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IN HIS Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius cites Thrasylus (d. 36 CE) to the effect that the work of Plato we call The Republic had two Greek titles, Politeia (Πολιτεία) and peri dikaiou (περὶ δικαίου; DL 3.60). From the better-known former one, we get (somewhat indirectly) our title The Republic. We will return to that, but first let’s consider the second title. This is usually translated as On Justice, but that is incorrect. The Greek word for justice is dikaiosune. While derived from the same root (dike), the word dikaiou, a pronoun, means a just man or person. Further, the word ‘just’ here is somewhat misleading. In modern English we tend to equate justice with social justice. In that sense a just man would be one who deals fairly with others. But the Greek concept of dike is broader — more like what we call ‘in right measure’ (the goddess Dike is sometimes pictured holding a balance scale). A more accurate translation of dikaiou therefore is a rightly ordered or righteous person.
The word politeia means a system of government, a form of political regime, or, by extension, a constitution. We get the word Republic not from the Greek word, but from the title of Cicero’s dialogue, Res publica (the public thing), which he styled in imitation of Plato’s work. However, as noted by Tarrant (2012) and others, some manuscripts give this title as politeiai, a plural form. This would be translated as systems of government, constitutions, or regimes.
We end up with the possibility that (although Plato, as far as we know, himself named none of his dialogues) the title of the work we call The Republic would, by ancient readers, have been understood as something like Regimes: On the Righteous Person. This would have made it clear that the dialogue is a work on ethics and psychology, with discussion of city governments supplying an allegorical framework for investigating the good and bad government of ones soul or psyche.
Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. R.D. Hicks (tr.). Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA. 1925 (repr. 1972).
Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s Republics. Journal of the International Plato Society, 12, 2012. Online version: mar 2013.
HAT Plato’s Republic is not a literal work on political science, but a carefully crafted allegory for the internal governance of ones mind and soul seems to me beyond doubt. Several lines of evidence support this conclusion, beginning with dozens of explicit statements by Plato to the effect throughout the work (Annas, 1999; Uebersax, 2014a,b; Waterfield, 1993). Nevertheless I also know that before realizing this, I had, like most everyone else, uncritically accepted the received opinion that the Republic is Plato’s effort to describe a utopian society. So even though it may be wrong, the literal view of the Republic, widespread and deeply entrenched, can’t simply be brushed aside.
Recently it occurred to me that a strong argument for understanding the Republic as a psychological allegory can be made on the basis of formal probabilistic reasoning. Specifically, I refer to a principle called Bayes’ rule. This is a formula (named after Rev. Thomas Bayes, an 18th century mathematician) by which one can quantify the degree to which evidence supports a given conclusion. While Bayes’ rule is often considered something modern, it actually corresponds to how we naturally form inferences from empirical data. We will, in any case, omit details here. (Those interested in more background can find ample material on the web.) It is, however, assumed that the reader has at least a little knowledge of basic probability and associated notation.
First let us define the problem: we want to choose as more likely one of two hypothesis, H1 and H2, as follows:
H1: The Republic is a psychological allegory.
H2: The Republic is a literal work on political science.
We take H1 and H2 here to be mutually exclusive hypotheses: they cannot both be true. (If we like, we could add words like ‘mainly’, ‘mostly’, or ‘primarily’ to both hypotheses to make this more clearly so.)
Let E denote some empirical evidence. This can be any sort of evidence, but for present purposes we take it to be the entire text narrative of the Republic.
Our task is to choose whether H1 or H2 seems more likely after considering evidence E. In terms of probability theory, we wish to estimate the value of two conditional probabilities:
P(H1|E) = the probability that H1 is true, given E 
P(H2|E) = the probability that H2 is true, given E 
We may then decide in favor of H1 (allegorical meaning) if  is greater than , or in favor or H2 (literal meaning) if  is greater than .
As it happens we cannot directly estimate the values of  and . But this is where Bayes’ rule comes in. Bayes’ rule is an extremely simple formula that describes the relationship between a conditional probability and its converse — that is, between P(X|Y) and P(Y|X).
