The city and the soul Notes for February 11

Main points

I argued that Plato faces a dilemma. He can either present an attractive picture of the city or a realistic account of the soul. But he can’t do both.

Specifically, I said that if the city were like the realistic account of the soul, it would not be peaceful. Rather, it involves the repression of the productive class by the guardians and auxiliaries.

If the soul were like the attractive picture of the city, by contrast, the appetitive part of the soul would not be kept in check by the rational and spirited parts. Rather, it would regulate itself.

I think that Plato switches between the city and the soul when the descriptions are either attractive or realistic, respectively. That’s why his presentation in Book IV is so compelling.

Rob’s defense of Plato

Rob denied that Plato faces the dilemma I described. I don’t think that I responded adequately in class, so I’m going to take a second crack at it here.

Rob said that what Plato had in mind in describing a virtuous person was someone who has moderate desires and desires to play his or her natural role. Reason and spirit do not constantly interfere with desire. They do so only on the rare occasions when desires run outside of their appropriate roles.

That description of the individual’s psychology corresponds very nicely with the attractive picture of the city. So there’s no dilemma.

I think that Rob’s defense is a good one. I don’t have a knock-down argument against it. Rather, I’m going to try to explain why I don’t think that Plato can use it.

There are two possible reasons why the desires that make up the appetitive part of the soul are moderate and committed to performing a particular role.

  1. The rational and spirited parts regulate them so they are this way.
  2. They are this way for some other reason, not given in Plato’s theory.

I opt for the first; Rob opts for the second.

I’ll explain my side. I don’t think Plato can consistently say that the appetitive part of the soul can be moderate without regulation from the rational part. I’m impressed by 439c–d. And if that’s what he thinks about the soul, I think he’s committed to the corresponding position about the city.

I regret not having given Rob a chance to present the evidence favoring his side, besides noting that it seems to best represent Plato’s aims. He may have had more specific textual evidence in mind.

I suppose that one way we might try to settle this is to read books VIII-IX. There, Plato describes defective cities and the corresponding individual personalities. I have a hunch that we might find the evidence we need there. I’ll try to get to it myself and report back.

About our noble lie

Here is what I was saying about the Jefferson Memorial. If you look on the wall, you’ll see that two passages from Jefferson's writings on the subject of slavery are melded together to produce the following:

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”

What they left out is Jefferson's concluding phrase in the last sentence: “nor is it less certain that the two races equally free, cannot live in the same government.”** Garry Wills, Inventing America (New York: Vintage, 1978), p. 306.

Is that our version of the noble lie? Remy’s right to say that it isn’t as broad as the myth of the metals. It doesn’t try to convince people that they’re something that they aren’t. But it isn’t entirely honest either.

Here’s another lie involving Jefferson that is bizarre rather than noble. This comes from a fund raising letter for The Monticello Fund.

“During the nearly sixty years of Jefferson’s residence, Monticello was also home to a multicultural and multiracial plantation community, where both black and white workers served the house and a 5,000-acre plantation. Walking along Mulberry Row, you can learn about the many contributions of African-Americans at Monticello.”†† Herb Caen, San Francisco Chronicle, November 25, 1995, p. A12.

The issue of truth in politics will come up again at least two more times. It’s an issue between Rawls and the utilitarians, especially Sidgwick. And it’s something we will have to discuss when trying to make sense of Aristotle on slavery.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2008. It was posted February 12, 2008.
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