Out of the Feverish City: Part One
This is Part One of an attempt to grasp the political wisdom of Athens and unite it to the political wisdom of Jerusalem. Here in Part One I reflect on Plato’s Republic, particularly upon the tyrannical dimension of “the feverish city” as contrasted to “the healthy city.” This kind of two-cities narrative obviously bears a striking resemblance to Augustine’s — but I will save discussion of Augustine’s response to Plato in the coming weeks. I am grateful to ISI and New Polity for the opportunity to reflect further upon these themes in lectures they invited me to give this summer.
In Plato’s Republic we learn about “men who are like their regimes.” (554b) What makes human beings like their regimes? What connects the soul to the city?
As both Plato and Aristotle taught, human beings are social and political by nature, so it stands to reason that the social and political communities they found will reflect something of their soul. In turn, the communities that humans found will also shape human souls. The relationship between the soul and the city is thus intimate, and if the City is good, it conduces to the good of souls. But more often we witness the ways in which the soul and the city fall down together.
Plato takes us through three kinds of “men who are like their regimes” — Oligarchic Man, Democratic Man, and Tyrannical Man — and we learn how the ultimate aim of each leads progressively to their self-destruction.
We learn of Oligarchy that “money is the ultimate value both for this city and the person who is like it.” (554b) To become a ruler in an Oligarchy demands something of the human soul who so desires to exercise their political agency. The oligarchic regime shapes the human soul to pursue the ideal of wealth, cultivating greed in the human soul.The overriding aim is no longer self-discipline or self-governance, but now is a kind of lust for possession, for material wealth. This produces disorder and instability in both the soul and the city, and is very easily turned “against itself” in a war between the classes that can lead to another kind of regime. Plato considers that the reaction to the Oligarchic disorder in the feverish city is likely to be a Democratic Man, since great inequalities of wealth in the Oligarchic regime demand a revolution in what is most highly valued, and even worshipped: here the praise of wealth is upended by the worship of equality.
We learn of Democracy that “freedom” and “equality” are thus the ultimate values. The reputation of the Democratic city is that it is “full of freedom,” and there is “liberty in it for anyone to do anything he wants.” Democracy has the reputation of being the most attractive of regimes because in a Democracy “each person can arrange his life within the city in whatever way pleases him.” (557b) In the short-term, at least, this may hold. But in the long-term, this is also a recipe for disaster. In particular, it is a recipe for the same kind of oppressive habits which developed within Oligarchic Man, pitting every class against the other. In this sense, Plato sees Oligarchy and Democracy as intimately related despite having different ultimate values because Democracy is born out of Oligarchy, and is destined to produce the same kind of disorder in the soul as in the city, where faction and counter-faction” inevitably arise.
As the oligarchic desires are replaced by the democractic desires, the self-discipline which was once ordered to the thriftiness required for producing wealth will now be viewed as miserly and selfish. There will be a kind of religious purging of the oligarchic values, and souls will be initiated with “solemn rites” that turn insolence into sophistication, that calls anarchy freedom, that calls decadence generosity, and that calls shamelessness courage. Yet in this “transvaluation of values,” the Democratic Man does not cease to be Oligarchic Man for he carries on valuing the money required for “necessary desires,” and values “freedom” for his “unnecessary desires.” Since all the pleasures of Democratic man now sit on equal footing, he will insist that we refuse the distinction between good and evil desires, since all desires are equal and must be valued equally.
In both cases, “the thing which formed the basis” of the regime —wealth or freedom— produced something self-destructive for the city and the person who is like the city. And this same self-destructive tendency is also evident in the reaction to Democracy —for “chances are that democracy is the ideal place to find the origin of tyranny—[for[ the harshest and most complete slavery [arises]...from the most extreme freedom.” (564a)
Since in the Democratic City, all desires come to be seen as equal, the Democratic Soul can no longer recognize what is truly disturbing the balance of their regime, because they can no longer discern between bad and good desires.
