The part and the whole: Can Plato’s city satisfy everyone?

A university essay submitted in autumn 2019, after reading Plato’s Republic over the preceding summer.

While Plato’s city can partially satisfy at least one part of the soul for everyone, it cannot fully satisfy every part of the soul each person can satisfy. Even if we take Plato’s premises for granted, his city can fully satisfy the honour-loving part of the soul for some people, but not the money- or wisdom-loving parts for everyone capable of satisfying these parts. Overall, then, Plato’s city provides us with some astute lessons about the good life, but it does not, in itself, provide a blueprint to obtaining such a life, due to both practical flaws in the city’s constitution and theoretical flaws in Plato’s view of human nature. Before explaining my reasons for coming to this conclusion, let me provide some definitional clarity. 


The tripartite division of personality types Plato draws between the ‘money-loving’, the ‘honour-loving’, and the ‘wisdom-loving’ corresponds to Plato’s tripartite division of the soul between (1) pathos, or love of satisfaction, met by satisfying ‘extravagant’ or ‘unnecessary desires’ (558d-559c); (2) thymos, or love of recognition, met by satisfying ‘better desires’ (571b) for either (a) self-serving honour, victory, and ‘megalothymia’ (Fukuyama 1992) or (b) communal honour, ‘harmony’ (571e), and ‘isothymia’; and (3) logos, or love of wisdom. What is not noted in the tripartite division is that ‘honour-loving’, ‘money-loving’, and ‘wisdom-loving’ are not exhaustive of thymos, pathos, and logos, as I explain during my essay. In coming to my conclusion that Plato’s city cannot quite satisfy everyone, I ask two questions, which I consider in turn. Firstly, can Plato’s city partially satisfy at least one part of the soul for everyone? Secondly, can Plato’s city fully satisfy every part of the soul each person can satisfy? 

Firstly, can Plato’s city partially satisfy at least one part of the soul for everyone? I consider each part of the soul in turn in order to judge whether this minimal satisfaction is obtained in Plato’s city. I find that Callipolis can partially satisfy at least one part of the soul for everyone. 

The producers, then, are meant to satisfy their ‘pathos’ to some degree, despite its being subject to the spirited and ruling parts. While the ‘city of pigs’ (372c) would satisfy only the bare interests for survival, the ‘luxurious city’ subsequently would satisfy a broader range of needs including ‘incense, perfumes, call-girls, [and] cakes’ beyond ‘bare necessities’ (373a). But in Callipolis, Plato envisions a zero-sum game between ‘the possession of self-discipline’ and ‘a high regard for wealth’ (555c-d). While the producers are distinguished by the lack of superiority of logos or thymos in their souls, their ‘self-discipline consist[s] principally in being obedient to their masters, and being themselves masters of the pleasures of drink, sex and food’ (389d-389e). But Plato also stresses that it is up to ‘nature’ whether non-ruling classes are ‘happy’ (421c); all that we can do politically to ensure interest satisfaction under the rational-led ruling class is to ensure each class performs its ‘social role’ (Annas 1981: 177). It is therefore unclear whether the producers can satisfy their pathos in Plato’s city; but the fact that Plato insists on distinguishing ‘the desires of the ordinary majority’ from ‘the desires and wisdom of the discerning minority’ (431d) suggests that pathos is tempered, rather than eliminated, among the producers of Plato’s city. While pathos is not identical with loving ‘money’, since ‘money is the principal means of satisfying these desires’ (580d) of the ‘sensuous’ parts of people’s souls (Aristotole, Nicomachean Ethics, I.6, 1096a5-8), the ‘money-loving’ type can at least partially satisfied in Plato’s city by having these materialistic preferences met. 

