Politics: Inner and Outer
[This was written in 2008. More recent posts on Plato’s Republic can be found here.]
A fairly little-known fact is that Plato’s Republic, a work often taught in government and political science classes, is really about psychology. If you read the Republic closely, you see that Plato (through the character of Socrates) introduces the ideal State as a metaphor for the human soul. The idea is to, using the familiar example of a city, discover the principles by which harmony and justice are achieved; these same principles can then be applied, Plato suggests, to the individual (Republic, 2.368d)
A central message of the Republic is this. The soul consists of many individual members (appetites, drives, desires, etc.). Discord and strife result from these members working selfishly and at cross-purposes. Peace and harmony are attained when the soul is not governed by transitory drives and desires, but instead continually looks to something higher — wisdom — for guidance; that is the true meaning Plato’s famous term, the philosopher king. This does not mean some kind of enlightened social leader, but rather a person (you or me) who has achieved a new psychological structure: that of being ruled by love of wisdom.
Wisdom, for Plato, is not mere knowledge, but something divine. Wisdom, for him, comes from God. Further, it is closely related to Beauty, and Goodness itself. A fact readily ignored in modern universities is that Plato was an explicitly religious writer. There is a remarkable similarity, in fact, between Plato’s model and the psychological model found in the New Testament. We see this clearly in the letters of St. Paul to the Romans and Ephesians, and especially the letter of James.
A point made by Plato, Paul, and James alike is that wars and external conflicts reflect internal conflicts. James 4:1 says, From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?.
People sometimes read this and get hung up on the word, “lusts”, thinking this is just religious moralizing. Actually, the Greek word is hedone, or pleasures — a much more general term — so one may see that this is quite a broad principle.
James, again like Plato, also distinguishes between earthly wisdom and the wisdom that is from above. The former corresponds to the false reasoning we typically engage in — conclusions that masquerade as prudent ones, but which are actually formed by appetites and desires. These are what modern psychologists might call rationalizations. In contrast is true wisdom, which, among other things, is experienced as coming ‘from above.’ Earthly ‘wisdom’ is ego-generated, something one constructs oneself: one knows the conclusion in advance, then selects facts and arguments to support the conclusion. True wisdom, however, is experienced more as inspiration — a subtle whisper, a revelation, an unearned insight. Whether its source is God directly, or our higher self, the point is that it comes a source above our competing and conflicting appetites.
So how does this relate to Elections 2008? Quite directly, in fact. The problem is that peoples’ thinking about the election is dominated by ‘earthly wisdom’. People have set up, for example, spam agents to automatically add defamatory news articles about candidates as comments to blogs like mine. I’ve had to partially disable comments, in fact (but that’s not really a problem). These spammers evidently feel they are doing a service by posting such articles. That is, they think they’re being wise. They’ve confused earthly and true wisdom.
Then what is true wisdom as it applies to the forthcoming elections? That isn’t hard to figure out. Wisdom, Plato and the New Testament tell us, is recognized by its ability to harmonize the disparate and potentially contending drives and desires of human nature. It always seeks the welfare of all. Further, it presupposes that there is a way to achieve happiness, and that we’re designed to be in that state. There is a natural way, in other words, for the desires and drives to be in balance.
What we obviously seek in life are peace and happiness. That isn’t going to happen in society unless and until it happens in our own souls. Within each of our souls are inner Democrats and inner Republicans, vying for control. (Maybe the inner Democrats want pleasure, and the inner Republicans want money — a simplistic model, but perhaps not too far from the truth.) All the contention, anger, mudslinging, and name-calling you see in the current elections is mirrored within your own psyche. External politics is ultimately a projection of inner politics.
How do you find peace of soul? By letting yourself be governed by true wisdom, which is characterized by humility, love, and genuine concern for the welfare of others. Discover your higher sources of knowledge, and stop being led by emotional reasoning. The latter does not reflect your welfare, but rather the narrow purposes of particular appetites and drives.
If we do this individually, we’ll likely find that our external political solutions are not as difficult as we currently make them out to be. In any case, we’ll certainly see the absurdity of all this political fighting.
The best literature review and discussion of the allegorical/psychological interpretation of Plato’s Republic is:
Blössner, Norbert. “The City-Soul Analogy.” In: G. R. F. Ferrari (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic, Cambridge University Press, 2007. (Ch. 13, pp. 345–385).