By Greg Forster

Having considered Socrates’ proposals in the Republic for the community of women and property, and his somewhat modified proposals in the Laws, we now consider his fanciful proposal in the less well-known dialogue Glaucon for a city in which men will be free to disagree about the will of the gods.

Socrates’ Strange Proposal

Socrates says that the men of this proposed city will be drawn from many nations. The men of each nationality will not leave their ways and adopt the ways of the city, but rather, they will continue to live each in their own national ways. Each national group believes that its ways are the will of the gods, and that the gods detest the ways of the others.

However, by the fundamental laws of the city, the men of one nationality may not interfere with the ways of the others, nor try to drive them out of the city. They may not even legislate directly against manifest vice – although they may legislate against various harmful actions, such as violence, that occur as a result of vice – the reason being that the men of each nationality disagree about what is virtuous and vicious, worshiping different gods.

The fundamental laws of the city, according to Socrates, are these:

  1. No citywide law shall forbid believing differently about the gods.
  2. No citywide law shall forbid doing what is essential to one’s identity or nature.
  3. No citywide law shall be used to fulfill one’s essential identity or nature (the citywide law must be “neutral about the gods”).
  4. No citywide law shall forbid forming a city-within-the-city with its own laws to fulfill the essential identity or nature of those within it.

There Is No City without a Common Purpose – Pursuit of a Good Life Together

We must begin, as we always do, with the natural starting point of the matter at hand. For what purpose would men attempt to create such a city as this? What is their goal?

Socrates suggests that if men of many nations were present in the city, philosophy would be advanced, because exposure to many opinions prevents mental complacency. But it is obvious that this would be more easily achieved by the study of foreign opinions. Men in Athens can learn what the Spartans and Jews and Persians think without attempting to make one corner of Athens into a little Sparta, and another into a little Jerusalem, and another into a little Persia, and so on until there is no Athens left, but only a great marketplace consisting of hundreds of miniature imitations of real cities.

The city Socrates envisions is not a city. It is a collection of many cities, that all happen to be located immediately adjacent to one another, or in an overlapping territory.

What is the common life of this pseudo-city? It is nothing. There is no common life – that is the point. Even their common laws contain only negations.

They have come together for the purpose of agreeing not to interfere with one another. They might just as well have stayed home.

We have said from the beginning of our discourse that every city is defined by the common pursuit of a good life – a good life together. Men make cities for no other reason. They provide for their most basic needs, such as food and reproduction, in households. They provide for more advanced needs, like crafts and defense, in villages. They form cities not for these purposes, but to live a good life together.

A city is necessary to a good life because a good life requires speech about the good; that, as we have said, is what distinguishes men from animals. Speech about the good requires a sufficient number of men who are able to discourse about the good with understanding. The household and village contain too few people who are qualified to do this.

But the goal is not, as in Socrates’ pseudo-city, to deliberately increase the number of opinions about the good. Quite the contrary, the goal of discourse about the good in a city is to reach agreement about the good, so that it may be acted on together. That is what a city is, just as a ship’s crew exists to pilot the ship together. If they disagreed about how to pilot the ship, they might still debate piloting, but they could not be a crew.

This is why we have said above that as a general rule, the men of a city should share in common that which must be shared in common for the sake of their living a good life together, and nothing else. Property and wives and other household matters must not be shared in common, for – by their nature – their place is the household. Matters proper to the village should likewise be in the care of villages and not the city. By contrast, as we will argue at the end of this discourse, education should be common to the city, for education is not something people do to meet their immediate needs; it is training for the pursuit of a good life, and this is the city’s proper business.

Do the Gods Will the Laws of Socrates’ Pseudo-City?

Socrates’ pseudo-city skirts the real problem he has set for himself in seeking to make a city of men who disagree about the gods. The four fundamental laws that are to govern the city – do the gods will these laws, or not?

If so, the city is enforcing the laws of the gods – some of them, at least. This is precisely what it is not supposed to do.

But if the gods do not will the laws of this city, the laws are both immoral and tyrannous. They are immoral because they are not the will of the gods. They are tyrannous because they will be enforced, with violence when necessary, upon citizens who do not view them as the will of the gods.

If the gods will the laws of the pseudo-city, Law 3 is violated. If they do not, Law 2 is violated.

By What Principle Is Violence Forbidden in the Pseudo-City?

