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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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