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Psychopolis: Plato’s Inner Republic and Personality Theory

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FOREWARD. The present short article presents two ideas.  One is that, contrary to the received opinion, Plato’s Republic is not mainly a book on civil politics, but an allegory for the managing the inner city of ones soul.  The second is that one particular way Plato’s theories can benefit modern psychology is that they successfully integrate traditional concepts of morality with the issue of personality integration.  Plato’s works, and the Republic in particular, offer a bridge between modern personality psychology and the perennial philosophy.

ONE of the most consistent and important findings in the vast 20th century literature on personality theory is that the psyche is not unitary, but plural.  The subselves which jointly constitute the personality have been variously called subpersonalities, subegos, part selves, schemata, complexes, and numerous other terms.  While there are some differences amongst these theoretical models, they largely agree.  Herein we will use the term subpersonality in a comprehensive sense to include all these other related concepts.

Excellent reviews of this literature have been supplied by Rowan (1990), Carter (2008), and Lester (2010).  Lester’s work is especially valuable for present discussion because he has attempted to lay out the principles of subpersonality theory in a compelling, axiomatic way. In the same spirit of axiomatic and scientific development, the present article, which is concerned with the psychological interpretation of Plato’s Republic, builds on the existing framework of Lester (2010) with a series of hypotheses, conjectures, or postulates.

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Postulates and Conjectures

1. Each person has, besides well-developed subpersonalities, a larger number of less well developed complexes which we might call proto-personalities (or part personalities; cf. Carter’s concept of minors and micros).  Each desire, interest, appetite, ambition, goal, project, social role, attachment, possession, relationship etc. has its own sub- or proto-personality. The number of such entities may therefore easily range into the hundreds or thousands.  Herein we will understand the term subpersonality to include proto-personalities.

2. Subpersonalities have affective and intellectual components.  At the intellectual level, a subpersonality may be more, or less reasonable.  Many (if not most) subpersonalities have impaired ‘reality-testing.’

3. Subpersonalities may be conscious, subconscious, or unconscious. One benefit of bringing a sub- or unconscious subpersonalities into conscious awareness is that one may then teach them to become more reasonable (i.e., have better reality testing).

4. Subpersonalities have individual construct systems (Kelly, 1955).

5. Construct systems contain first principles and supporting premises. Some construct systems are reality-based; others are fantasy-based.

6. Human beings have certain ultimate innate values.  These are experienced as eternal verities (Love, Truth, Beauty, Goodness, etc.) in transient peak experiences and more enduring plateau experiences (Maslow, 1971), and are culturally reinforced in myriad ways.

7. Subpersonalities whose construct systems are founded on eternal verities harmonize more readily with other such ‘truly informed’ subpersonalities. The more subpersonalities there are which are truly informed, the more harmonious the self-community will be.

8. Conversely, in the degree to which subpersonalities are based on narrow self-interest, pleasure-seeking, and distorted beliefs, their construct systems conflict with those of other subpersonalities.  Then inner confusion, competition, and disharmony are the norm.

9. Because psychic plurality (i.e., the self as a community of subpersonalities ) is so deeply important to the human condition, we can be certain it has been recognized before modern times.

10. Traditional systems, religious and philosophical, concerned with the attainment of self-realization, happiness, psychic integration, etc., would of necessity have to consider the multiplicity of  self.

11. Plato’s unique fame and status as the most eminent Western philosopher testifies to the deep relevance of his writings to the human condition.   Inasmuch as Plato is explicitly concerned with promoting psychic harmony, happiness, and a blessed life, we would expect him to address and resolve difficulties associated with psychic pluralism.

12. Plato’s most famous work, the Republic, is an allegory for the governance of the polity of the psyche, and not mainly a work on civil politics.  Evidence supporting this hypothesis include:

(12a) Plato says this explicitly in Book 1 (1.368), and reminds us of it repeatedly throughout the work (see Waterfield, 1993, Introduction for a large list of relevant passages).

(12b) This has been recognized by many leading commentators on the Republic (e.g., Annas, 1999; Guthrie, 1986; and Waterfield, 1993, to name a few).

(12c) Unlike Aristotle, Plato’s writings do not stray from the theme of philosophia, that is, the moral salvation of the individual by love of Wisdom and Virtue.  (Aristotle, in contrast, delved into every form of science.)  It would be strange for Plato to put aside his immense project of individual salvation to embark on a scientific treatise on political science.

(12d) Read literally, Plato’s Republic contains numerous implausibilities and nonsense, such as the holding of wives in common, the sanctioning of eugenics and slavery, and the endorsement of government lying.  Read as a political treatise, the Republic is absurd and amateurish. But read as an allegory it is accurate, sublime, deeply relevant, and a work worthy of someone regarded as the West’s greatest philosopher.

(12e) The most emblematic sections of the Republic, namely the central discussions of the Cave, the Sun, and the Divided Line, have little practical relevance to political science.  But they are of utmost importance to solving the problem of how to govern the city of the soul.

13. We now proceed to outline Plato’s model for the optimal governance of the psyche.  Our interpretative key is that the citizens referred to in Plato’s Republic correspond to subpersonalities of the individual psyche.

14. Citizens (subpersonalities) are roughly grouped into three categories: Workers, Soldiers, and Guardians.  It’s not difficult to see how these may correspond to different classes of subpersonalities, but this detail need not concern us at present; it suffices to note that, in the Republic, each class contains many individual citizens (subpersonalities).  Due partly to the sheer number of citizens, some system of government for psychopolis, and one more complex than a simple committee, is needed.  We may find models, Plato suggests, by examining how actual cities are governed.

15. In Book 8 of the Republic, Plato considers a variety of forms of civil government: monarchy, aristocracy, timocracy (rule by honor/status), oligarchy, democracy (including mob rule), and tyranny.  In each case he makes a point to say that it corresponds to a form of inner self-governance.  (Indeed, we can easily see examples of personality structures that correspond to each of these five types of civil government.)

16. When each inner citizen is concerned only with narrow self-interest, there is inevitable conflict in the polity; there then tends to be a progression from more benign to more tyrannical forms of self-government.

17. Plato agrees with modern subpersonality theorists that there is a common tendency towards development of an autocratic or tyrannical subpersonality.  However whereas some modern theorists seem most concerned about an overly moralistic autocrat, Plato more often associates inner tyranny with a disproportionate attachment to some pleasure or appetite (e.g., addiction).  Mendlovic’s theory of how inner totalitarianism may develop (see Lester, 2012, p. 3) is more in line with Plato’s.

18. Plato’s solution to inner faction and conflict is the Rule of Wisdom (philosophia).  In modern terms this would correspond to a psyche where subpersonalities anchor their construct systems on core values (eternal verities), rather than transient pleasures and narrow self-interest.

19. The prisoners in Plato’s cave symbolize subpersonalities which have not attained to right reasoning (based on core values), and are instead chained to egoistic, pleasure-seeking delusion (parataxic distortion).

20. In Plato’s allegory, climbing out of the cave and seeing the Sun symbolizes an ascent of the mind in peak experiences and plateau experiences, giving it a vision of eternal verities, on which basis it may then develop nondistorted construct systems and rules of action.

21. The philosopher king for Plato symbolizes the development of a new ruling or leading (Greek: hegemonikon) subpersonality.  One function of this subpersonality is to educate other subpersonalities (expressed allegorically as the philosopher, having himself escaped the cave and seen Truth, returns to help liberate the other prisoners).

22. In a later work, the Statesman, Plato continues to allegorically explore the theme of what qualities make for the best (internal) leader.  He likens optimal leadership to art, music, shepherding, and weaving, as opposed to ruling dogmatically and arbitrarily.

23. Throughout his works Plato supplies several means by which a person may experience ultimate truths, thereby helping to constellate the new philosopher king subpersonality, and to educate and harmonize other subpersonalities.  Roughly speaking, three means of ascent are presented:  dialectic (ascent by Truth), contemplation of  Beauty), and moral excellence. In each case we may find parallels in Maslow’s writings to conditions which may trigger peak experiences.

24. Plato’s system differs from much modern personality theory in that it is an explicitly moral system.  It allows for, in fact requires, the existence of objective, universally true moral principles.  It also acknowledges that humans ought to be moral, and that moral error is something real, and with definite negative psychological sequelae.

25. Modern psychology, in contrast, has tended to follow (or lead) in the broader cultural tendency to consider all morality relative and conditioned (e.g., Freud, Skinner).  This overall trend has contributed to a widespread dissociation of a traditionally recognized higher moral faculty (Conscience) from the rest of the psyche.  Psychic balance and harmony require integration of moral Conscience into conscious psychic life.

26. Human beings have a telos, an intended optimal state designed by Nature.  There exists a real, innate force of self-actualization.  This means we are, so to speak, hard-wired to integrate the personality, which has definite implications for therapy and counseling. There is also an opposing innate self-destructive principle; this also has implications for  therapy and counseling.

27. Understanding Plato’s Republic as an allegorical work on psychology has decided benefits.  One is that  we may mine from it important new insights about personality structure, dynamics, and integration.

28. Another is clinical: for some individuals, the study of Plato may be better for promoting personality integration and self-actualization, or removing obstacles to these, than psychotherapy.

29. Platonism has the same objective as traditional religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Vedanta, Buddhism, etc.)  It may therefore be pursued in conjunction with traditional religion, and then the two are mutually supportive.

30.  Just as it is helpful to travel with multiple maps, individual self-actualization is best pursued as a venture that is simultaneously scientific, philosophical, and religious.

References

Annas, Julia. The Inner City: Ethics Without Politics in the Republic. In: Platonic Ethics, Old and New. Ed. Julia Annas. Ithaca, 1999, pp. 72–95 (Ch. 4).

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

Guthrie, William K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 4, Plato: The Man and His Dialogues: Earlier Period. Cambridge, 1986.

Hermans, H. J. M.; Kempen, Harry J.G.  The Dialogical Self. Academic Press, 1993.

Kelly, George.  The Psychology of Personal Constructs.  New York, 1955.

Lester, David. A Multiple Self Theory of Personality. New York, 2010.

Lester, David. A multiple self theory of the mind. Comprehensive Psychology, 2012, 1, 5.

Maslow, Abraham.  Toward a Psychology of Being.  2nd ed. New York, 1968.

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. London, 1990.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles: El Camino Real Books, 2012.

Uebersax, John. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. Online article.  Last modified: August 29, 2014; accessed: January 12, 2017.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic. Online article.  Last modified: December 1, 2014; accessed: January 12, 2017.

Uebersax, John. Is Plato’s Republic About Psychology or Politics? What Can Bayes’ Rule Tell Us?  Online article.  Last modified: December 21, 2015; accessed: January 12, 2017.

Uebersax, John. On the Psychological Meaning of Plato’s Nuptial Number. Online article.  Last modified:  January 10, 2016; accessed: January 12, 2017.

Uebersax, John.  Plato Divinus: Is Plato a Religious Figure?  (to appear, Kronos Philosophical Journal, 2017).

Waterfield, Robin (tr.). The Republic of Plato. Oxford, 1993 (re-issued 1998).

v2.0 January 2017

Written by John Uebersax

January 12, 2017 at 9:20 pm