Old and Relevant: Plato's Anthropological Principle

Perhaps the most famous dialogue penned by Plato is his far-reaching Republic.  In this work he addresses the popular philosophy of his day—a philosophy that was promulgated by a group of teachers known to us as Sophists.  The Sophists were the ultimate pragmatists or realists.  They argued that truth was, more or less, whatever worked; and whomever held power set the standard by which men could determine whatever worked (if this sounds strikingly similar to something you heard at your university, on the news, or in any number of Hollywood films you shouldn’t be surprised—the Sophists are attempting a comeback).  Plato set out to disprove the Sophist thesis, arguing that truth is objective and external, and men will live well and successfully when they live in accordance with the truth.

In a day and age where the importance and value of individual men is sometimes overlooked in the bustle of mass media, mass marketing, polling samples, demographic analyses, and sweeping generalizations about the “youth,” the “elderly,” Americans, white males, working moms, hipsters, and blue collar voters, Plato’s means of arguing his thesis is a fascinating departure from the norm.  Rather than accept the prevailing view that a city is merely a place where people live and work or an institution to be controlled and managed, Plato suggests that cities are organic networks that cohere along lines very similar to those found in men.  For Plato, cities are primarily human conglomerates, and the attitudes, beliefs, values, and dispositions of the men living in the city amount to the soul of the city.

The genius of Plato’s principle is seen as he draws out its ramifications for political science.  Plato’s “anthropological principle” is that, since justice is the same thing everywhere, it can be found on a large scale in a city and on a smaller scale in men.  However, the justice of the city will be like the justice of men.  Since the city is composed of men, then the character of the city will reflect the character of the men who compose it.  Rather than analyze the city as a structure arising out of the interactions of men, or as an external and lifeless entity which men inhabit, Plato analyzes the soul of the city with the same tools that are applied to an analysis of the souls of men.  Therefore, wherever virtues and vices are found in the city, they can be traced back to the men who dwell therein and can then be understood on both the larger and smaller scales.

Plato’s analysis of the devolution of a perfect and well-ordered city (a wise and benevolent monarchy) to anarchy and tyranny is a fascinating read and I recommend it to anyone interested in keeping “the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”  However, for the sake of space and interest I’ll skip to his punch line: The path of the city towards tyranny is the same as that of the man towards incontinence, addiction, and slavery.

The eventual fall into tyranny continues as the desires of the men and their cities are informed less by reason and good order and more and more by appetites that are appeased by easy gratification.  If Plato’s anthropological principle is valid, this eventual fall is inevitable so long as reason is given a back seat and various desires are permitted to compete for attention and resources on the public stage.  When uncontrolled, the various desires of the human heart rise and fall in the souls of men, driving them to commit deeds apart from careful consideration of the results of their actions.  When Reason no longer rules, something will take her place and Irrationality and pure Desire (Christians would call it Lust) do not tend towards the creation of a perfect union, the establishment of liberty, or the promotion of the general welfare of, well, anybody.

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  • stirfrymojo

    What’s most needed is the rehabilitation of the reasoning and reasonable person, and ironically this may be more the work of rhetoric than anything else. No one has ever been talked out of reason by sane talk, but many people have been talked out of it all the same. I suspect this is because they’ve been convinced that Reason is not a belief proper to “people of our time.” This isn’t only a logical fallacy, it’s an extreme failure of the imagination, and for that we need a solid dose of the philosopher’s rhetoric, to persuade us out of looking at the shadows and to turn to the things themselves.

    On a different note, a question for our time is whether we’re being instructed by the anthropological principle in the wrong way. We can talk about the ancient City, but we don’t live in one–we live in the modern State, and the anthropological analogy leads us to quite a different place here. The City was founded on what is ancient, on what is sacred, old, and good, but the State is an institution of security and order produced by the hands of man. Man as a cosmion of the cosmos of his City naturally was also rooted in what is sacred, old, and good. There is a moral sense in which the City is founded in eternity, in which the things of the City reflect a Good that is out of time, because it is founded in what is sacred. Being is more or less a philosophical given here.

    But as much as many modern States seek to establish roots in hallowed origins, these roots (whether they are real or not) are forgotten all too quickly, because what was made can be remade from one generation to the next. This sort of re-inventing would be blasphemy in the City (cf. Socrates’ accusers) but is a matter of course in the State, where the needs of one generation easily take precedence over the principles of the last. And since the State is in practice a rejection of the unchanging things–since it is (in practice, anyway) ordered by the needs of men rather than a highest good–maybe it should be no surprise that we of the modern world identify more closely with change than permanence, with Becoming than Being, and with Irrationality rather than Reason.

