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.

A reader’s guide to Plato’s Republic, books II-IV: part 2, the education of the guardians

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.


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.


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, enbroidery, 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.


To bring these insights back to the education of the senses, the guardians may be pictured as surrounded by stories and artefacts 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 artefacts.  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.

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.


(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.

A Readers guide to Plato’s Republic–Part 1: the city of pigs

Plato’s “city of pigs,” which appears in Republic II (369a et seq.), has a greater importance for the discussion of justice in the Republic than is sometimes recognized.   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)

Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

The most outstanding feature of Socrates’ first city (the city of pigs/the original simple rustic city) is its moderate character. Created by need (Socrates says any gathering of individuals into a society is created out of need), 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 ordering society so that each contributes according to his ability, 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 whether a discussion of possible social tensions or of inequality should arise, as, for example, between  merchants and farmers.  Presumably, Socrates feels the questions does not need to be raised since 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.

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

Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

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 no longer has 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


Photo by the author, Gem Lapin Beaucoup

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.

A reader’s guide to Plato’s Republic, Books II-IV: Introduction

Plato’s Republic is well known for its presentation of the divided line and the analogy of the cave, which appear in books V-VII.  Less well known or well explored are the books of the Republic (Books II-IV) that lead up to them.  To give a brief overview of the subject matter, the themes in Books II-IV can be set out as follows: 

  • Book I sets the stage for a exploration of Justice by asking whether it can be considered as good for its own sake,which is a position Socrates defends.  
  • Then, in books II-IV, Plato approaches the question, “What is justice” by a somewhat circuitous route, by first creating an ideal Republic.  His reason for the detour (R 368D) is explained by a visual analogy: since justice can be more easily seen and contemplated on the large scale of a city state, he creates this image first before turning to the  smaller version of justice that appears in an individual. 
  • The project of first creating an ideal Republic and then using it to find justice in an individual provides a broad initial scope and methodological framework for the rest of the Republic.  The content of books II-IV, should be understood within that framework.

Plato’s first steps in creating an ideal Republic in books II-IV, may appear somewhat paradoxical at first: he has just said that he wishes to create an image of justice on the large scale of an ideal Republic; but what he proceeds to do is to imagine truly just individuals within that ideal republic 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 essential elements.  Most essential of all elements for the creation of an ideal republic 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, which is an extended treatment of that education.

This theme, the education of the guardians, will be main thematic motif of the following guide to books II-IV.  The guide will present what I believe to be the best way to structure the questions surrounding the discussion of the education of the guardians so as to bring out most clearly their ultimate significance.  Those guiding 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 the simple rusticity of its inhabitants.  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 refers to as musikeMusike 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 soul and state in turn suggests the notion of someone who has mastered musike more broadly; of someone who has become an artist of such subjects by taking an upward path through various specific kinds of musike in order to arrive at a more comprehensive vision of states and souls.  This type of process, as well as the very metaphor of tuning itself suggests the notion of final causality, which I believe is a guiding theme throughout the dialogues, especially where the notions of mastery, or knowledge, or the divine are invoked.  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.

Recommended texts (images are links to Amazon):


From left to right:

(1) The latest edition of the Greek text of the Republic edited by S.R. Slings; (2) A classic commentary on the Greek text by James Adam; (3) The latest translation by C.D.C. Reeve, based upon Sling’s text; (4) Four texts on Socrates: a very literal translation and a good source book for those interested in Socrates; Paul Shorey’s excellent translation and commentary on the Republic (includes Greek text).