Plato’s Republic Books 8-9: Degradation of Soul

Plato’s Republic Books 8-9: Degradation of Soul

This essay examines books VIII-IX of the Republic and sets forth Plato’s account of the characterological decay of the individual soul.

Just as city’s degenerate with time, falling from philosophical aristocracy to timocracy, timocracy to oligarchy, oligarchy to democracy, and democracy to tyranny, so too do the individuals who live within them. Indeed, Socrates notes that the corresponding changes in constitutions come about precisely because individuals living within them demand such changes (544d).

The Tripartite Soul and the Taxonomy of Desire

To understand Plato’s account of the degeneration of character, it will be helpful to review his tripartite theory of the soul. For Plato, the soul is divided in to three parts: the rational, the spirited, and the appetitive. The rational soul grasps the invisible world of the forms and, ultimately, the form of the good. Plato believes that it should thus be the ultimate arbiter of one’s path in life. The spirited soul provides the energy and strength for defending and pursuing the goods dictated by reason. Plato associates this spirited element with anger. And finally, the appetitive soul is the seat of bodily desires. These are necessary for a person’s material life in the world. When governed by reason and spirit, they allow one to live with health and grace.

Now, to account for the various kinds of deformed human character, Plato finds it necessary to distinguish some further categories of desire. He first distinguishes between necessary and unnecessary desires. Necessary desires, for Plato, are those that are grounded in our human nature. Because they are grounded in nature, we cannot stop wanting the goods they aim at, goods which benefit us when we acquire them (558e). Unnecessary desires, in contrast, are those that are not grounded in human nature. They can be eliminated by habit and education, and, when we acquire the goods they aim at, these goods don’t always benefit us. Indeed, they can even be harmful sometimes (559a). So, for example, Socrates claims that the desire for bread and healthy delicacies are necessary desires, but that gluttonous desires that go beyond this are unnecessary.

Plato then further divides unnecessary desires into the lawful and the lawless. Lawless desires are desires that are especially shameful and outrageous, and are held in check only by the laws of the city and one’s better desires working in concord with reason (571b-c). Examples of such desires, according to Socrates, are wanting to have indiscriminate sex with men, and gods, and beasts, to commit foul murders, and to eat anything whatsoever. In short, lawless desire “omits no act of folly or shamelessness” (571d).

With this category system in hand, we can now in a position to understand Plato’s account of the progressive degradation of the soul.

Philosophical Aristocracy to Timocracy

As noted previously, for Plato, the philosophical individual lives with grace and harmony. Reason legislates the direction of life, and the spirited and appetitive elements work in concert with it. The fall from such aristocracy to timocracy of soul, occurs when one no longer lives in a just city. Socrates asks us to consider the case of a son, whose father is of a noble philosophical nature, but who lives in an unjust city. His father will live a good life, minding his own business, but he will not flourish in the city or gain a great reputation. Because the city is ill governed, his father “avoids honors, office, lawsuits, and all such meddling in other people’s affairs” (549c) and will even allow himself to suffer losses to avoid trouble (549c). As a result, the boy’s mother will complain to him about his father’s lack of ambition and blame him for her lack of social status. Socrates explains:

“Then she sees that he’s not very concerned about money and that he doesn’t fight back when he’s insulted, whether in private or in public in the courts, but is indifferent to everything of that sort. She also sees him concentrating his mind on his own thoughts, neither honoring nor dishonoring her overmuch. Angered by all this, she tells her son that his father is unmanly, too easy-going, and all other things that women repeat over and over in such cases” (549d).

In addition to his mother’s complaints, the boy also hears similar things from the family servants.

“When they see the father failing to prosecute someone who owes him money or has wronged him in some other way, they urge the son to take revenge on all such people when he grows up and to be more of a man than his father” (549e).

These recurrent admonitions shape the boy’s perspective, and his suspicion that his father is not living up to his potential seems to be confirmed when he observes the city’s definition of success, seeing that, “those in the city who do their own work are called fools and held to be of little account, while those who meddle in other people’s affairs are honored and praised” (550a).

