After utopia: Do Plato’s political recommendations satisfy the requirements of human psychology as identified in Republic?

From an essay written under time constraints in June 2020 (highest mark in cohort).

Plato’s recommendations satisfy the requirements of human psychology as identified in the Republic so long as human psychology is constituted as Plato takes it to be, and so long as the extra-psychological (social and ecological) conditions for the political satisfaction of these psychological requirements are appropriate. Since Plato carefully considers ‘psychosocial’ relations in the Republic (Lear 1992), it is with regard to the extra-psychic conditions of Plato’s polis that there is potential for Plato’s political recommendations failing to satisfy the requirements of human psychology. Only when we abstract from the social (and, as Aristotle argues, environmental) context of human psychology can Plato’s political recommendations completely satisfy the requirements of human psychology as identified in the Republic. When we pay closer attention to the social conditions for political satisfaction of the requirements of human psychology, however, we find that Plato’s political recommendations may not always—in all times and places—fully satisfy the requirements of human psychology as identified in Republic. 

From a Greek manuscript copy of the Republic.

I base my argument on Plato’s own account of the cycle of regimes as a constraint on the universalisability of the institutions of Callipolis, while I draw on Aristotle’s closely related account on the geo-technological conditions for politeia in order to expand the potential extra-psychic conditions for Plato’s political recommendations to satisfy his requirements of human psychology. This move is grounded on the close relation between Aristotle’s account of politeia and Plato’s Callipolis, which both represent a form of Aristotle’s ‘constitution [which] is mixed’ (Politics 1297a), and neither of which lie at the extremes of oligarchy, democracy, or tyranny—but are, rather, higher forms of state for which socio-ecological conditions must satisfy if Plato’s and Aristotle’s political recommendations are to satisfy their accounts of human psychology. Given Plato’s tendency to focus on social above ecological conditions, however, I consider Plato’s explicit institutional and distributional conditions for the best form of state—which he calls Callipolis—in most detail. In coming to this conclusion, I ask two questions. Firstly, abstracted from social (and environmental) conditions, do Plato’s political recommendations satisfy the requirements of human psychology as identified in the Republic? Secondly, do Plato’s political recommendations satisfy the requirements of human psychology as identified in the Republic relative to social conditions? I consider both questions in turn. 

Firstly, abstracted from social (and environmental) conditions, do Plato’s political recommendations satisfy the requirements of human psychology as identified in the Republic? I find that Plato’s political recommendations, abstracted from social and environmental conditions, do in fact satisfy the requirements of human psychology as identified in the Republic. The assumption, of course, is that Plato’s account of human psychology is plausible—for which there is some a priori and a posteriori justification, though this justification is not entire, and may depend on future observations of real-world manifestations of Plato’s cycle of regimes (which this essay, regrettably, cannot comment on).

Plato’s account of human psychology rests on two pillars. The first is a division among different desires, or ‘loves’. On first observation, as Plato explicitly points out, there are three desires. The most valuable desire is what Aristotle took to be the ‘desire to understand’ (Lear 1988), and what Plato considered to be the love of wisdom. Of somewhat less value is the love of honour or ‘victory’ (Republic 548d). Least valuable among the three desires of Plato’s preliminary account of the soul is ‘desiring’ itself, ‘because the strength of this desire for food, drink, sex and everything that goes with these – and money-loving, because money is the principal means of satisfying these desires’ (580e-581b). ‘The three parts of the soul seem to have three forms of pleasure, one for each individual part. Likewise three forms of desire, and three forms of rule’ (580d). Plato takes the first city in which justice—which is to be found, Adeimantus admits to Socrates when pressed, in ‘some sort of need which those [three] elements [of the Platonic soul] have of one another (273a)—obtains to be Callipolis, an aristocracy, where the best rule. Since the best kind of people are those who are ruled by love of wisdom rather than love of money or honour, Callipolis is ruled by a guardian class trained to pursue truth, rather than ‘shadow[s]’ (597a-b). The guardians will be educated not to fall victim to the ‘destructive’ influence of ‘imitative poetry’ (595b), since this Homeric tradition is concerned with creating ‘appearances, not realities’ (599a). The guardian class will, nevertheless, have to tell a ‘noble lie’ to those led by their appetitive and spirited loves, since these lower classes in Callipolis have different psychological requirements from the guardians—since they are naturally incapable, for Plato, of pursuing virtue and wisdom for their own sake, and instead are led by either their spirited love of honour or appetitive love of money, pleasure, or desire satisfaction itself. This ‘noble lie’ allows all classes of the city to have their psychological requirements satisfied, since it dresses up a psychological truth in the bright colours which appetitive ‘producers’ and spirited ‘auxiliaries’ recognise. According to this noble lie—which may be recognised as a ‘legitimation story’ (Williams 2005: 95-96) for Plato’s state, though Williams’s (1973) account of Plato does not recognise this precisely—‘when god made you, he used a mixture of gold in the creation of those who were fit to be rulers […] silver for those who were to be auxiliaries, and iron and bronze for the farmers and the rest of the skilled workers’ (415a). Through deft story-telling, guardians ensure that producers and auxiliaries have their desires satisfied, as auxiliaries may recognise the honourableness of being ‘children of the earth’, while producers may recognise the pretty language and pleasurable tones in which this story is told, satisfying them sufficiently. Other techniques of legitimation are employed in Plato’s city to satisfy all the classes—as guardians have time for philosophy to satisfy the ‘gold’ part of their souls, while auxiliaries have wars to fight to defend the honour of the city. On first sight, it seems that Plato’s political recommendations for Callipolis to indeed satisfy the tripartite requirements of human psychology—as the leading part of each person’s soul is, indeed, satisfied in the city. 