  • http://pithlessthoughts.blogspot.com/ s-p

    I find myself agreeing with Plato but then I wonder what to do with Calvin’s Geneva and Muslim Taliban? I suppose one could posit that a religious “Church/State” tyranny is a manifestation of the decline of virtue as much as a tyranny of someone like Hitler. As the current culture falls deeper into postmodernism and a solipsistic Christian culture that is joined at the hip to right wing political agendas, I wonder what form of tyranny we will fall for or submit to.

  • stirfrymojo

    I suppose it’s a matter of disagreement whether Books II-VII of The Republic are an inquiry into the best political system or really something else. I’d side more with Voegelin, and Strauss and Bloom, in saying that it’s a mistake to suppose that we should read the City in Speech as a blueprint for a political society, because there are multiple contradictions and impossibilities, enough to make such a literal reading (or otherwise Plato himself) almost silly. In fact there’s very little I think we should take at face value in The Republic–even the philosophy of Forms.

    If we read The Republic as a treatise on the best political system, we’d be reading Plato as an ideologue offering us a set of “-isms,” of unphilosophical absolutes. We’d be reading him as saying that a time and a place and a set of laws could incarnate forever the Good, True, and Beautiful as they are in themselves. This is not Reasonable, and it’s not true to Plato, I think. It’s not even what he says he’s talking about, after all–the City in Speech comes about as a means of looking into the nature of justice in the individual, and not as an inquiry into the nature of political society.

    If this is all true, The Republic is really ultimately about educating two young men in particular, Glaucon and Adeimantus, into philosophy–into becoming more Reasonable. If this is the case, I don’t think we have to be afraid that returning to “Reason ala Plato” somehow demands a new totalitarianism … most of all I guess it would demand a truly excellent education.

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Tex

    Stirfrymojo,

    Great insights! There are probably a good number of things I could learn from you regarding Plato…I always feel very much like a young student whenever I read his dialogues. I’ll skip to my questions, though, for the sake of time.

    I’m wondering what you might have in mind regarding how we could be better instructed by Plato’s anthropological principle. Specifically, what does our life in the State and not in the City mean for the application of the principle to our political science?

  • stirfrymojo

    Insofar as the State goes, I don’t think that the anthropological principle, as an instructive principle, has much good to offer us . . . this is a tentative opinion, but the State doesn’t seem to me to be rooted in Reason, at least not in a sane way, which means that any analogies we make from the State to Man will inevitably lead to some highly Irrational conclusions. And, without even trying to, I think they have … and because of it we have been taught things about ourselves that are not true.

    It seems to me that no citizen can avoid being instructed by the anthropological principle, whether it’s in the right way or the wrong way. What we believe about the foundation and purpose of our society (City or State) shapes the way we try to live in it, and what that theory says about us shapes the way we view ourselves. Insofar as philosophy is concerned, the ancient cosmos (where the sacred and rational were possible) has deteriorated into a moral chaos (because the sacred and the rational are no longer possible). The world is once again formless and void, but society is a radical effort by an island of individuals to re-order the world around them into sense. The nature of man and his place in the world is taken in a starkly different way in these two understandings. The City is the product of one and the State is the product of the other.

    In some ways this echoes the situation of the ancient city-state, with one major difference: in the polis, value and meaning were recognized to precede the individual, and the community, but in the State this is not true, at least as far as our political science is concerned. As much as our modern-day States are founded on enlightened values or human rights–as much as we as human beings cannot live without a meaning we consider greater than ourselves–such things are anomalies in our modern political science, which distinguishes facts from values and admits that we may know the one but not the other. As far as our political science is concerned, if there is an opinion about meaning or value in the State, it is purely an expression of human will, and not Reason. It is produced by Will, the fundamentally Irrational actor.

    This is all rather bizarre. Our societies, and we ourselves, cannot do without a meaning we believe to be true, but our political science–our representative of “reason” in things political–cannot allow for it. Modern political science has created and justified the existence of the State; we understand it according to that theory, and we understand ourselves according to that theory. But the theory is not true to the reality, because the political science has rejected the possibility of meaningful knowledge. That is disturbing in itself, and very disturbing in its consequences.

    Our modern political science, I believe, has lost itself, and it is because it has lost Reason. Without Reason, I’m afraid that the anthropological principle can’t and won’t instruct us in any lesson we ought to learn, whatever else it may teach us.

    These are rather disconnected thoughts … I’ve enjoyed your posts a great deal, Tex, and I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts in the future!