Plato on justice in the soul Notes for September 19

Main points

After arguing that the soul has to have parts, Plato tried to show that individual virtues come “in the same way and in the same part” (441c) as the virtues of the city do.

We discussed the analogy between the city and the soul. We were particularly concerned with whether Plato had to choose between an attractive picture of the city and a realistic picture of the soul.

Our discussion

The attractive picture of the city is one in which the members of the different classes peacefully coexist, with each wholeheartedly accepting its role. The realistic picture of the soul is one in which the different parts are in conflict, with the reasoning part either controlling or being overwhelmed by the appetitive one.

The apparent problem is that Plato insisted the two cases parallel one another. So which is it? Is he implausibly saying that the parts of the soul agree to coexist? Or is he saying that the classes in the city constantly struggle for control, making the city rather less attractive than it appeared to be?

We had an extremely interesting discussion that was full of great and novel ideas. Here are just a few.

Matt made the case that the picture of the peaceful soul could be realistic. He noted that he had many conflicting desires but that they weren’t making him squirm in his chair. His desires were moderated, if you will. That suggests that there might be a realistic picture of the soul compatible with an attractive picture of the city.

Sarah, on the other hand, thought that Plato could say that the supposedly unattractive picture of the city isn’t so bad. Political life involves coercion and a degree of control. That’s just the way it is. It’s especially the way it has to be if, as Plato suggested, the members of the productive class cannot live well on their own, without being ruled by the guardians.

And Callum added that he didn’t see why the members of the productive class would have any dissatisfaction with their role at all. The things they want most of all are the things that the guardians can’t have. So why would they want to be guardians? (I think Plato was more worried that they would try to rule in their own, bad way. The threat wasn’t that they would try to rule as guardians do, without money or really anything for their own. Still, it’s a very clever observation.)

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted September 19, 2012.
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