Why Bother Being Good if you Could Get Away with Being Bad? (Part 2)
In a previous blog entry, we examined Plato’s famous “Myth of the Ring of Gyges” story. In that story where, as usual, Socrates is Plato’s primary dialogical character, we faced the ultimate moral challenge: what would we do if we were put into a situation (the invisibility ring) in which all of the rewards for justice were replaced by all of its penalties in this life and in the next, in which the reputation for justice were replaced by its opposite in the view of both gods and men? Is justice—is a just soul—still worth it? And wouldn’t it be more profitable to choose injustice if we attached to it all of the rewards usually associated with justice, all of the praise of gods and men, in this life and in the next? And if so, then perhaps the real reason we choose justice is that it happens to work. In reality, however, we value power over goodness, might over right, for justice is merely a means to an end, but, because we happen to be too weak to secure our own futures through power, we pretend to love justice. (As a brief aside, you’ll notice, of course, that I’m using the pagan “gods” rather than our own “God” to reference the possibilities of divine approval of evil. I raised that possibility in Part 1 with the Abraham and Isaac story, but as you probably suspect, God cannot possibly be evil. Why that is I’ll take up in another blog entry in the future.)
As we said in Part 1, the invisibility ring provides a potent challenge to the value of justice, and I wanted you to take some time to reflect on that before proceeding to the solution Plato offers through his old teacher and dialogical character, Socrates. Because of the rich insight offered by Socrates on so many fronts, I’m going to follow the course of his arguments through part of the Republic pretty closely. So, dig in mentally, because this is going to take some time, but the results are pure gold.
Socrates reels from the force of this argument and offers a witty reply to his interlocutors, Glaucon and Adeimantus: “if I did not already know you, I’d not trust you because of your argument. But I do know and trust you, so I don’t know what to make of it because you don’t seem to be persuaded by your own argument!” And they are not persuaded, not only not in their conduct but also not in their speech, for they are bringing this argument to Socrates. Why? Because they suspect something is wrong with it but cannot quite tell what it is. But as in all of our reasoning, they do their best to represent as fully and honestly as possible the argument they hope will be refuted. There is a great lesson in this for us: face counterarguments honestly, and, when you suspect something is fishy, don’t suppress your doubts, but instead find a wise man to help resolve the objection. Doubt is just as valuable as guilt. Guilt should be faced so that we can pursue goodness. Similarly, doubts must be followed so that we can pursue the truth.
But back to our argument. Socrates thinks for a while and notices an interesting image that he thinks will help us. He asks if justice in the soul is like justice in a city. And Glaucon and Adeimantus reply that it is. “Then,” he asserts, “if we can find justice in a larger place like in a city, then like large letters it will be easier to read.” If you were trying to read something with very small letters, and then you discovered the same saying was written on a billboard to your right, you’d think it a godsend to be able to read the big letters first. Socrates says that justice is like this, hard to identify in the soul but much easier to understand in a city.
And so, he begins to think about the just city, and that is the name of the book that Plato writes: Republic. The Republic is this just city that Socrates now begins to construct in thought. He, Glaucon, and Adeimantus become thought-city builders. They realize right away that a good city must be built from natural principles and so they identify two. First, man is not self-sufficient. We need one another, for only by working with others can we achieve excellence in any particular art or productive activity. Human beings are equipped very differently from other creatures. Notice that cows need little, and so they employ minimal equipment: hooves, slow running legs, munching teeth, etc. Lions on the other hand need much, and so they employ maximal equipment: huge teeth, powerful jaws, remarkable hearing, strong legs, etc. Humans on the other hand have the greatest need (after all, what animal was so moved by curiosity that it determined to get to the moon someday?) but the most minimal resources (hardly any fur, wimpy teeth, tender feet, slow running legs, etc.). So, human beings overcome their deficient resources by pooling them and using their minds. Hence, we form cities. So, what are our needs? The most basic three are these: nourishment, clothing, and shelter (the latter two being distinct because we are not turtles). Hence, we’ll need at least three kinds of people in our city: farmers, weavers, and house-builders.
Excellence is incompatible with equality.
