Why guardians? Notes for January 28

Main points

Today we talked about three things:

  1. Plato’s account of the origin of the state
  2. His account of the education and selection of the guardians
  3. The noble lie, the myth of the metals

You all were very patient with the looong reading that included all the stuff about meter and rhythm. Thanks!

What did Plato think?

Plato had conflicted attitudes towards the arts and the first city, the city of pigs.

I’m fairly sure that I understand his attitude towards the arts. They are very powerful, non-rational, and therefore a threat to the kind of rational thinking that he believed was truly important. Here’s a nice statement of what I think his view was:

A person with the proper musical education will “praise fine things, be pleased by them … and, being nurtured by them, receive them into his soul. He’ll rightly object to what is shameful, hating it while he’s still young and unable to grasp the reason, but, having been educated in this way, he will welcome the reason when it comes …” (401e-402a, p. 78)

That is, education is about habituating people to good things before they understand why they are good. They can understand the reasons later. It’s not the model of education that we employ, but there’s something to be said for it.

I agree with him about the power and arationality of the arts. But I’m much less inclined to think that the arts are threatening. Perhaps that is because I don’t think that there is as much for reason to do as he did. So I’m more willing to let the arts influence our character.

I’m much less certain of what I think about his attitude towards the city of pigs. They didn’t find justice “in it” and it is quickly left behind in the search for justice. But Plato seems to think it’s superior to its replacement, the luxurious city. At the very least, the luxurious city has to be “purified” before we can find justice in it (399e).

But would we have been better off in the city of pigs even without justice? I don’t know what Plato thought.

The myth of the metals

Daniel is certainly right to say that everyone hears the myth of the metals. We know that the guardians are allowed to tell lies to the rest of the city (389b–d). Socrates says that he hopes the “one noble falsehood would, in the best case, persuade even the rulers but, if that is not possible, then the others in the city” (414c) and adds that he would “first try to persuade the rulers and soldiers and then the rest of the city” (414d).** Added Sunday, February 1.

I underplayed that, and Daniel’s point is a good corrective. But I’m still surprised by the emphasis Plato puts on telling this myth to the guardians. That’s the audience he spends the most time describing.

Think about the importance of truth in politics. It’s going to be an important issue between the utilitarians and Rawls in April. No time like the present!

Why are the guardians leaders?

Here’s something mentioned in the syllabus but that we didn’t have time to cover in class. Has Plato explained why the guardians are rulers or leaders? That is, has he explained why they should have authority over the members of the city, such that they can give orders that others should obey, among other things?

I don’t think he has done so. I think he has explained why it’s important to have a military force and why it’s desirable to give this force a particular kind of training. He’s gotten a start on explaining the origins of the state in the need for security and and organized military, in other words.

But the state involves more than that. It involves authority over its members as well. Why should some people be in control of others? That’s a feature of the state that hasn’t been explained yet. Plato’s explanation is coming up. It will be that the city is just when its rational part (i.e. the guardians) is in control.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2009. It was posted January 28, 2009 and updated February 1, 2009.
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