A Reader’s Guide to Plato’s Republic, Books II-IV (Full Version)


Introduction

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Plato’s Republic is known to many for its discourse about the divided line and the analogy of the cave, but less well known or well explored is the subject of the education of the guardians that takes place in Republic, Books II-IV. As will be seen, it deserves a more prominent place in the overall discussion of justice than it is sometimes given.  The following is a brief chronology of the dialogue leading up to the discussion of the education of the Guardians:

  • In Book I, Plato has set the stage for an exploration of Justice in the rest of the Republic by asking whether it can be considered as good for its own sake.  Socrates defends this position for most of Book I.
  • Then, in books II-IV, Plato pursues the prior question of what justice really is.  He does this by what might seem like a very circuitous route: by first creating an ideal Republic before returning to the question about Justice.  His reason for the detour (R 368D) is explained by a visual analogy: since justice can be  seen more clearly and contemplated with greater ease on the larger scale of a city state, he creates this image for us first before applying the same ideas to the individual.  This program for the content of books II-IV, should be understood within that framework.  Part of the detour involves considering what type of rulers an ideal republic should have and what their education is be.

Plato’s first steps in creating an ideal Republic in books II-IV, may appear somewhat paradoxical at first.  As mentioned, he begins by saying that he wishes to create an image of justice on the larger scale of an entire city-state.  But after only a short discussion in which he rejects two models, which might be called the  “moderate” city and the city of pigs, what he proceeds to do is to imagine truly just individuals first of all, and does this by discussing the education of the rulers of his Republic, called the “guardians”.  This move back to individuals may be seen as Plato’s attempt to construct a Republic by starting with its most essential or necessary elements.  Most essential of all elements would seem to be the  guardians and their character, and so the education of the guardians falls into place as the first order of business in books II-IV.

This theme, the education of the guardians, will be the main focus of the following guide to books II-IV.  The guide will present what I believe to be the best way to answer various questions surrounding the discussion of the education of the guardians.  Those motivating questions are as follows:

  1. In book II, Socrates creates an ideal city that Glaucon (R 372D) later calls a “city of pigs” because of its rustic simplicity.  Glaucon then proceeds to imagine a more urbane, sophisticated city, that Socrates objects to as a “luxurious city”, and a “feverish city”.  How does the rest of the dialogue in books II-IV respond to this dialectic?
  2. The earliest education the guardians receive involves what Plato calls musike.  Musike is a very broad term that refers to all the arts (such as poetry, philosophy, and music itself) whose mastery might be said to betoken a cultivation of soul, whether in an individual or in a civilization.  The early stages of training in musike the young guardians undergo involve not only hearing stories of virtuous gods and heroes, but also an education of the senses through (actual) music.  That the young guardians should have their character shaped through listening to stories might have been expected; but Plato’s particular attention to the music the guardians listen to might be somewhat unexpected.  Therefore it seems that something perhaps characteristic of Plato’s overall philosophy might be making an intrusion here.  What, then, one might ask, is the ultimate significance of this education of the senses for the guardians and the republic, and what is its ultimate importance?
  3. The discussion of musike coheres nicely with an image of the guardian as a kind of tuner of his soul and of the city.  As “tuner” the guardian must be able to adjust its strings properly so as to bring about a harmony that corresponds to an ideal of musical sound. (See R 430a et seq.)  What then, does this image suggest about rulership, and how does it relate to the prior two questions?

Readers of Plato’s dialogues may already be able to anticipate the ways in which the themes that appear in the questions connect to more familiar themes in the Republic and elsewhere.  For example, Plato’s conception of virtue is very much allied to the traditional conception of the philosopher as someone who seeks knowledge and does not care for worldly possessions or honors.  Hence, the discussion of the education of the guardians may serve as a basis for thinking about Plato’s notion of virtue.

