(Reading time: 8 minutes, 1600 words)
If Plato were alive today, he might be a hipster. He’d have the beard, for sure; he’d challenge ideas coming from institutions and people in authority; and he’d likely embrace a life of minimalism.
Minimalism is the recent movement that encourages people to declutter their homes, simplify their lives, and reject consumerism. Popular blogs like that of Joshua Fields Millburn and Joshua Becker exemplify the movement, offering simple insights and instructions on living a stripped-down yet richer life.
But minimalism is not new; the term may be, but the practice is ancient. And Plato, being one of those old dudes from ancient Greece, knew a thing or two about the dangers of over-consumption.
Although Plato was from a wealthy family, as a young man he was smitten by Socrates, and Socrates was poor—a true street prophet—unkempt, homely, and shoeless. But despite Socrates’ grubbiness, Plato declared: “[Socrates] was the wisest, and justest, and best of all men whom I have ever known.”
It was Socrates who most influenced Plato’s thinking. And Plato’s adulation of Socrates led him to cast the stout philosopher as the central character of his literary ensemble. Perhaps that is why the Republic, Plato’s most renowned work, reads like a prophetic warning against ‘wanting more.’
A Word About Justice
Republic is essentially a conversation, a dialogue, spearheaded by the ever-inquisitive Socrates. The topic of discussion is the ‘true nature of justice,’ and Socrates is inclined to believe that justice is good in and of itself. On the other hand, Thrasymachus, a politically savvy and silver-tongued sophist, believes that justice is good only if personally advantageous. The disagreement launches Socrates on a quest for the truth.
Because justice is not directly observable, Socrates suggests that something concrete be examined, something large, like a city. If a just city can be identified, then perhaps the principles that make it just can be illumined, and then something smaller can be examined against those principles, like a person. Through this process, perhaps the true nature of justice will be revealed. So with help from his interlocutors, Socrates embarks on a journey to construct an imaginary city—a city that is just.
Right away it becomes clear that the city, in its most simple form, is composed of parts that work in cooperation. People fulfill certain roles and collaborate through trade and communication for mutual benefit. The farmer specializes in farming and trades his wares for other goods. The clothier does the same, as does the builder, the baker, and so on. It is through specialization and cooperation that the city is greater than the sum of its total parts; the functioning city provides more for each citizen than they could ever achieve individually.
But Socrates’ imaginary city is very basic, and Glaucon, a young Greek who has been listening to Socrates’ verbal ruminations, detects this and interrupts.
“[Socrates,] it seems that you make your people feast without any delicacies.”
“True enough,” Socrates replies. “They’ll obviously need salt, olives, cheese, boiled roots and vegetables.”
“If you were founding a city for pigs, Socrates, wouldn’t you fatten them on the same diet?” Glaucon quips.
“Then how should I feed these people, Glaucon?” asks Socrates.
“In the conventional way. If they aren’t to suffer hardship, they should recline on proper couches, dine at a table, and have the delicacies and desserts that people have nowadays.”
“All right,” says Socrates. “I understand. It isn’t merely the origin of a city that we’re considering, it seems, but the origin of a luxurious city. And that may not be a bad idea, for by examining it, we might very well see how justice and injustice grow up in cities. Yet the true city, in my opinion, is the one we’ve described, the healthy one, as it were. But let’s study a city with a fever, if that’s what you want. There’s nothing to stop us. The things I mentioned earlier and the way of life I described won’t satisfy some people, it seems, but couches, tables, and other furniture will have to be added, and, of course, all sorts of delicacies, perfumed oils, incense, prostitutes, and pastries. We mustn’t provide them only with the necessities we mentioned at first, such as houses, clothes, and shoes, but painting and embroidery must be begun, and gold, ivory, and the like acquired. Isn’t that so?”
“Yes,” Glaucon answers.
“Then we must enlarge our city, for the healthy one is no longer adequate. We must increase it in size and fill it with a multitude of things that go beyond what is necessary for a city.”
And so it begins—expansionism and consumption. Following prompts from his audience, Socrates continually adds to the imaginary city. And as the city grows, the need for warfare becomes apparent. For how can a city expand and satiate all its desires without invading other lands? If there was any doubt before, the luxurious city, now a warmongering one, hardly seems just.