Yet he still admires his father and his philosophical teachings. The boy is thus pulled in two directions: His father leads him to virtue, but the others around him direct him to vice. And, as with the initial civil war in the aristocratic city, timocracy results as a sort of compromise between these two factions. Socrates explains:

“The young man hears and sees all this, but he also listens to what is father says, observes what he does from close at hand, and compares his ways of living with those of others. So he’s pulled by both. His father nourishes the rational part of his soul and makes it grow; the others nourish the spirited and appetitive parts. Because he isn’t a bad man by nature but keeps bad company, when he’s pulled in these two ways, he settles in the middle and surrenders the rule over himself to the middle part—the victory-loving and spirited part—and becomes a proud and honor-loving man” (550b).

He thus grows to be a timocratic man, surrendering the rule of his soul to the spirited element.

The Timocratic Character

The character of the timocratic man resembles that of the timocratic city. Like its citizens, he is not well versed in poetry or philosophy, though he respects them to some degree. As a result, he has a harsh and graceless bearing, and loves vigorous physical activity above all else. Socrates explains:

“He’d be more obstinate and less well trained in music and poetry, though he’s a lover of it, and he’d love to listen to speeches and arguments, though he’s by no means a rhetorician. He’d be harsh to his slaves rather than merely looking down on them as an adequately educated person does. He’d be gentle to free people and very obedient to rulers, being himself a lover of ruling and a lover of honor. However, he doesn’t base his claim to rule on his ability as a speaker or anything like that, but, as he’s a lover of physical training and a lover of hunting, on his abilities and exploits in warfare and warlike activities” (548e-549a).

The timocratic man is thus a man in which the spirited element rules. Because reason, the true guardian of the soul, has been usurped, though he despises money while young, he will come to “love it more and more as he grows older” (549b), thus setting the stage for the emergence of the next form of debased soul: the oligarch.

From Timocracy to Oligarchy

The oligarchic man, like the timocratic, comes about because his father’s virtue clashes with the corrupt state in which he lives. The son of a timocratic man will see his father brought down on false charges because of his commitment to honor, being unwilling to stoop to the level of his attackers. As a result, his father will be either exiled or executed, and his property will be confiscated. The boy will thus be reduced to poverty, and, in these challenging circumstances, will renounce the spirited part of his soul, seeing that it led his father to ruin, and cultivate in its place an appetite for money.  Socrates explains:

“The son sees all this, suffers from it, loses his property, and, fearing for his life, immediately drives from the throne of his own soul the honor loving and spirited part that ruled there. Humbled by poverty, he turns greedily to making money, and, little by little, saving and working, he amasses property. Don’t you think that this person would establish his appetitive and money-making part on the throne, setting it up as a great king within himself, adorning it with golden tiaras and collars and girding it with Persian swords?” (553b-c).

Having once been materially deprived, he seeks to compensate for the previous injury by amassing wealth for himself.

The Oligarchic Character

The oligarchic man will value profit above all else. The appetitive part of his soul will thus rule through the particular desire for moneymaking. The rational and spirited elements will thus be enslaved by the appetitive. Socrates observes:

“He makes the rational and spirited parts sit on the ground beneath appetite, one on either side, reducing them to slaves. He won’t allow the first to reason about or examine anything except how a little money can be made into great wealth. And he won’t allow the second to value or admire anything but wealth and wealthy people or to have any ambition other than the acquisition of wealth or whatever might contribute to getting it” (553d).

And, just as he enslaves reason and spirit to appetite, so too does he enslave all his other desires to moneymaking, “by being a thrifty worker, who satisfies only his necessary appetites, makes no other expenditures, and enslaves his other desires as vain” (554a). As a result, the oligarchic man is “a somewhat squalid fellow, who makes a profit from everything and hoards it” (554a). Because he lacks education, he will harbor a host of dronish appetites that must be kept in check by force, lest they cause him to lose money. Though oligarchic individuals conceal these appetites, they nonetheless act on them in secret, usually on the objects of their “charity” whom they believe to be completely in their power. Socrates observes:

“Won’t we say that, because of his lack of education, the dronish appetites—some beggarly and others evil—exist in him, but that they’re forcibly held in check by his carefulness?

            Certainly.

Do you know where you should look to see the evildoings of such people?

            Where?

To the guardianship of orphans or something like that, where they have ample opportunity to do injustice with impunity” (553c).

