic. 

Let’s first remember that there are three elements of the soul: the intellect, the anger, and appetites. Each part has its natural goal, its good or virtue.

Appetites must be moderate. There are two elucidating quotes by Plato:

The first: Moderation is surely a kind of order, the mastery of certain kinds of pleasures and desires.1

The second: But you meet with the desires that are simple, measured, and directed by calculation in accordance with understanding and correct belief only in the few people who are born with the best natures and receive the best education.2

Each appetite has its natural object, which is neither good nor bad. Plato gives an example of thirst that requires drink and nothing else as its natural object. However, there are particular drinks over there. So that the desire doesn’t go over its limit, the intellect calculates the best one in each specific case (generally, it needs to take into account the benefits and availability of a drink). The reason has wisdom as its virtue, which sometimes can be practical wisdom as in the example with thirst. 

The desire may take charge and overrule the mind, nonetheless. When such injustice happens, there is some other part that gets angry with the situation and strives to restore justice, which is a peaceful harmony between the rational calculation and appetites. The reason is dormant at the moment of an uncontrollable desire taking charge. It is the anger that wakes the intellect up and demands the things become right again. Plato calls the spirited part anger, as you may have already noticed. It is because of its vital function that he regards it as a separate part of the soul. Like a dog, the spirit fights for its master’s rule, that of the intellect’s, on a personal and social level. Spirit’s virtue is courage. Let me quote the Republic:

And it is because of the spirited part […] that we call a single individual courageous, namely, when it preserves through pains and pleasures the declarations of reason about what is to be feared and what isn’t.3

You see, it is the fight for rational and just principles both against your and society’s appetites. But to keep the principles against all the odds requires courageous perseverance – you mustn’t flinch at a time of danger. 

How does Plato define justice? A quick note. The overarching subject of the Republic is justice. I don’t go into detail about it for it deserves a separate episode. Still, I advise you to look closely at it if you decide to read the book.

Plato says the following about justice:

And we surely haven’t forgotten that the city was just because each of the three classes in it was doing its own work. 


Then we must also remember that each one of us in whom each part is doing its own work will himself be just and do his own.4

Now, justice is an order in society and the soul. Both social and the soul must strive for unity, oneness. 

Plato in general, with his theory of eternal forms or ideas, puts significant stress on the One. The One is the very cause of being and Logos (that is the infinite intellect), the cause of people’s knowledge, the light of our souls. As the absolute is one, so must every singular thing and especially soul strive for unity. If not, then it gradually degenerates into baseness and becomes vice. 

One more quote by Plato about justice:

[Justice] isn’t concerned with someone’s doing his own externally, but with what is inside him, with what is truly himself and his own. One who is just does not allow any part of himself to do the work of another part or allow the various classes within him to meddle with each other. [..] He puts himself in order […] and harmonizes the three parts of himself like three limiting notes in a musical scale—high, low, and middle. He binds together those parts and any others there may be in between, and from having been many things he becomes entirely one, moderate and harmonious. Only then does he act. And when he does anything, whether acquiring wealth, taking care of his body, engaging in politics, or in private contracts—in all of these, he believes that the action is just and fine that preserves this inner harmony and helps achieve it, and calls it so, and regards as wisdom the knowledge that oversees such actions. And he believes that the action that destroys this harmony is unjust, and calls it so, and regards the belief that oversees it as ignorance.5

The opposite way is injustice, then. It is a battle among the parts of the soul, where the most unsuitable – the appetitive, being of a slavish nature, purports to rule the ruling class, that is, the spirit and mind. And this turmoil is, in Plato’s words: injustice, licentiousness, cowardice, ignorance, and, in a word, the whole of vice. 6

The healthy soul is just then, and the sick is unjust. 

Quickly about the proper education for a just soul. Plato believes that it is by music and poetry that we exercise the rational part with fine words and learning and make the spirited gentle by harmony and rhythm. Besides, not to be a coward, a man must know what to fear and avoid in life-threatening situations, what his or her strengths and weaknesses are. Gymnastics supplies this knowledge. A bit later, these great souls should be brought to the study of mathematics and astronomy, crowning it with philosophy. Admittedly, Plato is aware that philosophers have always lived a secluded life because there hasn’t been yet an ideal society ruled by the wise. Until this happens, men won’t know the end of all kinds of evil in cities and states. 

In the previous episode, I briefly discussed the five types of the individual soul or characters. It’s the time to mention that only one of them is virtuous for Plato, and the rest are in some way or another flawed. The timocratic soul values things because of honour only and is not guarded against forthcoming evils of wealth and limitless power. The descendants of timocrats might well become oligarchs who value money over everything else. And Plato believes that “virtue and wealth [are] so opposed that if they were set on a scales, they’d always incline in opposite directions”.7

We can drop a few kind words about the money maker. He exercises a great deal of self-control over his pleasures, choosing only the necessary ones. The cause of it is not some virtue, however, but thriftiness, the wish to gain profit. His descendants in turn, and we might even envisage him himself, being surrounded by wealth, have a big chance of gradually giving up to the unnecessary pleasures either themselves or due to persuasion by disturbing people. Plato names them drones. They are the kind of people who gave up to the vice and call “insolence good breeding, anarchy freedom, extravagance magnificence, and shamelessness courage.8 Thus, the oligarch or his son will get a taste of all the pleasures he avoided or was forbidden. Licentiousness and intemperance will become his long-time friends unless he limits his desires not to lose his wits, bodily health, and possessions.