Moreover, the education of the senses, introduced as a theme in the second question, recalls the upward path of the divided line and cave that appear in books VI and VII of the Republic.  In each case, one must begin with the everyday phenomenal reality of things at hand, with things present to our senses, as a preliminary to working with higher abstractions.  The education of the senses the Guardians undergo would seem to be a piece in the overall puzzle of understanding this sort of progression, and indeed I believe it will assist in bringing different aspects of this “upward path” into a basic unity.

Finally, the image of the fully educated guardian as a tuner of the soul and the state in turn suggests a further consequence:

  • Someone who has mastered musike is someone who has become an “artist” in relation to the subjects comprised within musike.
  • The student has done this by taking an upward path through various specific kinds of musike in order to arrive at a more comprehensive vision of political states and souls.
  • As will be seen, this type of process, as well as the very metaphor of tuning itself, introduces an entelechtic element into the Republic.  The ultimate outcome of Socrates’  discussion of the ideal ruler in the ideal republic is ultimately to show us where the goals of education meet higher philosophical aims and how this can be to our advantage-perhaps as part of a way of answering the question of why it is more advantageous to act justly.  The arrival at a clearer vision of these connections will be one of the motivating factors in the following guide, so that its place in the overall mosaic of Plato’s texts can be more clearly perceived.

The city of pigs

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Plato’s “city of pigs,”which appears in Republic II (369a et seq.), has a greater thematic importance than is sometimes recognized for the development of the discussion of justice in the Republic as a whole.   As was mentioned above, the starting point for the discussion of justice was to be the creation of an ideal Republic in which justice could be seen “writ large”.  The city of pigs involves Socrates’ first attempt to create such a city.  It will be shown that, although it is discarded following Glaucon’s objection, this first attempt at an ideal republic in many ways provides the foundation for the discussion of justice in the remainder of the book.

Socrates’ initial city (the city of pigs)

The most outstanding feature of Socrates’ first city (the city of pigs/the original simple rustic city) is its moderate character. Created by need, as Socrates says any gathering of individuals into a society must be, it is a city in which each gets just what he needs, and provides for the whole according to his ability.  To accomplish this, each citizen is to develop a particular skill and to strive toward excellence at that particular craft.  It is a city which accepts that each has his own natural abilities, and that not all its citizens will have equal abilities.  Nevertheless, by the combined contribution of all its members, it is able to serve all its members’ moderate needs.

It is a city with two main social classes, consisting, on the one hand, of craftsmen, farmers, builders, sailors, herdsmen, weavers and merchants, and laborers on the other.   Together they produce the “right quality” and “right quantity” (371a) of goods, which coincides with the requirements for the health of the city.  Socrates even pictures the citizens as drinking moderately (372c).  By contrast, Socrates pictures the unhealthy city as one that has grown fat with things Socrates considers immoderate, such as rich sauces, and other “luxuries” that go beyond Socrates’ image of rustic simplicity.

Now, it might be wondered why no discussion of  possible social tensions or of inequality arises, as, for example, between  merchants and farmers.  Presumably, it is because Socrates imagines that all will be adequately provided for by doing what is best suited to their natural abilities.  Moreover, immoderate excess, which is the starting point for injustice, has not been introduced into this “healthy” (372e) city, and so, in theory at least, no one wants more than they need.  Socrates imagines that all will be well provided for since it is a city organized “according to nature”.  Presumably, its unity will arise from the fact that the needs of all are provided for and from its fidelity to nature.

But most of all, it seems that moderation is ultimately what holds a society together in a harmonious order for Plato.  Since injustice arises precisely where the spirit of moderation is broken and the city becomes “feverish” (373a), it might well be inferred that moderation is linked to justice.  In the present context, it is certainly the determining factor behind  ensuring harmony among the citizens (cf. 371e-372a for the notion that justice is linked to a harmony of the parts of the city with one another and 372e-373 where excess is linked to injustice and war (disharmony)).

