Name PS 201 – 03 10/19/2012 The Polis and the “Just City” vs. Modern American Democracy It is common to refer to the Greek city-state as the Greek polis and in order to understand ancient Greece one must have an understanding of what the polis was to the Greeks. First, let’s consider the physical characteristics and dimensions of the Greek polis. The single most striking feature of a Greek polis is its small size. It can be easy to overlook this fact because the classical sense of the word polis is dominated by the thought of Athens, which was very atypical in its population size, over 300,000 people.
It was thought that the ideal polis should only be about 5,000 households, and that each citizen should know each other by sight. Politics, a word that is derived from the Greek word polis, was of a face-to-face variety in these small communities. Although there was variation in details from polis to polis, there were some standard physical features of the polis which one could expect to find. The polis had a place of citizen assembly. These public places were most often located on a defendable high ground of the community, which served as a place of refuge in time of attack.
The polis would typically have a marketplace, which was the center of communal life. Here, the adult male citizen lived most of his life, engaging in informal public conversations, informing himself on matters of the state. The polis also had a religious center for public worship; most every polis had its temple to the protecting god of the political community. And all poleis shared the same political characteristics of citizen participation in public life. There was no desire to retreat from the world of public affairs; in men’s minds, the private life did not yet exist.
In the polis, the individual was interested in not only his affairs, but also the affairs of the state. Even those who were mostly occupied by their businesses were well informed on general politics. The communal alignment of the ancient Greeks may be the most difficult feature of the Greek mind to grasp. Especially for a citizen of a large modern nation in which few people actually participate in the political process. It was this distinctive way of life, the active participation on the part of the individual citizen in all aspects of these small Greek communities that is most striking.
Only adult male citizens participated in open public debate in the polis; here the individual could have had a real impact on state policy. The polis demanded a great deal from its citizens: service in public office, attendance at political gatherings, appearances at religious events and military service. To be a democratic citizen was priceless for the adult Greek male Greek, and the polis was the path through which it was realized. In distinct opposition of theories, Plato, in his “Just City,” searches for justice within the individual and what makes a person “just. By comparing his sense of what is just at a political level and what is just at a psychological level, Plato suggests four virtues that will make an individual person just. The virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance and justice are common to both a just person and the fictional Just City. This theoretical city has the pre-determined virtue of being just. Plato does this in order to understand what justice is for the individual because Plato thinks that a just man will be like a just city and vice versa.
In the Just City, Plato creates three classes: the producers, the auxiliaries and the rulers. Each class has a certain virtue it has to display to fulfill the Just City pre-requisites. The rulers are required to exhibit wisdom so that “a whole city established according to nature would be wise because of the smallest class and part in it, namely the governing or ruling one. And, to this class, belongs a share of the knowledge that alone among all the other kinds of knowledge is to be called wisdom” (122). The wisdom enjoyed by the rulers would be used to ensure that the city has good judgment.
The auxiliaries, or soldiers, of the Just City would be educated in order to absorb the laws in the finest possible way, “so that their belief about what they should fear and all the rest would become so fast that even such extremely effective detergents such as pleasure, pain, fear and desire wouldn’t wash it out” (124). Their ability to remain focused is the virtue of courage, which Plato concludes will lead to justice within the city. The final class of the Just City, the producers, will exhibit the virtues of temperance and justice, along with the other two classes, so the city will be just.
Plato thinks that temperance and justice is crucial because it ties all the classes together. The idea of harmony is crucial to Plato’s definition of justice, as justice to him means each part of society works together in the best way possible, with each part of society content to play out its particular role. As Plato explains: “Justice, I think, is exactly what we said must be established throughout the city when we were founding it… that everyone must practice one of the occupations in the city for which he is naturally best suited” (128).
Once Plato found justice within the larger setting of the Just City, he sought to transfer it back into the human soul, which he identified as having more than one single driving force. Plato based this assumption on the ability of a person to be indecisive about his actions, such as drinking, when something inside them forbid them to do it, though the desire lingered. This indecisiveness can be transformed into internal conflicts between more than one part of the soul. Plato concludes: “…that they are two, and different from one another.
We’ll call the part of the soul with which it calculates the rational part and the part with which it lusts, hungers, thirsts and gets excited by other appetites the irrational appetitive part, companion of certain indulgences and pleasures” (137). Plato then identifies a third part of the soul, the spirit, which is used to create emotions. Originally, it was felt that this part might not actually be separate from the appetitive aspect of the soul, but when the appetitive part is fighting it is, in effect, waging a civil war against the rational part within the soul.
