Plato: Human Nature and Political Institutions
Human nature has been contemplated, both implicitly and explicitly, by many philosophers. Plato begins his study by discussing the nature of justice, which then gets applied to human nature. His discussion of human nature can be considered the foundation of his discussion of justice in the soul. Since we only learn about human nature through the study of politics, it can be argued that both topics are of importance to Plato, albeit in differing degrees. If he did not care about politics, it does not seem likely that he would have created such an elaborate scheme to create the kallipolis—the perfect city.
However, Plato only uses the construction of the kallipolis to illustrate the perfection of human nature (representative of the soul), because hypothetically speaking, it is easier to see and understand things on a larger scale (human soul vs the soul of the city). The obscurities are vast when discussing topics such as these; however this essay will attempt to demonstrate the fact that Plato’s views on politics and human nature have a re-affirming relationship. At the beginning of the Republic, Socrates discusses justice in the general.
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His inoculators, Glaucon and Thrasymachos, both have differing views on justice which are discussed in Book 1 and Book 2 of the Republic. For Thrasymachos, justice is to the advantage of the stronger and the disadvantage of the weaker. Essentially, this argument is parallel to might is right; survival of the fittest etc. This is why the stronger people rule and make laws in the polis; however, Socrates points out a flaw in that argument. Sometimes, rulers mistake their own advantage. An example of this is in obedience to the law.
It is not always in the best interest of an individual to obey the law because law is created to protect the interest of the majority but does not necessarily accommodate the needs of individuals. Since this is clear it becomes apparent that a stronger man will not be mistaken about what is advantageous for him; otherwise, he would not be ruler. Socrates then concludes that justice is not to the advantage of the stronger and the disadvantage to the weaker. Moreover, Socrates gets Thrasymachos to agree that through craft, the expert works to the advantage to others (not to himself). This is evident on page 141 where Socrates says: … he arts rule and have power over that of which they are arts. He agreed to this, but very reluctantly. Then no science seeks or commands the advantage of the stronger, but the advantage of the weaker, that which is subject to it… Then it is not true that no doctor, so far as he is a doctor, seeks or commands the advantage of the doctor but only the advantage of the patient? (Plato 1999, 141) This quote shows the ways in which the expert works for the advantage of others and not themselves. Doctors do not practice medicine to benefit (solely) themselves; they practice it to help weaker people.
The good in practicing medicine is the act of practicing medicine (helping those who are sick). This benefits the other person, not the person who practices medicine. Similarly, the good in ruling is not actually the act of ruling because the good person will not want to rule for themselves. They will end up ruling to prevent an inferior person from ruling. This does not benefit the ruler; in fact, it is argued that ruling is a burden. Those ruled are the people who benefit from ruling a nation. So by the end of his discussion, Thrasymachos’ argument has been thoroughly debunked.
A clear implication here is that the human nature that Thrasymachos proposes is not to be considered just simply because it potentially creates more vices in the world which would be unjust. While Thrasymachos attributes justice to strength, Glaucon takes a perspective that illustrates human nature as being a pragmatic compromise. For him, people are willing to commit unjust acts as long as it serves them without getting caught for their unjust acts. People are unwilling to do wrong against themselves but more than willing to infringe upon someone else.
In this way, justice is seen as a social (human) convention that is necessitated by the social contract that we learn about in the Apology. According to the social contract theory, humans, by living in a given society enter into an agreement (be it to God, or the ruler) that dictates appropriate actions and other things sanctioned by that city. Socrates argues in the Apology and Crito that by continuing to live in a society and benefiting from the laws of the city, an individual has an obligation to follow the dictates of the ruler.
Glaucon believes that an individual will attempt to break the contract if it will benefit him and if there is a guarantee that he will not be reprimanded for his actions. In fact, even a just man would break the law if he could. It is for this reason that Glaucon concludes that it is better to live an unjust life than a just life. To demonstrate this point, the Ring of Gyges is introduced. In this myth, a shepherd enters into a chasm that was created after a storm and sees remarkable things. Upon his exit, this shepherd takes with him a golden ring which he eventually learns has to capability to turn him invisible.