The city of pigs passage comes to a close at 372c.  Glaucon objects that such people would “feast without relishes”; that they would, in view of their diet, be like pigs, feasting only on “noble cakes” made of barley and wheat flower.  Socrates in turn, admits into the city, and only when pressed, such things as boiled roots, acorns, and beans.  Where Socrates imagines such conditions as productive of a kind of rustic health and vigor, Glaucon sees a city that lacks the elegance and sophistication one would expect to find in an ideal republic.  Glaucon’s point might, again, be taken to be that even if such a city is moderate, it is in other respects an uncomfortable and deficient in many respects.

But it may be possible to read into the very spiritedness of Glaucon’s rejection another simple point: that human nature is such that it always wishes to go beyond moderation where it can.  Socrates seems to think that the remedy is to keep the citizens ignorant of any immoderate things they lack.  One wonders how long such a city could last.  Certainly, a possible analogy to an Eden-like scenario suggests itself.

The luxurious/feverish city

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Its opposite, what Socrates calls a luxurious city, is an example of excess.  Desire for what is beyond the mean leads to an ever-increasing need for greater and greater acquisition and acquisitiveness until, fueled by a desire that seemingly has no longer any connection with the basic needs of the body, the result is war and injustice.  With a touch of irony, Socrates says, in passing, that the city will require farm pigs for the first time.  Perhaps the pig, with its consumptive nature, may be taken to indicate the sort of inhabitants that the city must have in both a literal and figurative sense.  This desire-pushed-to-excess is described in another way as a “fever” the city has.  It is this metaphor that provides a key to understanding the role of the Guardians within the polis.  The Guardians are, in fact, figures that moderate the feverishness of the luxurious city.  As will be seen, the analogy of feverishness works in tandem with that of the need to order the body of the state.

Toward the mean and political justice

In this connection, Socrates says at 444d of book IV, that disease, the opposite of health, is produced by a disharmony in the body.  It is, more precisely, a re-ordering of the body that is contrary to nature, and  one in which the relationship between elements that normally stand in a relationship of mastery and being mastered has been upset, and a new unnatural norm has been established in its place.  The virtue or excellence of the body is, of course, linked to good order.  This, in turn, connects the entire discussion to the topic of harmony, which, as in the case of a Lyre, involves the proper tuning of strings in relation to one another.  The guardian is thus both a kind of physician and a kind of musician.  The two analogies intersect at the notion of a proper or natural ordering that leads to virtue.  This right ordering, in turn, is also the basis of justice; a connection that was hinted at in Socrates’ initial temperate and healthy city.

Thus, the guardians play a rehabilitating and moderating role within the feverish city.  One might suspect that their function is to undermine the “progress” of the luxurious city, and indeed this must be true to some extent.  However, this deserves more careful examination.  What, it might be asked, is Socrates’ intention in creating the guardian class?  Is it a retrograde one designed to return the city to an earlier state of rustic simplicity?  Or has Socrates simply abandoned such an ideal?  Notice that the very philosophy that Socrates cherishes is never mentioned as having a presence in his city of healthy rustics; there is merely a simple, unquestioning piety and reverence for the gods in place of intellectual pursuits.  Nothing, even in the realm of intellectual questioning and investigation would seem to be lacking to the inhabitants of such a city. And yet, it might be wondered whether such unquestioning simplicity could really stand as an ideal for someone such as Socrates.  Moreover, one might consider in this connection whether such a city could, human nature being what it is, survive uncorrupted for long.  Socrates, might be read as tacitly accepting this fact by never actually rejecting the luxurious city as such and proceeding to modify it by immediately introducing the most essential moderating element for the whole: the guardians.

Indeed, if we take a broader, structural view of books II-IV, the guardians appear to enter the discussion as a mean between the extremes of the rustic and luxurious cities.  But they are more than this: they are adjusters, tuners, and harmonizers of a society that is constantly changing, evolving, and indeed progressing.

The Education of the Guardians

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Once we move beyond the dialogue about the two cities in book 2, we immediately find ourselves plunged into a discussion about the education of the guardians.  As was said above, the guardians are a kind of anchoring element in Plato’s construction of his republic, which stands as a mean between the extremes of the the initial city of pigs and the luxurious city.  It will now be seen more clearly how the education of the guardians coincides with this mediation.

