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Cicero on the Bonds of our Common Human Nature

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OF ALL the things which are a subject of philosophical debate there is nothing more worthwhile than clearly to understand that we are born for justice and that justice is established not by opinion but by nature. That will be clear if you examine the common bonds among human beings.

[29] There is no similarity, no likeness of one thing to another, so great as the likeness we all share. If distorted habits and false opinions did not twist weak minds and bend them in any direction, no one would be so like himself as all people would be like all others. Thus, whatever definition of a human being one adopts is equally valid for all humans.

[30] That, in turn, is a sufficient proof that there is no dissimilarity within the species; if there were, then no one definition would apply to all. In particular, reason, the one thing by which we stand above the beasts, through which we are capable of drawing inferences, making arguments, refuting others, conducting discussions and demonstrations — reason is shared by all, and though it differs in the particulars of knowledge, it is the same in the capacity to learn.

All the same things are grasped by the senses; and the things that are impressed upon the mind, the rudiments of understanding which I mentioned before, are impressed similarly on all humans, and language, the interpreter of the mind, may differ in words but is identical in ideas.

There is no person of any nation who cannot reach virtue with the aid of a guide.

[31] The similarity of the human race is as remarkable in perversities as it is in proper behavior. All people are ensnared by pleasure; and even if it is an enticement to bad conduct it still has some similarity to natural goodness: it gives delight through its fickle sweetness. Thus through a mental error it is adopted as something salutary; by a similar sort of ignorance death is avoided as a dissolution of nature, life is sought because it keeps us in the state in which we were born, and pain is considered one of the greatest evils both because of its own harshness and because the destruction of our nature seems to follow from it.

[32] . . . Trouble, happiness, desires, and fears pass equally through the minds of all . . . What nation is there that does not cherish affability, generosity, a grateful mind and one that remembers good deeds?

What nation does not scorn and hate people who are proud, or evildoers, or cruel, or ungrateful? From all these things it may be understood that the whole human race is bound together; and the final result is that the understanding of the right way of life makes all people better. . . .

[33] It follows, then, that we have been made by nature to receive the knowledge of justice one from another and share it among all people. And I want it to be understood in this whole discussion that the justice of which I speak is natural, but that such is the corruption of bad habits that it extinguishes what I may call the sparks given by nature, and that contrary vices arise and become established. But if human judgment corresponded to what is true by nature and men thought nothing human alien to them (to use the poet’s phrase), then justice would be cultivated equally by all. Those who have been given reason by nature have also been given right reason [recta ratio], and therefore law too, which is right reason in commands and prohibitions; and if they have been given law, then they have been given justice too. All people have reason, and therefore justice has been given to all; so that Socrates rightly used to curse the person who was first to separate utility from justice, and to complain that that was the source of all ills. . . . (Translation: Zetzel, 1999, pp. 115−117).

Additional fragment found in Lactantius, Divine Institutes 5.8.10 (Translation: Keyes, 1928, p. 519):

As one and the same Nature holds together and supports the universe, all of whose parts are in harmony with one another, so men are united by Nature; but by reason of their depravity they quarrel, not realizing that they are of one blood and subject to one and the same protecting power. If this fact were understood, surely man would live the life of the gods!

Source: Cicero, Laws (De legibus) 1.28−33.

Latin text here.


Keyes, Clinton W. (Tr.). Cicero. On the Republic. On the Laws. (Loeb Classical Library 213). Harvard University Press, 1928, p. 519.

Zetzel, James E. G. Cicero: On the Commonwealth and On the Laws. Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 115−117; cf. second edition, 2017.



Written by John Uebersax

August 9, 2017 at 7:04 pm

Key to the Republic of Plato

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N A SERIES of articles here I’ve been arguing that Plato’s Republic is not about politics at all (except perhaps, indirectly), but rather is intended as a sublime allegory for the complex moral and cognitive workings of the human psyche; and that this allegorical and psychological perspective is the key to the interpretation of the Republic. To recap what has been said in earlier articles here, the basic premise is that in the Republic Plato uses his description of an ideal city-state mostly as a vehicle for explaining the proper and harmonious operation of the human psyche, which can be likened to a city.  By this means Plato seeks to help his readers comprehend and acquire the virtue of Righteousness (dikaiosyne, or rightness of soul).

