Injustice in city and soul

Notes for February 11

Main points

After we finished some leftover business about the guardians, Tuesday’s class was all about injustice. We talked about the degeneration of the city and the perfectly unjust man: the tyrant.

City and soul again

In the account of the degeneration of the city, Plato relies on parallels between the city and the soul again. For every kind of city there is a corresponding kind of person and the characters of the people who make up the city determine the character of the city. Constitutions are “from the characters of the people who live in the cities governed by them … if there are five forms of the city, there must be five forms of the soul.” (544d-e)

I said that Plato switches between two models of the relationship between individual character and the character of the city.

  1. The part-whole rule: a city is F if and only if its citizens are F.
  2. The predominant part rule: a city is F if and only if the members of the ruling class are F.

The ideal city is a good example of the problem. On the one hand, Plato wants to say that it is just because all of the people in it are just: they all play their roles. On the other hand, he wants to say it is an ethical aristocracy because the people in charge are ethical aristocrats, namely, the guardians.

The predominant part rule is clearly what is used for the timocratic, oligarchic, and tyrannical cities. A timocracy is “spirited” because its rulers (the successors of the auxiliaries) are spirited, not because everyone is. The same goes for oligarchy and tyranny.

Democracy presents another tough case for Plato. The democratic city is filled with an array of diverse pursuits, meaning its members all pursue different lives and values. Following the parallel, he asserts that the democratic individual is also filled with an array of diverse pursuits.

In other words, when he’s describing the democratic city, Plato describes the individuals who live in it as having coherent aims for their lives. It’s just that different people do different things. When he describes the individual, he switches the story and describes democratic individuals as having a shifting set of aims for their lives.

What is bad about tyranny

Book IX gives three arguments for the conclusion that the most unjust life, that of the tyrant, is the worst life. We did not discuss these in the detail they deserve. But the thrust of them is obvious enough: the tyrant lives an addict’s life. The tyrant is not in control of his life but is rather enslaved by his desires.

I said that this struck me as changing the question. Glaucon had asked Socrates to show that the life of the perfectly unjust man was a bad one. But Glaucon’s perfectly unjust person is in control of his life. He is unjust only when it is to his advantage and he’s so good at it that he has a reputation for being perfectly just. That sounds like someone who is very much in control of his emotions. So the fact that they tyrant’s life is a bad one does not show that the life of the unjust man Glaucon described would be bad.

I think Plato’s best option here would be to say that the life Glaucon described is not genuinely possible and that injustice necessarily leads to something like the tyrant’s life. Alas, that is not true.

Key concepts

  1. The relationship between the character of a city and the character of an individual in the story about the degeneration of the city.

  2. Why Plato thought the tyrant’s life was the worst.

  3. The relationship between that answer and Glaucon’s question.


I updated the handout from February 4 to add more textual references. Thanks to Dixie for pointing out the need for that.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted February 12, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy