Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Republic: an overview

The Republic is Plato’s most well-known dialogue, contains his most memorable metaphors and is his most articulate attempt at describing what “justice” is. Reading this was a long, slow journey (with my note taking), even though I had read it a few years ago. Much of this dialogue concerns Socrates conversing with others trying to understand what a just person is by comparing the individual to a city-state. “A city is the soul writ large”, Socrates says as he makes an analogy between different individuals within a city to qualities that exist within a person.

Socrates says there are basically three elements to a person or a city. At the lowest level are the great masses of people, the “producers” of goods and services, which in an individual would be the “appetites”. These give us desires and drive us to do things. They must be controlled by the “auxiliaries” or soldiers, who in an individual would be represented as courage or spirit. These auxiliaries, who also protect us from outside forces, must in turn be ruled over by “reason” in the individual, or in a city-state this would be the “guardians” or “philosopher-kings”.

Every class has its own desires: the mass of people (appetites) lust after all things and pleasure ,but especially desire money; the auxiliaries (courage) want honor and pride and can lead us to anger; the philosopher-kings (reason) strive for knowledge and wisdom and rule over all. When the balance is upset in a city, much as in an individual, disaster will result.

I think Plato’s tripartite soul sounds very familiar to Sigmund Freud’s Id, Ego and Super-ego. The Id is like Plato’s appetites, the Ego could be considered the auxillaries and the Super-ego is certainly the guardians. I am not a Freud expert, so this is only an observation.

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