August 15, 2011

Plato and the England Riots

Plato argues in the Republic that the human psyche consists of three 'parts' or motivational sets, which exist - or should exist - in a definite hierarchy. First, there is the rational part which desires truth and reality and which should rule the psyche as a whole (and note how the rational part has its own specific, rational desires; it is not just a means/ends calculator, a Humean 'slave of the passions'). Secondly, there is the thumos, the spirited part which is concerned with the individual's position in the world and which desires honour, status and success; though it involves self-respect, this self-respect depends in part on the respect that others show us. Its role is to support the decrees of reason concerning what things and actions are truly honourable and constitute true success. Lastly, there is the appetitive part which desires food, drink, sex, material goods and the money that may be needed to acquire them; its role is to do what reason (supported by the thumos) tells it to do: Plato makes a distinction between 'necessary' appetites needed for the survival of self and species, and 'unnecessary' appetites, which are simply self-indulgence.

When all three 'parts' are performing their proper roles, the psyche will be in a harmonious state which Plato identifies both with moral excellence and with flourishing (eudaimonia is often tranlated as 'happiness', but 'flourishing' is more accurate). The good life is the rational life, in the fullest and richest sense of 'reason'.

But this internal psychic harmony is almost impossible to achieve in a degenerate society. This is for two linked reasons. Firstly, the individual will not receive the quality of education needed for reason to develop and be able to take control in the individual's psyche. And in the absence of rational guidance, either the thumos or the appetites will take control. Furthermore, the absence of rational guidance means that, whether the thumos rules the appetites or is ruled by them, it will seek to gain honour and success and status simply by doing and acquiring the things that the degenerate society values. And if the corrupt society values electronic goods and designer trainers, such items will be sought not merely to satisfy the unchecked unnecessary appetites, but the unguided thumos and its yearning for status as well. We all wish to count for something.

Nor is this all. Plato would point out that strong appetites for material goods, and such a strong belief that they bestow status and self-worth, are unlikely to be confined to particular pockets of society, to particular postcodes or socio-economic groups. These strong appetites and beliefs arise precisely because people can see that this is the way status is acquired throughout that society as a whole. Plato would point out that there is, in respect of basic motivation (though not the law), little difference between the looting in London and Birmingham and Manchester and elsewhere, and the greed recently (and in some cases still) manifested by some bankers and politicians - greed which has also caused huge harm to the country as a whole. The bankers and politicians who behaved irresponsibly, and in some cases illegally (and of course that is a minority, just as only a minority of those in Tottenham and elsewhere were involved in the riots and looting), came from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. But whatever their origins, their jobs had put them, as adults, in a privileged position. A venal desire for short-term gratification is demonstrably not confined to any particular class, colour or religion.

Plato's response was to argue for a two-fold approach. There must, of course, be individual responsibilty and individuals must be held to account: one cannot use one's background as an excuse. But there must also be a willingness on the part of the whole of society to consider its values and the attitudes, actions and possessions to which it gives status. Each of us needs to consider whether we have, even unwittingly, helped foster the warped conceptions of value and status that currently obtain. We need to consider what we write, read and buy, the music and lyrics which we create and to which we listen, the programmes that we make and watch. Plato's proposals in the Republic (or at least the proposals he puts into the mouth of the character of Socrates) for the radical reformation of society are far too totalitarian and authoritarian for most of us to stomach, including me. Nor do most of us believe in the Form of the Good, on which he wants the reformatiopn to be based. But that does not detract from the brilliance of Plato's analysis of society's ills, and his clear recognition that, if we want to diminish looting and the abuse of our banks and taxes, we have to pay far less attention, and accord far less status, to the supposed 'goods' that such activities seek (I suspect it is unlikely that anyone stole a copy of the Republic). Our current predicament is not just a case of the unnecessary appetites run amok; it is a case of the unguided thumos run amok as well. Our society needs to scrutinize itself without flinching from some unpalatable truths, and then seek to renew itself, including its educational institutions, in ways which will allow for true psychic harmony to be achieved and maintained. As long as rewards and status are given, and can so clearly be seen to be given, to selfishness and greed, we cannot pretend that the riots are nothing to do with us.


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  1. Dominic Newbould

    That last sentence is trenchant and memorable, in the context of ‘the events’, or ‘the disturbances’. I hesitate to call them riots, fearful that the term might glamourise the whole episode, which should be recorded as a disgrace, a shameful social storm.
    But – although utterly true – hasn’t it always been the case that a society feeding on selfishness and greed tends to generate bitter resentment among the dispossessed? Even those who are not without high-brand possessions may also feel the impulse of greed.
    So what made the impulse move from covert to overt action on this occasion? Among all the variables that have been cited as stimuli for the incidences of looting, arson and assault, what was the significant cause?
    We can argue about misguided educational policies, inadequate social support structures, insufficient welfare or security strategies, dysfunctional families and so on… We can even account for the outbreak of anti-social behaviour in the words of some of the looters: “We did it because we could”.
    Plato would argue that inhibiting factors – such as self-control, self-respect or family cohesion – were absent, thus allowing irresponsible and self-indulgent behaviour.
    But when I search for the single (or even multiple) excess of “appetite” that triggered the disturbances, I find it hard to identify evidence that did not feature in other periods of history, periods when such disturbances did not take place.
    The only contender I can come up with, and it may be a weak one, is that the tone of the present Government, the severity of the recession and the austerity measures (“cuts”), have all somehow penetrated further and deeper than ever before. We will need to search more and for longer before we can confidently account for the cause.

    16 Aug 2011, 12:38

  2. Jim Klagge

    “(I suspect it is unlikely that anyone stole a copy of the Republic)”—In fact TV coverage showed that of all the businesses vandalized on a certain street, only the bookstore remained untouched!

    18 Aug 2011, 17:18

  3. Will

    Why would most poor people steal books, being both no interest to themselves nor saleable to those around them?! Even those capable of the slightest insight acknowledged that the looters seemed to steal from places they either bought from regularly or had products they wished they could afford, mainly brand name products (shoes, clothes, electronic goods, etc etc.)

    In the Western world you are judged by the products you own & you can only own these products if you have a job that can pay for them. Marketing & advertising on TV, film, billboards, etc reinforces this everywhere. Products are ‘upgraded’ constantly so a few months difference can effect your status a lot. If you are denied a job because they have all been ‘outsourced’ or are in a service job that makes you amongst the working poor you will find it hard to exist legally above the lowest rungs of this hierarchy. Without these goods you will nowadays be looked down on by both the more privileged groups as well as your own.

    18 Aug 2011, 22:00

  4. Margaret Gullan-Whur

    While Plato’s analysis captures an important trio of human motivations, I do not find it relevant to the recent street riots, attacks on police, looting, arson, hatred of small business people. (declared by looters to be “rich”) and violence towards innocent bystanders trying to persuade them to stop. The latter were often simply trying to warn them that they were likely to gain a criminal record. What made these rioters, most of whom do not seem to have been seriously needy from a material point of view, see their activity as sport – “ a good night out”?

    I cannot offer a better analysis than Angie Hobbs. Spinoza feared and loathed “the mob”. But his 17th -century mob was indeed uneducated. It was more like the Welsh mob who a decade ago trashed the home of a paediatrician because a rumour went round that she was a paedophile. Many of the recent rioters were educated and in paid employment, some professionals. Some may have been burning with anger against recession cuts. Many of us who did not riot are unhappy about those. A house near us in rural Norfolk has been bought for an overpriced £1.34 million as ‘holiday cottage’’ for a 37 yr old banker. A central London flat has been bought for cash by a Pakistani couple “as a base for their children” when visiting London or – maybe – studying. Here is a sickening divide.

    The present government is applying a solution with no understanding of the ailment. Greed is not the sole cause. Nor is deprivation, envy, boredom or the lack of a war to absorb violent impulses. There may be many causes and widely diverse motivations and I fear our wise philosophers cannot help with this very 21st-century phenomenon. Nobody has yet worked out the emotional response of the public to the death of Diana. But that is no reason to stay silent, and good on anyone who gives the rioting question serious thought.

    18 Aug 2011, 22:23

  5. Mark J. Lovas

    On the basis of what you’ve written I cannot see why anyone should suppose that there really are parts of the soul. Of course, we can all agree if something bad (in some real sense) happens-whether it be needless destruction or damage to a person or of some thing-that the cause is a failure of well-functioning. But aren’t the rioters also motivated by a picture of goodness, or the goodness not available to them? That is to say, they are angry because they face injustice every day. And that perception or awareness or knowledge is not merely the result of a disequilibrium in their souls. People in general (in London and San Francisco and other cities) are mad about police bad behavior because they live in neighborhoods where they experience humiliation and mistreatment on a daily basis. That anger is an accurate perception of their reality, and their role in an unjust system. That’s not just about wanting status from the latest bit of electronic foolery. It’s about having a pretty good idea of what justice is not, and knowing that one is being dished out something far less than what is just. It strikes me as rather high-handed to decree that the individuals who respond to an unjust society with property damage are being unreasonable-as opposed to motivated by a yearning for justice, and expressing their frustration at an inability to achieve it. You may say that they have made a mis-calculation, but it is question-begging to merely assume so, as it is also question-begging to suppose their thoughts can be captured by the term ‘irrational”. Is a man who chooses to die rather than be a slave also a victim of an unregulated spirited part? The account seems to me to be not at all insightful, but precisely to be question-begging about all of the political (the potential justification of property damage-not violence as so many journalists would say), and moral psychological issues (e.g., the nature and role of emotion), not to mention hopelessly vague and middle-of-the road in advocating some real individual responsibility together with awareness of the social realm. It collects some rather general observations or beliefs about the events in London (that bankers are more or less equivalent to rioters or our common contempt for consumerism) and inserts those beliefs into a picture of what Plato is about (one which is provided no real independent motivation) without shedding any insight.
    Of course, when teaching philosophy, one makes such connections, and it helps (one hopes) the students; but I find this entry to be nothing but disappointing and unhelpful. There are serious questions about the connection between individual and society, but I don’t find that even the surface has been scratched by what I just read….

    18 Aug 2011, 22:32

  6. Mark J Lovas

    Briefly considering Margaret Gullan-Whur’s remarks, I realize that I have made substantive assumptions about who exactly was doing what in London and elsewhere. I may have only accurately characterized (or assumed a characterization of) some subset of the the individual agents. (But I am pretty sure that the original neighborhood where the riots began was one where there was a history of bad behavior by the police, and I am sure that other neighborhoods in the UK, and around the world, experience such repression.) I would be happy to be corrected. And, then we can see how much of my comment remains relevant.

    18 Aug 2011, 22:35

  7. Mark J Lovas

    Briefly considering Margaret Gullan-Whur’s remarks, I realize that I have made substantive assumptions about who exactly was doing what in London and elsewhere. I may have only accurately characterized (or assumed a characterization of) some subset of the the individual agents. (But I am pretty sure that the original neighborhood where the riots began was one where there was a history of bad behavior by the police, and I am sure that other neighborhoods in the UK, and around the world, experience such repression.) I would be happy to be corrected. And, then we can see how much of my comment remains relevant.

    18 Aug 2011, 22:35

  8. Margaret Gullan-Whur

    “In the Western world you are judged by the products you own” (Will)
    “anger [in deprived neighbourhoods] is an accurate perception of their reality, and their role in an unjust system. That’s not just about wanting status from the latest bit of electronic foolery. It’s about having a pretty good idea of what justice is not, and knowing that one is being dished out something far less than what is just” (Mark J. Lovas)

    These judgments do put an item on the agenda for discussion. They focus on a sense of unfairness which currently has no effective channel for expression. Trades unions used to boil with this kind of bitterness, but their powerful and articulate leaders knew how best to give it a public profile without bringing down legal retribution.

    The same sense of unfairness can extend to anyone in any wage-bracket or occupation who feels unappreciated and unrewarded, and they might naturally side with and join the rioters. That accounts for a proportion of the law breakers.

    Speculation: those seeing the violence and riots and looting as sport may also in some way have unsatisfying lives with no outlet for anger?

    Modern society is clearly not fair. While the distribution of GDP across social board in UK and USA seems to be a world-class privilege, it doesn’t boost living standards for everyone in practice, especially where there is unemployment.

    I’d hoped for more comments on this thread (not having read anything helpful elsewhere).

    But back to Plato for a minute. His ideal republic was only ever a fairy tale or pipe-dream, and he knew it. He said it should be ruled by a philosopher-king or a king who was a philospher, yet he also stated that philosophers were mainly useless or harmful. In his Laws he switched to practical policies, but while these gave society’s lower/poorer ranks some rights these were hedged so they could have no political power. As with Spinoza this was partly because they were considered to have no ability – or wish – to reason. (Sadly that still appears the case). The 19th century brought in privileged reformers, and the 20th century leaders from the underpriviliged masses who did reason, and achieved much. We should replace the outdated and élitist Plato with them. But where are they?

    We should take a good look at the champagne socialists who no longer identify with underprivileged anger. And bring in psychologists as expert in grievance-management as forensic psychologists are in assessing the criminal mind.

    20 Aug 2011, 11:31

  9. Mark J. Lovas

    Margaret, if I may, I am not actually convinced that Plato does adequately distinguish three distinct sources of motivation. His main argument relies on conflict, and the idea that there is, e.g., a desire for drink, which is not desire for hot drink or cold drink, and not for the best drink, but just drink. It is hard to see how that sort of desire could lead someone, say, to seize this bottle of water here and now ( say in a shop that is being looted).
    Moreover, I don’t know if some of your remarks quite square with what I have read recently in the Guardian about those participating in the looting outside of London—people who traveled to the city centers, and who were not so prosperous as those who attracted your attention.
    But as you are seeking some more intelligent analysis, I would recommend you look at some of the things the sociologist Loc Wacquant has written about the new society of “social insecurity” and the ” penal state”. Also while I do not know that he has written specifically about the recent UK events, his ideas are relevant. He had some very interesting things to say about the car burning incidents in France a few years ago. Just google his name; there is a lot of stuff at his home page.

    21 Aug 2011, 10:56

  10. Mark J. Lovas

    Just to avoid any misunderstanding: my most recent comment, it now seems to me, got focused more upon Margaret Gullan-Whur’s first comment. Maybe the remark about the Guardian wouldn’t fit the updated version; if so, I hope you (Margaret) won’t think I was uncharitable. And I do hope you find something worthwhile in Wacquant.

    21 Aug 2011, 11:17

  11. W Lindsay Wheeler

    First of all, Plato’s “ideal” state did exist! It’s called S-P-A-R-T-A. (Morgenstern, cited in Müller, 1839: II, 193). Sparta is a republic:http://www.sparta.markoulakispublications.org.uk/index.php?id=105 It had a tripartite form. In order to understand it and how Plato transfers that to the soul you have to understand the natural law principle of Macrocosm/Microcosm:http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Macrocosm/Microcosm+in+Doric+Thought+Part+I-a01074347355

    But on the riots, you are missing the most salient fact-it was racial. It was the blacks that rioted, and what one English prof called “Whites who are blacks” that conducted all this mayhem. Along with the liberal government personnel who stood by and let this happen. It was what they called “chavs” who participated alongside them. Furthermore, a lot of anarchists joined in just for the sake of destruction for destruction sake. I don’t see Plato’s thesis at work as much as I see the age old phenomena of racial violence. Aristotle noted that as much in his Politics. When you mix races/religions together-violence erupts-always.

