The Republic of You


In episodes 4, 5, and 6, we have already looked at the key arguments that Plato proposes in The Republic to show the special nature of the Ideal, insofar as it can be shown.  As he argues, knowledge of the Ideal is the unique realm of the philosopher, and “Since the philosophers are those who are capable of apprehending that which is eternal and unchanging….” (6.484b), they are the logical candidates to be the rulers of society.  He goes on then at some length to describe the nature of this society, which he calls “aristocracy,” or government by the best. (And this was before Downton Abbey!)  But later he admits that “since for everything that has come into being destruction is appointed, not even such a fabric as this will abide for all time, but it shall surely be dissolved…” (8.546a) and goes on to describe four imperfect societies, and the types of individuals that make them up.¹

So I thought it would be interesting, in this election year, to drill down a bit further into these “forms” and see how they might apply to our own psukhe–that is, our life or soul.  After all, the government reflects the nature of its citizens, so as it’s been said, we get the kind of government we deserve.  Check yourself against the types that follow, and see if you would like to have you for president (or worse).  (It will not be difficult to extrapolate these descriptions to the political scene, if you’ve been paying attention.  The forms are seldom pure, and usually contain elements of all of them.)  I would also say that what follows is of course greatly compressed, and as always nothing beats reading the original in Book 8 (most quotes here coming from the translation by Desmond Lee.²)

Raphael, "Parnassus," 1511

Raphael, “Parnassus,” 1511

Government by the Philosopher-King as we’ve already stated is the Aristocracy, or government by the best–and this means the best within ourselves as well. “The true philosopher’s….eyes are turned to contemplate fixed and immutable realities, a realm where there is no injustice done or suffered, but all is reason and order, and which is the model which he imitates and to which he assimilates himself as far as he can.” (6.500c) It is self-government from a place of unity, by “our better angels;” that which knows the Ideal, “the universal author of all things beautiful and right,” and acts from that knowledge. That which sees the One in all, and acts for the good of the all; that is, to bring all to the knowledge of the Good. It is what is characterized as “The Golden Age.” Its motto would be “All for the One.” Its key goal: Wisdom.

You may have experienced something like it if you are part of a voluntary organization with a mission larger than your own interest, in which people cooperate toward a common goal.  On the individual level, nothing is said in order to offend, and no personal offense is ever taken.  In this aristocracy, the mind exists to know the truth and the heart to feel love.  They are under the guidance of the Ideal, and are in service to it.  Actions and decisions are guided by conscience, that which we “know with.”  There is no hankering for individual recognition, no need to be top dog; just being in the company of other “bests” brings satisfaction.

But as Plato says, this state cannot stand forever.  At some point the germ of duality and its agent, the ego, appears and grows, despite the efforts of the aristocracy to avoid it.  (We don’t know how–“Shall we invoke the Muses, like Homer, and ask them to tell us ‘how the quarrel first began'”?  (8.545a)) The illness that it brings Plato calls the Timarchy (τιμαρχία), or Timocracy; rule based on hierarchy and striving.   It arises from the sense of duality, and the necessary adjunct of the ego’s separateness, i.e. feelings of superiority and inferiority.  It is marked by “ambition and the competitive spirit.” (8:548c) along with “…a fear of admitting intelligent people to office, because intelligence is no longer combined with simplicity and sincerity; it will prefer the simpler hearty types, who prefer war to peace. It will admire the tricks and stratagems which are needed in war, which will be its constant occupation.” (8:548a) It sees the world in terms of Me and the Other, which leads to a society of winners and losers. It retains the idea of the “best,” but also introduces the idea of reward, and turns everything into a struggle, an agon: play, games, contests, competitions, battles, warfare.  It still admires the qualities of the Ideal–honor, glory, beauty–but claims them for itself, takes them literally.  Its motto is “Ego v. all,” and its key goal: Winning.

On the personal level, it becomes an obsession with status, and the ego creates a box of tools to protect and enhance that–criticism, defensiveness, sarcasm, gossip.  As the cartoon says, “It is not enough that dogs must win; cats must also lose.”  It is the desire to win each argument, always to have the last word, to be “one up,” always to be “right,” if only in one’s own mind.  The instruments of the mind and heart become proportionately limited, and work in service to the ego.