1

Plato’s intention is that the guardians should save the city from excess and defect through their philosophical efforts.  The education Plato designs for the guardians stands as a way for bringing about this particular kind of excellence in the city.  Along with physical training (gymnastike) Plato’s musike is a program for what we might call a liberal arts education keyed to developing a moderate character in the guardians that avoids either extreme simplicity or the tendency to excess.  Plato assumes throughout his discussion that there will be a general sharing of values connected, seemingly, by the stories of gods and heroes that are told to the guardians (1).  (see 377b et seq.)  The role the guardians play seems to be that of maintaining the moderating values that appear in these stories.  They are in this sense, in one of their roles, a kind of priestly class, ensuring the maintenance of certain cultural values, and above all the sorts of values that promote the kind of moderation that Plato’s musike teaches.  In another sense, the guardians are educators, especially in their role as lawgivers.  (see 429b)

But such roles require, ideally, the kind of independent, creative thinking that a liberal arts education (such as Plato’s musike) would promote.  It is clear throughout Plato’s discussion of the education of the guardians that he means them not be be merely slavish imitators of current fashions or of the wisdom of their ancestors, but philosophically minded persons who are motivated to search out the truth of things. (409b)  The foundation of this character trait in the guardians is their search for what is beautiful as part of their devotion to the muses. (403b)  It is sometimes wondered whether the republic Plato imagines is totalitarian in spirit.  A close look at the education the guardians receive would seem to count against such claims.  One might reflect, for example, that there is a vast difference between Plato’s system of education and, say, the old Soviet system; or, again, between one that emphasizes self-expression, creativity, and a passion for beauty (as Plato’s does) and what some have thought will be the result of the progressive move away from the humanities in contemporary university education.

Finally, perhaps the foil to Plato’s educational program would be a more Spartan one: one which, unlike the one Plato’s guardians undergo, overemphasizes the things that tend to harden the spirit, such as an excess of physical training, while it undervalues the softening effects of a purely “musical” education.  Plato’s aim is to find excellence in the mean that manifests itself naturally between the two extremes. (410c et seq.)  Thus, as was hinted at in prior articles, Plato’s education in moderation may be said to stand as an example of the way in which aiming at a mean is likewise an aiming at excellence; or, in other words, of how devotion to the mean is not intended merely a compromise but as a way of proceeding that surpasses either of two alternatives.

2

In what follows, I would like to move beyond these stage-setting themes to consider the way in which Plato’s education in moderation or temperance stands as a foundational stage on a ladder of virtues such as courage, wisdom and justice.  Secondarily, I will touch upon links this theme of a ladder of virtues has to a similar ladder of desire in the symposium.  In Plato, one finds not only an education of the mind, but also one of the body, including the senses, and the passions aroused through the senses.  In what follows, the importance of these latter forms of education will be considered as parts of the larger “whole” of the truly philosophical character Plato has in mind, which will in turn point to an initial vision of how the various epistemological and moral themes in the Platonic dialogues fit together.

The upward path of the ladder of virtue might be said to begin with an education of the senses.  As such, it has a standing similar to the epistemological role that perceptibles play on the lower portion of the divided line.  This “education” might be characterized by a kind of  outside-inside movement or influence, whereby the things in the young guardian’s environment affect his soul through the senses.  for example, the young guardians are exposed, initially, to stories of virtue that have been been “purified” of any bad influences.  Socrates and Glaucon expect that such stories will serve as models of virtuous behavior that the guardians will strive to imitate.  Moreover, this modelling of virtue or excellence extends to such influences in the guardians’ environment as weaving, embroidery, architecture, and “fine speech”.  (401a)  The art behind such crafts is meant to produce in the guardians a sense of harmony, grace, and rhythm.  In a way similar to what Aristotle expresses in the Nicomachean Ethics it is expected that the guardians will at first take on common opinions about what is virtuous unreflectively, but will later, when mature, be in a position to grasp the reason why some things praised while others are blamed. (401e-402a)  In keeping with the stages of ascent on the divided line, the young guardians might be said to hold conjectures or beliefs or opinions concerning things they are only later able to justify.