Now the tyrant enters into this disorder with “a smile and a friendly word to everyone he meets.” He promises to free everyone from their debts, and to divide up the possessions of the city equally. He pretends to be universally kind and gentle. Yet he then proceeds to silence or eliminate any opposition to him that exists, and he will begin conflicts and wars which require a strong leader such as himself. Wherever speech is exercised in challenging how he rules, the tyrant will either find a way to set his critics at war with one another, or to eliminate them entirely. Where the physician looks at what ails the body, and tries to remove it, the tyrant tries to remove what is best in the body so that he can go on ruling.
Now Plato tells us that all of us have all these desires — each of us have the desires of the Oligarchic, Democratic, and Tyrannical Man within us. Any bad dream will tell us that “there is in everyone a terrible, untamed and lawless class of desires” as we find in Democratic Man. For each of these types are nothing other than a certain kind of lust or passion which goes berserk, and leads to another round of disordered desires.
The self-discipline of thrift in Oligarchic Man leads to greed and the lust of the power of wealth, and then more decadent desires buzz around and cause Democratic Man to surge to an enormous size, and losing all restraint becomes filled with “foreign madness,” which in turn is hw tyrannical man comes into being. The lust for the power of wealth, gave way for the lust for liberty, gave way to the rule of the lust for power itself, which is to say Lust Itself. As Socrates says, “Lust dwells as an internal tyrant, directing the entire course of their soul.” (576d) Tyrannical Man is finally the perfect slave of Lust, and all of his opinions will be nothing other than the “bodyguards” of Lust. (A theologian cannot help but to see the Philosopher walking towards Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, and the libido dominandi.)
By now the exercise is exceptionally clear: there is a profound similarity between the desires of the soul and the desires of the city. What makes each of the regimes unhappy or feverish is that they are essentially constituted by disordered desires in the soul — it is not only the question of “men who are like their regimes,” but also that regimes which are like their men.
This is not a “politics is downstream of culture” argument, or vice versa. But rather it is clear in Plato, as elsewhere, that there is a kind of feedback loop between the soul and the city. The soul is political by nature, but the city forms the soul. And so we see that the city is natural to man, indeed, formed out of a movement of the human soul, and so we naturally tend to conform ourselves to the regime we find ourselves within, and so the city forms the soul. This is part of the natural law that politics goes down to the principles of our nature, and all the up to the cause and end of order itself, namely God.
This intimate relation between the soul and the city need not move in only one, ultimately vicious direction, however. “As anyone can see,” Socrates states, “there is no unhappier city than the one ruled by a tyrant.” Yet just as there is no unhappier city than the one ruled by a tyrant, Socrates also adds that there is “no happier city than one ruled by a king.” (576e) We must not be fooled by the outward show of wealth, equality, or grandeur that oligarchs, democrats, and tyrants display, but rather we must look deep into the heart of man so that we can form a good judgment about which movements of the soul lead to happiness and which lead to unhappiness. What is the difference between a king and tyrant? It is principally the difference between how their passions are ordered -- one is ordered by what is just, and the other is ordered by lust itself. At the end of book 9, we learn that the just city, the happiest city, is “laid up in heaven somewhere, for anyone who chooses to see it -- and seeing it, chooses to found a city within himself.” (592b) This is Plato’s infamous “Philosopher King,” the kind of king who sees the very heavenly form of the city, and so chooses to conform himself to the heavenly city, that is the kind of king who will make his own city happy. Plato essentially concludes that the happy king is the one who imitates the heavenly city.
Plato’s Republic magnificently articulates for us the problem — which is also our problem in the feverish city we inhabit. But does he lead us out of the feverish city? He certainly attempts to give us a “physician” in the form of the philosopher-king who can lead us out of the feverish city according to the eternal forms, through contemplative union with the heavenly city. But there remains some defect — and as Augustine will teach us, it is precisely a defect of religio — of that public cult and worship which would materially unite the social body of a regime.