Big Thinking: Plato and the Republic of Your Soul

Plato’s Republic is often described as a book about politics, a philosophical discussion of the ideal state. It’s an odd fact, though, that the book only uses politics as a metaphor for the individual human soul, and that the book is intended as a work of psychology rather than politics.

The Republic consists of several long conversations culminating in Socrates (Plato’s mouthpiece) describing five different types of governments, and then describing the five personality types that correspond to each type of government. The book constructs, finally, a “republic” — but it is the republic of your soul.

The idea that each human being is a government resonates with many other psychological or spiritual models and ideologies. Jesus may have been thinking of something similar when he said “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Or, in Buddhist cosmology, one might say that the invididual desires that bedevil a confused person are like “citizens” that must be made peace with. An enlightened person governs his owns needs, goals and ideas with wisdom and care.

Plato’s Republic presents a model for the ideal human soul as a city-state ruled by a truly wise, loving and attentive “philosopher king”. The concept of the “philosopher king” has been much quoted as Plato’s prescription for good government, but in fact the actual text develops the idea only as a metaphor, and never states whether or not Plato or Socrates believe such a state to be possible or desirable in the real world. The concept of the “Philosopher King” describes Plato’s (and Socrates’s) prescription for being a good person, not being a good government.

The other four less perfect types of government Plato (via Socrates) describes in this extended metaphor are:

1) Timocracy

Timocracy, or rule by honored position such as wealth of military success, corresponds to the following type of human personality:

Such a person is apt to be rough with slaves, unlike the educated man, who is too proud for that; and he will also be courteous to freemen, and remarkably obedient to authority; he is a lover of power and a lover of honour; claiming to be a ruler, not because he is eloquent, or on any ground of that sort, but because he is a soldier and has performed feats of arms; he is also a lover of gymnastic exercises and of the chase … such a one will despise riches only when he is young; but as he gets older he will be more and more attracted to them, because he has a piece of the avaricious nature in him, and is not singleminded towards virtue, having lost his best guardian.

2) Oligarchy

Socrates defines oligarchy as “government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it”. He characterizes the personality corresponding to this as:

… in their penurious, laborious character; the individual only satisfies his necessary appetites, and confines his expenditure to them; his other desires he subdues, under the idea that they are unprofitable … owing to this want of cultivation there will be found in him dronelike desires as of pauper and rogue, which are forcibly kept down by his general habit of life … the man, then, will be at war with himself; he will be two men, and not one; but, in general, his better desires will be found to prevail over his inferior ones.

3) Democracy

In the United States of America, politicians proclaim that democracy can be the only acceptable form of government for any society. Whether this is true or not must be the subject for a different day, but it is a fact that Socrates had serious concerns about the personality type corresponding to the governmental form of democracy:

… as in the city like was helping like, and the change was effected by an alliance from without assisting one division of the citizens, so too the young man is changed by a class of desires coming from without to assist the desires within him … there are times when the democratical principle gives way to the oligarchical, and some of his desires die, and others are banished; a spirit of reverence enters into the young man’s soul and order is restored … and then, again, after the old desires have been driven out, fresh ones spring up, which are akin to them, and because he, their father, does not know how to educate them, wax fierce and numerous … at length they seize upon the citadel of the young man’s soul, which they perceive to be void of all accomplishments and fair pursuits and true words, which make their abode in the minds of men who are dear to the gods, and are their best guardians and sentinels … false and boastful conceits and phrases mount upwards and take their place.

Finally, Socrates discusses the personality type corresponding to a form of government that remains highly popular 24 centuries after his death:

4) Tyranny

… the tyrannical man in the true sense of the word comes into being when, either under the influence of nature, or habit, or both, he becomes drunken, lustful, passionate … at the next step in his progress, that there will be feasts and carousals and revellings and courtesans, and all that sort of thing; Love is the lord of the house within him, and orders all the concerns of his soul … every day and every night desires grow up many and formidable, and their demands are many … His revenues, if he has any, are soon spent … Then comes debt and the cutting down of his property … When he has nothing left, must not his desires, crowding in the nest like young ravens, be crying aloud for food; and he, goaded on by them, and especially by love himself, who is in a manner the captain of them, is in a frenzy, and would fain discover whom he can defraud or despoil of his property, in order that he may gratify them?

This section of The Republic, which occupies all of Book VIII and some of Book IX, is my favorite part of the whole classic text, even more than the book’s earlier and more famous section in which Plato develops the metaphor of the Cave. The Cave, too, will have to wait for another post.

The Republic is a great book, but it’s not a good introduction to Plato. The double level of meaning — everything relates to both the city and the soul — renders the allegories murky at times, and much of Plato’s usually brisk and humorous style gets lost in the dense depths. For newcomers to Plato, I’d recommend instead the Gorgias, the Phaedo, the Meno or the three short works that narrate Socrates’ death: Apology, Crito and Phaedo.