Moreover, this path parallels the one taken out of the cave by the prisoners of opinion and conjecture.  It may be seen that such prisoners could be aided greatly by at first having the right opinions about what is virtuous or beautiful.  It seems necessary that persons who have already made an upward ascent and have knowledge of some kind about such things should be the ones to provide the guardians with the correct opinions and beliefs.  It us sometimes thought, owing to Augustine, that in the Platonic tradition all learning must arise “from within”,and that therefore, teaching is something that arises within oneself.  Notwithstanding the merits of such a view, it might stand as a refinement of this position as a genuinely platonic one to say that such inner teaching and discovery is only a final stage that precedes the initial one in which teaching consists in pointing students consistently in the right direction until they can find their way on their own.  (for these points see 410a-b)  From the student’s perspective, this amounts to a healthy respect for one’s predecessors.  Finally, one can perhaps see here a way in which this perspective on teaching anticipates Aristotle’s solution to the problem of the Meno in Ana Post. I.1: although one may not be able to discover virtue if one has absolutely to idea of what one is looking for, one may be able to discover it by taking advantage of the prior knowledge acquired in the explorations of one’s predecessors.  Progress might be hindered and success might truly be a gift of the gods, it would seem, if one does not admit any opinions or beliefs as assumptions about what one is seeking at the outset.

3

To bring these insights back to the education of the senses, the guardians may be pictured as surrounded by stories and artifacts of all kinds about which they are taught to have discriminating opinions and tastes.  If their education is successful, they will praise things said to be praiseworthy and blame those things held to be blameworthy.  Moreover, they will become graceful as rhythm and harmony permeate their souls both through their exposure to harmonious and temperate music and through the kind of rhythm and harmony that is present in well crafted artifacts.  All these factors contribute to developing a temperate nature that shares the virtues both of Socrates’ initial city of pigs, and the refinements and support for philosophically sophisticated thinking that arise in the luxurious city.

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It might be noted at this point that Glaucon’s remark that Socrates’ initial city was a city of pigs is a fine example of Socratic irony.  Glaucon labelled the inhabitants of Socrates’ simple city “pigs” because of their diet (which consisted of such things as boiled roots and acorns) and their uncultivated rusticity.  But Glaucon’s luxurious city stands equally as a city of pigs for its voracious appetitiveness and desire for wealth. (373d)  The guardians provide a foundation for meeting both defects by introducing into the culture and character of Plato’s republic a passion for true and simple beauty that begins at the level of the senses and later manifests itself in the flowering of guiding ideas.

Taking these points together with the parallels noted above and with the allegory of the cave and the divided line, it might be said that having achieved such guiding ideas that lead to the realization of harmony and beauty in the republic, the guardians add to their role as harmonizers, tuners, and healers that of teachers.  It is in this role that one might see a foreshadowing in books II-IV of the notion that arises in books VI and VII, that having ascended to knowledge from belief and conjecture, the philosophical ruler is in a position to lead others to a similar vision.

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(1) It should be noted that although it is intended for the guardian class, the values conveyed through Plato’s kind of Musike, can, as an ideal at least, may be considered an educational program for the republic as a whole.  It is sometimes overlooked that only the best of the guardians will become rulers, and that therefore the educational program Plato imagines might be said to be intended for the educated classes generally (i.e. the guardian class).  Hence, it would signify what it means to be educated generally and, since it is likewise an education of character, to be noble in spirit.

The Education of the Guardians and the Education of Desire

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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, inasmuch as it carries with it the notion of that which impels us to strive for something, 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, as above,  translates as temperance or moderation, but also “prudence”, and sometimes carries with it a sense of practical wisdom.  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 prudence rather than simple moderation, which was the primary virtue of Socrates’ initial utopian society.  This may be seen in the fact that it is prudence, above all, with its connotation of practical wisdom, that the guardians must possess if they are to act as physicians to the city’s fever. (See especially 430-431)

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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 to consist in having a better understanding of just what the potential of eros amounts 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.

