Cultural Psychology

On the Psychological Meaning of Plato’s Nuptial Number

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ALTHOUGH Plato’s Republic is usually thought of as a treatise on government, it is actually much more a work on psychology and religion. After all is said and done, Plato is a moral and religious philosopher (see e.g., More, 1921), and his greatest concern is the salvation of souls (Guthrie, 1975, p. 434 & p. 561). Whatever his level of interest in civil affairs might be, his interest in the interior life is much greater, and the latter ought to be our principal focus in studying Plato.

It would be too extreme to suggest that nothing in the Republic ought to interest political scientists. We have recently seen some very learned and productive investigations of the work by political philosophers (e.g., Schofield, 2007; Harte, 2013). The real issue is that not enough attention is paid to mining the treasures the Republic contains at a psychological, moral, and religious level. It is in these other areas that much more remains to be discovered, and, further, material with arguably greater potential to improve the human condition.

An potential objection to this view is the argument from tradition. “The Republic,” some will say,” has even since ancient times been understood as principally a literal work on politics; we have no business changing this time-honored approach.” There are several obvious problems with this reasoning. Rather than pursue them all here, we will mention one important one. As Leo Strauss (1952) noted, writers like Plato often have good reasons to disguise the their true message. Even as far back as St. Augustine (Against the Academics, 3.17-18; cf. Ficino, Epist. 1.13, To Bessarion) the suggestion has been made that Plato needed to veil his message, because its religious and moral themes are too threatening to the greater number of people whose principle concerns are materialistic.

The City-Soul Analogy

Discussions of city and psyche are integrally linked in the Republic. The work begins with Socrates (Plato’s mouthpiece in the work) proposing to some companions to investigate the nature of Justice. At first it’s not exactly clear whether he means Justice in a state, in an individual, or both. By the end of Book 1, where Socrates’ arguments revolve around the idea that the just man is happiest, it begins to seem that the greater concern here is personal morality and psychology. At the beginning of Book 2, Socrates, suggesting that his previous arguments were not fully convincing, suggests to take a different course, namely via the city-soul analogy (Annas, 1999; Blössner, 2007): because it’s hard to visualize Justice as it operates in our own souls, and since the same principles of Justice operate in souls and cities, we can, using the “letters writ large” (Rep. 2.368c–2.369a) in cities, learn about souls.

Socrates then proceeds to describe a hypothetical just city, and several less just ones. However dozens of times he takes pains to remind us that everything said about cities also applies to souls (see Waterfield, 1993, p. xvii for a partial list of instances).

Literal or Allegorical?

A reasonable position, then, is that some descriptions of just and unjust cities in the Republic can be interpreted literally, but other instances should be understood more with concern for their allegorical meaning. How then, may we choose which approach to take in a particular case?

Elsewhere I have attempted to frame this question in a rigorous way, applying the principles of probabilistic evidence evaluation (Uebersax, 2015). Ultimately, though, this simply supplies a formal justification for what common sense already tells us: if a passage makes sense literally, interpret it so; if it doesn’t, and if we can find a plausible allegorical meaning that fits with what we think Plato’s overall psychological and moral message is, then interpreted it allegorically.

We may further consider the ancient Greek exegetical concept of a skandalon or ‘stumbling block.’ This refers to something an author intentionally places in a work to serve a twofold purpose. First, it trips up those who aren’t likely to profit from the real message by sending them down a wrong track. Second, the incongruity of the skandalon alerts more attentive readers that there’s a hidden meaning beneath the surface. So, for example, if a myth portrays a god as acting in a truly scandalous way, we ought to look for an allegorical instead of a literal meaning.

The preceding considerations suggest a practical interpretative strategy we might take with the Republic. If a section seems to make good sense understood politically, then interpret it at a political (and, because of the city-soul analogy, also a psychological) level. However if it seems absurd, ridiculous, completely impractical, opposed to common sense, or morally objectionable, take that as evidence that it is an allegory.

Such then, is our guiding hypothesis. It is only a conjecture until we can demonstrate it in action. That we propose to do here by taking a particularly clear case where literal interpretation gets us nowhere, namely the discussion of the so-called nuptial number in Book 8.

The Nuptial Number

For millennia people have puzzled over a section of Plato’s Republic that describes the so-called nuptial number (Rep. 8.545d−8.547a). This occurs within the speech of the Muses, wherein Socrates playfully claims to speak for the gods. By what seems at face value an implausibly complex formula, he derives a number that allegedly designates the optimal time for marriage and procreation amongst the guardians of the hypothetical just city. Much earlier (Book 3) Socrates has proposed that citizens in this city either comprise, or should be thought of as comprising, separate races that correspond to the metals of gold, silver, bronze, and iron. At the beginning of a well-constructed state, the guardians are of the golden race. By their marrying at a certain point (indicated by the nuptial number) in a great planetary or cosmic cycle, the chances are maximized that guardians’ offspring will themselves be golden and hence well suited to protect and rule the city. Otherwise less noble children will be born, who will not guard effectively; conflict will ensue, and the city’s integrity will be imperiled.

