Cultural Psychology

Archive for August 2014

The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul

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Plato Athens

THIS is the first of a series of articles which argue that Plato’s Republic is mainly a work on psychology, not political science: an allegory for the politics and right government of the human soul or psyche, not a treatise on civil government.

This is not a new idea, but an old one, and many modern classicists (e.g., Annas, 1999; Waterfield, 1993) support it.

To be clear, this doesn’t deny that the Republic contains important political insights.  The proposal is only that it is more valuable as a work on psychology, and that more attention should be devoted to teaching, reading and studying it at that level than presently occurs.

The first order of business is to present the supporting evidence.  Here no attempt is made to convince or persuade, only to inform, so that readers decide for themselves.

  1. First, there are the ancient titles of the work.  Diogenes Laertius cites Thrasylus (d. 36 CE) to the effect that it had two Greek titles: Politeia (Πολιτεία) and peri dikaiou (περὶ δικαίου; DL 3.60). The word politeia means systems of government, political regimes, or, in an equivalent sense, constitutions.  The word Politeia doesn’t make clear whether the topic is constitutions of cities, souls, or both.  The second title, peri dikaiou, however, is less ambiguous.  While sometimes translated as On Justice, that’s incorrect (the Greek word for justice is dikaiosune, not dikaiou).  A more suitable rendering in English would be On the Just (or Righteous) Person.
  2. Second, we have to consider that Plato’s overriding concern in all his works is to teach philosophia, the love of wisdom, as a means of saving the individual soul from its fallen condition of folly and unhappiness. Every one of his works serves this purpose. It would seem a little strange for Plato to suddenly drop this great work to write a treatise on civil government.
  3. Third, we have statements by Plato throughout the Republic which imply that the good man, not the good state, is his main concern. The conversation in Book 1 is clearly centered on what justice is for an individual person.  In Book 2, Socrates, frustrated at having made little progress, proposes to use the city-soul analogy  as a way of making the dynamics of an individual soul “larger” and more easily investigable  (2.368d). Throughout the extended analogy Plato takes pains to continually draw our attention back to dynamics of the individual psyche.
  4. Many specific provisions of the Republic’s ideal city-state would be, if taken literally, implausible or absurd. Examples include eugenics, a caste system, wives and children in common.  All these implausible and “dystopian elements” of the Republic become no longer troublesome if we accept that the Republic is a psychological allegory, and we are not therefore required to interpret every detail literally.
  5. History has judged Plato the greatest philosopher the West has produced.  Read as a psychological allegory, the Republic is work of towering genius, and conforms to this view.  But read literally, the Republic makes Plato look rather silly and naive in places.
  6. Plato is also universally recognized as a not just a philosopher, but a literary master — a poet whose art and imagery are essential in conveying his meaning. His writings are all set in the form of dramatic dialogues. Much of Plato’s philosophy is given in the form of myths related by the characters of the dialogues. Plato himself originally aspired to be a tragic poet. Aeschylus was his role model. He was immensely pious. He prayed for inspiration, appealed to the Muses, and was an initiate of the Eleusinian Mysteries. It is disastrous, therefore, to try to understand Plato at a purely literal level — which is what political scientists have done.
  7. Perhaps most importantly, there is what we may call heuristic evidence. Once one understands that the Republic is a psychological allegory, and reads it at that level, it simply works. One gains insight, one feels a sense of depth and meaning in the work; it stimulates the imagination and promotes self-knowledge. None of these things occur when one reads the Republic as literal political science.
  8. The use of allegory to convey subtle psychological and moral themes (e.g., in the works of Homer and Hesiod) was quite familiar to Plato and his readers.
  9. It would make sense for Plato to use the analogy of a city as a singularly useful analogy for exploring the dynamics of the human psyche. A large literature in psychology (for reviews see Rowan 1993; Schwartz 1995; Lester 1995, 2007) argues persuasively that any adequate view of the human mind must take into account its plurality, i.e., that normal mental function involves what can be thought of as multiple subselves, subpersonalities, part-egos, complexes, thought patterns, characters, etc. The existence of this pluralism, and frequent conflicts among components, is an obvious and fundamental feature of the human condition; the need to harmonize them is a requirement for happiness and healthy personality function. Every human being is confronted with the difficult but supremely important task of governing the elements of ones own mind.
  10. In short what I propose is this: to apply a characteristically Platonic method of exegesis to Plato’s Republic.  The specific method is that of the Jewish Middle Platonist, Philo of Alexandria.  Philo’s extensive writings supply what is arguably our best example of Greek psychologically-oriented allegorical exegesis.  In Philo’s case, the method is applied to the Old Testament (mostly the Pentateuch).  The key of this method is to associate every principle figure and event in the Old Testament with some corresponding entity or element of the human psyche or soul (Uebersax, 2012).  It is a very simple and obvious —  and, when put into practice, very persuasive — approach. It yields abundant insight into human nature.  From the pragmatic viewpoint, then, if from no other, the approach is valid.  There are sufficient thematic parallels between the Republic and the Old Testament to justify applying this method to the former.  That is, there’s much similarity between the task of raising a mythical polis from discord and chaos into an ordered republic, and leading tribes of Jews from bondage in Egypt, supplying them laws, and bringing them to the Promised Land.  Moreover, Philo himself frequently alludes to the theme of a city-soul in his works, and in ways that suggest a direct connection with Plato (for example, sometimes in the same paragraph he alludes to Plato’s chariot allegory).

