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Plato's Analogy of State and Individual: The Republic and the Organic Theory of the State1

  • Jerome Neu (a1)


“Imagine A rather short-sighted person told to read an inscription in small letters from some way off….' So begins the quest for “the real nature of justice and injustice” undertaken in response to the challenge of Glaucon and Adeimantus to show that “justice pays”. It is often alleged that the search leads through analogy to a monster “organic” state that lives by devouring individual rights. I believe that these charges are mistaken. Plato's political theory does not derive from an analogy which makes the state a monster individual with interests superior to and independent of those of ordinary citizens; it derives rather from a doctrine of objective interests discernible by those with special training and ability, interests which later thinkers (and perhaps Plato) have taken to be the object of a “real will”, unerring even where a person's mere empirical desires are shortsightedly misdirected. Plato identifies the interests of his ideal state with the objective interests of its citizens (so they are not independent), and in his harmonious world, metaphysics, moral psychology, and political organization combine to ensure that those interests need never override individual mundane interests (not superior) for they never conflict: they coincide. That the whole theory is dubious should not prevent us from seeing that just what the theory is may be clarified by examining the arguments which putatively lead to it, and that those arguments provide grounds for not confounding Plato's theory with others which may reach similar conclusions about political organization and obligation.



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2 According to the Encyclopaedia Britamica (1963, s.v. “Analogy”, 842), the early Greek concept of an analogy was based on its derivation (ana logon, “according to a ratio”) and meant a “similarity in proportional relationships” (on the model of: as A is to B so C is to D), and it was not until later that an analogy came to be thought of in the sense of a “similarity of function performed by two elements in their respective contexts” (on the model of: as A is in B so C is in D). Cf. Robinson, Richard (Plato's Earlier Dialectic, London: Oxford, 2nd ed., 1953, p. 209) who says that when Plato speaks of analogy it means “the same as his phrase ‘geometrical equality’” or mathematical proportion and doesn't get extended outside mathematics until Aristotle. I don't want to claim a fundamental distinction between “in” and “to”, but the two models may help bring out the assumptions of Plato's procedure. From the passage, it would appear that Plato's analogy follows the first model with justice being present in “larger proportion” and its counterpart being on a “smaller scale”. The plan of finding justice in the state and looking for its “counterpart” in the individual, however, is more on the second model.

First A is to B as C is to D

Model Large Characters are to State as Small Characters are to Individual

Second as A is in B, so C is in D

Model as Justice is in the State, so Justice is in the Individual

The analogy we are dealing with is a closely built composite of these two and the assumptions behind them. Using the terminology of the passage and a skeletal model, it can be seen in the form:

Part of what some people (see Joseph, H. W. B. Essays in Ancient and Modern Philosophy, London: Oxford, 1935, p. 82, who says “It would be better to speak of the identity of constitution in State and soul” and who may just be confused) who prefer to call the analogy an identity may be referring to is the presumed identity of Justice (A=C) in the state and individual.

3 by Sachs, D., “A Fallacy in Plato's Republic”, Philosophical Review, LXXII (1963), pp. 141158.

4 Ibid. See R. Demos, “A Fallacy in Plato's Republic?” ibid. LXXIII (1964), 395—98; Richard Kraut, “Did Plato Come to the Rescue of Justice?” (an, as yet, unpublished paper); and Vlastos, G., “The Argument in the Republic that ‘Justice Pays’,” Journal of Philosophy, LXV (1968), 665674, and “Justice and Psychic Harmony in the Republic”, ibid., LXVI (1969), 505–21.

5 SirBarker, Ernest, The Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle (New York: Dover, 1959), 68.

6 See Adkins, Arthur W. H., Merit and Responsibility: A Studv in Greek Values (London: Oxford, 1960), 284f.

7 Vlastos' article (“Psychic Harmony”) clearly analyzes the fault in the argument taken that way. Though undoubtedly the most illuminating way of looking at it, it is not absolutely certain that it is so intended by Plato (though links must be, and implicitly are elsewhere, provided). The addendum at 441e2, for example, that says that a man who is just4 is also “a man who does his own” might be warranted by the “commonplace and vulgar tests” at 442d–443b rather than an equivocation between external (3) and internal (4) justice (“Psychic Harmony”, 518n.45).

8 Adkins (Merit, 312 n.l) claims, but does not show, that “… the psychology of the Republic seems to be determined by the form of the Ideal State, not the State by Plato's psychology”. Barker (Political Thought, 103 n.4) seems closer: “Plato builds a State to illustrate man; but he presupposes a knowledge of man in building it”. But it is Robinson (Dialectic, 211–12) who pinpoints the petitio: The construction of a city “seems a defect from the point of view of the analogical procedure…. ‘We established the best one we could, because we were sure that in the good city there would be justice’ (434E). How could he decide what was a good city without assuming an account of justice? What he will get out of his analogy, therefore, seems to be whatever he himself put in”. Plato begs his question.

