Today’s topic is the analogy between the city and the soul. We will
be particularly concerned with his description of the members of the
productive class. Can they be just or not?
Last time we identified justice in the city. Now Plato will try to
show that justice is the same for individuals.
In the first half of book IV, Plato thinks he showed that there are
three classes in the city and that the city is just if each class does
its part without interfering with the others. Here is what he tries to
show about individuals.
The soul has parts (436a–439b).
The parts are the same as the parts of the city
An individual’s virtues come about “in the same way and in the
same part” as the virtues of a city do (441c).
Therefore, individuals are just if the parts of their souls play
The Parts of the Soul
It is obvious that the city has different parts. You can see people
doing different things. It is not obvious that the soul has
different parts. So Plato has to show that it does. He begins with a
principle that a thing can move in different directions at the same time
only if it has distinct parts that are moving in different directions
(436a-437a). Then he applies this principle to human psychology. Our
minds try to move us in different directions at the same time: I can
want to go get a drink of water and also want to finish my work. (That’s
how I feel right now!) So our souls must have parts, one of which wants
to go get a drink while the other wants to stay put (437b-439b). That’s
pretty clever, I think.
What parts does the soul have? Plato thinks that there are three
parts which he calls the rational, spirited, and appetitive. Here are
some of the characteristics of each part.
Parts of the soul
Features of the soul
Overrides feelings (439c), calculates
about better and worse (441b), exercises foresight for the whole (441e),
learns, loves truth and knowledge (580e), philosophical (581b)
Anger, resentment. Aligned with rational
part vs. the appetitive, e.g. look at corpses (439d). “Wholly dedicated”
to “control, victory, and high repute” (honor) (581a)
Irrational, feeling, desires, lusts,
hungers, thirsts. Drives or drags the soul (439c–d). Appetites for food,
drink, and sex (580e). Insatiable desire for money (442a, 581a).
The City-Soul Parallel
There are three parts to the soul. And there are three parts to the
city. And the names “Rational,” “Spirited,” and “Appetitive” sound oddly
familiar. Could there be something going on?
Yes! As you might have guessed, the three parts line up with one
Parts of the city and parts of the soul
But the relationship between the parts of the city and the parts of
the soul goes much deeper than this. Plato’s story is not just that each
thing’s parts are similar to the other’s parts. He thinks people belong
to the class that they do because of how the parts of their
soul are arranged. People whose souls are dominated by their rational
part are guardians, those whose souls are dominated by the spirited part
are auxiliaries, and those whose souls are dominated by their appetitive
part belong to the productive class.
Here is what Plato says. (Note that some of these are not in the
reading we have done to date. They come from later in the book. You will
see them eventually.)
And it is because of the spirited part, I suppose, that we call a
single individual courageous, namely when it preserves through pains and
pleasures the declarations of reason about what is to be feared and what
isn’t. … And we’ll call him wise because of that small part of himself
that rules in him and … has within it the knowledge of what is
advantageous for each part and for the whole soul (441c).
And doesn’t this [rational] part rule in some people’s souls, while
one of the other parts … rules in other people’s? That’s right. And
isn’t that the reason we say that there are three primary kinds of
people: philosophic, victory-loving, and profit-loving? (581c)
The idea is that the kind of person you are is dictated by which part
of your soul rules the other parts. That, in turn, explains why you
belong to one of the three social classes rather than the others.
Features of the classes (442c, 581c)
Kind of person
Ruling part of the soul
Now we are in a position to describe the virtues of cities and of
souls. What could be better than another table? Nothing!
Explanation of the virtues (from 442b–d)
Wise members (guardians) rule the
Rational part rules the soul
Spirited members (auxiliaries) defend the
city and support the guardians
Spirited part aligns with the rational
part against the appetitive
All classes recognize and defer to the
Harmonious relations among parts of the
Each class plays its role
Each part plays its role
I said last time that Plato was going to have a hard time with the
productive class. Here is what I had in mind.
A thing is just, according to Plato, if all of its parts play their
proper role. How could this work for the productive class? For them, the
appetitive part controls the soul and the rational part is subordinate.
