Republic Book 2: The Origins of the City and the Emergence of the Guardian Class

Republic Book 2: The Origins of the City and the Emergence of the Guardian Class

In this essay, I continue our discussion of Book 2 of the Republic by examining Plato’s account of the formation the city and the emergence of its guardian class. In the process we will also investigate why the fierce negation and boundary setting of the guardians is necessary for both public and private life.

The Origins of the City

As we noted last time, Socrates here attempts to defend justice against the arguments set forth by Glaucon and Adeimantus earlier in Book 2. Socrates hopes that by examining the justice of a city, we will be able to determine its nature and origin, and discover it to be an intrinsic rather than instrumental good. After understanding justice writ large, we will then, hopefully, be able to apply the same analysis to the justice of the individual soul.

The first step, in the argument, is to understand how justice emerges in a city. Socrates, seeking to address the issue at its foundational level, investigates the minimal conditions for the existence of a city. He observes that people have basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing (369d). As a result, a city must allow people to produce and procure the requisite goods to satisfy those needs. Hence, crafts creating the relevant goods must be practiced. For example, farming must be practiced to produce food, house-building to create shelter, and weaving to make clothes. Socrates explains:

“How, then, will a city be able to provide all this? Won’t one person have to be a farmer, another a builder, and another a weaver? And shouldn’t we add a cobbler or someone else to provide medical cure.” (369e).

Even the most minimal of cities must have people engaged in such crafts in order to function. And, given that people have a finite amount of time and energy, Socrates suggests that a city must have at least four to five people to competently fill these roles.

            Furthermore, Socrates argues that each citizen should devote him or herself to a single craft. He furnishes two arguments for this claim. First, Socrates contends that people are naturally better suited to some activities over others (370a). The person, for example, who loves plants and is attuned to the rhythms of nature would make for a better farmer, one who loves to create beautiful patterns will make a better weaver, and one who loves to construct things will make a better builder. Second, Socrates argues that focus is necessary to master a craft. He observes:

“S: Does one do a better job if he practices many crafts or—since he’s one person himself—if he practices one?

A: If he practices one.

S: It’s clear, at any rate, I think, that if one misses the right moment in anything, the work is spoiled.

A: It is.

S: That’s because the thing to be done won’t wait on the leisure of the doer, but the doer must of necessity pay close attention to his work rather than treating it as a secondary occupation” (370b-c).

Here Socrates calls attention to two important, yet neglected, facts. First, to improve at a craft one must devote oneself to it through intentional practice. While anyone can half-heartedly practice a craft, merely going through the motions while his mind is busy “multitasking” on other concerns, those who truly master a field focus their attention. When practicing, they will have something particular in mind that they want to improve, and they will keep repeating it, and remedying their failures, until they do. Someone learning Tai Chi, for example, might focus on keeping his hips level and back straight during a particular transition. He will practice the move over and over. First noticing, perhaps, that he has lowered his right side too much, and attempt to compensate. He’ll then note that he has now lowered his left side too much, and adjust again. Eventually, by focusing on the details of this one movement, he will come to finally be able to perform it with level hips and a straight back. To get better at a craft one must engage in such deliberate practice. And, as a result, the mastery of any craft will require considerable time and effort. Moreover, since we are finite beings gifted with only a brief time in our bodies, it is most prudent for people to devote themselves wholeheartedly to one craft. Second, Socrates calls attention to the fact that when a master performs his craft, he will do so with focused attention. The masterful execution of any craft will involve performing the right actions at the right times, and, to do this, the performer must pay attention to what confronts him or her at every moment. Mastery and distraction are mutually exclusive. Hence, Socrates concludes that:

“The result, then, is that more plentiful and better-quality goods are more easily produced if each person does one thing for which he is naturally suited, does it at the right time, and is released from having to do any of the others” (370c).

Such opinions were not unique to Plato but were shared by other ancient philosophers such as Confucius. The Analects, for example, reports:

“Fan Chi asked to be taught how to grow crops. The Master said: ‘I am not as good as an old farmer.’ He asked to be taught how to manage a vegetable plot. He said: ‘I am not as good as an old vegetable-grower.’ When Fan Chi left the master said: ‘A small man indeed is Fan Chi. If their superior is fond of ritual, then none of the people will dare not to behave with reverence; if their superior is fond of what is right, then none of the people will dare not to be obedient; if their superior is fond of good faith, then none of the people will dare not to go by the true circumstances. Now if he is like this, the people on all sides will come to him with their children strapped on their backs. What is the point of growing crops?” (Analects 13.4)

Confucius makes this observation not to denigrate farming, but to point out that people should focus on doing what they do well. The ruler should focus on ruling well by attending to ritual, to righteousness, and to acting in good faith, and the farmer should focus on farming well. It is the small man who tries to do everything in a superficial way. 

Such observations constitute a vital alternative to our society of distraction, one in which multitasking is branded and brandished as a virtue, and so-called leaders boast in their short attention spans. Though they fancy themselves renaissance men and women, most today are mere dabblers at life, mindlessly going to their graves and achieving nothing substantial. As T.S. Eliot observed in Burnt Norton:

“Here is a place of disaffection/ Time before and time after/ In a dim light: neither daylight/ Investing form with lucid stillness/ Turning shadow into transient beauty/ With slow rotation suggesting permanence/ Nor darkness to purify the soul/ Emptying the sensual with deprivation/ Cleansing affection from the temporal./ Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker/ Over the strained time-ridden faces/ Distracted from distraction by distraction/ Filled with fancies and empty of meaning/ Tumid apathy with no concentration/ Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind/ That blows before and after time,/ Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs/ Time before and time after./ Eructation of unhealthy souls/ Into the faded air, the torpid/ Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,/ Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,/ Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here/ Not here the darkness, in this twittering world” (Eliot, Burnt Norton).

We live in a culture of dilettantes posing as renaissance men. Whereas a true renaissance man would have the focus and determination to master the fundamentals of a science, thereby perceiving its connections across multiple domains, the hollow men of our today flit from pursuit to pursuit, twittering away their googled answers, state approved fact checkers, and Wikipedia citations. The sneering know it all, of double mind and forked tongue, is held up as an ideal in our society, precisely because such people are easy to manipulate. On the one hand, the distracted are easier to control. If one is perpetually outraged at the latest talking point, one will not likely see that today’s headline contradicts yesterday’s, much less turn one’s gaze to see the sleight of hand being performed and the steady stream of poison injected into the body politic. On the other hand, the image of the know it all can be used to shame those who have dedicated themselves to particular crafts. If Goethe had felt guilty for not being a great footman, soldier, or userer, and spent his time trying to master those pursuits to prove his worth, he would not have produced the literary and scientific masterworks that he did. If impossible standards are placed upon people, they will always have something to be ashamed of. And their shame can then be exploited to manipulate them. I see this particularly clearly in the American culture surrounding higher education. In the US, students are not only expected to learn the subject matter of their courses, but to network, undertake internships for their corporate masters, play sports, and work at a regular job, while living a life of constant debauchery. These impossible demands, most of them for either useless or servile activities, are then used to shame students who truly dedicate themselves to learning the fundamentals of a subject matter, something that, in reasonable times and cultures would have been seen as the primary goal of higher education. It’s interesting to note that, in my experience at least, it has often been the foreign students, who, bypassing our relentless corporate propaganda, most easily reject such demands and devote themselves to study. Likewise, it is both revealing and infuriating to hear administers speak of these same students with thinly veiled contempt, declaring that the university must work harder to bring them into compliance. On both counts, then, distraction is a means of manipulation. Either you submit to distraction and are rendered docile, or you resist it, but succumb to the shame of not having done the ten thousand things that one’s corporate masters have commanded. Yet, the means of resistance is the same for both. To focus on something, to master a domain, and to see it as it is in truth. For truth dispels illusion. Consciousness is power; through it, we escape the realm of Maya. This is why the technocratic forces, and those who control them, seek to subvert it on all fronts.

