What do Plato's Republic, Sigmund Freud, and the Harry Potter saga have in common? Find out in this deep-dive into book 4 of the Republic. The fourth book is perhaps the most important one in Plato’s masterpiece, because it is where the definition of justice is laid out. It is also where Plato puts forth a controversial theory of psychology, which claims that the human psyche is made up of separate components that are often at war with each other.
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When Harry Potter first arrives at Hogwarts, his place within the wizarding academy and the cohort that he will belong to over the next years are determined by a magic hat – the sorting hat that sits atop each new student’s head and declares which of the four houses at Hogwarts that student will join: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Slytherin, or Ravenclaw. Each of these four houses brings under its roof a group of kids who share a distinctive temperament or personality type. The students of Gryffindor tend to be the most brave and idealistic, those of Ravenclaw the most rational, those of Hufflepuff the most hard-working, and those of Slytherin the most cunning.
Why does this structure exist? Why does the school organize its student body into these four houses? And why do the students and professors accept and perpetuate this system? Well, because a thousand years earlier, as the story goes, four fantastic wizards founded the school, and each of these archetypal figures created a house in his or her own image. In other words, the students and faculty at Hogwarts maintain this system because they all subscribe to a certain foundation myth or origin story – much like the citizens of Plato’s ideal republic subscribe to the so-called “noble myth” in book 3, which we described in the last episode, and which interestingly also classifies the citizens into four groups, according to the metal which supposedly predominates in their souls: gold, silver, bronze, or iron.
Like in Plato’s Republic, so too in the wizarding world of Harry Potter, the implication is that this sorting system isn’t just an accident of the school’s founding, but that it serves a purpose and offers certain benefits to the community. What might these be? Maybe when students of a similar feather are allowed to flock together they are better able to bond with their classmates and form meaningful relationships. On the other hand, you need at least some healthy competition in any educational program or organization more generally. So, maybe this grouping of students into houses introduces just enough of that to keep the whole thing dynamic. The exact purpose and benefits of this sorting system are never explicitly articulated by Rowling. But just as in Plato’s Republic, we get the idea that while the community is composed of separate units, it can only thrive when they all work together for the common good.
There are many more similarities that one can draw between Hogwarts and Plato’s Republic. For instance, similar to how Plato assigns one of four metals to each soul-type, JK Rowling has each house symbolized by one of the four classical elements: earth, water, air, and fire. Furthermore, the character traits encompassed by the four houses map on strikingly well to those of Plato’s four metals. The gold souls, for example, resemble the members of Ravenclaw with their rationality. And the silver souls, with their desire for honor and heroism, resemble the students of Gryffindor.
Why the many similarities between Hogwarts and the Republic? Did JK Rowling get her ideas from Plato? Well, she did study classics after all at university. So, it’s possible that some ideas from the Republic were floating around in her subconscious as she penned the Harry Potter saga. But there’s another explanation for the similarities. And it’s something I’d like to explore today in this episode as we now tackle book 4 of the Republic.
Some of you might be thinking, “Wait a second. You’re going to do a whole episode comparing the Republic to Harry Potter? What is this? Some kind of marketing ploy to curry favor with the potterheads of the world?” No. It’s not that. Hear me out for a second.
In book 4 of the Republic, we finally encounter the holy grail, so to speak, that Socrates has been after in this whole discussion. We finally get the definition of justice. But this definition, which we’ll get to in a bit, depends on something else we get in book 4, namely a theory of psychology that Socrates puts forth, which in turn ties in with the myth of metals from the previous book.
Scholars today who work on ancient philosophy don’t think this is really Socrates’ definition of justice and his theory of the soul. They think these are Plato’s definition and his theory. We mentioned briefly, way back in episode R0, how by the time Plato wrote the Republic his thinking had diverged quite a bit from that of his long-dead teacher, but he nonetheless kept using the figure of Socrates as his protagonist. Anyway, the point I’m getting at here is that a lot of philosophers today who are not huge fans of Plato, when they look at book 4 and see this new psychological theory building on the myth of metals from the end of book 3, they dismiss it all as a fantasy – as stuff that Plato made up in a flight of fancy in order to buttress the definition of justice that he puts forth. In other words, according to this view, the psychological theory that Plato included in book 4 was not the result of any careful study of human behavior on his part, which then informed his understanding of justice. Rather, say these critics, he had a definition of justice that he wanted to sell to his readers, and the psychological argument of book 4 is something he concocted in order to make the overall argument appear to work.
What does this have to do with Hogwarts? I believe that in exploring how Plato’s psychology is echoed in Harry Potter and numerous other later literary works and psychological theories, we can begin to see that maybe Plato wasn’t just pulling things out of thin air. Maybe his understanding of human nature was based on empirically observable facts about human behavior. And if that’s the case, then maybe the argument of book 4 is worth taking more seriously than it often is today.
Now some of you might be thinking, “Hold on. You’re saying that you’re going to use Harry Potter – a fictional work – to defend the empirical basis of Plato’s theory? That sounds like an impossible task.” Well, here at Ancient Greece Declassified we love impossible challenges. In fact I just spent last weekend fighting windmills in a jousting contest.
Since book 4 has so much going on and is where we get the definition of justice, I think it’s really crucial that we go through the argument presented very carefully. So, in the remainder of this episode, I’m going to first give you a synopsis of book 4. Then we’re going to consider several questions and objections that readers often raise. And finally, we’ll address the common view that Plato made up the psychological theory presented in order to buttress his preconceived notion of justice. It’s in that final section that we’re going to bring Harry Potter back into the conversation, as well as Freud and other thinkers, to see how Plato’s theory measures up against modern psychological and literary conceptions of the human psyche. Does that sound like a plan? Alright, let’s do this.
Part 1: Synopsis of book 4 (begins at 8:30)
Book 4 begins with Socrates and company laying the finishing touches on their initial sketch of the utopia they’re constructing, which they’ve dubbed Kallipolis, meaning “beautiful city.” In the previous one and a half books, we got an outline of the political structure of the city as well as it’s educational system. As you’ll remember, the city will have three classes: a producer/commercial class, a ruling class, and an intermediary class called the auxiliaries, who help the rulers rule and defend the city against enemies. The rulers and their auxiliaries together are referred to as the guardians. As you’ll also remember, the guardians of Kallipolis receive a strictly controlled and curated education in poetry and gymnastics, designed to make them both tough against threats to the city but also gentle to their fellow citizens and appreciative of beauty and harmony.
There are still plenty of unanswered questions about this utopia. E.g. How big will the city be? What will it’s economy look like? And what about it’s foreign policy? These are the sorts of issues that are addressed in rapid-fire succession in the first part of book 4.
First, Adeimantus raises the question of whether the citizens of Kallipolis will be happy. Remember, the citizens who wield power, namely the guardians, are not allowed to own any private property or money. Meanwhile, the producer/commercial class, which is allowed property and money, is not allowed to use that wealth to wield power. Furthermore, extravagant entertainment such as the theater will be banned from the whole city, while only stories and hymns about gods and heroes behaving morally will be allowed.
So, Adeimantus is like, “Socrates, how would you answer the claim that you’re not making the guardians of Kallipolis particularly happy? What’s the point of being in the ruling class if you can’t even own a nice house and throw glamorous parties for your elite friends?”
To which Socrates replies that the goal isn’t to make this or that class of citizens as happy as possible. Rather, it’s to optimize the happiness of the whole city. And if you want the community to thrive and be happy, you can’t have everyone running around trying to party like Leonardo DiCaprio or Lindsay Lohan. Because then no one would get any work done. The farmers wouldn’t farm, the craftsmen wouldn’t pursue their crafts, and the rulers wouldn’t assiduously serve the interest of the community. In order for everyone to be productive and motivated to master their crafts, argues Socrates, you can’t allow too much money and luxury into the city. On the other hand, people also lose motivation to work when they aren’t paid enough. Thus, the economic system of Kallipolis must take the utmost care to avoid two great ills: extreme poverty and extreme wealth.
To put this into modern language, Plato is essentially saying that it’s not enough to have a minimum wage. You also need a maximum wage or a wealth cap or some such mechanism to prevent the formation of a financial oligarchy. And this was not a new idea by the way. Plenty of ancient Greek poleis had systems in place to curb both poverty and extreme wealth. Aristotle lists several examples in his Politics, book 2, section 1266b. For instance, in some states, it was illegal for citizens to sell their own property unless they could prove that some terrible misfortune had befallen them which necessitated that they sell it. The purpose of this law was to help prevent citizens from becoming propertyless. Conversely, in several states, including Athens, there was a limit to how much land a single individual could buy up. The framers of those constitutions realized that if a large portion of your population become renters and/or homeless, while a few people own all the real estate, you end up with a volatile population ready for revolution. That’s when you get civil strife, or what the Greeks called stasis (στάσις).
In sum, what Plato is saying, and interestingly Aristotle agrees with him on these points (Politics book 2), is that the happiness of the citizens of a state is of course important, but their pursuit of happiness must operate within the confines of a system that prevents stasis. And in order to prevent stasis, you need to put guardrails in place so that none of your citizens become either dirt poor or filthy rich.
Next, Adeimantus steers the discussion toward foreign policy. If you remember, Socrates had previously emphasized the need for the guardians to be fierce defenders of the state against foreign threats. To that end, they will receive a rigorous physical education that will make them formidable warriors. But fighting ability is not always enough to win wars. So Adeimantus asks, “If the city doesn’t have much money, how will it be able to defend itself against rich and powerful enemies?”
To which Socrates offers an intriguing response. “If faced with a single, rich and powerful enemy,” he says, “Kallipolis would indeed be in trouble. But in reality, geopolitics is not a two player game. It’s massively multiplayer, and there are always allies available, especially if you incentivize other states to throw in their lot with you. For example,” he says, “the guardians of Kallipolis will send out emissaries to other states to let them know they, the Kallipolitans, are not allowed to accumulate gold or silver. So, if they fight a war and win - and they are very skilled on the battlefield - they will let their allies keep all the spoils and plunder.” The end result will be that other states will have very little to gain by invading Kallipolis, and much to gain if they become its allies. This, by the way, is not that different than the strategy of Switzerland for much of its history, before it became the world capital of chocolate, luxury watches, and questionable money. It used to be a poor country that was difficult to invade, offered few riches to tempt invaders, and had a fierce fighting force that other countries wanted on their side. This was also, more or less, the strategy of ancient Sparta, before it became a major power, and of various other poor and warlike states in history. The problem with such states is that, over time, they tend to eventually get rich and turn into money-obsessed oligarchies. At least that’s what Plato thought, as we’ll see in book 8. Throughout the Republic, Plato is at great pains to formulate a system that would prevent such a slide into oligarchy from taking place. Hence the economic guardrails mentioned earlier and the strict educational system.
“The other reason why Kallipolis need not fear a rich and powerful enemy,” says Socrates, “is that large and wealthy states are never unified, but invariably composed of various classes and factions that are at war with each other.” Thus, if threatened by such a power, the rulers of Kallipolis can exploit those internal divisions to foment stasis in enemy territory. This, by the way, is a geopolitical tactic found throughout history.
It’s interesting that Plato here suggests that most states of his day were more internally divided and disunified than the one he is envisioning here, because that’s precisely the criticism that Aristotle, writing decades later, leveled at Plato’s utopian vision. Aristotle said that in Kallipolis Plato created not one, but two cities at war with each other: the producer class vs the guardians (Politics book 2, 1264a25). And a lot of modern readers share Aristotle’s intuition. When they read the Republic, they think, “Wow, this is a starkly divided city”. And maybe that’s right. Maybe Plato messed up. But it’s interesting to note that he thought he was creating the most unified city possible, in contrast to the other cities of his day. For him, the division of the population into rulers, auxiliaries, and producers was not about sowing discord, but about creating a well functioning system, kinda like the division of Hogwarts into houses. Whether or not Plato succeeded is up for debate, and we’ll have a little more to say about it down the line. Nevertheless, we should note that his stated goal in devising the structure he did is to promote the unity of the body politic.
The topic of unity naturally leads to the next question about Kallipolis. How big will it be? The answer to this one is simple. You see, Plato and his contemporaries didn’t think that countries are infinitely scalable. They thought that when your population gets too big you get, once again, stasis. So he has Socrates suggest a simple rule. Kallipolis will be allowed to grow so long as the citizens are eager to be a unity, to be out of many one. The phrase used is basically the Greek equivalent of e pluribus unum. As soon as the citizens start to no longer want to be one state, the city will not be allowed to get any bigger. Plato doesn’t offer an estimate for how big that would be, but in a later work that he wrote called the Laws, he says that the ideal number of citizens is about 5000. Athens, for comparison, had 30,000 adult male citizens at its peak. For Plato then, the ideal state is not big and imperialistic, but just big enough to maintain its own independence.
Up until this point in the discussion, there has weirdly been very little talk about the specific laws of the land that will be instituted. Now, finally, we get the reason for that. Socrates explains that the quality of laws in Kallipolis will be a direct result of the quality of education. If the citizens are well educated, they will produce good laws, and if they are poorly educated, having good laws won’t do them much good, cause they’ll either corrupt them or make new crappy laws. Therefore, Socrates and company need not enumerate all the particular laws about day to day business, because the citizens of Kallipolis will make good laws on their own, provided they receive and uphold the education system articulated earlier.
When Adeimantus agrees to all this, Socrates proclaims, “Son of Ariston, your city has been founded.” As a final note about this section of the book, I think it’s interesting that Socrates here suddenly addresses Adeimantus as “the son of Ariston.” Socrates hasn’t addressed him that way prior to this point in the dialogue. So, why does he do that here of all places? I suspect that this is a humorous hint from Plato to his audience that he is the real author of this utopian vision. Remember, he too, as Adeimantus’ brother, is the son of Ariston. So it’s almost as if Socrates suddenly turns to Plato and says with a wink, your republic is now complete.
Part 2: Locating Justice in the City (begins at 19:40)
Now that Socrates and co. have sketched out the ideal polis, they are finally in a position to try to answer the question that motivated this entire discussion in the first place: What is justice? If you remember back in book 2, rather than looking into the human soul in search of the virtue of justice, Socrates had proposed that they put before their eyes a large vivid image of an ideal society and look for justice there. And once they identified it at the macro level, to then see if they can detect a similar phenomenon within the human psyche.
Now Socrates invites his companions to peer into the city they just founded, examine it carefully, and try to find justice in it. But Glaucon and Adeimantus are like, “Um, we’re not seeing it, Socrates. What are we missing here?” And Socrates says, “Ok, let’s try the following strategy. We know that there are four cardinal virtues, right?” And they’re like, “Yea: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice.” “So maybe,” says Socrates, “we can start by looking for the other ones. Cause they might prove easier to spot. And once we get those out of the way, we’ll see what’s left over, and maybe that will be justice.”
So they start with wisdom, and they quickly agree that the wisdom of a state is located predominantly in the ruling class. Because while it’s great to have wise craftsmen, what really allows you to call a state wise is its leadership - having leaders who make wise decisions.
Similarly with courage, while you can have courageous musicians and courageous rulers, it’s really the armed forces – the warriors of a state – that most people will look to (especially in the ancient world) to judge the courage of a particular country. So, courage is located predominantly in the auxiliary class – those are the ones who fight in wars.
The next virtue considered is temperance or, in some translations, moderation. The Greek word is sôphrosynê (σωφροσύνη), which if you break it down etymologically, means “of sound mind.” No English word precisely corresponds with it, but “temperance” comes close.
This virtue, they decide, is not located in any particular class, but it’s a property of the whole, and it’s a kind of harmony between the three classes. An important aspect of this harmony is that all three parts agree on who should rule. If you have a state where either the commercial class or the military considers the government illegitimate and refuses to obey its laws or policies, then that state does not have the virtue of temperance or σωφροσύνη.
After thus identifying three of the four virtues, Glaucon and Adeimantus are still a bit befuddled, and say, “Socrates, we still don’t see where justice lies.”
And Socrates is like, “Look, I think it’s staring us right in the face, and we’ve been talking indirectly about it this whole time. Isn’t justice essentially what we talked about earlier, when discussing the division of labor, how each citizen of Kallipolis should be one thing and not a plurality of things. Each citizen should be the master of one craft, should have one personality, not multiple personalities. And each should master and pursue the one thing they’re naturally suited to. We already agreed on all that, continues Socrates. Now, if we extend that way of thinking to the macro level, what if justice is simply the state when each of the three classes does its own job, and does not encroach on the work of the others?”
To which, Glaucon is like, “OMG, Socrates, you nailed it!”
This might sound a little comical at first. Like, come on, Socrates, how did you come up with that? And how was it supposed to be the obvious answer? Well, the idea here is that the four cardinal virtues together are supposed to encompass the totality of human excellence. In other words, what makes these four virtues cardinal (unlike lesser virtues such as patience or kindness or whatever) is that if you have these four, you have them all. That’s the idea. Therefore, if you have identified three of them, and you can sense what is still missing for that person or group to achieve complete excellence, that missing component has to be justice. And what Socrates points out is still missing here, after wisdom, temperance, and courage have been identified, is a mechanism that would bring about and maintain this system.
What makes his proposed definition of justice such a good candidate for that is that it’s such a simple rule (let everyone or every part do its own work well). It’s so simple and it’s validated in a number of types of situations. And, lo and behold, if implemented in the state, it would help maintain the whole shebang. If the rulers do their part well, that’s wisdom; and if the guardians do theirs, that’s courage; and if the producers do theirs and agree with the rulers and auxiliaries on who should rule, that’s temperance – all reinforced by this one simple principle.
So, that is the definition of political justice offered in the Republic. That’s the justice of Kallipolis.
Part 3: Assessing the Definition (24:55)
We now have the first new definition of justice since the various proposals that were rejected way back in book 1. And I’m sure that many of you are brimming with questions and objections right now so let’s pause and think about this. A lot of people look at this definition, and ask, how is that justice? That doesn’t look like justice to me.
Well, first of all, it bears mentioning that even though Glaucon and Adeimantus are quick to agree with Socrates, I don’t think Plato expects us readers to immediately accept this. He knows this is a non-intuitive definition. That’s one of the reasons I think he took a circuitous route to get here.
In order to properly evaluate this definition, we should remember that this discussion is not about defining the justice system of a state, with its courts, laws, punishments, and legal procedures. We’re trying to define the virtue of justice in a state. A useful analogy here might be to think of health versus medicine. The goal of medicine is to restore health. But it’s an intervention. If you are already healthy, you don’t need medicine. Likewise, the goal of a justice system is to enforce justice. But if your society is just in the sense that Plato is trying to define here – if it has the virtue of justice – it doesn’t need much enforcement.
So, when Plato here asks us to consider what is it about the perfect state that makes it just, it’s kind of like asking, what is it about a healthy person that makes him healthy?
The answer Plato proposes is that the defining feature of a just state is that everyone in it minds their own business. Which would be analogous to saying that what makes a body healthy is that every cell, organ, and system within it does its own job properly.
Now if we just pause there for a second, there definitely is at least some truth to this conception of justice. I mean, every crime or unjust act can be thought of as someone minding someone else’s business. If everyone truly minded their own business, we wouldn’t have crime, or lawsuits, or murder trials.
But when Plato talks about minding one’s own business, he doesn’t mean that each person should simply keep to themselves and not interfere with others. He means, above all, that you need to make sure you know what your true business is, and that you do that thing well. In other words, the thing you are best at, should be your main job and your contribution to your community. He actually invents a new word to express this principle. The word is οἰκειοπραγία, and it means doing the thing most suitable to you, or the thing that belongs to your nature.
Plato thinks that if you have some people who are excellent farmers, others who are excellent craftsman, and then you have excellent musicians, excellent soldiers, and excellent rulers, and they all focus on the one thing that they’re best at, your society will function better as a whole than if your average citizen is juggling various different part-time gigs. Again, this division of labor argument is old news. I mean, that was already done in book 2. What’s new about this definition of political justice is that it extends the idea to the classes of Kallipolis. Not only should each citizen mind his or her own business, but each class should as well. This is hard for some modern readers to swallow, because it sounds like the lower classes will be forced into obedience by the higher.
But let’s take a step back and think about our own society for a moment. You could divvy up most countries today similar to how Plato does and think of there being three classes: a large civilian population, a smaller military class, and an even smaller ruling class that is your government. So, here’s a question. If you have a country where each of these three classes does its own work well and does not interfere with the work of the others, and another one where the various classes are constantly interfering with each other’s tasks, which of those would you rather live in? I think we’d all agree that you don’t want the military interfering with either the civilians or the government. Also, most people don’t want the government interfering in their work and businesses. As for the military, while it must obey the government in broad terms, it needs to have some degree of autonomy in order to operate effectively. Finally, what about the civilian class interfering in the military or the government? Is that ok?
If you are protesting in the streets against your government, it might be hard initially to accept Plato’s definition of justice. Cause you’d be like, “Plato wants me to go back to work and stay out of the government’s business? Hell no. I’m going to fight for what I think is right.” But if that’s what you say, then you’re actually agreeing with Plato. If you’re fighting for what’s right, that means that, as things stand, they are not right. The system is unjust. That’s why you’re in the streets. If justice were upheld, you wouldn’t be out here.
So, Plato is not saying that justice requires every class to simply put up with all the crap that the other classes do and not interfere. He’s saying that if each class truly performed it’s role well, then none of them would feel compelled to interfere with the others. But that state of everyone performing their own role well is not easy to achieve. Because first of all it requires a well-crafted constitution, that gives to each class a meaningful and productive role, and gives them enough oversight over the other classes so that they don’t feel compelled to forcefully and unlawfully interfere with them. Furthermore, you need a really good education system that enables your citizens to uphold their constitution. And, as mentioned before, you need to prevent poverty and luxury from creeping into your city. These are very difficult things for any state to accomplish. That’s why you rarely see a just polity, according to Plato’s conception. Because most states have a poor educational system and fail to prevent the rise of economic inequality. Increased inequality makes the population bitter and divided, while a bad education system produces bad laws down the line and a population willing to trample on each other as they vie for money and power.
So, Plato’s definition of justice is not, as it’s sometimes interpreted, about the lower classes staying in line out of obedience and fear. It’s about all parts of a system doing what they are best suited to do and working together for the common good.
Part 4: Is the Argument Circular? (31:20)
One question that comes up a lot when people read this book today is, how is this argument not circular? Because Socrates and company started by saying, in order to find out what justice is, let’s mentally construct a perfect city, and then look for justice in it. And you might say, well, when they are building that perfect city, aren’t they using their preconceptions or intuitions about justice? And then once they’re done building it and they say “Gee wiz, here’s what justice is,” they act like they’re discovering an objective fact when they’ve been building their preconceptions about justice into the analogy from the beginning. So, isn’t that reasoning circular?
I guess the two best defenses I’ve heard against that objection are 1) Socrates and co. don’t actually rely on the concept of justice during the city-building exercise. Socrates never says, “Ok, how will we make the citizens or the laws just? Or: What’s the next step to improve the justice of this constitution?” He appeals instead to other ideals, like how to make the city beautiful, stable, strong, efficient, or resilient. It is called the beautiful city after all, Kallipolis, not the just city, which would be Dikaiopolis. So, Socrates could use that as a defense, that he hasn’t employed the concept of justice in the argument.
Now you could still then say, well, even if you avoid using the word “justice,” you could still be employing the concept unwittingly or subconsciously. Cause aren’t your intuitions about justice built into your notions of goodness, beauty, and perfection?
But even if they are, there still is a second way to defend the validity of Socrates’ method. Because you could say, well, this whole exercise is what modern philosophers call an intuition pump. It is a thought experiment that’s meant to harness our intuitions about something in order to develop an answer to a difficult question. In which case, it’s not a problem that Socrates and co are employing their intuitions about justice, because that’s how intuition pumps work. But if that’s the method here, then it’s not enough to just take whatever answer your intuition pump spits out and say, “this is the full truth.” Because intuitions can sometimes lead us astray. So once you come up with an answer, you then need some other way to test or confirm that it is a good answer.
This is where the psychological part of the book comes in. Cause remember, the whole point of the city-building exercise was that it was supposed to lead eventually to an understanding of what justice is in the individual. The assumption was that if there really is a thing called justice, and it’s not just some construct that changes over time and different societies construct it differently - if there is a fixed truth about justice, then everything that is just, must share in that fixed truth. Therefore a just city and a just person must have the same underlying attribute that makes them just. And Socrates said, the justice of an individual is hard to make out, because we can’t exactly look inside of ourselves. Whereas a state is big, and observable. So let’s look for justice writ-large in the body politic, where it will be easier to spot. Once we find it there, we’ll have a general idea of what to look for in the individual.
Now that they’ve completed the political argument, and they finally have an answer for what justice is in the polis, Socrates says, let’s see if we can find the virtue of justice manifested in the soul in a similar way. And if we do—if we now open a separate argument about human psychology, and through a new line of reasoning find that the soul has a structure similar to that of a city and that justice in the soul involves the same principle we identified earlier of each part doing its own job well — that would be a strong indication that the answer we got from the city-building exercise is at least close to the truth.
So at that point, Socrates directs the focus of their investigation inwards into the depths of the human soul.
Part 5: The Tripartite Soul (35:30)
We’ll talk more about the theory of the soul given in book 4 in the next episode, when we’re actually going to have a psychoanalyst on the show to give us some real insights there. But the basic method of studying the soul that’s on offer in book 4 is to look at instances of inner conflict that we experience and use those to identify the different parts of the human psyche. So, you know, we often feel simultaneous but opposite inclinations. Like, I want to eat something sweet but also at the same time I resist doing that. That is an example of two conflicting forces within us. So Plato has Socrates argue that that kind of situation implies that there are actually separate parts of our psyche at work there. And if we can take a look at various different instances of inner conflict, we can maybe figure out how many different parts there are. And that’ll help us map out an anatomy of the soul, as it were. And so, by going through numerous interesting examples of inner conflict, they come to the conclusion that the soul, like the city, has three parts. And those three parts correspond to the three parts of the city.
