Justice in the soul

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

It appears that Plato has to give up one of these three things:

  1. A realistic description of how the parts of the soul interact with one another.
  2. An attractive description of how the parts of his ideal city would interact with one another.
  3. His theoretical claim that there is a strong parallel between the city and the soul.

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, for example, he wrote that an individual is “moderate because of the friendly and harmonious relations between these same parts, namely when the ruler and ruled believe in common that the rational part should rule and don’t engage in civil war against it” (442c, p. 118).

Can the productive class be just?

We spent most of our discussion on this question. We had a nice 7 to 11 split between yes and no answers.

For example, Julian, and later Jiwon, said that the members of the productive class could be just so long as they play their role in society. Julian had a special twist on this idea: he suggested that it is only important that the class plays its role in making the city just. It isn’t essential that the individual members of the class are just. Interesting!

On the other hand, both Max and Jiwon asked how the members of the productive class can be just if their rational part is not in control of their behavior. That is Plato’s big idea, after all: justice in both the city and the soul comes from having three parts that do what they do best. That means the rational part has to be in charge.

This led to a complaint suggested by Helena, among others: Plato really doesn’t describe the productive classes in enough detail. If you look at the qualities of the rational part of the soul on the handout, you will see some that the members of the productive class would have to have. Farmers, carpenters, and business owners all have to be able to calculate and defer gratification, for example. Plato himself says that “those who are naturally most organized become wealthiest” when everyone is trying to make money (564e). Those who make money, in other words, need to have at least some of the powers that Plato attributes to the rational part of the soul; otherwise, they wouldn’t be organized enough to succeed.

Austin made an interesting suggestion at this point. Plato’s problem with the productive classes isn’t that they are completely irrational, it’s that they devote their rational faculties to their narrow interests. The guardians, by contrast, care about the city as a whole. I think that’s right. I also think that Plato thinks their caring about the city as a whole is a result of their being more rational than the members of the productive class. If I’m right about that last point, it would be interesting to know more about this superior faculty of reasoning that leads them to care so much about the interests of the city.

Moderation to the rescue?

I closed with a suggestion about what Plato might have had in mind. Really, I borrowed from Julian who remarked early in the class that a truly virtuous person would not experience conflict. Such a person wouldn’t even want to look at a car wreck and so wouldn’t have the experience that the rest of us do of struggling not to look and being mad at ourselves when we do.

There has to be something to that. Mature people do not experience the same kind of inner conflict and impulsivity as immature people do. (This is where I told the story of the marshmallow experiment.) That suggests there might be a realistic description of the soul in which the parts of the soul are not in constant war with one another. And if that is possible, then maybe there is a realistic description of the soul that is in parallel with the attractive picture of the ideal city. And if that is so, maybe Plato’s theoretical claim about that parallel can be vindicated.

Karina asked whether Plato could explain this phenomenon, given the psychological theory he advances. I think that’s an excellent question. Plato’s chief explanation of self-control involves conflict between the rational and appetitive parts. Given that, could he explain moderation?

Semassa’s conjecture was that there is an unstated difference between educated desires and natural ones. That fits nicely with the amount of attention that Plato devotes to describing the education of the guardians and auxiliaries. (Warning: we didn’t read most of that. You can get a feel for it by reading the editor’s introductions to each book.) Maybe that would fill the hole that Karina saw.

Key concepts

  1. The attractive picture of the city.
  2. The realistic picture of the soul.


There was a handout for this class: 04.PlatoJusticeSoul.handout.pdf