What kind of beast?

Sometimes it seems that Plato’s faith in reason, or Socrates’ faith in reasoned dialogue, is pie-in-the-sky optimism.  By Bk 10 of the Republic, Socrates, tongue in cheek, announces that if some person . . .  measures the interval by which the king is parted from the tyrant. . . he will find him . . . living 729 times more pleasantly, and the tyrant more painfully by this same interval.   What a wonderful calculation!

Then there’s the question, how hard is it to become the king or a just person (and avoid becoming the tyrant)?

In the next few lines we get a wonderful summation of the difficulty of being a just person. It’s my impression that this doesn’t get much discussion in the commentaries (but I’m no expert here).

Socrates says, quite casually, “Let us make an image of the soul.   We will a) model the form of a multitudinous, many-headed monster, having a ring of heads of all manner of beasts, tame and wild, which the monster is able to generate and metamorphose at will. . .    Then we will b) make a second form a lion, and c) make a third of a man, the lion smaller than the monster, and the man smaller than the lion. . . .   And now join the three to have them grow into one.  . . .  into a single image, as of the outer hull of a man.  He who is not able to look within, and sees only the outer hull, may believe the beast to be a single human creature. . . .

[Now ‘the beast’ must be the composite  a) + b) + c), right ?  That is, the beast is neither the lion nor the monster — even though the monster is a ‘many headed beast’]

Socrates goes on to say, “He should watch over the many-headed monster like a good husbandman, fostering and cultivating the gentle qualities, and preventing the wild ones from growing; he should be making the lion-heart his ally, and in common care of them all should be uniting the several parts with one another and with himself.” 

As for the difficulty of being just and happy, note that this puts one figure, c), the little man, in charge of moderating the wilder elements – that is, the lion-heart b) and the monster a) — a monster, as Cavell suggests, of volatile multitudinous, self-generating moods.  (See Cavell, City of Words, p 337)

And as for the unity of the Republic’s argument, if I’m reading this composite image correctly, note that these powers of husbanding, fostering, cultivating, and creating reconciliation do not seem straightforwardly to be the capabilities of the rational figure who earlier in the Republic was pictured as a ruling King – am I right?   Can the King be the tripartite ‘beast’ writ large, or is he instead the little man blessed with enormous powers of husbanding and conciliation?

Does anyone else feel an enormous tension between the business-like education of the philosopher-king, and the task the ‘little man’ faces?


11 comments on “What kind of beast?

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    Some say the entire Republic is an allegorical treatment of musical theory.

    There are times when I think that makes a lot of sense.

  2. Steve says:

    “He who is not able to look within, and sees only the outer hull, may believe the beast to be a single human creature. . . .”  

    The intrusion of the beast in that sentence really does seem odd, doesn’t it? I wonder if there isn’t a problem with the translation. (Greek anyone?) The Paul Shorey translation, the only one I have, says: “To anyone who is unable to look within but who can see only the external sheath[,] it appears to be one living creature, the man.” No beast. Though I can’t vouch for the translation, that seems a lot better in context. Otherwise we end up with an external beast that contains inside it a man, an animal, and another beast. The whole point of the passage is that the single, unified appearance of the outer body belies the tripartite and conflict-prone structure of the soul that inhabits it, including its “beastly” element. That element, the main source of psychic conflict, comprises the appetites and passions. They are the many-headed beast, the monster.

    A word should be said about the lion. He probably should not be called a beast, since that might suggest a species likeness to the many-headed beast, which would be misleading. As the image of the spirited part of the soul, the lion has very good qualities that are essential to the man’s eventual mastery of the beast. Here is how Plato, in another place, describes the leonine element: “…what an irresistible and invincible thing is spirit, the presence of which makes every soul in the face of everything fearless and unconquerable….” Once the man within, the rational part of the soul, has the lion for an ally, the two together are more than a match for the monster.

    You ask, “Can the King be the tripartite ‘beast’ writ large, or is he instead the little man blessed with enormous powers of husbanding and conciliation?” I’m suggesting that once we drop ‘beast’ and ‘little’ and remember that the lion, properly trained, is a noble creature, the question of how the inner man husbands and conciliates the monster is less problematic. Once the inner man (reason) has the trained lion (fearlessness) on his side, the monster (appetite) can be subdued.

    Ah, but who trains the lion? How does the inner man get that ferocious creature under his control? I think the answer must be the entire educational regime that molds the whole man, the eventual philosopher-king, from the cradle all the way to his reluctant ascension to power. In a sense, putting the lion at the service of the inner man is done for him by the city-state’s total control and supervision of his development. Perhaps that explains the “business-like” ease of the philosopher-king’s training compared to the difficulties that most of us randomly educated humans have to suffer in trying to achieve inner harmony. Plato’s entire utopian scheme is an attempt to persuade us of that.

    • efmooney says:

      Well, I’ll have to get some alternative translations to check this passage. I think a lot can be made of it! A quick look at my secondary stuff tended to skip the rich imagery of lion, multi-headed beast, man, and the question where the resources for taming come from. How does ‘the guy inside’ learn lion-taming and passion/mood-cooperation?