First, there’s the ruling element, which in the soul is reason. Next, the merchant/producer class of the city corresponds in the soul to the part which houses appetites and desires and is often called the appetitive part in English (“appetitive” from “appetite”). Then, the auxiliaries – those honor-loving warriors – correspond to a third part of the soul that we mentioned last time, called in Greek the thymos (θυμός), which is notoriously difficult to translate, but is often referred to as the “spirited part” in English. This thymos or spirited part is where we feel things like honor, ambition, anger, self-respect, self-esteem, and the desire for friendship and social status.
So those are the three parts, and Socrates is like “Whoop dee doo, they correspond so well to the three parts of the city, and, what do you know, the virtues also seem to match up. So the wisdom of an individual would be located in the rational part of the soul, just as it’s located in the ruling part of a state. The courage of a person is located in the spirited part or thymos, just as in a state it’s located in the auxiliaries. As one might expect, temperance or moderation in the soul is a harmony between the parts and an agreement among them that reason should rule. And finally, justice is the state of the soul where each of the three parts performs its own function well and does not interfere with the work of the others. Now, since the appetitive part of the soul is usually the most powerful, and has no self-regulating mechanism (i.e. there is no limit to how much money or pleasure your desires can thirst for, if allowed free reign), the rational part needs the help of the thymos in order to rule and not be overwhelmed by desire. Thus, justice requires that the thymos be the steadfast ally of reason in the soul, just as in Kallipolis justice required that the auxiliaries serve the rulers.
Now let’s just assume for the sake of argument that this psychological theory checks out – that the human psyche really does have these three components. Even so, a lot of people today, when they get to the definition of justice in the soul, once again are like, how exactly is that justice? Isn’t justice obeying the laws or the rules of morality? Isn’t it about how you treat other people? How can you define it simply with reference to the parts of the soul? If you look for other academic podcasts or lectures that discuss this part of the Republic, you’ll likely encounter scholars who object to Plato’s argument by saying, “What if someone with the type of soul Plato describes commits murder? How is that then justice?”
Well, I think Plato has a straightforward answer to that. He would say, that’s not possible. If someone commits murder or some other horrible crime, their soul is not in the state described by the definition because reason is not in control. Even if the crime is extremely well calculated and planned and rationally executed, the motivation for the crime must come from one of the other soul parts. It could be greed, in which case it’s the appetitive part that is providing the motivation. Or it could be ambition, in which case it’s the spirited part. But the rational part itself desires only truth and wisdom, so it cannot be the motivating factor in such a crime. Thus, if you see a criminal or tyrant, their soul cannot be in the state described by Plato as just, because their reason is serving the other parts of their psyche.
What about the case of a mad scientist, such as we see in a lot of our movies, like a doctor who is so obsessed with acquiring scientific knowledge that he performs harmful medical experiments on other people. In that case, isn’t reason motivating the crime? And let’s say too that this doctor is so obsessed with scientific inquiry that he has completely suppressed the appetitive part of his soul. No sex, no fancy food - he’s in the lab all day drinking nothing but protein shakes and focusing on his work. Doesn’t his soul, with reason in command and the appetites and desires suppressed – fit Plato’s definition of justice? Actually, no! Because justice is not just about reason being in charge. It’s about all three of the soul parts doing their own job well. And in the case of the psychopathic doctor, at least two of the soul parts are failing to do their job well, including his rational part, which hasn’t learned one of the most important functions of reason, namely the appreciation of beauty and harmony. If it had learned that, it wouldn’t be engaging in ugly and cruel experiments. The spirited part or thymos is also malfunctioning, because it hasn’t learned to feel shame at harming other people. And we might even say that the appetitive part is failing as well because it hasn’t been habituated to a moderate diet of social pleasures (such as a healthy relationship, some hobbies, playing sports on the weekends) which would contribute to a healthy lifestyle and perhaps act as a counterweight to this person’s intellectual fetishes.
This example is helpful, I think, because it shows how demanding Plato’s definition of justice is. You can’t just wake up one morning and say, “you know what, I’m going to follow Plato’s definition of justice from now on. I’m going to be rational, and I’m not going to let my emotions and desires get the better of me.” No. It takes a lifetime of education and training to get to the psychic state of equilibrium that Plato describes where all the parts of your soul are working together like a well-oiled machine. That’s why so much of the Republic is about education.
So, I think Plato can reasonably claim that if you see someone committing a heinous crime, that person’s soul cannot be in the state described by his definition. And if that’s true, the contrapositive statement also holds, that if someone’s soul does satisfy Plato’s definition, that person cannot possibly be unjust. But not being unjust isn’t necessarily the same as being a paragon of justice. One might still ask, how do we know that a person in such a state will actually actively do good to other people? Again, isn’t it better to define justice the good old way, namely in terms of how someone behaves with others? Isn’t it more straightforward to just say, justice is following these rules, treating others in this manner, and not cheating, lying, or stealing?
Maybe not. Cause what good are all those rules if someone is not motivated internally to do those things? If someone appears to behave morally, but they’re only doing it because they’re forced to or they have some sinister goal in mind, that’s not justice. So, a definition of the virtue of justice has to involve the inner workings of the soul, where our motivation comes from.
That’s what Plato attempts to do in the Republic.
Part 6: Assessing the Psychological Argument (43:40)
At this point, Plato would have us believe that the psychological argument has accomplished its goal. Through it, Socrates and co. found corroboration of the earlier answer given by their city-building exercise about political justice. In other words, the political argument paved the way for the psychological argument. And the psychological argument confirmed the political one. It turns out that Socrates’ intuition from book 2 was right: that the fact that we use the word justice to describe two different things—a state on the one hand and an individual on the other—is not accidental but is due to the fact that both the body politic and the individual person display a similar internal phenomenon when exhibiting the virtue of justice.
So what do you think? Is this two pronged approach, where both paths seem to converge on the same type of answer for what justice is—is that convincing?
As mentioned earlier, not all philosophers today are convinced. If you explore what other scholars say about this, you’ll likely run into the claim that Plato’s psychological argument in book 4 is “driven by the analogy.” In other words, some scholars think that Plato fudged the psychological argument to make it converge with the political one.
Now, setting aside for a moment whether the argument is valid or not, I think that to say it’s “driven by the analogy” is a little dangerous, because it assumes that we can know Plato’s mind—that we can know his motivation for writing what he wrote. Whereas I don’t think we can ever know the inner workings of anyone’s mind other than our own, and even that is difficult.
Nevertheless, I can understand the temptation to psychologize Plato in this way if you don’t accept his argument, cause you’re like, “how could such a skilled dialectician write something that seems so wrong?” And the simplest explanation is that, well, he fudged the psychological argument.
