Plato’s Morality of the Person and the State

Plato — the Man, the Legend

Morality and the Person

For Plato, morality was as objective as geometry. Morality was not relative to the individual or even relative to social convention, time, or place. Moral truth was absolute. However, morality for Plato is not a series of dos and don’ts, instead it is a question of what sort of person we are. Crucial to being a good human is rationally understanding what is good and what is evil. That means understanding what the Form of Humanness is and how we are supposed to be. Humans, like all other things in the world, are things that partake of the Forms. The Form Humanness causes particular humans to exist and gives them their qualities. Therefore, all humans are essentially the same; individual people are particulars of the Form of Humanness.

Plato considers what it means to be human not in terms of physical characteristics but nonphysical characteristics. The core of a human is their psyche. The psyche is not the same as what came to be understood as the soul in the religious traditions of the West. Psyche is the ancient Greek concept of a human self with all of its emotions and thinking. “Psyche” is the root for the word “psychology.” Plato considers the psyche to be divided and in conflict, and he says that the psyche needs to be brought under control and be well ordered.

In the dialogue Phaedrus, Plato portrays the psyche in a dramatic analogy. The picture he paints is of a chariot driver holding the reigns of two horses pulling a chariot. The charioteer and the two horses symbolize the three elements of the human psyche. One of the horses is the appetites that are found in human bodily instincts, such as hunger and thirst. The appetites do not employ much reason but respond to stimuli of pain and pleasure. The appetites are related to the body and keep it alive, but can get out of control when its demands for physical gratification are too strong. The other horse is the spirit. It is a higher function of the psyche, not tied to the body and its purely physical desires. By “spirit” Plato means the sense of a spirited horse, not a ghost-like being. It is a willful, dynamic part of the psyche full of energy that desires to do what is good, like a loyal horse. The spirit possesses strength of courage. Like a brave and loyal horse, it obeys whoever commands it. If the appetites are in control, the spirit will expend its energy to appease the appetites.

The charioteer is reason, who controls the reigns of the two horses, the appetites and the spirit. Reason is the source of our love for truth and to do what is just. When reason reigns in the two horses of the appetites and the spirit, the chariot of the psyche travels in a controlled and productive manner. Reason needs to keep a firm reign on the appetites to guide its instincts to keep the body healthy while controlling the appetites’ desires. The spirit will eagerly obey the commands of reason, but reason needs to keep the spirit’s energy in balance, not letting it go too far too fast.

All of this pertains to morality because Plato thought it is a well-ordered psyche that makes a moral person. Plato states that there are four cardinal moral virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Foremost amongst these is justice. Justice is the well-ordered person in which the parts of the psyche each possess the appropriate virtue. Reason must practice the virtue of wisdom and use it to control and guide the other parts of the psyche. The spirit properly manifesting the virtue of courage will subordinate itself to reason and apply its energy to the tasks at hand, ignoring the coercions of pain and pleasure. The spirit manifesting courage does what is noble. The appetites must always possess the virtue of temperance. Like the spirit, the appetites must subordinate themselves to reason, tempering their desires and compulsions. The well-ordered person displays self-control. Note that this is not asceticism — a denial of all bodily needs, but temperance — a moderation that avoids excess. When the parts of the psyche are each manifesting the virtue that they are designed to fulfill, the person as a whole manifests the virtue of justice. The just person is one who has each element of the psyche playing its proper role and maintaining its proper place.

Morality and the City State

Plato talks about the morality of a person, but consistent with his central concept that the Forms are the source of all that is good, he takes a top-down approach to morality. Justice is not arbitrary or subjective, it is objective and universal. Therefore, he saw morality as a fair and correct ordering of society applied universally from the top down. In Plato’s philosophy, the person is a microcosm of the state and the state is the person on the macrocosm. This makes sense given Plato’s idea that all particulars are manifestations of the universal Forms. A state, comprised of individual persons is just another particular compared to the realm of Forms and has much the same relationship to the Form of humanity as any individual.

Just as a person must be well ordered, society must be well ordered. Society will only be well ordered when the people within it are well ordered. The goal then is to put in place social institutions that will structure society to keep it well ordered. In Plato’s Republic, he outlines the social structure and institutions he thinks would best insure a moral society. He admits that his grand plan will probably never be implemented; utopian visions seldom are realized. He offers his plan as a model to which we should aspire, even if we never achieve it.

Plato views the political state as an organism that must find its proper balance, each part playing its proper role and maintaining its proper place. His view of the individual psyche is the same view he has of the society as a whole. A well-ordered society is realized when reason controls the appetites and the spirit. In the case of society, Plato sees groups of people, what we would now call social classes, as representing those three elements.