If the parts were in order, the rational part should govern the soul
with the appetitive part being subordinate.
On the other hand, if we look at the way the members of the
productive class participate in the city, we can see how it could make
sense to describe them as being just. As long as they stay in their own
lane, it appears that they should count as being just, by Plato’s
Here are some passages to puzzle over. Some are about moderation
rather than justice, but since moderation and justice are so close, I
think they apply to both virtues.
the desires of the inferior many are controlled by the wisdom and
desires of the superior few. (431d) (This is an explanation of why the
city is moderate — mjg)
unlike courage and wisdom, each of which resides in one part, making
the city brave and wise respectively, moderation spreads throughout the
whole. It makes the weakest, the strongest, and those in between … all
sing the same song together. And this unanimity, this agreement between
the naturally worse and the naturally better as to which of the two is
to rule both in the city and in each one, is rightly called moderation.
the city was thought to be just when each of the three natural
classes within it did its own work. (435b)
I suppose we’ll say that a man is just in the same way as a city.
… And surely we haven’t forgotten that the city was just because each of
the three classes in it was doing its own work. … Then we must also
remember that each one of us in whom each part is doing its own work
will himself be just and do his own. … Therefore, isn’t it appropriate
for the rational part to rule, since it is really wise and exercises
foresight on behalf of the whole soul? (441d-e)
the principle that it is right for someone who is by nature a cobbler
to practice cobblery and nothing else, for the carpenter to practice
carpentry, and the same for the others is a sort of image of justice —
that’s why it’s beneficial. (443c).
in truth justice … isn’t concerned with someone’s doing his own
externally, but with what is inside him, with what is truly himself and
his own. One who is just does not allow any part of himself to do the
work of another part or allow the various classes within him to meddle
with each other. He regulates well what is really his own and rules
himself. He puts himself in order, is his own friend, and harmonizes the
three parts of himself like three limiting notes in a musical scale
— high, low, and middle. He binds together those parts … and from having
been many things he comes entirely one, moderate and harmonious.
Plato vs. Thrasymachus
Plato’s case for political authority rests on the inferiority of the
productive class. Their souls are governed by their appetites rather
than their rational part. Even if their reason were in charge, they
would not have the kind of knowledge about what to do that the guardians
The guardians, by contrast, are governed by their rational part and
they do know what is best for the city. The idea is that they act as a
kind of rational part for the members of the productive class when they
are in charge of the city.
At this point, Plato compares his picture of the city with
Thrasymachus’s in a way that I think is revealing.
to insure that someone like that [a manual worker] is ruled by
something similar to what rules the best person, we say that he ought to
be the slave of that best person who has a divine ruler within himself.
It isn’t to harm the slave that we say he must be ruled, which is what
Thrasymachus thought to be true of all subjects, but because it is
better for everyone to be ruled by divine reason, preferably within
himself and his own, otherwise imposed from without, so that as far as
possible all will be alike and friends, governed by the same thing.
Plato is saying that political hierarchy is good for those who are
subject to it, at least, in a just city ruled by wise guardians.
Thrasymachus had said that political rule had to be exploitative.
Whether you find Plato’s story persuasive or not, it’s noteworthy
that he thought it was important to show that this is so. Thrasymachus,
by contrast, either believes that it is not possible to have a
non-exploitative political system or that it is undesirable even to try.
Either way, he puts no weight on showing that the people at the bottom
of the hierarchy benefit from it. That is a significant difference
between Plato and Thrasymachus, in my opinion.
We spent a lot of time on Plato’s characterization of the productive
class. Kaeshav started us off by noting that it is implausible to say
that the members of the productive class are not governed by their
rational part to at least some extent. Farmers have to think about the
future, merchants have to calculate, and everyone has to maintain enough
self-control to do their job without wandering off. Those are all things
that, by Plato’s description, the rational part of the soul does.