The auxiliaries, moreover, can satisfy their thymos to a great degree, partly because the spirited part of the auxiliary’s soul rules over the appetitive part. In Plato’s city, the auxiliaries satisfy the desires of thymos for ‘power, victory and reputation’ (581b) but ‘share’ those honours with their fellow men in order to become ‘a better person’ (592a). By making the thymotic desires ‘responsive to reason’ (Brown 2009: xiii) through a rigorous education including ‘physical education for the body’ and patriotic ‘music and poetry for the mind or soul’ (376e), the auxiliaries are trained to respond to the guardians’ instructions and never pursue timocratic (545c) urges. The particular kind of thymos enjoyed by the auxiliaries is less megalothymic (or pursuit of individual status recognition) than it is isothymic (or driven by a sense of communal responsibility) (Fukuyama 1992). Guardians and auxiliaries will ‘receive privileges while they are alive and an honourable burial when they die’ (465e), regarding themselves not as superior to one another but ‘as brothers, fathers and sons’ (471d), sharing family (543a) and property (543b) to overcome individualism. The auxiliaries will learn to be gentle towards citizens and fierce towards enemies (475e), in part because there will be no stories of ‘gods making war on gods’, reinforcing the communal imperative that ‘quarrelling is wrong’ among the thymotic class (378c-d). The auxiliaries will therefore satisfy the thymotic part of their soul in Plato’s city.   

The guardians, thirdly, can satisfy their ‘logos’ to some degree, partly because the philosophical part rules over the appetitive and spirited parts of their souls and in the city (Williams 1973). By eliminating the ‘destructive’ influence of ‘imitative poetry’ (595b), Plato’s city ensures guardians are educated to pursue truth, rather than ‘shadow[s]’ (597a-b). While Homeric poetry, tragedy and comedy—the three ‘modes of imitation’ (Aristotle, Poetics, I.1, 1447a2-3)—are creating ‘appearances, not realities’ (599a), Plato’s city will keep only those narratives which praise the gods and authentic, not theatrical, recounting of stories (607a). The guardians’ education will ideally prevent them from seeking the private status- or wealth-seeking goods that tend towards timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny (Hare 1982: 67; Reeve 1992). Since Plato’s city is a specialist city where ‘each part’ must ‘carry out its own function’ (586e), the guardians can focus their attention on philosophy, beginning with the study of mathematical concepts and transitioning to a study of the abstract forms of things, culminating in the art of ‘dialectic’ (511b). The guardians, like the auxiliaries, will not be distracted by sensuous desires, as both classes will have ‘communistic institutions’ (Laks 1990: 212) to ensure their pursuit of the common good. Philosophers, however, may be tempted to pursue pure contemplation, which both Plato and Aristotle concur is the highest good (Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, X.9, 1179a20-30). But the laws ensure that they must ‘share’ in the ‘hardships and rewards’ of non-philosophers (519d), not only because ‘the law does not exist for the exclusive benefit of one class’ (519e), but also because a contemplative life would not be a self-sufficient or harmonious one, as guardians would be dependent on external goods over which they had no control (Cooper 1977: 157). By returning to the cave, ‘get[ting] used to seeing in the dark’, and ruling there (520c), the guardians fulfil their rational capacity, or love of wisdom, to a certain extent. 

The city, overall, can also said to be self-disciplined, courageous, and wise—insofar as ‘no one classifying a city as cowardly or brave would look at any other part of it than the part which makes war in the city’s defence, and serves in its army’ (429b). Williams (1973) problematises this claim by insisting on a contradiction between the proposition that a city is F iff its men are F and the proposition that the explanation of a city’s possessing the predicate F is identical to the explanation of an individual’s possessing the predicate F. But as Lear (1992) points out, this is not strictly the case, as the predicate F is relational, an ‘isomorphism’, which is a ‘manifestation’ of the individual’s ‘internalisation’ of political culture and their subsequent or prior ‘externalization’ of their identity (ibid.: 197). The predicates ‘self-discipline’, ‘honour’, and ‘wisdom’ are ‘psychopolitical’, so inherently express a community/individuality relationship which is not mutually exclusive (ibid.: 195). The city has these characteristics because members of it have corresponding identities, which are in turn derived from the political culture of the city. Plato is therefore defending neither ‘holism’—that the city is ‘prior to’ the individual (Aristotle, The Politics, I.2, 1252a19-20)—nor ‘individualism’ proper. Rather, he is defending what I call ‘meta-holism’, which states that the part and the whole are co-constitutive and equally significant dimensions of the city’s ontology. The individuals and the city have their pathos, thymos, and logos partially satisfied, therefore. 