The Guardian Class

Socrates has thus set forth the minimal conditions for a city. Yet Glaucon here interjects and contends that the city sketched so far is too simple, focusing on only the bare necessities of life. He likens it to a city fit for pigs (372d). Socrates reluctantly concedes and widens his account to examine what he calls the luxurious and febrile city, in the hope that it will allow us to see how justice and injustice first emerge (372e-373a). He observes that to accommodate luxurious pursuits such as those that involve couches, tables, perfumed oils, pastries, and prostitutes (373a), the city must be enlarged. As its population grows, the city must acquire more land, and, as a result, a warrior class is needed to defend it from invaders who would conquer it and steal its resources. Socrates observes:

“Then the city must be further enlarged, and not just by a small number either, but by a whole army, which will do battle with the invaders in defense of the city’s substantial wealth and all the other things we mentioned” (374a).

Since warfare is a craft, it must, like the other crafts of the city, be the focus of a single class if it is to be mastered. He calls the class dedicated to this craft “the guardians” (374e). As with other classes, those who practice it must have a nature suited to it. In the case of the guardians, claims Socrates, its practitioners must have natures akin to those of guard-dogs; they must be ferocious to outsiders but gentle and loving with their own household. Socrates explains:

“S: Do you think that, when it comes to guarding, there is any difference between the nature of a pedigree young dog and that of a well-born youth?

G: What do you mean?

S: Well, each needs keen senses, speed to catch what it sees, and strength in case it has to fight it out with what it captures.

G: They both need all of these things.

S: And each must be courageous if indeed he’s to fight well.

G: Of course.

S: And will a horse, a dog, or any other animal be courageous, if he isn’t spirited? Or haven’t you noticed how invincible and unbeatable spirit is, so that its presence makes the whole soul fearless and unconquerable?” (375a-b).

These guardians, if they are to defend the city, must not only be physically fit and ready for battle, but they must also have spirit (θυμος), the courage necessary for decisive action. Since the guardians must distinguish between friend and foe, guarding the former and defeating the latter, they must, in some sense, be philosophical (375e). Socrates observes:

“When a dog sees someone it doesn’t know, it gets angry before anything bad happens to it. But when it knows someone, it welcomes him, even if it has never received anything good from him.” (376a).

Such judgement and discrimination is a mark of philosophy:

“S: Surely this is a refined quality in its nature and one that is truly philosophical.

G: In what way philosophical?

S: Because it judges anything it sees to be either a friend or an enemy, on no other basis than that it knows the one and doesn’t know the other. And how could it be anything besides a lover of learning, if it defines what is its own and what is alien to it in terms of knowledge and ignorance?

G: It couldn’t.

S: But surely the love of learning is the same thing as philosophy or the love of wisdom?

G: It is.

S: Then, may we confidently assume in the case of a human being, too, that if he is to be gentle toward his own and those he knows, he must be a lover of learning and wisdom?

G: We may.

S: Philosophy, spirit, speed, and strength must all, then, be combined in the nature of anyone who is to be a fine and good guardian of our city” (376b-c).

Note how the very existence of the city thus turns on the ability to judge, to discriminate and draw distinctions between things, accepting some and rejecting others. If the guardian class treated its own people as if they were enemies, the city would fall through civil war. If, on the other hand, the guardian class treated foreign invaders as if they were citizens, then the city would fall to external forces. Judgment is thus essential for the city’s survival.

This is not only the case for cities, but also for individuals. To live well, we must make judgments and discriminate. We must determine what is true and what is false, and distinguish right from wrong, beauty from deformity, and health from sickness. Socrates contention is bolstered by the broader philosophical tradition in this regard. Before him, it was articulated in Chinese philosophy as the distinction between Yin and Yang, and in the Pythagorean tradition as the distinction between the odd and the even. And we see it continue to be maintained well after Socrates’ day, in Kant’s identification of Understanding with the faculty for judging (der Verstand überhaupt als ein Vermögen zu urteilen vorgestellt werde kann)(A69/B94), and in Frege’s contention that sentences refer either to the true or to the false.

