Plato on the origins of the state

Notes for January 28

Main points

Glaucon’s challenge is to show that justice is desirable for its own sake. This is a question about individual people: what does just behavior contribute to the best life for a person? However Plato thought the question was best answered by describing a just city.

We discussed the two cities that Socrates described, his account of the education of the guardians, and the myth of the metals.

Two cities

The method of inquiry gets even more indirect. Instead of describing a just city, Plato has us imagine why people who did not live in a city would want to form one. By tracing the hypothetical development of human society, he maintains, we will find where justice enters into the picture.

I expressed confusion about the first city. It doesn’t have justice and those living in it do not have the time or inclination to engage in the kind of intellectual activity that Plato will later describe as the highest human good. So you would think that Plato’s attitude would be about the same as Glaucon’s: it’s a city for pigs. Yet Plato has Socrates say that it’s a healthy city by contrast with the fevered luxurious city that comes after it (372e, p. 48). Why did Plato seem to think the first city is preferable to the luxurious one? It’s a mystery to me.

We move closer to justice with the second, luxurious city. This city brings conflict and so it needs a class of people who specialize in the use of force: guardians. The bulk of books II and III are taken up with discussions of the proper education of the guardians. While a lot of what Plato says sounds weird to our ears, at least some of it is more familiar than it seems. We don’t tell children stories in which the protagonists behave as badly as the Greek gods did in their stories.

The myth of the metals

The myth of the metals does a number of things. As Ziqi pointed out, it is intended to perform two functions: getting the members of the society to identify with one another and convincing the guardians that they should play their role. As Dixie pointed out, there’s a message for the lower classes as well. And as Adam noted, we do similar things, though not, perhaps, with such singleminded focus on getting people to serve the state.

Aiman put her finger on the problem that, in my opinion, Plato was most worried about: convincing the guardians to stick with their role. She described the myth of the metals as exploitative because it is aimed at getting them to live a life of poverty when they could do much better for themselves.

In response, Plato will try to show that the guardians actually live the best life. Their material poverty is made up for by the intellectual lives they can lead. I think it’s fair to wonder just how convincing he found that story.

Why authority?

I ended by pointing out that Plato has not actually introduced what you would have thought was the most important part of the state: authority. The guardians are pretty clearly in charge of the rest of society. But, so far, we have not seen why society needs anyone to be in charge. All we have said is that the society will need to deal with external threats.

The answer will come in the rest of the book. Plato is going to describe the ideal state as what I called an ethical aristocracy. The guardians have authority because they have special ethical knowledge that everyone else lacks. The members of society can lead good lives only if the guardians are in control. That is going to be Plato’s story.

Key concepts

  1. Why the luxurious city needs guardians.
  2. The myth of the metals.


The audio version of the Republic is available for free on iTunes as a podcast. It is surprisingly fun to listen to.

Dixie pressed me about what I know about what anthropologists and archaeologists say about violence in prestate societies. I put a short article by an anthropologist who believes pre-state societies were largely peaceful on Sakai (look for Ferguson). I offered my own summary of the state of things in a course I taught last year.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted January 28, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy