An expanded version of these thoughts was presented at the University of Dallas for the Institute of Philosophic Studies Spring Colloquium 2013.
In the city-soul narrative of Books VIII and IX of The Republic, Plato clearly directs our attention to the major weaknesses of the democratic character, illustrated by the lack of order and chaotic state of the soul. The democratic character is supposed to be second to last on the list of degenerating characters: take one wrong step and – watch out! – your soul might end up in a tyrannic state! With its low placement and its negative description, the democratic character appears to have only place to go: downwards; such a person appears to be headed straight for wickedness and irrationality. And yet, Plato also remarks about some surprisingly positive elements of this character. Why does Plato include these positive aspects? Is there hope for such a character?
A democractic character has a high regard for the democratic values of equality and freedom and attempts to govern his or her whole life in accordance with them. At first, the democratic character is like an immature son who runs after wild pleasures, but later, as he grows older, he appears to live according to some kind of moderation and even refers to his life as “sweet, free and blessed.”[ref]Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom, 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books 1991), 561d.[/ref] Plato describes this “senior” democratic character as follows:
. . . he . . . lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him . . . drinking and listening to the flute . . . practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy. Often he engages in politics and, jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to him . . . And there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but calling this life sweet, free and blessed he follows it throughout.[ref] Ibid., 561c-d.[/ref]
The freedom to enjoy life, the interest in philosophy, as described here, in addition to the practice of moderation, the basic decency of the democratic soul, the unwillingness to give into hostility or lawless behavior, mentioned elsewhere in the text, are all positive aspects of the democratic character. Over 2000 years later, Kierkegaard offers us a narrative description of a similar sort of character: the reflective aesthete. By looking at Kierkegaard’s description of the aesthete, I believe that we are better able to understand why Plato is including such positive elements.
The aesthete lives according to similar principles as the democratic character. He or she is focused on the now, the immediate and is dedicated to satisfying whatever desire happens to come along. Kierkegaard describes: “ . . . the [a]esthetic in a person is that by which he spontaneously and immediately is what he is.” [ref] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or in The Essential Kierkegaard, ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), II 178, p. 77.[/ref] An aesthete, however, cannot remain in the aesthetic way of life for very long without the infiltrating of the ethical. In other words, the ethical way of life will come knocking at the door. He or she has the opportunity to make a free choice to begin the journey upwards toward higher ways of life, the ethical and ultimately, the religious.
The upward climb, for Kierkegaard, begins with a free choice, but for Plato, it begins with the dialectic, the practice of dialoguing and searching for truth. With the democratic character’s openness to philosophy and the principle of moderation, he or she could realize that there is something more than the equal gratification of desires and through the practice of dialectic, begin to seek after the Good.
Thus, upon an analysis of Kierkegaard’s aesthete, an implicit orientation of the democratic character comes to light: the ability to climb upward as well. This type of character, who, at first, appears stuck in the selfish gratification of desires and privy to a disorderly soul and life, contains hope of something more. The aesthete cannot escape the offer to go higher, but whether or not a person will choose to ascend is another matter. In the same way, the democratic character, upon tasting philosophy, may crave for more and begin the search for the Good. Though many desires may entrap him or her, a democratic character has the opportunity to ascend higher, but he or she must be willing to turn completely around.