Cultural Psychology

National Gifts: A Foreign Policy of Friendship

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THE OTHER day I visited with interest (and some dismay) the website for the United States foreign assistance programs.

It claims that our country is planning to devote $33.9 billion in fiscal year 2017 to help foreign countries.

Ignoring the $8.3 billion in military assistance, this still leaves a respectable $25.6 billion dedicated to economic and humanitarian assistance.

Or is it respectable?  Who today is so innocent as not to suspect that much of our so-called economic assistance is really a way of steering the economy, infrastructure and values of a foreign country to render it more exploitable?

It need not be so.  I propose to my fellow Americans an alternative.

The current US population is something over 300 million.  Were each person to contribute a mere 33 cents annually (parents paying the amount for infants and young children), we would easily raise $100 million.

Each year we could single out one amongst the family of nations, and bestow on this nation, as a gesture of pure friendship, some great gift purchased with it.

The first stipulation would be that there are no strings attached.   We seek nothing in return for the gift, except the benefit of the recipient and the honor of making it.

The second is that the gift must have nothing to do with economics or materialist values.  We would wish, rather, to give in the name of eternal friendship between the people of that country and our own.

The most suitable gifts, I suggest, would be libraries, museums, parks, gardens and monuments.  Perhaps there are others, but I personally would not like to see the list extended too far beyond these definite examples of non-material goods.

The figure of $100 million, or perhaps as much as twice that,  would suffice for a truly magnificent gift, yet at the same time is sufficiently restrained as to not seem crass.  By comparison, the new Library of Alexandria, Egypt cost $200 million, the Sifang Art Museum in Nanji, China, $279 million, and the MuCEM of Marseille, $260 million.

I have in mind one historical precedent for this, namely a library for the University of Leuven which the American people (independently of their government) donated to the people of Belgium following World War I.

To consider the premise from the reverse perspective, consider the affection which Americans retain to this day to their French cousins in gratitude for the gift of the Statue of Liberty.

An examination of current foreign aid recipients shows we now favor poor nations and generally ignore more prosperous countries like Japan and Canada.  But in friendship we should not make such distinctions.  If I may, I would like to nominate Japan, a great friend whom we take for granted, as the first recipient.

To merely begin this program would, besides the immediate result of honoring our old friends and making new ones, have the effect of changing history.  It would become immediately apparent to all how easy and, relatively speaking, inexpensive this is, and how much vastly superior it is as a foreign policy than war, competition and exploitation. It would signal nothing less than a turning point in human evolution.  Henceforth the advanced level of our technology and the vast power of collective capital would be matched by our wisdom and charity.

To speed the progress of so worthy an endeavor let some wealthy American — for example,Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg — take the first step by supplying, for one year only, some substantial fraction (but not to exceed 50%) of the total.   In return they would go down in history as one of the great benefactors of humanity.

Or let those whose reputations suffer from past errors or partisan connections demonstrate their patriotism and good will to all — a George Soros or the Koch Brothers — by taking the first step.  They will then be applauded by all for their magnanimity.








Written by John Uebersax

March 30, 2016 at 11:03 pm

The Fable of the Crafty Chief

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THERE was once a happy and prosperous tribe. Their chief was wise and fair.

A neighboring tribe became jealous of their success, and began to raid them, stealing their cattle and corn. The chief then raised an army of strong men. The next time the enemy tribe raided them, the chief and his men delivered a sound defeat, and they never attacked again. Nevertheless to discourage further mischief the tribe decided to keep a some men permanently armed and ready to defend them.

The chief grew old and his son then became leader. Unlike the father, the son was selfish and greedy. No matter how much he had, he always wanted more. He depleted the public treasury until he had amassed a great fortune. Then he began to eye the wealth of neighboring tribes, and sent raiders to steal from them. When the neighboring tribes protested and tried to defend themselves, he sent soldiers to intimidate them and demand tribute. The other tribes, weaker, began to submit.

But the people did not like this. They decided to hold an election to select a new chief.