And, like the oligarchic city, his dronish appetites must be suppressed by force rather than persuasion. He keeps his other desires at bay on account of his overwhelming fear of losing his wealth.

“And doesn’t this make it clear that, in those other contractual obligations, where he has a good reputation and is thought to be just, he’s forcibly holding his other evil appetites in check by means of some decent part of himself? He holds them in check, not by persuading them that it’s better not to act on them or taming them with arguments, but by compulsion and fear, trembling for his other possessions” (553d).

The oligarchic man is thus fundamentally at odds with himself. His soul is divided. He takes his life’s direction from appetite, but his appetites are mixed. He primarily wants to hoard money, but he also has many other conflicting desires. Socrates notes that “someone like that wouldn’t be entirely free from internal civil war and wouldn’t be one but in some way two, though generally his better desires are in control of his worse” (554d). Because he is capable of beating down his dronish desires most of the time, “he’d be more respectable than many, but the true virtue of a single-minded and harmonious soul far escapes him” (554e). He would also fail to gain much of a reputation in the city, since he’d be incapable of defending his reputation (given that it would cost money). Socrates explains his situation as follows:

“This thrifty man is a poor individual contestant for victory in a city or for any other fine and much honored thing, for he’s not willing to spend money for the sake of a fine reputation or on contests for such things. He’s afraid to arouse his appetites for spending or to call on them as allies to obtain victory, so he fights like an oligarch, with only a few of his resources. Hence he’s mostly defeated but remains rich” (555a).

From Oligarchy to Democracy

The democratic youth is raised austerely by his oligarchic father, being taught to shun all desires except for wealth. But, given his wealth, the nature of the city, and the multiple desires he must forcibly repress, he eventually comes into the company of the multicolored drones and tastes their honey. Socrates observes:

“When a young man, who is reared in the miserly and uneducated manner we described, tastes the honey of the drones and associates with wild and dangerous creatures who can provide every variety of multicolored pleasure in every sort of way, this, as you might suppose, is the beginning of his transformation from having an oligarchic constitution within him to having a democratic one” (559e).

And just the oligarchic city’s civil war broke out when one side brought in external help, so too does the young man’s internal civil war occur through his dronish friends, whose desires mirror his own (559e). He will be at war with himself, one part of him resonating with his father and his household who encourage him to pursue money above all else, and another part of him longing to indulge his other desires (560a). The battle wages back and forth between these factions for awhile (560a), but, given that his father raised him poorly, the other desires eventually win. For, while some “desires are expelled, others akin to them are being nurtured unawares…. And grow numerous and strong” ( 560b). The citadel of his soul will thus fall, and the unnecessary desires will reign unchecked. This will cause him to revalue his values and define what was once considered virtue to be vice, and what was once vice to be virtue. Socrates observes:  

“Won’t he then return to these lotus eaters and live with them openly? And if some help comes to the thrifty part of his soul from his household, won’t these boastful words close the gates of the royal wall within him to prevent these allies from entering and refuse even to receive the words of older private individuals as ambassadors? Doing battle and controlling things themselves, won’t they call reverence foolishness and moderation cowardice, abusing them and casting them out beyond the frontiers like disenfranchised exiles? And won’t they persuade the young man that measuredly and orderly expenditure is boorish and mean, and, joining with many useless desires, won’t they expel it across the border?” (560c-d)

Socrates continues:

“Having thus emptied and purged these from the soul of the one they’ve possessed and initiated in splendid rites, they proceed to return insolence, anarchy, extravagance, and shamelessness from exile in a blaze of torchlight, wreathing them in garlands and accompanying them with a vast chorus of followers. They praise the returning exiles and give them fine names, calling insolence good breeding, anarchy freedom, extravagance magnificence, and shamelessness courage. Isn’t it in some such way as this that someone who is young changes, after being brought up with necessary desires, to the liberation and release of useless and unnecessary pleasures?” (560e-561a).

