More than two-thousand years have elapsed since Plato wrote what many consider his most famous work, Republic. To this day, students and scholars alike grapple with the challenging philosophical issues presented therein. The thematic crux of the work lies in the nature of justice. In defining this slippery concept, Socrates details the structure and workings of what he considers a truly just city, the kallipolis. There are those who would say that this kallipolis may be equated to a utopia, an ideal society; however, I intend to illustrate a much divergent point of view.
The justice of this city, made analogous to the justice of the individual, is specifically what precludes the kallipolis from being an ideal society. For this reason, the kallipolis should serve primarily as a magnified model for the constitution of the just individual, rather than as a blueprint for the ideal city. The center of my argument lies in Plato’s specific definition of justice and the quality of life he believes that the just man will enjoy. In the broadest sense, Plato defines justice as the quality of an entity capable of making decisions whose parts are arranged according to their proper function.
In constructing the just city, Plato reveals his theory of the tripartite human soul, that we are composed of a rational part, a spirited or emotional part, and an appetitive part. Each of these three parts has a particular function and is structured hierarchically in relation to the others. As Plato posits, the key aspect of this hierarchy in a just soul is the rule of reason. In this sense, the soul may be construed to mean the rough combination of emotion and intellect by which we determine our actions. According to Plato’s conception of the forms, true knowledge may only be obtained by one who is ruled by the rational element.
Rule by reason promotes harmony within one’s own constitution and allows the soul to act most effectively. The unjust man lives troubled by his own conscience and fettered by the chains of his own rampant vice, while the just man leads a calm and harmonious existence. On Plato’s terms, therefore, the just life is the best life. In discerning whether or not the kallipolis is in fact the ideal city, we must first clarify what exactly is meant by ideal city. While today most cities are subordinate to some larger political entity, such as a nation or state, a city in Plato’s time was the distinct and sovereign unit of government.
For the sake of consistency, I shall use the term city to mean any sovereign political entity. As is the root of all human action, humans make cities to either obtain some benefit or to avoid some ill. While it would be beyond my place to suggest a definitive “meaning of life,” I believe that Plato would agree with my saying that the desire inherent in all humans is, simply, to live the best life possible. A city is essentially an aggregate will, constituted by those of its own citizenry and designed to act as one for the benefit of all.
To refer to something as ideal is to say that it constitutes some standard of excellence or perfection. The only standard of excellence worth considering in relation to a city is the degree to which it improves the lives of its citizens, for that is the city’s purpose. If a city were created that provided all of its citizens the best life possible, such a city would surely be considered ideal. While the kallipolis is just in its construction, so far as its own class structure resembles the just human soul, the city falls short of ideal for the specific reason that not all of its citizens live truly just lives.
Plato emphasizes that the key element in the just construction of the soul is rule by reason. Thus, he devotes a great deal of time to detailing precisely how the guardians would be trained from birth to rule both themselves and the city in a just way, the emphasis, of course, being upon rule by reason. By Plato’s own definition, the guardians (specifically the philosopher-kings) live the best lives possible. Since they are born into a system of education designed to shape them into just and reasonable people, they are destined to live harmonious and entirely untroubled lives.
So effective is the education of the guardians that they fear not even death. In stark contrast to the guardians lie the producers or commoners. They serve to represent the appetitive part of the soul, and as such, are ruled from within by their own appetites. For this very reason, they are specialized to participate in economic activity. Plato goes to great pains later on to show that the least desirable existence, from both a political and individual standpoint, may be found in rule by appetite. Since the soul of the producer cannot be just, a producer cannot live a perfect life.
By the presence of even one individual living a less than perfect existence, the kallipolis cannot be qualified as ideal. Plato might argue that the producers are ruled by reason on a political level and are thus compelled toward true opinion and, therefore, a de facto just life; however, the producers are still denied the perfect existence because they are made just in their actions via external means rather than from within. The guardians compel the producers to act justly in two ways, the first and much more straightforward method being physical coercion.
The legitimacy of the city government allows the guardians to exert violence upon the citizens when injustice is done. Out of fear of the guardians’ power, the producers are made to act in a just manner; however, Plato states earlier that to do violence of any sort is unjust. The second method is the use of myths and images designed to generate true opinion in the producers. Yet by Plato’s definition of what is good and just, a myth or any sort of imitation of reality (the forms of the intelligible realm) is inherently unjust.
Both of these methods raise the important question of whether it is just to employ unjust means to achieve just ends. The main point here is that there is a distinction between acting exactly like a just person and actually being one. To act like a just person without any sort of externally imposed form of justice, one must be just from within. According to Plato, the harmony and peace of internal justice is precisely why the just life is most desirable. Again, this absence of internal justice in the producer class is precisely why the kallipolis falls short of ideal.
Despite this shortcoming, the just city functions preeminently as a model for the constitution of the just human soul. From the outset of the dialogues, Plato suggests that justice is a concept that ought to be considered within the realm of human thoughts and actions, characterizing justice by examining the actions of a man in a particular instance and then deeming the man either just or unjust. In a utilitarian sense, justice manifests itself as a product of human decision-making, namely in the self-interest of living the best life possible.
One might argue that the preceding statement is contradicted by the nature of the forms, that justice exists as an entity separate from human beings. However, Plato posits that only a certain type of human, a philosopher, is capable of accessing and knowing the nature of the forms. Therefore, under this stipulation, any investigation into a particular form, such as justice, must be framed within the realm of human limitations. Even the greatest of philosophers are incapable of moving beyond this most basic frame of reference.
Plato’s original intent in the conception of the kallipolis is to more easily discern the nature of justice as it appears in the individual. Like a person, a city has various parts which, when working in concert, may produce observable effects and like a person, a city has the power to act as one will, as a sort of artificial person. Even though a city is also much larger than a person, it is precisely this discrepancy in size, coupled with the aforementioned similarities, that makes the kallipolis such an apt instrument for comparison to the just individual.
For further clarification and to dispel any doubts that the just city is not ideal, one should consider the nature of the ideal city and its citizenry, again, based upon the Plato’s definition that the life guided by reason is the best life. The primary function of the ideal city would be to maintain the necessary machinery of education to ensure that every single person be made to see true knowledge, that they might then be forever ruled by reason.
The life of every citizen, by Plato’s standards, would be perfect and harmonious. If this ideal city were to somehow evolve from an earlier city, monetary economic systems and internal violence would disappear. Natural transcendent ability would still determine who is most capable of ruling. Since all citizens would be rational, they would have the capability to properly assess one’s fitness to rule. Under these circumstances, democracy would seem a plausibly effective method of government.
In addition, the people would see the rational necessity of producing food, clothing, and shelter, so those with the greatest aptitude in such areas would make and dispense them free of charge to all other citizens. The production of unnecessary goods would cease and the city would, therefore, be of insufficient wealth to attract invading powers. In this way, the ideal city very much resembles the very first hypothetical city that Plato introduces, one based solely on the trade of necessities, the difference being, of course, that the healthy city lacks the institution of education which ensures its citizens a truly just life.
Justice in the soul is preferable to justice in the city for the reason that internal justice equates directly to the well-being of that person, while justice in the city equates to the well-being of the city as a whole. As an entity possessing a will, a city may make just decisions; but unlike a human, a city is incapable of enjoying its own state of well-being. Only a human may feel the happiness derivative of a just existence. For a city, therefore, justice is only valuable in that it maximizes the functional capacity of the state. This value, however, is clearly no trivial matter.
The just city is indeed most effective in passing and enforcing laws, ostensibly for the good of the city as a whole. In this way, the kallipolis may be seen as the most capable form of government; however, as has been proven, the most capable form of government does not equate to the ideal form of government. Its preeminent function is in providing a model for the most capable person, the just individual, who, according to Plato, lives the best life. Perhaps in this respect, then, the kallipolis functions in demonstrating an ideal of a different sort.