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

Posted on 20 March 2011

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
 

Comments

Amygdale 20 March 2011

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!

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.

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?

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 22 March 2011

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 22 March 2011

In reply to by Sean Halsey

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 22 March 2011

In reply to by Peter Adamson

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 22 March 2011

In reply to by Sean Halsey

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.

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 23 March 2011

In reply to by Sean Halsey

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 24 March 2011

In reply to by Peter Adamson

-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 9 November 2011

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?

Thanks!

Peter Adamson 9 November 2011

In reply to by Sophie

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 Vlass… 6 December 2013

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,
Penelope

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,

Peter

Dan 10 March 2019

What are some of the major themes, concepts, and arguments of Plato's Laws? I just purchased a copy of it and want a little bit of background knowledge before I start reading it. I'm fairly well acquainted with the Republic, since I've read it for several classes and TA'd a course where it was a central text. So I'm curious as to what the two dialogues have in common and in contrast.

Peter Adamson 10 March 2019

In reply to by Dan

Actually you could argue that was a gap in my coverage of Plato here on the podcast, as I didn't say much if anything about it. It's Plato's final work and very long - often also judged to be quite boring since it is, as the label says, a dialogue in which laws are proposed for a city. You're right that the Republic is an obvious contrast and already in antiquity interpreters puzzled about how to explain the different sets of recommendations. (One idea was that the Laws consists of prescriptions for a realistic place whereas the Republic is an effectively unattainable idea - e.g., according to Proclus, women being treated as equal to men is clearly never going to happen in real life!) The most important book on the Laws is Bobonich's Plato's Utopia so you could read that along with the dialogue. Good luck!

A Concerned Ci… 10 October 2019

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Having just listened to the last of the podcasts on Plato, I was in fact hoping for an episode on The Laws or some other continuation of the discussion of Plato's political philosophy. Of course, a podcast about the history of philosophy does not have to get into a more critical discussion of this, but given that you declared your willingness to be an apologist for Plato, I was wondering what this would look like in a more extensive discussion. Granted, the society of The Republic may or may not be considered completely ideal by Plato, but are we then to follow the recommendations of The Laws? And what kind of society is defended in that dialogue - is their any significant departure from the censorship, propaganda, eugenics etc. of The Republic? And if not, might it not be appropriate to adopt a more ambiguous view of Plato's greatness than the one presented in this podcast?

Peter Adamson 10 October 2019

In reply to by A Concerned Ci…

Well, I was not saying Plato was great because he was right about everything, but because he more or less invented philosophy as we know it (at least within the European context) and was a staggering literary genius to boot. You are right that I did pass over the Laws, if I were doing him nowadays when my approach is somewhat more "completist" I would probably have tried to get that in, though for me as a Neoplatonism scholar the most exciting part of the dialogue is actually the part about cosmology in Book 10. Actually as it happens the podcasts that are airing now, about Renaissance Italy, make some allusions to the Laws. There is also a good book on that dialogue by Bobonich, by the way.

Reducing Desires 27 March 2021

In graduate school many years ago, my approach to the history of Philosophy was shaped by the demands of our exams.  Thankfully my job as a community college teacher provides opportunities to return with fresh eyes and fill in the gaps.  Thanks, again, for your podcast, which I think does an excellent job providing a general overview and challenging us to examine key details. 

 

I especially appreciated this episode.  As always, my Greek is limited to my knowledge of an occasional key term.  But, when I read The Republic, I'm left wondering about the implications of the exchange over the "City of Pigs."  On your reading, does Socrates accept Glaucon's criticism of this city and provide the second city as an improvement?  Or, is there room to view Socrates's second city, the "Feverish City," as a hypothetical account, a dialectical response to Glaucon's criticism?  Admittedly, this second reading would seem more plausible if Socrates didn't just drop the City of Pigs.  And, from what I can tell, he does. 

 

Thanks again! 

 

Peter Adamson 27 March 2021

In reply to by Reducing Desires

That is a great question, but hard to answer. As you say, the city of pigs is dropped as a possibility pretty quickly, and in response to what seems like a worry Plato certainly would not endorse (the lack of luxuries makes the city unfeasible). Socrates then goes on to show that the need for luxuries will lead to warfare with neighboring states, which is why we need the guardians, and we're off and running.

So on my reading there is at least a suggestion that the best possible city is indeed the utopian, hippie-commune like city of pigs, but maybe Plato is happy to drop it because he is going after a discussion of something that is more recognizably the kind of city his readers could imagine living in. Also the city of pigs, being without the distinct social classes, would not be a paradigm for the soul, which is what he is after in the book as a whole. So it's complicated but I think Plato wants you to notice that the city of pigs is dropped without taking it seriously enough as an option, but on the other hand his main point in the Republic is not to get us to see the city of pigs was the right idea all along; it is more like a passing thought, that we may want to dwell upon further, but he has other fish to fry here.