Plato claims that, quote:

If he’s lucky, and his frenzy doesn’t go too far, when he grows older, and the great tumult within him has spent itself, he welcomes back some of the exiles, ceases to surrender himself completely to the newcomers, and puts his pleasures on an equal footing. And so he lives, always surrendering rule over himself to whichever desire comes along, as if it were chosen by lot. And when that is satisfied, he surrenders the rule to another, not disdaining any but satisfying them all equally.9

We can summarise that from that moment on, all desires will be equal for him, and he will become angry with them who tries to persuade him otherwise.

To avoid controversy, I’d instead call this character a relativist or pluralist. A relativist believes that irrefutable universal ethics is impossible. He calls justice the rule of the stronger, which Plato envisaged and refuted in the Republic); takes sciences as valid only for us and not the reality itself. In practice, though, he is an unscrupulous fellow who believes that no action is right or wrong, and one can do whatever they please as long as there is no punishment. This type is generally supported by modern culture and thrown on us as the only possible. Try to recognise it in the following words of Plato:

And so he lives on, yielding day by day to the desire at hand. Sometimes he drinks heavily while listening to the flute; at other times, he drinks only water and is on a diet; sometimes he goes in for physical training; at other times, he’s idle and neglects everything; and sometimes he even occupies himself with what he takes to be philosophy. He often engages in politics, leaping up from his seat and saying and doing whatever comes into his mind. If he happens to admire soldiers, he’s carried in that direction, if money-makers, in that one. There’s neither order nor necessity in his life, but he calls it pleasant, free, and blessedly happy, and he follows it for as long as he lives.10

The good of a democrat or today’s relativist seems to be noble. It’s freedom. However, it is not real freedom. It is arbitrariness. True freedom is necessarily structured, like an actual piece of music that has a melody, harmony, and rhythm. It is absurd to call chaotic bashing on a piece of musical instrument music. In the same vein, we should look for the form in freedom.

As we have seen, the pluralist becomes compulsive only occasionally. But if he stops restricting himself, and there is a danger to it since pleasure is our greatest enemy, he doesn’t possess himself anymore. He turns into a tyrant, who is a complete slave of his desires, who lost his mind, spirit, and his freedom.

In the words of Plato, “someone with a tyrannical nature lives his whole life without being friends with anyone, always a master to one man or a slave to another and never getting a taste of either freedom or true friendship.”11

By the way, Plato suggests keeping an eye on our dreams because they can reveal if our soul is still filled with lawless desires. It takes a long discipline before one has purged himself and become pure. Our philosopher recommends us to Exercise the rational part first, then sooth the spirited one, and finally, neither starve nor feast the appetites. This way, you will get closer to the goal of being a rational man. Otherwise, it is not worth living, and I quote:

 [H]ow can it be worth living when […][the] soul—the very thing by which [we] live[.]—is ruined and in turmoil?12

There are a few things we can mention in passing.

The first one is that the power of learning is already present in the soul. Hence, to understand actual reality, it must turn itself entirely to that reality like an eye should direct itself to light to see. But, if one lives among shadows and acts accordingly, he will never grasp anything but darkness.

This power of turning one’s soul to light is dialectic. It is the science that does away with hypotheses and proceeds to the first principle of reality. Only through surviving all the negative discipline of dialectic, refutation, one comes to know the good and becomes good. There is no other way, according to Plato. Otherwise, you engage in wishful thinking and sleep your whole life. The confusion of opinion is the only good that a non-dialectical man can have.

And why the life of a philosopher is more pleasant than the life of a merchant and a man of honour? It is because to succeed either in sales or politics, you need to use arguments. But the instrument of argumentation, that is the knowledge of kinds of souls and what type of speech is appropriate for each, is the philosopher’s instrument. The argument itself is the highest pleasure.

And the last thing I want to discuss is Plato’s critique of fine art, mostly poetry. Plato claims that poets imitate other crafts. Let’s say when they describe a doctor, they know nothing of medicine. And as imitators, they have the goal of provoking feelings from the audience. But if you weep and sympathise with those fictional characters, your soul becomes sentimental and weak. Not to forget that the poet wants to please people. He would never choose to depict a philosopher. First, because he doesn’t know him himself (for an imitator knows only shadows of the individual soul). And second, even if he knew the philosophical soul, he would not choose to portray it for the crowd would not get it and be pleased with it. Such is Plato’s critique of art. But we should keep in mind that the individual life with its depth wasn’t known yet by the classical Greek philosophers and that’s why fine art was under their attack. The real art is of immense value on the way to philosophy. It is only cheap pop culture from which you should guard yourself because it spreads the disease of a dishonest, corrupt, and messy life.

I hope my two episodes on Plato’s theory of soul and the work Republic were helpful for you. We’ll be coming back to Plato again and again in the future because he is the source of almost all later philosophy. He is a great inspiration for all of us.

See you next time.

  1. Plato’s complete works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Hacket Publishing Company, Inc. 1997. p. 1062
  2. Ibid. p. 1062
  3. Ibid. p. 1073
  4. Ibid. p. 1073
  5. Ibid. p. 1075
  6. Ibid. p. 1075
  7. Ibid. p. 1162
  8. Ibid. p. 1171
  9. Ibid. p. 1171-72
  10. Ibid. p. 1172
  11. Ibid. p. 1184
  12. Ibid. p. 1076
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