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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.

The Education of the Senses and the Education of Desire

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The theme of part 2, the education of the senses serves as a good bridge for entering into a discussion of the ladder of eros in the Symposium and its relationship to the education of the guardians.  As also occurs  in the education of the guardians, the one who would ascend the ladder of eros in the Symposium must begin with sights and sounds and finally progress to a vision of something that is both purely intelligible and that brings about true understanding inasmuch as it serves to unify and give meaning to appearances.  Thus, there is a sense in which the ladder of eros is a ladder of understanding.  The education of desire, like any other subject begins with the senses but does not terminate in them.  Its terminus, or alternatively, its place of rest, is found in understanding.  It will be seen in what follows that this understanding is linked to a vision of what is best in terms of the fulfillment of human potential, and that it involves a ranking of desires.  The ascent Plato has in mind involves an upward journey from lower to higher desires, keyed, moreover, to the development of human potential in the republic.

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It should be mentioned in passing that the guardians, who might achieve a greater share of the riches and pleasures of the world, do not do so for the sake of the state.  They might be more “blessed” as those in the luxurious city seem to be, but for the sake of the greater good of the city, so that it might attain its greatest happiness as a whole, Plato restricts them to an honorable poverty.  Such sacrifice goes hand in hand with the virtue of a good citizen, one that would not appear as such outside the context of a city such as the Republic.  Moreover, it should be remembered in what follows that the ladder of desire to be considered might also be said to carry with it an implicit political dimension.  This may be glimpsed more fully in what follows, but for the present,the point to be observed is that living, especially as a guardian, in a community with others involves an implicit sacrifice of oneself for the greater good, and that this sacrifice expresses itself as an ethos of restraint from abandoning oneself to the pursuit of all that one might desire.  It would seem that Plato (as well as Aristotle) is convinced of the merits of restraining oneself from excess, inasmuch as it brings about a greater fulfillment of human potential and hence of human happiness.

The ladder in question has, in its most elaborate form (Symposium 210-211) four basic steps corresponding to four different objects of desire.  They are: (1) a love of beauty in bodies; (2) a love for what is seen as beautiful or desirable in practical affairs (usually honor); (3) a love for knowledge of various kinds; and, finally, (4) a desire to know what the beautiful or desirable itself is that was sought in various guises on the lower steps.  These four may, in turn, be divided in two ways: firstly, (1) may be distinguished from (2)-(4) according to whether the love that arises is for bodily things or beautiful things that arise from the soul; secondly, one might see in the distinction between (2) and (3)-(4) a foreshadowing of Aristotle’s distinction between the practical and the theoretical.  Finally, it should be emphasized that (2) in the Symposium is characterized not only by a love of honor, but also by sophrosune (practical wisdom or prudence as well as temperance) and by a love of justice.  It is just such a love that characterizes the guardians in the republic.

A further feature of the ladder of eros is a dialectical relationship between the one who desires or loves and the object of desire at each stage on the upward ladder.  At each stage, this “dialectic” according to the metaphor of reproduction Plato is using, results in a pregnancy, which, if successful, results in offspring of some sort, whether physical or intellectual.  At each stage it is ultimately a love for immortality that lies behind the drive to reproduce and bring forth offspring that bear a likeness to oneself.  It may be seen that eros seems to have two parts: one, a desire that has the potential to take on many particular shapes, and another which is the object of desire that provides the particular shape in each case.

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Both lover and the thing that is beloved contribute to the character and quality of the particular way in which eros manifests itself as well as the offspring that it eventually produces.  Thus, at the level of the love of knowledge, for example, the lover falls in love with, say knowledge of mathematics, and when he does, and comes together with his subject, he produces offspring in the form of, perhaps theories, or ideas, or papers on mathematics.  Hence, when the steps are put together with the dialectic of lover and beloved, the whole might be said to resemble a grid with both vertical and horizontal lines.   

