“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato,” wrote renowned British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. “I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them.”
To this day, The Republic of Plato (paperback | audiobook) remains a bottomless well of knowledge and wisdom that we can tap into to live a more meaningful life and cultivate the best qualities of our character.
This timeless piece of writing poses everlasting and relevant questions that endure to this day: what is the nature of justice? What kind of community nurtures the finest life for human beings? What is the substance and fate of the soul? How is knowing different from believing?
In the particular excerpt I chose for today, however, I would like to draw your attention to another fundamental question of our life: what is moderation? What is its nature, and how does it manifest in the human soul? Below is an excerpt from one of the best audio productions of Plato’s Republic that dives into the heart of the matter. Performed here by William Sigalis as Socrates and Ray Childs as Glaucon.
SOCRATES ON MODERATION
from The Republic of Plato
Do you think we can find justice without bothering with moderation?
I don’t know how we can do that. And I would hate to bring justice to light and lose sight of moderation. So, please, do me a favor and consider moderation first.
How can I refuse such a request?
Then let’s continue.
At first glance, moderation is more like harmony and proper arrangement than the first two qualities that we have considered.
As I think of it, moderation is a kind of order and control of various pleasures and desires. It seems to be implied when we say that someone has “self-control,” “is master over oneself,” and similar phrases.
But there is something funny about the expression “self-control.” The one doing the controlling is also the one who is controlled. The master is also mastered.
That does sound strange.
But I think these expressions refer to two different aspects of the human soul. One better, and the other worse. When the better one controls the worse, then we say the person has self-control. This is intended as a form of praise. If the worse aspect, which is far larger than the good one, dominates a person because of poor nurture or bad company, then we censure that person for being immoderate and lacking self-control.
I think that’s a good explanation.
Now, let’s look at the Republic we have created, and you will find an example of such conditions. If the Republic is properly called master of itself, then moderation and self-control are terms that express the rule of the better aspect over the worse.
As I look at it, I find that what you say is true.
Pleasures, desires, and pains are plentiful and diverse in a Republic. Especially in children, women, slaves, and in the majority of so-called free citizens.
That’s easy to see.
But the simple and moderate desires that obey reason and are guided by mind and sound opinion are confined to only a few people. The ones who are best by nature and through education.
That’s true, Socrates.
Glaucon, do you find both of these aspects in your Republic with the common desires of the majority controlled by the wisdom of the few?
Then, if any Republic can be called a master of pleasures and desires and self-controlled, this one deserves that designation.
And can we call it moderate for the same reason?
Also, if there is any Republic, which the rulers and the people who are ruled agree about who should rule, it will be this one.
There’s no doubt about that.
With the citizens in such agreement, where will we find moderation? In the rulers or in those who are ruled?
I suppose we’ll find it in both.
Then, do you see how close we were to the mark when we guessed that moderation is a kind of harmony.
Why do you say that?
Because moderation is unlike courage and wisdom, which are to be found only in one part of the Republic, making it either brave or wise. Moderation extends to the whole running through all the notes of the scale, producing a harmony of all elements: the weaker, the stronger, and the intermediate. And that is true whether you are talking about strength in wisdom, power, numbers, wealth, or any other domain. Therefore, we rightly describe moderation as harmony and agreement about the rule of what is naturally superior over what is inferior, both in republics and in individuals.
I fully agree with you.