This view was known in antiquity (Proclus mentions it in his Commentary on the Republic), although not an especially common one. In modern times, writers have been more inclined to uncritically accept the premise that the Republic is a literal political treatise; even the esoterically inclined Thomas Taylor, who himself wrote a masterly essay on the allegorical meaning of the Odyssey, was unwilling to part with the notion.  It is of some interest, therefore, to note that, in the 19th century, the American Platonist, Hiram K. Jones, urged most strongly for an allegorical reading of the Republic: “Let us then have done with all this improbable and silly notion about a figmentary political State.”

Jones published his take on the Republic in “Key to the Republic of Plato,” which appeared in the journal The Platonist in 1890.  Main extracts from the article are supplied below.

Johnson’s interpretative innovations include the suggestion that the citizens of psychopolis (e.g., our thoughts, passions and judgments) can, at least in some cases, be meaningfully regarded as male and female, and may have offspring — I made similar suggestions in the table of allegorical correspondences here.  Even more original and noteworthy is his opinion that the population of our inner city may be very large, containing not merely a few, or a few dozen or hundred, but “multitudes” of inner citizens.  He explains this by implicating human innate knowledge of Platonic Forms — a fundamental and emblematic principle of Platonic psychology, developed especially by Plotinus and later Neoplatonist philosophers.  The traditional Platonic view is that human beings have a divine spark in their soul, an image of God and/or God’s consciousness, and that this spark includes knowledge of every principle, form or relationship.  Jones seems to suggest that, even if this vast knowledge is unconscious, it spawns an unfathomably complex and numerous population of thought structures which interact, and which require some form of governance to avoid conflict and ensure harmony.  If that is indeed his meaning, then this could easily be his most important original contribution to philosophy.

Where did Jones get the idea to interpret the Republic allegorically?  Possibly from that consummate allegorical exegete, Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BC – c.50 AD), whose works would have certainly been known to him, either directly or from the writings of Platonist colleagues like Alexander Wilder.  Philo allegorically interpreted the Pentateuch, his rule being that every figure and event corresponds to something in the human psyche.  Philo’s views, though he himself was somehat forgotten, were enormously influential in shaping subsequent Christian allegorical interpretation of Scripture.

Another possible influence is Swedenborg, who, like Philo, subjected the Bible to extensive allegorical interpretation; there were many Swedenborgians in Jones’ circle of contacts.  Swedenborg, incidentally, was himself almost certainly influenced by Philo:  his brother-in-law, Erik Benzelius the younger, was one of the foremost Philonists of his time and worked with Thomas Mangey in the production of the first critical edition of Philo’s works (Williams-Hogan, p. 211).

Curiously, Jones was of the opinion that Laws was not written by Plato, but by a satirist.  Jones’ fellow American Platonist, Tayler Lewis (1845) had earlier opined that, in contrast to the allegorical nature of the Republic, Laws was Plato’s literal attempt to design a just political state.  Why it occurred to neither of them (or nobody else, as far as I can tell) that Laws too is an allegorical work is unknown.

THE JUDGMENT of the thoughtful and the critical, the Republic of Plato has been regarded as his greatest achievement. Accepting this estimate as just, the question is before us: in what consists this claim, that in this we have the greatest work of a man who in universal human opinion ranks among the very first of men: What is its merit? … What was the aim in the author’s mind? What did he undertake to do in the framing and constitution of this work?