Ray 1 November 2021

In reply to by Peter Adamson

I was alerted by this part of the podcast myself. I'm certainly no Plato expert, but I find it highly unlikely that the city of sows is truly understood as a desirable city by Plato. Surely it would be a healthy city, but it is lacking in all virtue --- including justice (which is identified as the human virtue in his debate with Polemarchus). It would be odd to look at a pen of pigs and say look at all the justice or injustice, and neither Plato nor Adeimantus have any luck finding justice/injustice in the city of sows they first examine.

 

Socrates is determined to understand the excellent human, and I struggle to believe that a human governed by the desiring part of their soul (even if it is only their necessary desires) could be understood as excellent by someone like Plato --- possibly not even a human (which is what I took Glaucon's criticism to ultimately get at). I find it more likely to think that Plato is imagining an excellent human as someone who has unnecessary desires, but is able to control themself via the application of their reason/intellect with aid of their passion/spirit.

Yes, I see the force of that argument: the simple city would not have philosophers, so how could Plato value it? But I think we should bear in mind that it is Glaucon who calls it a "city of pigs" and the reason he does so is not that the citizens of such a city are dominated by desire or anything like that, but that the people there are living a simple life with no luxuries, like pigs (so they eat "like pigs" not in the sense of gorging themselves but in the sense of eating very simple food). I think Plato probably saw something attractive in this ascetic kind of community, and thought it would be a society that could avoid many problems, e.g. warfare, as is stated explicitly in the dialogue. Whether he would in the end prefer it to the city described in the rest of the Republic is another matter, of course.

Michael Aparicio 28 March 2021

Thanks.  For these reasons, I find myself resisting the impulse to call the second city Plato's ideal city.  Rather, as you suggest, its apparent need teaches us lessons about the soul.  Along the way, this poses dialectical challenges. If humans are as "feverish" as Glaucon suggests, does this second city and its demands follow from that?  If we're troubled by the second city, are we able to live more like the first city?  

Thanks again,

Michael 

(I noticed I'd accidentally entered a previous post's title as my name.) 

Eduardo 10 May 2021

I'm not able to listen to this episode on any platform (I've tried Google, Spotify, and Apple), even here on the website. Is it just me?

Hi there - sorry you were having trouble with it, it does seem to work now on the website and it also seems to work on Spotify. Maybe there was a glitch that has fixed itself; could you try again?

Craig 8 September 2022

Professor Adamson,

I greatly enjoy your philosophy podcast and have a question about philosophy that I hope you have the time to consider.

I am writing about education and am taking the position that Plato was a revolutionary force in this area because he explicitly advocated the teaching of reasoned restraint through his conception of the tri-partite soul. That is, he recognized the imperative of teaching young people to use reason to understand their world and to find harmony between bodily appetites, competitiveness and contemplation. 

But there’s a sticky issue that I am asking you about. 

In other parts of my writing, I emphasize the eternal importance of parental involvement in the education of their children. How can I square this up with Plato’s idea of communal parenting as described in The Republic?  How do the intellectual descendants of Plato like Plotinus, Augustine -- called “Church Fathers!” --  and countless others like Al-Farabi, Ficino or Erasmus deal with this truly radical recommendation of Plato?

Keep up the great work.  When you are done, are you going to be -- a la the riddle of the Sphinx --  an old man walking with a cane? 

Yes, this was a big issue in the reception of the Republic. It didn't cause too much fuss in the Islamic world actually (Averroes does acknowledge it in his commentary but doesn't freak out over it) but it was a huge talking point in the Renaissance. All aspects of the "communism" in the perfect city attracted both admirers and critics. If you listen to episode 353 on Italian Utopias you will already get a sense of this. Some referred to it as an immoral aspect of the work, others thought Plato was on to something.

Strictly speaking I would not say that Plato is against parental involvement, it's more that he wants to spread the task of parenting to the whole relevant generation since no one knows which kid is "theirs" (biologically I mean) and thus considers all children to be theirs. You could take this as a testament to the value of parental engagement rather than an undermining of it.

Thanks for your reply.

While Plato is not against child-rearing -- indeed it is of central importance to him -- it still seems that Plato considers parental interests to undermine the unity of the polis.  

Over time, perhaps Aristotle's critical treatment of Plato's ideas of "communal property" won out.  For he said that things "held in common" are not well-cared for. This angle of attack could be applied to "common children."

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