9 It may be objected that the argument from elimination is not as flimsy as I have supposed; that the search for the remainder (the remaining virtue which will, it is assumed, be Justice) rests on a stronger argument (433b): that the remainder, Justice, will be what makes the other three possible. I would grant this (and in any case do not deny that the “doing one's own” formula has separate sanction), except that in setting up the good state he aimed at 4 (or to avoid question-begging, 3) virtues. If justice is to turn out to be what makes these possible he has to show:

(a) These are the only virtues required in a good state. They are sufficient for a state to be considered good. They are the only ones that the Justice we discover will have to make possible. But Plato himself recognizes piety, and we (and perhaps other Greeks), unrestricted by a functional theory of justice and rights would include many others.

(b) That his arrangement is the only one that makes these virtues possible. If there are other arrangements, why should his principle (even if granted to be sufficient), be granted the title “Justice” (if it is not necessary) in preference to the other (sufficient) candidates?

10 Plato knew where he was going. Other interesting statements of his result: “For what we laid down in the beginning as a universal requirement when we were founding our city, this I think, or some form of this, is justice”. (433a, Shorey) “Finished, then, is our dream and perfected—the surmise we spoke of, that, by some providence, at the very beginning of our foundation of the state, we chanced to hit upon the original principle and a sort of type of justice”. (443b–c) Justice is found in relations (372a), the principle of which Plato lays down.

11 That Plato should turn at all to analogies, as he frequently does, is surprising, considering his “prevailing opinion” runs against them and in favour of the hypothetical method. Robinson, (Dialectic), 209, 215–17.

12 Popper, Karl R., The Open Society and Its Enemies (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 4th ed., 1962) Vol. I, 76.

13 Cross, R. C. and Woozley, A. D.. Plato's Republic: A Philosophical Commentary (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964), 132.

14 The commitment, especially if it is to be used, as C & W use it, as a basis for a charge of totalitarianism, is rather weak. I think it must be meant as a logical entailment from views Plato explicitly holds. “… while Plato was committed to this view, and while he offered no clear or cogent reasons for accepting it, he cannot be said to have clearly recognized the implication himself. There are even occasional passages where he writes the other way round …” (ibid., 132). A man can believe P and P⊃Q, without recognizing that Q follows. Is that Plato's position? What is his P?

15 They want to show that Plato takes the structure and virtues of individuals as rock bottom, and “argues” from there. I think that they have quite simply misinterpreted the passage which they cite. They say: “… he has emphasized that the account given of justice in the city may have to be modified if we find that the account to be given of justice in the individual does not entirely square with it. We could hardly ask for clearer evidence as to which was Plato's order of thought” (132). And earlier, “if any discrepancies appear, the former, rather than the latter, will have to be revised” (77), “there is no question of the modification being the other way round …” (111). But Plato does not indicate which would have to be modified (if the test at 443 didn't work, i.e., if justice4 and vulgar justice3 didn't roughly coincide). What he takes as certain is what we have claimed he assumes all along, that Justice, whatever it is, will be the same in the state and the individual. After finding justice in his ideal state:

The discovery we made there must now be applied to the individual. If it is confirmed, all will be well: but if we find that justice in the individual is something different, we must go back to the state and test our new result. Perhaps if we brought the two cases into contact like flint and steel, we might strike out between them the spark of justice, and in its light confirm the conception in our own minds. (434e–435a, Cornford).

16 What is less clear is whether this is a point about justice4 producing justice2 (a deep point concerning the analogy thesis), or (more likely, given the context) a statement that where justice2 is present so is justice3 (a simple point about conditions of application for social concepts) as prelude to an argument based on similarity of structure and theory of meaning.

17 Cf. Robinson, , “Dr. Popper's Defense of Democracy”, aPhilosophical Review, XL (1951), 496: “I do not mean that he will necessarily deny the existence of that superbeing, Dr. Popper does not deny it … ”

Macdonald, M., “The Language of Political Theory”, in Logic and Language (First Series), ed. Flew, A. (Garden City: Anchor, 1965), 187, speaking of facts which organic theories in general properly emphasize:

The State is not identified with any one or with the whole collection of its members but is something over and above them. That is to say, propositions can be made about the State which would be nonsense if made about any or all of its members. E.g., “The English State has been established for at least four hundred years”. The State is a moral person. That is to say, it is sensible to say of actions which we ascribe to the State that they are right—or wrong. The sense in which these words are used is different from that for individuals but it is not nonsense …

I imagine Plato would acknowledge they (e.g. Justice 2 and 3) are different (just as women are different from men, but not in politically relevant ways), but perhaps claim that the difference is no more important than that in one case we are speaking of individuals and in the other of classes or all citizens.

