The statue analogy of Republic IV and pro tanto goods

The PhD seminar this term is on Republic IV, a nice opportunity to spend a suitable length of time on a text that repays careful study. We covered just the first few pages, 419a-423c, in today’s meeting, and in this space alone, there was an extraordinary quantity of interesting material, upon which a lively discussion ensued. I want to raise a question I have about a single, purple passage: the famed statue analogy (420c-e). (No doubt my understanding of this passage and the broader context is partly due to today’s conversation with my fellow seminar participants, to whom credit and thanks.)

First, the context. Socrates [S.] is here responding to Adeimantus’ [Ad.] worry that the guards in the city they are describing will have none of the trappings generally associated with happiness (εὐδαιμονία). A question that persists throughout the broader passage is the extent to which S.’ response is meant to be a refutation of a genuine problem or simply a way of ‘moving the goal posts’ and dismissing conventional accounts of happiness. In setting out the concern, both S. and Ad. refer to the good things other people consider to constitute happiness or at the very least consider to be closely associated with happiness (Ad. at 419a9-10: πάντα ὅσα νομίζεται τοῖς μέλλουσιν μακαρίοις εἶναι “all those things reckoned to belong to the blessed-to-be”; S. at 420a5-6: οἷα δὴ οἱ εὐδαίμονες δοκοῦντες εἶναι ἀναλίσκουσι “precisely what those reputed to be happy spend their money on”). We might, however, reasonably suppose that Ad. is less committed to Socratic-Platonic ideals, so that the two mean slightly different things by such language – Ad. raising a feature of the commonplace view of happiness as a genuine objection, S. entertaining the view for the sake of the discussion, but never in doubt about its misguided premises.

This brings me directly to the statue analogy.

νῦν μὲν οὖν, ὡς οἰόμεθα, τὴν εὐδαίμονα πλάττομεν οὐκ ἀπολαβόντες ὀλίγους ἐν αὐτῇ τοιούτους τινὰς τιθέντες, ἀλλ᾽ ὅλην: αὐτίκα δὲ τὴν ἐναντίαν σκεψόμεθα. ὥσπερ οὖν ἂν εἰ ἡμᾶς ἀνδριάντα γράφοντας προσελθών τις ἔψεγε λέγων ὅτι οὐ τοῖς καλλίστοις τοῦ ζῴου τὰ κάλλιστα φάρμακα προστίθεμεν—οἱ γὰρ ὀφθαλμοὶ κάλλιστον ὂν οὐκ ὀστρείῳ ἐναληλιμμένοι εἶεν ἀλλὰ μέλανι—μετρίως ἂν ἐδοκοῦμεν πρὸς αὐτὸν ἀπολογεῖσθαι λέγοντες: “ὦ θαυμάσιε, μὴ οἴου δεῖν ἡμᾶς οὕτω καλοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς γράφειν, ὥστε μηδὲ ὀφθαλμοὺς φαίνεσθαι, μηδ᾽ αὖ τἆλλα μέρη, ἀλλ᾽ ἄθρει εἰ τὰ προσήκοντα ἑκάστοις ἀποδιδόντες τὸ ὅλον καλὸν ποιοῦμεν.

As it turns out, we suppose we’re moulding the happy city, not by picking a few such people and putting them in it, but as a whole. We’ll consider the opposite city shortly. Now let’s say that someone came up to us while we were painting a statue and faulted us, saying we hadn’t applied the most beautiful colours to the most beautiful bits of the figure, since the eyes, though they’re the most beautiful, hadn’t been painted purple but rather black. I think we’d reasonably defend ourselves by saying to him, “Really, now. You don’t think we should paint the eyes so beautifully that they no longer appear to be eyes, and the same with the other parts, do you? Instead, look and see whether we’re providing what’s appropriate to each part and so making the whole beautiful….” (420c1-d5)

There’s a lot to say about this analogy, and the section that follows which expands further on it. My question is about how it relates to what came before. On the most straightforward reading of the analogy, it seems like the things Ad. mentions in his objection and which S. happily amplifies, namely, private wealth and the freedom to do with it what one wishes, are admitted to actually be good things. For surely (for Plato, and probably for many theorists of aesthetic value) making something beautiful (καλόν) is ipso facto doing something good to it or providing something good for it. The analogy would then establish that private wealth, etc. are genuine but pro tanto goods, i.e., they are ordinarily good, but only to the extent that they do not interfere with a higher good that might trump them. When the part becomes too beautiful, it interferes with the beauty of the whole, which trumps the beauty of the part. If the part were isolated and removed from this context, its formerly excessive beauty would then become permissible. For there would be no whole with which its beauty interfered.

The difficulty with this reading of the analogy is that the section that follows, especially 420e-422a, emphasizes the generally harmful nature of wealth, which counts against its status as even a pro tanto good. One way of resolving this tension is to suppose that S. only admits the premise that private wealth and the freedom to use it are good to argue dialectically. For even granting this assumption, he thinks he will be able to show that we ought to aim at maximizing the good of the whole rather than the good of any one part. This stronger conclusion not only defends the austerity of the guards’ lifestyle as described before, it also establishes a broader political principle. For there are unquestionable goods that might well be denied the guards or another class in the city; indeed, compelling the rulers to partake in the affairs of the city instead of private contemplation is a perfect example (VII 518c-520a, which refers back to our passage). Reading the analogy this way would, I think, fit nicely with what I said above about S. and Ad.’s reference to the common rather than the authoritative view of happiness. It also encapsulates some of the difficulties of reading Plato – even in the midst of a highly rhetorical speech featuring a captivating image, Socrates may be arguing with borrowed premises that he does not ultimately accept.

    • djr
    • October 13th, 2010

    Your seminars sound more productive and illuminating than ours.

    Though I might change my mind if I took a close look at the text, you seem to me to overstate the problem that arises from the disparagement of wealth that follows the statue analogy. First, must the harmful potential of wealth jeopardize its status as a pro tanto good? Though it may not turn out to be necessary for the guards, wealth, as the quintessential instrumental good, seems likewise to be a great example of a pro tanto good. Absent some other consideration, it is good to have wealth because it enables us to obtain other goods. But other considerations are swift in minimizing the value of wealth. Enough other considerations taken together can make wealth seem negligible. So long as the argument does not lead to the conclusion that wealth is bad per se or utterly indifferent, then S. will not have retracted any of his prior claims. A version of your explanation still works, since the argument does in fact lead to a serious revaluation of wealth. But we need not say that S. accepts the premise solely for dialectical purposes. Perhaps it depends on how we understand ‘wealth’: if that must mean ‘lots of money,’ then my story won’t work, but if it just refers to ‘means sufficient to attain a sufficient amount of worthwhile things,’ then it does. By analogy, we don’t need to deny that the eye should be beautiful at all, but it may turn out that its appropriate beauty is much less striking than what we initially had in mind. I think your explanation works quite nicely and doesn’t really pose any serious problems, but I wonder whether we have to go quite that far.

    Another, more pressing question is whether a reading on the lines you’ve sketched out does justice to the inter-personal context of the analogy. The immediate analogy seems not to be between the statue’s eye and the person’s wealth, but between the part of the statue and the part of the city. One way to read this is to see S. as telling us that the guards should be less happy than they could be because that is what is required for the happiness of the whole city. That sort of reading of this passage might lead us to understand the Book VII passage as holding that the guards genuinely do sacrifice their own happiness in giving up contemplation in order to govern the city. But your way of reading the analogy might, if taken together with the more immediately apparent application of it to the relationship between the guards and the city as a whole, provide some support for a different reading of Book VII: namely, that the guards don’t genuinely sacrifice their happiness because, in the circumstances described, to refuse to govern when needed would be to do to contemplation what our hypothetical detractor wanted us to do to the statue’s eye.


    • Dhananjay
    • October 13th, 2010

    Wealth (πλοῦτος) throughout this passage must mean ‘lots of money’ or ‘riches’, something close to ὄλβος. First, in posing his question, Ad. refers to “having land and building large, beautiful houses, and having furniture to match, and conducting private sacrifices to the gods, and entertaining guests and especially what you just now mentioned, having gold and silver” (419a5-9). Second, in the section on the corruption of craftsmen, wealth is one extreme, typified by luxury rather than comfort, and contrasted with poverty that prevents even the very engagement in the craft for lack of capital. Surely there were many very poor craftsmen who could still engage in their business, so this must mean the extreme condition.

    That’s what makes the analogy surprising from my point of view. S. doesn’t just make the straightforward point that money is instrumental, so the correct specification of the end is required before we can certify the goodness of any particular use, such as building a grand house (though the reference to such houses being καλαὶ is rather interesting). I think it turns out that wealth is not a pro tanto good, at least for Plato, as opposed to beauty, contemplation of the Forms, etc. For on my account, the goodness of pro tanto goods is still intrinsic; it’s just not final. That is, there are two sorts of ‘incomplete’ goodness in play here – pro tanto goodness, which depends on the lack of countervailing considerations; and instrumental goodness, which depends on the goodness of some further thing, the end. I freely admit that I don’t have a relevant Platonic text ready to mind for drawing this distinction; of course, the analogy itself may be hinting at such a distinction.

    As for the analogy, I agree that the correspondence is between the body part of the statue and the individual (or to be more precise, the class of which the individual is part), and I was making the further point that there might be a correspondence between an ornament to the statue-part (having lovely paint; being made beautiful) and an ornament to the individual (having a nice house; being wealthy). I think the explicit reference back from the Book VII passage makes it clear that Plato wants us to read it in light of the analogy and the principle that it implies. I don’t take my reading to secure the conclusion about Book VII that you suggest, however.

