Republic By Plato Summary and Analysis Book IV: Section III

Summary

At this point in the conversation, Socrates seeks agreement that we have attempted to discern the virtues in the state (an argument from the whole) so that we may find the virtues in the individual (argument from the whole to its parts). Socrates says that it would be illogical to presume that the virtues, which stem from some indeterminate aspect of each individual man, are to be inferred from the state. So we were correct originally to seek the virtues in man.

Socrates argues thus: It is a given proposition (a self-evident truth) that a given physical body may not be moving and at rest at the same time. But in the case of a child's toy (a top), we observe that parts of the top are in fact moving and parts are in physical fact fixed, or at rest. This is also illustrated in the case of a man whose feet are fixed but whose hands may be waving (in movement). These properties may appear to be opposites, but they are in fact occurring at one and the same time, not unlike the actions of the ruler who rules and who is a wage-earner at the same time.

We may adduce evidence, Socrates says, from the top, the man fixed and waving his arms, and the deductions we may infer from the state, in that the same properties hold for the human mind, or the soul. At times we may desire a given thing and wish to repulse it, at one and the same time. In such a case, our mental state is said to be ambivalent (attracted and repulsed, at one and the same time). In such a case, our intellectual stance is said to be ambiguous (we are uncertain, troubled). From this, we may deduce that there exist two parts of the human mind: reason and desire, or reason and the passions. In order to determine a third part, or element, which corresponds with the third class in the ideal state, may we not sub-divide one of the two we have determined?

At times we may perceive in ourselves a state of mind in which we do desire a given thing, but we are indignant with ourselves for having desired it: Our mental state may be that of self-disgust; we feel self-anger. These various feelings are all human emotions, and they exemplify a third element of the mind, or soul.

Thus the essential aspects of the mind follow: (1) reason; (2) emotions or the "spirited" element; and (3) desire, or passions. These aspects of the mind correspond to the three classes of the state: reason, to the rulers; emotions or things spirited, to the auxiliaries; and desire or passions (concupiscence is the term Plato adopts) to the craftsmen.

At this point, we discern the four virtues in the individual. In exercising his reason, in which he has been schooled, a man comes to wisdom. In exercising his emotions or spirit, in which he has been schooled, a man displays courage. In permitting his reason to rule over his emotions and desires, a man displays his temperance. What then of justice?

Justice may be said to ensue from temperance, a kind of mental harmony, a state in which all elements of his mind are in concord with one another. As in the state, a tacit (self-evident) agreement must be reached: Reason must be permitted to rule over the emotions and spirited element and permitted to rule over the desires/passions. Thus is justice secured.

Analysis

We must remember that the attempts to ascertain the virtues and to achieve justice have an end in view: the achievement of the good and happy life. In attempting to analyze what we may call the "parts" of or the "particulars" of the mind (or what he calls also the soul), Plato is here interested in pursuing something that he finds to be inherent, or intrinsic, or "born to" every human being. In his use of the terms "mind" and "soul," Plato shows himself to be in the same state of philosophical flux that we noticed earlier in his use of "the gods" and "God." At this stage of his thinking, Plato is unsure of himself; he is, after all, a human being dealing with very intricate philosophical problems.

In his arguing from generalities to particulars, or from particulars to generalities, Plato is seeking to demonstrate philosophical premises and proofs that follow logically. In fact, Plato is attempting to explain how he is presenting proofs in his explanation of his use of "relative" terms and "qualifications" of terms just before he discusses the myth of Leontius at the place of execution.

The point is that, hitherto in the conversation, Plato has been presenting causal arguments, arguments that are termed a posteriori arguments from proofs presented (literally, arguments which follow; coming behind). In presenting his argument for the inherent verity of the existence of the soul, or the mind, he seems to want to present arguments a priori (fixed and immutable truths which exist before we examine them). In short, Plato is attempting an argument for a prime mover, sometimes called philosophically a primum mobile (a first cause); this is known slangily as a "God argument." Could it be, he suggests, that God creates the soul, or mind, in individual persons? Could it be that the end of good and just men and women is to educate and nurture the soul in other men and women? This presentation of this aspect of the metaphysical in the Republic has engaged the attention of scholars since Plato first presented it.

We also need to consider the significance of mythology in Plato's argument. Plato consistently employs various myths in his adducing evidence, by analogy, in order to argue similarities to the point of his argument. Analogies may be used to clarify the argument; they may not be used as proofs. (They are not examples.) In Leontius' desire to see the dead bodies and his self-aversion at his desire to see them, we perceive his ambivalent feelings. The point here is that Plato so very frequently alludes to myths commonly known to his time in order to clarify his arguments that the Republic would be a different book, minus its use of myths. We know that Plato is familiarly conversant with the myths that inform his culture.

In ancient Greek myth, Apollo is held to be the god of reason; Dionysus is said to be the god of passions, of desires. In the myth, a well-ordered, or balanced, person is said to be the person who can achieve a balance between the dictates of reason and those of the passions/desires. The Greeks conceived of this by adopting the figure of a balance beam, or scales. Mythically, they agreed that the human being experienced certain necessities, certain appetites for exotic foods, or for intoxicants, or for sexual pleasures, which might be said to be placed on one side of the beam. But at the same time, the story goes, reason must occupy the other side of the beam in order to achieve what they called The Golden Mean, or a middle distance, an equilibrium. This, they thought, resulted in the well-ordered soul and the good life. If there were any question of dominance, things Apollonian (reason) must be permitted to prevail. Reason might admit the necessities of desire and passion; it might recognize also the existence of the emotions. But in the well-ordered life of the soul, reason must prevail over the passions, and the emotions must aid reason in its achieving the state of justice in the individual, thus achieving the good and happy life.

Glossary

Scythians warlike and nomadic Indo-Iranian people who lived in ancient Scythia, a region of southeastern Europe on the north coast of the Black Sea.

Phoenicians people from Phoenicia, an ancient region of city-states at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, in the region of present-day Syria and Lebanon.

concupiscent having strong desire or appetite, especially sexual desire.

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