The second principle governing our city building is that we must divide our labor in the city according to some rule. Socrates and Glaucon realize that having each man do one job rather than each man doing many jobs is best for three reasons. First, expertise arises from commitment to one job. Second, quality of produce increases with division of labor. And thirdly, people are different, having different natures. Some people have a green thumb; some don’t. Some people have a knack for seafaring, while others are landlubbers. We should exult in our natural differences in order to benefit from those differences. Notice that if we were all the same, all equal, we’d never manage to achieve civil excellence. Excellence is incompatible with equality. Civilization depends upon accepting differences, accepting that some people are just better than we are at many things. Envy seeks to destroy those better people, to bring them down to my level so that I feel better about myself. But why should I seek to feel better about myself by destroying my neighbor and undermining my civilization? Shouldn’t I rather be thankful for all excellence wherever it may be found, rather than demanding that it all be housed in my small self?
So, with these two principles in tow, Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus begin the process of adding to the three groups in the city. Farmers and weavers and house-builders need tools, but who will provide them? Given our principle of one man-one job, it follows that we’ll need smiths. Similarly, our house-builder and weaver need wood and fabric, so we’ll need lumberjacks and cotton-growers. And as the additional persons are added to the city, we’ll require more farmers to feed them. Then we can ask the question again: what do our lumberjacks, cotton-growers, and smiths need? Well, imagine a smith operating without metal? And where will he get the metal? Mines! So, we need miners. See how this works? Imagine a series of expanding circles with each outer circle fulfilling the needs of the inner circle.
At some point one realizes that no city is perfectly positioned on excellent hills for mining, superb soil for farming, and rich forests for harvesting lumber. And so, the need for trade arises, requiring another expanded circle and all the accouterments of trade including caravans or ships. Once all of these elements are provided, Socrates looks on with satisfaction at the city:
. . . let’s consider what manner of lives men so provided for will lead. Won’t they make bread, wine, clothing, and shoes? And, when they have built houses, they will work in the summer, for the most part naked and without shoes, and in the winter adequately clothed and shod. For food they will prepare barley meal and wheat flour; they will cook it and knead it. Setting out noble loaves of barley and wheat on some reeds or clean leaves, they will stretch out on rushes strewn with yew and myrtle and feast themselves and their children. Afterwards they will drink wine and, crowned with wreathes, sing of the gods (372b).
Are you impressed? Glaucon and Adeimantus are horrified. They reply that this is a city fit for pigs, not men. Where are the couches? Who wants to sit on reeds? Barley and wheat loaves for dinner? Where’s the beef? Socrates finally figures out what they want. “You want not only a city, but a luxurious city!” he asserts. Now, something interesting happens here in the argument. Socrates says that a luxurious city is actually feverish, a bit sick, not the ideal or best city. And this is very important for understanding what Plato is up to in the Republic. Contrary to what you usually hear in college or in philosophy lectures, since the republic of the Republic is the feverish city, it follows that it is not being proposed as a political blueprint that we should enact. Rather, we are considering its building solely in thought and only for the purpose of drawing an analogy between it and the soul in order to find justice and solve the challenge of the myth of the ring! Hence, Plato’s Republic is not a political treatise but an ethical book; it’s all about why without moral goodness, we cannot ever be happy people. So, keep that in mind as we proceed through the city-building section.
Let’s now go back to the argument and rejoin Socrates who was just commenting that since we all would demand such a luxurious city, it is still the case that even in such a city justice can be found. And so, he adds all of the things that we would want in a fully cultured city: amphitheaters, playwrights, nightclubs, museums, libraries, etc. With the production of a luxurious city, we also create a target: namely ourselves. Other cities and armies might decide to launch an attack on us, so Socrates recommends the construction of a different class, the guardians, whose one job it will be to think of protecting the city with maximal public mindedness.
Unfortunately, this new requirement creates a problem for us: it’s very difficult to construct a person who is aggressive toward enemies but gentle toward friends (which is why the bars along the harbor are so raucous when the navy arrives). So, Socrates recommends a special education system for these guardians. Since they must be well-rounded physically in order to be effective in battle, he urges the study of gymnastic, something that will develop them both in the physical and spirited areas. Athletes are trained to function as members of a team, as well as to endure mental stress, both important military assets. Similarly, Socrates urges that they study music. Why? Because just as military athletics brings out ordered viciousness and martial skill, so music enhances the ordered respect and gentleness necessary to work with civilians. Music also orders the body, for all militaries march with a cadence that likewise inspires and orders the soul. So, both arts—gymnastic and music—have both physical and mental dimensions.