If we turn back to the education of the guardians in the Republic, in may be recalled  that what one produces and contributes to the whole of society is a very important notion for Plato.   It is especially important that in the case of the guardians the education of the senses should involve learning to strive after and to desire certain things and not others, and to learn to value certain forms of beauty above others so as to produce the sort of ideas that may preserve harmony and unity as well as self-sufficiency in the city.  It is for the sake of such ideas that the guardians are meant to put aside other desirable and beautiful things they might otherwise attain.  The kinds of desires Plato wishes his guardians to value, and the highly cultivated way in which he wants them to look upon and see beauty in things are aimed at developing a character suited to discover higher practical and philosophical wisdom.  The discovery of such ideas must be due, at least in part to a nature ready, when awakened, to have such desires and to appreciate such forms of beauty.  Moreover, it is not merely the “potential” within a certain nature to desire certain things that is needed for a love of things such as abstract knowledge and a philosophical grasp of beauty itself.  True philosophical wisdom, it may be seen, requires a special kind of devotion and a involves a love of a certain character if it is to bear any fruit. It requires both a greater desire for it above other things and a willingness to put aside other desires when necessary in order to attain it.

Concluding thoughts on eros and the meaning of life

The dialectic between lover, beloved, and offspring (see part 3-A) sets the stage for a discussion of two “cycles” that I believe can be said to complete Plato’s vision of the good life.  The first stage might be called the cycle of existence; the second, the cycle of self-realization.  Both operate according to the dynamic of final causality, according to which a pre-existing end or goal is present at the beginning of the cycle, and works within that cycle toward its own total realization at its completion.  It may be seen that the dialectic between lover, beloved, and offspring, spoken of in section 3-A is an example of final causality operating in this way, in that what initiates this cycle is the dynamic potential for the realization of the offspring (this may express itself as a disposition in the lover toward a knowledge of the good) which may be brought about by a vision of such an end, arrived at by uniting with the beloved.  This dynamic potential that initiates is, of course, eros (desire, love) itself; its realization is the fulfillment of the particular vision it inspires, whether for good or for ill.  The example shows how what was present at the beginning cycle is also present at the end as a fulfillment of the initial dynamic potential.

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Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

The cycle of self-realization follows this pattern, and when looked for, may be seen to play an important role in Plato’s ethics.  It is, in a sense, a cycle of self-(re)-production that has immortality as its aim.  A primary example of this cycle in Republic II-IV is the model-imitation stage the guardians pass through. (see 395)  It may be recalled that the young guardians are at first presented with models of virtue in the stories they are told.  Their attempts to imitate those models, which in some way continue throughout their lives, may be viewed as attempts to “bring forth” virtuous offspring by at first striving to become one with the virtues they admired in the stories.  In so doing, they bring into being something that was initially only in potential state toward being fully realized.  One can here see more fully the importance of guiding-influences, especially those presented as models, for the young guardians: those that arouse admiration arouse a kind of desire that reaches out toward its fulfillment, toward its re-production later in life.  The supplying of influences and the fulfillment of such desires may be said to be an  a formation and “education” of desire.

This initial model-imitation stage reaches a higher level of development when the guardians begin to take on the role of craftsmen (demiourgoi).  Ultimately, their education aims at making them craftsmen of the city’s freedom (presumably through their role as soldiers) and of its justice (as philosophical statesmen) (see 395, 421A, and 428).  Ideally, as craftsmen, they will not merely imitate the models given to them, but will work toward creative productions that are based upon such knowledge of justice or of the good as they are able to acquire.  Such models, as the spirit of Socratic dialectic would suggest, should not be based merely upon existing examples of justice or of goodness, but ought, if the education of the guardians is to bear fruit, to be based not upon what existing examples of justice make it appear to be, but what it is.  Such craftsmanship requires education of the highest sort, and is a further way of understanding the role of philosophy in the education of the guardians.  Hence, craftsmanship in the full sense that Plato has in mind involves going beyond imitation toward discovering “ideal” models.  In doing so, the guardian conceives intellectual children that are both akin to his own mental conceptions and to “the beauty of reason”. (see 401d)  In conceiving and reproducing what is furthermore divine and immortal (see 500) within himself, the guardian partakes of immortality in a fuller and truer sense than the mere imitator of likenesses, or, so it would seem, than those who fall in love with things less purely ideal.