18 That includes even bad character. Popper points disapprovingly to “the fact that the seed of the decay and disunion of a perfect state does not spring up in the state itself, but rather in its individuals …” (76, cf. 81). Actually the attribution of the decay of the state to individuals is in line with Popper's own programme of methodological individualism, which “insists that the ‘behaviour’ and the ‘actions’ of collectives, such as states or social groups, must be reduced to the behaviour and to the actions of human individuals”. (Open Society, II, 91). Though it may lean more towards “psychologism”, and though I doubt that it implies the same reductionism, Plato's “oak and rock” doctrine—“… do you suppose that constitutions spring from the proverbial oak or rock and not from the characters of the citizens …“ (544d, Shorey)—is in some ways similar to Popper's methodological individualism.

As we will shortly discuss, Popper detects an emphasis in Plato which would be inconsistent with methodological individualism. He accuses Plato of “holism” in the sense of “an emphasis upon oneness and wholeness—especially of the state; or perhaps of the world”.(80)

19 “… this conviction and way of speech brings with it a community in pleasures and pains … these citizens, above all others, will have one and the same thing in common which they will name mine, and by virtue of this communion they will have their pleasures and pains in common.” (464a, Shorey).

20 Communism extends only to the rulers, but all the people are intended to be included in the relationship of brotherhood or unity, even if one believes it depends on crushed rather than shared interests: “in order that we all so far as possible may be akin and friendly because our governance and guidance are the same…” (590d, Shorey).

21 He refuses to take the Forms seriously, dismissing the Form of the Good as an “empty formalism”. (Open Society, 146). He goes on to commit Plato to views which are not his. E.g., a misplaced degrees-of-reality theory: “Only a stable whole, the permanent collective, has reality, not the passing individuals” (80); the ideal state is no more a perfect copy of its form than an ideal man would be of his, but says Popper: ”… the ideal state appears to Plato as the perfect individual”, and misinterpreting consistently, “the individual citizen, accordingly, as an imperfect copy of the state” (79). Popper treats as a Form “the state of which the individual is a kind of imperfect copy” (80).

22 Whether Hegel himself was, is a separate, and further, question.

Not slow to glorify (e.g., planets “divine” 508a), it is the majesty not of the state, but of the Forms that holds Plato in awe. The quote Popper uses to support his claim (103) that Plato describes the state as “divine” appears a distortion (the text: “… were it once brought to the birth, would be in its fashion the nearest to immortality …“ Laws 739e, Taylor).

One has also to be careful on the other side of the question: Ronald B. Levinson, In Defense of Plato (Cambridge: Harvard, 1953), 530,

…while it would be a partisan misuse* of language to term Plato an “individualist”, that fact need not hide from us Plato's feeling for the individual as the ultimate reality here below, for the sake of whom the social framework is constructed, whose quality imparts character to the community, and whose destiny outdures that of the state which is his transitory and terrestrial home.

*Levinson indulges in just such a partisan misuse (527) when he says “every Platonic dialogue is a monument erected to his belief that individual men have a right to be considered important.…“

23 Ibid., 528.

24 The passage cited by Popper (100) in this connection continues: “And yet thou dost murmur because thou seest not how in thine own case what is best for the whole proves best also for thyself in virtue of our common origin”. (Laws 903d, Taylor). Cf. Laws 875b, “… it is to the advantage of community and individual at once that public well-being should be considered before private”. See also Note 26.

25 He has more than the mere appeal to the general good. The best life is to philosophize and the philosophers do make a sacrifice in returning to the cave to govern, but a necessary and a non-supreme one. They owe it to the city which raised them to govern (520). They are definitely not consigned to unhappiness, indeed, they will be happier than Olympic victors (465d). But could they not be happier constantly philosophizing? The answer, I think, is no. Man is of a mixed nature (see Joseph, Essays, 114–21, note against Foster to show each individual has all three elements in his soul—the philosopher is no more devoid of desire than the worker is of reason) and, just as Aristotle concludes from the composite nature of man, the philosopher is bound to fail if he tries to be a being of pure thought. More important is the ground to which Plato turns as ultimate (347c); if he doesn't govern he must be ruled by those worse than himself. His inquiry, when a man without knowledge rules, may not be left free. Which amounts to the position that it is in the philosopher's interest to also be king.

