Finding the Navi in Plato’s Republic

Like the creation of the cosmos in the Book of Genesis, the creation of the just city in Plato’s Republic takes place twice. In the first version of the city, undertaken as an attempt to determine the meaning of justice, Socrates describes a modest and frugal society, in which the citizens lead simple lives focused on securing the necessities for life. Their diet consists of austere fare – bread, figs, olives, onions, greens, wine, but no meat – and they pass their evening hours singing hymns of praise to the gods. They are careful to limit the number of children they bear, being on guard against overpopulation, which necessarily gives rise to poverty and war. They eschew all luxuries, including furniture. Socrates notes that their life of honest labor will enable them to enjoy health, to live out their lives in peace, and pass along their self-sufficient ways to their descendents (372d).

This city and its way of life fit the image of the type of human community exalted by present-day environmentalists, a sort of sustainable utopia where the foremost concern is not overstraining the resources at one’s disposal. But Socrates’ principal interlocutor, Glaucon, finds this depiction of the moderate and modest community revolting, disparaging it as a “city of pigs” (372d). Where are the couches and tables, he asks, or the relishes and desserts? Stanley Rosen suggests that the reason for Glaucon’s strident interruption might lie in his hunger, in that he has his mind set on the feast promised by Polemarchus at the beginning of the dialogue (Rosen, 75). But Glaucon, the brother of Plato who is generally associated with the idea of spiritedness, being a warrior who thirsts for glory and victory on the battlefield, can be said to force the conversation toward the direction of cities as they really exist, rather than indulge in idle philosophic speculation. Socrates consents, and sets aside this vision of the just city as a frugal and moderate collective. Instead, they will speak instead of a city in which “relishes, perfumes, incense, and cakes” are not only plentiful but available in a wide variety.

Interestingly, the first profession to be welcomed into this new, “feverish” city, the first profession emphatically not related to providing for the necessities of life, is that of the prostitute (373a). After the city is opened to the courtesans, trailing in their wake are poets, actors, dancers, craftsmen, makers of perfume, servants, teachers, wet nurses, beauticians, barbers, and cooks. Socrates then observes that such an expansion of the city will compel it to seize territory from its neighbors, in order to grow enough food for its inhabitants. The need for increased farmland entails the mobilization of an army, which in turn raises the specter of further wars of expansion to satisfy the growing demands of the city. Thus, the city, Socrates implies, becomes locked into a certain fate, a future about which he expresses grave reservations. For in contrast to the reigning conventional wisdom of contemporary liberalism, in which commerce and the attendant multiplication of desires are held to promote peace, Socrates identifies the transition from an economy of restraint to one of unlimited abundance as the “origin of war,” as well as the factor that “most of all produces evils both private and public” (373e).

The image of a sustainable society, in which human beings spontaneously respect limits and seek only to fulfill necessary desires, exerts, not surprisingly, an especially powerful allure in the age of climate change and resource depletion. Indeed, the Navi in James Cameron’s Avatar appeal to these yearnings, as they have absolutely no desire for anything that the Earthling corporation can offer them in exchange for moving to another part of the planet. Rosen, however, questions whether Socrates actually prefers the healthy city to its feverish successor, since the former’s emphasis on necessity would create an unpromising climate for philosophy. Indeed, the true city can be said to be less real than its “unhealthy” counterpart, since it aims at creating a “happiness that is undisturbed by desire, in particular, erotic desire” (Rosen, 81). The problem of the injunction to respect limits lies in how human beings usually arrive at this respect: through trial and error. To put it somewhat tautologically, necessity is that which we encounter against our will.

Though Rosen considers the “healthy” city to be “subnatural” and “subpolitical,” since its inhabitants live at what he considers an impossible level of simplicity, nevertheless, the distinction between necessary and unnecessary desires remains a vital one in the dialogue, reappearing in the discussion of the democratic soul in Book VIII. It is the reign of useless desires that, according to Socrates, tips democracy over into tyranny. The political consequences of pursuing the necessary desires, on the other hand, remain enticingly ambiguous.

Text cited:

Stanley Rosen, Plato’s Republic: A Study (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

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One response

  1. I should add that Rosen’s view that Socrates implicitly rejects the “healthy” city has the corollary that the practice of realpolitik, or politics as war, will be the fate of the luxurious “feverish” city. The securing of vital human goods requires expansion, which in turn entails wars and conquests. It becomes impossible to distinguish in practice between self-preservation and unjust and illegitimate acquisition. Thus, human societies fall under the heel of fate. To smother human ambition is to mutilate a vital aspect of human existence. But all success is temporary, states that rise will invariably fall, guilt over injustice demoralizes future generations, robs them of initiative, while the repudiation of this guilt spurs ever increasing acts of brutality. Platonic optimism perhaps then consists of the hope that philosophy might play a role in mitigating or escaping the power of this fate.

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