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Plato’s Divided City and the Police

This morning, the family of Breonna Taylor held a news conference in which they expressed their anger and frustration with Kentucky AG Daniel Cameron’s grand jury investigation that ended with charges for only of the officers involved in the shooting of Breonna Taylor. Taylor was shot as the result of a botched drug raid through a no-knock warrant when officers entered the wrong apartment. Taylor’s boyfriend shot thinking that the apartment was being burglarized. One officer involved, Brett Hankison, was charged with three counts of wanton endangerment for bullets that went into another apartment. The facts of the case are not disputed. No drugs were found in Taylor’s apartment.

At the press conference, Bianca Austin, Taylor’s sister, said, “What [Daniel Cameron] helped me realize is that it will always be us against them. That we are never safe.”

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ interlocutors charge Socrates with defending justice against their own sense that justice is largely for the sake of the advantage of the rulers. Thrasymachus, the Chalcedonian, has been through Athens’ treatment of his home city, and finds it a bit rich that Socrates can defend justice when Athens herself has used justice as a cudgel to control and dominate surrounding cities. Polemarchus, the general, sets up the sense that justice is for some and not for others when he defines justice as helping one’s friends and harming enemies. Socrates leads Polemarchus away from this definition by inviting him to consider whether a virtue can harm. Insofar as virtue does not harm and justice is a virtue, justice cannot harm one’s enemies, and as the conversation continues, Socrates makes the case that justice does not harm those who are subject to it.

The whole task of the Republic is to defend justice against this sense that those who are ruled are never really safe from those who seek their own advantage and power under the guise of justice. What’s odd then is that Socrates proceeds to describe a city that is divided, and since it is divided, it needs a middle part to force acceptance of the ruling part. The model Socrates describes reflects an order in which the ruling part rule by virtue of having an enforcement mechanism that move the ruled part to live according to the concerns of the ruling part. In what follows, I am going to show how this works and make the case that the auxiliaries, described by Socrates as guard dogs, are like the police, from whom the ruled can never be safe. Here I follow the brilliant argument from two faculty in the School of Education at Loyola University, Chicago–Samantha Deane and Amy Shuffleton–who make the case that police accountability fails as a way to achieve racial justice in law enforcement, just as teacher accountability fails as a way to achieve racial justice in the structurally inequitable education system. Yes, it is true that Socrates seems to insert many caveats and protections to prevent the guard dogs from becoming wolf-like, but the very need for the many caveats and protections shows a larger problem with setting up a city divided within itself.

My case is that the divided city, and thus Plato’s tripartite city, will produce a city in which one part rules for its own interests. I think this suggests finally that Plato has Socrates present this city, only after Glaucon’s expanded desire has required a separation of the desiring part from the reasoning part, in which the reasoning part has to rule for the ends of reason not for the ends of desire, with the underlying assumption that the ends of reason will be better for the desiring part, even though the desiring part clearly has different goals, otherwise it would not be a separate part.

(I will briefly hint that I think this reading ultimately shows how the tripartite soul of the Republic is not a view Plato champions since if the parts truly do not share tasks–if desire does not reason–then it cannot share the goals of reason. By contrast Plato’s account of the soul from the Protagoras in which our desire reveals what we take to be good, which can be refined and affected by learning what is in fact good, puts reason and desire into accord, and with it, puts the ruling and the ruled into accord rather than opposed.)

I. Justice and Guard-dogs

In “Plato and the Police: Dogs, Guardians, and Why Accountability is the Wrong Answer,” Deane and Shuffleton describe the police, like teachers, as serving in the middle position.

In a segregated society, they are a point of contact between Black and White publics, and in a socio-economically stratified society, they stand between the elite and the many. This middle position, we argue, is prone to creating problems for a democracy.

They remind us of Nick Pinto’s New York Times Magazine article on the history of police in which he notes that “the question of whom the police serve, and whose order they impose, is once again up for debate. But it is as old as policing itself.” This question is the question of whose work the auxiliaries do in the Republic. Recall that the need to find justice–the need that leads to a three-part city develops out of the expanded city. This city has expanded because desires have forced it to expand. The final expansion points to the way the city is becoming divided between those who serve and those who are served. After listing the hunters, poets, their assistants, performers and theater producers, Socrates notes:

And we’ll especially need more providers of services, or doesn’t it seem there’ll be a need for tutors, wet nurses, nannies, beauticians, barbers, and also delicacy-makers and chefs? Rep. 373c

These are people who will serve others. Initially, the very first city would have each person playing a role and being equally served by the roles others played, but the bloated city moves some into the position of working to serve and others into the position of serving. What immediately follows is that this city will need to go to war in order to procure and defend its wealth to support all these desires (373e-374a).

It is in this context of the need to go to war that the question of who will guard and what kind of nature they need is considered. Such guardians need to be “sharp at perceiving things, nimble at pursuing what it perceives, and also strong, if it needs to fight when it catches something” (375a). Building further on the different characteristics, Socrates reaches the climactic point: “But surely they need to be gentle toward their own people but rough on their enemies, and if they aren’t, they won’t wait for others to destroy them but do it first themselves” (375c).

Here Socrates re-introduces into the discussion a principle he forcefully rejects and insists Polemarchus reject as well in Republic I: “Then it’s not the work of the just person to do harm…either to a friend or to anyone else, but of his opposite, the unjust person” (355d). Socrates continues for emphasis:

Then if someone claims it’s just to give what’s owed to each person, and this carries the meaning for hum that harm is owed from the just man to his enemies, but benefit to his friends, the one saying these things was not wise, since he wasn’t telling the truth. For it has become obvious to us that it is never just to harm anyone. (355e)

The guardian who has the character of being gentle toward their own people but rough on their enemies would seem to be harming and thereby being unjust. This blatant inconsistency suggests that in exceeding its borders and going to war, the city needs guards who must be unjust in order to protect the city. This character of guarding against enemies appears to be toward an outside, but as the guard work of the auxiliaries becomes refined, it becomes clear that such work is chiefly aimed at those within the city.

2. The Police are dogs?

The character Socrates has just described, he says, is embodied in a pure bred dog (375e). Socrates continues to emphasize the sense in which this guard would act differently to friends and enemies, when he describes the dog as attacking those with whom it is unfamiliar and welcoming those with whom it is familiar (376a). Socrates describes this as the dog’s philosophical trait: that it judges friend those with whom it is familiar and enemy those to whom it is a stranger, which Socrates proceeds to argue is the same as what the philosopher does. I don’t think I’m saying anything surprising when I say that to suppose that one should be friendly to something because she knows it seems to lack sufficient rigor. Socrates himself spends significant time with people who I would argue he wants to motivate to be different and better. He is familiar with them, but he does not consider them good or friendly to his interests just by virtue of knowing them. In fact, the problem with the dog is that the dog only has the registers of familiar and unfamiliar, not of good or bad. Having only the register of familiar and unfamiliar makes the dog dependent on another knower or determiner of what is good and bad. Familiarity with that person then becomes the means by which the dog is used to guard on their behalf against the unfamiliar.

This responsibility that the dog has to the dog trainer or the shepherd becomes more explicit late in Republic III when Socrates says,

[I]t’s surely the most dreadful and shameful of all things for a shepherd to raise dogs as auxiliaries for the flock that are of the sort and brought up in such a way that, form intemperance or hunger or some bad habit of another kind, the dogs themselves try to do harm to the sheep, acting like wolves instead of dogs (416a).

Of course, this is the danger of the dog who divides the world between the friend and enemy, a division that Socrates has argued should be foreign to the practitioner of justice. As Deane and Shuffleton argue, the dog acts at the behest of the shepherd. The shepherd is the one who sets the terms for what is good. The dog is able to discern familiarity with the shepherd and thus follows the shepherd’s lead and judgment of who to treat as friend and who to treat as enemy.

Deane and Shuffleton argue that the failure of the accountability model is that it functions to enforce the relationship of the dog to the shepherd. Accountability is making sure the dog is checking with the shepherd’s view of who is friend and who is enemy. But it fails to hold the shepherd responsible to the sheep for serving the sheep’s needs. The dog who harms the sheep can be held accountable to the shepherd, but if the shepherd trains the dog to harm the sheep that accountability will accomplish nothing for the sheep. The dog has followed those to whom it answers when it harms the sheep. The sheep can never be safe from the dog trained by a shepherd who rules for the shepherd and not the sheep. The dog needs to be responsible to the sheep in order for the dog to act for the well-being of the sheep. But that’s not how dogs work.

3. Tripartite cities cannot be just

I realize I am flying in the face of centuries of Plato scholarship here, but lately more work has been done to tarry with these complexities in the text, as in Jill Frank’s Poetic Justice and Jacob Howland’s Glaucon’s Fate. Scholars argue that the tripartite soul which follows from the tripartite city in the Republic is a development from Plato’s earlier view of the relation of desire to reason in his Protagoras. But I argue that the argument plays a very particular critical purpose, which is to show how the city once divided introduces a sense of order that Socrates has earlier called unjust.

The focus of Republic I is on defending the view that justice could be good for those who are ruled. But the tripartite city sets up the rational part as those who rule for their ends — what reason can judge — and not for desire’s ends — what one might want. Besides the fact that the city so described when have to compromise the principle of one nature, one task to be so ordered since the desiring part would have to have sufficient reason to know to follow the reasoning part and not rule itself, this city requires a part that rules by opposing the ruling class to the ruled. The policing auxiliaries act at the behest of the guardians to enforce their will on the craftspeople. The auxiliaries are beholden to the guardians. The opposition to the enemies that the guardian dogs were introduced to guard against in Republic II are now internalized so that they see the craftspeople themselves as enemies and remain accountable only to the rulers and not to the ruled. Of course, the claim made is that this is best for the ruled. But that is precisely the ruse that Thrasymachus argues those in power always pull. It isn’t at all clear that this structure would convince the craftspeople that such a claim is anything other than a ruse.

What am I saying then? You need the police when you have a divided community. In such a community, the police are accountable to the people in charge; those who are not in charge have no reason to feel safe from them. Deane and Shuffleton argue that police violence against Black and Brown bodies cannot be solved by police accountability, but by police responsibility to those marginalized communities they serve. My point is that is only possible when the community shares the same interests so that it is not the case that some rule and others are ruled. And I think Plato helps us see that.

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