Yet the son was crafty, and he conceived a scheme to retain his position. He went to the women of the tribe and spoke as follows: “I see how the men of the tribe oppress you women. They make you grind corn, cook, and wash clothes all day, while they enjoy hunting and sitting around the fire smoking their pipes. But if you vote for me in the election, I promise to fix things. I will improve your status relative to the men, and redress this great injustice.” This met with much approval with the women, and they agreed to vote for him.

Then the son went to the farmers and similarly spoke: “I know how much difficulty you have with the cattlemen. They steal your water, and let their cows eat and trample your crops. They grow rich while you grow poor. But if you vote for me, I will fix things. I will see to it that the cattlemen are put in their place. I will take some of their land and money for you to distribute amongst yourself.” This too met with much approval with the farmers.

And so it happened that when the election occurred, all the women and all the farmers voted for the chief; and although nobody else voted for him, he received enough votes to achieve victory. Once secure in his position, he resumed his previous behavior, only more boldly and on a larger scale. He now openly raided neighboring tribes, stealing their things. He hired mercenaries to form a large and invincible army, and taxed his people to pay for it. As the son ruthlessly plundered all the neighbors, the tribe became hated and held in contempt by all.

In time, even the weather changed. The earth would not yield her crops, and the cattle grew thin. The tribe became poor, suffered, and demanded a new leader. Yet every time an election was held, the crafty chief applied his scheme. No matter how poor the tribe became, there were always groups who believed they had less than others, and by exaggerating these disparities and promising to fix them he continued to win. And here is the paradox: that while each group acted rationally — for indeed inevitable differences in the distribution of things among the tribe occurred — when each group only sought greater justice for itself, all suffered greatly.

Thus it was that the people, by continually fighting amongst themselves about how to distribute what little resources remained, collectively had less and less, until they ceased to be a tribe at all, so that now even their name is forgotten.

Written by John Uebersax

March 8, 2016 at 3:54 am

George Washington’s Solemn Warning Against Party Strife and Plea for Unity

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From George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)

A solicitude for your welfare, which cannot end but with my life, and the apprehension of danger, natural to that solicitude, urge me, on an occasion like the present, to offer to your solemn contemplation, and to recommend to your frequent review, some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all-important to the permanency of your felicity as a people. These will be offered to you with the more freedom, as you can only see in them the disinterested warnings of a parting friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel. Nor can I forget, as an encouragement to it, your indulgent reception of my sentiments on a former and not dissimilar occasion….

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another….

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed,

it is of infinite moment
that you should properly estimate
the immense value of your national union
to your collective and individual happiness;
that you should cherish a cordial, habitual,
and immovable attachment to it;
accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it
as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity;
watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety;
discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion
that it can in any event be abandoned;
and indignantly frowning upon
the first dawning of every attempt
to alienate any portion of our country from the rest,
or to enfeeble the sacred ties
which now link together the various parts.

~ * ~

Written by John Uebersax

February 17, 2016 at 5:33 am

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)


Annas, J. Platonic Ethics, Old and New. Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 1999; Chapter 4, The Inner City, pp. 72−95.

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

Blössner, Norbert. The City-Soul Analogy. In: Giovanni R. F. Ferrari (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic (Ch. 13, pp. 345–385 ). Cambridge, 2007.

Guthrie, W. K. C, A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 4. Plato, the Man and His Dialogues: Earlier Period. Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Harte, Verity. The Politics of Ignorance. In: Eds. Verity Harte, Melissa Lane (eds.), Politeia in Greek and Roman Philosophy (pp. 139−154). Cambridge, 2013.

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

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

More, Paul Elmer. The Religion of Plato. Princeton, 1921.

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

Schofield, Malcolm. The Noble Lie. In: Giovanni R. F. Ferrari (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic (Ch 6, pp. 138–164). Cambridge, 2007.

Shorey, Paul (tr.). Plato’s Republic. 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA, 1937 (v1), 1942 (v2).

Strauss, Leo. Persecution and the Art of Writing. New York, 1952.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic. 2014a. Online document. author website.

Uebersax, John S. The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation. 2014b. Online document. Author website.

Uebersax, John. Is Plato’s Republic About Politics or Psychology? What Can Bayes’ Rule Tell Us? 2015. Online document. Author website.

