Injustice in city and soul Notes for September 26

Main points

We discussed three topics.

  1. Plato’s story about the degeneration of the city.
  2. What this story shows about the analogy between the city and the soul.
  3. Plato’s final answer to Glaucon.

The degeneration of the city

Even the best kind of city can be expected to decay. We know that Plato believed the ethical aristocracy is the best and happiest city and that tyranny is the worst and least happy.

But we were less certain about how to rank the cities in between. As Rachel pointed out, oligarchy seems better than timocracy, particularly for those at the bottom. And democracy seems pretty good even as Plato portrays it.

City and soul, again

I offered a general formulation of some ideas that Jared, Theresa, and Callum expressed. I said that Plato was pulled between two ways of describing the relationship between city and soul.

He sometimes seems to have followed what I called the “part-whole rule.” That means that a city is just (or spirited, or oligarchic, or democratic, or tyrannical) if and only if its citizens are just (or spirited, etc.). For instance, a city is just because its citizens are just. (Though, as we know, exactly what it means for all the citizens to be just is a fraught question for Plato.)

On other occasions, Plato seems to have followed what I called the “predominant part rule.” That means that a city is just (etc.) if and only if the members of the ruling class are just (etc.). That is the only way of making sense of timocracy, oligarchy, and tyranny. Those cities clearly have different parts, with the timocratic, oligarchic, or tyrannical part ruling over the others.

There is also a special problem with democracy. A city of people who have different characters is not the same thing as a city of people who have no settled character of their own.

Did he answer Glaucon?

The tyrannical person, as Plato describes him, is an out of control addict. But is that the perfectly unjust person that Glaucon described? Plato has to maintain that Glaucon’s perfectly unjust person, who is self-controlled and rather devious, is not a real possibility. That is, he has to maintain that, as a matter of human psychology, an unjust person must be like the tyrant he described.

The problem is that this is not true.

Them and us

I made my point about the difference between my uncritical assumption that history is progressive and Plato’s more pessimistic view. I won’t repeat that here. But I did want to highlight another point on which our views differ from Plato’s.

Matt pointed out that Plato never uses of the concept of evil. The most natural thing in the world for us to say about the tyrant is that he is evil, meaning morally bad. Matt was absolutely right to note that this is not what Plato said. He’s also right to note that this is a bit disorienting for us.

Plato’s case against the tyrant was that the tyrant leads the worst life. It’s not that the tyrant is bad to other people or will suffer in the afterlife. If that seems unexceptional to you, try expressing your attitude towards Hitler (or your favorite monster from recent history) in those terms. Then try to imagine explaining what you mean by “evil” to Plato.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted September 26, 2012.
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