Animal Imagery in Plato’s Republic

In “Book II” of The Republic, Glaucon and Adeimantus present two crude images of the completely unjust and just person exemplifying the belief that appearing just is more advantageous than being just. The modifier complete signifies that seeming and being are out-of-joint in the “cave of opinion”: the most just person (i.e., the philosopher) is renowned for injustice; the most unjust person (i.e., the tyrant) is renowned for justice (360d-361d). Because of their reputations, the philosopher is severely punished and considered wretched, while the tyrant is amply rewarded with a harvest of external goods and “lives the life of a god” (365b).  The brothers are uneasy about this belief’s persuasive force, rewards are apportioned to the one appearing to be just rather than the one who is just (366c-d). If a yearning for personal gain lies dormant within the soul, then an ethical question–namely, why ought one be just–warrants serious consideration. Anyone who believes themselves powerful enough to commit injustice under the cloak of justice has a “rational” reason to do so. Through an analysis of the souls of the philosopher, tyrant, and auxiliaries through which I explore how each of these characters are personified (e.g., tyrant as wolf), I argue that Socrates distinguishes between humans, domestic animals, and wild animals. This distinction provides powerful imagistic support to Socrates’ answer to the question why ought one be just, for it elevates and distinguishes humans from the rest of animal life because of their singular capacity for reason.
This paper’s structure attempts to mirror the reversal of “Book II’s” images of complete justice and injustice which occurs as one reads The Republic. To do so, I first compare the tyrant’s and philosopher’s souls by examining the distinction between humans, domestic animals, and wild animals figuring in each. Second, I consider the theoretical grounding of the claim that justice-itself is more choice-worthy than injustice-itself, and examine the goals of Socratic education. Building from the first and second steps, I explore Socrates’ argument that a divine-human (500d) and a cannibalistic wolf (566a) are the true-images of a philosopher and the tyrant (respectively). Unlike “Book II’s” images of compete justice and injustice, which are third removed from the truth because they are grounded in the false opinion of the multitude (597e-607a), the reversed images of the philosopher and tyrant are true-images which accurately reflect the condition of their souls since they are grounded in knowledge. Finally, this paper concludes with a reflection on the powerful support given to Socrates’ reply to the question why ought one be just by Plato’s use of images of human and animal life to represent conditions and parts of the soul.
An image of a hybrid creature made of three entities, each of which represents one of the soul’s three parts, is a useful standard of comparison for the juxtaposition of their souls. In it, wisdom-loving reason is personified as a human (human-reason); victory-loving and honor-loving spirit is personified as a lion (spirit-lion); and the money-loving appetites are personified as a multi-headed beast1 (desire-beast). The health of their souls diverge for the order of human-reason, spirit-lion, and desire-beast characterizing each of them. The philosopher’s soul is healthy.  Human-reason rules spirit-lion, they jointly care for desire-beast by nurturing and domesticating its gentle heads and inhibiting the growth of the savage ones, and each parts has become friends (589a-b). The tyrant’s soul is unhealthy by contrast. It is dominated by desire-beast, spirit-lion has grown vicious and wild, and human-reason is malnourished because of its enslavement to the other parts (588c-d). Let’s take a closer look at the tyrant’s soul creature.
The use of a wild “multicolored beast with a ring of many heads that it can grow and change at will–some from gentle, some from savage animals” (588c-d) to represent the tyrant’s appetites symbolizes the utter moral decay and complete absence of moderation resulting from the enslavement of human-reason2. The desire-beast’s heads evoke the multiformity of the appetites which lack unity for they consist of a hodgepodge of (often conflicting) desires (463a-b). That its heads are gentle or savage recalls the distinction between “necessary” and “unnecessary desires”. Its gentle heads correspond to those necessary desires whose satisfaction (within reason) are required and bring health (558e). Its savage heads correspond to those “dangerous, wild, and lawless” unnecessary desires whose satisfaction harm the body and handicap the soul’s capacity for reason and moderation (559b-c). That desire-beast rules evokes the relation to the democratic multitude that corrupts philosophic nature by turning it away from the Forms (493a-d). Just as the philosophic nature is corrupted when its “wisdom” (of the good and bad) is determined by the tastes of the multitude it indulges, the tyrant is ruled by ignorance because it panders to the errant drives of the great desire-beast within. Finally, the spontaneous growth of the desire-beast’s heads signifies the anarchic condition of tyrant’s soul which is governed by the basest and most lawless of desires, the “mad master”: Eros. Freed from the shackles of reason and shame, the erotic love that “lives like a tyrant within him becomes his sole ruler,” compelling him to satisfy the most perverse sexual urges (574e-575a). He copulates with his family and wild animals, publicly soils himself, consumes anything within his reach (571c-d) and is “fated […] to be transformed from a man into a wolf by […] spilling kindred blood” (565e-566a).