            Such a defense of judgment can feel somehow wrong or even sinful in our culture where judgment and discrimination are pilloried as the greatest of vices. But, our modern world once more proves to be incoherent, when we take the time to look past its self-righteous façade and examine the substance of its claims. Life requires judgment. To pursue virtue, one must reject vice. The problem, I suspect, comes from a conflation of the act of judgement with the state of being judgmental, and a deliberate obfuscation of the latter. Consider some various meanings of the term ‘judgmental’:

Judgmental 1: Someone is judgmental if he or she makes judgments on non-rational grounds. For example, someone might reject Hanna Arendt’s account of totalitarianism simply because she is a Jewish or a woman, Confucius’s concept of leadership simply because he is Chinese, or reject Plato’s account of dialectic simply because of his alleged whiteness or for being a man. The judgmental person would thus be irrational, basing one’s conclusions, not upon rational grounds but upon contingent features of the situation that have nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of the claims in question. To be judgmental in this sense is to make judgments on non-rational grounds. This would be akin to calling tripping and falling on one’s face “walking”. A similar case holds for the term discrimination. Someone can discriminate in the sense of making a distinction based on non-rational grounds. One might, for example, hire someone for an academic position or admit them as a student in an academic program on the basis of something unrelated to that person’s qualifications for that position, such as whether the candidate is a man or woman, with whom he or she like to have sex, or the color of the candidate’s skin. Discrimination, on this definition, would certainly be both foolish and unjust, but, would be so solely in virtue of the fact that the discrimination is based on non-rational grounds. Again, this is like calling crashing an airplane “flying.”

Judgmental 2: Someone is judgmental if he or she makes judgments that are, in some sense rational, but rely on first principles that I fundamentally disagree with. Your friend, for example, who loves Rossini, might make fun of you for admiring Wagner and accuse you of having adolescent taste in music. You might say he is judgmental, making judgments that are, in some sense rational, but which are nonetheless fundamentally misguided. Again, the problem here isn’t that your friend makes judgments, but that he is basing his judgements on grounds that you contest. The way forward in such a situation wouldn’t be to tell your friend to stop making judgments altogether, but to have a conversation about first principles. For example, one could inquire into what makes for good music, should it be based on pleasantness to the ear in the way that linguini is pleasant to the mouth, or should it be based on penetrating the depths of the human Spirit?

Judgmental 3: Someone is judgmental if he or she lacks compassion for the person before him or her. For example, suppose a student comes to me in grief, mourning the death of someone close to him. If I were to respond in haughtiness or hostility, quipping that “all men are mortal” or that “the wages of sin is death,” I could be called judgmental. In such a scenario, I would clearly be in the wrong, yet not because I exercised judgement, but because I judged falsely. In such a situation I would have failed to honor and respect the conscious being before me. I would have wrongly judged that my own feeling of moral superiority or social image was more valuable than human nature. I would be like the Pharisees whom Jesus chided:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matt 23:23-24 ESV).”

The problem, again, in such a scenario, is not that I judged, but that I misjudged.

So, on all three readings of the term “judgmental”, the problematic feature is never judgment as such, but either judging on non-rational grounds, contested grounds, or misjudging. In my opinion, it would be best to abandon the term altogether, since it simply obscures the relevant issues. Indeed, I suspect that it has been introduced precisely to sow such confusion. Judgment itself, in its ordinary sense, is necessary for life. This holds true both for the community and for the individual. No community can survive without judging between right and wrong, friend and foe, and health and disease. Nor can it last without those who have the courage to defend those judgments. Similarly, the individual cannot live well without judgement. We must determine to the best of our abilities what is noble, good, and healthy, and have the courage to act accordingly.

Though the activities of the guardian class can often appear, at first glance, to be destructive, when understood rightly they are, in fact, necessary for life. These activities were signified by the Mars and Saturn traditional astrology. Saturn was associated with negation, setting limits, and building walls, and Mars with ferocity, battle, and courage. These planets were said to be malefics, bringing misfortune wherever they fell. But even ancient astrologers saw that such a naïve characterization was misguided. Valens, for example, observes that:

“The benefic stars which are appropriately and favorably situated bring about their proper effects according to their own nature and the nature of their sign, with the aspects and conjunctions of each star being blended. If however they are unfavorably situated, they are indicative of reversals. In the same way even the malefic stars, when they are operative in appropriate places in their own sect, are bestowers of good and indicative of the greatest positions and success; when they are inoperative, they bring about disasters and accusations.” Valens, Anthologies I.1 Trans. Riley.

