25 - Soul and the City: Plato's Political Philosophy

In his masterpiece the Republic, Plato describes the ideal city and draws a parallel between this city and the just soul, with the three classes of the city mirroring the three parts of the soul. Peter discusses this parallel and the historical context that may have influenced Plato's political thought.

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Further Reading: 

• N.P. White, A Companion to Plato’s Republic (Indianapolis: 1979).

• J. Annas, An Introduction to Plato’s Republic (Oxford: 1981).

• J.M. Cooper, “Plato’s Theory of Human Motivation,” History of Philosophy Quarterly 1 (1984), 3-21.

• H. Lorenz, “Plato on the Soul,” in G. Fine (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Plato (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 35-55.

• C.D.C. Reeve, Philosopher-Kings: The Argument of Plato’s Republic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

• M. Schofield, Plato: Political Philosophy (Oxford: 2006).

Stanford Encyclopedia: Plato's ethics and politics in the Republic

Stanford Encyclopedia: Ancient theories of soul

Amygdale's picture

The Republic

Excellent podcast, I listen to it every week. It is the reason I bought complete work of Plato, under the direction of Luc Brisson. I am eager to read Georges Leroux's translation of the Republic!

Peter Adamson's picture

The complete works of Plato

Tthe best book money can buy, quite possibly. Thanks for listening!

Felix's picture

Best that money can buy


Peter Adamson's picture

Best that money can buy

You mean, which version of Plato's complete dialogues? The standard thing to get in English now would be the Hackett volume edited by John Cooper. There is also an older one but I prefer Cooper.

Felix's picture

Best that money can buy

Thank you Peter.

I was actually wondering which of the 2 editons mentioned by the previous commenter you were lauding. However, I now think that they may be foreign language editions.

The John M Cooper, Plato Complete Works, has (as you mentioned in one episode) 1800 pages. It is thus unsuitable for reading in the bath.

Could you recommend an alternative which comes in smaller volumes?

Peter Adamson's picture

Portable Plato

The only complete English translation of Plato that I know of that comes in numerous smaller volumes is the Loeb series, from Harvard University Press. It has facing-page Greek too which is the main selling point; some of the translations are rather antiquated however. Plus it would cost a lot to get all the dialogues this way. Hackett does separate paperback volumes for a lot of the dialogues, and these are pretty affordable as well.

Sean Halsey's picture


Great podcast as always, Peter, but I'm confused by your comments around 5 minutes in, where you say that Thrasymachus thinks "common conceptions of justice help the weak rather than the strong, because they keep the strong in line and allow the weak a share in decision-making". This definitely seems to be Glaucon's adopted view (358e1-359b6), but where is it in Thrasymachus?

It doesn't seem to me that Thrasymachus deviates much if at all from the common wisdom on the topic of what things are to dikaion - his examples are law-abiding (339b8), paying taxes fully (343d5), and serving faithfully and impartially in public office (343e1), which all seem fairly standard. Nor do I think he desires a change to the status quo - the status quo we have, on his account, is already one where a few strong people exploit everyone else, which is the life he recommends (for the strong, anyway - he doesn't have any recommendations for the weak). The real difference between Thrasymachus and conventional wisdom is whether a life of injustice is better or worse than a life of justice. But the strong are well-served by common conceptions of justice, on Thrasymachus' account, because it's those conceptions of justice that keep the weak happily beavering away at whatever it is the strong want them to do*.


*actually, this last remark is conjecture on my part: Thrasymachus, unlike Callicles or Glaucon, is singularly uninterested in what motivates the just/weak to act as they do. The only hint of a motive for the just I think we get is the perplexing claim at 344c2 that "Those who reproach injustice do so because they are afraid not of doing it but of suffering it", which sounds like Glaucon's story but in the context both of Thrasymachus' speech and the elenchus doesn't really make much sense to me.

Peter Adamson's picture


Yes, I think you're right that that sentence in the podcast reads Glaucon (or Callicles) into Thrasymachus' position. I guess I was thinking of the bit at 348d or so, where he says that complete injustice allows the unjust person to dominate the city. From this it isn't a leap to think that trying to get people to be "just" is simply trying to get them to refrain from taking what they can get through their strength. But you're right that this passage doesn't actually go as far as saying that justice is a way of keeping the strong in line, that's an idea that only becomes explicit (or, perhaps, appears for the first time) in Glaucon's bit.

By the way I'm not sure that he's exactly happy with the status quo, however, at least insofar as he seems to be asking us to recognize the unjust man for what he is, namely "fine" (348e, though this is Socrates putting words in his mouth). That would clearly be a change, if everyone stopped praising justice.

Sean Halsey's picture


Yes, you're right, I should have said that he's satisfied with the political status quo - he's not satisfied with the philosophical status quo, which holds justice more praiseworthy than injustice.


That bit at 348d, "Yes, those who are completely unjust, who can bring cities and whole communities under their power". Huh, I hadn't thought about this line as implying that injustice is itself what empowers the tyrant - I'll have to subject this bit to very close scrutiny!

Peter Adamson's picture

Completely unjust

I guess that "completely" is doing a lot of the work there. Is he assuming that being "completely unjust" involves not getting caught or defeated? If so that would sort of be cheating, right, because it would build into the notion of (complete) injustice the fact that you can act with impunity.

Sean Halsey's picture


But didn't he already do that with the "precise sense" distinction - we do not, speaking precisely, call craftsmen by that name when they fail? So maybe he's already gotten away with that.

