Cultural Psychology

The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul

with 13 comments

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” (‘letters writ large’) 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 (for example, at 351e, 358c-d, 361b-d, 367b ff., 368e f., 371e, 372e, 376c, 420b, 427d, 432b, 434d f.,441c, 445a ff., 472c-d, 541b, 543d−544a, 577b−588a, 588b,e ff., 605b, and 608a-b).  By the end of Book 9 and increasingly towards the conclusion, Plato stops referring to cities at all and makes clear that souls are his concern; for example:

    “Then the wise man will bend all his endeavors to this end throughout his life; he will, to begin with, prize the studies that will give this quality to his soul and disprize the others.” (9.591c)

    “He will rather,” I said, “keep his eyes fixed on the constitution in his soul.” (9.591e)

    “We have proved that justice in itself is the best thing for the soul itself.” (10.612b)

    “But if we are guided by me … we shall hold ever to the upward way and pursue righteousness with wisdom always and ever, that we may be dear to ourselves and to the gods both during our sojourn here and when we receive our reward.” (10.621c-d)

    Some of the chief claimed benefits of personal righteousness involve immortality of the soul — which has no counterpart in civil states.

  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 wish 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 more recent discussion see Uebersax 2017a, 2016 and 2014b.


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.

Carter, Rita. Multiplicity. New York: Little Brown, 2008.

Hadot, Pierre. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. (tr. Michael Chase). Blackwell, 1995.

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

Jones, Hiram K. Key to Republic of Plato, Bibliotheca Platonica 1(4), 1890, 255−273. (“Let us then have done with all this improbable and silly notion about a figmentary political State — which both as a theme and a performance is so inconsistent and unequal in form and tone and dignity and quality and worth, with the general character of his thought.”)

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.

Prince, Morton. The Unconscious, Part 1. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 3, 1908−1909, pp. 261−297; The Formation of Complexes, pp. 276−297.

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 .

Uebersax, John S. Psychopolis: Plato’s Inner Republic and Personality Theory. 2017a. Accessed 21 March 2019 from .

Uebersax, John S. On the Psychological Meaning of Plato’s Nuptial Number. 2016. Accessed 21 March 2019 from .

Uebersax, John S. Hiram K. Jones’ allegorical key to Plato’s Republic. 2017b. Accessed 21 March 2019 from .

Urwick, Edward J. The Message of Plato: a Re-Interpretation of the ‘Republic’. Methuen, 1920; repr. Routledge 2013. (The author suggests the Republic is influenced by and reflects Vedic philosophy.)

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

13 Responses

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  1. […] Related:  Reading Plato’s Republic as Psychology […]

    • Plato constantly warns us when he merely using literally device for illustration, and constantly apologizes for it. He practically on every page of the book, speaks about the importance of truth, and reason being the guiding principle of man.

      All of Book IX is Plato speaking about how much he dislikes poets (specifically bringing up Homer), seeing it as an imitation.

      Andre Ismailyan

      April 4, 2020 at 10:10 pm

  2. Not sure if you’re still around in the blogosphere…

    Anyways, I’ve been pondering this very question. I’m inclined to read the Republic as primarily psychological for many of the reasons you give. In fact, I always have, and I’ve always taken the work’s politics as metaphor. I was asked to write a post on someone else’s blog about Plato’s forms of gov’t, and I take your position in explaining the context of the forms. This is NOT at all an academic work and I had to leave out quite a lot, but here it is. (Read only if you feel like it):

    The other day I got into a discussion with my husband about the pure forms of government, which are impossible to find in the actual world. He seemed to think that the pure forms can apply to certain aspects of actual governments, Plato’s pure democracy to our actual elements of democracy, as purified from other actual non-democratic elements, for instance. The mixed forms are to becoming as the pure forms are to being, so that whatever we might say about the pure forms might also apply to their actual (visible) counterparts.

    I’m not sure this is the case. Would democracy be so low in the ladder of political forms if it were mixed with something “higher” such as timocracy, or does it become changed in getting mixed? Can we make assertions about what Plato would say of these mixed forms? I don’t really know.

    I’m inclined to agree with my husband in that his interpretation unifies other aspects of Plato…like his being and becoming as found in the Timaeus. Plus, I have to admit that when I read Plato’s description of democracy and its culture, I couldn’t help but think of the sixties and seventies and tie-dyed t-shirts.

    If you’re still blogging, I’d love to hear what you have to say about this. I hope I’ve formulated the question well enough.


    January 25, 2015 at 2:25 am

  3. […] John S. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. <>. September, […]

  4. […] John. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. Online article.  Last modified: August 29, 2014; accessed: January 12, […]

  5. […] John S. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology. 29 August 2014. Accessed 17 July […]

  6. […] N A SERIES of articles here I’ve been arguing that Plato’s Republic is not about politics at all (except […]

  7. I am pleased to make your acquaintance with Allan Bloom And especially Leo Strauss. The later we consider the most significant thinker of the Twentieth Century. Their writings on Plato and Xenophon are unsurpassed at least since Al Farabi. And, they got us doing Shakespeare and Plato together, like Barbara Tovey’s “Plato’s Apology for imitative poetry.” Are you a Johnnie?


    December 24, 2017 at 4:39 am

  8. Reblogged this on mmcdonald77 and commented:
    The foundation of psychology and psychiatry can be reset by following Socrates out of our presocratic psychiatry.


    January 30, 2020 at 1:39 am

  9. Soul and city correspond through the account of the three part soul- the bigger and little, as with the letters.. The male and female guardians are joined, and the regime crowned with the philosopher-kings. Plato does BOTH psychology and political philosophy at once, the regimes corresponding to the characters that make them up.


    January 30, 2020 at 1:51 am

  10. Soul and city correspond through the account of the three part soul- the bigger and little, as with the letters.. The male and female guardians are joined, and the regime crowned with the philosopher-kings. Plato does BOTH psychology and political philosophy at once, the regimes corresponding to the characters that make them up. The best regime, though, is quite serious, such a soul ruling in such a city seeing the fullest vision of the good. Shakespeare guiding the West through his Globe Theater is something like that.


    January 30, 2020 at 1:56 am

  11. Reblogged this on Edmund Schilvold / Fotograf / Forfatter / M.Th. and commented:
    This is a post on a blog I came across in December, Satyagraha. The author substantially agrees with one of the claims I advance in my master’s thesis, namely that Plato’s Republic is primarily about the human individual, and the governing of “the City within”. Highly recommended.

    Edmund Schilvold

    January 4, 2021 at 7:55 pm

  12. […] the real significance relies on the analogy between a city and our soul.  This is the same analogy Plato explored in his greatest work, the Republic, and which constitutes its core and power.  Plato makes […]

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