Waterfield, Robin. Republic. Oxford University Press, 1993.




Is Plato’s Republic About Psychology or Politics? What Can Bayes’ Rule Tell Us?

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fancy-drop-case-tHAT Plato’s Republic is not a literal work on political science, but a carefully crafted allegory for the internal governance of ones mind and soul seems to me beyond doubt. Several lines of evidence support this conclusion, beginning with dozens of explicit statements by Plato to the effect throughout the work (Annas, 1999; Uebersax, 2014a,b; Waterfield, 1993). Nevertheless I also know that before realizing this, I had, like most everyone else, uncritically accepted the received opinion that the Republic is Plato’s effort to describe a utopian society. So even though it may be wrong, the literal view of the Republic, widespread and deeply entrenched, can’t simply be brushed aside.

Recently it occurred to me that a strong argument for understanding the Republic as a psychological allegory can be made on the basis of formal probabilistic reasoning. Specifically, I refer to a principle called Bayes’ rule. This is a formula (named after Rev. Thomas Bayes, an 18th century mathematician) by which one can quantify the degree to which evidence supports a given conclusion. While Bayes’ rule is often considered something modern, it actually corresponds to how we naturally form inferences from empirical data. We will, in any case, omit details here. (Those interested in more background can find ample material on the web.) It is, however, assumed that the reader has at least a little knowledge of basic probability and associated notation.

First let us define the problem: we want to choose as more likely one of two hypothesis, H1 and H2, as follows:

H1: The Republic is a psychological allegory.

H2: The Republic is a literal work on political science.

We take H1 and H2 here to be mutually exclusive hypotheses: they cannot both be true. (If we like, we could add words like ‘mainly’, ‘mostly’, or ‘primarily’ to both hypotheses to make this more clearly so.)

Let E denote some empirical evidence. This can be any sort of evidence, but for present purposes we take it to be the entire text narrative of the Republic.

Our task is to choose whether H1 or H2 seems more likely after considering evidence E. In terms of probability theory, we wish to estimate the value of two conditional probabilities:

P(H1|E) = the probability that H1 is true, given E    [1]

P(H2|E) = the probability that H2 is true, given E    [2]

We may then decide in favor of H1 (allegorical meaning) if [1] is greater than [2], or in favor or H2 (literal meaning) if [2] is greater than [1].

As it happens we cannot directly estimate the values of [1] and [2]. But this is where Bayes’ rule comes in. Bayes’ rule is an extremely simple formula that describes the relationship between a conditional probability and its converse — that is, between P(X|Y) and P(Y|X).

Again, we’ll skip the details here. All that matters is that a simple application of Bayes’ rule in the present case leads to the two following equations:

P(H1|E) = c × P(H1) × P(E|H1)    [3]

P(H2|E) = c × P(H2) × P(E|H2)    [4]

Thus, given some evidence E, we can decide whether H1 or H2 is more likely by evaluating and right sides of equations [3] and [4] and seeing which is larger.

The term c here is a constant, and as it appears in both [3] and [4] we can ignore it. Hence we need only know which product is larger: P(H1) × P(E|H1) or P(H2) × P(E|H2). If the former, we would opt for an allegorical reading of Republic; if the latter, a literal one.

Note that we’ve introduced two new categories of probabilities:

  • P(H1) and P(H2) are the a priori or plausibility probabilities of our two hypotheses H1 and H2 — that is, these express how likely H1 and H2 are considered to be before considering evidence E. Here these reflect how likely we deem it a priori (i.e., before we consult the Republic) that Plato would have wanted to write a psychological allegory vs. a political treatise. For example, we might consider what we know about Plato’s personality and motives, the contents of his other dialogues, and so on.
  • P(E|H1) and P(E|H2) are entailment probabilities. These express the degree to which H1 and H2 would, if true, lead to or entail the evidence E. In other words, how much sense does the evidence (i.e., the content of Republic) make under the alternative assumptions of allegorical vs. literal intentions by Plato.