Producers, however, are a class that Plato recognises as being led by desire—but he simultaneously identifies this class with the originating ‘self-discipline’ in the city (389d), which seems antithetical to the unconstrained nature of desire, which is consequently unfit to rule a city. However, Socrates admits that produers’ ‘self-discipline consist[s] principally in being obedient to their masters [aided by the legitimation stories such as the ‘noble lie’, above, in Plato’s city], and being themselves masters of the pleasures of drink, sex and food (389d-389e). The producers seem, on this measure, to be self-disciplined in obedience, but not to the extent that they are abstinent from the pleasures they are prone to pursue as a class. So long as producers see they can pursue pleasures to some extent, and so long as they are persuaded by the noble lie of the city, they are prone to obey the guardians and have their psychological nature fulfilled to the greatest extent possible. Of the loves for pathos (desire), thymos (recognition), and logos (or ‘reasoned speech’ (Yack 1993)), it seems that the auxiliaries have their desire for thymos considerably well satisfied, while the guardians have their desire for logos satisfied to some extent, even though they must ‘return to the cave’ from the sunlit uplands of philosophy in order to ‘rule there’ by ‘get[ting] used to seeing in the dark’ (520c). The producers, meanwhile, have their pathos tempered, but not suppressed so much that they rebel. Indeed, Plato takes Callipolis to be so politically satisfying of his psychological requirements that it is only ‘in the sovereign body itself’ that ‘civil war’ can arise in the city (545d). Although it is an irony of the Republic that the class in which Socrates places his hopes according to Plato is the guardians, which is exactly the class among which disunity is eventually sown to destroy Callipolis, the fact that it is only within the ruling class that disunity can arise shows how effective Plato takes his legitimation strategies to be with regard to auxiliaries and producers. After the fall of aristocracy and the rise of the morally ‘mixed regime’ of timocracy (548c), the rise of the subsequent vulgar regimes of oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny each coincides with inter-class conflict, where the lower classes actively confront the higher classes. While the transition from aristocracy to timocracy primarily originates in the ruling class, the greater role of inter-class conflict later on in the cycle of regimes—such as the conflict between oligarchs and workers in the fall of oligarchy, and the conflict again between re-emergent oligarchs and the people in the death throes of democracy itself (565b)—indicates that the ruling classes of these later cities are far less in control of the city, and therefore less efficient at satisfying the psychological requirements of the lower classes, than the guardians in Plato’s ideal city (or nearly ideal city—since ‘the true city – the healthy version’ is what Glaucon calls ‘the city of pigs’, where only true souls uncorrupted by unnecessary bronze desires exist (372e)—a city which, it must be noted, is unrealistic, making Callipolis Plato’s exposition of a mature utopian-realist solution to the problem of finding a satisfying political answer to the problems of human psychology). Abstracted from social condition, therefore, Plato’s political recommendations do indeed satisfy the requirements of human psychology as identified in Republic, so long as Plato’s tripartite division of the soul and hierarchy among these elements are a priori plausible. Whether Plato’s psychological conditions for Callipolis are a posteriori plausible, however, is a question Plato, a rationalist (Hare 1982) concerned with the dialectal study of the abstract ‘forms’ of the mere objects which imitate form (511b), is unconcerned with. These questions of epistemology and metaphysics, however, are beyond the scope of this political-theoretical analysis. 

Secondly, do Plato’s political recommendations satisfy the requirements of human psychology as identified in the Republic relative to social conditions? I find that Plato’s political recommendations may not always satisfy the requirements of human psychology, since whether the requirements of human psychology can be satisfied by Plato’s political recommendations in contingent on certain external social (and, perhaps, environmental) conditions. I find these conditions both explicit and implicit in Plato’s Republic. I consider the explicit conditions first, before addressing the more implicit conditions. 