Again, we’ll skip the details here. All that matters is that a simple application of Bayes’ rule in the present case leads to the two following equations:
P(H1|E) = c × P(H1) × P(E|H1) 
P(H2|E) = c × P(H2) × P(E|H2) 
Thus, given some evidence E, we can decide whether H1 or H2 is more likely by evaluating and right sides of equations  and  and seeing which is larger.
The term c here is a constant, and as it appears in both  and  we can ignore it. Hence we need only know which product is larger: P(H1) × P(E|H1) or P(H2) × P(E|H2). If the former, we would opt for an allegorical reading of Republic; if the latter, a literal one.
Note that we’ve introduced two new categories of probabilities:
- P(H1) and P(H2) are the a priori or plausibility probabilities of our two hypotheses H1 and H2 — that is, these express how likely H1 and H2 are considered to be before considering evidence E. Here these reflect how likely we deem it a priori (i.e., before we consult the Republic) that Plato would have wanted to write a psychological allegory vs. a political treatise. For example, we might consider what we know about Plato’s personality and motives, the contents of his other dialogues, and so on.
- P(E|H1) and P(E|H2) are entailment probabilities. These express the degree to which H1 and H2 would, if true, lead to or entail the evidence E. In other words, how much sense does the evidence (i.e., the content of Republic) make under the alternative assumptions of allegorical vs. literal intentions by Plato.
Now comes the fun part. In truth, we have no way of attaching precise numerical values to any of the terms P(H1), P(H2), P(E|H1), and P(E|H2). Yet we can fairly easily make two judgements of comparative magnitude. Specifically, if one considers all the available background evidence besides what’s in the Republic, one can say whether this inclines more in the direction of supporting an allegorical or a literal meaning. Similarly, one can make a reasonably confident judgment about whether the details of Republic are more consistent with an allegorical vs. a literal reading. If these two comparative judgments line up in opposite directions, we cannot draw any firm conclusions. But if they line up the same way, we can.
For example if P(H1) > P(H2) and P(E|H1) > P(E|H2), then P(H1) × P(E|H1) > P(H2) × P(E|H2), and, from equations  and , we can assert that P(H1|E) > P(H2|E). That is, taking into account both background evidence and the text itself, we would judge it more likely Plato meant the Republic as an allegory. We address the two constituent pairwise comparisons, viz., between the two plausibility probabilities and the two entailment probabilities, below.
The a priori plausibility evidence, in my opinion, strongly favors an allegorical reading of Republic. Perhaps the most telling argument is that Plato everywhere else shows an intense concern for the moral improvement of the individual. For Plato the stakes of moral salvation are infinitely high: nothing less than the fate of man’s immortal soul. It seems very implausible that Plato would suddenly drop his life’s work of teaching philosophia — a religious transformation of ones life based on personal holiness and the love of Wisdom and Virtue — in order to speculate about politics.
Further, a vast body of modern psychological literature has persuasively argued that (1) at some very fundamental levels, each one of us is a community of subselves; and (2) to manage these numerous competing and conflicting parts is one of the most difficult and important tasks we face as human beings (for reviews see Rowan, 1993 and Lester, 2010). We cannot suppose this basic fact of human psychology would have escaped the notice of the ancients. This insight, for example, is at the center of Philo’s vast psychological exegesis of the Old Testament (Uebersax, 2012). Said another way, to justify Plato’s singular reputation as the greatest philosopher of the Western tradition, we would expect him to have recognized and tried to address a reality so vital to our psychological and spiritual well-being.
Conversely, the background arguments supporting the literal reading are flimsy, or at least open to considerable question. The argument ‘from tradition’ — that Plato’s Republic has traditionally been understood to be about politics — is quite useless. One might as well argue that the Garden of Eden myth of Genesis was not meant as a moral allegory because generations of uncritical exegetes have taken it literally.
The Seventh Letter might potentially imply political interests of Plato, but this is offset by extremely strong doubts as to the letter’s authenticity. There remains Aristotle’s comments about the Republic in his Politics, which take a literal meaning by Plato for granted. However these highly polemical remarks seem far more concerned with advancing Aristotle’s own views than faithfully explaining Plato’s, and so must be discounted. Surveying all the background information, then, the only thing we can be sure of is Plato’s intense and abiding concern with personal morality and religion, and this favors the view that the Republic is a psychological allegory.