In the timarchy, the practice has already begun of hoarding gold and silver—a literal misinterpretation of man’s four “ages.” (8.548a)  This form of “winning,” keeping score by measure of money, becomes dominant and turns into the Oligarchy (ὀλιγαρχία): “A society where it is wealth that counts, and in which political power is in the hands of the rich and the poor have no share of it.” (8.550d)  (Sound familiar?)  All activity is centered on maximizing personal wealth, power and influence, which is seen as a good unto itself.  This society  comes up with something like the Klout Score.  Materialism rules; rich people buy expensive things because they can.  They especially want things that are rare or one-of-a-kind.  And there is the appearance of the drone: “merely a consumer of goods.” (8.552b) It is a state Ego v. ego, all v. all. Its key goal: Personal power.

Now we may not think we have much money or power, but to the degree that we let these “ideals” dominate our thoughts, we live in an oligarchy, even if we are just drones.  We have fallen far from the state of government by our best, and can easily stray into envy and the preoccupation with material stuff.  “Just a little more, and I’ll be happy.”  We begin to look for special privileges, insider status, private jets.  What good stuff we get we deserve; what bad luck is the fault of someone else.

From this state, ironically, arises the Democracy (δημοκρατία), or government by the People (Demos). “Then democracy originates when the poor win, kill or exile their opponents, and give the rest equal civil rights and opportunities of office, appointment to office being as a rule by lot.” (8.557a) It exhibits an almost adolescent fixation on personal freedom.   It worships the new, and change. “Anything, any time, anywhere.”  Plato calls it “an agreeable anarchic form of society…” (8.558c), and points out how the “democrat” will have trouble sticking with any one thing, having an almost permanent state of Attention Deficit Disorder.    Its motto: “All for all.”  Its key goal: Pleasure.

On the individual level, all ideas and influences are taken to be equal, resulting in the lack of a need for discrimination and self-discipline, and the permanence of distractions.  Given its emphasis on equality, one tends to collect “adjectives,” as I’ve described elsewhere, to distinguish oneself from others, forgetting about the Noun.  It is a state not unlike that of Penelope and the suitors, in which the part of us that wishes to be constant is itself under constant attack by the multitude of changing thoughts and desires. They “devour our substance,” that is, our consciousness, even the ones like Amphinomos who just want to be our friend and “have it both ways.”  Plato himself invokes the Odyssey to show the long-term effects of this way of life by saying “Back he goes to live among the Lotus-eaters.” (8.560d)

Then, as a reaction to the total freedom of the democracy, the next state to arise is that of the Tyranny (τυραννίς). This is of course the state that has been praised by Thrasymachus and others near the beginning of the Republic, and indeed who among us has not had the fantasy of absolute power, of being undisputed top dog, of the centralization of power in one individual, as long as it’s me. Or if not me, then someone I think will correct the excesses of democracy, e.g. circumscribing “those people” who think they are equal to me.  At the level of the individual, however, this amounts to the creation of a “master passion.” “His passion tyrannizes over him, a despot without restraint or law, and drives him (as a tyrant drives a state) into any venture that will profit itself and its gang, a gang collected partly from the evil company he keeps and partly from impulses within himself which these same evil practices have freed from restraint.” (8:575a)  The would-be tyrant is adept at uncovering and enhancing hidden grievances, which the ego is happy to let define it.  The tyrant’s motto is: All v. all. Key Goal: Fear.

At the internal level, this “gang” can be seen as the whole range of negative feelings which have been growing in strength all along, especially in the “democrat” who sees all feelings as equal: anger, envy, superiority, anxiety, aggression, alienation, vengeance, distrust, and perhaps most of all, fear. As Plato says,  “Both state and individual, again, must be haunted by fear.” (8:578a)  It is this fear that allows us to be manipulated by our ego-tyrant, to become obsessed with one idea or goal.  It is the desire to put an end to the relatively benign chaos of the democratic state, and it goes too far in the other direction of the “master passion.”

Plato does not say it, but given the relatively bad track record of tyrants, presumably the tyrant will fall and the process will start over.  Despite the earlier endorsements by Thrasymachus, Plato ultimately judges the tyrant to be the most unhappy of rulers, since he cannot escape the fear he has created and lives in a state of paranoia.  But it is important to remember that the potential for all these states exists in us at each moment, and which we choose will determine our own happiness.  Plato of course comes down on the side of the philosopher.

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¹Plato introduces this “degeneration” in a very mocking way, so it’s hard to know just how serious he is about the whole thing.  But great truths can be delivered humorously, so let’s go with it.  It’s also important to point out that they are not all totally evil; just imperfect.

²Plato, The Republic, translated by Desmond Lee, Penguin Classics, 1987