In addition to the study of gymnastic and music, Socrates explains that warriors must possess the ability to distinguish appearance from reality, the enemy’s subterfuge from his real position and deployment. And there is no better discipline to study for distinguishing appearance and reality than philosophy. So, all guardians will dedicate themselves to studying philosophy.
Finally, Socrates adds a special law: guardians must be public, rather than private minded. And so, they are not allowed to possess private property but instead should have all things in common. Notice that some version of this rule is true of all modern militaries: all the troops wear the same uniforms, eat the same food, have the same haircut, carry the same equipment, etc.
In our city, we now have producers—those that obey the laws—and defenders—our guardians that enforce the laws. But we lack lawgivers, so Socrates adds a final class to our city: the rulers. He asks Glaucon and Adeimantus from which class the rulers should be drawn. They reply that it should be from the guardian class, since seasoned guardians will have spent their entire lives serving the public good, spilling their blood for the people, thinking of the regime in terms of its whole good. And they will have proven themselves to be experts at logistics and order, as all generals must do to succeed. In the United States a few of our presidents have been generals and a large number of them have been veterans. There is something especially valuable about a man who has risked his life for his country.
Because our rulers will be aged guardians, only the best of the best, Socrates calls this city an aristocracy. Aristé means excellence, so an aristocracy is the rule by the excellent or the wise. Forget all of your notions of the French revolutionaries calling for the heads of the “aristocrats.” That’s not at all what Socrates has in mind. These rulers of ours will not be rich at all. Moreover, they will be philosophers—seeking and loving wisdom more than anything else—but not philosophers in the sense that you know, namely ivory-towered fools rejecting common-sense! Rather, they’ll have lived genuine lives serving others, working and spilling their blood for the common good. They will be philosophers in the deepest and truest sense of what a philosopher is, namely, a lover of wisdom. Thus, Socrates calls the rulers “philosopher-kings.”
With the city established, Socrates begins to search for justice. Since we know it is almost the best city that we could build, constructed according to natural principles, it follows that it will possess the highest virtues—justice, courage, wisdom, and moderation. And so, Socrates says that we can find wisdom, courage, and moderation first, and in whatever remains we will discover justice, our quarry in this enquiry.
So, where is wisdom in the city and what is it? Glaucon and Adeimantus realize that it must be found in the ruling class, for they must possess the most general knowledge in order to think about the good of the city as a whole. Hiring a farmer to be a ruler would make little sense, since he’d think in terms of the goods of farming, which is too narrow a focus. Similarly, hiring a personal injury lawyer to a be a ruler would make little sense, because he would think in terms of exploiting the laws in order to win lawsuits, which is again, far too narrow a focus. So, a city is said to be wise thanks to its being possessed of good counsel in its rulers, and that good counsel for the city as a whole is wisdom.
Courage is a preservative against fear, because when a soldier is ordered to do something dangerous, he must do it over against his fear. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather its control.
Next Glaucon and Adeimantus seek the location and definition of courage. A city is said to be courageous thanks to which part? They quickly determine that it is due to the courage of the guardians that a city is brave. And thus, courage belongs to the guardian class. Its definition? Courage is a preservative, like the extra element in a dye that keeps the color in the cloth through repeated washings. It is a preservative against two things: fear and illicit pleasure. First, courage is a preservative against fear, because when a soldier is ordered to do something dangerous, he must do it over against his fear. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather its control. Second, courage is a preservative against illicit pleasure, for just as one might be motivated to do something wrong out of the threat of pain, so one might be motivated to do it out of the promise of reward. Our soldiers must be immune to bribes too. And so, one exhibits courage when he holds to what is right amidst the offer of pleasure just as much against the threat of pain.
Finally, Socrates explains that courage is control of fear with respect to what is true, lawful, and noble opinion. One who gets up on the mid-day talk show and admits things unfit for mortal ears is not courageous but brazen. Courage requires action toward what is good. Consider another current example: did the men who flew the plans into the World Trade Towers exhibit courage? Many Americans were confused about this in the days following the attacks, for it seemed like the terrorists overcame their fears to commit those massacres. But as we’ve seen with Socrates, control of fear for something evil is not courage at all, but its illusion. Hence, those terrorists were not courageous. The courageous ones were the firemen and policemen and others trying desperately to save people as those towers fell. A strange culture we have that can no longer tell the moral difference between courage and brazenness, between bravery and shamelessness.
