TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Ideal Republic

Each Tuesday in the TELOSscope blog, we reach back into the archives and highlight an article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Philip Crone looks at Catherine Pickstock’s “Justice and Prudence: Principles of Order in the Platonic City,” from Telos 119 (Spring 2001), as well as a response to Pickstock’s article from Donald C. Hodges and Christopher A. Pynes.

Recent discussions surrounding the death of Senator Ted Kennedy and talk about health care reform have reintroduced some of the most fundamental questions about justice and society into American political discourse. As ill-informed and histrionic as many of today’s arguments are, the matters being discussed are of great importance. And while at first it may not seem to have much relevance to the issues currently discussed, Plato’s Republic is in many ways the first comprehensive and influential work of Western political philosophy. The key questions of the Republic—the roles of social groups, the ideal qualifications for civic leaders, and the guiding principles for society—continue to have great contemporary relevance.

For those who encounter the Platonic dialogues as undergraduates and never approach them again, the theory of the Forms is likely the one feature of Plato’s thought that they will remember, if they remember anything at all of Plato. The duality between the changing material world of “sights and sounds” and the eternal, immutable realm of the Forms and a clear preference for the “truer” Forms over the material world are central to Platonic thought. These concepts are developed over the course of many dialogues, including Plato’s seminal Republic. There, the dualism between the material world and the Forms seems to undermine claims about ideal governance. Plato tasks the leaders of the city-state, philosopher-kings, with investigating the Form of the good, which leads to cumbersome questions: How can philosopher-kings take their theoretical understanding of the good and apply it to the practical problems of governance? Even if they succeed in doing so, would the practical application of their knowledge denigrate it?

Catherine Pickstock addresses these and other issues in her article “Justice and Prudence: Principles of Order in the Platonic City,” in Telos 119 (Spring 2001). Pickstock takes issue with the standard emphasis placed on “a dualism between matter and spirit” in discussions of Plato. Focusing on the perceived dualism in the Republic, Pickstock examines Plato’s treatment of justice in two spheres: the human soul and the city-state. As the former represents the spiritual, rather than the material, realm, a traditional dualistic interpreter would expect Plato to show more concern for the cultivation of justice in the human soul, not society. Pickstock, however, does not see this expressed in Plato’s work:

However, despite this undeniable centrality of matters concerning the soul in Plato, in the Republic and elsewhere there is a significant tension concerning the priority of the soul over the city (or vice versa) as the optimum site of justice. In the Republic, Socrates seems to oscillate between talk of the soul and of the city, until one is uncertain where one ends and the other begins. Indeed, they are said to comprise the same tripartite structure, though on a different scale. More significantly, there is no consistent stress in the Republic or elsewhere that without the city one can have the good at all. First, the philosopher-guardians of the Republic are only produced by the right kind of education, which in turn depends on the right kind of city. They are not produced esoterically from nothing, but receive from without the public traditions of their formation. Second, one should not see the soul and the city as opposed to one another, simply on the grounds that the former is unified and singular, and the latter is relational and multiple. Indeed, for Plato the principle of the one and the indeterminate two is construed positively as the site of participation in the good.

The soul and the city-state possess the same tripartite structure, and the cultivation of justice in either is dependent on its cultivation in the other. The soul does not seem to take precedence over the city-state in matters of justice. This notion of justice that Plato develops is one of being well-ordered, and in the case of the city-state the philosopher-kings reign over the entire social structure to maintain this order. Tasked with the responsibility of contemplation of the Good, these philosopher-kings are also in charge of the practical matters of governance. Pickstock argues that these two responsibilities are bridged with the notion of phronesis or prudence:

Justice is not truly justice unless it is practiced with phronesis or prudent judgment. Socrates suggests this many times throughout the Republic. Early in the dialogue, he says that a soul is in its best condition when it is most courageous and most prudent. A soul cannot rightly be said to be just unless it deliberates, judges, acts freely; but these are essential features of phronesis, not dikaiosyne [justice]. . . . [ P]hronesis comprises not so much a compromise within the self as a creative exercise of judgment on the exterior world via a manifestation of reason in time. For Plato, there is no hierarchy of theoretical and practical reason.

Pickstock’s analysis of the Republic uses the concepts of justice and prudence to show how philosopher-kings can both meditate on the Form of the Good and be practically minded rulers. Theoretical and practical knowledge are not antagonistic dualities, but rather form an interdependent symbiosis.

Following the publication of Pickstock’s article, Donald C. Hodges and Christopher A. Pynes took issue with her analysis of the Republic in their article “Plato’s Republic: A Tale of Two Cities,” in Telos 123 (Spring 2002). Rather than critique her analysis of justice and prudence, they take aim at one of her more fundamental premises, namely, that there is a single, ideal city-state described in the Republic:

Pickstock takes too much for granted, namely, the existence of a single and uniform Platonic City. . . . Plato presents two cities in Republic. Since the first one is summarily dismissed, it is generally assumed that the second one is the ideal city. Yet, historical evidence strongly suggests that Socrates’ preferred republic was the first, not the second. Did Plato disagree with Socrates on this crucial issue? The text of Republic provides no clear answer. So, to be fair to the text, one is compelled to take issue with Pickstock’s reading.

The “first” city Hughes and Pynes mention is a city considered early in the Republic. It is a small, well-ordered society with no need for government because it lacks the vices of larger communities. The “second” city grows out of the first—it is large, complicated, and ridden with social problems. The bulk of the Republic is dedicated to resolving the problems of this “second” city by implementing the order and governmental structure that puts the philosopher-kings in charge. Hughes and Pynes argue that, in fact, the “first” city is the true ideal. Pickstock’s analysis, according to Hughes and Pynes, misses the mark by ignoring this fact.

Is there a single ideal city-state presented in the Republic? If not, how are the seeming dualities within the text resolved? If so, which city, the small society with no government or the highly regimented and regulated city of philosopher-kings, is ideal? Are theoretical and practical knowledge inimical or co-dependent? How is a just social arrangement created? These questions are of immediate relevance to the Republic and our current political situation.

Click here to read Catherine Pickstock’s “Justice and Prudence: Principles of Order in the Platonic City,” from Telos 119 (Spring 2001). If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at the low rate of $5/article.

For more on the Republic, take a look also at Adrian Pabst’s “The Unity of the Platonic City” and Daniel R. Gandy-Jordan’s “Plato: Utopian or Physician?” both of which appear in Telos 126 (Winter 2003).

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