That the tyrant’s spirit-lion is savage towards human-reason and entirely dominated by desire-beast, symbolizes its vice and lack of domestication. Because the domination of desire-beast renders spirit-lion cowardly, it refuses to resist the enslavement of itself (and human-reason) to improve the health of its soul (590a-c). Although human-reason is malnourished and enslaved, the fact that the tyrant is “full of […] regret” indicates that a trace of wisdom’s power stills exists in his soul (577d). Nevertheless the tyrant is a stranger to philosophy because of the weakness of his “divine ruler within” (596e). Because of this and human-reason’s inharmonious relationship with spirit-lion, the tyrant is psychologically unstable: “quick-tempered, prone to anger, and filled with discontent” (411bc). “[H]e bulls his way through every situation by force and savagery like a wild animal, living in ignorance and stupidity without either rhythm or grace” (412e).
After peering into the tyrant’s soul and reflecting on his life it is helpful to consider the theoretical grounding of the claim that the tyrant is less happy than the philosopher (587d-e). The “greatest good” and “greatest evil” arise in the soul in the same way as they do in the city. When the parts of the soul perform the tasks they are assigned by nature, the soul becomes one because the cause of inner strife is eliminated (462b). Justice as harmony in the soul is thus the effect just action guided by human-reason. When the parts of the soul perform tasks contrary to nature, dissension and inner civil war divides the soul (462a). Injustice as the absence of harmony within the soul is thus the effect of unjust action divorced from human-reason. Because the happiness of the whole soul (443c-e) is possible only when the soul, guided by human-reason, imitates the Form of Justice and becomes one (519c), the tyrant is 729 times less happy than the philosopher because its soul, the unending battleground of discord, mirrors the realm of becoming and in this way lacks unity (587d-e).
Like the “completely good” city (427e), the four virtues are present in the just person’s soul which is similarly one and thus good and happy by analogy (433c-d). Because “the human being within this human being has the most control” (589a), the soul is wise and possesses knowledge about what is advantageous to each part and the soul as a whole (441c-442d). Because spirit-lion preserves human-reason’s dictates about what is fine and shameful, it is courageous in that it respects human-reason’s decrees about what should be honored and what should be feared (581b). Because there is an agreement about which of the parts is naturally superior and thus suited to rule, and naturally inferior and thus suited to be ruled, the parts of the soul become friends. This harmony renders the whole soul moderate (441e-442b). Because the parts of the philosopher’s soul perform the tasks assigned to them by nature–i.e., human-reason rules over spirit-lion and together they care for the desire-beast by preventing it from trying to rule–the soul of the philosopher and its actions are just (442a-b).
Socratic education fosters an environment where one who imitates the Form of Justice can come into being. To do so, the guardian class of rulers (complete-guardians) and their warrior-helpers (auxiliaries) must be insulated from the potential for wolf-like behaviour from youth. This potential inheres in their souls since the presence of antagonistic drives–i.e., the love of wisdom (human-reason), and the love of victory and honor (spirit-lion)–qualifies their admission to the guardian class by nature. Protecting against wolf-like behaviour is extremely important amongst the silver-soul auxiliaries that are frequently compared to “dogs3” (416a-b). Because of the auxiliaries’ capacity for warfare and skillful combat, the worst thing a ruler can do, Socrates says, is to “[r]ear dogs as auxiliaries […] in such a way that, through licentiousness, hunger, or some other bad trait of character, they do evil to the sheep and become like wolves” (416a-416b). By harmonizing spirit-lion and human-reason through the appropriate combination of the arts (music and poetry) and gymnastics, young auxiliaries are protected from the wolf within (374e). The resulting friendship of spirit-lion and human-reason, in turn, ensures auxiliaries are gentle to their friends and savage to their enemies, and that they refrain from wreaking havoc on the city as a whole through wolf-like (i.e., lawless) behaviour (375a-376c). Although it is important that complete-guardians are protected from this type of behaviour, less emphasis is placed on eradicating its potential amongst them. This makes sense. Because prospective guardians only qualify for complete-guardianship if they pass a series of examinations which test their allegiance to the city against things like fear, deception, and magic (412a-413d), the process through which rulers are selected minimizes the potential wolf-like behaviour amongst the complete-guardians. Those that fail to reach to heavenly heights of Forms through higher education are destined become auxiliaries: “dogs obedient to their rulers, who are themselves shepherds of the city” (440d).  Although the auxiliaries, unlike the complete-guardians, do not understand what virtue and vice are, they possess correct beliefs about them because they are ruled by external reason (588c). Socrates’ comparison of the silver-souled auxiliaries to dogs, moreover, is consistent with this paper’s thesis that the distinction between humans, domesticated animals, and wild animals represents parts or conditions of the soul. The depiction of the auxiliaries as “hard, lean dogs,” is a true-image of an auxiliary’s soul that accurately reflects its Form in the same way that a divine-human and a wolf reflect the Form of the philosopher’s and tyrant’s souls (respectively). This depiction captures an auxiliary’s domestication and alludes to their obedience to a ruler (423d).