The Democratic Character

The democratic man, like the democratic city, is fundamentally anarchic. He no longer represses his unnecessary desires as the oligarchic soul did, but gives them free reign. Just as democracy grants a certain kind of equality to those who by nature are unequal, so too does the democratic man declare all pleasures to be equal. Socrates describes such a man as follows:

“He spends as much money, effort, and time on unnecessary pleasures as on necessary ones. If he’s lucky, and his frenzy doesn’t go too far, when he grows older, and the great tumult within him has spent itself, he welcomes back some of the exiles, ceases to surrender himself completely to the newcomers, and puts his pleasures on an equal footing. And so he lives, always surrendering rule over himself to whichever desire comes along, as if it were chosen by lot. And when that is satisfied, he surrenders the rule to another, not disdaining any but satisfying them all equally” (561a-b).

In order to enforce this equality, he must reject the very idea of a rank order of values and disavow the possibility of a distinction between good and bad. Socrates notes:

“And he doesn’t admit any word of truth into the guardhouse, for if someone tells him that some pleasures belong to fine and good desires and others to evil ones and that he must pursue and value the former and restrain and enslave the latter, he denies all this and declares that all pleasures are equal and must be valued equally” (561c).

His life, will, in fact, be an amalgamation of many lives, since he pursues different undertakings depending on what he fancies at the moment. Socrates explains:

“And so he lives on, yielding day by day to the desire at hand. Sometimes he drinks heavily while listening to the flute; at other times, he drinks only water and is on a diet; sometimes he goes in for physical training; at other times, he’s idle and neglects everything; and sometimes he even occupies himself with what he takes to be philosophy. He often engages in politics, leaping up from his seat and saying and doing whatever comes into his mind. If he happens to admire soldiers, he’s carried in that direction, if money-makers, in that one. There’s neither order nor necessity in his life, but he calls it pleasant, free, and blessedly happy, and he follows it for as long as he lives” (561d).

Because the democratic man gives free reign to all his desires, he proves to be very complex, a man pulled in many contradictory directions. Just as the democratic constitution contains many constitutions within itself, so too does the democratic man contain many men within himself. “He’s a complex man, full of all sorts of characters, fine and multicolored, just like the democratic city” (561e).

From Democracy to Tyranny

The tyrannical man is raised by a democratic father who treats all desires equally. He is taught to value them, and, as a result, he will pursue and cultivate some of his lawless desires in the name of freedom. Out of habit, his father and his father’s household will tend to encourage his more lawful desires, but they will have no principled basis for doing so, since they proclaim all desires to be equal. The son will surround himself with friends who prod him to pursue his lawless desires. This subtle battle for his soul goes on for awhile, until his friends, encouraging his basest desires, decide to make a decisive move by introducing an erotic love into his life which will dwarf all others. Socrates explains:

“When those clever enchanters and tyrant-makers have no hope of keeping hold of the young man in any other way, they contrive to plant in him a powerful erotic love, like a great winged drone, to be the leader of those idle desires that spend whatever is at hand. Or do you think that erotic love is anything other than an enormous drone in such people?” (572e-573a).

Once this supreme erotic passion is installed, it sets up madness as its personal bodyguard.

“And when the other desires—filled with incense, myrrh, wreaths, wine, and the other pleasures found in their company—buzz around the drone, nurturing it and making it grow as large as possible, they plant the sting of longing in it. Then this leader of the soul adopts madness as its bodyguard and becomes frenzied. If it finds any beliefs or desires in the man that are thought to be good or that still have some shame, it destroys them and throws them out, until it’s purged him of moderation and filled him with imported madness.” (573b).

In this madness, he rejects any semblance of value, upending what little remained of his habitual commitment to a sense of right and wrong or of honorable and shameful actions. Instead, he acts as a drunken man (573c), becoming so deluded that he comes to believe he can rule the world and even the gods (573c).

He lives a life of luxury, and a host of other desires grow alongside his erotic passion. For “someone in whom the tyrant of erotic love dwells and in whom it directs everything next goes in for feasts, revelries, luxuries, girlfriends, and all that sort of thing” (573d). And so “many terrible desires grow…beside the tyrannical one, needing many things to satisfy them” (573d). He’ll spend all his money as a result and begin to borrow. When that’s spent, he’ll be driven on by the mob of his desires to acquire the wealth of others, either by deceit or force (573e). If he fails to do so, he’ll “live in great pain and suffering” (574e) on account of his ferocious desires. Eventually, once all other sources are exhausted, he’ll seek to bleed his father’s estate (574a). And, if his father or his father’s household were to resist, he would kill them just as a tyrant would (574b-c). And, finally, once his father’s wealth is exhausted he will turn to further criminal enterprises, even resorting to robbing temples.

