The Limit of Philosophic Eros in Plato’s Republic (1)



Despite Plato’s erotic dialogues, the Symposium and Phaedrus, eros has an inferior place, In the Republic. In book 4, when Socrates introduces the tripartite division of the soul, he places eros at the lowest level (493d).[1] Indeed, in book 9, Plato clearly talks about the corrupting nature of eros to the extent that he describes the tyrannical man as the embodiment of eros (573b-e, 574b8-c7). According to Plato’s account in the Republic, all forms of desires, including eros, are deaf to reason unless they are tamed by thumos, i.e. the spirited part of the soul, which it is more receptive to reason’s guidance. Shockingly, after a long criticism of eros in the Republic, Plato presents it in a more positive light in book 5, where he introduces his three waves of paradoxes. Plato’s treatment of eros is problematic in the Republic. On the one hand, eros is viewed in a negative light; on the other hand, he praises the philosophic eros as a vehicle for reaching the wholeness and perfection.[2] The puzzle becomes more complex when Socrates views the act of philosophizing as fundamentally erotic (474d-475d).[3] Because the philosophizing is part of eros, viewing it in negative light, in fact, influences the place of philosophy in the Republic. There is a tension in the heart of the Republic with respect to eros: on the one hand, Plato believes reason, whose primary driving force is eros, must rule; on the other hand, he gives an inferior place to eros in general. My argument to make sense of this tension is that in the Republic Socrates realizes that fulfilling the philosophic eros in its fullest is impossible and perhaps undesirable. In the rest, I give the possible reasons that might compel Socrates to take this position.

The limits on fulfilling philosophic eros might be either due to compelling philosophers to rule or due to the nature of political life that demands requirements which conflict with the nature of political life. More precisely, there are two possible reasons for Plato to endorse limitation: the first might be the philosophers’ obligation to rule (Necessity of Ruling) and the second reason might be the political life necessities’ that clashes with the nature of philosophic eros (Necessity of Political Life). I argue, since the Necessity of Ruling cannot be the case, the second is a more plausible reason.

  1. The Janus-faced of Eros in the Republic

Eros, in its Greek sense, refers to a passionate love or powerful lust for someone or something. In fact, the term in its classical form has a broader meaning than in the modern English language (Ludwig 202). The object of eros in its classical sense is not content-specific. It can be a physical object, a person, a habit, or, according to Plato, philosophical learning (501d2). Stanley Rosen in his article, “The Role of Eros in the Republic” defines eros as such, “Eros is striving for wholeness or perfection, a combination of poverty and contrivance, of need mitigated by a presentiment of completeness” (453).

The first instance that eros is mentioned in the Republic is when Cephalus brags about his old age. Since his desires for bodily pleasures have faded, he is more suitable for philosophical conversations. Cephalus, after welcoming Socrates in his house, says, “I want you to know that as the other pleasures, those connected with the body, wither away in me, the desires and pleasures that have to do with speeches grow the more” (328d2-4). Interestingly, it is Plato who makes Cephalus to speak in the way that he desires and makes Cephalus to highlight the two tensional features of eros, one that is tyrannical that distracts the soul for rational conversations and the other that moves the soul toward rational conversations. These two tensional features of eros are one of the continuous, but less visible, strands of Socrates’s conversations in the entire Republic. My thesis is that the tension springs from untamed eros that will pose dangers for both the city and the soul; however, this tension is settled through taming eros by philosophic education. A tamed eros is no danger to political order as the most fundamental problem of politics. Furthermore, a tamed eros operates as a vehicle for philosophical inquiries rather than tyrannizing the rational part of the soul.

In the Republic, to tackle the challenge of Thrasymachus that justice is the interest of the stronger (338c), Socrates, under the pressure of Glaucon and Adeimantus, continues his inquiry about justice. Soon his interlocutors found his arguments against Thrasymachus inadequate (354b-357a). Hence, Socrates gives up his initial definitional approach and adopts a new way of inquiry from book 2 on. The new inquiry about justice starts from seeking justice in the city first and then in the soul. He justifies the new way of inquiry on the grounds that there is an analogy between the city and the soul; furthermore, since the city is bigger than the soul; therefore, justice will be more visible to us. Hence, along with his inquiry, he builds several cities (368c-369a). The inquiry to reveal the nature of justice begins with a discussion about the origin of political life, which is a limitation of human nature. Each one naturally is able to become experts only in one job.

The first city that Socrates builds in the Republic is what Glaucon rebelliously calls “the city of pigs.” The first city is a small austere community of less than ten people who merely live off the barest necessities. There are no couches, meats, or relishes and sexual relationships are limited only to reproduction. Both politics and philosophy are absent from the first city. Erotic Glaucon rebels against “the city of pigs” and demands more luxuries to the city (372d). Socrates gives in to Glaucon’s demands and accepts more luxuries into the city and calls the luxurious city “a feverish city” (373a). The fact that philosophy emerges in the feverish city, and it is used as a tool to purge the city from its excesses highlights one of the major function that Plato assigns to philosophy. Later in the Republic, we see that philosophy is used to purge the soul from its excesses.

