Jean-Luc Beauchard / Freud, Nietzsche, and Plato’s “Republic”

[The following essay is excerpted from the first chapter of Jean-Luc Beauchard, City of Man: A Novel Reading of Plato’s Republic (Cascade, 2023). Pick up a copy of the book here.]

A city is thus a priori unsuited for a comparison of this sort with a mental organism.

~ Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents


Freud’s observation, made without reference to the Republic, is nevertheless so essential to the inquiry we are about to undertake that we are compelled to begin with it.[1] The city/soul analogy, of which much has been made over the millennia, is worthless. Contrary to the many—indeed, too many—scholars who have staked their readings upon it, we find from the outset that the Republic is not a work concerned with the justice of the individual soul but one focused on, even obsessed with, the question of how best to govern the masses. As Bloom rightly asserts, the title that Plato chose for his manifesto, politeia, is better translated regime than republic.[2] And a citizen (politēs) living under that regime is no more than a possession of the polis, the city’s “servant,” its “slave.”[3] The fact that “the liberty of the individual is no gift of civilization” but rather is abolished thereby,[4] a fact that sounds so objectionable to our modern ears, is perhaps made more digestible if we keep in mind why human beings associate with one another in the first place. Why live in society? Why submit to its rules and strictures? About the answer to that question, there can be no doubt. We form societies because “each of us isn’t self-sufficient but is in need of much.”[5] We associate with others because they are useful to us. It is to my advantage to live and work in a community of fellow workers, those who benefit me by their labor and whom I (begrudgingly) benefit by mine.[6]

This point, uncontroversial as it may seem, has serious implications. We will take them up in the pages to come. But before we do, we must pause over another question. How, in the first place, does one become useful to others? What is it about human beings that makes us advantageous to live with? Certainly, we were not useful from the start but were made to be so. How and by what? Nietzsche, inspector general of the human community, proves insightful on this point. As he rightly notes, before human beings could be relied upon to consistently benefit one another, we first had to be made consistent. We had to become dependable; that is, be able to do such extraordinary things as give our word and keep it, make promises and trust the promises of others, pay our debts.[7] But how does one become dependable? How is one made consistent? Answer: Like any domesticated animal, by means of strict regulation.[8] One is ordered, structured, civilized into utility. Said differently, one is forced to live under a regime and so become regimented.

To say, as Aristotle does, that man is the political animal is to say that man is the restricted animal, the animal defined by an order imposed upon him from without.[9] Politics is not something we do. It is what we are. The political animal is the ordered animal, the calculable animal, the animal artificially structured by “the morality of mores and the social straightjacket,”[10] the animal regulated by the state.[11] If this assertion is not accepted from the start, if it is dismissed offhand like so many other uncomfortable truths, then so too will everything that follows be cast aside in pursuit of more charming words, the kind that soothe and persuade while concealing the truth. Now, comfort is no mean thing. Indeed, it might justly be argued that the sole purpose of philosophy is to anesthetize its practitioners to the pains of this world.[12] But if it is comfort you seek, then I implore you to put this book down and not pick it up again. Find another work, one that is more charming, one that can charm the fears right out of you. Read the Republic. Read it like an academic, like one trained to know what he will find in a book before he has read the first page. However, if you are with me, dear reader, if you are willing to see things as they are and not as you want them to be, then let us begin this exploration together and not stop until we have looked honestly at what the Republic can tell us about the nature of political things—that is, the nature of man,[13] of you and of me and of the darkness we harbor within.


You’re still here? All the better!

Before we begin our reading of the Republic, we see from the title alone that the picture of man being offered is that of the animal who imposes order and structure upon existence because his existence is ordered and structured from without.[14] This is apparent from the opening lines of the dialogue.

I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon, son of Ariston, to pray to the goddess; and, at the same time, I wanted to observe how they would put on the festival, since they were now holding it for the first time. Now, in my opinion, the procession of the native inhabitants was fine; but the one the Thracians conducted was no less fitting a show. After we had prayed and looked on, we went off toward town.[15]

This descent to observe a festival taking place outside the city at night represents a return to the primordial chaos, the darkness that precedes society, the state of nature in a world devoid of human construction. That the festival is taking place “for the first time” clues us in to the fact that we are observing the origin of human life. Here, at the beginning, the civilized Athenians are no better than the warlike, belligerent, spirited Thracians.[16] All are equal in the Dionysian frenzy that grounds our existence. All are one in the maddening dance.[17]

Now note the vantage point. We do not enter the fray. We are observers, onlookers peering down into the dark. Like gods on Mount Olympus, we watch with impunity, untouched by the orgiastic cries, the pain and passion and confusion below. We are philosophers. We are detached. We watch from a distance. (“I wanted to observe how they would put on the festival.”) Why return to this place of primal rupture? Why observe this disordered dance? As the very next lines of the dialogue make clear, we do so in order to turn “toward town” better equipped to understand the polis and thus decide how it ought to be governed. We look to man’s beginnings so that we might direct the city’s ends.[18] (Indeed, it is no accident that the setting of this opening scene is the Piraeus—a port that, according to Bloom, was open to “the diversity and disorder that come from foreign lands” as well as various “outlandish ways of life”[19]—and yet that ultimately found itself walled in, brought under the regime of the city, literally confined by its structures.)[20]

On our way back to civilization, equipped as we now are with the knowledge that will help us govern, help us rule over that most unruly of creatures, man, we are met with resistance. We are not the only ones who have been to the nighttime procession and seen the truth of where man comes from, what man is. Led by Polemarchus (whose name means “leader of war”), a group larger and thus stronger than us has also witnessed the chaos and perhaps even partaken therein.[21] They too are ready to impose their wills upon the city of man, to work that “raw material of people and semi-animals” into a form that fits their vision.[22] And they do not take kindly to the would-be philosopher kings who have set themselves above the darkness, removed themselves from the struggles of human affairs. Socrates and Glaucon are outnumbered. They are overpowered and overcome.[23] What this early confrontation with Polemarchus and his compatriots on the road to the civilized life reveals is that, at bottom, society is built upon power—the power of the group over and against the desire of the individual.[24] Socrates and Glaucon are in a hurry to “get away to town.” But they are prevented from doing so by the first state, a band of warlike brothers who ask: “Do you see how many of us there are? . . . Well, then . . . either prove you are stronger than these men or stay here.”[25] Faced with such threats, what choice do they have but to “stay and do as I tell you”?[26]

Of course, this early semblance of a state is, as Nietzsche says, “a fearful tyranny, an oppressive and remorseless machine.”[27] It cannot be otherwise. “The replacement of the power of the individual by the power of a community [which] constitutes the decisive step of civilization” can only be felt as a sudden and pitiless incarceration to the once free, now caged human-animal.[28] But that is not to say that it is without benefit. We have all read stories of desperate men who seek their own imprisonment for fear of starvation. (At least they feed you behind bars.) Similarly, in order to escape the unlivable chaos of life beyond the walls of the polis, in order to protect oneself from the wills and whims of other individuals who are merely stronger, one readily submits to the power of the group. And this submission, one soon learns, offers protection from more than the threat of the stronger. It protects against the greatest threat of all: human need.

Agreeing to live within the confines of society enables one to ensure, as best as one ever can, that one’s needs will be met. We said above that the genesis of human society is need. We live together because it benefits us to do so. And while I need protection from the threat of violence, I need a lot more besides. I need food. I need shelter. I need clothing. I need a means of perpetuating the species. If it were not for society, I would have to secure all these things on my own and I would have to do so under the constant threat of violence, the threat posed to me by others who are attempting to secure for themselves the very same necessities. Because of society, I can work to secure one thing—say, the food supply—and have my other needs taken care of for me by my fellow citizens, some of whom build the houses, some of whom make the clothes, etc.[29]

No one will deny that this is a good thing, that the protection offered us by social life has its advantages. And yet it is equally true that such advantages come at a price, that “civilized man has exchanged a portion of his happiness for a portion of security.”[30] As the example of the highly dignified Cephalus—who, Socrates tells us, has advanced further down the road of civilization than the rest of us[31]—reveals, social living comes at the expense of “sex,” “drinking bouts,” “feasts,” “the pleasures of youth,” that is, the very things that make us human.[32] The Dionysian vision from which we fled at the start of the dialogue is now offered up, sacrificed by Cephalus in the courtyard before Socrates and Glaucon are forced to enter his family home.[33] Society is born of this ritualistic killing—the killing off of the individual’s desire—and the rite will have to be repeated again and again in perpetuity if the structures of civilization are to hold. When Cephalus exits the stage, he does so in order to offer further sacrifices.[34] One can imagine him continuing the slaughter off-page over the course of the entire dialogue. Every time human desire is put to a pitiless death, the cultured Cephalus wields his knife.

[1] Cf. Plato, Republic, 337a–b.

[2] Cf. Plato, Definitions, 413e–414a.

[3] See, Plato, Crito, 50e–52d. The citizen, politēs, Bloom tells us is literally “one who belongs to the city.”

[4] Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 49.

[5] Plato, Republic, 369b; cf. Lysis, 15a–b.

[6] It should be noted that communal living not only benefits me by providing me with the goods necessary for “staying alive,” but also protects me from the threats posed by a hostile outer world and the “wild beasts” that inhabit it. See, Plato, Protagoras, 321d–322b.

