The Kallipolis: Justice and Ideals

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More than two-thousand years have elapsed since Plato wrote what many consider his most famous work, Republic. To this day, students and scholars alike grapple with the challenging philosophical issues presented therein. The thematic crux of the work lies in the nature of justice. In defining this slippery concept, Socrates details the structure and workings of what he considers a truly just city, the kallipolis. There are those who would say that this kallipolis may be equated to a utopia, an ideal society; however, I intend to illustrate a much divergent point of view. The justice of this city, made analogous to the justice of the individual, is specifically what precludes the kallipolis from being an ideal society. For this reason, the kallipolis should serve primarily as a magnified model for the constitution of the just individual, rather than as a blueprint for the ideal city. The center of my argument lies in Plato's specific definition of justice and the quality of life he believes that the just man will enjoy. In the broadest sense, Plato defines justice as the quality of an entity capable of making decisions whose parts are arranged according to their proper function. In constructing the just city, Plato reveals his theory of the tripartite human soul, that we are composed of a rational part, a spirited or emotional part, and an appetitive part. Each of these three parts has a particular function and is structured hierarchically in relation to the others. As Plato posits, the key aspect of this hierarchy in a just soul is the rule of reason. In this sense, the soul may be construed to mean the rough combination of emotion and intellect by which we determine our actions. According to Plato's conception of the forms, true knowledge may only be obtained by one who is ruled by the rational element. Rule by reason promotes harmony within one's own constitution and allows the soul to act most effectively. The unjust man lives troubled by his own conscience and fettered by the chains of his own rampant vice, while the just man leads a calm and harmonious existence. On Plato's terms, therefore, the just life is the best life. In discerning whether or not the kallipolis is in fact the ideal city, we must first clarify what exactly is meant by ideal city. While today most cities are subordinate to some larger political entity, such as a nation or state, a city in Plato's time was the distinct and sovereign unit of government. For the sake of consistency, I shall use the term city to mean any sovereign political entity. As is the root of all human action, humans make cities to either obtain some benefit or to avoid some ill. While it would be beyond my place to suggest a definitive "meaning of life," I believe that Plato would agree with my saying that the desire inherent in all humans is, simply, to live the best life possible. A city is essentially an aggregate will, constituted by those of its own citizenry and designed to act as one for the benefit of all. To refer to something as ideal is to say that it constitutes some standard of excellence or perfection. The only standard of excellence worth considering in relation to a city is the degree to which it improves the lives of its citizens, for that is the city's purpose. If a city were created that provided all of its citizens the best life possible, such a city would surely be considered ideal. While the kallipolis is just in its construction, so far as its own class structure resembles the just human soul, the city falls short of ideal for the specific reason that not all of its citizens live truly just lives. Plato emphasizes that the key element in the just construction of the soul is rule by reason. Thus, he devotes a great deal of time to detailing precisely how the guardians would be trained from birth to rule both themselves and the city in a just way, the emphasis, of course, being upon rule by reason. By Plato's own definition, the...
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