Read literally, it would seem that Plato is advocating eugenics, astrology and a strange number mysticism. We are not constrained to read Plato literally here, however, and may instead consider the possibility he means this allegorically. Below we consider a plausible psychological interpretation of this enigmatic material.


We begin by restating a leading premise already discussed in previous articles (e.g., Uebersax 2014a). Modern psychology has learned a fair amount about the plural character of the human psyche. In the 20th century, numerous theories were advanced to account for it (Rowan, 1990 and Lester, 2010 supply thorough reviews of this extensive literature). Among the more prominent figures associated with this view are Carl Jung, Roberto Assagioli, Virginia Satir, Alfred Adler, Andras Angyal, George Kelly, John Watkins, James Hillman, and Eric Berne (earlier work by William James should also be mentioned).

The consensus opinion of these writers is that, although in one sense each of us is a single self, in another sense ones mental life can be meaningfully understood as a community of different processes, structures, or entities variously called sub-personalities, subegos, roles, identities, ego states, belief structures, schemata, agents, and various other names. These subselves (a convenient generic term) range from very well developed structures (e.g., full-fledged alter-egos or pathological multiple personalities), to the transitory states of mind, moods, or dispositions we all experience. Even without this impressive body of theory, common sense reveals that each of us is as many persons as we have different social roles, projects, desires, appetites, interests and hobbies, relationships, affiliations, and so on. The total number of such subselves for any given person may easily number into the hundreds or thousands.

We need not, in any case, commit ourselves to the belief that these are real entities. Subself theory may, alternatively, be thought of as a convenient metaphor for the basic multiplicity of ones roles, dispositions, and states of the psyche.

The existence of so many subselves sets the stage for conflict among them — a fact only too well known to each of us. To minimize conflict, so that our psyche and our life are as harmonious as possible, we need to effectively govern this inner community, lest conflicts and factions born of opposing goals and beliefs emerge. Considering what a complex problem this is, and that implications of success or failure are so vital to our well-being, we can easily believe that it did not escape the notice of so astute a psychologist as Plato. The city-soul analogy in his hands is a powerful tool. With it he can investigate principles of inner government that would be difficult or impossible to describe or conceptualize otherwise.

To re-state our premise in the simplest terms, it is that any feature of the city which Plato describes in the Republic must have some psychic counterpart, something to do with the city of our soul, psychopolis. If we do accept this view, then how might it illumine the meaning of Plato’s problematic nuptial number?

What I propose is that by births here, Plato is referring to the process by which we give birth to new subselves. If one attends to the matter, one easily discovers that new subselves are born very often — daily, or even more frequently.   For example, suppose that one is concerned about ones finances. Eventually a new scheme to make money is born. One then begins researching, planning, and eventually putting a plan into action. These in turn bring into being more new roles, interests, skills, attitudes, mental associations, and so on. New subselves come into being and join the myriad others that jointly define ones personality. This process goes on regularly throughout life.

Now consider, too, that of these births, some are “well-born” or “fortunate” (Rep. 8.546d) — say a plan for charitable activity — and others, like a scheme for revenge, are unworthy.  A gradation in moral soundness of subselves and their associated thoughts, I propose, is what Plato is getting at when he describes various races of citizens as golden, silver, bronze, and iron. He is referring to subselves and thought chains of varying degrees of nobility or baseness. A new plan, desire, or subself born from contemplation or some noble virtue like Hope, Love, or trust in or gratitude to God, would be a child of the golden race in Plato’s framework. One conceived in anger would perhaps be a bronze child. One concerned with money or sensory pleasure might be an iron offspring. It hardly needs pointing out that adjectives like golden, silver, noble and base are extremely common and universally recognized moral metaphors. We distinguish, for example, between noble and base motives, remark that an especially virtuous person has a heart of gold, and so on.

The Tyrant’s Progress

The context in which Plato’s nuptial number occurs is significant. It begins the long section in the Republic where Plato describes the Tyrant’s progress. He explains that, when cities are not ruled in the ideal way, which is to say by the love of Wisdom and Virtue, then they follow a characteristic pattern of decline, culminating in mob rule and finally tyranny. At each stage Plato explicitly reminds us that it not only applies to cities, but to an individual soul. Much more than in civil politics, our greater concern is that our own soul not descend into tyranny. Once we fall from a state of grace, where piety, humility, and love of Wisdom direct our thoughts (the psychic counterpart of the ideal city), the usual course, Plato suggests, is a progressive descent through the psychological counterparts of timocracy (rule of honor), oligarchy (rule by greed), mob rule, and finally tyranny. Psychologically, mob rule correspond to an aimless alternation from one transient interest to another; this, unfortunately, characterizes the mental life of a great many people. In the tyrannical condition, ones thoughts and actions are dictated by the narrow interests of a single subself; conditions like drug or alcohol addiction or compulsive gambling are extreme examples.

The Tyrant’s progress, then, is an allegory Plato uses to describe the fall by degrees of the psyche to a state of extreme moral disorder (see Uebersax, 2014b). Elsewhere, for example in the Chariot Myth of Phaedrus, the ascent from the Cave in the Republic, and Diotima’s Ladder of Love in the Symposium, Plato addresses the complementary arc of moral ascent or salvation. The saved condition or state of grace is metaphorically described, I believe, by the myths of the Upper World in Phaedo, and the Reign of Cronos in Statesman.

It is this great, recurring cycle of fall and redemption in our moral life to which Plato allegorically refers. He seems to suggest that there are certain stages in this cycle that are more favorable for the birth of new subselves. When in a state of grace (or the psychological equivalent), our children — new plans, projects, or interests that we conceive — will be golden. Conversely, when we are in a phase of moral decline our mental children will have baser natures, and might bring us more grief than goodness.

Discernment, Faction and Conflict

It was in order to understand the origin of faction within the city that Socrates first invoked the Muses in a mock-serious tone:

“How, then, Glaucon,” I said, “will disturbance arise in our city, and how will our helpers and rulers fall out and be at odds with one another and themselves? Shall we, like Homer, invoke the Muses to tell ‘how faction first fell upon them?’” (Rep. 8.545d; cf. Iliad 1.6).

Then, in speaking for the Muses, Socrates imagines they would urge the citizens to procreate only in accord with the nuptial number, as this will best ensure golden offspring. At issue is having new generations of rulers who can direct the city wisely. If they contain baser metals, they will attempt to manage the city by means other than Wisdom (for example, by force), and then factions and conflict will emerge. Eventually a coalition will unseat the government, and a worse regime will ensue. Therefore to produce golden children is of vital importance. If offspring are born unseasonably, then:

“the rulers selected from them will not approve themselves very efficient guardians for testing Hesiod’s and our races of gold, silver, bronze and iron. And this intermixture of the iron with the silver and the bronze with the gold will engender unlikeness and an unharmonious unevenness, things that always beget war and enmity wherever they arise. ‘Of this lineage, look you.’” (Ibid. 8.546e−8.547a; cf. 3.415b)

So too, if we give birth ‘in season’ to golden thoughts and subselves, then these will rule psychopolis; we will remain in a condition of psychological grace. They will effectively guard the acropolis of our soul, discerning the nature of new subselves, thoughts, and passions, and keep baser ones from reigning (Ibid. 8.560b-c).

But if we beget subselves during times of moral fall — while in a state of anger or worrying about money, for example — the great danger is that they will become our rulers; and when rulers such as these occupy the citadel, it is inevitable that factions will arise within us, conflict and unhappiness will result, and we will decline still further. This progressive decline is the central psychological theme of Book 8 and the first part of Book 9, as Plato chronicles the Tyrant’s progress. All this is set in motion when the rulers beget children at unfavorable times.

As to Plato’s exact formula for the nuptial number, I would not care to offer an interpretation, and the reader will see I have scrupulously avoided it. Maybe there are some subtle psychological metaphors in it, or perhaps it’s just an artistic flourish with no special meaning.  Then again, maybe he’s setting a clever trap to sidetrack those who aren’t intent on finding the deeper moral meanings in the work.

Nevertheless if what we have ventured to say is true, then knowing even this much might be of considerable practical value. It enables us to have more conscious awareness of the birthing of new subselves. One can ask oneself, “Is this particular new subself one I really want to cultivate?” A consideration of ones moral state at its conception may allow one to weed out some of the baser schemes before they go too far. If this is Plato’s meaning, then he shows himself to be at once most practical and subtle. It is also precisely the kind of insight that can be easily communicated by means of his city-soul analogy, but perhaps difficult by other means.

This is not the only place where Plato refers to golden, silver, bronze, and iron races. The theme figures prominently in his discussion of the so-called Noble Lie (Ibid. 3.414a−415d). A later article will discuss this, as well as Plato’s source, Hesiod’s Ages of Man myth in Works and Days, arguing that these also should be understood at the level of psychological and moral allegory.

John Uebersax

1st draft (Jan. 2016)


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2 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on Libertarian Hippie.

    Thomas Hill

    January 10, 2016 at 3:53 am

  2. […] John. On the Psychological Meaning of Plato’s Nuptial Number. Online article.  Last modified:  January 10, 2016; accessed: January 12, […]

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