Plato’s Myth of the Metals and Parallels with Racism in the Ante-Bellum South (and Beyond)

GoldAs Socrates unfolds his city-in-thought, the so-called perfectly just city of the Republic, he speaks of the need for the rulers to promulgate the notorious “noble lie” (414c).[1] The noble lie consists in two parts.  First, the citizens are told that their true parent is the earth, that is, the city or polis (414d).  This part of the noble lie is designed to promote a kind of sold-out commitment to the polis-a loyalty willing to forsake even the closest (traditional) familial ties.  When this aspect of the noble lie is embraced, the citizens view each other as brothers and sisters who are all connected to a common parent, the polis (“Father/Motherland” themes come to mind).  Second, the citizens are presented with the “myth of metals.”  According to this myth, each citizen is born with one of three kinds of soul:  gold, silver or bronze.  As you might expect, the citizen’s worth and function in the city is determined by what kind of soul s/he possesses.   The myth of metals is created to promote strict class separation and is an attempt to eliminate factionalism.  The gold-souled people are best-suited to rule, the silver-souled people (the warrior class) assist the rulers in their plans for the city, and the bronze-souled people are simply to obey.  In addition, the classes must never intermarry, as those who “by nature” are superior cannot be tainted by a lower class.  For the good of the polis, the bronze-souled people must come to recognize their natural inferiority to the silver and gold-souled classes and be willing to obey and carry out their orders-after all, they are intellectually inferior to gold-souled rulers and cannot properly direct their own lives without the guidance of their natural superiors.

Of course Plato is not giving us a blueprint for an actual city (contra Popper); however, Socrates’ “building plans” strike a similar chord with modern racist projects.  (There are, no doubt, significant differences between the two projects; I’m not claiming that a one-to-one correspondence exists.  Nonetheless, the commonalities are worth pondering).   Drawing from the insights of historian Kenneth Stampp, Floyd W. Hayes III describes the ways in which slave-owners in the American ant-bellum south attempted to “create a good slave.”[2] The following are five common strategies employed by slave-owners in the process of making and managing a slave class.

First, those who managed the slaves had to maintain strict discipline.  One slave-owner said, “Unconditional submission is the only footing upon which slavery should be placed.”  Another said, “the slave must know that his master is to govern absolutely and he is to obey implicitly, that he is never, for a moment, to exercise either his will or judgment in opposition to a positive order” [Stampp, The Peculiar Institution:  Slavery and the Ante-Bellum South, p. 145].  Second, slave-owners thought that they had to implant in the slave a consciousness of personal inferiority.  They deliberately extended this sense of personal inferiority to the slave’s past.  Slave-owners believed that in order to control black people, the slaves “had to feel that African ancestry tainted them, that their color was a badge of degradation” [to use Socrates’ language, they needed to feel that they were mere “bronze” souls] (ibid.).  The third step in the training process was to awe the slaves with a sense of the slave-owner’s enormous power.  It was essential, various slave-owners declared, “to make them stand in fear” (p. 146) [following the Republic, to show them the force of the warrior class/silver-souls if they decide to overstep class boundaries].  The fourth aspect was the attempt to “persuade the bondsman to take an interest in the master’s enterprise and to accept his standards of ‘good conduct'” (p. 147) [you must believe our “noble lie” and embrace the solidarity and customs of the city-after all, it’s for the good of the city, which is our Mother].  Thus the slave-owner sought to train slaves to accept unquestionably his criteria of what was good and true and beautiful.  The final step, according to Stampp’s documents was “to impress Negroes with their helplessness:  to create in them a habit of perfect dependence upon their masters (ibid.)”[3]


[1] On my interpretation, the city-in-thought is not a kind of blueprint for an actual city.  Rather, by showing the impossibility of such a (totalitarian, calculation-oriented) city, Plato highlights the theme of eros (broadly construed as “love”, “desire”, “longing,” etc.) as that which constitutes human existence and which cannot be controlled or managed by mathematics, calculated reason, eugenics etc.  In other words, all humans are lovers of something and these various loves, desires and longings are what drive us and direct our lives, actions and decisions.

[2] Hayes, Floyd W. III.  “Fanon, Oppression, and Resentment  The Black Experience in the United States,”  in Fanon:  A Critical Reader.  Gordon, Lewis R., Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean, and White, Renee T. eds., (Cambridge:  Blackwell, 1996), p. 16.