The Tyrannical Character

The tyrannical man is thus one who has ceded control of his soul to lawless erotic desire. In this manner, the tyrant is himself tyrannized, since he “has in his soul the greatest and strongest tyrant of all” (575d). This lawless desire will gather others in its train, each further inflaming the other in the process. And, consequently, what was once only a lawless nightmare, now becomes his waking life. Socrates explains:

“Now, however, under the tyranny of erotic love, he has permanently become while awake what he used to become occasionally while asleep, and he won’t hold back from any terrible murder or from any kind of food or act. But, rather, erotic love lives like a tyrant within him, in complete anarchy and lawlessness as his sole ruler, and drives him, as if he were a city, to dare anything that will provide sustenance for itself and the unruly mob around it (some of whose members have come in from the outside as a result of his keeping bad company, while others have come from within, freed and let loose by his own bad habits.” (574e-575a).

Dominated by lawless desire, such a man will be incapable of real friendship or freedom. Instead, he will seek out flatters who will obey him, and will himself resort to such obsequious flattery to secure the objects of his desires. People, himself included, are treated as mere means to the end of procuring his narcissistic supply. Socrates explains:

“Now, in private life, before a tyrannical man attains power, isn’t he this sort of person—one who associates primarily with flatterers who are ready to obey him in everything? Or if he himself happens to need anything from other people, isn’t he willing to fawn on them and make every gesture of friendship, as if he were dealing with his own family? But once he gets what he wants, don’t they become strangers again?” (575e).

And, so, Socrates continues,

“Someone with a tyrannical nature lives his whole life without being friends with anyone, always a master to one man or a slave to another and never getting a taste of either freedom or true friendship” (576a).

Such a man would be both untrustworthy and unjust, and his life would be a wretched nightmare. Indeed, “the longer he remains tyrant, the more like a nightmare he becomes” (576b).

Platonic vs Modern Psychology

Plato thus provides an account of how individual souls can be corrupted in the same manner of as cities. In fact, there is a reciprocal relationship between the two. On the one hand, as noted above, the initial corruption of the individual soul occurred because it was situated in a corrupt city. The philosopher was unable to attain recognition in an unjust city, and so his son decided, at the prodding of his mother and his servants, to become more “manly” and timocratic. But, on the other hand, the constitutions of cities are themselves produced because of the characters of the people that live within them. Socrates asks, for example, “do you think that constitutions are born from ‘oak or rock’ and not from the characters of the people who live in the cities governed by them, which tip the scales, so to speak, and drag the rest along with them?” (544d).

By providing such a classification of various character types, Plato’s work mirrors, to some extent, that of modern psychology. Both attempt to give a rational account (logos) of the soul (psyche) and to point out some of the various ways in which it can become disordered.

Yet, it is also important to point out the significant differences between the two. First, and most glaringly, Plato’s believes in the existence of both Reason and the Soul, whereas much of modern empirical psychology rules out their existence by fiat. Second, and relatedly, Plato’s categorization of character types is unapologetically value laden. For Plato, the aristocratic soul is superior to the timorcratic, the timocratic to the oligarchic, etc. Empirical psychology eschews such moral valuation, preferring instead to say that some character types occur less frequently (and, in that statistical sense, are abnormal) or deviate from cultural norms. And finally, for the psychoanalytic tradition in particular, Plato acknowledges the existence of unconscious desires, but claims that they only come to dominate in the very worst kinds of people. Freud, in contrast, believes that these desires not only motivate all mankind, but constitute the fundamental forces from which consciousness emerges. “Wo es war da soll ich werden” (where the id was there should the ego be). Consider, for example, Plato’s account of the lawless desires that emerge in dreams. He notes:

“Some of our unnecessary pleasures and desires seem to me to be lawless. They are probably present in everyone, but they are held in check by the laws and by the better desires in alliance with reason. In a few people, they have been eliminated entirely or only a few weak ones remain, while in others they are stronger and more numerous.” (571b-c).

