Book IX of Plato’s Republic is underwritten by one of the central themes of the whole text: the importance of rearing and education for the soul of the individual and as a result the prosperity of the polis. It is often hard to distinguish between the two when they are not explicitly evoked, but it would suffice to say that rearing happens in the family and education in schools or during the individuals personal philosophical pursuits. In the discussion tyranny, it is once again the degeneration of the individual’s soul that leads to an overbearing political composition of the whole polis. This degeneration occurs as a result of desires run amok; that is not only the deformation of desires, but the uninhibited pursuit of desires that are deemed unnecessary.
Richard D. Parry boldly underscores the centrality of the distinction between necessary and unnecessary desires for Socrates’ argument. “Necessary appetites are necessary because satisfying them allows us to live and is beneficial for health (558d-e)” (pg. 387). Quite obviously, these are the quite literal appetites for food, drink, shelter and as Aristotle might even say: human connection. Although these desires have the potential to degenerate into gluttonous tendencies, for the most part their pursuit is healthy and beneficial. Moreover, gluttonous tendencies are a matter of dispositions that are shaped and acquired through rearing and education. “Unnecessary appetites, then, are such that one can get rid of them, if one is trained from a young age. Moreover, dwelling in the soul, they do no good and some of them are harmful (559a)” (pg. 387). It is clear then, that as dispositions, both of these subsets of desires are in a sense value neutral. Parry describes them as sources of behaviors, thus as quasi agents (pg. 390), hence it is the job of reason to police their moderation. This is one of the clearest arguments presented in the Republic that connects desire with the design of political institutions. There is nothing inherently evil about the appetitive part of the soul, rather wretchedness comes to life due to corrupted design of institutions, including here the family.
The only point I am inclined to disagree here, mainly with plato and Socrates, is the narrow definition that is given to education and a certain insistence on the essentialism of dispositions. It only seems possible to get rid of such dispositions at a young age, and for the most part that’s true, children are most malleable in terms of virtue. However, this account seems to assume that the design of political institutions is then only important insofar as rearing and education go. Once these dispositions are moulded, i.e. granted their quasi-agent status, they take on a life of their own. Since only reason can moderate them, then it follows that this sort of propensity for reason must be instilled at a young age as well. Which makes me think of two challenges. First, what is then the role of political institutions in the life of an adult? Are the then merely schematic chess-pieces that one approaches according to their pre-shaped dispositions? I would argue then that institutions, as constantly changing entities, are also constantly shaping our desires in relation to them. Although one is certainly predisposed to approach them a certain way, there is a malleability that continues beyond childhood. Second, are lovers, or even more simple minded ‘likers’ of reason, minted as such only at a young age? Or is it possible for someone to fall in love with philosophy at old age even? I would tend to argue for malleability once again and propose that in accordance to the old trope of old age and wisdom, it is possible for one to reckon old wicked ways. Parry reminds us very diligently that in the Ancient world, the kind of madness that takes hold of the tyrant can be a temporary phenomenon. One can “snap out of it” and feel shame, as well as regret.
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