Socrates declares that the laws of the city may not forbid manifest vice, but argues that forbidding vices is not necessary to keep the peace in the city because harmful actions arising from vice are already against the law. Playing games for money, for example, may not be forbidden (at least by the citywide law), even though this practice sometimes leads to violence, because not all citizens in the city agree that money games are against the will of the gods. And, Socrates reminds us, there are already laws against violence, so laws against money games are superfluous for purposes of preventing harm.

But what is the ground of the laws against violence, if it is neither the will of the gods nor the deliberations of men who are seeking a good life together? So great is the absurdity of the pseudo-city that it makes even a law against violence immoral and tyrannous. For a law against violence is immoral if it is not the will of the gods, and it is tyrannous if it is imposed upon people who do not believe it is the will of the gods.

It is also not easy to see how the pseudo-city will decide which actions are harmful and may thus be forbidden. The city does not even have a basis for deciding which actions may be forbidden as violence, and which may not.

As I have observed above, the key difference between Greeks and barbarians is that barbarians treat their women as property, and we do not. Much of what the barbarians do to their women is considered violence in our law, but not in theirs. Does Socrates think Athenians will simply stand by and watch helplessly as barbarians in their city brutalize women? If so – which I hardly think possible – will not the prohibition against violence itself become void, as any group can claim the right to do whatever it wills in defiance of that law? But if not, will not the barbarians claim that Laws 2 and 4 are violated by our prohibition of their abusive practices? And will they not be justified?

How Is Philosophy Possible in the Pseudo-City?

Socrates claims that national ways of life are “essential” to the “identity” or “nature” of the citizens of his pseudo-city. This view abolishes philosophy.

When Socrates began philosophizing, did he adhere to the national way of life of the Athenians? Did he not cease participating in it, and challenge it constantly? This is indeed the essence of philosophizing, to question the claims and ways of life one has inherited from one’s nation.

But did Socrates thereby cease to be Athenian? On the contrary, as he pointed out at his trial, philosophizing made him a better Athenian. It was on this ground that he proposed at his trial that his “punishment” for philosophizing should be to receive free meals for life in the Prytaneum, as a hero of the city. It was also on this ground that he chose to remain in Athens and die by execution rather than survive by leaving.

If I were ever sentenced to death by the Athenians for philosophizing, I am sure I would remain in Athens as well!

This view that a national way of life is essential to a man’s identity or nature flatly contradicts the principle of philosophy. That principle is that there is no social convention we may not profit by examining critically – and we certainly cannot examine critically that which we hold to be essential to our nature in the sense here used by Socrates. A man who sets out to examine critically whether it is good to breathe, or eat food, or think clearly is not a philosopher. He is a child, a sophist or a fool.

Of course this does not mean philosophizing is the only thing a man should do. Insofar as he does other things besides philosophizing, he may participate in the life of his nation. But we have written elsewhere on the difficult problem of relating contemplation to action, and will not repeat ourselves. The point here is that when we are philosophizing we are standing outside the realm of action – of our national way of life – in order to evaluate and criticize it, but we are not abandoning our identity or nature in doing so.

A Monstrous Supposition to Support a City Where Men Disagree about the Gods

There is, however, a possible exception to the reasoning above. There is a supposition – although a monstrous one – upon which a city could bring together citizens who disagree about the gods.

In his discourse, Socrates points out that we are men and not gods. We must therefore refrain from attempting to rule the city as if we were gods. Socrates assumes an unbridgeable gulf between the gods and men.

This is good wisdom. Indeed, our own view, that the city’s purpose is to live a good life together, also assumes an unbridgeable gulf between the gods and men. Those of us who hold that the purpose of the city is to live a good life together are assuming this unbridgeable gulf because we assume that the task of living a good life is one carried out by men (i.e. the city) acting in their own power. Socrates’ pseudo-city also assumes this unbridgeable gulf because it assumes we have no clear and reliable access to knowledge about the gods, and builds the city on that basis.

But suppose – it is monstrous, but just suppose – that one of the gods became a man?

Let us suppose that one of the gods, moved by compassion for the sad fate of men in their moral corruption, became a man himself. His purpose, let us suppose, was to bring moral purity into the life of men. Any man anywhere could, by difficult struggle, actually overcome the congenital moral corruption of all human character (of which we have had much occasion to write in this discourse, as we contemplate the ways of men and cities) by following the god-man. This assumes that such a god-man would send supernatural aid to those who strove to follow him, but this is no unnatural supposition.

This god-man might set a standard for moral goodness that would be neither merely a national way of life nor some philosopher’s opinion. The nations and the philosophers alike would each to some degree approximate the standard set by this god-man, but each would to some degree fall short.