These desires, claims Socrates, come to light in dreams, when reason sleeps. He explains:

“Those that are awakened in sleep, when the rest of the soul—the rational, gentle, and ruling part—slumbers. Then the beastly and savage part, full of food and drink, casts off sleep and seeks to find a way to gratify itself. You know that there is nothing it won’t dare to do at such a time, free of all control by shame or reason. It doesn’t shrink from trying to have sex with a mother, as it supposes, or with anyone else at all, whether man, god, or beast. It will commit any foul murder, and there is no food it refuses to eat. In a word, it omits no act of folly or shamelessness” (571c-d).

Socrates’ thus recommends, like Pythagoras, that one engage in certain spiritual practices before sleep, to harmonize the elements of one’s soul. Socrates observes:

“Someone who is healthy and moderate with himself goes to sleep only after having done the following: First, he rouses his rational part and feasts it on fine arguments and speculations; second, he neither starves nor feasts his appetites, so that they will slumber and not disturb his best part with either their pleasure or their pain, but they’ll leave it alone, pure and by itself, to get on with its investigations, to yearn after and perceive something, it knows not what, whether it is past, present , or future; third, he soothes his spirited part in the same way, for example, by not falling asleep with his spirit still a roused after an outburst of anger. And when he has quieted these two parts and aroused the third, in which reason resides, and so takes his rest, you know that it is then that he best grasps the truth and that the visions that appear in his dreams are least lawless” (571d-572b).

Hence, for Socrates, while lawless desires may constitute one part of the unconscious, they are by no means the fundamental part of the human psyche; they can, and should, be controlled by its more graceful elements. Furthermore, while Socrates does seem to believe that messages from the higher realm can come through dreams, for example, when he recalls in the Phaedo that he was told in a dream to “practice and cultivate the arts” (Phaedo 60e), he is careful to distinguish such supra-human realms from the subhuman, even discussing the relation of the soul to its daimon at the end of the Republic. In contrast, Freud, and the psychoanalytic tradition he founded, make no such distinction. Indeed, Freud not only cuts man off from the supra-human realm, but also reduces human nature to its lowest lawless instincts. There is thus something of an infernal quality to psychoanalysis, as René Guénon aptly observes:

“There is certainly something more than a mere question of vocabulary in the fact, very significant in itself, that present-day psychology considers nothing but ‘subconscious’, and never the ‘superconscious’, which ought logically to be its correlative; there is no doubt that this usage expresses the idea of an extension operating only in a downward direction, that is, toward the aspect of things that corresponds, both here in the human being and elsewhere in the cosmic environment, to the ‘fissures’ through which the most ‘malefic’ influences of the subtle world penetrate, influences having a character that can truly and literally be described as ‘infernal.’” (Reign of Quantity, 228).

Such a complete subversion of human nature, confusing the superior with the inferior (Guénon, 229), thus has a character that can be called truly satanic. Guénon explains:

“It is then that we come into the presence, not only of a debasement, but of a complete subversion; and every subversion…is always inherently ‘satanic’ in the true sense of the word. Besides this, the generally ignoble and repulsive character of psychoanalytical interpretation is an entirely reliable ‘mark’ in this connection” (230).

Indeed, one wonders whether there might not be a hidden hand at play in the elevation of psychoanalysis (and empirical psychology more broadly) to its position of cultural prominence. For, do not tyrannies come into being through the prevalence of tyrannical individuals? And, in reducing human nature to what Plato called the tyrannical type, does not psychology provide a certain kind of legitimacy to totalitarian regimes? If men are but working brutes, having only the souls of beasts, and ready to break out into savagery at the slightest provocation, could they be ruled by anything other than a rod of iron? In this manner, the justification for tyranny may still depend, as Plato observed, on the tyrannical soul. But, Plato’s account, unlike Freud’s, elevates our view beyond the bestial and reminds us that tyranny is not the only option. For, if we were to recognize that there is a divine spark within us, yearning to return to its source, we would perceive ourselves to be free men and women, not the cattle of the kakistocracy, and act accordingly.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The image used in the thumbnail for this post is in the public domain and can be found here. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lenin_and_stalin_crop.jpg. I created the illustration for Plato’s tripartite soul using a picture of Michelangelo’s David which is also in the public domain and can be found here. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michelangelo_David_Philpot.jpg. And the meme used in the body was created on imgflip.]

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