Those familiar with Plato’s Republic will recall that it is a lengthy dialogue on justice. Indeed, some of the copies of the ancient manuscripts have “concerning justice” as a subtitle. Justices is explicitly the subject matter of the first four books, and the closing “Myth of Er” in Book X again brings the subject matter to the fore. In the first book, which many scholars think was written separately then woven into the text of the Republic, Socrates, Cephalus, Polemarchus and Thrasymachus try unsuccessfully to come to an understanding of what justice is. Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus take the argument further in Book II, but still end in failure. So they resolve to fashion a model city, a soul writ large, so that by its scope, its “large letters,” they might be better able to “read” there what is justice.
But hardly do they being their work than they must discuss the sort of education which will be needed in their city. By education, however, we should understand the formation of a soul, paideia. The youth are to be shaped through physical training, music and poetry; shaped body and soul. The model city, it seems, is to be governed by those it shapes to govern well. The paradigm begun in Book II is brought to completion in Book VII, so that side-by-side–indeed, entwined with–the attempt to understand justice is the attempt to form a just soul.
We seek in Book IV the completion of the model city. There we learn the virtues which the model city exemplifies: wisdom, courage, and moderation. These virtues apply to the sectors of the population of the model city (the philosopher-kings, the warrior guardians, and the mercantile class, respectively), and, by analogous equation, to the aspects of the human soul they mirror: intellect (or reason), the spirited aspect, and the appetite. Justice, then, is the harmony, the balance of these virtues. That is to say, when wisdom governs spirit, and these together govern appetite, then a human soul is in the harmonious state which is justice. Mutatis mutandis, then, in the model city, the philosopher-kings govern the warrior guardians who together control the merchants. This harmony of classes and their virtues makes a city just.
This state of justice is instantiated in the aristocracy which is ruled by the philosopher-kings, who themselves exemplify just persons. But the character of a just city and a just man, being an hexis, or active condition of justice, may by gradual (or sudden) disintegration lose its harmony and become imbalanced, or unjust. Just as the model city was the soul of the philosopher-king magnified, so, too, the imbalanced cities-or more correctly, their politeia, or constitutions (constitution in the sense of the very character which makes these cities what they are)–have their concomitant rulers.
Having laid the foundation of the aristocracy governed by the philosopher-kings, the dialogue turns in Books VIII and IX to describe the timocracy, the oligarchy, the democracy, and the tyrannous state, with their respective rulers. Though Socrates admits that these deficient politeia are points on a spectrum, that many more examples could be described, these four deficient politeia may be considered representative of the decline from aristocracy. In any case, the ends of the spectrum are the aristocratic state and its mirror-image in the tyrannous state. Just as Plato spends the largest part of the Republic describing the model city and its philosopher-kings, so, too, the tyrant and his city received the most attention of the deficient politeia. In the case of the philosopher-king, Socrates and his interlocutors spend most of Books IV-VII discussing his character and formation. The tyrant receives the last part of Book VIII and all of Book IX in the description of his origin and lycanthropic character.
In the same way that the paideia, or formation, of the philosopher-king is intended to shape and form an active character, an hexis, so, too, the deficient constitutions are active states of injustice, disharmony, which form an unjust, disharmonious soul. The constitutions of these deficient cities are not constitutions in the documentary sense (though a constitutional document is not precluded), but are rather constitutions in the sense of character; i. e., “he has a strong constitution”). So it is that the descriptions of progressively worsening cities are paralleled by the sort of character they form and by which they are governed. That is to say, each politeia has its own paideia.
The beginning of the devolution from aristocracy, as it was for the kallipolis (which devolved into the swollen city, and from which swollen city the aristocracy arose), is pleonexia, the unbounded desire for more. Pleonexia is, in many ways, the Platonic “original sin.” It is that which causes the kallipolis to devolve into the swollen city, and is that against which institutional restrictions must be directed such that the philosopher-kings neither own nor are able to acquire too much property. The philosopher-king’s income is kept to maintenance levels. He and the other guardians have all things in comment, including women and children.
The failure of these restrictions to check pleonexia leads by gradations to tyranny and the tyrant. At first, certain of the philosopher-kings seek greater honor than their colleagues, and so begin to acquire more property and wealth than is legally allowed, and rule by way of a propertied timocratic class. Those with more wealth and more control begin to marginalize the other guardians, resulting in the rule by the wealthy few in the oligarchy. Having already left the harmonious balance of city and soul by devolution into the timocracy, the character of the polis and its rulers descends through ever-increasing instability. Reason is first dethroned by the spirited nature in the timocracy and gets worse in the oligarchy. This spirited nature will, in turn, be dethroned by appetite in the democracy until appetite rules by sole control, aided and abetted by the power of the spirited nature (the tyrant rules the warriors who do his bidding) in the tyranny.
In the devolution of the oligarchy, Plato describes the emergence of the democracy. Reason has given way to the spirited nature, and these have quickly granted control to the appetite. Not surprisingly, the origins of the democracy begin with the paideia of the young. Trained to desire more wealth, the young of the oligarchy are trained merely to want. The rulers take advantage of these desires, enslaving them by the indebtedness of exorbitant loans. Unable to repay their debts, their appetites still untrained, large portions of the polis are reduced to poverty and destitution. Of course, this leads to civil war. In this war, the indebted class overthrows their rulers, giving free rein to a culture of desire and consumption. In the democracy there remains still some vestiges of “good” and “bad” desires, but these distinctions quickly fade into mere licentiousness. That is to say, licentiousness in the etymological sense: freedom to choose to follow any desire whatsoever. This state will quickly devolve into rule by passion, but at this point, at least in the democracy, the key for understanding this is the term, choice (hairesis, heresy). One must be free to choose to follow one’s appetites. Good, bad, indifferent. Appetites are the goal. Choice is the means. No one may interfere with choice.
[End Part I. Part II to follow.]