After thirteen years in the profession (and by switching disciplinary affiliation), I finally have the chance to teach, and thereby read through, Plato's Republic -- a text that was central to the DNA of the ongoing discussions in several departments at my graduate institution (The University of Chicago) -- to undergraduates (in a course on Political Utopianism).* Over the years I had checked various passages, to refresh my memory, in the context of my scholarship and blogging, but as I prepared my first class on it (we're doing four three hour sessions), I recognized at once that I had forgotten not just details, but non-trivial features of the book (for example the exchange with Cephalus at the start of Book 1 about which soon). Anyway, teaching the book generated sparkling class discussion and prompted some new impressions.
One striking feature of Book 2 is that the true city (372e)-- Socrates' first city in speech (369b-372d) -- is introduced as a heuristic for something else (to unearth the nature of justice in the individual): “Is not the city larger than the man?... Then, perhaps, there would be more justice in the larger object and more easy to apprehend." (368e) In a large-scale, complete (or fully grown) (371e) model distinguishing features may be more available, and (if so) in virtue of size more easily unearthed and analyzed. While this strategy is compatible with certain forms of reductionism, it is notable that in Plato we study (a feature of) a big object in order to understand (that same feature in) the smaller ones (see Gulliver's Travels, Book 2). Obviously, this involves a bet on scale-invariance.
Here I treat the so-called "city of Pigs" (Glaucon's phrase (372d) as Socrates' genuine normative ideal or baseline. The title of this post is, of course, a (serious) joke. But not just a joke. For, Socrates' healthy city has an uncanny resemblance to Smith's system of natural liberty. (In the old Loeb translation Paul Shorey also notes this.) There are, of course, subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences, but it is worth reminding ourselves of the important similarities: both 'ideal states' have an extensive division of labor and, thus, specialization; a monetized economy; are broadly egalitarian; are open to internal and external trade (that is, generate a surplus of goods and leisure time); are free of slaves; they are pacific; are property-owning; have a minimal state structure; and are famine free (about which more below). They also rely on a non-trivial distinction between necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries (see below). There is one further important similarity, but that's the speculative last paragraph below.
Of course, Socrates assumes a differentiated human nature (the differentiation is, in part, explicitly physical [371c & 371e] and natural skill) whereas Smith, as a good analytical egalitarian, assumes (agreeing with Thrasymachus) a roughly uniform human nature: "the difference...between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education." (On analytical egalitarianism see here and here). To be sure, there is also a crucial difference between Smith and Thrasymachus: Smith puts himself (the modeler) inside his model (philosophers are no different in human motivation) [echoing Hobbes and Mandeville], whereas Thrasymachus' vanity (Peart and Levy) leads him to treat his own expertise as somehow distinct from the folk he describes. (It's true that Thrasymachus is not called vain, but his blush (350d) reveals that he recognizes that he is working with an inconsistent model in which he either has to give up on his own elitism and embrace for himself the base -- proto-utility-maximizing -- description he gives of others, or has to insist that in virtue of his expertise he is somehow different from the ordinary agent. And if he, why not others?) But here, in the true city (369b-372d), Socrates does not assume, I think, a hierarchy of types (as he does elsewhere). So, the disagreement with Smith is truly minimal.+
In Socrates's true city, population growth is (to use Smith's terms) regulated by their wealth (372b) and available fertile country (372c)--thereby avoiding poverty and wars of acquisition. That is, there will be (to use Malthus's phrase) a moral check on off-spring. But this is just one of the side constraints. For, more subtly, in Socrates' ideal city, rather than generating luxury surplus, the population is allowed to grow when possible (so that, wealth/income per head stays roughly the same over the time). This is also pretty much Smith's ideal model for the right relationship between food supply, income, and population growth. [It is, I think granted by Socrates that conveniences of life (olives, cheese, salt, etc.) are allowed to grow (within moderation) and this may be culture relative; if the previous sentence is right then Smith's model is very close to Socrates's.]**
There is one very important difference between Socrates's true city and Smith's system of natural liberty. (No, I am not talking about the role of competition or Socrates's embrace of vegetarianism.) In Socrates's true city philosophy is absent. I believe this is due to the fact that philosophy is not needed, as a trade among many, in a healthy and proper functioning state. This presupposes, of course, controversially that philosophy is never purely contemplative nor a basic human need. The previous sentences are compatible with philosophy as a pure leisure activity (about which more below).
Finally, in Socrates's true city, there is room for religion. But this religion is neither the ordinary superstitious religion in which the Gods need to be bribed out of fear (see, especially, the exchange with Cephalus at 331b) nor the rationalistic religion that Socrates will articulate in the more luxurious city (378ff). But rather, in the true city there is a life-enhancing, joyful religion: "they will feast with their children, drinking of their wine thereto, garlanded and singing hymns to the gods in pleasant fellowship." I had never previously assimilated this proto-Nietzschean strain in Socrates. (I think this feature was in part obscured for me by Nietzsche's polemic against the life-denying, sickly aspects of Platonism.) It is, of course, possible that the symposia will generate philosophical discussions.
I close with a further, speculative thought. I have long wondered what the content of Adam Smith's pure and rational religion, "such as wise men have in all ages of the world wished to see established" (emphases added) might be. Earlier, I kind of focused on Smith's debts to Locke, Spinoza, and Enlightenment thinkers (like Voltaire and Hume). But in reflecting on the structural similarities between Socrates' ideal city and Smith's regulative ideal, I wondered if Smith, too, -- who insists that on this point there is consensus among the wise of all ages -- is not signaling his desire for a Socratic, that is, joyful religion.
*The book is an astounding teaching vehicle: class discussion was sparkling.
**Obviously, I am ignoring Smith's higher tolerance for some luxury spending, although he is very hostile to it.
+Epistemically, Smith is in a slightly better position, because Socrates has, as my students emphasized, limited tools to explain the discovery of the unique specialization of each.