As the first step in this enquiry we will assume hypothetically that he did not attempt to conjecture and frame for mankind a model Social-Polity, a model Political-State. The hypothesis that he thought himself submitting to mankind a model Political-State was seized upon and used against him by his own contemporaries, and countrymen, such as could not, or did not reach the plane of his thought…. The presupposition, that we have, or can have the key to Plato — the philosopher — from critics and expositors who have not in their mental constitution the philosophic capacity to reach the plane of his thought and theme, is only misleading….

To-day, the universal eminence of Plato in the judgment of mankind is attributable to the essential ideal order and quality of his thought; eminent itself in that it is grounded in the identification of Ideas, Essential Forms, as the first principles of things known and knowable.

Plato therefore as Philosopher is always Ideal, Essential, in his subject and aim. History, Biography, Art, Social Sciences, Political Science, Moral Science, Institutions, Laws, Government, are no where found to be the theme, and end of his contemplations. But Spirit, Life, Causes, First Principles, Essence, Idea, and thence the generations of the mutable and transient orders of things.

Returning to the question, however, namely: What was the aim of the Philosopher in the production of this work, — it is assumed that “The Politeia” — ”The Republic,” as translated — is a Soul Polity, and not a Social Polity: and that the healthy perfections of the Soul are rooted in the Idea and principle of Justice. And as to the mode and process of searching for and identifying this principle and cause, we must find its form and essence in the interior life of the Soul, and not in the conventionalities and notions and workings of an external political State. (pp. 255−257)

THE AIM then of the philosopher is not to invent a model State, but to discover rather the Model-Soul — the [individual] Soul in realization of Justice in itself — a state of Health and Righteousness, and Savedness, — and true life on the one hand, and on the other the contrariety, namely, the soul in realization of injustice in itself, a state of disease, impurity, and wretchedness, and destitution of all true life.

In the next place then, — after what method does the Philosopher propose to pursue the investigation? What manner of discourse does he propose to institute? … says Socrates:

“… the Inquiry we were attempting was no trifling one, but one as appears to me, suited for clear seeing (clairvoyant) persons.”

“Since then,” said I, “we are not very expert, it seems proper to pursue some such mode of investigation of it, as if some one should order persons not very sharp sighted, to read small letters at a distance! and then discover to them the same letters large elsewhere and in a large field; it would then appear desirable, me thinks, first to read these, and then to examine the less, as it is found that these are the same.”

“We will first then, if you please, inquire in what manner it exists in States; and then we will in like manner examine it in the individual, attentively observing the similarity of the greater to the idea of the less.” [Republic 2.368]

Justice in States is assumed to be a similitude of justice itself — an objective likeness; justice itself is subjective, ideal, essential, causal, celestial in God, and psychic in man; while its political existence is phenomenal.

The Philosopher then proposes to take the phenomenal, conventional manifestation as a letter and symbol of the subject idea; its similitude with the real form affording a vehicle apt for discourse, in which we are to look attentively, from the similitude to the subject idea itself. (pp. 259−260)


The Platonist (1881−1888) and Bibliotheca Platonica (1889−1890) were published by Jones’ friend and colleague, Thomas Moore Johnson.

THE PARABLE, and fable, and allegory and myth, are each different modes of discourse by means of representatives. And the more exalted the nature of the subject the more mythic must be the representative, that is the more mystic the subject, the more must the representative scenic form violate the literal ordinary consistencies. The law of this order of speech requires that things and animals, and men, and institutions, shall speak and act, and work in various violations of the consistency, and the literal truth of their natural history.

Plato then proposes to constitute a State or commonwealth whose fashion and working shall be so framed as that the mind shall find in it transitional facility, a looking from the symbol to the thing symbolized, from the speech to the thing spoken of — Justice in the commonwealth, is the ostensible manifestation, the phenomenon of Justice itself.

Plato then proposes to search for the Idea, Justice itself, whose intrinsic power worketh righteousness in the Soul and in the State as its effects: and he initiates the mythic State as a mode of investigation and search.

Justice in idea, and essence and cause is not to be found in the actual social institutions. In these are the plane of its manifestations and effects only.

It was no part therefore of Plato’s design to surmise, and submit for the adoption of mankind a model political state. This matter as an aim lies rather in the province of the politician and Statesman, than in that of the philosopher. And whether or not the Greeks already had as much common sense and science about that, as mankind have since, or ever will arrive at, it consists not with the range of Plato’s thought as Philosopher, nor with the common sense and judgement of Plato, or any other noteworthy man, to present to mankind such a formula for a practical system of human society.

This then is a Mythic State regarded in the letter, which in much of its fabrication and working, intentionally violates the common sense and the common plan, and the common proprieties of the mere social and political institutions — as much in the Greek, as in the English and American social manners and tastes and judgments and facts; and not more so than in our own Mythic use of Israelitish and Roman and Scandinavian, histories and Biographies, and occurrences — and many other like uses in our oracular, and Poetic and Philosophic customs of speech. (pp. 260−261)

AND NOW what say we? Is it possible or not? Is it probable or not, that the Greek was enlightened to see and know, that the justification [JU: making righteous] of the Soul is the salvation of the Soul, for this and for all worlds and experiences, present, past, and future. And was it therefore perceived by this embodiment of their wisdom, that the most worthy and exalted service he could devote himself in, would be the revival and and establishment of this central truth in the mind and spirit of his countrymen and of his age.

And 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, as to require the most damaging exceptions and apologies for gross errors and puerilities, as it must be, while we attempt to read the treatises named the “Republic” and the “Laws” as a model social system devised by the Philosopher. (pp. 263−264)

Meeting of the Plato Club of Jacksonville, Illinois.  (Jones seated left of center, just behind table.)

IN THE Thought of the Greek, as indeed in the Thought of all the enlightened ages, the Soul is assumed to be microcosmic — a comprehension in its constitution of all the principles and forms and powers constitutive of the macrocosm — the great world outside of the Soul. So as that all things, all principles, and all forms and powers constitutive of the great outside world exist also in strictest counterpart within the soul of man. And this is the ground and reason of man’s capacity to be conscious of and to form knowledge of all things from Deity to the atom.

And the awakening to the consciousness and the knowing of these elements and factors of his being and existence is the experimental process and history, of all the educations and disciplines of the actual life; man could not know that which is foreign to and not himself unless there should exist the counterpart to it within himself.

— multitudes of intellections, of thoughts, of reasons, of understandings of judgments; and multitudes of sensations of affections, of desires, of motives, of aims, of will and deeds. Within is , and these are necessarily related in rational order and process and harmony and peace, or in chaotic order and process and strife and tumult.

Hence there exist within the Soul order and harmony and peace and health and plenty and divine joy; and there exist also in the Soul contentions and strifes and tumults and riots and wars and pestilence and famine and deadly dearth of good. He who does not know this has not begun to know himself.

And these actors in the Soul are distinguished as masculine and feminine in all oracular and philosophic terminology — in all epic and dramatic method the intellectual and rational principles of the mind are masculine, while the sentient principles, the affections and emotions and desires are feminine.

And in these several forms of discourse concerning the invisible forms and powers it is customary to designate them as men and women. (pp. 266−267)

MOREOVER, the intellectual, and moral powers are progenitors, and they generate thoughts and affections. These thoughts and affections are sons and daughters. And these all are the men and the women and the children of the world within the Soul.

And if you will believe it there are in this method and these terms of viewing the subject, as many men and women and children and other things in the Soul, as there are outside of it: and ere we exhaust the self knowledge we shall discover that there is as much to do, to effect order and harmony and health and peace and plenty among the men and women and children and things in the Soul, as among the men and women and children in the social state.

We have heard much of that internecine warfare between the sensual and the spiritual powers in man, and we have heard also of that peace within which passeth all understanding, and we have heard also that he that ruleth his own spirit is mightier than he that taketh a city: and these things will be greatly magnified in our appreciations ere we shall have solved the problems of life.