After wisdom and courage, we come to moderation. Socrates likens this virtue to self-control, but immediately recognizes a paradox in that definition: how can the self control the self? It becomes clear that we must mean that one part of the self controls another part. And since moderation is a virtue, it follows that we possess it when the better part of ourselves controls or rules the lesser part. So, in the city what are the better and worse parts? Well, the worst part is that which thinks solely of its own ends rather than the ends of the whole, since we are defining “city betterness” in terms of the good of the whole city. So, our city is moderate when the productive classes respond to the laws of the rulers. We cannot have a good city in which a particular part of production begins to dominate the laws, since the good of the whole city must be considered. So, the productive classes must possess the virtue of moderation.
Wise ruling is no fun, for what it really means to rule well is to involve oneself in other people’s problems with no gain for oneself, since all powers are given for the sake of those under them.
But Socrates then adds that the guardians too must be moderate, for they also must respond to the laws of the rulers, since they are the enforcers. A city in which the military and police units did not obey the laws would be just as dangerous as one in which the people were in a continuous riot. Coups and riots are both avoided when moderation is present in both the guardians and the producers. But Socrates then really surprises us by saying that even the rulers must possess the virtue of moderation. Why? Because they must actually rule and follow the laws that they enact. Wise ruling is no fun, for what it really means to rule well is to involve oneself in other people’s problems with no gain for oneself, since all powers are given for the sake of those under them. So, our rulers may wish to do something other than truly rule, but moderate rulers will keep to their task.
Finally, Socrates asks where justice is located in the city. Glaucon and Adeimantus join him in the moment of discovery; justice must be a harmony of the whole since we’ve already discussed the virtues of the individual parts. Justice is like music. It is the effect of each part fulfilling its role, keeping to the one man-one job principle, not being a busybody in the affairs of everyone else. Socrates tests this definition of justice by asking what the greatest threat to a city’s harmony is, and it quickly becomes clear that the answer is insurrection. Insurrection is possible only when one class rises up against another one. Thus, class warfare, conflict between the classes, is the greatest threat to the city’s harmony. But if each part of the city minded its own business, stuck to its own tasks, the guardians not trying to become businessmen, the businessmen not trying to rule, and the philosopher-kings avoiding the temptations of wealth and power, then the city will exist in harmony. Thus, justice will prevail. So, it appears that Socrates has in fact identified the positive definition of justice, as that state of harmony that prevents internal friction and political collapse.
Let’s review a bit at this point. We were searching for the meaning of justice in a city, because we are planning to use it to identify the nature of justice in the soul, so that we can answer the challenge of the myth of the ring. We have completed phase one in finding justice in the city. But before we can find justice in the soul (phase three), we must first prove the analogy between the soul and the city (phase two). In other words, we must show that the soul and the city are structurally similar enough to justify our using the one to learn from the other.
So, let’s approach phase two by asking how can you tell that one thing is different from another thing. We’re thinking very abstractly here. Imagine an ice cream cone and try to distinguish it from a basketball. What things would you notice? Perhaps you’d notice the color differences? The basketball is orange, while the ice cream cone is beige with a chocolate top. You might also observe that the ice cream cone is shaped differently than the basketball. Notice that we are differentiating the two things by their properties. Since the same thing cannot be both cone-shaped and circular at the same time, it follows that an ice cream cone cannot be a basketball.
So, if we are to distinguish the parts of the soul (in order to identify its internal structure), we must try to find contradictory properties that will differentiate the parts of the soul. To put it simply, have you ever noticed any conflict in your soul? Put that way, it is easy to see that we experience conflict all of the time, and the most noticeable conflict is that between our desires and our judgment. Desire says to eat three pieces of chocolate cake, while reason draws the judgment that eating that much cake is unwise. Desire says to drink two more shots of whiskey, while reason urges restraint. We experience conflict between our reasoning and desiring parts, don’t we?
Thus, we can establish with Socrates that the soul has at least two parts, a calculating or reasoning part and a desiring or appetitive part. And you might have noticed that these two parts, reason and appetite, correspond to two of our three classes of individuals in the city. The reasoning part sounds very much like the rulers, while the appetitive part sounds very much like the producers. That leaves a third part, the guardian part in our city, but what in the soul is like this? And how could we prove that a third part even exists?