And it’s easy to think that Plato got it wrong, because his psychological theory apparently never caught on. I mean, it’s not like his proposed anatomy of the human psyche was ever widely accepted by other philosophers, let alone psychologists. It simply sat on bookshelves collecting dust for thousands of years while later philosophers and psychologists came up with new psychological models. That means it’s wrong, right?
Not so fast. There are two points that bear mentioning here. First, the fact that a new theory does not catch on does not at all imply that it is wrong. Just think of Aristarchus of Samos, who proposed that the earth moves around the sun in the third century BC. His heliocentric model was rejected for almost two thousand years. Does that mean it was wrong? No.
We, today, who live in a post-Freudian world, are very comfortable with the idea that the human psyche is composed of separate and conflicting forces. But that idea seems to have been hard to swallow for many cultures and schools of thought throughout history. For example, the Stoic school of philosophy, which was the dominant school in the Mediterranean for many centuries after Plato, insisted that the soul was a single, homogeneous, rational entity, even in the face of tons of evidence to the contrary. In fact, one of the most preeminent Stoics some two hundred years after the school’s founding, named Posidonius, rebelled against this view and said, “Come on guys, the human psyche clearly also has non-rational elements bouncing up against our reason. Let’s maybe revise our model.” But no, they didn’t. And when the Christians took over later, they continued this way of thinking of the soul as a single, uncompounded entity.
So, that’s one reason that might explain why Plato’s tripartite model didn’t catch on: the fact that most people in most periods of history seem to resist that idea, that our soul, our mind, our inner self is actually a composite thing often at war with itself.
But then what about today? Cause, you know, when science finally returned to Europe in the Renaissance 1700 years after Aristarchus, his heliocentrism was vindicated by Copernicus and Galileo. So, now that we have modern psychology and are totally ok with the idea of a divided and composite psyche, why hasn’t Plato’s theory made a comeback?
And the answer to that is, it actually has, in a way. There is an increasing awareness among researchers that Freud was profoundly influenced by Plato’s psychology. In fact, you could see Freud’s tripartite psyche—consisting of the id, the ego, and the superego—as being a modified, expanded, and updated version of the Platonic model. The id corresponds broadly to the appetitive part, the ego to the rational element, and the superego to the thymos.
One thing about the Freudian tripartite model that seems to give it more credibility perhaps than the Platonic one is the fact that it’s backed up by thousands of hours of Herr Sigmund Freud himself sitting in his armchair smoking a pipe while listening to and analyzing the thoughts, dreams, and anxieties of countless patients. Whereas with Plato, we assume he never did anything of the sort. I mean, we know very little about his life. But we’re all taught in school that he was an “idealist,” who scorned empirical inquiry. But what if our perception is skewed? Is it possible that Plato too arrived at his tripartite model through countless hours of empirical study of human behavior?
I think the answer becomes obvious if we ask a slightly different question: Is it conceivable that Plato, who spent his entire life seeking out and conversing with interesting people throughout Greece, Southern Italy, and perhaps Egypt as well, is it conceivable that he didn’t use that vast database of interactions and experiences that he garnered when formulating a theory of the human psyche? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, no! Of course he used that tremendous trove of empirical data that he assembled.
Now I’m sure some of you are thinking, but how could Plato’s observations have led him to this theory? Cause he didn’t have all the scientific methods available to him that Freud did, nor did he have access to the immense corpus of psychological scholarship that Freud read as a student. So how could Plato have come up with a similar theory?
We can’t know for sure, of course. But I think it’s fun to speculate, and there are some interesting clues in the text, starting with the myth of metals from the previous book. There, we encountered the so-called noble myth that the Kallipolitans will be taught, which states that they each have an admixture of four metals in their souls: gold, silver, iron, and bronze. The metal that predominates in each soul determines that person’s main motivation in life: truth, honor, money, or pleasure.
Part 7: Plato, Harry Potter, and Myers-Briggs (50:40)
At the top of this show, I mentioned the similarities of this four-part framework with the four houses of Hogwarts, and raised the question: how do we explain these similarities? Was Rowling inspired by Plato? Or did she get the idea from somewhere else?
In around 1980 an American psychologist named David Keirsey, building on the work of earlier psychologists, argued that virtually all humans fall under one of four basic temperaments, which also map on uncannily well to the houses of Hogwarts. Keirsey labeled these as 1) guardians, who value security, order, and hard work and would correspond to House Hufflepuff, 2) artisans, who value adventure, artistry or technique, physical beauty, and excitement and would correspond to House Slytherin, 3) idealists, who value harmony with other people, profound experiences, and recognition, and correspond to House Gryffindor, and finally 4) rationals, who value knowledge and understanding complex systems, and would correspond to house Ravenclaw.
So, is it possible that Rowling drew her inspiration not from Plato but from Keirsey’s four temperaments?
Well, what’s perhaps most interesting about Keirsey’s book where he lays this all out, is that he argues that this idea that the great diversity of human personalities can be subsumed under just four basic temperaments has been observed or intuited by writers throughout history. Just think of how many classic stories feature four archetypal characters. From the Wizard of Oz with Dorothy, the Lion, the Tinman, and the Scarecrow to the three musketeers plus D’artagnan who’s the fourth, to Ghostbusters, Sex and the City, Seinfeld, Entourage, or the Fantastic Four. Everywhere you look in the world of literature and movies, you seem to encounter the same four temperaments.
In all these stories, you have a rational character: that would be Athos in the Three Musketeers, Miranda in Sex and the City, and the scarecrow in Wizard of Oz, who, after all, wants more than anything to acquire a brain (symbolizing the thirst for knowledge). Then you have an idealistic character, usually the protagonist, who is open-minded, friendly, and seeks deep, profound experiences. That would be D’Artagnan, or Carrie Bradshaw, or the Tinman in Wizard of Oz, who wants above all to have a heart. Then you have the pleasure-loving, often cunning, thrill-seeking character, like Aramis in the Musketeers, Samantha in Sex and the City, or the Lion in Wizard of Oz, who wants courage more than anything. And finally, you have the character who just wants things to be normal, settled, proper, who respects tradition and hierarchy, and who values money because it creates security. That would be Porthos, Charlotte, or Dorothy, who just wants to get back to Kansas.
There are other modern psychologists whom Keirsey claims as his allies in this theory. And he also argues that the popular Myers Briggs framework of personality types also corroborates his model and illuminates the mechanics of how it works. Going back in time, Keirsey claims that one already finds the four temperaments in ancient Greek medicine in the theory of the four humors - the idea that people can be either sanguinic, phlegmatic, choleric, or melancholic based on which humor or fluid predominates in their body. And, interestingly, he names Plato’s four metals as the earliest known instance of a thinker observing these four temperaments.