[3] Hayes, p. 16.

Plato and Eros: Should a Philosopher Rule the City?

Increasingly, I think that a good way to read the Republic is to see it as highlighting the failure of mathematics/calculation to control human eros (e.g. the failure of the marriage number/lottery), as eros is constitutive of what it is to be human.  Here eros is understood in a broad sense as desire or longing for something.  For example, the philosopher is a lover of wisdom.  In that sense, s/he is erotic.Plato in Athens

In book VII of the Republic, Socrates describes life immersed in the visible realm as a life of slavery.  For example, the people who are in bonds in the cave are lovers of sights and sound.  So we have a critique of lovers of sights and sounds, and the implication that freedom comes in the study of essences.  Hence, only the philosopher is truly “free.”  The philosopher, because he knows “true” reality, the essences, must then go back into the cave (the polis) and rule.  However, there are a number of tensions with this account.  Does knowing the essences of x make you better at doing x? Or is it that knowing the particular x makes you better at doing x?  For example, someone could have an excellent grasp of the essence of music theory, yet be tone deaf and completely unable to make music.   Glaucon, whose shortcomings we often highlight, actually seems to have an insight on this point.  In other words, Glaucon’s attempts to bring Socrates down to the visible world seems reasonable because he sees correctly that Socrates is setting up an educational system that produces people who are not comfortable in the cave or the city; they don’t like it; they want to be contemplating the essences.  Some scholars attempt to resolve this tension by appealing to the ancients’ communal sense over against a more modern, individualistic leaning, which makes what “I” want more important than the needs of the city.  However, that doesn’t seem to solve the issue, because I’m suggesting that it would not be better for the city for the philosopher to rule, as knowing x does not necessarily make one better at doing x.

Plato’s Socrates is of course incredibly subtle and often leads us in one direction simply to show us that that particular path is a dead end.  Perhaps that is what he is doing here.  For example, Socrates is aware that the philosophers who have come out of the cave and glimpsed the light of the Sun (the Form of the Good) will not want to go back down (just as Socrates didn’t want to go down to the Piraeus at the beginning of book I).  At 520d Socrates intimates that a democracy would not be the best regime because the leaders all want to rule and are power-grabbers. Later in the Republic in his discussion of the different regimes, he shows how each character type is conflicted and deficient in his erotic attachments (e.g., oligarch is a money-lover).  Since the philosopher is also erotic-a lover of wisdom (Cephalus’ being the foil, as his lack of eros disqualifies him as a potential philosopher), to rule would cause him to live in a disordered state, as he would have to (at least part of the time) turn away from his love of contemplation.  In other words, the philosopher would be conflicted.  This confliction is not exactly parallel with the internal tension experienced by the oligarch or timocrat; yet, it is a genuine tension because he is pulled away from what he loves and does best and is forced to engage in something for which he has no erotic attraction.

Though Plato’s Socrates makes several critical statements concerning the democratic regime, it just might be the case that he is actually ambivalent to democracies.  For example at 557, he states, “It [the democratic regime] is probably the fairest, the most beautiful of all regimes.”  Then at 557d, he says, “It is probably necessary for the man who wishes to organize a city, as we were just doing, to go to a city under a democracy.”  Here in effect Socrates is saying, if we want to do what we are doing right now (i.e. engaging in philosophy), then maybe we have live in a democratic regime.  Consider the “clues” that we’ve been given that his might be the case.  A basic feature of democracy is the protection of privacy.  With regard to our present concern this means there is no compulsion or obligation to be political.  This is the opposite of what we find in the parable of the cave, where the philosopher is forced to return to the cave; hence, he is forced to be political.  We see this mimicked at the very beginning of the Republic when Socrates is “forced” metaphorically to stay in the Piraeus.  Thus, in contrast to Socrates’ supposed perfectly just city, in a democracy, because privacy is assured, a person could pursue philosophy, as there is no compulsion to be political.  If, as I believe it is, the city in thought is a failure, a purposed reductio ad absurdum, and eros is constitutive of humans and cannot be controlled by mathematics (which has a kind of necessity to it), then a democracy is in fact the best (although imperfect human-all-too-human) regime for the politician and the philosopher.  Why?  It allows the eros of the politician to be satisfied because s/he is doing what s/he is best suited to do.  The same thing goes for the philosopher.  Whether this works out for the artisans (and for their ultimate good) is another question, which will have to wait for another time.