Then we had a series of suggestions about more plausible ways of
making Plato’s basic point. Robin said that Plato only needs to show
that the members of the productive class are not as rational as
the guardians are. He doesn’t have to show that they are governed
exclusively by their desires. Veronica and Dylan suggested that the main
idea might be that the guardians care most about knowledge while the
members of the productive class care most about money. I think that’s
probably, um, right on the money. It is at least a significant
I was also intrigued by Jack’s suggestion that the members of the
productive class play their social role because of their appetites.
Someone needs to raise the food and make the shoes, after all, and no
one is going to do those things if everyone is off thinking all the
Will asked a question that I could not answer about the place of
desires in Plato’s thinking. Is his attitude towards them that we would
be better off without them or is it that even rational guardians have
desires that it makes sense to act on? I’m not sure. On the one hand,
even guardians have to eat! And if they did not act on sexual desires,
the city would not reproduce itself; I will say more on this in a bit.
On the other hand, Plato suggests that the best life is one spent in the
pursuit of knowledge and you can see how all of the other desires would
get in the way of that. So I’m not sure what he thinks.
Who gets the education of the guardians?
Plato thinks a good society will pay attention to the education of
its leaders. But who gets this education? Emily said it would be the
rich. I said that Plato thought the guardians should not have any money
and that I did not know who would be admitted to the educational system.
I suggested that it might be everyone in the city; Dylan said he was
pretty sure that was the way it was.
After class, Dylan and I looked it up. To cut to the chase, Emily was
more on the mark than we were. But the actual story is much stranger
than even she suggested. Basically, the education of the guardians is
limited to the children of the guardians.
For the details, I’m just going to quote from Book V (459d-460d),
which we have not read.
It follows from our previous agreements, first, that the best men
must have sex with the best women as frequently as possible, while the
opposite is true of the most inferior men and women, and, second, that
if our herd is to be of the highest possible quality, the former’s
offspring must be reared but not the latter’s. And this must all be
brought about without being noticed by anyone except the rulers, so that
our herd of guardians remains as free from dissension as possible.
That’s absolutely right.
Therefore certain festivals and sacrifices will be established by law
at which we’ll bring the brides and grooms together, and we’ll direct
our poets to compose appropriate hymns for the marriages that take
place. We’ll leave the number of marriages for the rulers to decide, but
their aim will be to keep the number of males as stable as they can,
taking into account war, disease, and similar factors, so that the city
will, as far as possible, become neither too big nor too small.
Then there’ll have to be some sophisticated lotteries introduced, so
that at each marriage the inferior people we mentioned will blame luck
rather than the rulers when they aren’t chosen.
And among other prizes and rewards the young men who are good in war
or other things must be given permission to have sex with the women more
often, since this will also be a good pretext for having them father as
many of the children as possible.
And then, as the children are born, they’ll be taken over by the
officials appointed for the purpose, who may be either men or women or
both, since our offices are open to both sexes.
I think they’ll take the children of good parents to the nurses in
charge of the rearing pen situated in a separate part of the city, but
the children of inferior parents, or any child of the others that is
born defective, they’ll hide in a secret and unknown place, as is
It is, if indeed the guardian breed is to remain pure.
And won’t the nurses also see to it that the mothers are brought to
the rearing pen when their breasts have milk, taking every precaution to
insure that no mother knows her own child and providing wet nurses if
the mother’s milk is insufficient? And won’t they take care that the
mothers suckle the children for only a reasonable amount of time and
that the care of sleepless children and all other such troublesome
duties are taken over by the wet nurses and other attendants?
You’re making it very easy for the wives of the guardians to have
And that’s only proper.
They have day care so women can be guardians. That’s not bad! And
they have a eugenics program. Well ….
Finally, to our point, only the children of the best parents will be
raised in common and given the education that might lead to their
becoming guardians. The educational system is not for everyone. So Emily
was basically right and Dylan and I were basically wrong. Point to
These are the things you should know from today’s class.
What is the relationship between the parts of the city and the parts
of the soul?
Why is Plato inclined to say that the productive class can be
Why is Plato inclined to say that the productive class cannot be
Plato. 1997. “Republic.” In Complete Works, edited
by John M. Cooper, translated by G. M. A. Grube and C. D. C. Reeve.
Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.