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A democratic soul's critique in The Guardian Class

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In The Republic Plato fosters an idea of the democratic soul which is fundamentally flawed. He posits that a man with a democratic soul “lives his life in accord with a certain equality of pleasures he has established” (The Republic, VIII, 561b). Conceding the fact that a man with a democratic soul is initially ruled by an equality of pleasures, it is imprudent to assume that man gains no knowledge of the consequence of his actions during his life. Contrary to Plato’s supposition, man does not maintain this initial equality of pleasures, but he is instead ruled by a developing hierarchy of the soul. A democratic soul is not a soul that has no order, but a soul that has no pre-established order; thus it is the character type most conducive to asking questions, and to discerning knowledge of the good.

Plato bases his critique of the democratic soul on his verbal model of the democratic regime. He assumes that since democracies are ruled by lot, and have no hierarchy, that as a result they are ruled be an empty acropolis (The Republic, VIII, 560b-c), and have no core. “To whichever [interest] happens along, as though it was chosen by the lot, he hands over the rule within himself until it is satisfied, and then again to another, dishonoring none, but fostering them all on the basis of equality” (The Republic, III, 561a). He posits that because democracies allow for such a large degree of freedom and equality that they are therefore ruled by an arbitrary choice of virtue, and they cannot produce justice, except by chance. He also argues that, “anything done in excess”, such as democracy, “is likely to provoke a correspondingly great change in the opposite direction” (The Republic, VIII, 563e), and thus produces slavery. However, in this formulation Plato fails to incorporate the role of the laws as a historical record, and as a means for tempering freedom. Although the city may be ruled by lot, the acropolis is not empty; the laws rule the city. The laws maintain the progress made by past generations toward the good by serving as a historical record. They are a record of what has been tried and what has been accepted by past generations. If there is a law which has stood for a long period of time, it will not be disregarded without thought, neither will an unjust law escape the scrutiny of an entire nation.

Socrates proposes that aristocracy is the best regime because it is the most just. However, this requires that there be a ‘wise’ class; this is impossible. There cannot be a wise class, there can only be a class which questions the foundations of society and thus deconstructs and remakes society, so as to produce a ‘more just regime’. Socrates claims that this is the role of the philosopher kings because these are the individuals who best fit this description. However, the democratic process is a process which produces just laws by questioning the justness of current laws and debating the best reforms to the laws, just as democratic souls are questioning souls which make the most progress toward the good by questioning the justness of the current hierarchy of the soul they have in place and debating the best reforms to that hierarchy. Viewed in this way, democracy seems to fit Socrates’ description of aristocracy, and democratic souls his description of philosopher kings.

Aristocracy also goes against Socrates’ original formulation of the ‘good life’. He maintains that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” (Apology , 92), and that the virtue of the examined life is that it progresses toward the good. However, if aristocracy is the rule of the wise, then it must be the rule of those who know the good, and if the philosophers already know the good, then they cannot be leading examined lives because they could not be progressing toward knowledge of the good. However, if wisdom is not a function of knowing the good, but instead a pursuit of the good, which is the logical conclusion, then aristocracy is not the rule of the wise, but the rule of those who ask questions. This definition is not the exclusive definition that Socrates proposes, and instead incorporates all individuals who question what is just.

The counter argument to this is that the philosophers are the only people who lead examined lives, and the only people who question the foundations of society. He urges the citizens of Athens, “not to care for any of his own things until he cares for himself… nor to care for the things of the city until he cares for the city itself” (Apology , 90). Socrates believes that citizens cannot be viewed as leading examined lives because they accept traditions and laws. However, Socrates’ inclination towards deconstruction is based on his lack of the incorporation of history into an individual’s or a city’s progress toward the good. He believes that history cannot be relied on as a foundation for society, and that each individual must begin their life by trying to determine for himself what the good is. This is based on the a priori statement that an individual cannot pursue the good unless they know what the good is; since an individual cannot know the good, then they are only able to pursue knowledge of the good (The Republic, VI, 508d), and Socrates reasons that the only way knowledge of the good can be attained is through a dialectic model (The Republic, VI, 511c), where nothing is accepted as just unless it has been thoroughly examined. He argues that,

“..in one part of it, a soul, using as images, the things that were previously imitated, is compelled to investigate on the basis of hypotheses and makes its way not to a beginning but to an end; while in the other part it makes its way to a beginning that is free from hypotheses; starting out from a hypotheses and without the images used in the other part, by means of forms themselves it makes its inquiry through them”(The Republic, VI, 510b).

Thus, a true dialectic rejects the images, the traditions and laws of the city, and subjects them to examination in order to obtain knowledge of the good. However, in Socrates’ initial statement that an individual cannot pursue the good unless they know what the good is, there is admission that the individual must have some inherent knowledge of the good.

It would then be argued that although the individual knows of the existence of the good they are not necessarily seeking the good. Socrates believes that the individual who has a democratic soul, “… lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute…and there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but calling his life sweet, free, and blessed he follows it throughout” (The Republic, VIII, 561c-d). This may be true; however, if an individual has a democratic soul, then in observing which ruling interest most benefits them, the individual is thereby inadvertently gaining knowledge of the good. The fact that this knowledge is not sought out by the individual does not however, make it any less valuable. If an individual did not admit to the existence of the good, then the effects of their experiences would be lost.