By completing a cycle that starts with desire (or in terms of craftsmanship, inspiration) and ends in the re-production or the realization of that inspiration, the guardian finally acquires a fuller understanding of those initial models that were presented to him of what is harmonious, rhythmic, graceful, beautiful, and good.  In doing so, he comes to a fuller understanding of himself inasmuch as he comes to understand the contents of his consciousness-a notion implicit in the Socratic project of knowing oneself.  Hence, finally, the guardian’s participation in the fulfillment of this cycle has an ethical dimension due to the way it serves to ground the search for virtue or excellence.  It is, moreover, in tune with nature inasmuch as it results in a natural, human desire to participate in a cycle that brings about self-knowledge.

It remains, finally, to discuss what I have labelled the “cycle of existence”, which is of greater scope than that of self-realization.  Many of the things said in the prior section a few points that will now be put in evidence.  The leading notion comes directly from the discussion of eros in the Symposium: that eros acquires its ultimate purpose, its ultimate significance, from the very desire of all things in nature to perpetuate themselves.  It is, in short, a desire “to be” that, for Plato, expresses itself in a reaching out for immortal Being.  It is, in other words, a desire for Being that resides in that which is continually coming into being and passing away.  Much of what Plato writes suggests that this Being is a transcendent kind of being, that it is a being that is inaccessible to that which is mortal and mutable; which, nevertheless, when desire or inspiration assert themselves, becomes the ultimate object of the striving, however it may express itself, of all natural things.

This would seem to create a kind of “two-world” layering of reality, and while it seems to the present writer that this must in at least some sense be true for Plato, the relationship between them is a complex one.  The text of the Symposium suggests that there is an analogy between things in nature, with their struggle for self-perpetuation, and the divine.  It cannot be said that divine things (with the exception of the soul) are present among the mutable ones: those things that change are not immortal, and that which is immortal does not change.  Nevertheless there seems to be given in Plato’s description of the nature of things, a prominent place for a “middle way” between the two worlds in his explanation of the very coming-into-being of things in terms of a likening to, or perhaps an imitating or crafting (in the case of humans) of the divine.

Moreover, natural processes for Plato seem to possess a kind of built-in rationale that might, without fear of anachronism and despite Aristotle’s claim to the contrary, be called a “that for the sake of which”, or final cause.  This point is one of extra-ordinary importance, for it is this rationale that enables human beings, with their immortal  souls, to work through the analogy of the divine that nature presents to a glimpse of the divine itself.

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Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

It is, in other words, the bridge that enables human reason to pass from the mutable to the immutable and divine, and to catch a glimpse of the Forms of things that many texts suggest are the very things toward which mutable things try to liken themselves.

Hence, finally, we may see in the very cycle of coming to be and passing away a further kind of cycle: one that involves striving toward the discovery of an underlying rationale for what might otherwise be considered the blind or perhaps mechanical processes of change.  The desire for the perpetuation of self, for immortality, provides the basis for this striving, but human fulfillment cannot be complete without an understanding of that desire, its potential, and its prospects.

The desire for human fulfillment might thus be seen to arise from eros itself, inasmuch as eros is a basic component of existence.  But there is another dimension: human fulfillment is also of the meaning we attempt to ascribe to existence, and eros and the ways in which it manifests itself underlie the ways in which we seek fulfillment.  Thus, Plato’s education of his guardians points to a broader picture of an ethics which is indeed an ethics of virtue and excellence, but also one that completes itself (or may be completed) in a more sweeping vision of the relationship between eros and fulfillment, yielding ultimately a perspective on the meaning of existence itself.

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