The city is the soul writ large (Slow reading of Book II continued)

Picking up again in Book II from where we left off in our slow reading of Book II, Socrates proposes a certain way of getting at the notion of justice in the soul. Here is the text:

Glaucon, then, and the rest besought me by all means to come to the rescue and not to drop the argument but to pursue to the end the investigation as to the nature of each and the truth about their respective advantages. I said then as I thought: “The inquiry we are undertaking is no easy one but [368d] calls for keen vision, as it seems to me. So, since we are not clever persons, I think we should employ the method of search that we should use if we, with not very keen vision, were bidden to read small letters from a distance, and then someone had observed that these same letters exist elsewhere larger and on a larger surface. We should have accounted it a godsend, I fancy, to be allowed to read those letters first, and examine the smaller, if they are the same.” “Quite so,” said Adeimantus; [368e] “but what analogy to do you detect in the inquiry about justice?” “I will tell you,” I said: “there is a justice of one man, we say, and, I suppose, also of an entire city.” “Assuredly,” said he. “Is not the city larger than the man?” “It is larger,” he said. “Then, perhaps, there would be more justice in the larger object and more easy to apprehend. If it please you, then, [369a] let us first look for its quality in states, and then only examine it also in the individual, looking for the likeness of the greater in the form of the less.” “I think that is a good suggestion,” he said. “If, then,” said I, “our argument should observe the origin1 of a state, we should see also the origin of justice and injustice in it.” “It may be,” said he. “And if this is done, we may expect to find more easily what we are seeking?” [369b] “Much more.” “Shall we try it, then, and go through with it? I fancy it is no slight task. Reflect, then.” “We have reflected,” said Adeimantus; “proceed and don’t refuse.” — Perseus Project translation

That’s the text I would like to discuss. Here is some commentary to get us started:

1. To what extent is the city/soul analogy just an metaphor? Is it that justice in the soul is *like* justice in the city or that the justice is the *same* in both cases? I have begun leaning more and more to Plato’s idea that they are the same as each other and that the arguments in Plato require that they be the same:

a) We can think of each soul as like a hologram of the city in which it dwells. One of the features of a hologram is that you can cut off a piece of a larger picture and what you have is not a picture of the part but another picture of the whole, reduced in size/clarity — both the piece and the whole from which it is a piece are depictions of the whole, i.e. an identity, both in referent and aspect.

b)  Desires motivate our actions, our actions are shaped into practices, and virtues are relative to practices. But as I mentioned in my introduction to mimetic theory, we naturally and nonreflectively imitate the desires of others such that a social/ethical field emerges (stabilized by objectified cultural liturgies), a field that is the source of what we consider valuable, normal and ethical. Our inner lives thus become imperfect analogues to the outer lives of the surrounding cultural order. As least in respect to this insight, Hegel was an heir of Plato.

c) The city’s ordering is subject to certain logical, physical and psychological constraints that are not given by the specific social order but by social ordering as such. Plato’s conception of virtue is not therefore strictly relative to the culture, although the reigning doxa of what virtue is will be relative. Rather, a healthy culture (or soul) is an achieved openness or attunement to the non-relative/transcendent basis of any viable social or psychic order. The virtues which inform all cultural expression can be discovered

d) While this openness is achieved at the level of the individual soul, it is mediated through the symbols, meanings and liturgies that are available within a society. A society poor in such symbols/meanings/liturgies will have trouble achieving the openness requisite to ethical flourishing.

e) Our souls are negotiating the same kingdom of ends in the Kantian sense as the social order in which it dwells. Virtue in the city and virtue in the soul are thus two instances of the same virtue. Again, see Hegel on this point.

f) Plato writes in the Theaetetus that “thinking (dianoia) is the soul’s talking to itself.” The medium of talking (and thus thinking) are the words and other symbols that we inherit from our cultural order. Ever soul thinking is a listening in to the city’s thinking as well.

g) Socrates distinguishes between the “big letters” of the city and the “small letters” of the soul. The difference between the two sets are not however a difference of text, of words, of logos. The same logos is common to both instances. We think with and by logos, and logos can be classified as neither just public nor private, neither just individual nor social.

2. If I am right to think there is an equivalence and not just a similarity, then Plato’s dialogue can be read at two different registers simultaneously– one at the level of the soul and another at the level of the city, each informing each. The drama of the city’s origin and decline is also a story of the soul, and an analysis of the soul’s development also has political implications. To read Plato well one must not lose sight of either of these registers when the other is focal.

Comments? Questions?


One thought on “The city is the soul writ large (Slow reading of Book II continued)

  1. “Human society is not merely a fact, or an event, in the external world to be studied by an observer like a natural phenomenon. Although it has externality as one of its important components, it is a whole little world, a cosmion, illuminated with meaning from within by the human beings who continuously create and bear it as the mode and condition of their self-realization.” — Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics

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