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

5 responses to “Plato’s odd hierarchy of human types

  1. i can imagine a grasshopper in a tree, but it would take a poor naturalist to imagine that they never eat or drink ( ! ??? )

    i have been fascinated by castes for a long time, and as my education is so deficient, i have not run across this list previously.

    q: Do you believe that Socrates was an actual person?
    Plato never wrote anything but fiction, and lurid, skiffy fiction at that. Even his histories are highly suspect… And now ‘This’. ( ??? )
    One of the principle tip-offs is that the dialogues are just too ‘pat’ and i, as a simple minded foole that i am, would put up a better defense for my many quirky opinions than many of the philosophers & tradesmen that Socrates encounters. ( ? )

    When i read Artisan, i thought ‘Craftsman’ and that is still much too low.

    i will have to compare this list to all my others and come up with a new one.

    My first impression ( and annoyance ) of this list however was that the essay starts off with suggesting that Plato was about to reveal some sort of criteria for recognizing truth seekers or truth knowers, and then merely lists occupations which seem to have been tabulated from personal experiences & misadventures with bureaucrats. ( ??? )

  2. Grasshoppers obviously eat a great deal, but adult cicadae eat very little and have no impact on agriculture; it is common folklore in many countries that they eat nothing at all but only sing. (The “grasshopper” in Aesop’s fable with the ant is also a cicada, and is translated as such in La Fontaine’s French version.)

    Yes, Socrates was a real person, written about not only by Plato but by Xenophon and Aristophanes. Plato’s early dialogues may give us something close to the real Socrates, but the Socrates of Phaedrus is pretty clearly just a mouthpiece for Plato’s own ideas.

  3. The Translucent Amoebae & TinyWanda ( Sitting on Lap )

    Substantial Rant which may or probably not particularly related to ‘this’.
    Certainly not Grasshoppers.

    As for Several Writers including Socrates in their writings,
    Might this be applicable to The Same Effect we see with Han Solo, The Cthulhu Mythos & Jesus Christ, which are popular characters for recycling ?

  4. Concerning Cicadae & Grasshoppers.
    i was thinking that they look pretty much alike,
    But actually; It turns out that they don’t.
    That is; If you’re at all familiar with Bugs in General,
    You’d see features on each that make them quite unique.
    The Grasshopper’s hind legs are very specific for This Bug,
    While The Cicadae has very large wings, and is considerably fatter.

    But i was just reading The Other Day that What we ‘Educated Classes’ routinely call ‘Fish’ are probably not Fish at all. Jelly Fish are Certainly not Fish, While Sea-Horses are Fish, if you allow that what we mean by Fish are Bony Fish with both a Bony Skull & Skeleton.
    Sharks are Not Fish.
    Hag Fish are Not Fish.
    Humans have more in DNA in Common with Salmon,
    Than Salmon have in Common with Hag Fish!

    When The Authors of Jonah Referred to A ( Presumed ) Whale as a Fish,
    This seems entirely forgivable, as The Readers from Most of The Following Centuries Understood that They Meant a Swimming Creature of some Kind.
    That’s what a Fish was then;
    And we’ve only made small corrections to this idea since then.

    The Point being that Lay People often refer to things in a ball-park kind of way,
    And that’s usually sufficient to make a simple point or indicate that you’d like a Creeping Thing Brushed off your Back.

    It is entirely reasonable ( Therefore ) to Allow that Early Poets & Even Idyllic Philosophers would Mangle The Proper Latin Names of Hemiptera, Orthoptera & Actididae.
    To Call any Reasonable Long Green Bug that makes a lot of noise a Grasshopper, is clearly understood, for whatever application you intend.

    When would Confusion over this issue be merited?

  5. I agree to some extent, Chrs. When I lived in Maryland, where there were periodic cicadae that showed up en masse every 13 years (or maybe every 17; I don’t remember), people referred to them as “locusts” — the most salient fact about them being that they came in huge swarms. Likewise, in the fable, a singing grasshopper works just as well as a singing cicada.

    In the Phaedrus, though, the essential facts about the insect in question are that it sings and doesn’t eat anything, and so calling it a grasshopper is entirely inappropriate.

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