Now, it is way beyond the scope of this episode, obviously, to adequately explore Keirsey’s claim that all of these cases throughout history are pointing to or illuminating the same four basic human temperaments. There are many potential objections one could raise. You could deny that all of these sets of four characters map onto each other. Or you could claim that maybe they do, but that’s just a formula that fiction writers discovered long ago and authors keep using it because it works dramatically, but it doesn’t say anything about human nature. Furthermore, most psychologists that I’ve spoken to over the years (cause I’ve long been interested in this), dismiss Keirsey’s theory, though they haven’t actually studied it. But as soon as they hear that it’s connected to the Myers Briggs model (which they also haven’t studied by the way), they scoff and say, “that’s widely discredited,” and they point to newer models, like the big 5 personality traits, which seem to allow for more than 4 basic temperaments.
Now I’m not going to sit here and try to defend the scientific validity of the four temperaments or the Myers Briggs typology, because I’m not a psychologist. But I will point out that, while this theory is not widely accepted by psychologists in America, there are plenty of other countries where a similar formulation of the theory, called socionics, is accepted in academia, particularly across the former Soviet sphere of influence. The Russian space program, for example, has used this system when determining which cosmonauts to send up into space together to ensure that their personalities are compatible, and work well together under extreme pressure. And what about the thousands of career counselors, and HR departments across the US, and even just ordinary people looking to understand themselves, who use the Myers Briggs model and/or the Keirsey temperament sorter and swear by it? It is entirely plausible that, even if many particularities of the theory do not live up to scientific standards, there still is a large kernel of useful truth in it.
In her book Plato at the Googleplex, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, who came on this show way back in episode 8, imagines Plato transported through time to the present day, and eagerly learning all about modern society and science. Interestingly, she portrays him as being particularly fascinated by the Myers Briggs typology.
So, where are we going with all this? What’s the upshot? Well, there are at least two conclusions one can draw. One possibility is that the four temperament theory really is largely true, and that Plato noticed something of the sort back in his day. There’s also a weaker conclusion, which is that for whatever reason there have been many smart people throughout history who at least thought that they detected four key temperament types among their fellow humans.
When you consider either of these options, the idea that Plato’s psychological theory was “driven by the analogy” starts to lose its persuasive power, and it becomes much easier to imagine that he, just like countless other thinkers, genuinely believed that he had discovered a map of personality types, as it were.
Now, I personally think there is something to the four temperament theory. Again, I’m not a psychologist, so don’t take my word as gospel. But this is my podcast after all, so let’s have a little fun with this. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a kernel of truth to the four temperaments, and that Plato was an early pioneer of that idea. How is that information useful to us in our reading of the Republic? Well, I think it can help us start to piece together how Plato might have arrived at his psychological theory in a pre-Freudian world.
It’s interesting that Plato has four metals, but only three classes in the ideal city. Did any of you notice that? In Kallipolis, the bronze and iron souls are effectively treated as one class, and the distinction between them is never made use of in the remainder of the Republic. So why mention four metals initially and then carry on for the rest of the dialogue as if there are only three? If Plato’s main goal was to create an argument that looked good, he could have stuck with three metals, three classes, and boom, it’s simple, looks good, moving on. But he seems to complicate the picture unnecessarily for himself by mentioning four metals. Why does he do that?
From a Keirseyan or Myers Briggs perspective, the answer is straightforward. There are four metals because there are four observable temperaments. There are only three classes because two of the four temperaments share a key attribute that makes Plato treat them as one. The bronze and iron souls (which Keirsey identifies with the SP’s and SJ’s in the Myers Briggs typology, and which would correspond to houses Slytherin and Hufflepuff in Harry Potter) are concrete thinkers, not abstract thinkers. They are always sensing the physical world around them, and never get lost in their heads, whereas Plato wants his rulers to be abstract thinkers, so they can master philosophy and contemplate eternal truths. That’s why his guardians are composed of both silver and gold, i.e. both NT’s and NF’s in Myers Briggs, or both Gryffindor and Ravenclaw) because what they have in common is abstract thinking.
While Plato is very interested in the distinction between the two types of guardians (gold vs silver – ruler vs auxiliary), he appears uninterested in exploring the difference between the two types of producers (bronze vs iron). He seems to suggest that the iron souls will be farmers while the bronze souls will be artisans, but offers no further elaboration. And that’s probably because in his political model, that distinction is not very important. What matters for him is that he thinks both types are too attached to the physical world to become enlightened and self-abnegating rulers. Nevertheless, by mentioning the distinction between bronze and iron, which again he doesn’t have to for the sake of the argument, he seems to be highlighting that there are not three, but four commonly observable temperaments.
When you look at Keirsey’s theory, or the Myers Briggs typology, or even the houses of Hogwarts, there is no implied hierarchy of types. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. By contrast, Plato’s myth of metals is unapologetically hierarchical. It clearly puts abstract knowledge-seekers at the top and gives them the most precious metals. And that is understandably off-putting to some modern readers. But if we strip away the hierarchy from what Plato is saying, what we’re left with matches up very well to the four temperaments model.
In summary, the gold souls are what Keirsey calls the “rationals.” They have NT in their Myers Briggs type and correspond to house Ravenclaw. Once again, think of Athos, Miranda, or Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, who yearns for a brain. The silver souls are what Keirsey calls the idealists or NF’s in Myers Briggs, who value profound experiences and recognition, and correspond to house Gryffindor. Think of D’Artagnan, Carrie Bradshaw, or the TinMan, who wants a heart. The bronze souled craftsmen of the Republic match the SP’s in Myers Briggs and correspond to Slytherin). Keirsey calls them the artisans and notes that they value pleasure more than the other types. But that’s not a negative thing. It’s just that the artisans are always sensing the world around them, they tend to be very good at hands-on activities and sports, and they are keenly appreciative of physical beauty. They are, as Plato says, the lovers of sights and sounds. Think of Aramis, Samantha, or the Lion in Wizard of Oz, who desires courage.
Now, some of you might be thinking, hold up. Wasn’t courage supposed to be the attribute of the silver souls? Actually, not really. The courage of the city is to be located in the silver souls. But that doesn’t mean that the silver souls are naturally the most daring of the four. According to Keirsey, the artisans or SP’s or bronze souls are the most naturally daring. Almost all extreme sports enthusiasts, for example, and racecar drivers and stuntmen are artisans. They feel very ashamed at being called cowards, just as the Lion does in Wizard of Oz. However, they are kind of like lone wolves. They don’t feel the need to be a part of a team. Idealists on the other hand, Plato’s silver souls, yearn to be part of something bigger than them. And when they find that, then they exhibit tremendous courage. They’ll even be ready to give their lives for a cause they believe in. So they have heart, but not necessarily audacity. Finally, the iron souled farmers match up with what Keirsey calls, confusingly, the guardians (not to be confused with Plato’s guardians of course). They are SJ in Myers Briggs and Hufflepuff at Hogwarts. They are hard workers, and they usually appreciate money more than the other types. But again, that’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a by-product of the guardians’ concrete thinking and desire for security and stability in life.
