It’s hard not to think about politics these days.
Odds are also pretty good that regardless of which side of the “aisle” you tend to favor, you’re probably not chomping at the bit for the arrival of Election Day.
Such is the malaise, confusion and outright discontent expressed by the majority of Americans while reflecting upon the current events and headlines that have been surfacing from the 2016 presidential election campaign. Of course, none of this would have caught Plato by surprise. In fact, you might be astounded to learn just how relevant Plato’s take on politics actually is, especially when you consider the fact that he came to these realizations about 25 centuries ago.
Plato & Socrates on politics
In his classic dialog The Republic, Plato reflected upon the nature of politics. Actually, Socrates is the one doing the reflecting throughout the pages of The Republic as recorded through the pen of his star pupil, Plato.
You see, Socrates never actually penned anything. Socrates, as a philosopher’s philosopher, was wholly committed to the philosophic quest, which he expressed as the relentless pursuit of truth over opinion. Since he believed that truth resided as an ideal — a universal form beyond the reach of our senses and finite means of apprehension — then any attempt of jotting down an insight or teaching would immediately render it a particular thing, not a universal truth.
So, Socrates wrote nothing…but he did plenty of talking; and Plato was there to record a lot of it. Back to The Republic…
Socrates taught that politics was ultimately about the establishment of justice, and justice was ultimately about the establishment of order, and order should ultimately be considered a type of harmony or health — a right working of things.
Socrates and his two main interlocutors in The Republic, Glaucon and Adeimantus (Plato’s real life brothers), arrive at this understanding of politics through the employment and exploration of several metaphors. The first one cited in the dialog, and the one we’re considering here, is the soul and city analogy.
In Book II, Socrates makes the case that a big sign is easier to read than a small sign. So, if one were to go in search of justice (the telos – goal or endgame of politics), it should be easier to find in a big thing, like a city. Once one knows what justice looks like, in other words what it is composed of and how these components come into being and work together, then one will be better equipped to identify justice in something smaller than a city, like a human being.
A thought experiment
So, Socrates and his young charges set about the business of “building” a city. Of course, they are not actually building a city with brick, mortar, steel, and glass. They are instead building a city in speech or logos. Logos is a Greek word that can be interpreted as word, logic, even reason. The idea here is that Socrates is conducting a thought experiment with his students. The logic here is two-fold. First, it’s undeniably much easier to build a hypothetical city out of words than an actual city out of materials. Second, and most importantly, Socrates knows going into this thought experiment (and we, his students are soon to learn) that the construction of a just city on earth is ultimately impossible, so in speech or the logos is the only place you’re going to find it. Why would Socrates make such a claim? Socrates understood the human soul.
The human soul
Socrates taught that our souls (and by “soul,” Socrates meant our inner selves – that part of our beings not contained in flesh and organs – our “person” if you will) are comprised of three parts: that aspect which seeks or values wisdom; that which esteems honor; and that which seeks primarily pleasure.
The wisdom-seeking aspect of our souls, though the most highly appraised by Socrates, is actually the weakest of the three, while the lowest esteemed aspect – the pleasure-seeking or appetitive part – Socrates calls the strongest. This leaves us the middle aspect of soul, the thymotic or spirited component. It is this mid-region of our souls that Socrates teaches is often enlisted by the noetic (the wisdom-seeking aspect) to tame or bring into alignment the ever prone to run wild appetitive aspect. Exactly why is the lowest and least noble aspect of our souls the strongest? Simple. It is the appetites — the activities associated with the table and the bed — that generate and sustain life. And while most folks would agree that life is a pretty good thing and well worth generating and sustaining, most would also agree that when the appetites run wild the typical outcomes are rarely desirable.
In his city built in speech, Socrates correlates these three aspects of the soul with the three essential components of any functioning city. First, a ruler or ruling class must sit at the helm of the ship of state (another metaphor employed by Socrates in Book VI of the dialog). This civic role is represented by the noetic, as wisdom should be chief among the attributes valued for competent and effective political oversight.
Next, a guardian or soldiering force is needed to maintain order in the city, and this slot is filled by those spirited souls who are willing to lay down their lives for the common good. Finally, no city is complete without the masses of citizens who busy themselves with the nitty-gritty realities of daily life, largely in the form of producing and consuming stuff. These masses, or the demos as Socrates referred to them, represented the lowest though in many ways the most influential aspect of the city.
Back to the 2016 Presidential campaign…
Now that we are armed with even a cursory understanding of the soul and the city as reflected upon by Socrates in Plato’s Republic, we should begin to grasp why very little of the events and rhetoric that constitute today’s politics would come as any surprise to Socrates or his erstwhile chronicler, Plato.
Once one understands that until the day our society is ruled by those who seek and value wisdom above all else and that it is only through the calling upon of that which is virtuous and honorable within us that we can ever hope to control our ever prone to run wild appetites, then the odds of our realizing a just and healthy society are about as slim as the odds of you finding a politician who has actually read Plato’s Republic – let alone understood it. Leaving us to lament with our Athenian school master that for at least the foreseeable future…
“…there is no rest from ills for the cities…nor I think for human kind…” (Republic, 473e)
Steve Jeck is a Knox Online Instructional Coordinator and lecturer in Christian and Classical Studies.