And it is here within the Soul, and of these populations of the Soul, that the Soul Polity of Plato’s “Republic” must be understood: and into this must we look if we would see and know the kingdom of the Heavens. It will be found within us, or not at all.

To be saved from our selfishness, to be saved from our sins, to be made just is a chief business of life, and it is not accomplished as some may imagine. (p. 268)

Chapel classroom at the Concord School of Philosophy, where Jones was a featured instructor.

THE MAN must know himself, a labor much declined. He must know himself in his intellectual and moral principles and powers, in his own thoughts and affections and ambitions and desires and passions and will and way. And more than this, he must establish his Intellectual and moral powers as guardians and rulers over his animal nature. In this guardianship his intellectual and moral forces must be a unit — the house must not be divided against itself. His intellectual faculties whose function it is to see and to know what is right and true and good, and his moral powers of feeling and knowing and believing what is right and true and good must watch together, and walk together and work together and fight together against all invading enmities and foes, if he would establish and maintain the celestial order and rule in the commonwealth within. These are the relations of the Mythic men and women and children treated of in the Republic of Plato.

The Soul that is unconscious of, and uninformed of these conditions and reasons of divine order and peace and is actually void of them….

A divine polity within the Soul, then, a “kingdom of Heaven within you”, is thus seen to be the Politeia which Plato seeks to disclose and establish in the view and belief of his fellow-men. And what lower order of theme — what less important subject should most probably engage the best thought, and the labor of producing the greatest work of the life of a man so eminent in the discussion of the problems of the inner nature of man and of the world.

But so far the investigation has reached merely some characterization of the fruits — the productions of the influx of a regenerating principle in the Soul, and still the question recurs —how does it come to pass? “We were inquiring,” says Plato, “into this — what is the nature of justice; and we were in quest also of the perfectly just man, how he became so, and what was his nature if he really exists.” [Republic 5.472]

With us, the natural history of the working of this principle and the production of these fruits, most briefly outlined are, that by means of ordeal, and a quickening unto reminiscence, of the goods of the Father’s house — determination to arise and go to the Father, and through confession and obedience and duty and service and love of good and truth and beauty and purity the Soul shall reach the best abode. All which is the reversal and contrariety of the career of dissipation and sin — the strewing of the portion of goods in riotous living — the delights of sensuality.

But man is a moral free agent, and this history must be initiated in the motions of his own mind and will. He must voluntarily turn his mind and heart in contemplation and desire of what is most divine. He must arise and open his door and admit the gentle angelic stranger who stands without knocking, knocking, and waiting that he may be admitted; and straightway shall he be led in the way of all truth and duty and service. (pp. 269−270)

I HEARD a very eminent and very orthodox Christian clergyman affirm that Plato was a regenerate man in the Christian idea of the term. No man can so frame and amplify such views and discourse of these doctrines of life without the most profound experimental acquaintance with this subject. (p. 273)


Anderson, Paul Russell. Hiram K. Jones and Philosophy in Jacksonville. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (19081984), vol. 33, no. 4, 1940, pp. 478–520.

Anderson, Paul Russell. Platonism in the Midwest. Philadelphia: Temple University, 1963.

Bregman, Jay. The Neoplatonic Revival in North AmericaHermathena, no. 149, 1990, pp. 99–119.

Jones, Hiram K. Key to the Republic of Plato. Bibliotheca Platonica, vol. 1, no. 4 (Nov.−Dec. 1890), pp. 255−273.

Pitner, T. J.; Black, C. E.; Norbury, F. P. Obituary: Dr. Hiram K. Jones. Illinois Medical Journal, vol. 5 (June 1903−May 1904), pp. 173−174.

Pontiac, Ronnie. The Platonist on Sunset Blvd: Part 1: Hiram K. Jones the Western Wonder. Newtopia Magazine. January 15, 2013.

Lewis, Taylor. Plato Contra Atheos: Plato Against the Atheists.  New York: Harper, 1845.

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

Uebersax, John. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology. 29 August 2014. Accessed 17 July 2017.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic.  Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology. 30 December 2015. Accessed 17 July 2017.

Uebersax, John. Psychopolis: Plato’s Inner Republic and Personality Theory.  Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology. 12 January 2017. Accessed 17 July 2017.

Williams-Hogan, Jane. The Place of Emanuel Swedenborg in Modern Western Esotericism. In: Eds. Antoine Faivre & Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion. Leuven: Peeters, 1998. (pp. 201−252).

To cite:  Uebersax, John.  Hiram K. Jones’ allegorical key to Plato’s Republic.  Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology.  19 July 2017.  Accessed <day month year>.

Maslow and Platonism

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DIGGING into the writings of pioneer humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow it’s become clear that his Being-psychology — that is, his intensive investigation into the nature of self-actualizing people, and of peak and plateau experiences — was strongly influenced by Platonism  This has several important implications, and these will be addressed in subsequent articles.  The aim of this post is merely to document the connection using actual quotations from Maslow’s works, and hopefully to whet the appetite of Maslow fans for more.

As will be discussed later, this means we have two road-maps: Maslow’s and Plato’s, of the same terrain, and that’s very advantageous.

While Maslow was certainly influenced by Eastern spiritual traditions (e.g., Taoism and Zen Buddhism), careful attention to his works reveals an even stronger influence by Plato and the western philosophical tradition.  That this connection hasn’t gained much notice is probably due, at least in part, to the fact that few psychologists read Plato.  We need to fix that!

Note: sources are indicated with a two-letter acronym (see Bibliography for full title.)

I remember rereading Plato’s Republic, in which he stated that the ultimate good involves the contemplation of the ultimate values. What was so amazing was that I had found men and women in everyday life who were embracing, actually living, these ultimate values through their particular activities. {Abraham Maslow, UP 90-91}

For my theory is implying that in a certain sense, every newborn baby is a potential Plato. Every child has an instinctive need for the highest values of beauty, truth, justice, and so on. {Abraham Maslow, UP 95}

March 2, 1965. (Still sick at home with flu, etc.) Reading Republic. Socrates in Book IX talking about “the lawless, wild-beast nature, which peers out in sleep.” “Then the wild beast within us — goes forth to satisfy his desires, & there is no conceivable folly or crime … not excepting incest, or any other unnatural union, or parricide, or the eating of forbidden food … which at such a time, when he has parted company with all shame & sense, a man may not be ready to commit.” Reminds me that I’ve never really worked up the relations of the Freudian id & the real self. It’s OK to reject neurosis on grounds that it is the rejection of real self. But this can’t be true for our wishes of sleep. My assumption is that these lawless wishes (absolutely selfish & undesirable in any society, especially since they include whatever happens to be locally forbidden too, like the ”forbidden food” above ) exist in the healthiest people too, & that therefore they are part of the real self, not external to it. They’re just  controlled, or laughed at, or shrugged away, & don’t constitute a serious temptation to the mature person. {Abraham Maslow, JA 125}

November 9, 1968. Then ask: why does truth heal? But is this the same as asking: why does beauty heal? (Or any other B-value?) Is this the same as Socrates & Plato talking about contemplation of the B-values as the ultimate happiness, the highest activity of man, etc.? {Abraham Maslow, JA 274}

January 14, 1970. Good extension of B-art, unitive cognition, etc. B. [Bertha, Maslow’s wife] complains that J. her teacher keeps trying to make her sculpture less realistic & representational. I was going to suggest calling it “magical realism,” & then I thought “symbol realism” or “unitive realism” would be better. It’s the difference between reduced-to-the-concrete realism & the portrait which is of a particular person, like the head of Ellen, & yet is also universal, & of a universal, of a B-symbol, i.e., of the Young Girl, any young girl seen Platonically, as in the B-analysis of male & female. Jeannie is a particular baby, but she is also Babyhood, the representative of a whole dais, of a Platonic idea. [J 1221 (= CL 245f.)]

