Stasis and homonoia in Plato

A virtue is a power of achieving and maintaining a state of excellence in the carrying out of a function. In the Republic, Plato makes large claims for the virtue of justice (dikaiosyne), calling it “a soul’s virtue” in carrying out its function of living well (See Rep. 353d-e). A soul (psyche) is that which animates disparate parts into a organic whole. Since this concern for properly functioning wholes is always in the backdrop of Plato’s notion of justice, it helps to know the end states that Plato has in mind for justice to accomplish and to overcome:

Stasis is a state of discord between parts that disrupt the healthy functioning of the whole. In Greek medicine it is almost a synonym for nosos, or disease. The contemporary medical term metastasis, which means the transfer of disease from one place in the body to another, has this original sense of stasis as its root. In its political meaning, stasis is a civil war, in which allegiance to party (and opposition to other parties) overcomes a common allegiance to a larger whole. Stasis is thus a broad term that implies internal divisions of all kinds of the parts within an encompassing whole.

Homonoia is the healthy condition from which stasis is the deprivation. Homonoia is defined by Liddell and Scott variously as “oneness of mind, unanimity, concord.” In the passage I will quote below, Grube and Reeve translate it as “a sense of common purpose.” It is derived from Greek prefix homo-, which means “alike” or “same” and nous which mean “mind” or “understanding” or “insight.” So homonoia is something like a common understanding or shared insight into the nature of a matter. Between the two poles of stasis and homonoia there exists an entire of spectrum of intermediate possibilities.

So the work of justice will be to purify its patient from notions of the good that are inherently factional and replace those with notions that are consistent with a larger homonoia. Consider the following conversation between Socrates and Thrasymachus from Book I of the Republic as an example:

Injustice, Thrasymachus, causes civil war [stasis], hatred and fighting among themselves, while justice brings friendship and a sense of common purpose [homonoia]. Isn’t that so?
Let it be so, in order not to disagree with you.
You’re still doing well on that front. So tell me this: If the effect of injustice is to produce hatred wherever it occurs, then, whenever it arises, whether among free men or slaves, won’t it cause them to hate one another engage in civil war [stasis], and prevent them from achieving a sense of common purpose [homonoia]?
What if it arises between two people? Won’t they be at odds, hate each other, and be enemies to one another and to just people?
They will.
Does injustice lose its power to cause dissension when it arises within a single individual, or will it preserve it intact?
Let it preserve it intact.
Apparently, then, injustice has the power, first, to make whatever it arises in — whether in a city, a family, an army, or anything else — incapable of achieving anything as a unit, because of the civil wars [stasiazonta] and differences it creates, and, second, it makes that unit an enemy to itself and to what is in every way its opposite, namely, justice. Isn’t that so?
And even in a single individual, it has by its nature the very same effect. First, it makes him incapable of achieving anything, because he is in a state of civil war [stasis] and not of one mind [homonoia]; second, it makes him his own enemy, as well as the enemy of just people. Hasn’t it that effect?

— Republic 351d-352a (Grube/Reeve translation)

Platonic justice (1) induces a respect for differences of function among the members of a whole, and (2) must presume a common allegiance toward that whole among these diverse parts. This common allegiance rests on the condition known as homonoia. In fact if we examine the Book 4 definitions of the four virtues, we can see how each has its place within a larger aim of achieving wholeness of a kind:

1. Justice — “Minding one’s own business and not being a busybody.” (433a)  Comment — This is a call not to turn into factional antagonists against other functions within the city.

2. Courage — “Power and preservation, through everything, of the right and lawful opinion about what is terrible and what is not.” (430b) Comment — What is most terrible will turn out to be stasis: “Is there any greater evil we can mention for a city than that which tears it apart and makes it many instead of one?” (462a)

3. Moderation — “Unanimity (homonoia)…an accord of worse and better, according to nature, as to which must rule in the city and in each one.” (432a)

4. Wisdom — “A kind of knowledge belonging to some of the citizens that counsels not about the affairs connected with some particular thing in the city, but about how the city as a whole would best deal with itself and the other cities.” (428c-d)


So the concepts of stasis and homonoia are at the very heart of Plato’s Republic.


On deep agreement

Here is Rene Girard in an interview with David Cayley describing his first discovery of the phenomenon of mimetic desire:

I went to Indiana University with a student visa. And I was doing a PhD in history because I was more of a historian than I was a — I was not at all a literary man — and I was teaching the French language at Indiana University and very quickly they gave me some literature to teach — novels: Balzac…Stendhal…Proust, you know — and much of the time I was just a few pages ahead of my students [laughs]. You know, I hadn’t read the books and I didn’t know what to say. And I decided that I should look — very deliberately — that I should look for what made these books alike rather than for what makes them different from each other, which is what literary criticism, even in those days, was after. You know, a book was a masterpiece only if it was absolutely one-of-a-kind, if you could find nothing in it that would be in another book, which is complete nonsense of course! So I became interested in human relations in the novel, you know — how the vanity in Stendhal, how close it is to the snobbery in Proust…

— From the CBC IDEAS radio show. Here’s a link to the whole series produced by David Cayley called “The Scapegoat.”

What I find interesting is Girard’s decision to look for similarities in novels, rather than differences, as a way of getting at something that would be lost if one fixated on differences. There is a common tendency, one to which Girard alludes, to treat the essence of a thing as that which makes it different from other things. In the history of ideas, we think we understand a thought best when we set it against another — Plato vs. Aristotle or Catholic vs. Protestant — when in fact, the similarities probably greatly outweigh the differences in such pairings.

(Aside: I stumbled across a book at the book store a few weeks ago called The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman. It is pretty much as bad as it sounds. I maintain that while there are many differences between Plato and Aristotle, in both style and emphasis, they are in basic agreement concerning what most matters to each. To take Mr. Herman’s approach is to mostly miss what can be discovered in exploring their deep kinship and thus to fail to understand either.)

Let’s entertain the hypothesis for a moment that when it comes to the truth of an idea, deep agreement with other ideas is more vital than open disagreement. Perhaps kinship and commonality are where the real power lurk within ideas. If so, there are two important things to be said:

  1. Such agreement makes communication possible. Diverse minds can only understand one another when they have access to a common reality. As Heraclitus writes “To be thoughtful is common to all.  (Fragment 113: Xynon esti pasi phronein.)  To take a hard perspectival (Protagorean) view and deny that we share a common mental reality is to deny communication at all — a self-contradictory sharing. And since the vehicle of communication is the medium of thought, i.e. the logos, we are attempting to meaningfully deny meaning, another performative contraction. Again we turn to Heraclitus and his concept of to xynon (“the common”): “The logos is common, most live as though they have a private wisdom.”
  2. But where there is agreement, no communication is really necessary. Therefore, what is deeply common usually doesn’t get expressed at all. Common understanding is tacitly assumed and therefore never becomes an object of open reflection or communication. What do get voiced are points of disagreement, which assume the common noetic reality, without ever really expressing it. We notice the points at which we disagree and fail to notice the more fundamental places where we are in unshakable agreement, just our vision is alert to things that move but become inured to what never does. Alfred Whitehead once remarked that “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” What is tacitly assumed, but not spoken of because too obvious, is perhaps more definitive of a society that whatever verbal formulations it may entertain concerning itself. The Platonic/Socratic challenge to adequately define virtue, in concert with all the failed attempts to do so, points toward tacit possession of what cannot be voiced.

All of this relates to my project of defective reading. If the common is usually not summoned in to speech, it underlies all our speaking such that we can recognize that something is wrong/missing in a verbal account without being able to give adequate voice to it.

The Cardinal Virtues and the Divided Line

Picking up again an earlier discussion (here and here) about the Divided Line image from Republic, Book VI, which I have argued is the hermeneutic key of the organization and aim of the entire dialogue, let me lay before the definitions of the four cardinal virtues that are given provided there. It is important to contextualize these definitions within the terms of Book IV — they are based on a tripartite psychology (434d – 441a) consisting of a “desiring part” (epithumia), a “spirited part” (thumoeides), and a “calculating part” (logistikon), which correspond to money-makers, auxiliaries and guardians in the city. Later parts of the dialogue will disturb this threefold organization, but it is background to the last stated definitions of the virtues given in the dialogue. The Divided Line opens them up further, but not explicitly. It is up to the reader of the dialogue to grasp the necessity for the line and determine for his/herself how the virtues could be explored further by its help.