[7] See, “To ordain the future in advance in this way, man must first have learned to distinguish necessary events from chance ones, to think causally, to see and anticipate distant eventualities as if they belonged to the present, to decide with certainty what is the goal and what the means to it, and in general be able to calculate and compute. Man himself must first of all have become calculable, regular, necessary, even in his own image of himself, if he is to be able to stand security for his own future, which is what one who promises does!” Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, (2, §1).

[8] Whether this regulation of the human “chattel and livestock” can be accomplished without “exerting bodily force on our bodies”—whether, that is, we can be “directed . . . from the stern, as if [our rulers] were applying to the soul the rudder of Persuasion” rather than physical “blows”—has yet to be shown. Plato, Critias, 109b–c; cf. Republic, 327c.

[9] Aristotle learned this lesson, of course, from his teacher. See, “A polity molds its people; a goodly one molds good men, the opposite bad.” Plato, Menexenus, 238c.

[10] Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, (2, §2).

[11] Cf. Plato, Statesman, 264a–270a; Republic, 424a.

[12] Compare Socrates’ assertion that philosophers have no concern for the “so-called pleasures” of the body (Phaedo, 64d–65) with his earlier claim that pain and pleasure are always bound together (60c). That is, in fleeing one, the philosopher ensures that he will not “catch the other also” (60b).

[13] It will be obvious to the attentive reader that the privileged use of masculine pronouns throughout this work confers no privilege whatsoever. The “city of man” is indeed a masculine city, a city created by men and for men. And thus, as Socrates goes to great lengths to show, a city sick, deformed, degraded beyond recognition. (See, Plato, Republic, 451c.)

[14] As Freud notes, order “applies solely to the works of man.” Civilization and Its Discontents, 46.

[15] Plato, Republic, 327a–b. It is worth noting, if only in passing, how the religious festival depicted in this opening—and, indeed, the entire Republic—resembles the Ele- usinian Mysteries which, as Frazer tells us, include “the torchlight procession [cf. 328a], the all-night vigil [the dialogue itself is such ‘an all-night festival,’ cf. 328a], the sitting of the candidates, veiled and in silence [note how few in attendance speak throughout the dialogue], on stools covered with sheepskins [cf. 328c], the use of scurrilous language [used throughout], the breaking of ribald jests [cf. particularly Book V], and the solemn communion with the divinity by participation in a draught of barley-water from a holy chalice [cf. 363c].” Frazer, The Golden Bough, 407.

[16] See, Plato, Republic, 435e; cf. Laws, 637e.

[17] Cf. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, (§1–4). That the orderly Athenians are em- blematic of Nietzsche’s Apollonian impulse cannot be contested. Who, after all, is the author of “the greatest, fairest, and first of the laws” of the city (Republic, 427b)? That the Thracians embody the Dionysian spirit is equally beyond dispute. As Frazer tells us of Dionysus, “His ecstatic worship, characterized by wild dances, thrilling music and tipsy excess, appears to have originated among the rude tribes of Thrace, who were notoriously addicted to drunkenness” (Frazer, The Golden Bough, 396). And let us not forget, while we’re at it, that Orpheus was torn limb from limb by Thracian women.

[18] See, “Don’t you know that the beginning is the most important part of every work.

. . . For at that stage it’s most plastic, and each thing assimilates itself to the model whose stamp anyone wishes to give it.” Plato, Republic, 377a–b.

[19] Plato, Republic, p. 440n3.

[20] Cf. Plato, Gorgias, 455e–456a.

[21] See, Plato, Republic, 327c. Compare this groups’ apparent emergence from the procession with Nietzsche’s beasts of prey who “emerge from a disgusting procession of murder, arson, rape, and torture, exhilarated and undisturbed of soul, as if it were no more than a students’ prank, convinced they have provided the poets with a lot more material for song and praise.” On the Genealogy of Morals, (1, §11).

[22] See, Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, (2, §17).

[23] Plato, Republic, 327b–328b.

[24] See, “Human life in common is only made possible when a majority comes to- gether which is stronger than any separate individual and which remains united against all separate individuals.” Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 49.

[25] Plato, Republic, 327c.

[26] Plato, Republic, 328b.

[27] Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, (2, §17).

[28] Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 49.

[29] Cf. Plato, Crito, 50c–e, where the laws of the polis make plain how much the indi- vidual citizen owes them.

[30] Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 73.

[31] Plato, Republic, 328e.

[32] Plato, Republic, 329a.

[33] See, Plato, Republic, 328c.

[34] Plato, Republic, 331d.

Jean-Luc Beauchard is a philosopher and Catholic priest. He has taught courses in philosophy, theology, and literature at multiple colleges and universities in New England.


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