So-called benefic stars, can bring about bad results when they are poorly situated, and so-called malefic ones can bring good and be “indicative of the greatest positions and success.” Though many today no longer resonate with the ideas of traditional astrology, we nonetheless make similar observations through the more confused language of popular psychiatry and psychology. Without the ability to maintain personal boundaries, people may become co-dependent and “enmeshed” in unhealthy relationships. The morally degenerate, perhaps those whom the DSM would subsume under its ever so precise label of cluster B, may sense this weakness and seek to prey upon it, trapping their victims in cycles of abuse. The way out of these relationships involves learning to set boundaries and having the courage and strength of will to enforce them. One must act as one of Plato’s guardians would, erecting walls and fiercely opposing those who would attempt to breach them. And again, the same holds at the communal level. When a people is cowardly and fails to erect and defend its boundaries, tyrants will inevitably install themselves. To keep the tyrants out, it is necessary to build walls, and to have the courage to shut the doors fast when the Stasi come knocking.

Guardians are thus necessary both for the city and for the individual, and their functions, which can initially seem malefic, prove to be salutary. I’ll conclude with a poem by Hölderlin, praising Saturn, the neglected god and greater malefic, for his life giving work:

Nature and Art (or Jupiter and Saturn)./ High up in day you govern, your law prevails,/ You hold the scales of judgment, O Saturn’s son,/ Hand out our lots and well-contented/ Rest on the fame of immortal kingship./ Yet, singers know it, down the abyss you hurled/ The holy father once, your own parent, who/ Long now has lain lamenting where the/ Wild ones before you more justly languish./ Quite guiltless he, the god of the golden age:/ Once effortless and greater than you, although/ He uttered no commandment, and no/ Mortal on earth ever named his presence./ So down with you! Or cease to withhold your thanks!/ And if you’ll stay, defer to the older god/ And grant him that above all others,/ Gods and great mortals, the singer name him!/ For as from clouds your lightning, from him has come/ What you call yours. And, look, the commands you speak/ To him bear witness, and from Saturn’s/ Primitive peace every power developed./ And once my heart can feel and contain that life/ Most living, his, and things that you shaped grow dim,/ And in his cradle changing Time has/ Fallen asleep and sweet quiet lulls me–/ I’ll know you then, Kronion, and hear you then,/ The one wise master who, like ourselves, a son/ of Time, gives laws to us, uncovers/ that which lies hidden in holy twilight.–Nature and Art (or Saturn and Jupiter), trans. Hamburger.

[Du waltest hoch am Tag und es blühet dein

Gesetz, du hältst die Waage, Saturnus Sohn!

Und teilst die Los’ und ruhest froh im

Ruhm der unsterblichen Herrscherkünste.

Doch in den Abgrund, sagen die Sänger sich,

Habst du den heilgen Vater, den eignen, einst

Verwiesen und es jammre drunten,

Da, wo die Wilden vor dir mit Recht sind,

Schuldlos der Gott der goldenen Zeit schon längst:

Einst mühelos, und größer, wie du, wenn schon

Er kein Gebot aussprach und ihn der

Sterblichen keiner mit Namen nannte.

Herab denn! oder schäme des Danks dich nicht!

Und willst du bleiben, diene dem Älteren,

Und gönn es ihm, daß ihn vor allen,

Göttern und Menschen, der Sänger nenne!

Denn, wie aus dem Gewölke dein Blitz, so kömmt

Von ihm, was dein ist, siehe! so zeugt von ihm,

Was du gebeutst, und aus Saturnus

Frieden ist jegliche Macht erwachsen.

Und hab ich erst am Herzen Lebendiges

Gefühlt und dämmert, was du gestaltetest,

Und war in ihrer Wiege mir in

Wonne die wechselnde Zeit entschlummert:

Dann kenn ich dich, Kronion! dann hör ich dich,

Den weisen Meister, welcher, wie wir, ein Sohn

Der Zeit, Gesetze gibt und, was die

Heilige Dämmerung birgt, verkündet.]

–Natur und Kunst oder: Saturn und Jupiter, Friedrich Hölderlin

[The image used in the thumbnail is in the public domain and can be found here:]

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