      • Steve says:

        Let me know, Ed, what you find out about the translations. As to your last question, I’d have to go back and read up on The Republic’s educational program to see how it specifically shapes the spirited part of the soul to make it a dependable ally of the rational part. But however the man inside learns lion-taming, my suggestion was simply that the city-state’s total control of the philosopher-king’s education, including his entire external environment, gives his internal man a huge assist “from behind.” Most of us, thrown into a less than utopian world, are imperfectly educated and have to contend all our lives with a welter of damaging influences that greatly impede our progress. Consequently our inner man is something of a loner and our lion remains an inconstant friend. This point was intended as a possible explanation of the tension you discerned between Plato’s general psychology of the soul, as expressed in his inner man-lion-monster image, and the specific business-like education of the philosopher-king’s soul. That’s what I meant by saying that his lion, in sense, is tamed for him. On graduation day, so to speak, the prospective philosopher-king’s inner man is “bigger” than our inner man and his lion is a far greater friend – all in theory, of course. Again, just a hunch!

    • Is this any help?

      The Just City, and its philosopher-king, represent justice accomplished and maintained, not justice becoming and struggling. The little man faces the problems of justice becoming and struggling, and so his ordeal differs importantly from the education of the philosopher-king. The little man intrudes justice into his divided and untamed and stiff-necked nature. The philosopher-king ascends to a throne occupied by a philosopher-king before him and he rules a city that is (mostly and most of the time) four-square.

      Of course, things are different for the initial philosopher-king, who, in addition to his own ‘little man’ trials, both within (himself) and without (in an unjust city), faces the mockery and the confoundedness described in the Allegory of the Cave. His education ex hypothesi will not be the same as that of the later philosopher-king. In their education, justice prepares for justice. But he has to remake himself as just and to remake the city as just.

      I guess I think that the Just City and its philosopher-king are meant to present an ideal to us (the unjust), but that we are to understand that in realizing that ideal in ourselves, we will face an ordeal like the little man’s and that, if we can master ourselves and emerge whole from the ordeal, we can hope to resemble the Just City. (And perhaps if we become just, we will be able to raise our children in such a way that their education will be more like the philosopher-kings, and we can hope that they will not face quite the ordeal we faced.)

      • Steve says:

        Fine comment! The first would-be philosopher-king, lacking all the advantages of his ideal city’s educational regime and its total control over its citizens, is pretty much in the same situation as the rest of us. So how does he manage to avoid incorporating into his psyche all the conflicts and disorders of his external environment? How does he become just (incorruptible) and remain that way, since all that might make him unjust (corrupted) still impinges on him? Also, even supposing that he is able on his own to become just in an unjust city, how does this aspiring social engineer get the mass of unreconstructed citizens to recognize his superior qualities, elevate him to power, and follow his prescriptions?

        The answer to that question, probably – and certainly ironically – is that he would have to gain the confidence of a tyrant who would impose the philosopher’s social and educational ideals “from the top” – someone like Dionysus of Syracuse. What’s more, this philosopher-prime- minister (let’s all him) would necessarily have to be highly motivated to acquire at least delegated power, which would make him quite different from true philosopher-kings, who are trained to resist the temptations of power and to rule only with the greatest reluctance. So the philosopher-prime-minister and utopian social engineer, by wanting power in the name of implementing his ideal, is already to some extent corrupted. We know how all that ends up.

        But it seems that you, very wisely, don’t take the statecraft aspects of the Republic seriously. Plato’s ideal just city should be taken as nothing more than a grand metaphor for the ideal politics of every person’s soul. Whatever Plato’s actual real-world intentions may have been, I agree with you that the best way to make use of his Republic is as a tool for reflecting on and improving the soul, not for reflecting on and reconstructing society. Personally, I like the hurly-burly of openness and diversity, the imperfect and forever flawed state of things and of souls. The strongest swimmers delight in turbulent seas. Thus, for the little it’s worth, say I.

      • efmooney says:

        Kelly, that’s great! Your contrast between “justice accomplished and maintained [and] justice becoming and struggling” reminds me of the Stewart Hampshire title, “Justice as Conflict.” We (I?) probably get mesmerized, in Republic, with the perfection of justice accomplished and forget the difficulty of the struggle to get there.

        Of course Plato helps, by noticing the start up problem, but brushes it off with a joke. Socrates is asked how he’s going to get the ball rolling, when at first there are only mortals and the unjust to teach the initial philosopher to be king. Don’t you need a king to teach the future king? And aren’t there too many ‘bad influences’ around? Socrates answers that he will just ship anyone over 14 yrs old off to an island.

        I like the idea that we are to get into a full scale struggle to attain the ideal — it’s not there, as you have it, Kelly, just to examine (forever) from a distance, weighing its detail or debating its viability.

  3. efmooney says:

    Steve, thanks for your replies — I’ll follow up

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