Letter to a Younger Friend

Dear Mike,

I’m sorry to hear you are being bullied at school. You told me that a classmate of yours, Billy, constantly mocks you every day, taking pleasure in it, and nobody seems to be able to do anything about it. You told me, and I agree, that this isn’t right and asked me why the unjust people seem to have such a good time, while the good ones don’t, and why should you behave justly, when others don’t. Well, this reminded me of a book written a very long time ago, called The Republic. In it, a wise man, Socrates, is challenged to explain pretty much the same thing that you’re asking me to do. I’ll try to be as clear as possible.

What Socrates argued is that a person’s soul comprises three parts: desire, spirit, and reason. Desire represents the most basic part, the one that wants things and wants them now, whether we’re talking about food, or any other kind of physical pleasure. Spirit is the part associated with honor, bravery, energy, pride, lust for life if you want, but also anger and indignation. Its function is to give a goal to your life, it is your ambition to actually do something, not just want something. Reason, according to Plato (the author of the book, who uses Socrates as his spokesman), is the part that brings us the closest to divinity. It represents intelligence, wisdom, the ability to judge wisely, using knowledge. Ideally, reason should rule over the other two parts. These parts working together in harmony make a person happy (happiness being what we all strive for) and thus, just.

To explain better his argument, Socrates compares the soul to a city. The desire, in this case, represents the producers, the farmers, the traders, and so on. The spirit is represented by the warriors, the soldiers, the defenders of the city. The reason represents the leaders, but not just any leaders. In Socrates’ view, the best suited people for the position of leader are the philosophers, because they possess the largest amount of knowledge, and they are the wisest. When every component of the city works together in harmony, there is justice and happiness.

But how is that helping you, you might ask.

Socrates’ main point is that inner harmony should be enough for a person to feel happy, and, implicitly, to behave in a just manner. Injustice appears when one part dominates over others, thus breaking that harmony. An unjust man can never be truly happy, because the parts of his soul are not working in harmony. A just man, on the contrary, is truly happy, no matter what suffering he must endure, because in him, reason rules over the other parts.

I hope this is clear enough.

All the best,

LL

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