Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic
IN a series of articles I’ve proposed that we should devote more effort to understanding Plato’s Republic as a psychological allegory. The table below summarizes interpretations of key elements of the Republic. The basic reasoning behind these, as previously described, is as follows:
- The Republic is mainly a work on individual psychology, morals, and religion. It is also a practical work, in that Plato aims to help readers advance in these areas. We agree with Hoerber (1944), Guthrie (1986), Waterfield (1993), Annas (1999), Blössner (2007) and others who suggest that any interests Plato may have had in political science are subordinate to these greater concerns of his. As Socrates states explicitly in 2.368d–369a and reminds of us frequently, the ideal city is presented as a conceptual tool that enables us to better understand the ‘politics’ our interior life.
- Plato succeeds in this because the human psyche can, in fact, be accurately likened to a commonwealth of citizens (the city-soul analogy). Modern psychology has confirmed this seminal insight of Plato. Psychic pluralism is recognized by dozens of modern personality theories (for reviews see Rowan, 1990 and Lester, 2010; see also Carter, 2008). Different theories give different names for these inner ‘citizens’: subselves, subpersonalities, complexes, schemas, ego states, potential selves, etc.; but for convenience we may select the term sub-ego as roughly meaning any or all of these things.
- We have a separate sub-ego associated with, at the very least, every one of our social roles, personal relationships, jobs, affiliations, projects, goals, hopes, plans, self-images, appetites and desires, passions and emotions, and so on. And these are only our conscious sub-egos. Nobody knows how many more ‘people’ there are within us operating at a sub- or unconscious level. Our psyche, therefore, may easily contain hundreds or thousands of autonomous or semi-autonomous sub-egos of varying complexity, each vying to attain its interests.
- This commonwealth of the psyche — psychopolis — can be well or poorly governed, congenial or conflict-ridden, integrated or fragmented, harmonious or discordant (see e.g., Lester pp. 55−62, 77−80, 90f., 151f.; Rowan pp. 86, 89f. 92f., 200−206, 211−215). Plato’s aim in the Republic is to instruct us how to achieve a well-governed, harmonious psyche by a moral regimen he terms philosophia, the love of Wisdom.
- A major and distinctive feature of the Platonic system is that ethics and epistemology are inseparable. In a poorly integrated and conflicted soul-city, each sub-ego seeks only its own narrow interests. In a well-governed and integrated soul-city, each sub-ego looks to the good of all, as well as to its own interests. For example, in a vicious soul-city, a money-seeking sub-ego might seek to acquire wealth by questionable means, putting it into conflict with other sub-egos. Psychic harmony and integration result when sub-egos consult the innate moral sense (moral noesis; vision of the Good) and moderate their activity accordingly.
- The soul-city analogy supplies Plato with a metaphoric language that enables him to describe aspects of the structure and dynamics of the psyche for which other terms and concepts are inadequate. Many details of his model city would be impossible, absurd, or injurious to implement literally; we should instead understand these as metaphors that illustrate principles of the interior life. It is, for example, like telling someone, “I can’t find exact terms to describe how intelligent Sam is, but if intelligence were height he’d be 10 feet tall.” The analogy makes perfect sense. But it doesn’t mean that human beings are or can be 10 feet tall. Similarly when Plato describes implausible details of his theoretical city (e.g., a caste system, a ruling class, eugenics, common wives, that rulers should lie to citizens, etc.) we should not assume that he means them literally, but only as metaphors for psychological principles.
Table 1 supplies psychological interpretations for some of the key elements of the Republic. These should be understood as illustrative rather than certain or dogmatic. It is important in any case that allegorical interpretation be guided by an explicit theoretical foundation, to avoid imposing wrong and idiosyncratic meanings (a constant danger with this approach). Our guiding premise here is that Plato is concerned with the moral salvation of the individual — something we can assert with a fair degree of confidence by considering, among other things, his other works, the writings of later Platonists, and his cultural influence generally.