This is a sufficient outline of the thesis to prove and the categories of supporting evidence. I will flesh this outline out, developing the arguments and supplying supporting evidence, in forthcoming articles.

In closing, I would like to add that my attitude towards modern political science interpreters in general is not hostile, and my comments shouldn’t be understood that way. On the contrary, precisely because there is an analogy between the politics of the individual psyche and external government, we can use the Republic to gain certain insights about the latter. The problem only comes when the focus on political science becomes so dominant that the psychological meaning is obscured. The fault, really, is due to the field of psychology, which has ignored the Republic, rather than the field of political science. But in any case, we must remove the automatic connection in the public mind that Plato’s Republic is a work on civil government. We must replace this with a growing understanding of its psychological and spiritual significance. It is, after all is said and done, a sacred work, a scripture of the ancient Greek religion, an expression of the perennial Wisdom tradition, and should be understood as such.

I scarcely with to assert this dogmatically, however.  More appropriately, I propose it as a hypothesis.  If it is correct, then over time it will prove its worth.

Recent writers who have most strongly endorsed the psychological reading of Republic are Waterfield (1993) and Annas (1999).  See also Hoerber (1944).  For an excellent review of the literature see  Blössner (2007).

Update: For further discussion on this topic see Uebersax (2014a, b).


Annas, Julia. Platonic Ethics, Old and New. Cornell University Press, 1999. (See Ch. 4, The Inner City, pp. 72–95.)

Assagioli, Roberto. Psychosynthesis. New York: The Viking Press, 1965.

Berne, Eric. Games People Play. New York: Grove Press, 1964 (repr. 2011).

Blössner, Norbert. “The City-Soul Analogy.” In: Giovanni R. F. Ferrari (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 345–385.

Hoerber, Robert G. The Theme of Plato’s Republic. Dissertation. Washington University, St. Louis, 1944.

Lester, David. Theories of Personality: A Systems Approach. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis, 1995.

Lester, David. “A Subself Theory of Personality“. Current Psychology, 26, March 2007, pp. 1–15.

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. Routledge, 1990 (repr. 2013)

Schwartz, Richard C. Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York: Guilford, 1995 (repr. 2013).

Uebersax, John S. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles, CA, 2012.

Uebersax, John S. Psychology, Philosophy, and Plato’s Divided Line. 2014a. Accessed 17 December 2014 from < >.

Uebersax, John S. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic.  2014b. Accessed 17 December 2014 from < >.

Waterfield, Robin. Republic. Oxford University Press, 1993. (See especially his cogent discussion in the section of the Introduction titled, “Reading Republic“.)