    My suggestion was that the reason S. does not argue in a more straightforward way against a rather lame objection deriving from the commonsense view about happiness is that he wishes to establish a stronger principle that holds regardless of whether one’s view about happiness is the commonsense or the Socratic-Platonic one. Any good thing, even an intrinsically good thing, may be deprived of one class or another in the city in order to secure the good of the whole. So the guards do, on this view, sacrifice something. Their own good is trumped by the good of the city, which is not conceived of as a constitutive part of their own eudaimonistic good. For Socrates says that each group’s happiness must be left up to nature (φύσις; 421c3-6), when it was open to him to say their happiness is partly constituted by the good of the city of which they are part and hence partly secured by that good. The eye really is worse off being less beautiful than it otherwise could be, but you can’t go around being an eye on your own. Nevertheless, it’s not a constitutive part of the eye’s well-being to be an eye in any particular statue. (We might compare Aristotle’s claim about the priority of the city to the individual in Politics I.2.) Or in other words, that it fails to any longer be an eye when made too beautiful is a consequence of its being part of the statue, not a consequence of its being an eye. After all, when a farmer gets too rich to want to be a farmer, what reason do we have to stop him from becoming a merchant or a politician or just a gentleman. It seems that it’s only the demand made by the city that each do his own assigned work that forces this conclusion, not a view that being part of a just city is good for the farmer’s own well-being. Again, it may be the case that S. upholds this latter view elsewhere in the Republic, but the general tenor of our passage and Plato’s surprising reference to nature seem to weigh against his holding it here.

    • djr
    • October 13th, 2010

    Well, why shouldn’t all those things still be pro tanto goods, only non pro tanto quantum Adeimanto videtur? Certainly none of these things seems like it is intrinsically bad: land, houses, furniture, sacrifices to the gods, gold and silver. Nor do they seem perfectly indifferent. They might, of course, count as neither-good-nor-bad in the sense in which Socrates develops that category in, e.g., the Lysis. But then that makes them something very much like pro tanto goods. Perhaps your conception of pro tanto goods lays more stress on the ‘ordinarily good’ part than mine does. To my mind, it is consistent with X’s being a pro tanto good that X is trumped most of the time or in most circumstances. That is as it should be, because we can still say of such things that they would be good if not for considerations Y, Z, etc. By contrast, we can’t say that of intrinsic evils like disease or dismemberment or ignorance. Nor can we say it of generally indifferent things like having socks woven of 54,928 pieces of thread. Even supposing that wealth turns out to be not only incompatible with, but generally corruptive of, a person’s good, it is harmful insofar as it is an excess of what would otherwise be good and the consequent deficiency of higher goods.

    What I’m driving at is that even if wealth per se is always going to be bad for us, the analogy is between wealth and the excessively beautiful eyes. On your reading, S.’s rejection of wealth as even a pro tanto good gives rise to a disanalogy. On something like what I’m trying to lay out, there is no disanalogy. Rather, just as what we reject in the statue is excessive beauty, so what we reject in life is an excess of possessions. These things are both genuinely bad for their respective subjects: wealth is bad for us, and the excessive beauty is bad for the eye. But it is not bad for the eye to be beautiful at all, nor is it bad for us to have possessions at all, nor, most importantly, are the features that are excessive when placed in their proper context inherently bad when considered in themselves. The beauty that our hypothetical detractor encourages us to give to the eye is, considered in itself, really beautiful; but to be an eye just is to be a part with a particular task, and so we cannot just consider the value of its beauty in isolation. By comparison, we can’t consider the value of any specific good in the life of an individual human being in isolation from his whole life, nor we can we consider the good of any individual human being in isolation from the whole community. Wealth would, from that point of view, not be good for people generally or for the guards. Nor would extreme beauty be good for the eyes, since they would not be able to play their role, which, surely, is “to appear to be eyes.” Contrary, I think, to your point, the eye is not really worse off by being less beautiful — except insofar as we consider its beauty in complete isolation from everything else. The reason it isn’t worse off is that what it is to be a good statue eye is to look like an eye; so there is no content to be given to the idea of being better or worse off except in relation to looking like an eye. But the beauty of the eye and the things that Adeimantus has in mind can still be thought of as good in the absence of, as you put it, countervailing considerations. It’s just that there are almost always countervailing considerations.

    I’m not up for taking a serious stab at the Book VII issue, except to say that I resist for philosophical and exegetical reasons the idea that the guards are really acting against their own interests. No reading of the statue analogy will secure a particular interpretation of Book VII. Nonetheless, to the extent that the interpretation of each influences that of the other, I agree that your reading of Bk. IV points to an understanding of the guards as really sacrificing their own happiness. My intuition is that the way you frame the problem is part of the problem, but as I said, I’m not sufficiently confident to take a position on it, and you certainly wouldn’t be the only one.

    So, in short, I think the analogy will go through and we won’t need to take S. as accepting anything for merely dialectical purposes if we understand that the excessive beauty is, in fact, not good for the eye, and that wealth is bad for human beings in the same way that excessive beauty is bad for the imitation eyes.


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