This is the tricky part for Socrates, but to prove that a third part exists, he simply doubles the application of the principle of difference that we used earlier. In other words, he needs to find something in the soul that could oppose both reason and desire. And what is this? Perhaps an illustration will help. Think about that part of your soul that becomes angry. When you are furious, can you think straight? No, anger can overcome and thus oppose reason. But anger can also oppose desire. Imagine an athlete who is rounding the last quarter of the track and needs a final burst of speed. However, his legs ache and his muscles yearn for the race to end. The athlete might well muster a spirited fury, reigning in his muscles and ordering them to go on. This enthusiastic part Socrates calls the “spirited” part, for it can oppose both reason and appetite. When Socrates uses the term “spirit” here, do not confuse this with holiness or a spiritual substance like the soul. He is not using the language religiously, but more in keeping with the way we use it when we speak of team spirit, or Spirit Week at a high school. It’s that enthusiastic support element within the soul. (We will be using the term “spirit” and “spirited part” that way for the entirety of this blog entry).
Thus, Socrates has established that the soul has three parts or functions: a reasoning part, a spirited part, and an appetitive/desiring part. Notice how well these parts of the soul correspond to the classes within the city. The reasoning part of the soul is the least forceful and thus smallest part in the soul, just as the ruling class in the city is the smallest and least forceful in the city. You have probably noticed that your apprehension of what is good is often nothing more than an intellectual realization. You might wish it arrived with some passionate strength, but that brings us to the spirited part of the soul that corresponds to the guardian class in the city, defending the whole from internal discord and external assault. It can be quite forceful, as you can tell when anger arises within you over something bad or when you feel inspired by something good. Finally, the appetitive part of the soul corresponds to the productive class in the city, the largest part of both the soul and the city, for our desires are varied and very powerful. Thus, Socrates has established his analogy: the soul is structurally similar to the city.
Phase two is now complete, allowing us to move on to phase three: finding the virtues, especially justice, in the soul. We noticed that our four key virtues—wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice—were located and defined in relation to certain parts of the city. So, we should expect to find the same to be true of these virtues in the soul.
The wise man understands what is best for human nature—what its purpose, direction, and fulfillment are. He has thought about what he is, what that entails about what his satisfaction in life will really be, and what means enables him to achieve it. There can be no wisdom without an understanding of the good for human beings.
Wisdom in the soul parallels wisdom in the city. To be wise in the city was to be possessed of good counsel concerning what was good for the city as a whole—its purpose, its direction, its fulfillment. The same is true of wisdom in the soul, for the wise man understands what is best for human nature—what its purpose, direction, and fulfillment are. He has thought about what he is, what that entails about what his satisfaction in life will really be, and what means enables him to achieve it. There can be no wisdom without an understanding of the good for human beings. Wisdom should be found in the reasoning part of the soul, for there it can rule, calculating the good, directing the guardians of the soul—the spirited part—and directing the appetites in a way that does not harm the soul. Remember, desires are not bad in themselves, for all that is given is real and therefore possesses some good. Evil is a property of our actions when we pervert the beneficial purpose of things, but the things themselves are good. So, think through the three most obvious appetites: the desire for food, for drink, and for sex. Each of these things is perfectly good in itself, but each must be used properly for the good of the whole person. So, it might satisfy my desire to eat too much, to drink excessively, or to have sex with all the women on my street, but this will not satisfy the fullness of my human nature. Excess in one area of human experience is not good for the whole. Were I a cow, I’d have nothing but appetites to guide me: munching grass all day long, every day. But I am a human being, possessed of far more than mere appetite, as we’ve just seen. When reason is wise, it guides the appetites. When reason lacks wisdom, it is ruled by them, becoming a gofer, a mere calculator to help the appetites figure out the best way to get what they want. The real question is this: what is ruling your soul, reason or appetite?
Courage in the soul parallels courage in the city. We saw that in the city courage was a preservative to follow wise, true, and good counsel over against both threats of harm and the promise of reward. Similarly, a soul possessed of courage follows the wise and good dictates of a well-functioning reasoning capacity, and it directs the appetites to obey. If you lack a developed spirited part, lack courage, then you probably find that your appetites rule you even when you know what the right thing to do is. Why? Because the reasoning capacity is the smallest and quietest force in the soul. You hardly feel it at all; it’d be better to say that you understand what it tells you. But inner force arises from the appetites and the spirited part. And when the guardian elements of the soul ally themselves with reason, then they can reign in the appetites and direct them only toward the good of the whole.