In this scenario, a person could get angry and reprimand himself, in effect having the spirited part of the soul united with the rational part of the soul. From his analysis of the three classes, Plato uses his conclusions of the Just City as a metaphor to transfer their virtues to the individual, in order to discover justice within the soul. His statement that “we are pretty much agreed that the same number and the same kinds of classes as are in the city are also in the soul of each individual” confirms the relationship between the Just City and the individual (140).
It is obvious to Plato that the rational part of the soul should rule, as the rulers in the city do, because they both exhibit the virtue of wisdom and can both exercise precaution on behalf of the entire soul. Similarly, just as the auxiliaries assist the rulers in maintaining justice within the city, the spirited part of the soul will use emotions in order to maintain order and harmony within the soul, which is justice. These two parts of the soul will be able to control its appetitive part, which ay, through its greedy desire for money, attempt to overthrow its particular role and rule over the body and eventually the classes that it is not naturally suited to rule over (141). Consequently, justice in the individual and justice in the city would be overturned leading to chaos and war. The rulers and auxiliaries, together known as the guardians, exist in order to control and direct the producers who are the majority of the population, as the rational and spirited parts of the soul rule the desires of the individual.
Plato concludes that justice in the individual is similar to justice within the city, where a person “puts himself in order, is his own friend, and harmonizes the three parts of himself like three limiting notes in a musical scale” (142). In the Just City, justice is obtained by the three parts of society, each fulfilling their role as best they can, and displaying the same four virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. This leads to a harmony between the parts, the best possible combination, which is described as justice by Plato both within the city and within the soul.
This should be obvious; after all, a city is made up of many just individuals. The Greek city-state, or polis, is not where we would first be inclined to look for connections between modern democratic design and practical success. The polis demonstrates a lot of intolerant characteristics, including the exclusion of women from citizenship, the prevalence of slavery and low levels of technology. But on closer inspection, we have much to learn from ancient Greek democracies.
Despite the slavery and exclusively male citizenship, which were present in both more and less successful cases throughout history, the Greek democracies provide as close a model as we can get to a modern comparative political examination. On the contrary, while the track record of ruling individuals, or classes, is somewhat spotty, the concept of a ruling elite finds a strong proponent in the philosopher Plato. While recognizing the fundamental flaw in humankind, Plato believes in the appointment of one supreme guardian, the philosopher king or queen, an individual, who with the proper education was competent enough to decide on policies.
Plato believes that the philosopher king is honorable since his only desire is knowledge, his thirst for knowledge prevailing over anything else. Plato’s arguments, made so long ago, resonate in the current world in much the same way as they did when they first appeared. Times of crisis remind us of the need for ongoing review of the assumptions we make regarding the best way to govern and the best way to manage those resources available to us. Plato provides one view of the best forms of government, and consequently, offers some insight into the issues under review today.
A weakness of Plato’s vision is that it requires exceptionally high standards for the moral nature of human beings. In this view, Plato puts a great deal of emphasis on the soul as rational and assumes that people, who choose occupations based on their desires, will be just. According to Plato’s mantra, given that people are following the desires of their rational soul, they must be behaving in a just manner. Another weakness of this creed is that it puts too much power in the hands of a selected few; it is dangerous to allow so few to govern so many.
Without the checks and balances seen in a democratic society, a tyrannical environment can be fostered. In contrast, a weakness of democracy is that the masses are given the ability to govern the country. As a group, they are susceptible to a “group think” mentality; voting based on the collective mentality rather than individual principles. Economic gain is central in a capitalist society and will influence people’s decision making. The group may vote based on emotions rather than thought. Also, a large number of people may be unable to focus on one agenda since different people have different standards, agendas and motivations.
In modern America, it is best that all people participate in their society’s government. In spite of Plato’s arguments for the Just City, placing the reins of democracy in the hands of the masses is safer than relegating power to only a few. Plato was correct in requiring that leaders be informed, and equally correct in believing that the uninformed masses are less likely to make good decisions; but the way to address this is not to exclude people. Rather, as part of the political process, people should be educated about all of the parts of the process, as well as about the candidates, their policies and political ideologies.
In addition to education about the candidates and the process, the population requires a more general education in order to allow it to follow its desires. As in The Republic, allowing people to perform jobs which best suit their desires would give each individual a stake in the welfare of the nation overall, allowing for a more resourceful use of labor and a motivation for all members of civilization to work for the collective good of the whole. The greatest contribution of Plato to our modern understanding of appropriate governance may be the emphasis the philosopher placed on the power of knowledge and wisdom.
Some investment in those qualities might allow for a better-informed voter and a more reasonable form of government where the democratic model is blended with an understanding of economic necessity and the realities of human nature. Perhaps, what has become most apparent from the current US crisis is that some sense of collective good, as well as a sense of collective responsibility, must be incorporated into the notion of democracy.
Works Cited Plato. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford. London: Oxford University Press, 1977. Print.