Plato’s Republic – Book IV: Sheeple

Continued from way back here.

It might come as a surprise for us today to think that great political leaders don’t just pop out of thin air. In a time like ours when politics has reached a zenith of perfection, we might assume that excellent political leadership is easy – since our political leaders are so excellent, and make excellence look so easy.

Depressing sarcasm aside, Plato has a lot to say about producing not only a just state (as well as a just soul), but a virtuous ruler. There will be more on the education of rulers in Book V, but there’s some important material on that topic here in Book IV as well.

Though, as usual, this book of the Republic is rich with a ton of good material, I want to focus on a pretty short passage describing a pretty simple image:

[Socrates]: “And what about when a man believes he’s being done injustice? Doesn’t his spirit in this case boil and become harsh and form an alliance for battle with what seems just; and, even if it suffers in hunger, cold and everything of the sort, doesn’t it stand firm and conquer, and not cease from its noble efforts before it has succeeded, or death intervenes, or before it becomes gentle, having been called in by the speech within him like a dog by a herdsman?

[Glaucon]: “Most certainly, it resembles the likeness you make. And, of course, we put the auxiliaries in our city like dogs obedient to the rulers, who are like shepherds of a city.” (440c-d)

Corruption: It Sucks to be the King

The unspoken backdrop of a lot of what’s happening in the Republic is the “later” execution of Socrates by the city of Athens, an event which must have been burned in traumatized, all-caps letters into the brain of the young Plato. The first word of Republic IV is “apology,” alluding to Plato’s first dialogue on the topic of Socrates’s trial, imprisonment, and execution.

While the Apology has to do with the relationship between the philosopher (personified obviously by Socrates) and the rest of the citizens of the city, from craftsmen to poets to politicians, it is the last group, the politicians, who by nature hold the greatest share of power (in Athens) and therefore responsibility (for the death of Socrates).

Book IV really begins with Adeimantus objecting that the guardians described by Socrates are, all things considered, pretty unhappy. That’s because Socrates has set up an educational system for the ruling class in his City in Speech that does seem, from the outside, pretty miserable. Because wealth corrupts, the ruling class is to have no property; because sexual pleasure is intoxicating and family ties can cause excessive attachment, their reproductive rights are governed strictly. Because leaders hold more power in the city, they are to have more virtue, and the kind of virtue they need is only produced by a harsh, unforgiving life – even the music and story they listen to is subject to the strictest censorship.

This doesn’t seem like a life a lot of people would want, and maybe that’s part of the point. The power offered by political office is so attractive for so many bad reasons that maybe there needs to be something in place to offset it – if not something as extreme as what Socrates is proposing, maybe something approaching it.

Just as importantly, if these strict laws are about education (and we’re going to hear a lot more about both laws and education as the Republic continues), then this isn’t so much about annoying the guardian class to death as training and habituating them to have a particular kind of character. If you can produce people of this caliber with just a handful of (super harsh) laws about their rearing, it might prevent the need for half a billion mini-laws governing every aspect of their adult life. If you can teach people to really care about one another and about truth and virtue, you don’t need to watch their every move. The little soul-crushing laws we’re all used to are only needed when the citizens of a republic remain selfish children their entire lives. Conversely, they might sometimes cause the citizenry to remain selfish children their entire lives.

American Pissed vs British Pissed

Now we get to the little passage I selected above. Between Socrates and Glaucon we have a new set of symbols illustrating the classes in the city, and therefore also the parts of the soul:

  • Shepherds = Reason / the Guardians or Ruling Class
  • Sheepdogs = “Spiritedness” / the Auxiliaries or Enforcing Class
  • Sheep = the Passions / the Working Class

A few notes: Yes, this is “classist.” We’re talking about Plato here. But let’s see what distinguishes the classes before we dismiss what he has to say (hint: it obviously isn’t money). Secondly, both the first two classes are referred to in different places as the “Guardians,” for reasons. I’m distinguishing them above to keep things clear for this post. Third, if you want to impose slightly later categories onto Plato, you might consider calling “Spiritedness” “The Irascible Appetite” and “The Passions” “The Concupiscible Appetite.” But you didn’t hear that from me.

The image, then, paints the picture of reason governing the passions according to what it knows to be best the way a shepherd guides his sheep. That implies that reason sees more clearly than the passions do, which isn’t something we should take for granted. In fact, the harsh training of the Guardian class has everything to do with making sure that reason is seeing as clearly as possible rather than being clouded by the passions – look at what the Guardians need to sacrifice: all things connected with desire.

Another nice insight here is that spiritedness has a role in the governing of the soul. The aspect of our soul that feels anger, ambition, and fear is depicted as a sheepdog, guided by the shepherd Reason to in turn guide the sheep lower desires. If you’re feeling lazy or gluttony or lusty, sometimes another set of emotions can snap you out of it better than a conversation can.

It might be interesting for someone to compare this setup of the parts of the soul to other thinkers who have attempted the same thing. I’m pretty sure this doesn’t really map onto the Id, Ego, and Superego. But I’ll let someone else figure that out either way.

The Passions of the You

It’s not just that the lower classes are symbolized by the lower passions in this “Soul = City” analogy – it’s that what it really means to be low class is to be ruled by your desires rather than by what is true, and good, and just, and reasonable. When you care more about satisfying your own urges (whatever they are) than about the good of those around you, that’s what it is to be low class. If you live this way as a billionaire or as a hobo, your soul is in the same state – you’re a garbage person and you shouldn’t be in charge of anything. According to Plato. I think. Money isn’t the distinguishing factor for true class distinctions – virtue and character are. A lusty billionaire is much lower class than a gentle beggar.

There’s also something worth noting about “spiritedness” being associated with the Auxiliary, enforcer class. It takes a certain king of aggressiveness to be part of a military or a police force, and it’s important to be realistic about that. What that implies, if we’re going to pay attention to Plato, is that the amount of training and habituated self-control needed is that much greater. Having a soul with a predominance of one passion or another isn’t an excuse to misbehave but an imperative to greater effort in gaining virtue.

The ruling class arises out of the same education system as the auxiliary class – they need to have intense training in detachment from addictive and destructive passions if they’re going to do their job well. But here’s the challenge for us: We have oceans of laws drowning those who are ruled to make sure we stop at red lights, build our fences according to code, and pay 7-11 the right amount of money for our candy. There’s something accurate and soberly realistic about the need for such laws, even if Plato might not approve of how many there are. But the temptation to go over the speed limit or steal a Snickers is pretty pale, and the damage done by breaking these rules pretty insignificant, compared to the possible corruption facing those in power – both enforcers and rulers. It might be the case that there needs to be stricter (if not more) rules governing those who are governing, more limitations and sacrifices required, and more virtue demanded. Nobody expects virtue to pop out of thin air when it comes to the poor and the ruled. It seems much less likely to do so from the rich and powerful.

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