If you look around in our society (and perhaps in all societies) the majority of people who have fame and power are guardians and artisans aka iron and bronze souls. Both Keirsey and Plato agree on that. The rationals and idealists, or Plato’s gold and silver souls, are rarely found holding high office. You could even say that they are marginalized by most political systems. Plato thinks that is bad. He thinks that abstract thinkers, while they may often look ridiculous and absent minded, if properly trained, have unique skills that they can bring to the table and which are necessary for guiding a republic along a steady course.
To put this in Harry Potter terminology, Plato is effectively saying that in the real world, almost all positions of power are held by people from Houses Hufflepuff and Slytherin. And he thinks that monopoly, or rather duopoly of power, has created a lot of strife and problems in his day. The solution he proposes is to put the people from Ravenclaw and Gryffindor in charge for a change. The leaders should be from Ravenclaw, and the defenders of the commonwealth from Gryffindor. He is, in effect, advocating for a Ravenclaw-ruled Republic.
If you remember from the books, Hermione could have been a Ravenclaw. She is super rational, and the hat almost put her in Ravenclaw before ultimately choosing Gryffindor. Similarly, Harry Potter was probably going to be sorted into Slytherin, but he begged the hat not to do that, and the hat put him in Gryffindor as well. Also, Neville Longbottom, it seems, could have been a Hufflepuff, yet he ended up in Gryffindor too with the rest of the gang. Ron Weasley is really the only true Gryffindor of the bunch. Just as in Plato’s Republic where people can be promoted or demoted across the classes (they’re not just born into a class end of story), here too there is some flexibility in the sorting system. Which works out great for Rowling because she then gets to have four very different characters even though they’re all Gryffindors.
But based on the houses they were almost assigned to, Plato would say that Hermione should be philosopher queen, and Ron should be her steadfast ally, who helps her guide the Harry’s and the Nevilles along the right path.
Furthermore, because of their differences, these four characters can function as a microcosm for Hogwarts as a whole. Just as Hogwarts can only thrive when all the houses work together, it takes these four characters’ cooperation and pooling together of their different skill sets to defeat Voldemort.
Similarly, Kallipolis can only achieve excellence if it’s classes work together and each does what its best at.
To wrap up, one need not conclude that the myth of metals and the anatomy of the soul presented in the Republic are fanciful concoctions that Plato made up in order to defend his political conception of justice. It is at least conceivable that Plato arrived at his psychological theory empirically. He may have first detected four basic human temperaments, similar to the ones observed by many later thinkers. This then would have led him to the next obvious question, namely, What accounts for these differences in character?
That question, in turn, would have provided the impetus for Plato to try and formulate a theory of the soul that would explain those differences. Finally, using the method described earlier of analyzing instances of inner conflict, Plato arrived at the tripartite model that he presents to us in book 4, and which we will explore more in the next episode.
When Socrates, in the dialogue, has located justice in Kallipolis and is urging his companions to look for a similar phenomenon in the soul, he says something interesting. He says, if they don’t find something similar in the soul, they’ll have to come back and reexamine the political argument, and then go back and revisit the psychological one, and so on and so forth, revising and comparing the two, until as if rubbing two fire sticks against each other, the spark of justice shines forth.
Of course, as things turn out, they find what they’re looking for on the first try, so there is no need to revisit the two arguments and compare them across several iterations. So why does Plato have Socrates say that about the fire sticks? I mean, it is a beautiful simile, but that can’t be the whole story. I think what Plato is signaling there, is that the conversation we are presented with is idealized. No group of people in real life would get it right the first time without a hitch. He wants us to know that the actual process of discovery is much more laborious, and takes many attempts, just like it takes many tries and a lot of patience to start a fire with just a pair of sticks.
The actual work that went into building the theories Plato gives us in the Republic happened behind the scenes, probably over many years, and spread across many conversations Plato had with other thinkers.
As Aristotle observed decades later, ethics and politics are inseparable from each other. From Plato’s earlier dialogues we see that he had already been investigating the intersections between ethics and politics since the beginning of his career as a philosopher. He had been looking back and forth between the individual and the polis for a long time before, at some point in the middle of his career, he undertook a grand synthesis of his ideas, thus giving us the Republic.
If there is one thing that’s “driving the argument,” so to speak, in the Republic, I think it’s the idea of nature. Not in the sense of the great outdoors, but nature in the sense of the ordered cosmos. In fact, the word “cosmos” in Greek means order, because most Greek philosophers thought that the universe was ordered, structured, and rationally intelligible. The Republic is a treatise that seeks to use Nature as the guiding star of ethics. In earlier dialogues, Plato had already dismissed the more common sources of guidance in ethics, namely religion and pleasure. So, when you get rid of those, what is left? If you don’t have divine commandments to rely on or a holy book to point to, how do you establish morality?
Like the Stoics and Epicureans later, Plato tried to find the answer in nature. In order for something to flourish, he thought, it has to do well what nature intended for it to do. If you want to be healthy, you have to eat the kinds of foods and do the sorts of activities that nature designed humans to do. And if you want a political community to thrive, it likewise has to be ordered as nature intended.
We today like to think of civilization as something antithetical to nature, as a vehicle through which we escaped the state of nature. But Plato doesn’t see things that way. He thinks that civilizations have been rising and falling since time immemorial, including many advanced societies that were wiped off the map by cataclysms. For him, civilization is not a departure from nature, but a part of it.
Thus, in a sense, the utopia Plato is envisioning is actually a critique of the idea of utopia. It’s not a recipe for a Brave New World but rather an urging that we recover and return to nature’s blueprint. Plato doesn’t think you can go off and invent an entirely new kind of society with new ideals and new forms of happiness. He thinks that’s a recipe for disaster.
All you can do is study nature, the order of things, look for common patterns across the fractal tapestry of the cosmos in an effort to detect the kind of structural complexity that seems to work best in the natural world.
In the Republic, Plato claims to have uncovered a key aspect of natural systems that thrive, and that key aspect is that all the components of those systems do their intended job and seamlessly work together.
Whether Plato was right on the whole or not, or which parts of his theory are true and which aren’t, I leave up to you. What is indisputable, is that this way of thinking proved tremendously influential in the history of philosophy. In fact, as I wrote in my book, the idea that every human is a part of a community, and that we all have a specific role to play in that that community- that idea, a couple of generations after Plato, helped give birth to the notion of moral duty, which then went on to become one of the most important concepts in the history all of ethics.