Meditations on a Christian “Republic”

I originally composed this text in 2014, with the notion of making it a companion piece to a discussion on King Aragorn and Denethor the Steward. As it happens, quite without realizing it, I wrote that companion piece in Hands of a Healer: The Nobility of Imagination in The Return of the King when I finished rereading The Lord of the Rings. In that sense, the two articles go together, although they can be read in either order.

I should make clear straight away what sort of discussion this is. It is not intended to be an academic or rigorous work, but simply a meditation on an important work of Plato’s. At the risk of narcissism, I must say that I am talking here very much from my own biographical experience of the text, including my biography as a reader. Indeed, given that many of my most beloved writers—especially Boethius, but also Augustine, Anselm, and C.S. Lewis—have Neoplatonic aspects to their thought, it is perhaps no surprise that I am drawn to Plato’s most famous discussion of the order of the soul in The Republic, through the use of the allegory of a city with three classes of people. Taken as straightforward political philosophy the perspective would disturb me, but I have never taken seriously this reading of the text. On the other hand, as a way of contemplating the human individual it compels me a great deal. I have been lead, however, to consider what alterations I might suggest (albeit recognizing the impetuous nature of offering such alterations to Plato) to the jurisdiction of the Platonic city from my perspective as a Christian. To the degree that I am correcting a reading of the Republic, rather than responding to it as a more informed scholar might, I leave for my better readers to judge.

To summarize (with all the necessary caveats of the insufficiency of summarization), Plato imagines a place where philosopher-kings rule over guardians and ordinary workers, and relates this to three components in the human person: Reason, spiritedness (or what might be called gumption or conviction), and the appetites. Reason, as the king, tells the guardians what to fight for, how to protect the city internally and externally, and tells the appetites what to desire. Because Reason is rational, this is not tyranny but a rulership of justice, for Reason as King can see what is truly best for the guardians. It is easy to fall here into seeing Plato as merely articulating Gnosticism or Manichaeism, as Soul versus Body, Mind versus Matter. But Plato sees conviction and the appetites as part of the soul; they have immaterial as well as material value. No, Plato is not dismissing these drives, but only asserting that they have a fitting and proper role. As beings with the ability to contemplate our actions, we must think carefully; we must have the vigor to carry out our conclusions; we must learn crafts to employ that rationally directed energy. This, so far as it goes, seems reasonable to me, and the overreactions to him, whether viewing him as rejecting the value of poets or rhetoric or balking at the mere existence of a hierarchy within his conceptualization, all seem to me to be precisely that – overreactions.

But while I accept the framework, as a Christian I cannot let certain details pass. First, I cannot abide by human kings. How Plato thought of kingship is not my concern; in any case, the term creates obfuscations with our modern, fantasy-literature distorted depiction of sovereignty. I prefer stewardship; perhaps Plato meant something akin to this, perhaps not. No matter. Rather than King Reason, our passion and our desires must be led, shepherded, by a humble Steward Reason, always aware of his own finitude. (This, incidentally, is why Aragorn is more kingly than Denethor – because he is more of a steward – see the blog entry mentioned above  for more on this subject). As a leader, Reason cannot be effective without his compatriots, and he must do more than legislate from down on high to his subjects. For Reason may fail, and in his imperfections ought to hear the reasonable requests of those he stewards, the Energies and the Appetites. Reason cannot conceive of either peaceful diplomacy or just war by means of some pure logic—it is only by knowing the force of a moral argument that a course of action can be taken. Where the mind may freeze in endless debates about the value of life, the Appetites of sexual desire and hunger give Reason direction. Of course, in pacifism or war-mongery, Epicurean lust or Puritanical repression, gluttony or anorexia, convictions and appetites can go astray. So Reason must not become these things, though among them—they are “natural,” so to speak, but Reason must seek to be supernatural in its stewardship. Convictions and appetites are not pests to control, but are like favored pets, or children, or lifelong dependents of some kind who must be acted on for in their best interest. One who trains a dog for his own convenience will never find delight in his dog. One who parents his child only to be sent away and not to make the child an adult will never have parented. One who treats an invalid dependent on him as a nuisance does not appreciate, not only that other person’s humanity, but his own as well.

None of these analogies stands perfectly, but a reason that stands too high, too free and clear from passion and appetite, will never really know what it is shepherding and stewarding. Reason must think on logic itself, as well as the logic suggested by flight or fight responses, and the logic disposed into the need to sleep, a perception of another human being as attractive, or the rumblings of the belly. Reason must not become these things, but rather hear them, serve them, tend to them, train them, direct and guide as dear friends, close relatives, intimate confidants. Reason must honor them both by not allowing the impulses of conviction or pulls of the appetites to take on duties which will harm them—sexual desire or the need for food must not be taken as logic—nor by casting them out or believing that because they are not Reason that they are not, in some sense, rational. Made by God, the full person participates in the Good, and Reason, as Steward, must search both for the good it can see on its own merits and share these with the heart and the soul; it must also see the good which conviction and appetite bring which Reason on its own cannot perceive. A good boat may save a deficient sailor; a good sailor knows how to capitalize upon the properties of a boat of any caliber.

But finitude is not all there is Reason must be aware of. Sin is not only of the heart and the body—sin is also of the mind. When the appetites lead the Steward astray, the Steward has failed.

Reason has a moral duty to the Appetites, and this is why Gnosticism and naïve dualism really fail. It is all too easy to sit back and blame carnal nature for lust—if we repent of the appetite gone wrong but not also of the bad stewardship, we fail. Reason must come kneeling, weeping along with the rest of the soul—it cannot hang back self-righteously as the spiritedness beats its chest and the appetites mourn. Reason, Human Reason, in Christian epistemology, is a Steward and thus not a law unto itself, but stands under the light of divine reason, which knew better than to leave human ratiocination to conclude that we have sinned and that we have been wicked on its own. C.S. Lewis argued that we must not be “men without chests” in The Abolition of Man, for that is, I believe, a large reason why many of us succumb to, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “having a form of godly devotion but proving false to its power.” The motivating force of conviction and the motivating force of the appetites are trained by Reason, but Reason learns from conviction to yearn after purity and from appetites to hunger after the blood and the flesh of the Son of the Ancient of Days. Reason must burn wicked logic as the eye must be plucked out—not, I must be clear, avoiding thinking critically or assaulting another’s thoughts, but aching and regretting and weeping over how it has nurtured false convictions or allowed appetites to fester and glut themselves. The whole soul must be laid bare, must know its depravity, thorough depravity. I say not total depravity with Calvin, but thorough, for we must not be led to believe that any part of ourselves is too good for repentance, not even Steward Reason. When our higher nature has gone amiss, it must have the humility to see how our lower nature has been ordered by grace, and that without this foundation from the least of ourselves, our loftiest inward places could never soar, could neither triumph nor fail.

The New Testament rarely uses the image of the city to talk of the individual’s role as a Christian—though we are called to be like a city on a hill. More frequently we are compared to the body of Christ, and this visceral understanding of the soul is to me healthier. For if the mind looks to the body as part of knowing itself, it knows it must rid itself of refuse, take in proper nourishment, and know that it has limits and cannot do everything but that strenuous labor to do things which test those limits increases its health. The mind must not reduce itself to the body any more than the body ought to lie down and reduce itself to the dirt, at least not while it is able to strive for something more. For to lie down and reduce the soul to the body is a longer fall than for the body to the surface of the earth. The body, among humans, needs other bodies to live, grow, create, and so does the mind. If we fail to be stewards to one another, we fail to be stewards of ourselves. If we treat others as answers to our appetites or ciphers to play out our convictions, we fail to see them as fellow souls. Each of us, limited and finite, pulses of rational thought governing our passion to protect as guardians and our appetites to move our bodies, interact together like a weave of Christmas lights, where light depends upon light both within the soul itself and the greater community of souls. And these together must order to the greatest Light, steering ourselves and helping others to steer themselves by the revelations of that Light.

The body requires the proper environment to thrive, and the soul does as well. Externally, internally, imminently and transcendentally, thoroughly we must practice stewardship within, around, and above. We must never be kings, nor can we be slaves, over our convictions and our appetites, for we are not our own masters. While the Master appears to be away, the Stewards must serve, and we must, to be reasonable, be full-souled. Reason must ask, chests must heave, bodies must move. Minds as well as hearts must receive sacraments, and the whole person must repent in reason, spirit, and desire. To embrace the neighboring lights we must look to the First of lights, but to pretend as though we can call to God alone when our souls have been disordered in regard to one another is to make believe in an unjust God. Just as we cannot worship God only with our appetites, or only with our passion, or only with reason, so we cannot worship only with our own souls, for we are a Body. And if we have been irrational, too impassioned or excessively appetitive, if we have spoiled our communion with fellow souls, how can Communion with the Father of Souls go untouched?

Alone and together we must tend to our souls as we call upon the One who Heals. Then our city shall be upon a hill, and the darkness will be made into light.