Justice and the Sharing of…, well, you know

If you’ve read the Republic, you’ve almost certainly been offended by his suggestion that, among the “Guardians,” wives and children should be held in common.

Apparently, this was not an entirely unique idea to Plato or his Socrates; the Spartans may have practiced something not altogether different.

Now I’m willing to acknowledge that I have a filial affection for Plato and consider Socrates one of those who took the trouble to teach me how to think, for which I will always be grateful and faithful. So my argument might be a spirited family loyalty.

Even so, I don’t personally think Plato was serious with this suggestion. It’s based entirely on the suggestion that by looking at the city you can see the soul, because the city is the soul writ large.

This analogy breaks down in the Republic and in real life too often for me to believe that Plato is serious about caring it all the way to its complete application. I also believe that Socrates meant it when he said, “Great is the power of contradiction,” and that his whole goal is to get people to think, which means putting them in situations where you have to resolve contradictions.

So I think he wasn’t serious because he is trying to get us to look very closely at the soul, even when a projection from soul to city looks warped – at least we can still the see the soul more clearly than when it is hidden.

Then what’s the point?

It’s analogous. The wives are images of the appetites, and the children are their offspring.

The thing that messes up the soul is faction or disunity. When any one appetite decides to run off by itself and have a little secret chamber where it can fulfill its own desires and secret its own possessions, isolated from the other appetites, that’s the source of vice in the soul. What Plato wants is for all our desires, appetites, passions, etc. to be satisfied in a manner that respects all the other desires, appetites, passions, etc.

Only reason, whose appetite is for union, can bring about that end. Reason’s role is to unify the soul, to direct the passions, to call on the aid of the spirited part of the soul to courageously order and even put down the unruly appetites. Short of that, no man can attain justice or integrity.

Only when the philsopher (the lover of wisdom) rules the soul and only when the spirited part guards its dignity can a man or woman become the just/righteous man that was the goal of all ancient philosophy worth the name. Only the one who sees goodness and knows what is good for what he governs is truly fit to govern.

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