I live so much in my private world of Platonic essences, having all sorts of conversations with Plato & Socrates and trying to convince Spinoza and Bergson of things & getting mad at Locke and Hobbes, that I only appear to others to be living in the world. {Abraham Maslow, FR (Preface), xx-xxi}

Any reader of Zen, Taoistic, or mystical literatures knows what I am talking about. Every mystic has tried to describe this vividness and particularity of the concrete object and, at the same time, its eternal, sacred, symbolic quality (like a Platonic essence). {Abraham Maslow, FR 111}

We must make a new vocabulary for all these untilled, these unworked problems. This “cognition of being” means really the cognition that Plato and Socrates were talking about; almost, you could say. a technology of happiness, of pure excellence, pure truth, pure goodness, and so on. Well, why not a technology of joy. of happiness? {Abraham Maslow, FR 169}

These in turn are good paths (not guaranteed, but statistically likely to be good paths) to the “cognition of being,” to the perceiving of the Platonic essences, the intrinsic values, the ultimate values of being, which in turn is a therapeutic-like help toward both the curing-of-sicknesses kind of therapy and also the growth toward self-actualization, the growth toward full humanness. {Abrham Maslow, FR 170}

If B-Values are as necessary as vitamins and love, and if their absence can make you sick, then what people have talked about for thousands of years as the religious or platonic or rational life seems to be a very basic part of human nature. {Abraham Maslow, FR 186}

I became a symbol; I stood for something outside my own skin. I was not exactly an individual. I was also a “role” of the eternal teacher. I was the Platonic essence of the teacher. {Abraham Maslow, FR 260}

After the insight or the great conversion, or the great mystic experience, or the great illumination, or the great full awakening, one can calm down as the novelty disappears, and as one gets used to good things or even great things, live casually in heaven and be on easy terms with the eternal and the infinite. To have got over being surprised and startled and to live calmly and serenely among the Platonic essences, or among the B-Values. {Abraham Maslow, FR 265}

The unitive perception is one in which — as I think the Zen people may have described it best — you sacralize the ordinary. I don’t know if that carries meaningfulness with it. In the person, preferably, but in a flower and tree — in anything — you can see its Platonic essence at the same time that you see it as itself, in the concrete sense. {Abraham Maslow, CL 226}


Cleary, Tom S. (1996). Abraham Maslow and the farther reaches of human nature: The plateau experience (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest. (9700510). Appendix C: UCLA Presentation (March, 1970). [CL]

Day, John L. (1974). Platonic essences utilized as models for Maslow’s peak experiences. Doctoral dissertation. U.S. International University.

Krippner, Stanley (1972). The plateau experience: A. H. Maslow and others. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 4(2), 107–120.

Maslow, Abraham H. (1968). Toward a psychology of Being. 2nd ed. New York: Van Nostrand. (1st ed., Van Nostrand, 1962; 3rd ed., Foreword and Preface by Richard J. Lowry, Wiley, 1999). [PB]

Maslow, Abraham H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking (republished: Arkana, 1993, ISBN: 0140194703). [FR]

Maslow, Abraham H. (1979). The journals of A. H. Maslow. Eds. Richard Lowry, Bertha G. Maslow. 2 vols.  Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Maslow, Abraham H. (1982). The journals of Abraham Maslow (abridged). Eds. Richard J. Lowry, Jonathan Freedman, Bertha G. Maslow. Lexington, MA: Lewis Publishing Co. [JA]

Maslow, Abraham H. (1996). Future visions: The unpublished papers of Abraham Maslow. Ed. Edward L. Hoffman. Thousand Oaks: Sage. [UP]

Uebersax, John.  (2014). The monomyth of fall and salvation.  Christian Platonism. 10 December 2014.  Accessed 28 June 2017.

