Daily Archives: November 3, 2011

Plato’s odd hierarchy of human types

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates discusses the transmigration of the soul (reincarnation), saying that the estate into which one is born depends on how much of the truth one has seen in one’s previous incarnations. He lists the following nine degrees, from the most enlightened to the least.

  1. the soul which has seen most of truth shall come to the birth as a philosopher, or artist, or some musical and loving nature;
  2. that which has seen truth in the second degree shall be some righteous king or warrior chief;
  3. the soul which is of the third class shall be a politician, or economist, or trader;
  4. the fourth shall be a lover of gymnastic toils, or a physician;
  5. the fifth shall lead the life of a prophet or hierophant;
  6. to the sixth the character of poet or some other imitative artist will be assigned;
  7. to the seventh the life of an artisan or husbandman;
  8. to the eighth that of a sophist or demagogue;
  9. to the ninth that of a tyrant

This is Benjamin Jowett’s translation, and I am not entirely confident of its accuracy. Was there really such a profession as “economist” in Classical Greece? (Elsewhere in his Phaedrus Jowett has earned my distrust by using “grasshopper” for what is clearly meant to be a cicada. Why would grasshoppers be up in the trees “looking down at us”? And how could it possibly be said of those proverbially voracious agricultural pests that “they neither hunger, nor thirst, but from the hour of their birth are always singing, and never eating or drinking”? A lot of translators make that mistake, for some reason; it’s gotten to the point where I simply assume that all “grasshoppers” in translations from the Greek are cicadae unless there is strong textual evidence to the contrary.)

Leaving that anomalous “economist” aside, Plato’s hierarchy still raises a lot of questions. I haven’t been able to discern any formal structure to it — it isn’t organized chiastically, or in three groups of three, or anything like that — so I can only assume that it is meant to be taken at face value, as a ranking of of human types from highest to lowest.

The most surprising thing to me is that, while the artist is considered to be of the highest rank, coequal with the philosopher, the imitative artist ranks just two steps above sophists, demagogues, and tyrants. The term “imitative artist” here clearly covers more than just epigones or producers of derivative work; all poets, except those who are also philosophers, are considered to be merely “imitative.” He makes it clear elsewhere in the Phaedrus that even Homer himself ranks considerably lower than a true artist or philosopher.

I bethink me of an ancient purgation of mythological error which was devised, not by Homer, for he never had the wit to discover why he was blind, but by Stesichorus, who was a philosopher and knew the reason why;

Of course Plato’s criticism in the Republic of artists in general and of Homer in particular is well-known. The surprising thing is not that Homer and the other poets rank so low in Plato’s hierarchy of souls, but that they rank so low in a hierarchy in which artists are given first place. If Homer is not a true artist, who is? Who besides the philosophers (even Stesichorus is praised as a philosopher rather than as a poet) did Plato consider to have “seen most of truth”?

I don’t have an answer. I merely pose the question and invite comments.



Filed under Greatness / Genius, Philosophy