People with anger problems have their guardian elements in charge, when in fact, the spirited part is to enforce the dictates of reason, not dictate to reason. Notice that when anger has you in its grip, you cannot even think straight; it’s pretty clear who owns whom.
On the other hand, when the spirited elements are lacking in courage, then they are either absent as when the appetites run right over them, or they are pure undirected power, as when anger and temper rule the soul. People with anger problems have their guardian elements in charge, when in fact, the spirited part is to enforce the dictates of reason, not dictate to reason. Notice that when anger has you in its grip, you cannot even think straight; it’s pretty clear who owns whom.
Many Americans struggle with this problem, either too weak a spirited part (in which case they are usually lazy and ruled by their desires for pleasures) or too strong a spirited part (in which case they are given over to angry outbursts or seething envy). What would Socrates recommend you do to develop courage? The answer was given to us earlier where we discussed the guardian education. He would urge us to develop gymnastic and music as well as to study philosophy. Why? Because gymnastic and music order the body and the soul together in a way that brings discipline and spiritedness. Notice that athletes always have greater spiritedness than the rest of us. They tend to be far more industrious, far less likely to fall into laziness. Why? Because the art of gymnastic (meaning all of the athletics) fosters great discipline in the soul as well as the body. If you struggle with out-of-control appetites, ask yourself when was the last time you got some physical exercise. The body really does matter here. Of course, some athletes are completely out of control, biting the ears of their fellow boxers, or jumping out of the basketball court and kicking spectators. Why? Because they have developed their spirited part only in ferocity, not also in friendliness, and so Socrates would urge such a person to study the arts of music, poetry, and drama, because these things can mold the soul in a more peaceful direction.
Music is a power, and as with any power, it must be used wisely, with a deep understanding of its effect on us. And remember, that effect may differ with different people. The key is to ensure that you choose the music; don’t just let the music choose you.
Music is a very powerful thing, according to Socrates, because it can bypass reason and direct us. He accordingly urges us to be quite careful in the kind of music we listen to. All of us know that military music makes us want to march, Irish music makes us want to dance or cry, and American rock and roll makes us want to make love. Music moves the passions of the soul. So, if you are trying to develop certain moral disciplines within the soul, use the kind of music that will best motivate those disciplines. If you are struggling with sexual desire, perhaps listening to erotic pop isn’t the smartest thing to do right now. If you are planning a hot date with your wife in a weekend getaway, maybe it’s the best thing for you. Music is a power, and as with any power, it must be used wisely, with a deep understanding of its effect on us. And remember, that effect may differ with different people. The key is to ensure that you choose the music; don’t just let the music choose you.
Socrates says that a man possessing great speeches in the acropolis of his soul, what we religious people figuratively call the heart, will not likely be swayed by a culture which makes every desire equal to every other one. He will retain sound judgment and the ability to discriminate between good and evil.
Finally, Socrates recommends that the person who wishes to develop a courageous spirited part should study philosophy. Gymnastic and music are merely arts that mold or shape the body and soul, but something must be directing the soul properly, and this requires the study of things as they really are. Only in this way can courage be properly directed toward what is really noble and good, rather than what only appears to be good. You can probably see the important link between wisdom and courage. Socrates also recommends that the development of wisdom occurs not merely by studying abstract philosophy (which many people find boring—and for good reason), but living philosophy, i.e., the speeches and actions of great men. He wrote in dialogues, so that we could see philosophy as a living thing. And later in the Republic he says that a man possessing great speeches in the acropolis of his soul, what we religious people figuratively call the heart, will not likely be swayed by a culture which makes every desire equal to every other one. He will retain sound judgment and the ability to discriminate between good and evil. Note that this is just what the famously wise Solomon asked of God. So, it is a good idea to give our children and ourselves great books to read and moral heroes like Socrates and Penelope to emulate.