And I'm not sure it is cheating. My intuitions, at least, are okay with the idea that wrong actions which succeed are more "completely" wrong than wrong actions which fail. And I don't get the impression that Thrasymachus is talking about some kind of Ubermensch who is Completely Unjust and thus never fails*; more that, if you pull this caper off and net yourself a city, congratulations! You've achieved Complete Injustice, in the sense that you've taken injustice as far as it can possibly go.


*which is what Reeve thinks about the ruler-in-the-precise-sense - it's actually a guy who never makes a single mistake! That seems really wrong to me.

Peter Adamson's picture

Perfect injustice redux

Right, Thrasymachus has already specified that rulers who fail to achieve their aims* are not strictly "rulers," but I think this would at a minimum extend that idea explicitly to justice. I wasn't finding it intuitive that "complete injustice" would have to involve not getting caught/stopped, but I like your point that complete injustice must be "as far as you can go" which would mean you haven't been stopped (at least not yet).

* I guess I agree with you here: the point is not that they never make mistakes, it's that they are not rulers insofar as they are failing to do what they set out to do. Presumably a genuine ruler could have an off day and issue an ill-considered edict, and in doing that he wouldn't be acting as a ruler but this wouldn't disqualify him from genuine rulership. In other words it looks like a distinction that bears on actions or perhaps stable policies, rather than a distinction that bears on the status of individuals.

Sean Halsey's picture

This is probably tenuous

-but... so Glaucon gives us this genealogy of justice, in which weak people (who are apparently the great majority) face a sort of Prisoner's Dilemma, since the evil of suffering injustice outweighs the good of doing injustice, and the only way to avoid the former is to foreswear the latter. Very much a social contract sort of thing.

Thrasymachus doesn't really give us a genealogy, but he sort of hints at one when he says that rulers "proclaim" the just at 338e, so his genealogy might go something like: I'm the ruler of a polis, sitting pretty in my palace, and I say to my demos, "Let me tell you what's just - it's paying taxes to fill my coffers, serving in my army and navy and fighting my wars, building what I tell you to build, teaching your children what I say they should be taught, worshipping my gods." I do these things because I have calculated that it is to my advantage to do them - and although the disadvantage of the bulk of the citizenry isn't a goal in itself, it is an inevitable consequence of my laws.

Now you might think that one of my goals will be to restrain other unjust people - after all, I don't want competitors around - but Thrasymachus doesn't hint at this I don't think, at least until Socrates drags it out of him that the unjust try to "outdo" other unjust people. The whole point of justice, if we take this to be an illustrative example, is to exploit those who are naive enough to follow its commands. This looks like a 180-degree reversal of Glaucon's story.

What's weird about this is that the ruler acts unjustly making these laws, but the populace acts justly in following them. (I think this is the source of a lot of difficulty and confusion in the secondary literature.) But this isn't really that weird - the important thing about justice is that it's someone else's advantage, and the important thing about injustice is that it's one's own advantage, so when two people engage in a relationship (like the ruler-ruled relationship) which benefits one at the expense of the other, the one is acting unjustly and the other justly, even though they appear to be in harmony.

Sophie's picture


Hi Peter,
I was just wondering how I would cite your podcast in one of my essays? Would the title and the link be enough or would I need the minutes of the discussion I am including in my debate?


Peter Adamson's picture

Citing the podcast

That's an interesting question. Well, I think probably it's enough to give the link and title, yes; hard to imagine someone marking an essay going off to check where you were in the podcast!

Glad the podcasts are proving useful, anyway.

Penelope Vlassopoulou's picture

Comment on the 3 aspects of the soul and Greek editions

Mr Adamson, I would like to congratulate you on the quality of your work. I have been following the postcasts, setting a schedule for myself, and listening to one podcast daily. Rarely have I missed any "philosophy morning" since the day I started.
On the Republic's depiction of the aspects of the soul: Learning about Plato's Reason, Spirit and Appetite I couldn't help thinking about Freud's theory on the 3 parts of the self, namely Super ego, Ego and Id. Could Freud's aspects have derived from Plato's or influenced by them? Your view on this would interest me a lot.
On a different note, I live in Greece and through the years that I ve been interested in Ancient Greek philosophy I have been benefited greatly by a certain Greek publishing house that has the mission of publishing high quality editions of the works of Greek ancient authors. The work they have done is immense and with a high level of responsibility. In the books you can read the ancient as well as the modern Greek version of the text, with the two facing each other ( the ancient on the left and the modern on the right page) so that you can easily look and compare how is a phrase or word conveyed in each of the 2 versions. I will go ahead and send you their URL so that you may benefit from their input for your research purposes if you need to: http://www.kaktos.gr/default.asp?la=1
Unfortunately, the site is only in Greek but I asked and they told me that they can respond to any inquiries in English through their mail address: info@kaktos.gr
Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes Laertius, Xenophon, are only some of the writers I have come closer to through the Kaktos editions. If you need any help on this matter and in your navigation through the editions I will be more than happy to look something up for you. They also happen to be at 10 mn walking distance from my house in Athens :). I remember my philosophy teacher In Belgium, in the School of Fine Arts, that had requested from me Plato's Symposium, and how excited he was with the book when he received it. His subject of study at the time was Desire.
With great appreciation and my best wishes for joyous holidays,

Peter Adamson's picture


Dear Penelope,

Thanks for the positive feedback and the information about the Greek/Ancient Greek texts. I actually don't read modern Greek but hopefully some other listeners will find that useful. (By the way for English readers there is a similar facing-page series from Harvard University Press, which includes all of Plato and Aristotle.) 

I don't know whether Freud would have been thinking of Plato's three parts of the soul at all; but from the little I know of Freud the two ideas don't have that much in common, albeit that perhaps id sounds a little bit like desire and superego a little like reason. But maybe someone out there knows Freud better and can tell us.

Thanks again,