BMCR 2003.11.07

City and Soul in Plato’s Republic. Lecturae Platonis, 2

, City and soul in Plato's Republic. Lecturae Platonis ; v. 2. SanktAugustin: Academia Verlag, 2003. 130 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 3896651706 EUR 19.50.

This short monograph concerns a fairly well-worn topic, but it subjects it to a certain amount of insightful and original examination — even though its conclusions will not, I think, find universal favour — and it is thus to be welcomed. It arises from a series of lectures delivered (in Italian) to the University of Macerata in 1999 — as the second in a series of ‘Lecturae Platonis’ being organised there by Maurizio Migliori — and it is also being published in an Italian version. Its theme is a re-examination of the nature of the comparison being made between the structure of society and that of the individual soul, in response to what Ferrari sees as erroneous objections and proposals raised in the past by, in particular, Bernard Williams and Jonathan Lear.

The book consists of four chapters, each followed by a most useful summary of the chief sources being followed (or contended with) in the chapter concerned. A powerful influence hovering in the background, though not much quoted in the body of the book, is that of Leo Strauss, which lends a certain colouring to the work, though it must be said that Ferrari does not go along with Strauss’s more idiosyncratic ideas on the Republic.

The first chapter, ‘The Brothers’, concerns an examination of the characters and likely political perspective of Plato’s brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus, the chief interlocutors in the dialogue. It is certainly not unreasonable of Ferrari to attempt to grant the brothers some degree of personality — it is hardly likely, after all, that Plato would want them to be seen as complete ciphers — but it is nonetheless not easy to deduce much from their brief interventions. They were aristocrats, of course, and no doubt ‘quietists’ in respect of intervening in democratic politics (as were many well-to-do families), but I must say that I am not clear why Glaucon’s threefold classification of types of good at the beginning of Book II is to be taken as a symptom of his aristocratic hauteur (pp. 16ff.). It is interesting, certainly, that this three-fold classification is attributed to Glaucon, rather than Socrates, and does not figure elsewhere in the work, but it still appears pretty value-free to me, as well as being useful to the argument as a whole; Ferrari’s efforts to flag it as ‘aristocratic’ seem rather forced.

Chapter 2, ‘City and Soul: Misunderstandings’, takes on, first, Williams, then Lear (as mentioned above), with the aim of clarifying the true nature of the analogy between individual soul and state that Plato is propounding. I must say, though, that I find Williams’ strictures (in his 1973 essay, ‘The Analogy of City and Soul in Plato’s Republic‘) rather well taken. Plato does, surely, pull a fast one on us here: he takes us from an admission that nations like the Thracians and the Phoenicians derive their characteristics (‘bold’, ‘mercenary’) from the overall quality of their members to the much more revolutionary point he wants to make about a just state being made up, not predominantly of just people, but rather of a correct relationship between classes of people, only a minority of whom are, properly speaking, just. This has always seemed to me to be one of ‘sleights-of-hand’ that Plato is practising upon us in this dialogue, and it is quite legitimate of Williams to draw attention to it.

Ferrari does not, admittedly, deny the legitimacy of Williams’ objection but wishes rather to maintain that he has misunderstood the nature of the analogy. “If the city is just,” says Ferrari (p. 41), “because each of its parts, superior and inferior, is acting appropriately, then the individual could be declared just, not because each part of his soul is acting appropriately, but because he, a superior or inferior part of the city, is acting appropriately — is doing his part for the city. Justice is doing one’s part, and a just city is so constructed that each person in it does his part.” But surely Plato does not claim, nor can he claim, that either the auxiliaries or the ‘proles’, as whole individuals, possess justice, just by ‘doing their part.’ And so Williams’ point seems not to be properly countered.

Lear’s dilemma is more easily dealt with (pp. 50-3). Lear, in his 1992 article, ‘Inside and Outside the Republic‘, sought to clarify a causal-psychological relation between state and individual that he felt was obscured in Plato’s text, by postulating processes of ‘internalization’ and ‘externalization’, as means by which, on the one hand, society moulds the individual, and, on the other, by which the fully-moulded individual in turn affects the society of which he is part, and seeks to educate the next generation in its ideals. Ferrari, while accepting the usefulness of Lear’s point, reasonably claims that Plato does not just obscure the process that Lear identifies; he makes no use of it at all (he does, however, a little later (p. 88 ff.), point out that this connection is made use of by Isocrates, in his protreptic To Nicocles).

The latter two chapters, ‘City and Soul: A Metaphorical Understanding’, and ‘Tyrant and King’, develop Ferrari’s own views on the basis of his rejection of those of Williams and Lear, focusing primarily on Plato’s account of the decline of states and individuals in Books 8 and 9. Here, with the aid of Greek rhetorical theory on the subject of metaphor, he makes a number of good points, though I feel that he still grants Plato somewhat more credit for coherence than he deserves. It is true that the various imperfect regimes are not predominantly made up of individuals of the type concerned (e.g. oligarchies of oligarchs), nor is the ‘oligarchic’ man necessarily the sort of individual who would prevail in an oligarchy, but Ferrari still seems to think that the analogies between these states and individuals hold in a way that does not manifest itself so clearly to me.

That is not to say that he is wrong, however. It just points up the fact, I think, that consensus will never be reached on exactly what Plato is up to in the Republic. The good thing about this little book is that it is controversial. Ferrari is not afraid to stick his neck out, and he forces one to re-examine what one thinks oneself, if one disagrees with him. I happen to feel that, though Plato certainly has serious political points to make in the dialogue, he is not really advocating a state set up on the lines presented here; he is simply arguing for a rationally structured society, such as he presented later, much more seriously, in the Laws. I can’t prove that, of course; but I don’t find that Ferrari, stimulating though he is, forces me to change my opinion.

The book has an index of passages quoted, but not of names or subjects. However, the summaries of sources used at the end of each chapter are very much to be commended.