A reader’s guide to Plato’s Republic, books II-IV, Introduction to part 3: the education of the senses and the education of desire

Part two concerned the role of the virtue of temperance in the education of the guardians.  It remains to discuss more fully the role of eros, a factor in the life of the guardians that has more of less been taken for granted.  eros, which may be translated as either desire or love, may be thought of as that principle in us whereby we find ourselves naturally disposed to strive after something.  Although desire cannot be considered a virtue or excellence in itself, it is ordinarily, an essential element of excellence.   It is, moreover, a quality the luxurious city has to a “feverish” degree and which the more moderate city of pigs, by contrast, appears to lack.  Plato is careful to indicate that his initial city (the city of pigs) is bound together by the virtue of temperance (or moderation); but what Glaucon’s objection ushers in is the question whether true excellence can fully reside in a city of such rustic simplicity.  The objection presses forward the concern that in a simple rustic city excellences in art, science, and philosophical wisdom may not become fully developed in the way that they would in the more luxurious city.  Moreover, as regards the education of the guardians, where, in the simple rustic city would one find good soil to develop a desire for such sophisticated excellences?

On the other hand, it is clear that the kind of eros that pushes to excess (such as the feverish eros of the luxurious city) cannot by itself stand as a foundation for excellence without the virtue of sophrosune which, translates as temperance or moderation, but also “prudence”.  The right sort of virtue to cure an eros that pushes further and further to excess would seem to be the sort of sophrosune that connotes both prudence and simple moderation.  Moderation, it may be recalled, was the primary virtue of Socrates’ initial utopian society. “Prudence”, on the other hand, connotes more clearly the idea of practical wisdom. Thus, it seems fitting that it is the virtue of sophrosune, above all, with its connotations of both moderation and practical wisdom, that the guardians must possess if they are to act as physicians to the city’s fever. (See especially 430-431)

Hence, in attempting to set up a dialectic of opposites (so as to bring out the flow of the argument in the Republic), the proper “extremes” might be said to arrange themselves as follows:  Firstly, we have the opposition of the two cities: one represents an extreme of eros, a feverish state in which desire is added to desire until it leads to disharmony and disorder in the natural arrangement of things; the other city, while harmonious, does not seem to have reached its full potential inasmuch as it represents a rather primitive state of human existence brought about precisely by a lack of striving and exertion for more and better things.

This lack of striving, it seems to me, might be thought of as a kind of low-grade sophrosune, and to the extent that it applies to the initial city, it is not equal to what would be the higher-grade prudence that the Guardians must possess to attune a city always in danger of falling into disorder.  That prudence, as was said above, would require a practical wisdom beyond what is required for Socrates’ more temperate earlier city.  Thus, while the initial two cities may be opposed as opposites, the virtue of sophrosune the guardians possess seems to be precisely that kind of virtue that arises out of an opposition between two extremes.  It would seem, moreover, to arise out of having a better understanding of just what the potential of eros, desire, may or may not amount to.

Finally, the opposition between the need for moderation and the need for eros can also be considered as contributing to each other’s strength when their opposition is properly balanced by high-grade sophrosune.  One might think of an arch in this regard, in considering how the extremes balance and contribute to the realization of a higher excellence: on the one hand, desire and a disposition to strive for something are essential to excellence; on the other, such a disposition can run into excess unless it is restrained, balanced and guided by a higher sophrosune.  Here the dialectical opposition and the excellence that can arise from it suggests a framework very much like the image of the charioteer given in the Phaedrus.

The treatment of eros that will follow will illuminate the nature of eros within the framework suggested here of an opposition balanced by a higher virtue.  The different oppositions suggested by the simile of an arch given above will be brought out in the text by comparing Plato’s discussion of the education of the guardians with a “ladder” of eros that may be found in the Symposium.  The plan for what follows emerges directly from this intention:  firstly, the ladder of the Symposium will be presented and compared with the stages in the education of the guardians; then, this upward ascent will be examined with an eye to the way in which Republic II-IV and the ladder of eros in the Symposium complement and complete one another on the way to the realization of high-grade sophrosune.  Finally, I will add a few remarks of a more general scope on the way eros is conceived in the Platonic dialogues.