Justice in the soul Notes for February 4

Main points

I argued that Plato faces a dilemma. He claims that the city and soul have the same parts and the same virtues for the same reasons. However, I said, he can give an attractive picture of the city or a realistic picture of the soul but not both.

We spent most of our time talking about alternative descriptions of our psychology, especially concerning the nature of desires. For the most part, we left it open whether Plato could modify his description of our psychology while retaining the main doctrines of The Republic.

Positive emotions

We started off with some emotions that we thought were poorly captured in Plato’s account: curiosity (Andrey) and compassion (Wynn). They aren’t characteristics of the spirited part of the soul and they aren’t rational calculation. So they don’t fit into either of the parts Plato praises. But they don’t lead to an insatiable desire for money or the other unflattering aspects of the appetitive part of the soul either.

Fowler suggested that the analogy between city and soul is partly to blame here. There are no obvious political roles for curiosity and compassion as there are for the feelings of anger and resentment in the auxiliaries. So he didn’t take them into account. It’s an interesting suggestion.

Moderation as a defense

Plato clearly thought that the productive classes could moderate their desires, accept the guardians as rulers, and play their own roles. That’s what the description of moderation and justice in the city involve. The question is whether there could be a similar kind of moderation of desire within the soul that does not involve repressive control by the rational part.

I offered up a defense of Plato by describing what I think of as a consequence of maturation: your desires become less strong when you realize you can’t (or shouldn’t) satisfy them.

Becka said the phenomenon I was pointing to could be explained equally well as reason limiting desires, not the desires simply fading away or limiting themselves.

There are two questions. One is which story is most true to the facts. This strikes me as up in the air. The second is whether Plato could accept either story. Here, I said that I think he would have to change his characterization of the desiring part in order to accept my story, though not Becka’s. So Becka’s explanation is a more accurate interpretation of Plato but one that will leave him open to the objection.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2009. It was posted February 4, 2009.
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