The next virtue to find is moderation. We discovered that moderation in the city was possessed by all three classes, though in different ways. To be moderate, one is in control of himself, i.e., the best part of him rules the weaker part. Since the desires only desire and have no capacity for determining whether their fulfillment right now is actually good for the whole person, it becomes quickly clear that reason in the soul is the best part and that it should rule. The spirited and appetitive parts should be trained to submit to this rule. The proper relationship between reason and spirit is one in which reason offers us the right thing to do, and the spirited part enforces it (with heroic imagery or possibly even getting furious at the desiring part for failing to follow orders.) Where that rule fails, the spirited part will give way to anger or to laziness or to the heedless pursuit of pleasure, and the appetitive part will run the entire person. But notice that just as the rulers in our city also needed moderation, to make them bother to truly rule, so also the reasoning part of the soul needs moderation, to make it bother to rule. How? By applying itself to the job of thinking carefully in general (logically) and in practice (prudently and morally). We tend to get tired, and thinking really is very hard. That’s why all of those great novels sit on the shelf, while the Complete Far Side sits on my end table. Granted, we need laughter and we need distraction from our day’s labors, but we also need to stimulate our minds to think critically and carefully. Great reading has always been hard reading. But hardship is not evil; failing to think well is.
Finally, we come to justice in the soul. In our city justice was a virtue of harmony between all the parts, each minding its own business and not trying to interfere in the affairs of the other parts. The desiring part should stick to desire—not enforcement or ruling, for when the desires “calculate,” they calculate for a part, not the whole, and when the desires try to enforce the wisdom of reason by appeals to pleasure or pain, they can often be thwarted by the apparent pleasure of evil. The spirited part should stick to the encouragement and enforcement of what is good—crushing false promises of pleasure or threats of pain to do otherwise. The ruling part should stick to wise ruling—not trying to change the makeup of our desires (as some people do, trying to transform themselves into other people, for example) or ruling solely cognitively giving the passions no place (like the Stoics or religious legalists). When the parts of the soul cooperate in this overarching harmony, then justice is present in the soul. A soul possessed of this harmony will not act in ways that are typically considered unjust. Thus, the cause of just behavior has indeed been found, and so we have discovered the true nature of justice.
We are now prepared to move to the final phase of Socrates’ argument, but before we do, let’s review his entire argument thus far. Socrates’ objective has been to offer a satisfactory answer to the question of whether it is profitable to be just even if all the rewards of justice are stripped and all of the penalties of injustice are added, whether one’s just soul is unnoticed by gods or men, in this life and in the next. In other words, is justice a good in itself, or merely a means to another end? And if we could arrive at that other end by means of injustice, why shouldn’t we do so? This is the classic battle between might and right, between power and goodness.
In answer to this challenge, we’ve seen Socrates offer us an analogy between the just city and the just soul. We discovered that a just city would have three parts, parts analogous to the structure of the soul. The well-functioning, or virtuous, city’s parts would function in accordance with wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice, even as the well-functioning, or virtuous, soul would function. Notice that the soul has a structure; it is something, not nothing. We’ll come back to this crucial principle shortly.
In order to move to the final phase of Socrates’ argument, where he demonstrates that justice is superior to injustice under all conditions, he offers us one final analogy between the soul and the body. Consider that the body has a real structure which, when respected and properly functioning, we call health. Health is not a matter of what I wish to believe. I may stand before you with my arm hanging from my shoulder by only a thread of flesh, and I may assert with confidence that I am perfectly healthy. If you look upon this claim askance, I may add that you have no right to impose your values of health upon me, since health to me is different than health to you. Naturally, you would reply (as I slowly fade into unconsciousness) that health is an objective state of affairs (i.e., based on the real nature of the body—the object), regardless of what any of us should like to believe. It’s not a matter of opinion but of nature. A man dripping a trail of blood is not healthy, not because I say so, but because there is a natural structure and order to a healthy body that is what it is whether I or anyone else wishes to believe it or not. “Health-relativists” are insane.
The only way to get to the natural end, or purpose, or happiness of the human soul is to operate in accordance with its proper functioning, namely the moral virtues of justice, wisdom, courage, and moderation.