Secondly, can Plato’s city fully satisfy every part of the soul each person can satisfy? I find that Plato’s city cannot fully satisfy every part of the soul each person can satisfy, though it is arguable that the auxiliaries can fully satisfy their honour- or community-loving thymos

Thymos, then, can be fully satisfied by at least some people in Plato’s city. The auxiliaries fully satisfy their interest for communal/social recognition and are therefore characterised by Williams (1973: 199) as ‘totally thymoedic’. Wile Nehamas (1999: 317) notes that the chief merit of Plato’s moral philosophy was to make ‘wisdom replace […] glory as the true aim of human life’, glory, victory, and ‘honour’ are certainly what the Spartan auxiliaries of Plato’s non-timocratic city enjoy (545a). Ruled by the element of their souls represented by a lion (588d), the thymotic auxiliaries who share their possessions and their ‘women and children’ (449d) are nearly exclusively geared towards defending the city for ‘the sake of the noble’, as Aristotle might put it. Without hearing stories of ‘gods making war against gods’, auxiliaries are led to believe that ‘quarrelling is wrong’ (378c-d), increasing their subservience to the diktat of the guardians and the philosopher-king, who shares in the auxiliaries’ intense ‘patriotism’ (503a). 

Pathos, however, cannot be fully satisfied by anyone in Plato’s city. Williams (1973: 1999) is right to complain of a ‘repressed epithymetic class’, given that ‘self-discipline’ is the principal attribute of producers, consisting in obedience and mastery of pleasures (389d-389e). The barring of imitative poetry in Plato’s city is further evidence of the lack of the satisfaction of ‘non-monetary […] unnecessary desires’ (588d) for entertainment and the ego-centric desire of the poetry to receive ‘poetry written in honour of him’ (599b). This has the benefit of making producers more ‘responsive to reason’ (Lear 1992: 197), and thus enhancing their capacity for valuing the knowledge of ‘good action itself [as an] end’ (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, VI.5, 1140b7), rather than the products of imitation (599b). Moreover, if the producers are included in the education of the ‘[e]ducation and upbringing’ of the auxiliary and guardian classes (423e) before being ‘selected’ into their distinct class (430a), they may at least begin the road of partaking in the ‘courage and wisdom’ of their ruling class, rather than simply pursuing ‘harmony’ as part of self-discipline (431e). But since Plato is a functional particularist, contending that each must ‘perform his own function’ (433d), the only element of the soul a producer can fully satisfy is their pathos—which, we have found, is so suppressed by educational and cultural restrictions (Lear 1992) that it cannot be fully enjoyed. As well as practical flaws of Plato’s city, there is a theoretical lacuna in his conception of pathos: by equating pathos with merely material desires, Plato ignores the pleasure incidental to a morally virtuous friendship (Aristotle, NE, VIII.3, 1156b6-10). This kind of reason-responsive pathos, incidentally, may not be possible among producers if their time is consumed by self-disciplined work—but Plato’s failure to conceive of an additional sphere of pathos suggests the satisfaction of Callipolis’s subjects is unduly limited. This is partly because Plato, like later thinkers like Constant (1988), equates pathos with money-making, rather than also with sensuous desires (Brown 2009) and aesthetic and romantic pursuits (Constant 1964). 

Logos, moreover, cannot be fully satisfied by anyone in Plato’s city. While theoretical wisdom can be fully pursued by the guardians and the philosopher-king, practical wisdom is not pursued by the guardians due to Plato’s rationalistic/idealistic conception of the good (Annas 1981, 2000). The notion of phronesis or practical wisdom is taken up by Aristotle, for whom ‘moral virtues’ mutually accord with the ‘principles of practical wisdom’ (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X.8, 1178a15-20). While the contemplative life is valued by Aristotle as superior to the active life, since the ‘gods’ themselves would have no need for action and only for contemplation (NE, X.8, 1178b8-10), Plato’s description of the philosopher-kings as having ‘[q]uickness of wit’ and ‘[s]teadfast characters’ (503c-d) indicates the importance of some kind of practical wisdom to ruling. But the fact that ‘guardians and warrior-athletes’ (543c) are trained together in physical, musical, and non-imitative poetic education suggests that neither will phronesis be entirely lacking among the rulers. Nevertheless, since imitative poetry expresses ‘universal’ notions while ‘history’ expresses aspects, knowledge of the ‘law of probability and necessity’ which poetry begets (Aristotle, Poetics, IX, 1451b3-5) may be limited among guardians whose education is restricted to austere science and physical education (Burnyeat 1999: 306-307). Plato’s rulers would be rationally impartial, but they might not have the practical flexibility needed to allow their own souls to fulfil both ‘platinum’ or contemplative and ‘golden’ or phronetic parts of their souls.  