Now comes the fun part. In truth, we have no way of attaching precise numerical values to any of the terms P(H1), P(H2), P(E|H1), and P(E|H2). Yet we can fairly easily make two judgements of comparative magnitude. Specifically, if one considers all the available background evidence besides what’s in the Republic, one can say whether this inclines more in the direction of supporting an allegorical or a literal meaning. Similarly, one can make a reasonably confident judgment about whether the details of Republic are more consistent with an allegorical vs. a literal reading. If these two comparative judgments line up in opposite directions, we cannot draw any firm conclusions. But if they line up the same way, we can.

For example if P(H1) > P(H2) and P(E|H1) > P(E|H2), then P(H1) × P(E|H1) > P(H2) × P(E|H2), and, from equations [3] and [4], we can assert that P(H1|E) > P(H2|E). That is, taking into account both background evidence and the text itself, we would judge it more likely Plato meant the Republic as an allegory. We address the two constituent pairwise comparisons, viz., between the two plausibility probabilities and the two entailment probabilities, below.

Plausibility Probabilities

The a priori plausibility evidence, in my opinion, strongly favors an allegorical reading of Republic. Perhaps the most telling argument is that Plato everywhere else shows an intense concern for the moral improvement of the individual. For Plato the stakes of moral salvation are infinitely high: nothing less than the fate of man’s immortal soul. It seems very implausible that Plato would suddenly drop his life’s work of teaching philosophia — a religious transformation of ones life based on personal holiness and the love of Wisdom and Virtue — in order to speculate about politics.

Further, a vast body of modern psychological literature has persuasively argued that (1) at some very fundamental levels, each one of us is a community of subselves; and (2) to manage these numerous competing and conflicting parts is one of the most difficult and important tasks we face as human beings (for reviews see Rowan, 1993 and Lester, 2010). We cannot suppose this basic fact of human psychology would have escaped the notice of the ancients. This insight, for example, is at the center of Philo’s vast psychological exegesis of the Old Testament (Uebersax, 2012). Said another way, to justify Plato’s singular reputation as the greatest philosopher of the Western tradition, we would expect him to have recognized and tried to address a reality so vital to our psychological and spiritual well-being.

Conversely, the background arguments supporting the literal reading are flimsy, or at least open to considerable question. The argument ‘from tradition’ — that Plato’s Republic has traditionally been understood to be about politics — is quite useless. One might as well argue that the Garden of Eden myth of Genesis was not meant as a moral allegory because generations of uncritical exegetes have taken it literally.

The Seventh Letter might potentially imply political interests of Plato, but this is offset by extremely strong doubts as to the letter’s authenticity. There remains Aristotle’s comments about the Republic in his Politics, which take a literal meaning by Plato for granted. However these highly polemical remarks seem far more concerned with advancing Aristotle’s own views than faithfully explaining Plato’s, and so must be discounted. Surveying all the background information, then, the only thing we can be sure of is Plato’s intense and abiding concern with personal morality and religion, and this favors the view that the Republic is a psychological allegory.

Entailment Probabilities

The second question is whether the details in the narrative of the Republic would be more likely if Plato meant the work as an allegory, or if he intended it as a literal work. Here the case is even clearer. As Waterfield (1993) especially has noted, if read at a literal level the Republic abounds in absurdities, incongruities, and gaps. We are not given anywhere near the level of detail that would be required to run a real city. Further, many details that Plato does supply are utterly outrageous — so absurd in fact, that they can seem almost calculated to tease literally-minded readers. If Plato intended to describe an actual city-state, we cannot believe he would have advocated such notions as infanticide, eugenics, communal wives, and intentional lying to citizens by rulers.

We can, however, make definite sense of these otherwise absurd suggestions if we read the Republic as a psychological allegory. For example, one may wish to abort negative or unproductive chains of thought soon after their conception; or, following similar lines of analogy, to encourage marriage and begetting of offspring by the more positive and virtuous elements of ones nature.


By the above, then, we have argued that (1) an allegorical understanding of Plato’s Republic is both more probable a priori than a literal interpretation, and (2) the content of the Republic is more consistent with psychological vs. literal intentions by Plato. By means of Bayes’ rule applied in connection with equations [3] and [4], these two comparative judgments allow us to conclude that, considering all available evidence, the Republic is more likely a psychological allegory than a literal political work.