The Republic was Plato’s most ambitious and most quasi-religious work, but not his clearest and not necessarily his best. It’s his entire body of work, not any one book, that is his masterpiece, and The Republic is really more Plato’s Finnegans Wake than his Ulysses.

But, what type of government is your soul?

(I searched for “city on a hill” on Flickr and found the beguiling image above, thanks to The Rat Bat)

12 Responses

  1. Not psychology – they had no
    Not psychology – they had no sense of the mind as a machine. The point was to define the virtue of Justice, to Plato’s mind a far more important undertaking.

  2. Daniel, I respectfully
    Daniel, I respectfully disagree. It’s true that the word “psychology” did not exist in classical Athens, and I was wondering if my use of this word would raise any objections. I insist that psychology — in the early Freudian/Jungian/Jamesian sense, not the sense of contemporary empirical psychology — is exactly what “The Republic” contains. I don’t see any difference between Freud’s mapping of the id, the ego and the superego and Plato’s examination of the timocratic, oligarchic, democratic and tyrannical personalities — both were attempting to explain the habits and practices of the human mind. Why do you say this is not psychology?

  3. Interesting how some words
    Interesting how some words take and others don’t. Democracy, oligarchy and tyranny are terms still used today. Oligarchy maybe the least, but it is a very worthwhile term. The Chinese communist party running China is well described as an oligarchy (and a lot worse).

    A while back here I used the term East Coast Publishing oligarchy and a rep of such took great umbrage. It is a term that well describes the concentration of power and influence to a small group.

    But Timocracy?

    That one got left by the wayside.

    Google tyranny — 9.7 hits. Oligarchy — 1.25 million. Timocracy? 30,000 (ie 0.03 million).

  4. No apostrophe in Finnegans
    No apostrophe in Finnegans Wake. We got to keep watch about this book.

  5. What is Justice? This is
    What is Justice? This is still the big question in philosophy.
    It’s certainly not dialectics; it is not of necessity born of conflict. Hegel and Marx are not part of the equation by that reckoning.

    Eventually, Socrates intones that Justice is ‘minding your own business’.
    Is that Capitalism or something more subtle?

    Justice should be indivisible from beauty, according to Shelley.

    Who or what is a joy forever amid so much burning ambition?

  6. My soul is an Oligarchy,
    My soul is an Oligarchy, apropos “the individual only satisfies his necessary appetites, and confines his expenditure to them; his other desires he subdues, under the idea that they are unprofitable.” Keeping life’s profit-margin broad is a particular obsession of mine these days – and by “profit” I do not confine myself to fiduciary liquidity but rather an overall measure of life’s quality. Buying books is not profitable financially, as I rarely sell them for more than cost, but it is profitable to my mind. Driving a car is almost necessary in LA, but I refuse to do it because it would overall represent a net loss in my life (both of money and spirit).

    However there are not found in me “dronelike desires as of pauper and rogue, which are forcibly kept down by his general habit of life.” I don’t have an awful lot of desires, so satisfying them is relatively simple and requires that I keep down only a few, minor desires.

    But this man is definitely “at war with himself,” without a doubt “two men, and not one.” And I like to think that, in general, my better desires will be found to prevail over my inferior ones.

    I am an Oligarchy of one.

  7. That’s an interesting point,
    That’s an interesting point, TKG, about the word “timocracy”. I wonder if it’s related to “timorous”, “timid”, “intimidate”. I gather that many nations around the world are ruled by direct military hold, and are thus timocracies.

  8. the word timocracy is from
    the word timocracy is from the greek word timé (honour/esteem/worth), while timorous/timid/intimidate are derived from the latin word timor: fear.

  9. Levi.
    Robert Burns is in

    Robert Burns is in agreement with yourself on his one
    “Wee sleekit cowran timorous beastie..”

    “I’m truly sorry mans dominion
    Has broken natures social union”

    “The best laid schemes o’ Mice and Men…”
    (To A Mouse)
    Timocracy may have its origins in Aristotle,s ‘Might is Right’ view of the world.
    A view disputed by Socrates/Plato in’The Republic’
    And,as Burns infers,the artificial ordering of society by economy and class is ruinous to both human and animal alike

    The Darwinian’survival of the fittest’ landscape of political thought would look fairly barren as well were it not for the ‘Political power from the barrel of a gun’ philosophy it requires to sustain itself.
    All these are Empirical things of not much beauty.

    What is Beauty? may be the next big question in Philosophy.
    The fields of poetic thought require us all to consider the creatures of the hedgerow before replying.

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