Justice in the soul

Notes for February 4

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.

The problem

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?

When Plato was trying to explain why the guardians had to be in charge, he tended to describe the members of the productive class as deficient: they need to be controlled or else chaos will break out, much as the various desires in one person’s mind have to be controlled for the person to get anything done. When he was trying to explain why a just soul is well ordered, he reverted to political metaphors. Thus he wrote that there is no ‘civil war’ between the parts of a moderate soul.

Our discussion

We had a rich and varied discussion, with some class members making excellent proposals to solve the problem and others raising different problems. Here is a sampling of what was said.

Dixie noted that the rational part cannot be completely in charge of the soul. What is the spirited part supposed to do, after all? And how does the rational part know what to do unless it has appetites? Plato maintained that the spirited part aligns with the rational part: see the example of Leontius and the corpses (439d). And he believed that the rational part knows what is most worth wanting (see the later discussion of the forms and the cave). But I think it’s reasonable to wonder whether there really is a part of our minds that does all of this work: calculating, exercising foresight, judging when it makes sense to be angry, and knowing what is most worth wanting.

Ziqi reminded us that it is not necessarily a bad thing if the guardians and auxiliaries use force against the productive classes. We already know that the state employs force, after all.

Conversely, Jiacheng said that the guardians’ role could be more persuasive than coercive. Plato clearly thought that the members of the productive classes need the guardians to be in charge, but he did not clearly think that the relationship had to involve violence or that the members of the productive classes were completely incapable of understanding what the guardians proposed.

Jiacheng also thought that the analogy between city and soul could support an attractive picture of the city. Usually, when you decide that you are going to do something later, your desires to do that thing do not continue to press you to do it now. I don’t know how this happens; I doubt it’s because those desires agree to wait. But it is a real phenomenon and it suggest that our psychological lives need not be a kind of civil war. If our psychological lives can be peaceful, then, by analogy, perhaps the city can be as well.

In a similar vein, Dixie and Bianca said that what Plato might have had in mind was that the members of the productive classes accept their limitations. They can do this without having a highly developed ability to reason like the guardians do. If that is how it works, it would explain both why the productive classes are incapable of ruling themselves and also why relations in the city could be peaceful.

Finally, Adam noted that Plato had consistently understated the importance of the productive classes in the city. That seems right to me: someone has to produce, after all.

Key concepts

  1. The attractive picture of the city.
  2. The realistic picture of the soul.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted February 8, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy