On Plato’s Republic, 13

Index to this series

We reviewed the five kinds of polity and soul in Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, but we didn’t get to the tyrannical soul. We take that up now in Book IX (Stephanus 571–92). We also make three arguments for why the tyrant has the least pleasant life. Finally, in order to pursuade Thrasymachus that indeed injustice is never profitable, we introduce a new chimerical image of the soul.

Many-headed man and and another man hold a many-headed serpent
« Chaussée des géants »
Cambodge, Preah Khan, Angkor (province de Siem Reap)
fin du 12e siècle – début du 13e siècle
Musée Guimet, Paris
June 4, 2011

Not Hungry, Not Angry

Tonight I’ve loved you
More than I’ve done for months
It made me feel so young
So hungry, so angry
Made me feel so young
So hungry, so angry
So hungry, so angry
So hungry, so angry
So hungry, so angry
So hungry, so angry
So hungry, so angry
So hungry, so angry
So hungry, so angry
So hungry, so angry

Medium Medium (1981)

Socrates distinguished the necessary and unnecessary desires in Book VIII. The oligarch satisfies only the former; the democrat, all of them. Now Socrates will make a finer distinction. All kinds of desires may be revealed in dreams, if, while “the calculating, tame, and ruling part” of the soul sleeps, “the beastly and wild part” stays up; for (571c)

μητρί τε γὰρ ἐπιχειρεῖν μείγνυσθαι, ὡς οἴεται, οὐδὲν ὀκνεῖ,
ἄλλῳ τε ὁτῳοῦν ἀνθρώπων καὶ θεῶν καὶ θηρίων,
μιαιφονεῖν τε ὁτιοῦν,
βρώματός τε ἀπέχεσθαι μηδενός:

it doesn’t shrink from attempting intercourse, as it supposes, with a mother
or with anyone else at all – human beings, gods, and beasts;
or attempting any foul murder at all,
and there is no food from which it abstains.

Perhaps it is not clear whether “a mother” means a MILF or the dreamer’s own mother. That these could be confused was recognized by Sophocles,

  • who rejoiced at being old enough not to be ruled by his erotic desires, according to Cephalus, back in Book I;
  • whose most famous tragedy has desire for a mother as a theme.

That tragedy is even called Oedipus Tyrannus, though the tyrannical qualification seems to have been added since the time of Aristotle, who in the Poetics 1452a24 called the play just the Oedipus. The title character has left his home town of Corinth, because of the oracle that he will kill his father and marry his mother. In Thebes, having defeated the Sphinx, he has become king and has married the widow of Laius, the former king. Jocasta is a mother, though her child is supposed to have been exposed.

Learning that his father Polybus has died, Oedipus still fears the other part of the oracle. Jocasta tells him (lines 977–83),

τί δ᾽ ἂν φοβοῖτ᾽ ἄνθρωπος ᾧ τὰ τῆς τύχης
κρατεῖ, πρόνοια δ᾽ ἐστὶν οὐδενὸς σαφής;
εἰκῆ κράτιστον ζῆν, ὅπως δύναιτό τις.
σὺ δ᾽ εἰς τὰ μητρὸς μὴ φοβοῦ νυμφεύματα:
πολλοὶ γὰρ ἤδη κἀν ὀνείρασιν βροτῶν
μητρὶ ξυνηυνάσθησαν.
ἀλλὰ ταῦθ᾽ ὅτῳ
παρ᾽ οὐδέν ἐστι, ῥᾷστα τὸν βίον φέρει.

In the prose of Jebb (1887):

What should a mortal man fear, for whom the decrees of Fortune are supreme, and who has clear foresight of nothing? It is best to live at random, as one may. But fear not that you will wed your mother. Many men before now have slept with their mothers in dreams. But he to whom these things are as though nothing bears his life most easily.

In the verse of Allan Bloom’s friend David Grene (1942):

Why should man fear since chance is all in all
for him, and he can clearly foreknow nothing?
Best to live lightly, as one can, unthinkingly.
As to your mother’s marriage bed, – don’t fear it.
Before this, in dreams too, as well as oracles,
many a man has lain with his own mother.
But he to whom such things are nothing bears
his life most easily.

Thus Jocasta recommends a kind of equanimity. So does Socrates, but his kind of equanimity may take work. His method for sleeping better is to

  • awaken the rational part of the soul;
  • put the desiring and spirited parts to sleep.

Apparently one does this by going to bed

  • neither full, nor hungry, nor angry, but
  • having feasted λόγων καλῶν καὶ σκέψεων, εἰς σύννοιαν αὐτὸς αὑτῷ ἀφικόμενος “on fair arguments and considerations, coming to an understanding with himself” (571d).

Nonetheless (572b),

surely some terrible, savage, and lawless form of desires is in every man, even in some of us who seem to be ever so measured. And surely this becomes plain in dreams.

The Tyrannical Soul


By Socrates’s account, though we all may be drawn to lawless desires, our families are a restraining influence, and we end up somewhere in between. In particular:

  • Since the oligarchic man honors only the money-making desires, but despises the unnecessary ones, his son becomes the democratic man, enjoying all pleasures in moderation (572b–d).
  • Starting out closer to lawlessness, the son of the democratic man is more susceptible to the implantation of τις ἔρως (572e) – “some love” (Bloom) or “a ruling passion” (Shorey) – ὑπόπτερος καὶ μέγας κηφήν τις (573a) “a great winged drone” (Bloom), which will lead the idle desires, taking madness from abroad as its armed guard (573b).

The people who implant the drone are οἱ δεινοὶ μάγοι τε καὶ τυραννοποιοὶ οὗτοι (572e): for Bloom, “these dread enchanters and tyrant-makers,” but “these dread magi and king-makers” for Shorey, who calls this “An overlooked reference to the Magi who set up the false Smerdis. Cf. Herod. iii. 61 ff.” Bloom either does not agree or does not find the reference worth noting.

I find it worth noting, if only as a reminder of the greater political context in which Socrates is speaking. Here then is how I understand the story from Herodotus. Cambyses, son of Cyrus, inherits his father’s throne (2.1). Not being in his right mind, he leads an ill-provisioned invasion of Ethiopia in which the soldiers have to eat their beasts of burden; then grass; then, in the desert, one another; only at this point does Cambyses return to Egypt (3.25). In Memphis, because the Egyptians are celebrating, he puts the local rulers to death, even though they say they are celebrating the appearance of Apis (3.27). Apis is a calf with certain marks (3.28). Cambyses tries to stab the calf in the belly, but hits the thigh instead; it dies (3.29). Dreaming that his full brother Smerdis is on the throne back in Persia, Cambyses sends a man to Persia to kill him (3.30). The death being unknown, a Magus called Patizeithes, who has a brother called Smerdis, sends out heralds to proclaim that the army should obey not Cambyses, but Smerdis (3.61). Remembering his dream, Cambyses regrets having his brother killed; leaping on his horse, in order to march back to Susa, he cuts himself with his sword in the thigh, just as he himself cut Apis (3.64). He sees that “no human power can turn fate aside” (3.65). He dies of gangrene (3.66).

Back in the Republic, we have seen the tyrannical soul created by injection of love or passion; but wine will also do the job, as will melancholy (573c) – Liddell and Scott cite this passage under μελαγχολικός ή όν for the meaning of atrabilious, impulsive.

For Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics (VII.10, 1152a19), the melancholic man (“excitable” for translators such as W. D. Ross and Roger Crisp) is the kind of acratic (“incontinent”) man who does no wrong deliberately.

I don’t know how being melancholic changed from being excitable to being depressed. Chaucer uses it in the latter sense the Canterbury Tales, where the Knight tells us of the lovesick Arcite,

So feble eek were his spirits, and so lowe,
 1370And chaunged so, that no man coude knowe
His speche nor his vois, though men it herde.
And in his gere, for al the world he ferde
Nat oonly lyk the loveres maladye
Of Hereos, but rather lyk manye
 1375Engendred of humour malencolyk,
Biforen, in his celle fantastyk.

Bloom cites not the Ethics of Aristotle, but the Problems, which are perhaps not by Aristotle himself; in Book XXX, called “Problems Connected With Prudence, Intelligence, and Wisdom,” Chapter 1 begins as follows (953a10), not defining the melancholic, but suggesting he is irascible as well as depressed:

Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly of an atrabilious temperament, and some of them to such an extent as to be affected by diseases caused by black bile, as is said to have happened to Heracles among the heroes? For he appears to have been of this nature, wherefore epileptic affictions were called by the ancients ‘the sacred disease’ after him. That his temperament was atrabilious is shown by the fury which he displayed towards his children … There are also the stories of Ajax and Bellerophon, of whom the former became insane, while the latter sought out habitations in desert places; wherefore Homer writes [Book VI, lines 200–2],

    And since of all the gods he was hated,
Verily o’er the Aleïan plain alone he would wander,
Eating his own heart out, avoiding the pathway of mortals.

And many others of the heroes seem to have been similarly afflicted, and among men of recent times Empedocles, Plato, and Socrates, and numerous other well-known men, and also most of the poets … The cause of this may be understood if we first take an example from the effect of wine, which if taken in large quantities appears to produce such qualities as we attribute to the atrabilious, inducing, as it is drunk, many different characteristics, making men for instance irritable, benevolent, compassionate, or reckless …

The Republic says no more of melancholy as such.


The tyrannical man will take what he can get from the family estate (573d–e), ultimately enslaving his mother to a girlfriend and his father to a boyfriend (574c). “And throughout all this” (574d–e),

those opinions he held long ago in childhood about fine and base things, the opinions accounted just, are mastered by the opinions newly released from slavery, now acting as love’s bodyguard and conquering along with it. These are the opinions that were formerly released as dreams in sleep when, still under laws and a father, there was a democratic regime in him. But once a tyranny was established by love, what he had rarely been in dreams, he became continuously while awake.

Earlier it was madness from abroad that was love’s bodyguard; idle desires were only being ruled or led by love. Love is the tyrant; and yet

  • if the men living under such a personal tyranny are few,
    • if possible they will emigrate to serve an actual tyrant elsewhere, as bodyguards or auxiliaries;
    • otherwise they stay put and do petty crimes (575a–b);
  • if they are many, they will select the most extreme from amongst themselves to be tyrant of the city (575c–d).

Meanwhile, in private life, they either have intercourse with their flatterers or else offer themselves up as flatterers of others (575e). They are always master or slave, never friend, never free They are ἄπιστος “faithless” and as unjust as can be (576a).

The worst man is the one is awake like the dreaming man, and “he comes from a man who is by nature most tyrannic and gets a monarchy” (576b).

That last remark alludes to the conclusion that the most wretched man is the tyrannical soul who becomes an actual tyrant (578b). Meanwhile Glaucon jumps in to confirm the remark; for the rest of the book, he will be the interlocutor of Socrates, who now asks (576b),

ἆρ᾽ οὖν, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, ὃς ἂν φαίνηται πονηρότατος, καὶ ἀθλιώτατος φανήσεται;

The man who turns out to be worst, will he also turn out to be most wretched?

The adjective ἄθλιος α ον, whose superlative is used here, is a contraction of ἀέθλιος, meaning originally winning the prize or struggling for it, hence being wretched or miserable.

Glaucon agrees to Socrates’s proposal and to a correspondence between the tyrannical man and city, democratic man and city, and so forth (576c). Thus (576d),

οὐκοῦν, ὅτι πόλις πρὸς πόλιν ἀρετῇ καὶ εὐδαιμονίᾳ, τοῦτο καὶ ἀνὴρ πρὸς ἄνδρα;

And as city is to city with respect to virtue and happiness so is man to man?

With respect to virtue and to happiness and wretchedness, the tyranny and monarchy are opposites (576d). But now the obvious conclusion concerning individuals is drawn out (576e–577a):

And about these same things, as they exist in the men, would I also be right in suggesting that that man should be deemed fit to judge them who is able with his thought to creep into a man’s disposition and see through it—a man who is not like a child looking from outside and overwhelmed by the tyrannic pomp set up as a facade for those outside, but who rather sees through it adequately? (Bloom)

And would it not also be a fair challenge, to ask you to accept as the only proper judge of the two men the one who is able in thought to enter with understanding into the very soul and temper of a man, and who is not like a child viewing him from outside, overawed by the tyrants’ great attendance, and the pomp and circumstance which they assume in the eyes of the world, but is able to see through it all? (Shorey)

ἆρ᾽ οὖν, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, καὶ περὶ τῶν ἀνδρῶν τὰ αὐτὰ ταῦτα προκαλούμενος ὀρθῶς ἂν προκαλοίμην, ἀξιῶν κρίνειν περὶ αὐτῶν ἐκεῖνον, ὃς δύναται τῇ διανοίᾳ εἰς ἀνδρὸς ἦθος ἐνδὺς διιδεῖν καὶ μὴ καθάπερ παῖς ἔξωθεν ὁρῶν ἐκπλήττεται ὑπὸ τῆς τῶν τυραννικῶν προστάσεως ἣν πρὸς τοὺς ἔξω σχηματίζονται, ἀλλ᾽ ἱκανῶς διορᾷ;

Though there may be a few masters and free men in the tyranny, most persons are slaves (577c). Therefore the tyranny does least what it wants (577d). The same will be true for the soul under a tyranny (577e). We come back to what we said, that the most wretched man is the tyrant with a tyrannical soul (578b).

Still Socrates is circumspect (578c):

ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ οἴεσθαι χρὴ τὰ τοιαῦτα, ἀλλ᾽ εὖ μάλα τῷ τοιούτῳ λόγῳ σκοπεῖν:

But in an argument such as this, one must not just suppose such things but must consider them quite well.

For οἴομαι both Bloom and Shorey have “suppose,” which may suggest the kind of hypothetical thinking that falls short of dialectic; but I don’t know how well the Greek supports this.

We proceed with what turn out to be three arguments.

Who Is Most Wretched?


The billionaires who expect to find sanctuary in New Zealand from the Apocalypse, but worry about how to maintain the loyalty of their servants: they are thus inmates of the prison that the tyrant is bound in (579b). Despite appearances, the tyrant is a slave (579d).

In order of happiness, according to Glaucon, are the kingly, timocratic, oligarchic, democratic, and tyrannic men (580b), whether or not anybody notices it (580c).


We recall that the city and the soul are divided into three εἴδη “forms” (580d). There are correspondingly three pleasures, desires, and kinds of rule. We originally said the soul had a learning part and a spirited part, but also a part called ἐπιθυμητικός ή όν “desiring” (580e).

But this part was also φιλοχρήματος ον “money-loving” (581a) – Shorey notes that this refers back to 436a in Book IV.

The three parts of the soul are now as follows.

  1. The [appetitive] part is money-loving or gain-loving.
  2. The spirited part is victory-loving and honor-loving.
  3. The learning part, learning-loving and wisdom-loving (581b).

There are three corresponding classes of individuals, and three forms of pleasure (581c).

Everyone thinks his own pleasure best (581d–e). Judging among them requires experience, prudence, and argument (582a). According to Glaucon, the lover of wisdom knows the other pleasures (582b), but only he knows “the kind of pleasure connected with the vision of what is” (582c).

Therefore, says Socrates, he is the best judge as regards experience; he also gets this “in the company of prudence”; moreover, “arguments are especially the instrument of the philosopher” (582d).


Pain (or sorrow, grief, distress: λύπη) is the opposite of pleasure (ἡδονή), but between them is ἡσυχία (583c): “repose” (Bloom) or “quietude” (Shorey), something that certain Christian mystics have sought. That either of pleasure and pain is rest from the other is

  • not always the case, since for example there are pleasures, as of smells, that do not come from pain (584b);
  • sometimes the case (584c).

