wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Cynthia Farrar

The Origins of Democratic Thinking

As the structure of the argument in Plato's Republic makes clear, Plato's theory is radically revisionary—it proposes an unconventional picture of what it is to flourish as a human being—yet it remains tied to the question of what men need and want. The challenge posed in the Republic, which the elaborate account of the just city seeks to answer, is whether justice is essential to human well-being. In Book One, the sophist Thrasymachus declares that justice is what is in the interest of another, not oneself, and that it is foolish for anyone, and particularly for any powerful person, to act justly. In Book Two, Glaucon and Adeimantus offer a 'contractarian' analysis of the foundation and motivation for justice, which presents what man has good reason to do as a function of his circumstances: all men are, as it happens, relatively equal, so they have an interest in agreeing to refrain from harming one another. Such an account cannot explain why even the most invulnerable of men, Gyges, possessor of a ring that makes him invisible, should be just. The Republic provides a revisionary account of both justice and well-being which reveals that even for Gyges, justice is not folly. The bonds of justice had to close firmly around each man, regardless of his powers or ambitions.

Plato argues that justice is constitutive of the good for man, for all men. It is a condition of society and of the individual. Justice consists in each man getting his due, not qua human being but qua member of a harmonious social order with particular qualities to contribute to that order; and it consists in each part of man (appetite, spirit, reason) getting its due on the same principle. The rule of reason over appetite is the essence of order in the cosmos, the polis and the individual, and each level of the hierarchy buttresses the others. Justice is a condition of the soul that prevents the indulgence of the individual's desire for more (pleonexia) which is for Plato (as for Aristotle) the source of unjust behavior toward other members of society. The unity of the society and the universal and compelling grip of the claims of justice depend upon a hierarchy not, as in traditional aristocratic societies, of persons, but of person-parts: intellect and appetite. The individual's ethical status, and his freedom and well-being, is not for Plato dependent on his own possession of wisdom. Rather, the talents of men capable of abstract reasoning, deployed in mobilizing cosmic principles for the good of the entire polis, ensure the universal subjection of passion to reason, of the contingent to the absolute, and thereby secure the well-being of all. Plato, anxious to construct (or discover) a metaphysical basis for the good of all men in society, utterly abolished integrity and autonomy, dissolving the boundaries of the self.

Plato's radical reconstrual of the self whose freedom and good the ideal city is designed to secure undermines the very foundations of democracy, politics and indeed of worldly agency. Plato, like Kant, disempowers men in the process of 'liberating' them. Men who must rely on their own humble wits are, according to Plato, enslaved. Man has to flee this world, make his way up out of the cave or be ruled by someone who has done so, in order to escape being mired in the flux of his own bodily desires, material causality and the contingencies of circumstance. For Plato, genuine freedom depended on attaining this higher ground. Prudence, the informed assessment of circumstance, is rejected as subject to contingency: it is inadequate to the task of identifying and adhering to the good for man, because it is too implicated in the mutability of events and desires. Plato thus rejects the whole notion of autonomous participation in the creation of order and unity under the tutelage of reason which, in the theories of Protagoras, Thucydides and Democritus, reflected the experience of a democracy guided by an elite in the interests of the whole. The individual soul's capacity to mediate the equilibrium between inner and outer, and between passion and judgment, the leader's capacity to persuade the citizens to pursue a vision of the common interests, the competence of men in society to determine what their interests are, the cosmic order created through the interaction of matter—all, conceived as visions of ordered freedom, as the antithesis of slavery, are for Plato equally slavish.

The Platonic redescription of freedom flies in the face of conventional belief. Both democratic man and the tyrant, each in his own way apparently the epitome of freedom, are in fact slaves. They are enslaved by appetite. And men controlled by others, slaves in the ordinary understanding of that term, are truly free. In order that appetitive man 'may be ruled by a principle similar to that which rules the best man, we say he must be a slave to the best man, who has a divine ruler in himself' (Rep. 5900). To be free is not to rule oneself but to be ruled by reason from outside, to be a slave. The logos that had expressed the citizen's own purposes and freedom has been fully externalized. It still addresses man's interests, but these are no longer interests he can be brought to appreciate, nor can they be realized in society as it is, nor indeed can he participate in their realization. Plato has sapped the polis of its political structure by extending the claims of the polis to all inhabitants, whatever their status in the community, however disparate their resources and capacities and experience. The Platonic city does not rest on relative equality, nor does it aspire to instill competence and independence in its members; autonomy is not, in Plato's view, possible for the vast majority of individuals, and it is not necessary. In the process of, as he thought, liberating men who were enslaved internally, Plato dismissed not just democracy, but politics. For politics depends upon the capacity for autonomy. For this very reason, a world organized politically would necessarily, in Plato's view, be disordered and unstable.

Aristotle decried the excessive unity of Plato's republic. His theory sought to rehabilitate politics, the relationship between autonomous individuals and social order. As he says in the Politics: 'Even if we could suppose the citizen body to be virtuous, without each of them being so, yet the latter would be better.' In rejecting Plato's argument for communal ownership and relationships, Aristotle asserts that men will not care for the community as a whole unless they care for some portion of it which has to do with them personally. Thus Aristotle apparently rehabilitates man's capacity to assess and pursue his own interests in a society which is his own construction. Aristotle attempts to give worldly force to Platonic teleology by restoring to man his basic integrity. Aristotelian teleology is founded not on a transcendent form of the good but on a (biological and metaphysical) account of the ends proper to man as a certain kind of creature. This creature cannot be reduced (or elevated) to its incorporeal soul. Not (or not merely) the philosopher's understanding, but practical wisdom tied to habituation of the sentiments, to character, is essential to man's realization of his true nature.