02 Mar 2010

Sample Essay: Plato’s Republic – The Soul

Plato believed, and attempted to prove, that the justice of the city and the justice of an individual had a direct link to one another.  Plato relied on logic and the use of metaphors as well as the three main parts of the soul that include reason, desire and spirit.  He further believed that four virtues, wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice, also defined the soul of a person.  Plato considered all of his beliefs to be of the utmost importance as he sought to define a perfect republic.

According to Plato, souls that were filled with reason found an interest in knowledge.  He believed that these souls belonged to a class of people known as philosophers and that the virtuous aspect of their soul was wisdom.  Plato assumed that the brain was strongly connected to reason and therefore, people who practiced reason had a strong mind.  Although the evidence was lacking, Plato had made a very good guess when he made this assumption.

In terms of desire, Plato believed that this soul belonged to the commoners and that their virtue was temperance.  He sought to prove that their main interest was pleasure and that this interest rooted from the abdominal parts of the body.  In this situation, he believed that bad forces ruled these people and therefore they had no control over themselves and their behaviors.  These people were enslaved by their overwhelming desires.  This was desire to please themselves and the anatomical parts of their bodies that ruled them.

A person that had a soul full of spirit was believed to be in a class of warriors.  Plato said that their interest was honor and that their virtue was courage.  The spirited soul was closely linked to the heart of a person.  This spirit was the very essence of a person’s soul, the driving force of energy that kept bad influences at bay and allowed them live good, virtuous lives.  These warriors upheld the law, unlike those that were filled with desire.

During his research, Plato tried to link justice to each one of his classifications of the soul.  He found that he could not do this and therefore he placed justice, as a virtue, in all three categories.  He believed that everyone started with a white background and that overtime, certain social classifications and influences “dyed” these backgrounds and defined the souls of each individual.

Within the Republic, moreover, the soul’s tripartite division plays the pivotal role of establishing an analogy between the individual soul and the political state.  According to this model, the soul’s rational element is the psychological corollary of the guardian class in the city; the spirited part is analogous to the militaristic auxiliaries, and the diverse appetites correspond to the various productive craftsmen and traders (Purshouse 60-61).

Within ancient Greek culture, arête means virtue.  It is when a person strives to be as good as they can be in life, reaching their maximum potential as a good and virtuous human being.  Plato believed this to be true for both men and women.  Plato was nearly obsessed with arête and he constantly worked to answer the questions of virtue and justice.  The Platonic philosophy holds a belief in the fact that virtue and knowledge are one in the same and therefore, knowledge and arête are the same as well.  Plato tried to define exactly what arête really was and whether or not it could be taught or if it was something that was learned.

Plato, being a student of the famous Socrates, reinstates the question that Socrates tried to put forth by asking what justice really is.  People who were not raised in intellectual situations were prone to be blacksmiths or farmers, the peasants.  People who were courageous were the guardians of the city, acting as an army or police force.  Intelligent people were considered a rarity and were granted control over city.  It was their job to guide the people, in particular the commoners.  The courageous people were put in charge of guarding this wise group of teachers, their laws, and their beliefs.  Plato also summarizes justice as being defined by those who are strong and intelligent.  He further summarizes that these intelligent and strong souls are the ones who decide what is in the best interest for everyone else.  Socrates, however, refutes this claim since he believes that even those who are strong fail to see what is best.

Plato believed that the state could only find perfect justice if they allow themselves to be ruled by those who are intelligent and not just willingly, they had to enjoy being governed by the intellects.  It was extremely important for Plato to define these three types of souls in order to find a way to perfect the justice of the state.  He thought that if he learned why each individual fell into a particular category of souls that it would be easier to govern them.  He set forth a certain list of activities and teachings that would be given to a certain group of individuals based on their category of souls in order to teach them to ignore their feelings of temperance.