One can claim that since eros is the engine of philosophical investigation, or as in Symposium is called a ladder, Socrates, by accepting the introduction of Glaucon’s erotic demands, wanted to trigger his philosophic eros to make him more eager for continuing in philosophizing to eventually tame his interlocutor’s eros. As Rosen holds, “His [Glaucon] eros is in the process of being shifted from the pleasures of the body to those of the soul. Needless to say, this does not mean that he is being transformed into Adeimantus” (107). It is in book 3, after completing the education of the guardians, when the city is purged of music and poetry, that Glaucon’s eros is tamed (399e1-7). However, after Socrates has purged the city, which means that he has purged the city of excessive eros of poetry and music, he does not think that he is done. In this stage, he does not intend to return to the “city of pigs.” He states, “let’s purge the remainder” (399e8). According to Socrates, the purged city is still feverish, but the fever has only reduced in this stage. The more radical purge is yet to come. In fact, Socrates, by accepting Glaucon’s demands to go beyond the first city confirms that the human being’s eros cannot be suppressed entirely for a long time. In other words, we cannot go below a certain level of animality. There are always Glauconic sprits that are going to revolt against the austerity of the first city and demand more pleasures. Or the Glauconic-like drives within our soul will revolt and demand more pleasure. Hence, Socrates endorses that eros is insuppressible, but is able to be redirected. His hope is to redirect Glaucon’s desire for bodily pleasures toward the love of speech and philosophical inquiries.

1.1. Justice of the Soul: Eros and Tyranny[4]

            A just soul is a moderate and orderly soul, since it is orderly and just it is healthy. The soul, to Plato, is a tripartite entity in which each part is defined by the function that it performs. It becomes unhealthy when the order between the parts is disturbed. The three parts of the soul are the appetitive part, the honor-loving part, and the rational part. In a just soul the rational part rules over the other two parts while the appetitive part is subordinate to the honor-loving part. The rational part is responsible for maintaining a healthy balance in the soul since calculation is its main function. On the contrary, the balance, in an unjust soul, is disturbed. A tyrannical soul is a disorderly soul whose appetitive part has dominated its rational part. The danger of eros is that it is deaf to reason if it is untamed. In a tyrannical soul eros is untamed, and it rules over the rational part. It is tyrannical since reason, as the finest and highest part of the soul, has been suppressed by its lowest part.

1.2. Characteristics of philosophic eros:

According to Plato, eros functions as a ladder that helps a philosopher to reach the realm of Ideas as the realm of thing-in-themselves not the realm of appearances, or as Strauss states, “The eros points to the philosophic eros, the eros peculiar to the philosophers (501d2), which becomes quest for knowledge of the idea of the good, an idea higher than the idea of justice” (112). In effect, philosophic eros functions as a ladder that makes a philosopher able to abstract from the realm of appearances, where gaining knowledge is impossible, and take him to the realm of Ideas within which the knowledge is attainable.[5] About the erotic nature of philosophical inquiry and its insatiable nature, Socrates gives a moving picture by using an erotic language, He maintains, “ … it is the nature of real lover of learning to struggle toward what it is, not to remain with any of the many things that are believed to be, that, as he moves on, he neither lessens nor lessens his erotic love until he grasps the being of each nature itself with the part of his soul that is fitted to grasp it, because of its kinship with it, and that, once getting near what really is and having intercourse with it and having begotten understanding and truth, he knows, truly lives, is nourished, and- at that point, but not before- is relieved from the pains of giving birth?” (490b). Thus, eros is a strong, needy drive and tends to cross all limits to seek out completeness. It is an insatiable and spontaneous desire that never stops the pursuit of its object. The philosophic eros is an offspring of eros. As Newell maintains,“ … Philosophy is longing without completion, a cycle of recurrent need and partial clarification” (140).

But what are the “laws” of philosophic eros that puts it at odds with the requirements of living in the city? In the Republic, the possibility of fulfilling philosophic eros is pursuit in the context of politics and the constraints that a philosopher is facing are the result of living among others in the city. In political life, the philosopher’s strive for wholeness and fulfilling the ceaseless desire for wisdom faces many obstacles.


I address this conflict in the next entry.

Amin Sophiamehr


[1] In his book, The City and Man, Leo Strauss states with respect to the passage (329b6-d1) in the beginning of the Republic, “This is nothing to say of the fact that the Republic almost opens with a curse on eros” (112).

[2] Stanley Rosen in his article, “The Role Eros Plato’s Republic,” defines eros as such, “Eros is striving for wholeness and perfection, a combination of poverty and contrivance, of need mitigated by a presentiment of completeness. This presentiment cannot be fulfilled, but its goal is knowledge of the ideas, and thus an adequate vision of the Good” (453).

[3] In this regard, Paul W. Ludwig in his article, “Eros in the Republic”, states that, according to Socrates’s “erotic” dialogues, “reason and eros have a synergistic relationship” (203).

[4] In the Republic, Socrates in (573b6), (574d8), (575a3), (576bll), and (579d5-8) discusses the connection between tyranny and eros.

[5] Knowledge is only attainable by moving beyond the realm of appearances and moving toward the realm of things-in-themselves. It is the ability of contemplating Ideas that give the philosophers legitimacy to become rulers.


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