This is mimicked in the city in the form of laws providing knowledge of justice. In knowing that a good exists, it is implicit that justice must exist since justice is merely law or action governed by the good; and although knowing that justice exists does not require that a city seeks the just, it does however, allow that in seeing the effects of the laws they pass, that the citizens will gain knowledge of justice. Citizens do not wish to live under unjust laws, and consequently they will rectify any injustice they find in them. Therefore, although they may not seek out knowledge of the good, their laws will be governed by any knowledge of the good that they have found. Therefore in democracy, by abandoning the laws and traditions of the city, you are eliminating the knowledge of justice that is contained in them. If viewed in this fashion, acceptance of the laws and traditions in the city is not an ignorant action which eliminates the possibility of knowing the good, but is instead an intelligent act that leads to a greater knowledge of the good.

The laws occupy the acropolis of the democratic regime. In Crito, Socrates allows the laws to make the argument for him to stay and accept the punishment set out for him by the courts. In their argument, the laws assert that “the law that orders the judgments reached in trials be authoritative” (Crito, 109)—even if they are wrong—because they maintain political order. The argument that the laws, and thus Plato, fails to make is that although the laws are not infallible, they are self correcting. This argument also holds for the democratic soul.

In a democratic soul, there is initially no order, but as the individual grows older, he establishes certain laws for himself. These laws form a moral core, and this core governs his actions. Although he may be “ruled by the lot” (The Republic, VIII, 561a), there are certain standards of behavior that the ruling component is forced to submit to; these standards of behavior are established by the laws. If the ruling component of his soul is not able to abide by the laws which the individual has developed through experience, then that portion of his soul is not allowed to rule. An example of this is that although it is common for children to have ‘temper-tantrums’, this is hardly ever seen in adults. Children have not learned that this course of action generally does not profit, so they allow that portion of their soul to rule them. However, as adults, most people have come to understand that fits of rage are not constructive, and may be destructive in many cases; thus they do not allow that portion of themselves to rule over their actions. This mimics the role of law in the democratic regime: just as unjust laws are eliminated, so destructive and low elements of a man’s soul are held in check.

Although in adopting the laws and traditions of a city, which are a compilation of the citizens’ knowledge of the good, an individual might be accepting false conceptions of the good, the mechanism of democracy is formulated to rectify this. The ability of the laws to serve as a historical record, as well as their ability to demand respect, results in a progression toward the good as well as in political stability. The democratic process allows for the positive effects of questioning the laws, but prevents the negative effect of political instability or prolonged rule of the unjust. Although it is not guaranteed that an unjust law will not be passed, it is (through Plato’s assertion that through questioning we will be led to knowledge of the good which will produce a greater knowledge of justice) certain that the unjust law will be eliminated by future generations. The ability for an unjust law to be passed can be seen as a fault of democracy, however, it also produces a greater knowledge of justice. By allowing for the rule of the unjust, the unjust comes to be questioned and recognized; by learning what is unjust a clearer picture of the just is produced.

So far, democracy and aristocracy both of the city and of the soul seem to be virtually the same. The exceptions being the inclusion of a larger number of individuals or interests in the ruling class of democracy, the intentional gain of further knowledge of the good in aristocracy (as opposed to the un-intentional gain in democracy),and the possibility that unjust laws or bad moral priorities to be (temporarily) accepted in a democracy. Some may argue that the advantage of aristocracy over democracy would be in the ability of the philosopher kings to make just laws and the ability of the aristocratic soul to prevent the rule of a non-virtuous interest, and thus avoid this fault which is contained in democracy. However, a few philosophers cannot examine the laws or the good more thoroughly than a nation of people, just as the ‘wisdom’ of an aristocratic soul cannot be assumed to be infallible.

The advantage of democracy is that the error of the few is checked by the knowledge of the many. If a philosopher should mistake the unjust for the just, there would be very few individuals to oppose this error. However, if a member of the assembly should mistake the unjust for the just, he would be opposed by a far greater number; and as stated before, even if the whole of the assembly should mistake the unjust for the just, they would then be corrected by the questioning of future generations. By eliminating the ruling class, the city is better able to check against the rule of the unjust as well as to discern the good. This also applies to the democratic and aristocratic formulations of the soul.

If an individual with a democratic soul was to mistake the unjust for the just, the ruling interest would be opposed by the non-ruling interests. It is possible for men to form false or morally poor laws for themselves. However, eventually morally poor laws will be recognized. This is provided by the fact that in a democratic soul there is no ruling interest, and thus the non-dominant interests are always challenging the dominant interest. Through this process of internal questioning, progress towards the good is made. “All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible” (Maclean ). This questioning causes the individual to notice the injustice of the ruling interest, in looking at the effects of the actions which are ruled by that interest, and in doing so, the individual is able to see a portion of the good that otherwise would not have been visible. On the contrary, in an aristocratic soul, if the ruling interest was to mistake the unjust for the just, there would be no other interests to oppose it, and thus the injustice would go unrecognized. By eliminating a ruling interest, the individual is better able to check against the rule of the unjust as well as discern the good.

Democracy, both as a way of ordering one’s soul and a as type of regime, are the most prone to lead to the knowledge of the good. Democracy of the soul allows the individual to develop a personal hierarchy of values, and in doing so, the individual gains knowledge of the good that they could not have discovered if they had merely been ruled by the correct proportions of certain interests. Democracy as a regime allows for the most just laws, as well as for the education of the greatest number of individuals as to further knowledge of the good. The most knowledge is gained not in the correct ordering of the soul, nor in the philosophers questioning society, and the laws of the majority, but in the majority collectively working to create the most just society through combining their knowledge of the good in the creation of the laws, and through the personal experimentation with the rule of different interests within the soul.

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