One of my favorite episodes in philosophy comes early in Plato’s dialogue, the Republic. The characters in the conversation are discussing what justice is, and why we should live a just life. Socrates, in the kind of display that eventually earned him execution by drinking hemlock, is poking holes in his friends’ understanding of justice.
“Ok, if you’re so smart, Socrates, what do you think justice is?” And now the dialogue is off and running.
Socrates makes an interesting move (“move” is a useful term in philosophical circles – philosophers are always making intellectual moves. It’s surprising more haven’t been jailed and executed.)
He says that to see justice in a human being would be hard because the individual human is small. So, he’ll approach justice by looking at something larger and easier to see. He suggests the largest thing around, the city. If we can spy justice in the city first, then we can look for it in the smaller individual person more easily.
Would our own friends let us get away with that kind of conversational move? Probably not. But he was Socrates, so Plato lets the dialogue proceed.
Plus, the move points neatly to the Greek understanding of the individual person and the political community as inextricably bound up together.
Aristotle would later phrase it nicely: humans are by nature, not by choice, political-social animals. We have to be together in families and political communities to be fully human.
Socrates then describes the just city. People come together to do what they cannot do by themselves. There are several occupations, mainly farmers and herders, with a few other jobs supplying other necessities. Each person’s work is suited to that person’s nature. If you’re a farmer by nature, you farm. That’s a recipe for economic contentment.
Socrates then describes the lifestyle of this just city:
They’ll produce bread, wine, clothes and shoes, won’t they? They’ll build houses, work naked and barefoot in the summer, and wear adequate clothing and shoes in the winter. For food, they’ll knead and cook the flour and meal they’ve made from wheat and barley. They’ll put their honest cakes and loaves on reeds or clean leaves, and, reclining on beds strewn with yew and myrtle, they’ll feast with their children, drink their wine, and, crowned with wreaths, hymn the gods. They’ll enjoy sex with one another but bear no more children than their resources allow, lest they fall into either poverty or war.
Socrates allows a few trimmings to round out the diet, but he has quickly described the just city, where needs are met and maybe a little extra is to be had. Life is simple and the necessities are provided, with not much else.
Socrates’ friends are aghast. They are repulsed by this picture of justice, calling it a “city for pigs,” unfit for humans. They demand a whole host of other delights, like perfume, prostitutes, poetry, paintings, and pastries. They want a growth economy and plenty of consumer choice. If rockets had existed, they would surely have demanded space tourism.
Now Socrates is aghast. He insists that he has given them the “healthy” and “true” city. What his companions want is a “fevered” city. But Socrates agrees to see how this diseased community might be restored to health. He’ll use his friends’ desire for more earthly stuff to see how that greater good, philosophy as love of wisdom and the divine truths (also missing in the city for pigs), might somehow be inserted into the city. And that’s the rest of the dialogue.
Socrates succeeds in imagining a healthy city of having more, at least more philosophy. But he doubts such a place could really exist. This new healthy city is only a “city in speech,” not an actual political community. The possibilities for justice and philosophy in earthly politics seem to be limited, crowded out by wanting more stuff.
Justice and philosophy are goods that differ from the material enchantments favored by Socrates’ friends. Material things are finite; there’s only so much gold braiding and wine to go around. Philosophy, on the other hand, is limitless. It reaches towards an infinite, divine wisdom that can be shared by all without taking any away from others.
St. Augustine explains this beautifully in his own dialogue, On Free Choice of the Will. He was greatly influenced by Platonic thinking.
He distinguishes between temporal goods – what we need to get through the day, such as health, family, political community, and property – and eternal goods, which we know by faith and reason to be wisdom and the love of God, goods that are eternal and unchanging.
Someone else can take away our temporal goods. No one can take away wisdom and the love of God.
We are made to be happy, Augustine claims, but we lose that happiness when through “inordinate desire” for temporal goods, or wanting more, we replace our love for unchanging eternal goods with love for temporal things as our highest desire.
Which brings us to Dante’s Divine Comedy (the subject of a wildly popular online course by TCT‘s editor-in-chief in this 700thanniversary year of Dante’s death). Going from Augustine to Dante is a little move of my own. But hold the hemlock.
In Purgatorio Canto XIV, the character Guido del Duca is undergoing his purification from the sin of envy. He laments,
O race of men, why do you set your hearts
On things that of necessity cannot be shared?
The character Aglauros adds his own complaint,
The heavens call to you and wheel about you:
revealing their eternal splendors,
but your eyes are fixed upon the earth.
For that, He, seeing all, does smite you.
Wanting more, inordinate desire, eyes fixed upon the earth. With philosophy and theology, it seems so easy to convert and get these things right. Yet, for most of us, it’s the hardest thing. It doesn’t happen without grace.
And we should always want more of that.
*Image: Canto XIV, from MS. Holkham misc. 48, page 84, pre-1400 [Bodleian Library, Oxford]. One of four Dante manuscripts fully illustrated in the 14th century.
You may also enjoy:
Michael Pakaluk’s The Pursuit of Happiness
+James V. Schall S.J.’s All true philosophers die the same death