Table 1: Psychopolis
Plato’s Republic as Psychological Allegory
|The polis||The community of ones psyche, personality, mind or soul; psychopolis|
|Citizens of the polis||sub-egos, complexes, dispositions, etc.|
|Rulers||Specialized sub-egos responsible for inner government; rational in nature.|
|Auxiliaries, soldiers||Sub-egos concerned with protecting the ‘city’ from inner and outer threats, and enforcing laws of the rulers. These are also associated with: (1) seeking social recognition and honor, and (2) incensive passions like indignation and anger.|
|Artisans, workers||Appetitive sub-egos concerned with gratifying desires, material gain, etc.|
|Sophists||Sub-egos which deceive us with false reasoning, biased judgment, wishful thinking, etc.|
|Poets (of the bad sort)||Like sophists, but associated with nonrational fancies, delusions, follies|
|Philosopher-king||A special ruler sub-ego which seeks harmonization and integration of entire personality based on Wisdom, Virtue, and ones innate moral sense (vision of the Good)|
|Education of rulers||Measures taken to develop the philosophical sub-ego(s): e.g., by dialectic, virtue, contemplation, music, etc.|
|Prisoners (Cave Allegory)||Sub-egos ‘chained’ to faulty (distorted by self-interest) notions of goodness and associated false reasonings|
|Regimes||Alternative systems by which psychopolis is governed|
|Spartan/Cretan||Natural, wholesome following of instinct; playful, childlike, spontaneous, innocent.|
|Monarchy/Aristocracy||Government by the best and most virtuous elements of ones soul|
|Timocracy||Rule by honor-seeking or self-righteous sub-ego(s); may lead to over-control and rebellion by appetitive sub-egos.|
|Oligarchy||Government by sub-egos concerned with material gain|
|Democracy||Short-sighted hedonism; ‘if it feels good, do it’; no consistent course.|
|Tyranny||Obsessive, destructive pursuit of single desire or appetite (e.g., addiction)|
|Men||‘Male’ elements of personality: logic; impersonal idealism; action and initiative; anger and aggression; the intellect.|
|Women||‘Female’ elements of personality: feelings, sensations; affections; the will.|
|Children||Newly conceived sub-egos|
|Golden/Silver races||Nobler (more virtuous, wise, authentic) sub-egos and thoughts|
|Bronze/Iron races||Baser (less virtuous, etc.) sub-egos and thoughts|
|Intermarriage||Sub-egos of differing nobility may interbreed, producing children of a mixed nature. We must test sub-egos to determine their quality, and cannot rely on pedigree alone to judge worthiness to be rulers.|
|Tyrant’s progress (Books 8 & 9)||A non-virtuous regime tends to invite further weakening our virtue, wisdom, and discernment, so that the next regime is usually worse. There is a characteristic trajectory of decline through the regimes of aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. One may, however, avoid this descent by means of philosophia.|
|Reincarnation (Myth of Er)||Like above; one personality structure succeeds another according to lawful principles. For example through neglect of virtue one may become an animal (i.e., irrational). Improvement is also possible (cf. Phaedrus 248b−250c: a philosopher will fare well in the ‘next life.’)|
While above we have considered how modern personality theory may inform our understanding of Plato’s Republic, it is the reverse question that is perhaps more important: what insights about psychology does this, the greatest philosophical book the West has produced, contain, and how may we apply them in fields like personality theory, counseling and psychotherapy, and cognitive science? This would seem at face value an enormously promising question. Is it just possible that the Republic supplies a bridge, as it were, between the ancient wisdom of humankind — the perennial philosophy — and the modern, scientific mind? Final judgment must await further study. However I believe the existing evidence is sufficient to warrant a much more concerted effort than we have yet seen for psychologists to study the Republic and Plato’s other works. We may, however, make some preliminary conjectures. The Republic, at a minimum, may contribute to modern personality theory the following concepts:
- There is a somewhat hierarchical structure to sub-egos; some are acquisitive and appetitive; others rule or govern; an intermediate class enforce ‘laws’ and protect the psychic community.
- There is a natural telos or optimal end point for personality development and the organization of psychopolis. We are designed by nature to reach a point of harmonious mental integration. Therefore psychotherapy and counseling should seek to align themselves and cooperate with this natural process.
- Human beings have an innate moral nature. Self-actualization is an inherently moral process. Traditional concepts of virtue, morality, religiosity, and even sin (moral error) cannot be dismissed, but rather need to be understood and included in modern personality theory.
- Human beings have a mode of intellectual knowing above discursive reasoning. This is noesis: an immediate apprehension or ‘seeing’ of first principles of logic and mathematics, morality, and religion (Uebersax, 2013). Incorrect reasoning that originates from narrowly defined self-interest (egoism) is remedied by an ascent to noetic experience.
- Plato, in effect, proposes a technology for achieving what Abraham Maslow (1968, 1971) called peak and plateau experience and ‘Being‘.
- There are several common regimes, better and worse, by which individuals govern the internal community. There are also common patterns of transitions from one regime to another. Vicious regimes tend to become more vicious. Specific means are available (dialectic, contemplation, piety, ‘fair thoughts, true words, and good works’) by which one may progress from worse to nobler and better integrated regimes.
Annas, Julia. The Inner City: Ethics Without Politics in the Republic. In: Julia Annas, Platonic Ethics, Old and New (Ch. 4, pp. 72–95), Ithaca, 1999.
Blössner, Norbert. The City-Soul Analogy. In: Ed. G. R. F. Ferrari, The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic (Ch. 13, pp. 345–385 ), Cambridge, 2007.
Carter, R. (2008) Multiplicity. New York: Little Brown.
Guthrie, William K. C. History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 4, Plato: The Man and His Dialogues: Earlier Period. Cambridge, 1986. (See e.g., pp. 434–435 & note on p. 561.)
Hoerber, Robert G. The Theme of Plato’s Republic. Dissertation. Washington University, St. Louis, 1944.
Lester, David. A Multiple Self Theory of Personality. New York, 2010.
Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition. New York, 1968.
Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York, 1971.
Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. London, 1990 (repr. 2013).
Uebersax, John. Higher Reason. Online report. Author website, 2013.
Uebersax, John. Psychology, Philosophy, and Plato’s Divided Line. Online article. Author website. 2014.
Uebersax, John. Platonism as Psychotherapy. Online article. Author website. 2014.
Uebersax, John. The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation. Online article. Author website. 2014.
Waterfield, Robin (tr.). The Republic of Plato. (Introduction). Oxford, 1993 (repr. 1998).
rev. 30 Dec 2015
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