The Soul and the City

In Plato's Republic, Socrates describes the soul as having three motivations: wisdom (or virtue) is the motivation of the mind, honor (or praise) is the motivation of the chest, and pleasure (or wealth) is the motivation of the belly.
Mar 26, 2020
Photo by Robert Bock on Unsplash

What motivates a person to make the decisions he makes, to do the things she does? What motivates a group of people, a community, a city or whole nation to do what it does, to decide what it decides? Some people are motivated by what is right and what is wrong. Some people are motivated by what will earn them recognition and honor. Some people are motivated by the "return on investment." Some people are motivated by what will be an expression of their freedom, the right to choose what they choose to choose. What other things motivate us? As individuals? As communities?

In Plato's Republic, Socrates describes the soul as having three motivations: wisdom (or virtue) is the motivation of the mind, honor (or praise) is the motivation of the chest, and pleasure (or wealth) is the motivation of the belly. A person who is governed by primarily by the mind will be primarily motivated by wisdom, and so on with the different parts of the soul. He goes on to describe someone governed by the mind as a gold soul, by the chest as a silver soul, and by the belly as a bronze soul. What does that look like, when we think about these motivations in a community, a city, or a nation? What does that look like when we think about the different motivations in a home or a classroom?

Later in the Republic, Socrates describes a city (and a corresponding individual) in one of five categories, related to the soul: the aristocratic, the timocratic, the oligarchic, the democratic, and the tyrannical. The aristocratic city is one in which the people are primarily motivated by a love of and desire for wisdom and virtue. The timocratic city desires honor. The oligarchic city desires wealth. The democratic city desires freedom (perhaps libertinism is the better word, though, for us). The tyrannical city desires the power to get whatever that one libertine desire is that has taken control of the city or the tyrant (e.g., sex, drugs, or rock and roll). 

A good city, for Socrates, starts out as a city that desires wisdom and virtue, the aristocratic city. Someone, however, comes along and sees that certain people are being excluded from leadership (those people, themselves, aren't bothered by this lack of leadership because power isn't what drives them, wisdom and virtue are.) The one who notices the exclusion, though, is bothered by it and starts the movement of the city away from the aristocratic city toward the timocratic city—a city which honors its people with praise and medals and parades. The timocratic city is getting along just fine as it pursues honor and gives honor, until someone comes along who notices that honorable people are not as wealthy as other people. (The less wealthy people aren't bothered by this, though, because it isn't wealth they seek but honor.) The who notices the disparity, though is bothered and starts the movement of the city away from the timocratic city toward the oligarchic city—a city which honors the wealth of its people.

Whereas the aristocratic city is like unto the person who is governed by his mind in the pursuit of wisdom and virtue, and the timocratic city is like unto the person who is governed by his chest in the pursuit of praise and honor, and the oligarchic city is like unto the person who is governed by his belly in the pursuit of wealth, the democratic city differs a bit. The oligarchic city pursues wealth, but it also has enough left of the timocratic and aristocratic in it to be able to distinguish between good pleasures and bad pleasures (or necessary pleasures and guilty pleasures, decadent pleasures). So somone comes along who notices that certain people are wealthy but miserly, taking part in pleasures but not taking part in the pleasures he desires. That person begins proclaiming that it is not wealth that makes us great or human but the ability, the power, the freedom, the right to pursue any pleasure we may desire, for all pleasures are good so long as we desire them. Thus, the democratic city elevates freedom and the power to exercise it to the highest good. The bad guy in the democratic city becomes the wealthy person who has the power to exercise his freedoms when I don't. 

Finally, the tyrannical city arises when a tyrant comes along who says I can put those oligarchic people down, get them out of the way, and empower you to exercise the freedom you want. The tyrant is typically someone who has been so dehumanized that he is no longer driven by the mind, the chest, or the belly, but by one single dominating desire (the lust for power, in many cases). He uses the division between the oligarchic and the democratic to eliminate his opponents to gain the power he needs to satisfy the itch of that dominating desire.

Socrates does go on to say, though, that the democratic city is not made up of just democratic people (in his sense of the term, not in the modern day sense of Republicans and Democrats). The democratic city is made up of all of these people. Thus, we know and may be ourselves an aristocratic person, a timocratic person, an oligarchic person, or a democratic person. What we need is to seek out these aristocratic people and let them teach us how to move back up the ladder toward being pursuers of wisdom and virtue ourselves. We don't need the tyrant to save us from the oligarchic in the city; we need the aristocratic (again, in his sense of the term, as one who is motivated by the desire for wisdom and virtue) person to save us from our own timocratic, oligarchic, and democratic tendencies. And, if we are parents and teachers, we need to embody and model—to the extent we are able and by the use of great people in great literature—the aristocratic so that we lift our children and students up to the aristocratic.

Matthew Bianco

Matthew Bianco

Matthew Bianco is a homeschooling father of three. All three of his children have graduated from their family's home school. The oldest has since graduated from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD and works for the CLT. His second and third children are attending Belmont Abbey College near Charlotte, NC. He is married to his altogether lovely, high school sweetheart, Patricia. He is the author of Letters to My Sons: A Humane Vision for Human Relationships.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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