This being the case, the shepherd becomes a messenger to the king and subsequently seduces the queen with the intention of usurping the King. Glaucon says: if there could be two such rings, and if the just man put on one and the unjust the other, no one, as it would be thought, would be so adamantine as to abide in the practise of justice, no one could endure to hold back from another’s goods and not to touch when it was in his power to take what he would even out of the market of fear, and to go into any house and lie with anyone he wished… o one is just willingly but only under compulsion, believing that it is not a good to him personally (Plato 1999, 157-158). This passage highlights the fact that Glaucon believes that those who observe the law do so unwillingly. To address Glaucon’s position and Ademantis’ concerns regarding public consequences, Socrates begins to build an imaginary city using words. The city is introduced because it is suggested that the nature of justice is more easily discovered in the macrocosm, the state, rather than the microcosm, the individual (Plato 1999, 118-119).
The origin of this city, known as the Healthy City, is based on human insufficiency. It is here that Plato introduces his specialization theory in which people are born with a particular aptitude for a particular craft and thus citizens should practice a distinct division of labour depending on their strengths. Perfecting these strengths is the path to happiness. Social production is the first role the city needs to fulfill. Because of this, a new class of people emerge—the producers. In this city, Socrates argues that justice lies in the natural harmony of its parts.
This overly simplistic city is rejected by both Socrates and Glaucon but for different reasons. Since this city only has room for necessities, philosophy cannot exist and therefore, Socrates rejects the Healthy city. Glaucon discards the Healthy city because it is too primitive. He aims to create a new city, the Feverish city, to accommodate the luxuries that are excluded in the healthy city. This new city necessitates a new class, the guardians, because greed is a resulting vice to be warded off. Guardians are the protectors of the city.
They must have spirited tempers such that they are “gentle towards their own people, but ferocious towards their enemies; otherwise they will not wait for others to destroy them, they will do it themselves (Plato 1999, 172). “ The guardian must also possess the love of learning and wisdom that is unique to their class. Bravery and a natural regard of truth are two essential qualities that guardians require. However, not everyone possesses the necessary requirements of the guardian class because according to Plato’s specialization theory, everyone has a natural disposition for a particular class.
This natural disposition is considered the reason that the kallipolis functions because everyone has their specified role and they have no further desire to move out of their prescribed function in society. Happiness to the city entails perfecting their tasks. Plato’s theory on specialization and the natural disposition to belong to a particular class is justified by the myth of the Metals. This myth is necessary to Socrates because it offers justification of the selection of guardians. It also offers a level of cohesion in the city because the commoners end up believing that they all have a familial bond.
The guardian class is further divided into two groups—auxiliaries and the guardians. The auxiliaries are essentially a lower class of guardians who assist the actual guardians in protecting the city. The actual guardians rule the city and are in a constant quest for knowledge. It is clear here that Plato intends for the rulers to be philosophers and kings so they are thusly called philosopher-kings. The Philosopher-kings are few in quantity because they possess the highest form of goodness—wisdom. It is clear that what distinguishes the guardian class for the auxiliaries is the love of true philosophy (wisdom).
In addition, to safe-guard the city, auxiliaries must appease the crowd. “A philosopher will never be a popular hero, because he has no time to waste on mere party politics, and it is success in this lower sphere [auxiliaries] alone which earn the plaudits of the crowd (Plato 1999, 121). ” Understanding the guardians and the role they play in the state is essential to understanding justice and human nature in the state because it is here that Plato begins his breakdown of the components of a just state. Three components of a guardian are wisdom, courage and temperance.
Wisdom entails the thinking element of warrior such that the ruler may lead the state well and with rationality. Courage, also known as spirit, can be found in the quality of the soldiers (auxiliaries) because they are the preservers of the constitution from twin dangers of war and sedition (Plato 1999, 121). The auxiliary must not fear death, for himself or for his comrades. Temperance is common to all three classes and is the harmonious relationship between them. Plato dictates that justice “which is the virtue which enables all others to flourish… entails that] each class does the work for which it is fitted without presuming upon the preserves of others (Plato 1999, 121). “ Justice in the city is then considered to be when each individual perfects the role that is ascribed to them. Similarly, there is a tripartite division in the individual that is analogues to the tripartite division in the city. Plato’s theory of the division of the soul posits that the soul has three elements: Reasoning, Appetitive, and Spirited. The reasoning element of the soul fully understands the theory of the forms and the world of the mind (according to the divided line).