In “Book IX” Socrates argues that it is better in terms of “pleasure, good reputation, or advantage”  (589b) for each to be “ruled by [the] divine reason” originating from within or “imposed from without” (596c-d), since imitating the Form of Justice facilitates the establishment of a just constitution within one’s soul enabling it to “settle into its best nature” (597b). This argument suggests complete justice governed by human-reason is more choice-worthy than complete injustice, and is grounded on a series of metaphysical (and utterly speculative) premises. They are metaphysical and speculative because they deploy the elusive “Form of the Good” as a vehicle to explain why happiness is cultivated by the pursuit of justice-itself and unhappiness by the pursuit of injustice. But what is the Form of the Good that Plato’s Socrates claims cannot be illuminated except through similes and images? Why should I believe the “true philosopher’s” claim to knowledge when it rests on unfounded assertions about something it claims privileged access to and can provide no evidence of? Why should I accept the philosopher’s claim to rule when it rests on such shaky foundations? Does the Form of the Good (or any Form) exist? The central component of this paper’s thesis has been that the distinctions made within and between human and animal life provides powerful, imagistic support for Socrates’ assertion that justice-itself is more choice-worthy than injustice. To Plato’s credit, the use of descriptive language to capture the parts of the soul was an ingenious rhetorical strategy. Who could conceive of a more engaging way to describe something that is immaterial and arguably does not exist? The imagistic support arising from using humans, domestic animals, and wild animals as metonyms for the parts of the soul (and the city) is so powerful that Socrates’ answer to the ethical question can stand even without “his” metaphysical theory–provided one views The Republic as work of literature rather than a systematic piece of political philosophy. Socrates’ use of dramatic images are so deceptively easy to grasp that even a child after having read the Republic (a few times) might not hold a false-belief about the quality of philosopher’s and the tyrant’s lives. By describing the philosopher as divine on account of its rule by the divine-human within, and casting the other “ways of life [as] merely human” (597c), Socrates dialectically elevates human-reason and the philosopher which imitates the Form of Justice to the heavenliest point on the hierarchy spanning the great expanse of human and animal life, installing him (or her) on the great throne of Reason in the sky. Furthermore, by describing the tyrant as wolf, Socrates can banishes it from the city and the soul with ease, for as wolf it is a lawless predator. This dramatization of the tyrant’s life is the key to developing an appreciation of The Republic’s power to persuade its readers to avoid injustice through use of dramatic imagery. The enslavement of human-reason in the tyrant’s soul signals that one who acts unjustly necessarily enslaves the most human part of their self to the desire-beast. By their actions, the unjust person makes themselves like a wild animal thereby negating their capacity to be just through their human-reason in the process. We should interpret the Arcadian myth that one becomes a tyrant after tasting the “human innards” of “sacrificial victims” (565d) and “kindred citizen blood” (565e) in light of this. When one acts unjustly, one sacrifices and cannibalizes the divine-human within to the wolf-like forces of lawless irrationality within the soul. Because of what this image of a wolf preying on a human evokes–namely, an existential fear of the break down of social order–one might unconsciously identify with the rejection of a life of injustice. Humans are naturally averse to wild predators such as wolves which are radically unbound by any social contract, and the practice of cannibalism has the status of (near) universal prohibition within (most) human cultures. In short, after reading The Republic, the image of the tyrant as happy and godlike appears laughable in a tragic way; it is probable that the reader will walk away with a “correct belief” that the tyrant is truly like a wolf–a threat to himself and others–rather than a godlike human. Perhaps one also sympathizes with the public tyrant who seems irrationally compelled to adopt a public disguise to impress the masses. Think, for example, of Muammar Gaddafi or Kim Jong-il whom have become figures of ridicule and laughter because of their injustice and their feigned opulence and power. In contrast to this image, Plato’s human readers can easily identify with the life of philosophy, and the Form of Justice as the rule of human-reason. Like the true shepherd, human-reason rules the domesticated spirit-lion; and together they protect the domesticated desire-beast from the wolf which has been permanently banished from the city and the soul for the sake of the health of the whole and its parts. Because the true shepherd only rules for the advantage of the ruled, its “flock” is not eaten or sacrificed. Hence, the tyranny of human-reason is not violent in the same way as the tyranny of Eros is. Rather, because the tyranny of human-reason primarily hinges on an abstention from the consumption of animal flesh, nonviolence towards humans and domesticated animals and the use of violence against wild animals for self-defense, it gestures towards an alternative principally nonviolent (perhaps vegetarian) arrangement of political life in the city and the soul which regards human and animal life as sacred.

Works Cited

Grube, G.M.A., trans. 1992. The Republic of Plato. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *