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  Lesson Page - Human Needs and the Origin of Cities

The Human Condition and Social Existence

They wanted to arrive at the truth, first, about the nature of justice and injustice, and secondly, about their relative advantages. I told them, what I really thought, that the enquiry would be of a serious nature, and would require very good eyes. -- Socrates

Let us then consider, first of all, what will be their way of life, now that we have thus established them. Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves? And when they are housed, they will work, in summer, commonly, stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and shod. They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reeds or on clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds strewn with yew or myrtle. And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another. And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means; having an eye to poverty or war. -- Socrates

In book 2 of the Republic, Plato approaches several fundamental question about human nature and society. One of these is whether a human being can be truly self-sufficient or not. A closely connected issue is the origin of human societies, which Plato is going to place in human needs, labor, and exchange of goods. Another question which arises from this is what it would take for members of a society to enjoy a good life, a fair and conflict-free social order, and self-sufficiency within their community.

The Big Ideas

The City and the Human Person

In the Republic, one of the central questions that Socrates and his younger interlocutors are trying to grapple with is: What is Justice? By the midpoint of book 2 -- where we are picking up the text -- several ideas about justice have been proposed, argued for, examined, and found wanting. Now, his interlocutors want Socrates to actually put his own ideas about the nature justice on the table. But, he doesn't -- at least at this point -- have a clear conception of justice to provide them.

He proposes an idea to them. It is difficult to determine just what justice is in a human person -- for the moment it's a murky topic. But we do talk about justice in terms of social life and conditions, in terms of how a community is structured and how things work (or don't!) -- perhaps if we look at justice in the City, we will come to some useful insights about what justice is in a human being. The analogy that he uses has to do with letters -- if it is difficult to read small letters, then we need to look at some larger versions of those letters. Once we've discerned what the larger letters are, it will be easier to return to the smaller ones and make sense of them.

Notice what Socrates proposes immediately after that. Instead of looking at existing cities, to see where and whether justice exists in them, he suggests that they carry out a thought-experiment. By imagining what a city is like in its process of coming-into-being, they'll get to see the justice (or the injustice) of that city also coming into being at the same time. So, they engage in an imaginative process of thinking out what would have to be the case -- or what would make the most sense -- for a city to develop.

Keep in mind that when Plato uses the word "City" (polis, in Greek) he doesn't have precisely the same thing as we call cities today in mind. For one, even the large cities of his time would be very small cities of our own time. In a Greek city, although not everyone would in fact know everyone else personally, it would be possible to get to know many of one's fellow citizens and inhabitants. Another important difference is that, for us (with rare exceptions of small city-states like Monaco and Luxembourg) cities are generally parts of States or Countries. While there were countries (like Egypt) and even multi-ethnic empires (like the Persian Empire), in Ancient Greece, city-states (like Athens or Sparta) were like independent countries -- they could make war and peace, enter into treaties, and have their own political systems and laws. So, when you see "City" or "State", think "political community."

Social Existence Arises Out of Human Need

In the thought-experiment, we begin by looking at a human being -- thinking about the basic human condition. What does that reveal to us? Simply in order to live, human beings require certain basic necessities -- simply put, they NEED. The human condition is to be needy. What does that mean, though -- it means that human beings are not self-sufficient on their own. They are not and cannot be totally independent of other human beings, because there are so many things which they do need. From these needs of human beings, Socrates claims, cities -- human communities -- arise.

So, if one aspect of the basic human condition can be said to be our neediness, our inability to supply everything we need to ourselves, to be self-sufficient, balancing this out is another equally important aspect. Human beings HELP each other in critical ways, precisely by supplying what is necessary to each other, by satisfying those needs.

Sometimes of course, this help is given freely, without expecting anything in return (at least not at the time it is given) -- for example when parents take care of the needs of their children. In many other cases, however, some kind of exchange takes place. The simplest form of this can be understood like this:

  • Person A needs x - and person B provides x to A
  • Person B needs y - and person A provides y to B

Here we have an exchange of goods. Both partners in the exchange have their needs met by what the other supplies.

What are the main types of things that human beings need? Socrates names three to start:

  • Food -- someone has to produce and prepare food
  • Shelter -- someone has to build dwellings
  • Clothing -- someone has to weave or otherwise make clothes

He quickly adds another to take care of the needs of the body:

  • Shoes -- someone has to make shoes

Each of these requires at least one person to do that work. So, we have four people in our imaginary group. Now a new and critical question arises -- how should each of these people work? There are really two main options:

  • Each person could spend 1/4 of his time on each of these activities. So each person would be a farmer, a builder, a weaver, and a shoemaker for him- or herself. Then he or she would be independent of the others.


  • Each person would spend their entire time on one of these functions, putting in 4 times as much time and work as they would have to for him- or herself. They all put their products into a common stock, and each of them gets what he or she needs from it.

What ends up deciding this matter is a basic fact about human beings, and the work that they do. Some people have talents or aptitudes for certain activities. Other people have different talents or aptitudes. And whatever kind of work it is that we have in mind, it gets done better, quicker, and more effectively by the person who has a talent for it. With time and practice, that person will actually become much more proficient in that productive activity. So, perhaps the farmer -- the person who has an aptitude for farming and who develops a skill for it by practice -- can produce 4 times as much food, but won't need 4 times as much work, effort, and time to produce it.

We now have a division of labor in our imaginary city -- each person does what he or she is best suited for, and contributes what they produce to the common stock. Each person has needs that are mainly met by other people -- but those other people do so because they are also getting their needs met.

The City Grows

If we keep thinking about this imaginary community, we realize that it will actually require a lot of other people. Why? Because we "lowballed" our estimate of what was really required for a good, full, satisfying human life. If we think these things through, we realize that we're going to need a lot of other products and services -- and that's going to require people who can concentrate on doing those jobs well.

One important group will be the people who actually produce the tools that some of the earlier workers are going to need in order to be able to do their own jobs well. We'll need carpenters and blacksmiths, just to name two kinds of artisans. We'll also need people to raise and herd animals, so that the farmer actually has something to pull his plough (remember that with each new person added, the farmer has to be able to produce enough food to sustain that new person).

All of this can be contained within the group, within the growing community that now starts to look more like a City. But, not only are human beings unable to supply all of their needs as individuals solely on their own -- that also applies to communities. There will be some resources, some goods, some products that either aren't available, or which could be developed and produced somewhere else more easily and efficiently. How is that going to happen?

An entire new class of people will be needed -- Traders. These are the members of a city who travel to other cities to acquire what they have to offer and to bring those items back to satisfy needs in their own city. But, as Socrates points out, they can't go out there emptyhanded -- they'll need some surplus items to take out there to trade. So, this means we'll need still more producers and craftspeople. Sailors -- and those to build and maintain ships -- will also be needed.

We'll also need people to facilitate the exchanges that have to take place within the city. Not everyone who produces goods will want to hang around in order to make the kinds of exchanges that will swap their goods for those of others. Retail salespeople will be needed. And, even more importantly, some sort of money or currency to permit exchanges. Another class of people will also be required -- laborers who sell their labor to others in exchange for money.

At this point, it appears as if the entire City has been developed -- all the needs of the various people are able to be met by some person or persons actually doing the work that is needed. Socrates asks where justice and injustice came into being as we carried out our thought experiment -- the answer is that it must be in how the citizens deal with each other, the matrix of their relationships.

The Luxurious City

The way of life members of this imaginary city enjoy is a simple one, but a lifestyle in which all of their basic needs are met. As Socrates depicts it, they will have all the basic necessities, enjoy their meals, and live in ease and peace. Glaucon makes his first objection -- he hasn't given these people a "relish" for their meals.

Socrates concedes this -- and suggests a number of natural "relishes". They will season their food with salt, and produce olives and cheese. They'll boil roots and herbs. They can make desserts of fruit like figs, and legumes, and they'll do some rustic roasting as well. Glaucon is still unsatisfied, however, and argues that these people should be provided with the "conveniences" of life.

Here, Socrates notes a vital distinction -- he had been focusing on the origin of human communities, and working out what would have to be the case in order to have a City for human beings. What Glaucon wants -- and what he seems to take as what any ordinary person in their right mind would want -- is the Luxurious City or State. He is asking about what would be required not just for bare living in community, but for what he conceives to be the good life.

This kind of social existence is supposed to provide its inhabitants with all sorts of things. Note that many of these are not actually necessities -- whether necessities because they are needed for bodily existence or because they help or support the things that are really needed for bodily existence. They're luxuries -- going beyond what is actually needed, what is genuinely necessary. But, in another sense, they are needs. People, like Glaucon for instance, do in fact feel like all those luxuries are in fact needs -- they think that they are necessary for the kind of life that would be worth living.

As Socrates points out, this is going to require a lot of new professions, and a number of new people to fulfill those roles. Not only will the Luxurious City require all those new artisans -- everyone from chefs to perfume-makers, from courtesans to painters and poets -- it will also require a lot of expensive and rare materials to work with. Where will this come from?

One of the natural results of this expansion of human desires beyond mere necessities is that the City will need to go to war with its neighbors. Keep in mind that the neighbors themselves might be going through precisely the same process -- and getting ready to march on the other city. Each of the cities out there is vying for dominance over the others, trying to accumulate wealth, to provide its citizens a life rich in pleasures.

So, this leads to a new requirement. War, like any other profession, can't just be left to anyone whosoever to carry out -- not if the City means to be successful (and if it's not successful, that is the end of the City!). A new profession will become necessary -- a need for the City and for its citizens -- the soldier or warrior, the person that Plato here calls the Guardian.