There are up, down, and middle; and being brought from down to middle, you may think you are up (584d). There are two kinds of emptiness:

  • Hunger and thirst, of the body (585a).
  • Ignorance and imprudence, of the soul (585b).

The truer fullness is by what is more real, and knowledge, intelligence, and virtue, are more real than food and drink (585c). It is more pleasant to be full of what is more real (585d–e). Thus the best pleasure would seem to come when the best part of the soul is in charge:

  1. Those who feed merely the body are brought back and forth between down and middle (586a).

  2. It is likewise for those who feed honor, victory, anger (586c–d).

  3. However, in an echo of justice as discovered in Book IV, some people can have everything (586e):

    when all the soul follows the philosophic and is not factious, the result is that each part may, so far as other things are concerned, mind its own business and be just and, in particular, enjoy its own pleasures, the best pleasures, and, to the greatest possible extent, the truest pleasures.

Socrates asserts without further argument, though it would seem to be needed, that otherwise no part of the soul can enjoy its own pleasure (587a):

when one of the other parts gets control, the result is that it can’t discover its own pleasure and compels the others to pursue an alien and untrue pleasure.

This is what comes of lacking philosophy and argument, law and order. The “erotic and tyrannic desires” are most distant from these (587a); the “kingly and orderly ones,” least distant (587b). Thus the life of the tyrant is most unpleasant; of the king, most pleasant – in fact it is 729 times more pleasant (587e).

That sounds like a joke. There are two threes (587c):

  • Tyrannical, democratic, oligarchical.
  • Oligarchical, timocratic, aristocratic.

One should cube the threes before taking their product (587d), and 33 × 33 = 729. According to Bloom’s note, which I cannot confirm, for Philolaus, there are 364½ days in a year, thus 729 days and nights.

What Profit

Seven-headed black snake on red ground
Banner of the Symbionese Liberation Army
“The name ‘symbionese’ is taken from the word symbiosis
and we define its meaning as a body of dissimilar bodies and organisms
living in deep and loving harmony and partnership
in the best interest of all within the body” – Donald DeFreeze

Without fanfare, we return to the assertion of Thrasymachus in the latter part of Book I, strengthened by Glaucon in Book II, “that doing injustice is profitable for the man who is perfectly unjust but has the reputation of being just” (588b). Glaucon has learned that this is false, but how are we going to explain it to somebody else? For some reason Socrates introduces yet another argument or metaphor. Three figures are to be molded:

  1. A many-colored, many-headed beast (588c).
  2. A lion (588d).
  3. A human being.

About them is molded the image of a human being. To do injustice is to strengthen the manifold beast and the lion (588e); justice, the human being (589a). Therefore justice is superior!

Somebody may disagree, and he is not willingly mistaken (589c). We persuade him by asking whether it is not the case that the noble things subject our bestial part to the human or divine part.

  • Licentiousness strengthens the manifold beast (590a).
  • Stubbornness and bad temper strengthen the lion-like part – called now also snake-like (590b).
  • Luxury and softness weaken this part.
  • Flattery and illiberality are subjection of this part – now explicitly called the spirited – to the “mob-like beast,” turning the lion into an ape.
  • Mechanical and manual arts place the best part of a man in service to the beasts; it must then be weak (590c).
  • Such a man then ought to “be the slave of that best man who has the divine rule in himself.” He would then be better off, despite what Thrasymachus said (590d).
  • Law rules over the children until we establish in them a regime that can take our place (590e).

Thus it cannot be profitable to do justice with impunity (591a). Punishment means improvement (591b).

The intelligent man will

  • pursue health and strength of the body, only if it will produce moderation of the soul (591c–d);
  • be moderate in acquisition of money (591d–e);
  • seek only those honors that will make him better (592a).

As Glaucon observes, the man is not then likely to be involved in the politics of any city on earth.

Indeed, says Socrates, but he will found in himself a city based on a pattern in οὐρανός “heaven” (592b).

Myself next to the many-headed serpent

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