any philosophical ideas are discussed in The Republic. Utilizing the character of Socrates as a mouthpiece, Plato explores enlightenment, beauty, politics, science, wisdom, and much more. But the central topic of discussion is justice. What is justice? What makes a man just? Is it possible to live in a just state, and if so, what would it look like? Plato ties these questions together and answers them using the state-soul analogy.
For Plato, the soul is split into three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite. Those who are driven by reason love wisdom. Those who are driven by spirit love victory or honor. Those who are driven by appetite love pleasure and profit.
Plato argues that justice is “… the natural relation of control and subordination between its [the soul’s] constituents …” In other words, justice in the individual is achieved when reason governs above spirit and appetite. Justice comes from the ability to keep spirit and appetite under reason’s control.
A just soul ruled by reason also leads to a happier life. Plato describes knowledge as the only road “… to real happiness …” Such an idea can also be seen in Meno, one of his shorter dialogues.
A soul not ruled by reason is, by contrast, more prone to unjust actions like stealing, cheating, harming, and mocking. Such actions also reinforce the disorder. Injustice undermines the self, whereas justice is self-sustaining. But this does not mean such people cannot be useful to the wider populace.
Given Plato is a philosopher, it will come as no surprise that he believes philosophers should be the ones who hold positions of power:
“… there will be no end to the troubles … of humanity itself till philosophers become kings in this world … and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands …”
Plato believes that those who are driven (primarily) by wisdom would be in positions of political power in a just state. But what of those who are driven by spirit or appetite? What are their roles inside Plato’s vision?
Those who value victory and honor have the duty of defending the state (or city) against external attack. This group is referred to as the “auxiliaries”.
Meanwhile, those who are ruled by their appetites are the workers who supply material needs for both themselves and the other two factions of the city. By workers, Plato doesn’t just mean manual labor. This category encapsulates all kinds of roles, including merchants and traders.
The three-part state parallels the tripartite soul. The philosopher-kings (or guardians) correspond to reason. The auxiliaries correspond to spirit. The workers correspond to appetite.
This is the state-soul analogy.
Analysis and conclusion
Compared with the democratic nations which dominate today’s western world, Plato’s ideal state doesn’t hold up well. Though the idea of philosopher-kings is certainly an interesting one, the lack of political influence amongst the other factions doesn’t align with the ideas of our time.
The tripartite soul, on the other hand, has more value. The idea that happiness arises when reason becomes paramount is highly relevant. Indeed, in today’s materialist societies, Plato’s plea that we should neglect desire and focus on reason is more relevant than ever.
Too often, we succumb to short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term fulfillment. If we prioritized reason and wisdom, our souls would be more just, and our lives would be happier.
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