The appetitive, or desiring, aspect of the soul deals with all desires and is primarily focussed on the world of sight (according to the divided line). The spirited component of the soul is active (protective/ferocious) and loyal. These elements of the soul are reflected in the elements of the city. The guardians represent the reasoning; the auxiliaries represent the spirited; the producers represent the appetitive. Therefore, justice in the individual, and consequently, in the city, requires for reason to rule over the spirited which subsequently dictates over the appetitive.
Likewise, rulers (guardians) rule over auxiliaries who maintain the producers. This, although simplified, marks the cornerstone of the formation of political institutions and Plato’s conception of politics. Since Plato views the guardians as the only people who are fit enough to rule the state based on the fact that the guardians are the only people who possess the capability of ruling the state justly, it makes it clear that human nature plays a instrumental role in his theories of political institutions. The perfect city and the kingly or aristocratic character exemplifies the just institution that the kallipolis aims to achieve.
Plato discusses four other types of political institutions that are possibilities; however, they lack a quality that is related to human nature (types of individuals). Firstly, the aristocratic constitution (as set out in the kallipolis) degenerates into the timocratic constitution when the auxiliary class prevails over the guardian class because the auxiliary class become so power-hungry and honour loving that they are unable to hold themselves in check (Plato 1999, 123). This is the role for the guardians; with reason, they rationalize the extent to which the spirited class is required.
The timocratic man’s soul is such that the spirited part is more prominent then the reasoning part resulting in an ambitious nature. This is problematic because of the fact that ambition necessitates greed on some level and in Plato’s kallipolis, no individual should aspire to leave the position that is ascribed for them based on the fact that it is best suited for their abilities. This constitution then degenerates into a money grubbing constitution governed by an oligarchy. The oligarchic society is divided by rich rulers and poor subjects.
It is clear that the desiring (appetitive) part of the soul rules over the rest of the man (and state) such that the ruler becomes pleasure loving and ungenerous. The oligarchic state deteriorates into democracy because the oppression suffered by the producers leads to a revolt against the oligarch. This means that the producing class ends up ruling the state. Recall that Plato believed that the producers did not have the rationality to rule a state. The majority are thus permitted to do as they wish. This is problematic because, free from restraint, the democratic man succumbs to unnecessary desires.
Democracy quickly deteriorates to tyranny because men tire of the lawlessness of liberty. This requires a strong leader to, once more, take charge and restore order. The tyrannic man is ruled by the worst class of desires—lust. He is driven by an excess of passion that he can never sate. The tyrannic man, like the tyrannic state is a slave to fear and every other misery. In conclusion, although this essay may seem somewhat disjointed, I believe that the dialogues in the Republic illuminates offer a gradual understanding of human nature by studying politics. It seemed like it has a crescendo ffect in which a perfect city, and thus a perfect political institution, is created so that the reader has the opportunity to understand what is necessary for this kallipolis to run successfully. Upon completing the make-up of the city, Plato introduces the human aspect of the successful city as a means of highlighting the fact that for the perfect city to exist, the soul of an individual needs to be aligned in a way that corresponds to the soul of the city. Essentially the soul of the individual and the soul of the city is such that reason rules over the spirited which in turn rules over the appetitive.
The fact that we learn about human nature by studying politics is not indicative of a theory in which human nature does not have an influence in the good political institution. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Recall, Plato only begins discussing political institutions because it is simpler to identify justice on a larger scale. The reason he opts to do this is to offer Thrasymachos, Glaucon and Adeimantos a feasible justification regarding justice. Furthermore, since justice in the soul and justice in the city are so closely related, it is impossible to say that one does not have an influence on the other.
The soul of the city is respectively the soul of the individual. Since the composition of the soul (and the composition of the state) requires reason and a love of wisdom to rule over all other things, I think it can be concluded that Plato hoped his tripartite divisions allowed for truth and justice to prevail in politics because the just individual only dealt with ideals in the realm of the mind, not sensory feelings that rulers often get caught up in. This potentially adds to the inherent criticism Plato holds regarding his current state with respect to Socrates’ trial.
Had the ruler, or the jurors, been just individuals (i. e. their soul arranged such that reasoning ruled over the rest of the soul) their ability to rationalize the case at hand would have superseded their apparent dislike for philosophers and Socrates. This would have reduced the human biases that were faced in the trial. Clearly, if the ruler does not possess the ability to rationalize, he should not be permitted to rule. Again it is evident that the search for truth/wisdom is the utmost priority and it is this that Plato hopes to achieve through politics.