Victor Nuovo: The city and the soul
Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of essays or reflections about “The Republic,” a book written two and a half millennia ago by the great philosopher Plato.
According to Plato, the city and the soul are like each other in this respect: Justice is their supreme excellence, their common form. Now the city is much bigger than the soul, its parts and their powers more evident. Therefore, in our search after justice, it should be easier to discover it and readily examine it in the city, than by searching for it in oneself. In this respect, the city is the mirror in which we see our selves, a means of self-examination.
What Plato calls a city, we would ordinarily call a state, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a community of people living in a defined territory and organized under its own government.” “Civil society” means the same thing; so does “nation,” although it has the additional sense of a community of people of common ancestry.
At least, that was its original meaning, until Abraham Lincoln used it in his Gettysburg Address to refer to the United States of America as “a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all mean are created equal.” When he did that, it could be said our country became a new nation of people of diverse ancestry, united by their commitment to principles of liberty and equality, which for Lincoln, and for us, are parts of justice. He was referring not only to a new nation, but a new political idea, whose meaning, even today continues to unfold.
Socrates imagines the city arising naturally out of human need. We all need food, shelter and clothing, and we are better able to provide them if we combine with others and have a division of labor: a farmer and a shepherd to provide food and other things like cotton and wool, a tailor, clothing, a tinker fashions household items like kettles and pots, and a house builder of course builds houses, each group providing for the others from their special expertise. This is a basic city.
The desire for a more luxurious style of life increases the size and scope of the city: artisans to make comfortable furniture, merchants to trade with other cities, shopkeepers and moneychangers, as well lawyers and doctors, beauticians and physical trainers. With this growth comes an expansion of territory, which most likely results in war with neighboring cities, and to be prepared for war an army and generals are needed.
Justice, however, is less evident in the luxurious city, so Socrates advises imagining a simpler and better city. This noble city, as Socrates calls it, requires only four groups to provide for its needs and safety: generals, which he calls “Guardians,” their troops (“Auxiliaries”), farmers and artisans.
The question, then, is who should rule, and all agree that it should be the guardians. They, if they are fit for their office, must be intelligent and wise, like a good guard dog who discriminates between friends and enemies, and is gentle towards the one and threatening towards the other. They are philosophers of a sort. I should note that there is an attitude of self-mockery in all this, an instance of Socratic irony, whose playfulness only heightens the seriousness of the issue, while keeping one from sliding into the dogmatic and doctrinaire.
So good guardians must be wise in the most general sense, for the safety and welfare of all is their duty. What of the others? The auxiliaries must be brave and high-spirited. The farmers and artisans must be temperate. Each group must remain in its station and be true to its character. If they achieve this, then they will have established justice in their city.
What is justice? It is the unity of the wise, the brave and the temperate, each in their station, each doing their proper work. Now the just state is like the virtuous soul, which also has three parts: intelligence, emotions and desires, which when formed or regulated by the virtues of wisdom, courage and temperance yields a just person.
Wisdom, courage, temperance and justice are the four cardinal virtues. Thus the form of the just state and the form of the just person are the same. Justice is achieved in the city when each group in the city does its proper work in a wise, brave and temperate manner. In the same way, justice is achieved in the soul, when each of its parts maintains excellence: the mind seeks wisdom, the heart is brave and the desires are made temperate. Justice is a perfect harmony of the parts, each doing its proper thing.
So the city has been founded, but it is not yet well founded. What is needed is founding myth. The founders of the city must summon up the daring, the charmed words and the persuasive power to provide it. The community of the city, like every individual human being, must be made to believe that it is sprung from the womb of its mother, in this instance, the earth, or more precisely from that portion of it where it has been established, and every individual citizen must believe that its station in life, and therefore its social duty, is a natural endowment.
A founding myth is like a sacred law or constitution of a nation. Common land and a common ancestry unite all into a nation. But we humans are a migrant and mixed species. There is no such native purity. Nationalism is a falsehood, which Plato well knew, although here he represents it as a noble lie that is necessary for life. Did Plato want his readers to agree? This is unclear. I do not agree.
Postscript: There are two paradoxes, if not inconsistencies, that should be noted so far in the narrative of the Republic. One concerns truth, the other concerns the consequences of justice. In an earlier essay, I noted that truth telling was said to be a part of justice. But now we have Plato’s infamous noble lie. Also, with the onset of war, Plato correctly observed that deceiving one’s enemy is proper. So here too lying is warranted: It’s all right to deceive one’s enemies, although one must never lie to a friend. But isn’t this reminiscent of the definition of justice that was earlier rejected: doing good to one’s friends and harming one’s enemies? How does this fit with justice as never doing harm?
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