Plato’s Republic (3): The Soul
In The Republic, Plato attempts to translate the Sacred Order of transcendent Being into the Social Order of the Polis. In a philosophical soul, the higher reason will rule over the lower instincts by applying what it apprehends of the divine and eternal Forms to behavior; similarly, a philosophical state will support the spiritual development of certain individuals whose mandates, also drawn from the Forms, will guide the behavior of the rest of the community. Lucky us.
He makes these distinctions because Plato recognizes differences in the character of behavior within a community and even within each individual, and attributes these differences to the higher and lower parts of the soul. He actually divides the soul into three parts:
Reason: Philosophical. Rules the other two. Seeks truth.
Spirit/Will: Enforces the mandates of reason. Seeks honor.
Appetite: Instinctual drives. Food, Sex, Rock’n’roll.
Freudians might recognize this as Id (appetite), Ego (will), and Super-ego (Reason). Like Freud, Plato wants to explain why we seem to have mixed feelings so often; torn between our higher and lower instincts, he suggests we are of two souls, or three. There is also a direct correspondence to the divisions of his ideal society: Guardians/Philosopher Kings (Reason); Auxiliaries/Soldiers (Will); and Workers (Appetite).
As the individual (Guardian) develops spiritually, the Reason comes to dominate, and the soul ascends a ladder of perception; Socrates uses the “Divided Line” to further explain the division between the Intelligible (mental) world of Being and the Sensible (physical) world of Becoming. Here’s my attempt at diagramming it:
At the lowest level of perception, we are experiencing the images of things: reflections, shadows, paintings, and such, and are thus only able to form fleeting, superficial opinions (eikasia). Imagine someone in their living room yelling at the television set, and it’s about as close as we get to Plato’s myth of the cave! This explains his problems with mimetic art as misleading, although I think we can say that there is art that moves our thoughts upward, and art that directs our thoughts downward; admittedly, people don’t like to hear this about their favorite artworks!
As our thoughts become more elevated, we form beliefs about sensible things. This is the everyday sort of perception of life in the physical world. But it can also teach us about higher things. Perception of beauty, however misleading it can be, is also a step on the ladder to higher thoughts. Note how erotic attraction serves a pedagogical purpose in several of Plato’s dialogues.
The Intelligible world is purely mental/spiritual. Socrates divides this world into discursive thoughts about hypotheses, particularly mathematical, which are still thoughts about things, if mental things; and then there is the highest perception, noesis. This is the direct and intuitive apprehension of the most pure and abstract Ideas, such as Beauty, Order, and the very highest, the Form of the Good, which seems akin to the Godhead.
Because Socrates sees the highest realm of divine noesis as the most true, his society facilitates the spiritual development of certain individuals, the Guardians, who will have the clearest apprehension of these truths, and then rule by mandating behavior in line with these true Forms. Someone who apprehends the pure form of Justice and of the Good, for instance, can translate that into laws and institutions that shape good and just behavior in everyone. Wise rule is a bit like divination.
The state Socrates describes is not totalitarian. Nevertheless, what strikes us as undemocratic about it is the elitism: certain individuals will be raised, from birth, to be more spiritually enlightened than the rest of us. A potter can’t ever become a philosopher. We should note, though, that the career path to becoming a philosophically enlightened ruler is open to women, which it is certainly not in most early spiritual communities. Also, I think the elitism derives from what I’d call Plato’s pathos of distance– he feels the gulf between higher and lower thought in a way that seems almost painful. Like most writers who feel this pathos of distance, his ideal society is a spiritual aristocracy; not a democracy.
So, I understand why this vision has appealed to intellectuals over the years. But, personally, it’s hard not to imagine that I’d be born into the latrine-cleaning group, while others got to sit around apprehending beauty!
1. Whew! I need a break from Socrates and philosophy. So, I’m going to read some Euripides next. Maybe the Bacchae would be a nice change of pace.