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.