First, though, Plato has the common sense notion that the functional state relies upon a division of labor. Rather than each of us do everything — from growing food to making shirts to collecting garbage — if we instead each specialize in particular tasks we will be much more efficient and harmonious. For this reason, Plato thinks society should identify each person’s special skills and train them to be skilled workers in fields that best take advantage of those skills. In this strategy, every profession would be filled by people whose skill set enable them to excel in their profession. This includes the leaders of government. Only those exceptionally skilled at making rational political decisions should be in government, just as only those who are exceptionally skilled at making clothes should be tailors. All levels and areas of society would be filled with the best candidates.

Naturally, Plato saw that the skill most essential to leading a state was that of making informed, rational decisions. The political leaders must have knowledge of the Forms and the Good and be able to apply universal knowledge to particular situations. The people with such skills are the philosophers, and yes, Plato wants philosophers and political leaders to be one and the same. Now, don’t assume this was self-serving on Plato’s part. He’s being prudent and consistent with how he saw the world functioning. Just as we would want the physician who would heal the body to possess the skill and experience to make medical decisions, we would want the political leaders who would heal the state to possess the skill and experience to make political decisions. If people trained to be critically thinking philosophers are the best at making political decisions then isn’t it only reasonable for political leaders to be philosophers? We’ve certainly seen how disastrous it is when political leaders aren’t good at critical thinking.

In Plato’s system, the best trained and most rational people should be the political leaders. Unlike what we have seen happen far too often in history, Plato’s leaders would not be richer or more privileged than others in society. These leaders would not benefit themselves, but instead would dedicate their lives to serving the interests of society as a whole, completely forsaking all personal interest. Plato believed that it was impossible for anyone to be a good leader without proper training that began in early youth and continued until one was age 30. These leaders would have known nothing in their lives except training for leadership, having been picked at as young as seven years old for their potential in reasoning. Plato didn’t even call these people “leaders,” he called them “guardians.” They are those who dedicate their lives to guarding society from harm, using their highly trained skills in reason.

The guardians are the personification of the virtue of reason in society, equivalent to reason in the individual person as we saw earlier. What then of the appetites and the spirit? The spirit, that willful, dynamic energy with strength of courage, Plato sees as people specially trained and skilled as the police and military. Plato called them auxiliaries, in the original sense of the word as helpers and supporters. They use their skills to protect society from external threats — invading armies being a harsh reality of Plato’s time — and from internal criminal threats. That leaves the appetites, but here, Plato is not as negative as we might think. These people are not at all less valuable to society than are the guardians and auxiliaries. These people are the producers, the people who, as the name attests, produce all of the material things that people need to survive. There are farmers, miners, tailors, potters, carpenters, and other craftspeople, merchants, physicians, and other specialists. Obviously, no society could survive without people performing these occupations and Plato values them accordingly.

Plato’s society is a kind of meritocracy — a society based on merit or ability. He proposes that children, regardless of their parentage, be rigorously tested at a young age. Whatever superior abilities and aptitudes they display will determine what occupation they will enter and they will be trained accordingly. That means that the child of a cobbler could become a baker, soldier, or legislator. The child of a legislator could become a ditch digger, if that was the skill that would most benefit society. Plato’s ideal society, in this one sense, is without strict class distinctions. The downside to this system is that once one’s occupation is identified, you have no social mobility to be or do anything else. Once a cook, always a cook, you can never change professions. Personal ambition would upset the system.

Plato is most concerned with a harmonious well-ordered society. This being the priority, he has a strong bias against individualism and the macro expression of individualism, democracy. Today, we place a high value on democracy — at least what we take to be democracy — so his opposition to it sounds bad to our worldview. Right or wrong, Plato had a reason for opposing government by democracy. He argued that a democracy would ignore the fundamental principle that people should act for the good of society not for themselves. Instead of accepting their social roles, people in a democracy would seek personal advantage over others. Opposing factions would emerge and struggle for power and democracy would “promote [to leadership] anyone who merely call himself the people’s friend.” (Republic 8.558) Plato feared that a person with charisma and guile would grab power by securing the loyalty of enough people to win power. Once in power, that person could become a tyrant and suppress those who might challenge the tyrant’s power. That would result in a state that is far from being just and well ordered. This is Plato’s warning against democracy, and history has proven it is not without some legitimacy. On the other hand, Plato expresses disdain for the ideas that people should have liberty, free speech, and equal rights, so perhaps his opposition to democracy is not entirely for noble reasons. He dismissed such ideas of freedom as giving free reign to the appetites and ignoring the dictates of reason. By equating democracy with unruly passions, he dismissed it as beneath being human.

Except from my forthcoming book, The Quest for Understanding: An Historical Introduction to Philosophy, Kendall Hunt Publishing.

Philosophy professor reaching out beyond the ivory tower. I also run and

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