The second question is whether the details in the narrative of the Republic would be more likely if Plato meant the work as an allegory, or if he intended it as a literal work. Here the case is even clearer. As Waterfield (1993) especially has noted, if read at a literal level the Republic abounds in absurdities, incongruities, and gaps. We are not given anywhere near the level of detail that would be required to run a real city. Further, many details that Plato does supply are utterly outrageous — so absurd in fact, that they can seem almost calculated to tease literally-minded readers. If Plato intended to describe an actual city-state, we cannot believe he would have advocated such notions as infanticide, eugenics, communal wives, and intentional lying to citizens by rulers.
We can, however, make definite sense of these otherwise absurd suggestions if we read the Republic as a psychological allegory. For example, one may wish to abort negative or unproductive chains of thought soon after their conception; or, following similar lines of analogy, to encourage marriage and begetting of offspring by the more positive and virtuous elements of ones nature.
By the above, then, we have argued that (1) an allegorical understanding of Plato’s Republic is both more probable a priori than a literal interpretation, and (2) the content of the Republic is more consistent with psychological vs. literal intentions by Plato. By means of Bayes’ rule applied in connection with equations  and , these two comparative judgments allow us to conclude that, considering all available evidence, the Republic is more likely a psychological allegory than a literal political work.
The present is only a very brief treatment of the topic, intended more to introduce the leading principles than to arrive at final certainty. Much more work can go into identifying, evaluating, and comparing the plausibility and entailment probabilities. Herein we have taken the evidence E to be the complete text of the Republic. However the same sort of reasoning could be applied to individual passages; thus we could allow that some sections Plato wished to be taken literally, but in others, say that concerning the Noble Lie, he is writing allegorically.
I personally think that the deeper one delves into the Republic, the stronger the assurance that it is an allegory — but political philosophers may have other ideas, and probably aren’t likely to give up without a fight. In any case, the present supplies a framework in which the issue can be investigated impartially, scientifically, progressively, and in an edifying way.
Annas, J. Platonic Ethics, Old and New. Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 1999; Chapter 4, The Inner City, pp. 72−95.
Lester, David. A Multiple Self Theory of Personality. New York, 2010.
Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. London, 1990.
Uebersax, John. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles, CA, 2012.
Uebersax, John. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. 2014a. Online document. Satyagraha website.
Uebersax, John. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic. 2014b. Online document. Satyagraha website.
Waterfield, Robin. Republic. Oxford University Press, 1993.
This excerpt from Emerson describes so well the ascent to love and knowledge of God by of Beauty in Plato’s Symposium, or Diotima’s Ladder, that I thought I should share it:
In like manner, personal beauty is then first charming and itself when it dissatisfies us with any end; when it becomes a story without an end; when it suggests gleams and visions and not earthly satisfactions; when it makes the beholder feel his unworthiness; when he cannot feel his right to it, though he were Caesar; he cannot feel more right to it than to the firmament and the splendors of a sunset.
Hence arose the saying, “If I love you, what is that to you?” We say so because we feel that what we love is not in your will, but above it. It is not you, but your radiance. It is that which you know not in yourself and can never know.
This agrees well with that high philosophy of Beauty which the ancient writers delighted in; for they said that the soul of man, embodied here on earth, went roaming up and down in quest of that other world of its own out of which it came into this, but was soon stupefied by the light of the natural sun, and unable to see any other objects than those of this world, which are but shadows of real things. Therefore the Deity sends the glory of youth before the soul, that it may avail itself of beautiful bodies as aids to its recollection of the celestial good and fair; and the man beholding such a person in the female sex runs to her and finds the highest joy in contemplating the form, movement and intelligence of this person, because it suggests to him the presence of that which indeed is within the beauty, and the cause of the beauty.