Socrates asks the crucial question next: if there is a natural order and structure to a healthy body, why do we suppose that the soul is any different? On the contrary, as we’ve been arguing, the soul also has an explicit structure, such that when operated properly in accordance with the virtues, it is healthy and happy. But when operated according to vice, according to habitual disorder, every form of injustice, strife, and misery occurs. Since there is a natural order to the soul, no different from the body, why would anyone suppose that happiness is any different than health? Happiness cannot be different for different people, any more than health can be different for different people. If happiness were that whimsical, then to be happy, all I’d have to do is tell myself that I’m happy, and I would be. Yet happiness proves to be one of the most elusive goals for human beings, suggesting that it is a real thing that is hard to acquire, not something made up by each individual. And the only way to get to the natural end, or purpose, or happiness of the human soul is to operate in accordance with its proper functioning, namely the moral virtues of justice, wisdom, courage, and moderation. A well-ordered soul is a happy soul, no differently than a well-ordered body is a healthy body. To assert that health is a genuine ordering of the body, while the soul has no such good, is to deny that the soul has any structure at all. But our argument, as well as our experience, proves the exact opposite.
A person whose soul is filled with vice will never be happy, regardless if he has an invisibility ring that enables him to acquire whatever he desires.
So, Socrates turns to Glaucon and asks him the big question: is it better to live with every sort of pleasure, praise amongst men, and wealth and power, when the very heart of the person is overcome with discord? Or is the goodness of the self itself necessary even to enjoy all of these other things? Glaucon agrees that the entire challenge of the myth of the ring looks ridiculous by now, for unless I am a just man, I cannot be happy. For happiness is the well-functioning and virtuous soul. A person whose soul is filled with vice will never be happy, regardless if he has an invisibility ring that enables him to acquire whatever he desires. Happiness cannot be bought with unlimited power; it can only be acquired through a virtuous life. Thus, virtue is greater than power. It is always better to be good than to be evil. Of course, many people confuse goodness with pleasure, and conclude falsely that satisfying desire is the key to happiness. But getting what I want without considering the whole of my self and those desires’ impact on my whole human self leads not to happiness but to misery. Why? Because happiness is the good of the whole human person—reason, spirit, and appetite—not just a single part, appetite. Hedonists who identify pleasure with goodness reduce the entirety of the soul to nothing but the appetites, but as we saw earlier, that is nothing but the life of the cow.
But what about the torture example from Part 1, you might ask? How is the man being tortured on the rack happy? The answer to this question is to not mistake happiness for pleasure. The man on the rack is definitely not having a pleasant time. But suffering and happiness are not incompatible, since the courageous soul can endure suffering for the sake of the good of the whole person, just as a courageous city can endure hardship for the sake of the good of the whole. It’s only when we reduce or define human beings solely in terms of their appetites that we would mistakenly identify happiness and pleasure and suppose that pain eliminates happiness. Granted, the appetites are not satisfied when I am being stretched on the rack, but I am not my appetites, but instead the whole structure of reason, spirit and desire. Once this complete structure is understood, it is obvious that only satisfying one’s desires will never guarantee happiness. Happiness is not the achievement of pleasure, for pleasure is not the good of the whole person, but only the good of the appetites. Consider further that some pleasures are compatible with great evil, while happiness, our highest good, cannot be so contaminated with evil. Thus, happiness is not identical to pleasure.
Let’s end this blog entry with an example. Do you remember the movie Braveheart? Do you recall our hero in the prison on the night before his death? He is offered a drug that will eliminate the pain of the coming morn, but he refuses it, because he knows that it will ruin his mind and he may confess allegiance to the evil king. So, his reason tells his internal guardians to hold the appetites in check and stand for the true and the good even against the terror of the coming day. Wallace is not without fear, for courage is not the absence of fear but rather its control for the sake of the good. The next day he endures horrible tortures, but he refuses to swear allegiance to the king, even though he is offered a quick end to his suffering. Imagine his soul’s struggle as reason continues to assure him of the rightness of his cause, and his appetites—long habituated to moderation—accept the right rule of reason, and his spirited part clings passionately to the goodness for which he is dying. If he had surrendered early, he never would have been able to utter that amazing battle cry, “Freedom!” in his last moments. And for that we admire him, don’t we? We know that he was good and that goodness is satisfactory even in death. We all die, after all. Wouldn’t it be better to die for something? And isn’t that really the point of our whole enquiry? Without goodness, without justice, life is worthless. And the just man is happy, even if he suffers to his death in the final end. Socrates died for his commitment to goodness, as did Jesus. And we admire both. Our admiration is worthless unless we too aspire to that same excellence of character, the virtuous and truly happy life.