    21 Aug 2011, 19:47

  12. Shenpen

    Excellent, this is always refreshing to use the pre-moderns to analyse modern and post-modern problems. I also have a problem with it.

    I think I understand the main argument and let me put it into a simpler form. It is OK to have a certain amount of greed. But it is supposed to be counter-balanced by a desire for the respect of others which are generally earned by non-greedy acts. (This was also Adam Smith’s argument.) In a normal society it is the “public spirit”, the selfless acts that are most respected. The problem is where respect and status in a society is too closely tied to material possessions, we begin to desire respect and status through acquisition and possessions, through greed, which makes greed rule our psyche unchecked, because reason alone is too weak to check it once greed and respect-seeking join forces in respect-seeking through possessions.

    However, my problem with this approach is that this steers too close to those million and already rather tiresome articles and posts everywhere that simply blame our modern problems on economic materialism or consumerism, i.e. on a thing that “is”, that exists, that was caused by something, someone, for example, greedy capitalists. In reality it is actually not so. Certain ways of status-seeking, such as through brute force, through possessions, and through beauty, come unfortunately “naturally” to us. They exist simply because of the absence of higher ideals to seek status through. Every time culture – the higher ideals – break down people simply revert to these “natural” ways of status-seeking.

    Thus, our real problem is not economic materialism. Economic materialism simply happens automatically whenever there is no higher ideal to pursue. Our problem is the loss of the higher ideas through the loss of culture, philosophy, religion, and patriotism – generally, the Entzauberung, the loss of the magical and the sacred.

    22 Aug 2011, 10:15

  13. Ivor Ludlam

    @W Lindsay Wheeler: Plato’s “ideal” state is portrayed as perhaps a paradigm laid up in heaven (end of Book IX, 592b2-3). Platonically speaking, any earthly state must necessarily not be ideal but an instantiation of an idea. Sparta is actually picked out as an example not of the aristocratic (“ideal”) state, but of the timocratic state. Socrates lists all four of the degenerate constitutions near the beginning of Book VIII, and the first of them (the timocratic) is exemplified by the Laconic (=Spartan) and the Cretan constitutions, both Doric (544c2-3). If kings are a feature in republics, then Sparta was a republic. Better to say that it had a mixed constitution.

    28 Aug 2011, 00:42

  14. W Lindsay Wheeler

    @ Ivor, Jowett’s trans. ”...there is laid up a pattern of it, methinks, which he who desires may behold, and beholding , MAY SET HIS OWN HOUSE IN ORDER.” See, one copies from the pattern in heaven and replicates it down below. There is an ideal form, and then one sees it, and then copies it. The Ideal is made real.

    There was an actual historical reality. The Spartans did copy this ideal.

    And like some people before me, I will resist the revolutionaries their ‘exclusivist’ possession of the term ‘republic’. They don’t own it. They have NOT trademarded the word. The Romans translated ‘politeia’ as ‘republic’. They know more than us. Sparta is a republic now and always. Consistency is a principle of Truth and Right. The modern definition is a made up concoction invented in the 15th century by Machiavelli and Lorenzo Valla to destroy Christendom.

    Anyway, the economic depression we are headed for is a mirror of societal collapse that is coming as well. We are going to see the emergence of Club Law. As Plato said his Eighth Letter, the plague will come to those that don’t have the full nature of truth. The plague has already arrived in France and in England and in Norway.

    19 Sep 2011, 18:18

  15. ♥ Girl21 ♥

    ♥ yes its a free chat room under www.supondo.com ♥

    15 Nov 2011, 22:25


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