The present is only a very brief treatment of the topic, intended more to introduce the leading principles than to arrive at final certainty. Much more work can go into identifying, evaluating, and comparing the plausibility and entailment probabilities. Herein we have taken the evidence E to be the complete text of the Republic. However the same sort of reasoning could be applied to individual passages; thus we could allow that some sections Plato wished to be taken literally, but in others, say that concerning the Noble Lie, he is writing allegorically.

I personally think that the deeper one delves into the Republic, the stronger the assurance that it is an allegory — but political philosophers may have other ideas, and probably aren’t likely to give up without a fight. In any case, the present supplies a framework in which the issue can be investigated impartially, scientifically, progressively, and in an edifying way.


Annas, J. Platonic Ethics, Old and New. Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 1999; Chapter 4, The Inner City, pp. 72−95.

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

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

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

Uebersax, John. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. 2014a. Online document. Satyagraha website.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic. 2014b. Online document. Satyagraha website.

Waterfield, Robin. Republic. Oxford University Press, 1993.


Written by John Uebersax

December 21, 2015 at 12:24 am

Emerson on the Ascent to Love of God by Beauty

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This excerpt from Emerson describes so well the ascent to love and knowledge of God by of Beauty in Plato’s Symposium, or Diotima’s Ladder, that I thought I should share it:

In like manner, personal beauty is then first charming and itself when it dissatisfies us with any end; when it becomes a story without an end; when it suggests gleams and visions and not earthly satisfactions; when it makes the beholder feel his unworthiness; when he cannot feel his right to it, though he were Caesar; he cannot feel more right to it than to the firmament and the splendors of a sunset.

Hence arose the saying, “If I love you, what is that to you?” We say so because we feel that what we love is not in your will, but above it. It is not you, but your radiance. It is that which you know not in yourself and can never know.

This agrees well with that high philosophy of Beauty which the ancient writers delighted in; for they said that the soul of man, embodied here on earth, went roaming up and down in quest of that other world of its own out of which it came into this, but was soon stupefied by the light of the natural sun, and unable to see any other objects than those of this world, which are but shadows of real things.  Therefore the Deity sends the glory of youth before the soul, that it may avail itself of beautiful bodies as aids to its recollection of the celestial good and fair; and the man beholding such a person in the female sex runs to her and finds the highest joy in contemplating the form, movement and intelligence of this person, because it suggests to him the presence of that which indeed is within the beauty, and the cause of the beauty.

If however, from too much conversing with material objects, the soul was gross, and misplaced its satisfaction in the body, it reaped nothing but sorrow; body being unable to fulfil the promise which beauty holds out; but if, accepting the hint of these visions and suggestions which beauty makes to his mind, the soul passes through the body and falls to admire strokes of character, and the lovers contemplate one another in their discourses and their actions, then they pass to the true palace of beauty, more and more inflame their love of it, and by this love extinguishing the base affection, as the sun puts out fire by shining on the hearth, they become pure and hallowed. By conversation with that which is in itself excellent, magnanimous, lowly, and just, the lover comes to a warmer love of these nobilities, and a quicker apprehension of them. Then he passes from loving them in one to loving them in all, and so is the one beautiful soul only the door through which he enters to the society of all true and pure souls. In the particular society of his mate he attains a clearer sight of any spot, any taint which her beauty has contracted from this world, and is able to point it out, and this with mutual joy that they are now able, without offence, to indicate blemishes and hindrances in each other, and give to each all help and comfort in curing the same. And beholding in many souls the traits of the divine beauty, and separating in each soul that which is divine from the taint which it has contracted in the world, the lover ascends to the highest beauty, to the love and knowledge of the Divinity, by steps on this ladder of created souls.

Somewhat like this have the truly wise told us of love in all ages. The doctrine is not old, nor is it new. If Plato, Plutarch and Apuleius taught it, so have Petrarch, Angelo and Milton.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson (‘Love‘; Essays, 1st Series)

Written by John Uebersax

December 2, 2015 at 3:17 am