If however, from too much conversing with material objects, the soul was gross, and misplaced its satisfaction in the body, it reaped nothing but sorrow; body being unable to fulfil the promise which beauty holds out; but if, accepting the hint of these visions and suggestions which beauty makes to his mind, the soul passes through the body and falls to admire strokes of character, and the lovers contemplate one another in their discourses and their actions, then they pass to the true palace of beauty, more and more inflame their love of it, and by this love extinguishing the base affection, as the sun puts out fire by shining on the hearth, they become pure and hallowed. By conversation with that which is in itself excellent, magnanimous, lowly, and just, the lover comes to a warmer love of these nobilities, and a quicker apprehension of them. Then he passes from loving them in one to loving them in all, and so is the one beautiful soul only the door through which he enters to the society of all true and pure souls. In the particular society of his mate he attains a clearer sight of any spot, any taint which her beauty has contracted from this world, and is able to point it out, and this with mutual joy that they are now able, without offence, to indicate blemishes and hindrances in each other, and give to each all help and comfort in curing the same. And beholding in many souls the traits of the divine beauty, and separating in each soul that which is divine from the taint which it has contracted in the world, the lover ascends to the highest beauty, to the love and knowledge of the Divinity, by steps on this ladder of created souls.
Somewhat like this have the truly wise told us of love in all ages. The doctrine is not old, nor is it new. If Plato, Plutarch and Apuleius taught it, so have Petrarch, Angelo and Milton.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson (‘Love‘; Essays, 1st Series)
Another delightful story from the pen of Addison.
The Tale of Marraton
Felices errore suo. (Happy in their mistake.) —LUCAN i. 454.
THE Americans believe that all creatures have souls, not only men and women, but brutes, vegetables, nay even the most inanimate things, as stocks and stones. They believe the same of all the works of art, as of knives, boats, looking-glasses: and that as any of these things perish, their souls go into another world, which is inhabited by the ghosts of men and women. For this reason they always place by the corpse of their dead friend a bow and arrows, that he may make use of the souls of them in the other world, as he did of their wooden bodies in this. How absurd soever such an opinion as this may appear, our European philosophers have maintained several notions altogether as improbable. Some of Plato’s followers in particular, when they talk of the world of ideas, entertain us with substances and beings no less extravagant and chimerical. Many Aristotelians have likewise spoken as unintelligibly of their substantial forms. I shall only instance Albertus Magnus, who in his dissertation upon the loadstone, observing that fire will destroy its magnetic virtues, tells us that he took particular notice of one as it lay glowing amidst an heap of burning coals, and that he perceived a certain blue vapour to arise from it, which he believed might be the substantial form, that is, in our West Indian phrase, the soul of the loadstone.
There is a tradition among the Americans, that one of their countrymen descended in a vision to the great repository of souls, or, as we call it here, to the other world; and that upon his return he gave his friends a distinct account of everything he saw among those regions of the dead. A friend of mine, whom I have formerly mentioned, [Note: The Spectator, No. 50] prevailed upon one of the interpreters of the Indian kings to inquire of them, if possible, what tradition they have among them of this matter: which, as well as he could learn by those many questions which he asked them at several times, was in substance as follows.
The visionary, whose name was Marraton, after having travelled for a long space under an hollow mountain, arrived at length on the confines of this world of spirits; but could not enter it by reason of a thick forest made up of bushes, brambles, and pointed thorns, so perplexed and interwoven with one another that it was impossible to find a passage through it. Whilst he was looking about for some track or pathway that might be worn in any part of it, he saw an huge lion couched under the side of it, who kept his eye upon him in the same posture as when he watches for his prey. The Indian immediately started back, whilst the lion rose with a spring, and leaped towards him. Being wholly destitute of all other weapons, he stooped down to take up an huge stone in his hand; but to his infinite surprise grasped nothing, and found the supposed stone to be only the apparition of one. If he was disappointed on this side, he was as much pleased on the other, when he found the lion, which had seized on his left shoulder, had no power to hurt him, and was only the ghost of that ravenous creature which it appeared to be. He no sooner got rid of his impotent enemy, but he marched up to the wood, and after having surveyed it for some time, endeavoured to press into one part of it that was a little thinner than the rest; when again, to his great surprise, he found the bushes made no resistance, but that he walked through briars and brambles with the same ease as through the open air; and, in short, that the whole wood was nothing else but a wood of shades. He immediately concluded, that this huge thicket of thorns and brakes was designed as a kind of fence or quickset hedge to the ghosts it enclosed; and that probably their soft substances might be torn by these subtle points and prickles, which were too weak to make any impressions in flesh and blood. With this thought he resolved to travel through this intricate wood; when by degrees he felt a gale of perfumes breathing upon him, that grew stronger and sweeter in proportion as he advanced. He had not proceeded much farther when he observed the thorns and briars to end, and give place to a thousand beautiful green trees covered with blossoms of the finest scents and colours, that formed a wilderness of sweets, and were a kind of lining to those ragged scenes which he had before passed through. As he was coming out of this delightful part of the wood, and entering upon the plains it enclosed, he saw several horsemen rushing by him, and a little while after heard the cry of a pack of dogs. He had not listened long before he saw the apparition of a milk-white steed, with a young man on the back of it, advancing upon full stretch after the souls of about an hundred beagles that were hunting down the ghost of an hare, which ran away before them with an unspeakable swiftness. As the man on the milk-white steed came by him, he looked upon him very attentively, and found him to be the young Prince Nicharagua, who died about half a year before, and by reason of his great virtues, was at that time lamented over all the western parts of America.