For now, I am just going to present the definitions of the four virtues, slightly different for city and soul, next to the corresponding segments on the Divided Line. See if you can grasp the morphological kinship. (All of the quoted texts are from Allan Bloom’s translation of the Republic, Basic Books, 1968.)

JUSTICE (Dikaiosyne)

Justice-in-the-city definition — “Minding one’s own business and not being a busybody.” (433a)

Justice-in-the-soul definition — “As far as ruling or ruled are concerned, each of the parts in him minds its own business.” (443b-c)

DIVIDED LINE — corresponds to eikasia, which means the ability to grasp an image as an image and not mistake it for reality.


COURAGE (Andreia)

Courage-in-the-city definition — “Power and preservation, through everything, of the right and lawful opinion about what is terrible and what is not.” (430b)

Courage-in-the-soul definition — A virtue in which one’s “spirited part preserves, through pains and pleasures, what has been proclaimed by the speeches [of the guardians] about that which is terrible and that which is not.” (442c)

DIVIDED LINE — corresponds to pistis, which means trust, belief or confidence


MODERATION (Sophrosyne)

Moderation-in-the-city definition — “Unanimity (homonoia)…an accord of worse and better, according to nature, as to which must rule in the city and in each one.” (432a)

Moderation-in-the-soul definition — A “friendship and accord of these parts — when the ruling part and the two ruled parts are of a single opinion that the calculating part ought to rule and don’t raise faction against it.” (442c-d)

DIVIDED LINE — corresponds to dianoia, the thinking through opinion toward noetic insight; thinking towards the whole by means of the parts.


WISDOM (Sophia)

Wisdom-in-the-city definition — “A kind of knowledge belonging to some of the citizens that counsels not about the affairs connected with some particular thing in the city, but about how the city as a whole would best deal with itself and the other cities.” (428c-d)

Wisdom-in-the-soul definition — Possession of the knowledge of that which is beneficial for each part [of the soul] and for the whole composed of the community of these three parts.” (442c)

DIVIDED LINE — Noetic insight; understanding of the whole that forms the animating union of the parts; grasp of form (eidos)


Just food for thought:

One of the defects of the presentation of the virtues is that Socrates proceeds as if there are four and only four virtues, without providing a ground for this number. His discovery of the virtue of justice depends on there being four and only four. But in at least one other place I know (the dialogue Protagoras), piety is listed a fifth distinct virtue. Shall we leave ourselves open to the possibility that the omission is both important and intentional?

PIETY (Eusebia)

Piety-in-the-city — Not given explicity

Piety-in-the-soul — Not given explicitly

DIVIDED LINE — No equivalent segment. Ties to the “Good Beyond Being” perhaps?

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: (more…)

Follow up to Symposium Question on Knowledge and Decision

A week ago, I posted a symposium question to ask the following question:

Is deciding to act virtuously necessary to have knowledge of virtue?

Thanks to those of you who participated. The discussion was very good — I thought everyone introduced something new to the table. After a few round of comments, a better phrased question occurred to me: (more…)

What is a virtue?

The question of what exactly a virtue *is* has come up in the contributing comments of my Symposium question. Since this is a key issue in Plato studies, I think it would be helpful to expand on this matter. I will provisionally define virtue/arete (at least this is how I understand the Greeks to define it) as “a power of sustained excellence in purposive activity.” Whatever has a functional aim (whether thing, or craft or instrument or tool) has a virtue specific to it. I am able to drive a nail with a hammer (sort of), but a carpenter with skill can drive it well. A brick can be used to (more…)

A Few Quotes on the Issue of Questions

Here are some supplementary quotes related to my last post on the Phenomenon of Questioning for you to chew on:

The Cleitophon is the shortest of the Platonic dialogues and is often assumed to be spurious due to its defects, that it is not worthy of the pen of Plato. I disagree. I think the defects are just the “cracks to let the light in” (Leonard Cohen). The dialogue suggests that it is an antechamber to the Grand Mansion of the Republic. Cleitophon is a young student of Socrates who has just left his master to become the student of Thrasymachus. (Both obviously make appearances in the Republic itself.) The reason for his frustration with Socrates is stated in the following question: (more…)