Each class, moreover, is restricted as to which part of the soul they are capable of (partially or fully) satisfying. As Socrates noted, recalling the principles presented earlier in the Republic (e.g., 470a-c), ‘each individual should follow, out of the occupations available in the city, the one for which his natural character best fitted him’ (433a). Whether this is a problem depends on one’s view on Plato’s twin theses of natural inequality and functional particularism. For Plato, individuals ‘differ in their natural aptitudes’ (370b) to such a degree that only a select few can ever pursue the rational course in life (Nehamas 1999: 590). This means people are naturally equal. The city is also just ‘when each of the three elements in it was performing its own function’, and not the function of the other elements (441d). This means the possibility of pursuing eudaimonia or the good life is restricted to the few, as everyone must focus on their particular functions, and not others. Aristotle, by contrast, argues, ‘the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general’ (NE, I.3, 1095a1-2). Aristotle is therefore a functional holist with respect to the educated, who can partake in multiple dimensions of practical and theoretical wisdom, both moral and intellectual virtues, and politics, war-fighting, and philosophy (Aristotle, Politics, Nicomachean Ethics). 

In reality, a functional ‘meta-holism’ according to which both holistic and particularist individuals exist, with all capable of some minimal level of functional generalism, seems more valid than either (admittedly simplified) approach to functional specialism/holism. If the natural inequality by which Aristotle rejects people of a slavish nature becoming politics- and philosophy-pursuing citizens is also rejected, an alternative to Plato’s city is an Aristotelian mixed constitution, but with the wise holding political office and less philosophical citizens contributing, by their votes, to political activity. Some citizens could participate in multiple activities, especially cultural/philosophical activities, at once, without being identified with any one of them (Marx 2000: 185). But given slaves were also seen by the Plato of the Laws as expedient for giving citizens leisure, only the removal of the need to be a producer could grant everybody the ability to participate in a thymotic or rational role in a less politically, educationally, and culturally restrictive version of Plato’s Callipolis. If all are educated as the guardians are, then the guardians and auxiliaries of a post-work society which includes Plato’s familial and property communism (e.g., Bastani 2019; Lewis 2019; Cohen 1978; More 2002) would not need imitative poetry to be restricted, since their knowledge would be such that they would know when they are being presented with fiction. 

Those without fully philosophical natures, however, may be led astray by this imitation, despite their respect of rational rule due to their guardian-style education. Any inclusive neo-Platonic society aspiring to the Good would therefore be fragile, indeed—though not impossible. The harmonising of community and individuality (Lukes 1985: 98-99) and the ego- and other-seeking sides of Sidgwick’s dualism (Parfit 2011: 130-131) would certainly be an improvement on modernity’s slide towards the un-Platonic notion of individual autarky (Skinner 2002: 191), and may be made possible by rational educational and rule by (democratically restrained) philosophers. By suggesting the limitations of Plato’s vision, we have suggested areas where it could be improved. For instance, one could substitute the neo-Platonic vision of ‘Sophiarchy’ (Studebaker 2012), or rule by those with theoretical wisdom (Sophia), with ‘Sophinousarchy’, or rule by those with both theoretical and practical wisdom (Nous), even if a philosopher-king or Sophiarche needs to be the ultimate head of any contemporary Callipolis. If we reject both natural inequality and functional particularism and holism in favour of natural equality and functional meta-holism, then, it becomes quite clear that Plato’s city (as originally conceived) cannot satisfy everyone. 

To conclude, while Plato’s city can partially satisfy at least one part of the soul for everyone, it cannot fully satisfy each part of the soul each person is able to satisfy. On the one hand, the ‘honour-loving’, ‘money-loving’, and ‘wisdom-loving’ people can each be partially satisfied. On the other hand, they cannot be fully satisfied in all every respect in which it is possible for them to be. The political and philosophical limitations of Plato’s Republic render the project of constructing a city that satisfies everyone difficult, but not impossible—subject to adjustments to Plato’s philosophical anthropology, institutional configuration Callipolis, and the technological conditions for such a configuration. While Plato’s city satisfies the thymotic part of the auxiliaries’ and guardians’ soul to a great, and perhaps full, extent, it does not satisfy pathos or logos in any person to the greatest extent possible. Perhaps a new city could. 


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