Realizing the constructed city (which looks much like any contemporary city) is a sick one, Socrates and friends seek to purify it. So they go back to the ideas that made the simple city healthy—specialization and cooperation—and begin anew by examining the soul.
Plato believes that, much like a city, the soul is composed of parts, and that a healthy or just soul will maintain a harmonious relationship between its parts, namely, the appetite, spirit, and reason. Plato also argues that every soul has a dominant disposition—an essential nature—and that justice is, in large part, staying true to this nature. It’s all a delicate balance, and desiring too much of one thing or veering from one’s nature will upset it. And, as to be expected from a philosopher, Plato suggests that reason is the faculty capable of governing this balance. In Book IV, Socrates states:
And we’ll call him wise because of that small part of himself that rules in him and makes those declarations and has within it the knowledge of what is advantageous for each part and for the whole soul, which is the community of all three parts…and he [is] moderate because of the friendly and harmonious relationship between these parts, namely, when the rational part rules and doesn’t engage in civil war against [itself].
Philosophers Think They Know Everything. Or Do They?
And thus it seems justice has been identified: the harmonious balance of parts, guided by reason. To be sure, Socrates attempts to reconstruct the ideal city, so as to test the uniformity of this discovery. It should be simple: if each member of society sticks to what they are good at, which is their true nature, and the most rational rule, which are philosophers, the city will be just. If the theory holds up, the ‘true nature of justice’ will have been found.
But then everything becomes murky when the wise rulers, popularly called 'philosopher kings', begin to practice eugenics, polyandry, and questionable methods of population control—for the sake of preserving justice, of course. When Socrates lays everything out and sees it to the end, the kallipolis (Greek for ‘beautiful city’) doesn’t seem so beautiful or just. And even if one finds eugenics and polyandry to be rational, and believes that reason can permanently set us right, Socrates quietly acknowledges the fallibility of human reason with a single sentence, offering a disclaimer on its supremacy, as if to escape through a back door. He states: “All things that come into being must decay.” He then goes on to describe the fall of the kallipolis.
So What Does This Have to do With Minimalism?
Many see the Republic as Plato’s effort to philosophically construct the ideal state. I disagree. I think Plato was more concerned with demonstrating that the ideal state is not achievable—in order to encourage self-reflection and ongoing dialogue. This is up for debate. But one message in the Republic is clear: if there is anything capable of diseasing a society or soul, it is the desire for more and more; maybe you can’t have too much of a good thing, but wanting too much of it can destroy you.
In the footnotes of Grube’s translation of Republic, he writes of this desire for more and more, what the Greeks call pleonexia:
[Pleonexia] is what one succumbs to when one always wants to outdo everyone else by getting and having more and more. Pleonexia is, or is the cause of, injustice, since always wanting to outdo others leads one to try to get what belongs to them, what isn’t one’s own. It is contrasted with doing or having one’s own, which is, or is the cause of, justice.
This ‘getting and having more’ isn’t just about ‘stuff.’ Although minimalism primarily combats materialism, Plato demonstrates that it’s not just the desire for possessions that causes our decay, but also the desire for more recognition, more success, more status, more power, more comfort and pleasure. From my own view, Plato also demonstrates, although subtly, that one can even want justice to a detriment.
In contrast, ‘doing or having one’s own’ might also be called ‘sticking to the essentials.’ It is a philosophy of minimalism. It’s not only about identifying and balancing what we need, it’s about learning to be who we are, for when we are content with ourselves, our appetites become much more manageable, our desires pacified through self-understanding and self-acceptance.
The minimalist movement today is similarly about self-awareness and the recognition that peace isn’t found in consumerism, something Socrates and Plato were onto a long time ago. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go shopping. Socrates himself visited the markets frequently, as this old story tells:
Socrates believed that the wise person would instinctively lead a frugal life. He himself would not even wear shoes; yet he fell under the spell of the marketplace and would go there often to look at all the wares on display. When one of his friends asked why, Socrates said: “I love to go there and discover how many things I am perfectly happy without.”
A version of this article originally appeared at Refine The Mind.