Whether we’re talking about Plato’s philosophy or Christian doctrine, it is often the burden of the believer to convince the skeptic that worldly pleasure and success are not the measures of all things. The “common sense” assumption of the world is that health, beauty, and wealth are goods to be desired (usually in that order) and that, once achieved, they will make us happy. In point of fact, argues the Athenian, an individual might possess all of these things and still be perfectly unhappy:
Suppose a man were to enjoy health and wealth and permanent absolute power—and, if you like, I’ll give him enormous strength and courage as well, and exempt him from death and all the other “evils,” as people call them. But suppose he has nothing in him but injustice and insolence. It is obvious, I maintain, that his life is wretchedly unhappy. (661e)
This is not to say that health and wealth and power are inherently bad. The Athenian makes the point that in the possession of a just man they can amplify his justice and enhance his happiness. The problem is that the same is true in reverse—in the possession of an unjust man, as the Athenian argues in the quote above, they merely multiply his opportunities for injustice and so stretch his unhappiness to the utmost.
Quite reasonably, Cleinias is skeptical of the Athenian’s claim. For that matter, all of us should be a bit skeptical. Even if we embrace the basic points that it’s better to be just than unjust and that the soul of an individual directly affects the way he uses his resources, why should we conclude that it’s better to be poor, sickly, and powerless and unjust; as opposed to rich, healthy, and powerful and unjust?
The problem inherent in this question is that we are trying to sweeten up the unjust soul by assuming that he is even capable of enjoying these good things of life. The reality is that this is not happiness, it is rather further damage being done to the soul as it is further drawn toward wickedness. It is the job of the legislator to give us a proper vantage point so that we can see the true nature of reality and adjust our understanding of the relationship between justice, happiness, and material prosperity accordingly:
Looking at a thing from a distance makes nearly everyone feel dizzy, especially children; but the lawgiver will alter that for us, and lift the fog that clouds our judgment: somehow or other—by habituation, praise, or argument—he will persuade us that our ideas of justice and injustice are like pictures drawn in perspective. Injustice looks pleasant to the enemy of justice, because he regards it from his own personal standpoint, which is unjust and evil; justice, on the other hand, looks unpleasant to him. But from the standpoint of the just man the view gained of justice and injustice is always the opposite. (663c)
Of course, once we realize that the just and unjust souls have differing views of the question, we ought to take the side of the just soul and try to see things from that perspective.
From this discussion, the Athenian returns to the question of education. Let’s assume for a minute that all this business about justice and prosperity is bunk, isn’t it at least good bunk? To the point where it might actually be worthwhile to teach it to children by means of myths and stories and coloring books and all those other sorts of things we use to indoctrinate our young? Shouldn’t there be a Schoolhouse Rock song about how money won’t make you happy? This brings us back to the role of the arts in the state—particularly the role of three choruses.
I maintain that our choruses—all three of them—should charm the souls of the children while still young and tender, and uphold all the admirable doctrines we have already formulated, and any we may formulate in the future. (664b)
This is a working out of what the Athenian had started to discuss earlier with more specifics of how the arts (music and theater, in this case) are to be used to generate virtue in the state. Four tiers are envisioned:
1) The children’s chorus: dedicated to the muses, the young will sing devotion to virtue with well-mannered frivolity—channeling all their youthful energy into the movement and noise that reflects the good life.
2) The young men’s chorus: those under the age of thirty are dedicated to Apollo and have the job of reinforcing the doctrines sung by the children.
3) The men’s chorus: those between the ages of thirty and sixty are dedicated to Dionysus and form the repository of virtue for the state. Their job is to show true happiness in the virtuous life in such a way that it is attractive to the younger citizens. How do we encourage older men to cut loose a little bit? Through the appropriate application of alcohol…
4) The elderly: men over the age of sixty are not required to join the chorus but instead have the role of storytellers. In a sense, they are both inspired by and provide the source material for the songs of the other tiers.
The point of this hierarchy of music is, as we’ve said, reinforcing the role of virtue in the state. Art must exist for the sake of the good, not for its own sake. Which means it will be critically important to decide who we let participate in the making of art—the subject of the next section.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.