He had no sooner got out of the wood, but he was entertained with such a landscape of flowery plains, green meadows, running streams, sunny hills, and shady vales, as were not to be represented by his own expressions, nor, as he said, by the conceptions of others. This happy region was peopled with innumerable swarms of spirits, who applied themselves to exercises and diversions according as their fancies led them. Some of them were tossing the figure of a quoit; others were pitching the shadow of a bar; others were breaking the apparition of a horse; and multitudes employing themselves upon ingenious handicrafts with the souls of departed utensils; for that is the name which in the Indian language they give their tools when they are burnt or broken. As he travelled through this delightful scene, he was very often tempted to pluck the flowers that rose everywhere about him in the greatest variety and profusion, having never seen several of them in his own country. But he quickly found that though they were objects of his sight, they were not liable to his touch. He at length came to the side of a great river, and being a good fisherman himself, stood upon the banks of it some time to look upon an angler that had taken a great many shapes of fishes, which lay flouncing up and down by him.
I should have told my reader that this Indian had been formerly married to one of the greatest beauties of his country, by whom he had several children. This couple were so famous for their love and constancy to one another, that the Indians to this day, when they give a married man joy of his wife, wish that they may live together like Marraton and Yaratilda. Marraton had not stood long by the fisherman when he saw the shadow of his beloved Yaratilda, who had for some time fixed her eye upon him before he discovered her. Her arms were stretched out towards him, floods of tears ran down her eyes; her looks, her hands, her voice called him over to her ; and at the same time seemed to tell him that the river was impassable. Who can describe the passion made up of joy, sorrow, love, desire, astonishment, that rose in the Indian upon the sight of his dear Yaratilda ? He could express it by nothing but his tears, which ran like a river down his cheeks as he looked upon her. He had not stood in this posture long before he plunged into the stream that lay before him, and finding it to be nothing but the phantom of a river, walked on the bottom of it till he arose on the other side. At his approach Yaratilda flew into his arms, whilst Marraton wished himself disencumbered of that body which kept her from his embraces. After many questions and endearments on both sides, she conducted him to a bower which she had dressed with her own hands, with all the ornaments that could be met with in those blooming regions. She had made it gay beyond imagination, and was every day adding something new to it. As Marraton stood astonished at the unspeakable beauty of her habitation, and ravished with the fragrancy that came from every part of it, Yaratilda told him that she was preparing this bower for his reception, as well knowing that his piety to his God, and his faithful dealing towards men, would certainly bring him to that happy place whenever his life should be at an end. She then brought two of her children to him, who died some years before, and resided with her in the same delightful bower; advising him to breed up those others which were still with him in such a manner that they might hereafter all of them meet together in this happy place.
The tradition tells us further that he had afterwards a sight of those dismal habitations which are the portion of ill men after death, and mentions several molten seas of gold in which were plunged the souls of barbarous Europeans, who put to the sword so many thousands of poor Indians for the sake of that precious metal. But having already touched upon the chief points of this tradition, and exceeded the measure of my paper, I shall not give any further account of it.
~ Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 56 (Friday, May 4, 1711)