No doubt some would fall short more than others. No doubt among those who choose to follow the god-man, those of any given nation or philosophy will think his own ways the ones closer to the god-man’s, and those of others further away. For the end of following the god-man is purity, but the starting point is the corruption of man.

More importantly, we would not expect all men to follow the god-man. Given the ubiquitous wickedness of men, many would reject him out of jealousy to preserve their own ways, and an unwillingness to acknowledge their own defects.

The world would then be thrown into a perpetual state of conflict between those following and rejecting the god-man.

The reasoning of Socrates in proposing a pseudo-city in which nothing can be reliably known about the gods would then be confounded. Our own reasoning in holding that the purpose of the city is to live a good life by merely human power would also be confounded.

Those who were striving to follow the god-man might be tempted to form their own city, with a shared and public commitment to follow him together as a city, and thus preserve the model of “living a good life together.” However, to do this would require violently expelling or suppressing all others. It would be tyrannous to violently expel people from their homelands, or jail them, for failing to follow the god-man. Outrageous suffering and cruelty would have to be inflicted upon the recalcitrant to force the ways of the god-man upon them, or force them to move away. This the god-man’s followers will not be willing to do, if the god-man is good.

Nor is it likely that those who reject the god-man will be able to expel all his followers from their nations. For they will want to stay and bring his life and power to their nations. And his life and power will sustain them through all persecution.

In short, the whole problem of political philosophy would be changed by the coming of the god-man. The question would no longer be, as it is now, “how can we, who share the same gods and the same cosmology, live a good life together?” Nor would the question be, as in the pseudo-city, “how can we, who do not share the same gods and the same cosmology, avoid living a good life together?” For that would not be political philosophy at all, but the rejection of politics.

If the enemies of the god-man cannot expel his followers from the city, and the followers of the god-man refuse on moral principle to expel his enemies, then the question of political philosophy must become: “How can we, who do not share the same gods and the same cosmology, nonetheless find enough common ground to live a good life together within the limits of what is possible given our disagreements?”

The followers of the god-man would have to work to build moral consensus with their unbelieving neighbors. They would have to struggle to follow the god-man under adverse social conditions rather than enjoying the comfort and luxury of crushing their enemies by force or withdrawing into a wilderness and hiding his light under a basket.

In short, they would have to reject the illusion that a homogenous polity is possible after the coming of the god-man – whether that is the homogenous polity we advocate (men seeking the good life together by human power) or the even more homogenous polity of secular neutralism (Socrates’ pseudo-city) in which an apparent diversity of many ways of life and opinions about the gods distracts our attention as an immoral and tyrannous government slowly imposes secular uniformity.

The city they would have to build would be neither a city that expects full agreement about the good life (such as we now require) nor a city that expects no agreement about the good life (such as Socrates’ pseudo-city). It would be a city that expects partial but not full agreement about the will of the gods and the good life.

Over time, this process of seeking compromise, and a way to live a good life together in the midst of disagreement about the gods, might inspire men on both sides. Men who follow the god-man and men who reject the god-man might begin to find this quest for peace in the midst of religious difference to be itself the highest form of political philosophy – the greatest and noblest vision of political life that ever emerged, one that is well worth living for and dying for by both their cosmological views. Such an inspiring shared purpose would hold these diverse peoples together as they struggled with the challenge of making laws under which it might be possible for them to live together.

Eventually, it might happen – there is just a tiny, thousandth-of-a-thousandth chance – that one nation could dedicate itself, as a nation, to this struggle to live together in spite of ethnic and religious difference. One nation might decide to be the nation where men from every nation freely strive to live a good life together in spite of the different ways of life they have inherited from their ancestors and their differing views about the gods.

And thus the day may come when a follower of the god-man and a practitioner of the immoral ways described in the Glaucon might find themselves called upon to die together in battle for the sake of the great project, for the sake of having a world where men may disagree about the gods and live together. And so great will be their shared understanding and purpose, across all religious difference, that they will need only two words to express it: “Let’s roll.”

That, not the secular-neutralist pseudo-city, is the only real hope for what Socrates calls a liberal order.

But all this is fanciful, for of course none of the gods would ever really become a man.

Now, let us turn to Socrates’ final political dialogue, On That which Is Correct Politically

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  1. […] Mere Orthodoxy today, I attack secular neutralism, as put forth in a recent spoof of a Platonic […]


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