The explicit social conditions for Plato’s political recommendations satisfying the requirements of human psychology include those detailed in the cycle of regimes. When an aristocracy has collapsed due to an ‘guardians fail[ing] to understand these births, and mak[ing] injudicious unions of briges and grooms’, meaning children are not of ‘the right nature’ and will therefore ‘not be fortunate’ (546d), the only way back to Plato’s Callipolis is through traversing the full cycle of regimes. When the ‘partly bad and partly good’ regime of timocracy is established (548c), for instance, the only way out of timocracy is through the falling of some timocrats into ‘poverty’, leading them to turn to ‘making money’, culminating in the transformation of timocracy into oligarchy (553c). Oligarchy then collapses due to oligarchs’ inevitable failure to concern themselves with politics, as they are too concerned with pursuing money, leading lower classes to confront oligarchs on the same side in battle, only to be disappointed by the ‘cowardice’ of the ‘rich’, leading to class struggle culminating in a democracy (556e). But democracy itself is not a sufficient place from which to re-establish Callipolis, since tyranny emerges as the demos searches for a ‘champion’ who they ‘feed […] up and make […] mighty’ (565c). Therefore, Plato’s political recommendations can only satisfy the requirements of human psychology when Callipolis is already established, or when a transition is occurring from democracy to Callipolis—or, alternatively, from the city of pigs to the ‘luxurious city’, culminating in the need to create the constitution of Callipolis to tame the bronze and silver under the sage rule of the gold. This is because the psychosocial relations of Plato’s institutions (Lear 1992) are such that Callipolis must be the only regime left open to enter into—as if there is a choice, since the bronze and silver outnumber the gold, citizens will choose timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, or tyranny (though not the first city, which only satisfies necessary desires, but does not satisfy the pursuit of honour, as there are no wars and military, and does not satisfy the pursuit of money and pleasure, as diet is strictly limited to the bare necessities (372d)). Ferrari and Griffith (2000) are therefore right to say that Plato’s Republic ‘draws its strength from a sense of loss’—since Plato acknowledges the fact that only certain social conditions (such as the exit from the city of pigs, in the unlikely scenario that such a city can or does exist for more than a moment before pursuing luxury and recognition, or the exit from tyranny). Only once the vulgar appetites have run their course and led to the miserable psychopolitical condition of ‘tyranny’, led by a leader who is ‘forever driven onward by the gadfly of desire, and filled with confusion and dissatisfaction’ (577e), can Callipolis arise once again as the only option for an immiserated body politic. Though Plato does not describe such a transition, it is implicit in the notion of cycle, and is further suggested by the fact that, after tyranny, there is no more vulgar polity to go to. However, it seems plausible that tyranny may decay back into oligarchy or democracy in the absence of a ‘philosopher-king’ with the ‘wit’, ‘character’, and wisdom (503c-d) necessary to re-order a tyranny to re-establish aristocracy. This is an enduring, and potentially unresolved, problem in the Republic. One potential solution is that the philosopher-king resolves the psychological problems of tyranny by acting like a tyrant in appealing to the bronze and silver appetites, but using the legitimation stories or ‘noblie lie’ of Callipolis. In this way, a philosopher king dressed as a people’s champion may transform tyranny into aristocracy, validating Plato’s cycle of regimes and attempt thereby to give political recommendations that satisfy the requirements of human psychology as identified in Republic. 

Beyond social conditions, however, there is the question of environmental and technological conditions. Plato’s political recommendations can only satisfy the requirements of human psychology, perhaps, when certain environmental and technological conditions are met that satisfy his need for aristocracy. While the transition from oligarchy to democracy involves people leaving the professions of ‘cavalryman’ and ‘infrantryman’ in favour of poverty or the pursuit of riches instead (552a-b), Callipolis may need these professions, and a certain balance between them. This is because Callipolis must restrain the rulers from decaying into timocrats, and must prevent citizens from lusting after democracy or tyranny once more. Callipolis must be legitimated in some way. This can take place through a noble lie—but the fact that the citizens of Callipolis are embodied subjective creatures with necessary and unnecessary desires alike suggests there may be material pre-requisites for legitimation, too. These are suggested by Aristotle, who in the Politics suggests that democracies are based on a preponderance on infantry, while oligarchies are based on a preponderance of cavalry. A politeia or mixed constitution must combine these conditions and therefore be geo-technologically disposed towards preventing the rich or the poor from turning the city into an oligarchy or democracy, allowing the city to be aristocratic—an aim Plato and Aristotle share—where the best, defined as those with the capacity for reason, speech, and political skill, rule. Without this balance of geo-technological conditions, it is possible that Plato may fail to turn tyranny into aristocracy by satisfying people’s psychological requirements, since geography or technology may predispose certain classes (e.g., oligarchy or the poor) to dominate the city, preventing the necessary emergence of Aristotle’s ‘middle stratum’ of philosophically-minded rulers to emerge. If Aristotle and Plato are both hoping to avoid the excesses of tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy, then it is plausible that Aristotle’s requirement of geo-technological as well as institutional moderation may serve as a constraint on whether Plato’s political recommendations can always satisfy the requirements of human psychology. 

Overall, then, whether Plato’s political recommendations satisfy the requirements of human psychology depend on whether his psychological account is correct and whether certain socio-technological conditions for Callipolis obtain. However, taken on their own, Plato’s political recommendations do indeed satisfy the requirements of human psychology he presents as being true in the Republic. So long as these requirements hold, and certain social conditions obtain, Plato’s political recommendations can and do indeed satisfy the requirements of human psychology as identified in the Republic.  

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