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Old and Relevant: Plato's Anthropological Principle

February 17th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Tex

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.