Political Philosophy and Man's Search for Perfection

Plato’s Republic & Humanity’s Search for God

Imagine a perfect city. What are its attributes? How does one erect and maintain them? These were the exact questions that Socrates attempts to answer in Plato’s Republic, a philosophic, dialogue-structured text that investigates the attainability of justice and virtue in a state.

In this post, I’m going to highlight the link between Socrates’ investigation and humanity’s perennial search for God. It may seem like a stretch, but trust me, the link exists.

Though I’m no longer a political science major, political philosophy was nevertheless one of my most beloved classes but probably not for the reasons you’d imagine. Sure the readings were stimulating and the overarching themes fascinating. But what I loved most was it– particularly our study of the Republic–heightened my wariness towards the world’s desperate hunger for God.

If you already believe in Christianity, I hope you too will find your convictions strengthened. If you do not, I hope this presentation will help you in your grapple to find God.

To make the read digestible, I’ve broken this post up into multiple parts. First, I’ll expound to the best of my abilities the major ideas in the Republic (it’s not as dry as it sounds, I swear). Next, we’ll probe their flaw. Then, we’ll devise a solution together. Lastly, we will scrutinize the larger implications our discovery holds for all of humanity.

Major Ideas in Plato’s Republic

To make this section as easy a read as possible, I’ve set two goals as a writer: clarity and succinctness. Let’s begin.

How the Conversation Starts

At a religious festival a handful of bright, young men invites Socrates to converse with them. Almost right away they dive into the topic of justice–how do you define it, is it possible to have a perfectly just city, all that good stuff. After proving several views inconsistent, Socrates and two other characters begin building what they name “the city of speech” or the unjust city. Next, they try to resolve its flaws to make it “just”.

Society and The Soul

Here’s where the philosophizing gets real heavy (in my opinion). Socrates argues that there are three tiers of the city. At the highest are the rulers, beneath them are auxiliaries (guards) that carry out rulers’ commands, and beneath auxiliaries are common people (farmers, merchants, etc). Justice at the societal level means the right ordering of these three tiers, each class content minding their own business and with playing their rightful roles.

Now, get this. Socrates theorizes there are also three tiers of the soul that mirrors the three tiers of the city. At the highest level, is truth-seeking reason, next is the spirited part of ourselves which manages our emotions, and lastly impulsive lusts. A just person is someone who has their soul correctly ordered with reason ruling over the other parts.

The Philosopher King

Here enters the philosopher king, the most crucial cog in this entire scheme. The Just City needs a Just King. It needs someone who has, like the man in Socrates’ “Allegory of the Cave”, seen the light. He is someone who understands the intelligible form of Good (think of it like the meaning of goodness), whose desires are perfectly ordered so that he can rule with absolute justice and who loves truth. The big hitch is that when the man in the allegory returns to the cave and the just king returns to the city both to proclaim truth to their fellow citizens, those beneath them kill them for lack of understanding.

I’m going to end the summary here, but don’t let the spacial constraints of this post constrain you. If I’m honest, there’s a glut of content not entirely relevant to this present conversation that I deliberately cut out, like the systematic separation of children from parents, the pairing of men and women for copulation by lot, or–my personal favorite–nature versus law.

Here’s a link to a Sparknotes summary and an in-depth analysis of the Republic. It also comes with the full-length text, if you really want to dig in deep. I commend you and wish you best of luck if you do. Though reward, it’s no small task.

The Flaw with the Just City

I need to qualify the title of this section. The Just city is actually rife with multiple flaws not just one. In fact I’d already mentioned a few just a couple paragraphs ago (the children-parent relationship and copulation system). There are more that makes the Just City grossly unrealistic.

Funnily, one of them is equality between men and women. My professor specifically noted that because of this wild notion of equality in such an discriminatory society, many scholars have posited that by building the just city Socrates is actually warning against the impossibility of justice. Anyways, I digress.

The primary flaw I want us to investigate from now on is the flaw of the philosopher king. The survival and achievability of the Just City hinges on the existence of this just, essentially perfect ruler. Again, this becomes a hot issue around scholars because no such king exists.

There is no one righteous, not even one. Nobody has their souls “perfectly ordered” so they only seek goodness all the time. Name one person who loves justice purely for justice itself rather than the outcomes it produces. Think of one political leader who is able to right the social order so that justice saturates every atom of society. Heck, examine yourself. How perfect would you say you are? Do you have the audacity to proclaim yourself the spitting image of this perfect king? I don’t.

I guess that’s why Plato’s Republic calls such haven a “city of speech” cause conversing about it, like we are now, is the closest we can get to building it.

Solution to this Flaw

Now, if you read my intro, I think it safe to assume you anticipate what’s coming in this section.

Yep, Jesus.

Again, I’m aiming to keep this discussion as clean and simple as possible, so I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of all that Christians believe. If you’d like to know, I have a post here that can help clarify.

We know Socrates’ definition of justice, but what does the Bible have to say? The Hebrew word for justice means seeking out, advocating for, and helping the vulnerable/those who are oppressed. It’s like a narrowed version of “love your neighbor as yourself”; The only person who ever fulfilled that command of love completely was Jesus.

Just as Socrates voided and tweaked his companions’ definitions, so we will do the same to his definition for the rest of this post. Know that from now on, whenever you see “justice”, it’s referring to the Bible’s meaning.

I recommend watching this video, if you’d like a more in-depth study of the word in the Bible.

So why else is Jesus the perfect solution? Well, if the most imminent problem with the Just City is its lack of a perfect, just king, then that’s who we need, someone who’s not only able to rule with unadulterated justice but who’s also able to purify everyone else in his kingdom to make them perfect like himself. Christians believe this is exactly what God has planned for us through Jesus.

God plans to purify everyone He has called into His kingdom. During our time on earth, He accomplishes this through a life-long process called sanctification to cleanse us of our sinful tendencies and make us bear Christ-like qualities instead.

Now, don’t imagine “cleanse” as a slow lathering of water over the body finished with a gentle towel-patting. It’s more akin to a parent dunking their kicking, howling, mud-caked child into a tub followed by a relentless head-to-toe scrub with half a gallon of bitter soap. The sanctification process is rarely pleasant, but the outcome makes the pain worth it a thousand time over.

Even the secular world acknowledges “no pain, no gain”. But what differentiates the secular view from the Christian is that with Christians, we have an end goal in terms of our growth and sanctification–Jesus. There’s another relevant saying: fix your eyes on the prize. When it comes to standards of living and perfection, Christians know who to fix their eyes on –Jesus. God is molding us into models of our savior–perfect, righteous, holy.

In fact, he’s really the only standard of perfection the world has because he was the only one to live a perfect life. Again, if you don’t know how this was possible, I encourage you to browse that post I’d mentioned earlier. Really, it should help.

One last thing. Note the phrase “from that time on” in verse 7. It’s not referring to from Jesus’s first coming onwards but his second, when his reign, his government, will be firmly established on a new Heaven and new Earth. This explains why the world around us today is everything but perfect. His kingdom has not yet come, but it will soon. In fact, this is what Jesus himself declared during his time on earth, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).

It’s his call to the people living 2,000 years ago, and it’s his call to the people living now.

What does this Mean for the rest of Humanity?

Since I’d read the Republic, I’d been contemplating human’s bizarre capacity to comprehend perfection. Think about it. What in this material or metaphysical world is perfect? Certainly not humans; we’ve screwed up enough time on the individual and macro-scale enough times to knock ourselves off that list. Not nature, for we see disasters, deaths, and decay. Can’t be science or philosophy, since logically humans cannot endow a quality they don’t possess onto another thing.

Yet, nearly every person has some notion of perfection.

I think Romans 2:15 shines light on our dilemma: “They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”

We know perfection exists though there is nothing visibly perfect about our world because we come from a perfect creator. We’re able to debate and philosophize about a perfect, just city and a perfect, just king because such a place and such a figure does exist with God:

“Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:7)

Here is the Bible’s most straightforward answer to Socrates’ “what-if” situation. Here is the just king and the just kingdom Socrates and billions of others have so painstakingly sought throughout history.

Just as God left us our conscience to clue us into the existence of a higher order being who set standards for good and evil, so He has also left us the yearning to find perfection and ultimately Him, the only one able to satisfy that yearning.

Something humans need to realize in order to really begin a new life with God is that humans–you and me included– can never be the perfect ruler over our own lives. That’s why we need Jesus, who is actually perfect. In him alone is there freedom from our current sinful, imperfect state. In him alone is there salvation, rest, and peace for our souls for all eternity.

“All that we call human history–money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery–[is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

–C.S. Lewis

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2 thoughts on “Plato’s Republic & Humanity’s Search for God”

  1. Beautiful and hopeful. Thankful for you and Socrates.

    Btw, check out newadvent.org. “Exhaustive” source from church father’s writings all the way back to Polycarp in English.

    1. Oooo I just took a glance at it. This seems like a pretty exciting resource. I’ve been interested in learning more of Church history and what the early churches were like for the past year.

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