115. A Fateful Passage in Plato: The Luxurious State

Plato, in his dialogue Republic (see Book II, lines 368-374), has Socrates construct an ideal state in order to figure out what an ideal soul would look like. Socrates begins by describing a variety of people – shoemaker, weaver, builder, farmer, and so on – that will make up the state and how they will live together in a state of cooperation. He then offers this more detailed description:

“Let us then consider, first of all, what will be their way of life, now that we have thus established them. Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves? And when they are housed, they will work, in summer, commonly, stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and shod. They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reeds or on clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds strewn with yew or myrtle. And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another. And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means; having an eye to poverty or war.”

Socrates’ initial structuring of the city was consciously in accordance with the natural necessities of food, shelter, and clothing. And the picture that emerges is of a small community of people living in accordance with their basic needs in a way that is, despite the hard work, peaceful and enjoyable. But then Plato has his character Glaucon raise a concern:

“But, said Glaucon, interposing, you have not given them a relish to their meal.”

Socrates responds with some ideas that still stay within the bounds of moderation and are conducive to health and virtue:

“True, I replied, I had forgotten; of course they must have a relish-salt, and olives, and cheese, and they will boil roots and herbs such as country people prepare; for a dessert we shall give them figs, and peas, and beans; and they will roast myrtle-berries and acorns at the fire, drinking in moderation. And with such a diet they may be expected to live in peace and health to a good old age, and bequeath a similar life to their children after them.”

But Glaucon isn’t satisfied with this humble picture and mocks Socrates’ suggestions as fit for pigs:

“Yes, Socrates, he said, and if you were providing for a city of pigs, how else would you feed the beasts?”

Glaucon claims everyone should be given “the ordinary conveniences of life” so that can live in a “modern” way. So Socrates goes on to describe the luxurious state:

“Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created; and possibly there is no harm in this, for in such a State we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the State is the one which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at fever heat, I have no objection. For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety; we must go beyond the necessaries of which I was at first speaking, such as houses, and clothes, and shoes: the arts of the painter and the embroiderer will have to be set in motion, and gold and ivory and all sorts of materials must be procured.”

Glaucon thinks this description is appropriate. But then Socrates draws out two troubling implications of the luxurious state: (1) the borders of the state will have to be expanded in order to obtain more and more resources to sustain luxurious living and (2) this expansion will inevitably lead to war. Consider this fateful passage:

“Then we must enlarge our borders; for the original healthy State is no longer sufficient….And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?

Quite true.

Then a slice of our neighbours’ land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity, and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?

That, Socrates, will be inevitable.

And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?

Most certainly, he replied.

Then without determining as yet whether war does good or harm, thus much we may affirm, that now we have discovered war to be derived from causes which are also the causes of almost all the evils in States, private as well as public.”

What are these causes of evil in both the soul and state?  They are the many appetites of the soul for pleasure of all kinds. These appetites, in some cases, can be moderated by the other two aspects of the soul, namely, reason and spirit or our sense of shame and honor. Indeed, Plato’s Republic shows how we might develop such moderation in ourselves and society. But in most cases the appetites are immoderate leading to various forms of psychological and social vice. This is not surprising since the immoderation of the appetites, as Socrates will later argue, is natural to us despite our divine-like potentials for virtue. Consider these passages from the beginning of Book IX where we learn we all have a wild beast in us which, if unchecked by both reason and a sense of shame, can lead to folly and crime:

“Certain of the unnecessary pleasures and appetites I conceive to be unlawful; every one appears to have them, but in some persons they are controlled by the laws and by reason, and the better desires prevail over them-either they are wholly banished or they become few and weak; while in the case of others they are stronger, and there are more of them.

Which appetites do you mean?

I mean those which are awake when the reasoning and human and ruling power is asleep; then the wild beast within us, gorged with meat or drink, starts up and having shaken off sleep, goes forth to satisfy his desires; and there is no conceivable folly or crime –not excepting incest or any other unnatural union, or parricide, or the eating of forbidden food –which at such a time, when he has parted company with all shame and sense, a man may not be ready to commit.

Most true, he said.”

Two questions that immediately struck me as a U.S. citizen (allow my questions are relevant to the rest of there world as well) from these fateful passages on the luxurious state is this: how can we expect most people to become virtuous and avoid personal and political vice given, on the one hand, our inner wild beasts and, on the other hand, all our luxurious states with their widespread neuroses, addictions, unjust expansions, perpetual wars, environmental disasters, silly diversions, rampant materialism, and corporate exploitations? And if we can’t expect the wide-spread obtainment of virtue, what can we realistically expect as far as the sustainability of our country goes?

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