In Plato’s Republic, the philosopher attempts to provide a guide towards leading an enlightened life by drawing parallels with the ideal city. Through Plato’s account of the teachings of Socrates, the dialogue consists of an ongoing search for what is good, and what on the other hand contributes to the corruption of human souls. A recurring theme throughout Plato’s work is the world of appearances and the experience of existing, and behaving, according to others’ perception of us. It will be argued here that in the Republic, this sense of desire for public esteem is the principle source for the corruption of the soul. This is illustrated through Socrates’ depiction of public esteem in the allegory of the cave, where the characters described are guided by how they perceive and are perceived by others around them. It will also be shown in the context of his view of different forms of knowledge as a linear hierarchy, as well as in his description of the continuous corruption of political regimes in Book VIII. Throughout these passages, Plato expresses an aversion to giving into the lure of public perception, a force that erodes morality over time. Although the concept of freedom could be pointed to as the most important factor for corruption of the soul, public esteem and the way in which an individual presents themselves in the public sphere will always be the more corrupting force because it determines freedom itself.
Public Esteem in the Allegory of the Cave
Perhaps Plato’s most prominent statement towards the negative effects of public esteem in The Republic is in the allegory of the cave (514a-520a). Indeed, the prisoners are shown to value the opinion of others above the possibility of furthering their own knowledge of the world. In the allegory, one prisoner is freed and left to discover a completely new environment, where he realizes that there is more to his existence than the reality he always knew inside the cave. Upon his return to the cave, Socrates explains that the prisoner’s eyes are “infested with darkness” after having adjusted to the brightness outside the cave, preventing him from distinguishing the images he used to see so clearly before exiting the cave. Plato’s thought experiment includes the possibility of the prisoners in the cave competing for who can distinguish the projections on the cave wall first, or who can remember them best (516d). Socrates argues that the enlightened man would have no interest in competing in such games, because he knows that the projections are not intelligible, but that they are only images. He may be tempted to compete with them for the reward of honor, or boasting rights within this community of enslaved men, but if he is virtuous, he will choose knowledge over esteem. If the freed prisoner decides to go back down, and can no longer distinguish and identify the shadows on the wall of the cave, he becomes the laughing stock of the other prisoners. Socrates points out, “wouldn’t it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted and that it’s not even worth trying to go up?” (517a). In other words, the other prisoners clearly think that being esteemed by their peers is more important than true knowledge of the outside world. Because no other prisoner wants to be perceived by others as being less knowledgeable, or characterized as bad at identifying the images projected before them, there is never any incentive for them to leave the cave. Their refusal to progress towards enlightenment, or leaving the cave, is a direct refusal to accept knowledge that may change their perception of the world. Because Socrates’ objective with the Allegory is to promote an openness of mind and urge to strive for higher knowledge, he also makes a point about public esteem being a source of validation which prevents human beings from advancing into a higher mindset.
The Concept of “Seeming” in the Divided Line
When Socrates presents the image of the divided line to Glaucon, this is another instance of public opinion being depicted as a corruptive force. In Socrates’ explanation of the divided line, there is a clear hierarchy of knowledges and which ones Plato believes to be more valuable than others. At the very bottom of this hierarchy stands εἰκασία, or the knowledge of imagination and opinions. Tied in with this imaginative mindset is the concept of δόξα, which represents “seeming” or opinion (509d-511-e). In the text, Plato defines two sides of the divided line, which further emphasize this argument. He compares the first side, the side of “the king of the intelligible class and region”, to the other side which is the “king of the visible” (509d). Here, it becomes evident that according to Plato, the word of images, of the visible, is a morally inferior category for thinking. Meanwhile, the world of intelligible things is placed on a morally superior ground. If we circle back to the prisoners in the allegory of the cave, there is an understanding that this idea of δόξα is in fact their entire existence, because they do not know better than to think in terms of appearances, or shadows. This is where public esteem fits in; it represents the opinions that others hold about an individual. It is nothing more than the mechanism of forming opinions based on appearances. In fact, Plato’s account of the categories of thought places imagination, or appearances, at the very bottom of the hierarchy, after the spheres of intellection, thought and trust (511d). When an individual behaves in ways that will increase their public esteem, or make them more publicly desirable, they are omitting to think in terms of what is beyond mere images. According to Socrates’ account of the different states of thinking represented by the divided line, any individual who is driven by honour, praise, or any form of public validation, is standing in the lowest possible category of thought.
The Influence of Public Opinion in Political Regimes
Another important argument for the corruptive nature of public esteem in the Republic is in Book VIII, where Socrates describes the different political regimes associated with different types of men. With every different regime, there is a set of characteristics which can be attributed not only to the form of government ruling over a population, but also to a type of man whose soul is guided by certain impulses that are reflected in the corresponding regime. Socrates asks Glaucon: “Do you know that it is necessary that there also be as many forms of human characters as there are forms of regimes?” (544d). This means that a city which would be driven by ideas about esteem, honour in government, would correspond to a man whose principal objective is to strive for honour and admiration on the part of everyone else. He explains that corruption in one political regime will lead to the natural progression, or rather the descent, into another. In every descent into the next regime, the notion of public esteem and how the ruler is viewed by his subjects is a driving force towards evil. Socrates explains the progression as starting with aristocracy, also referred to as καλλιπολις, or the beautiful city, moving towards a timocracy, into an oligarchy, then a democracy and finally resulting in a tyranny (553b-556e). Socrates describes how the στασις, or faction, occurs in every regime. The regime in which the concept of public esteem is most obviously the source of corruption and descent into the next regime is the timocracy. Indeed, because under a timocracy the rulers have a hunger for honour that becomes competitive, the notion of what is honourable is replaced by wealth. There is a description of the corresponding timocratic man who is characterized as a man who has “urned over the rule in himself to the middle part, the part that loves victory and is spirited; he became a haughty-minded man who loves honour.” (550b). This ‘middle part’ refers to a combination of the aristocracy, which seeks to have a society’s highest elite in power, and the oligarchy, whose rulers are driven by monetary wealth. The result is a form of political rule which is motivated by the desire for public praise and recognition, which is exactly what Plato wants to point to as a larger issue in the Republic. The timocracy descends into oligarchy when the timocratic soul gives “the highest place to money” (554a). This happens as a result of the ruler’s pursuit of praise, which turns from recognizing his accomplishments to admiring him for his wealth. There is a very obvious shift in virtue in this passage from a timocracy to an oligarchy, because money becomes more important than serving the republic. This descent into a lower regime speaks to the ways in which striving for public approval has its limitations, and not every single ruler can be highly esteemed among the population without some form of corruption.
It could be argued that the principle source of corruption of the soul is freedom, and not public opinion itself. When the different regimes are compared to different types of men, it seems as though the most important lesson that Plato attempts to show is that some form of ideal democracy must be preserved. The only way to preserve this ideal democracy, according to Socrates’ account of it, is to avoid abuses of freedom, which would lead to tyranny. It seems as though it is easy for freedom to take over in a democracy, and if it does, the soul descends into the lowest possible category which Socrates goes so far as describing as a form of slavery. To this argument, I would respond that the descent from democracy into tyranny, while certainly being influenced by a desire for more freedom, is also determined by some desire to be publicly esteemed. Indeed, because freedom is self-regarding, it is the complete opposite of public esteem, and cannot be achieved independently from it. Public esteem is a regard for positive public opinion, an awareness of what those around us think. These concepts being defined, it becomes clear that freedom cannot really exist if public esteem gets in the way of it. Any form of rule which seeks to gain more power than is necessary is also an automatic want for subjects of a certain regime to have a certain opinion of their ruler. It may not be the honourable view of the ruler that is sought out by timocratic leaders, but tyrants cannot become tyrants without gaining control over the way they are perceived and represented in public discourse. In fact, there is no form of ruling in which the ruler-to-subject relationship is not dependent upon how the leader is publicly viewed. For one to gain power, they have to project a certain image before their republic, and so freedom becomes the outcome of public esteem rather than a driving force for corruption.
In sum, throughout the ten books of The Republic, the notion of public esteem and how one is viewed in the public eye is consistently brought up as a cause for evil in the city, but especially in the soul. Plato uses varying forms of imagery to represent this idea. Public perception controls the prisoners’ behaviour in the allegory of the cave when they believe themselves to be seeing everything there is to see in the world on the cave walls. This form of esteem also stands at the lowest moral point of Plato’s image of the divided line, which stands between what is intelligible and what is only imagination. Finally, public esteem is shown to have a particularly deteriorating effect on the soul in the correspondences between descending political regimes and souls, especially in the deterioration of the timocratic man. It can be claimed that it is within human nature to pursue public esteem because it is a symbol of acceptance into the sphere of public life; that it can never truly be avoided, because human socialization requires an awareness of how others perceive us. However, Plato attempts to demonstrate how in most cases, this pursuit of honour and praise from others leads us towards immorality and the corruption of our souls, whether it be in everyday interactions, or even at the head of governing a republic.
Plato, Allan Bloom, and Adam Kirsch. The Republic of Plato. New York: Basic Books, 2016.