Healthy and Unhealthy Communication Patterns Within the US Political Spectrum

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THE theme of this brief article (illustrated in the figure below) is to note a contrast between two political conditions of American society:

1. Positive condition (top): Moderates of left and right converse with each other, producing a fruitful exchange of ideas and gradual improvement in social policies and government.  This is, arguably, somewhat the situation of the US in the 1960’s.

2. Disordered condition (bottom): This corresponds to the present situation, where the political narrative is dictated by radicals on the left and right, with the majorities on both sides marginalized.

The system dynamics of these two scenarios are completely different.  In the healthy situation, there is a moral majority, spanning left and right — the members of which share certain fundamental moral premises about right and wrong and the direction society ought to head.  Within this moral majority, people on either side of the aisle may disagree, but they still recognize and affirm a greater sense of community that transcends specific differences of opinion. This system allows and promotes gradual social progress, because each side is interested in listening, reason, negotiation, compromise and respect of self and others.  Communication media (news, articles, books) are oriented to the moderate majority.  Example: in the 1960’s, Democrats and Republicans read the same magazines (Life,  Reader’s Digest, Saturday Evening Post) and watched the same news programs; this helped (1) affirm a sense of community and shared values that transcend politics, and (2) allowed for examination of social issues along non-partisan lines.

In the disordered condition, extreme and radical factions on the left and right are elevated to functional leadership.   A false narrative is created which assumes that ‘radicals speak for everyone.’  Dissenters are censored, or ridiculed.  Extremely polarized communication media are used as a means to convey the false message that the radicals speak for everyone.  Radicals demonize opponents, and moderates in each camp are induced to dislike and hate moderates of the other camp for ideological reasons.  Anything that affirms the fundamental solidarity of all citizens (religion, tradition, fine arts) must be denigrated and ridiculed.

If this is a reasonable model of what’s going on, what can or should be done to correct things?

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.

*  *  *

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.


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,

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

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? Kronos Philosophical Journal, 2016, 5, 98−110.

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

On the Ancient Titles of Plato’s Republic

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Politeia_beginning._Codex_Parisinus_graecus_1807IN HIS Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius cites Thrasylus (d. 36 CE) to the effect that the work of Plato we call The Republic had two Greek titles, Politeia (Πολιτεία) and peri dikaiou (περὶ δικαίου; DL 3.60). From the better-known former one, we get (somewhat indirectly) our title The Republic. We will return to that, but first let’s consider the second title. This is usually translated as On Justice, but that is incorrect. The Greek word for justice is dikaiosune. While derived from the same root (dike), the word dikaiou, a pronoun, means a just man or person. Further, the word ‘just’ here is somewhat misleading. In modern English we tend to equate justice with social justice. In that sense a just man would be one who deals fairly with others. But the Greek concept of dike is broader — more like what we call ‘in right measure’ (the goddess Dike is sometimes pictured holding a balance scale). A more accurate translation of dikaiou therefore is a rightly ordered or righteous person.

The word politeia means a system of government, a form of political regime, or, by extension, a constitution. We get the word Republic not from the Greek word, but from the title of Cicero’s dialogue, Res publica (the public thing), which he styled in imitation of Plato’s work. However, as noted by Tarrant (2012) and others, some manuscripts give this title as politeiai, a plural form. This would be translated as systems of government, constitutions, or regimes.

We end up with the possibility that (although Plato, as far as we know, himself named none of his dialogues) the title of the work we call The Republic would, by ancient readers, have been understood as something like Regimes: On the Righteous Person. This would have made it clear that the dialogue is a work on ethics and psychology, with discussion of city governments supplying an allegorical framework for investigating the good and bad government of ones soul or psyche.


Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. R.D. Hicks (tr.). Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA. 1925 (repr. 1972).

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s Republics. Journal of the International Plato Society, 12, 2012.  Online version: mar 2013.

Written by John Uebersax

January 15, 2016 at 3:47 am

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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Augustine of Hippo. Against the Academics (Contra Academicos). Tr. John J. O’Meara. Westminster, Maryland, 1950.

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