Injustice in city and soul Notes for February 11

Main points

Books VIII and IX are about unjust cities and souls. They end with the conclusion that the unjust life is undesirable. The implication, obviously, is that the just one is desirable, answering Glaucon’s challenge.

We talked about three things.

  1. The five types of cities and souls along with the stories about degeneration from one type of city/soul to the next.
  2. What the stories about degeneration show about the analogy between city and soul. In particular, I criticized Plato’s claim that cities are just, honor-loving, money-loving, etc. by virtue of having or being run by just, honor-loving, money-loving, etc. citizens. I said this works very poorly in the case of democracy.
  3. Plato’s final argument that the unjust life is undesirable.

Did he answer Thrasymachus and Glaucon?

Fowler and Becka said that they thought Thrasymachus had a slightly different unjust character in mind, namely, one who can control or hide the desires that lead to unjust behavior. Has Plato shown that the unjust must be extremely unattractive addicts?

Jaron said that Plato still had not provided a positive case for justice, even if we grant his case against injustice. I think his point is well taken and it leads me to wonder what they originally meant in insisting on showing that justice is desirable “for its own sake.”

Seth pointed out a different line of argument in Plato that we didn’t touch on. It is that the problem with injustice is that it assumes that you benefit from satisfying your appetites and desires. Really, an entirely different life is what is best for us, in Plato’s opinion. Plato’s discussions of the three-part soul and the pleasures appropriate to each part are relevant here.

Wynn added a way of making Seth’s point in more contemporary terms. We satisfy our desires but don’t feel satisfaction or fulfillment in our lives. (This is loosely related to the so-called hedonic treadmill. I exaggerated the connection in class: whoops.)

I myself think this is the human condition, though we can make our lives better or worse, of course. As our next author, Thomas Hobbes, famously observed,

there is no such finis ultimus, (utmost aim,) nor summum bonum, (greatest good,) as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers. Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he, whose senses and imaginations are at a stand. Felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the latter. … So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death. (Leviathan, Ch. 11, par 1–2)

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2009. It was posted February 11, 2009.
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