Plato’s theories seemed somewhat radical, even during his own lifetime.  He believed that justice and happiness went hand in hand.  When a person acted in a just fashion, they were a happy individual and vice versa.  Therefore, people that behaved immorally were not happy and if they wanted to be happy, they would strive to be just.  People who wished to fulfill their desires must learn to use reason in order to act upon that just behavior.  They also needed to learn how to control their emotions.  If they used reason to control their emotions and desires, they could reach their full potential as a just and happy human being.  “On the other hand, those simple and moderate desires, which go hand in hand with intelligence and right opinion, under the guidance of reasoning, will be found in a small number of men, that is, in those of the best natures and the best education” (Plato, and Tschemplik 148).

When Plato speaks of justice and happiness, he poses a question that, at times, seems unclear.  It is a choice to live either justly or unjustly.  Each individual makes the decision between right and wrong by their own accord.  Since Plato suggests that people can only find happiness if they are just, this suggestion is a form of guidance, more or less taking away an individual decision and determining what he believes to be just behavior.  However, one argument that we continue to see is that not all things that are just are good.  Therefore, how can we reasonably say that being just leads to happiness?  “The question whether justice is good for us and makes us happy, has more breadth and depth than might at first appear” (Santas 5).

Republic leaves the reader with no choice other than to make a decision as far as what is just and unjust.  The reader has three classifications to choose from which each rival each other in their own way.  Each choice is laid out in a solid and yet philosophical manner as well.  Plato further goes on to say a person cannot choose an answer that is just unless they are first willing to understand exactly what justice is.  We are also forced to choose between the differences in societies and make choices between them as well.

There were several concerns with Plato’s justice system.  In The Republic Plato uses his characters Glaucon and Adeimantus to show readers the voice of objection and concern associated with his ideas about those with spirited souls, otherwise known as the guardians.  He fails to breakdown differences between men and women beyond height and gender itself.  Instead, he proposes that as guardians, men and women with spirited souls should be taught in the same fashion to perform the same roles within society.  He also tears down the importance of family as a role within society by saying that instead of parents teaching their own children, it should be up to society to teach the children.

All three categories of souls, the wise, the courageous and the desirous could become good as a whole if they performed their roles by working together harmoniously and willingly.  If they could manage to act as one, work together to reach for this inner good, they would also reach a perfect justice system.  True justice would arise as a whole once these three souls meshed and willingly performed their function as they were supposed to with one another.  The person who experienced injustices simply lived with both the healthy and unhealthy personality and the unhealthy, unhappy side of that person was the most dominant, refusing to live in harmony.

The traits of the wise and strong were those that were desirable.  People that displayed opposite behaviors needed to be trained so that they could eventually develop these quality traits.  It was a person’s behavior, not their frame of mind, which held the utmost importance in terms of values.  This means that a person could perform a courageous or intellectual act without necessarily being courageous or intellectual.  Since the action of a person receives recognition, it is possible to teach them to perform these actions.  “One can do ‘the courageous thing’ without being courageous.  This links with the other feature of ‘externally’ assessed virtue: a person may perform ‘the courageous act’ out of social conformity, or out of fear of dishonor, and so on – motives which may not differ from those of the genuinely courageous person but be antithetical to them” (Lycos 3).

Socrates greatly contrasted the thoughts of Plato.  He sought to persuade society to determine the depth of a person’s virtue based on internal factors and not external acts.  Furthermore, he believed the state of mind was of the utmost importance instead of the actions of a person.  A person’s state of mind is what allowed them to act a certain way.  If they had a courageous state of mind, it would enable to them to act courageously.  It is because of this reason that Socrates attempted to teach people internally rather than externally.  Virtues would protect the people from the plagues of over excessive temptations and desires so that they can lead a good life.

However, although virtue is regarded as good, it does not necessarily mean that people will be able to avoid any misfortunate events in their life just because they hold strong or intellectual virtues.  Plato felt that trying to study the internal factors of a person could not actually prove whether a person was courageous, intellectual or tempted.  External factors can lead to misery, even for virtuous people.  Moreover, if a person is virtuous they can still perform an action to the best of their ability despite the extenuating circumstances.

If a person is virtuous and good, they do not necessarily please society.  However, if they perform an action that pleases society they are considered virtuous and good.  It is the response received after performing a certain action, which enables a person to call themselves good.  This way of thinking is considered moral subjectivism.  Plato argues against this moral subjectivism and yet he openly admits that an action is only considered virtuous and good based on the properties of that action and the responses acquired from that action.

If we were to judge a person’s morals based on their actions we would not listen to the words that came out of their mouths.  Morals are based on the laws that are set by the political system and community itself.  Thus, a person is moral if their actions follow what the law expects of them and not by what they think or speak.  Plato seeks to encourage people to act morally by teaching them moral behaviors in order to build a utopian and perfect justice system.

Since virtue is always defined by actions, it is for this reason that arête is also defined as “functional excellence”.  In order to understand this definition better an example needs to be used.  A baker’s job is to bake breads for customers.  People who are not bakers are capable of baking bread yet the baker is the best at performing this specific task.  If the previous statement is true then we can agree with the fact that a moral person is more capable of performing a moral action.

Although there are certain jobs that must be performed by each individual within a community, not everyone is going to perform the functions that they are supposed to do.  When we break down all that we have learned about Socrates and Plato’s thoughts on the human soul, we must ask ourselves our own set of philosophical and moral questions.  Can a person be taught to perform certain moral tasks?  To some extent, the answer is yes.  It is possible to teach a person moral behaviors.  However, a person must want to learn and therefore not everyone can be taught which makes a perfect justice system unattainable.

Another thing that we have learned is that a moral action is determined by how pleasing the response is.  If this is the case, then not everything that is done should be considered moral since our need to be pleased by an action should be considered a desire and Plato has already posed the problem that souls filled with desire are problematic and do not follow moral behaviors.  How is it fair to judge a person’s morality based on our own desires?

Adeimantus speaks of a society that needs no guardianship.  He talks about people that are well taught and self-disciplined.  These people are capable of watching themselves and their own behaviors without the need for a law enforcement agency to make them follow any moral behaviors.  This is his description of a perfect and justly educated society.  This would also be considered a Utopian society.  A society such as this would be impossible since people act on their own accord, based on their own freed will.  “Rather than imagine a well-disciplined society that corresponds to the well-disciplined individual, he imagines a society that would require no discipline at all, because each of its members is sufficiently self-disciplined to dispense with social constraint” (Ferrari 37).

Since Plato did not actually answer questions with any specific detail, it may seem hard to understand him.  The arguments that were posed seem somewhat vague and they tend to go back and forth from one conclusion to another.  In short, the one thing that we know is that although his ideas of what defines a soul were good, they were not necessarily correct.  Groups of people do not all share the same virtues.  Within a group of leaders, you may find one that is courageous, another to be wise, and another to be filled with desire and greed.  It is actually an injustice to assume that only intellectual people are rulers.  It is also unfair to claim that only courageous people can protect the law and that only commoners have desires.

Each person will behave how they choose and although outside factors may influence certain behaviors, it is who they are that will determine how they react to those outside influences.  Although it may be possible to guide certain people in order to help them make moral decisions, it is up to the person to make that decision and not those that teach, therefore, Plato’s perfect justice system was an impossible dream.

References

Ferrari, Giovanni R. F. City and Soul in Plato’s Republic. Chicago: The University of Chicago

Press, 2003. 37. Print.

Lycos, Kimon. Plato on Justice and Power: Reading Book I Of Plato’s Republic. Albany: State.

University of New York Press, 1987. 3. Print

Plato,  and Andrea Tshemplik. The Republic. Student ed. IV. Lanham, MD: Rowman &

Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005. 148. Print.

Purshouse, Luke. Plato’s Republic: a Reader’s Guide. New York, NY: Continuum Internation

Publishing Group, 2006. 60-61. Print.

Santas, Gerasimos. Understanding Plato’s Republic. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2010. 5.Print.

Filed under: Sample essays — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Jack @ 7:52 am
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