26 Even Popper concedes that “… his ideal was not the maximum exploitation of the working class by the upper class.…” (108). The guardian's interests are to coincide with the state's which in turn coincide with the citizens' (which in turn are harmonious). All aim at the same pattern. The guardians are selected in part on the strength of their concern for the good of the commonwealth. (412c ff.) It is a single pattern they shall paint: “We shall require them to turn upward the vision of their souls and fix their gaze on that which sheds light on all, and when they have thus beheld the good itself they shall use it as a pattern for the right ordering of the state and the citizens and themselves throughout the remainder of their lives …” (540a, Shorey). On its surface, Plato's design is not very sinister. The individual subject is to have his moral well-being advanced, he is to be helped to live well, to be just. (Cf. Gorgias 504d, Laws 770d). The analogy of structure may have eased the assumption of coinciding interests. “Both man and the state have a single underlying structure which prevents the good for one from being essentially different from the good for the other”. (Sabine, George H., A History of Political Theory (New York: Holt, Rinehard and Winston, 3rd ed., 1961), 51).

Adkins charges:

…The manner in which the rulers should rule is not indicated at all: if a qualified expert exploits his subjects to the utmost, and they acquiesce, both are behaving with sophrosune and dikaiosune in the sense in which these have been shown to be aretai, conducive to the smooth running of the state. Thrasymachus should be delighted … (Merit, 288).

The manner is indicated and Thrasymachus would have no cause for joy. In the sense in which it applies to the ruled, even the rulers are “exploited” in Plato's state. Neither rulers nor subjects are used as “mere means” to an exploiter's interest; only the normal consequences of exploitation “suppression and denial” of the interests of the exploited are present. The interests of the stronger (class?) do not prevail, at least that is not Plato's purpose. The interests of state and citizens are assumed to coincide. Individual freedom and welfare fall victim, not to the stronger (an organic super-individual state?), but, I believe, to a theory of knowledge and mind.

27 As Murphy, N. R. says, “His arguments for confining citizens to this or that function were based on what he took to be factual grounds.…” (The Interpretation of Plato's Republic (London: Oxford, 1951), 72). But what the arrangement leads to is a situation in which “What the individual possesses … is first and foremost a status in which he is privileged to act, and the freedom which the state secures him is not so much for the exercise of his free will as for the practice of his calling”. His rights and duties are functional (Perhaps if Plato's theory were a consistent organic one he could allow the individual no rights against the state, any more than a limb can have rights against the body of which it is a member): “For what is due to him is that he should be treated as what he is, in the light of his capacity and his training, while what is due from him is the honest performance of those tasks which the place accorded him requires”. (Sabine, , Political Theory, 49, 55). Individual rights are functional “inherent rather in the services or functions that individuals perform”. (Sabine, 55). “… In their political capacity the workers have nothing to do but obey, which is nearly the same thing as to say that they have no properly political capacity at all” (53). Guardians make better rulers without wives and property, and so have no right to them. If one has nothing to contribute, then he has no rights—even, apparently, to life. The very sick are to be allowed to die, as “the best thing for the sufferers themselves and for the state” (410a). Plato assumes that in some sense the individual will want to die. (“… he had a task and that life wasn't worth acceptance on condition of not doing his work …”—407a, Shorey). The death verdict on an incurable criminal is a judgment that “longer life is no boon to the sinner himself in such a case.…” (Laws 862d, Taylor).

28 The benevolent despot is always acting for one's own good. The real will of every man is always aimed at the good (5O5d–e). The distinguishing of a real interest is a recurring (and, in some contexts, valid) separation. The appeal to the desires of the better self emerges, for example, in the otherwise strange Gorgias doctrine that we don't “want” what we do want unless it is good. Gorgias 466–68: Of tyrants: “…they do nothing, so to speak, that they wish to do, and yet do what is in their opinion best”. (466, Helmbold). Republic 339d, Cornford: “… rulers … sometimes mistake their own best interests …” (and then, says Thrasymachus, they are not really rulers). 577d: “And just as a state enslaved to a tyrant cannot do what it really wishes, so neither can a soul under a similar tyranny do what it wishes as a whole”. Cf. also the Lysis (210c) doctrine that we don't “love” what we do love unless it is “really” beneficial, and Gorgias 468c, Protagoras 358c, Meno 77b–78b.

We have said that it is only for Justice4 that Plato attempts to show happiness follows. The Philosopher-Kings have indwelling knowledge. For those whose harmony (justice4) is based on second-hand true belief, at least the second and third arguments for justice paying (576–88) don't seem to hold and so it does not seem to follow that individual happiness, freedom, and welfare will ensue for them.

29 The knowledge is not obtained by consulting the subjects, the ruler looks rather to the pattern, Form, he is to impose on state and individual (540a). Cornford's claimed recognition of the principle of consent in Plato, (The Republic of Plato, London: Oxford University Press, 1941, p. 122 n.l) is mistaken. Knowledge is sufficient license to rule: “It makes no difference whether their subjects be willing or unwilling.…” (Statesman 293b, Skemp). Consent that cannot be withheld is the mere shadow of consent.

1 I wish to thank Professor Gregory Vlastos for his criticism and encouragement.

Plato's Analogy of State and Individual: The Republic and the Organic Theory of the State1

  • Jerome Neu (a1)


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