Sexual misconduct is usually characterized as some kind of “power grab,” typically carried out by ruthless men seeking to prey upon the vulnerability of a woman. Yet Plato suggests that disordered sexual desire is a problem of the democratic soul…
While Noble is thus far the only individual making sex trafficking claims against Weinstein, the dangerously similar connection between sexual activity and financial gain is hard to miss in many of the other allegations, as many involved offers of better jobs in exchange for coercive sexual acts.
The recent rise of sexual harassment and abuse claims has grown to a point of seeming absurdity. Each month seems to give rise to not just new allegations, but also disturbing details about the heights of sexual perversion. Many commentators have noticed that these men, whether it be a Harvey Weinstein or a Larry Nassar, possess either tremendous wealth or power, if not both. In this context, sexual misconduct is reductively characterized as some kind of “power grab,” typically carried out by ruthless men seeking to prey upon the vulnerability of a woman. In one respect, there is something true to this account. However, to more fully understand the actions of these men, a deeper nuance is required.
Commenting upon the rise of deviant sexual behavior in American society, Peggy Noonan recently provided the following acute assessment:
An aging Catholic priest suggested to a friend that all this was inevitable. ‘Contraception degenerates men,’ he said, as does abortion. Once you separate sex from its seriousness, once you separate it from its life-changing, life-giving potential, men will come to see it as just another want, a desire like any other. Once they think that, then they’ll see sexual violations as less serious, less charged, less full of weight. They’ll be more able to rationalize.
It would be difficult to argue against such a judgment and the disconnect among sex, marriage, and family life that is characteristic of our present age. What is most perceptive in Ms. Noonan’s judgment is her contention that sex separated from seriousness inevitably leads to conceiving it as a desire like any other. It is this understanding about sex, and desire more generally, that will be the point of departure in this essay.
I argue that our present sexual disorders are an effect of a much deeper sociological and psychological transformation. Many have rightly alluded to the 60s and 70s as the cause of our present disorientation. There is certainly much truth in this. My concern here is to observe a more remote cause, which pertains to the psychic level of democratic societies themselves. To help chart our course, I will take my bearings from Plato.
Plato make a stronger claim than perhaps many of us are willing to: Disordered sexual desire, and material desire, are intimately connected to societies that are predominantly democratic. According to Plato, desire in democratic regimes come to be understood only within the context of themselves: They possess no order or telos towards an object that will ultimately satisfy it.
As a precursor, it is worth making an initial justification for turning to Plato as a guide for a lens to help us assess the continual plethora of sexual scandal and abuse. In the Eighth Book of The Republic, Plato begins his description of the various kinds of regimes. In doing so, he wonders if
it is necessary that there also be as many forms of human characters as there are forms of regimes? Or do you suppose that the regimes are ‘from an oak or rocks‘ and not from the dispositions of the men in the cities, which, tipping the scale as it were, draw the rest along with them (544e).
Plato’s social and political motif is that the city is an extension of the soul. Regimes, and the institutions therefrom, only come into existence because people have created them as such. And, the condition of our souls is a vestige that is evident in our societies at every level. Therefore, judgments about the status of society can never underestimate the succinctness of Plato’s insight.
The examination of regimes, and the corresponding loss of particular virtues, is Plato’s methodology in the Eighth Book of The Republic. While a more extensive analysis is needed, for our purpose here, we will be primarily focused on the description of the democratic soul.
According to Plato, the cause of the descent into an oligarchy is the faulty example given by the timocratic fathers. After he experiences the suffering of poverty, losing “his whole substance” (553b), the timocratic son “turns greedily to money-making; and bit by bit saving and working, he collects money” (553c). In this account, we are witnesses to the birth of the oligarchic man, who places the love of money “on the throne, and makes it the great king within himself” (553c). Such a judgment concerning the oligarchic soul is certainly reminiscent of Francis Fukayama’s remark about the condition of the soul at “the end of history:”
There is no longer struggle or conflict over “large” issues, and consequently no need for generals or statesmen; what remains is primarily economic activity (The End of History).
While such an oligarchic man and regime, predominated by filling up the “storeroom with money-making,” and who only appears just, Plato provides one caveat: “He is forcibly holding down bad desires, which are there, with some decent part of himself… by necessity and fear, doing so because he trembles for his whole substance” (554d). The oligarchic soul is divided against itself, but it does seem to be the case that “his better desires would master his worse desires” (554e).
It is in this context that Plato reveals the rise of the democratic soul. His predominant diagnostic lens stems from the contention that once wealth becomes the king of one’s soul, where money is the sole economy, it is almost impossible to persuade it towards any kind of moderation, at least not in the long run. “Isn’t it by now plain that it’s not possible to honor wealth in a city and at the same time adequately to maintain moderation among the citizens, but one or the other is necessarily neglected?” (555d) The loss of an oligarchic-type of moderation entails the release of desire from any limit, where it begins “bursting into flame,” as Plato coins it. The oligarchic fathers and the love of money-making produce children that are “luxurious and without taste for work of body or of soul, too soft to resist pleasures and pains, and too idle” (556c). Stemming from this understanding is something of a paradox: It is at once “the fairest of regimes,” for all dispositions and desires are allowed to roam free, unhinged by law, convention, or anything outside “the sort that pleases him” (557d).
This leads to a further consideration of the primary difference between all the previous defective regimes and that of democracy. According to Plato, from aristocracy through oligarchy, there is a single principle that acts as a ruling guide. However, in democracy, there is no such single principle: All the appetites of the soul are given free range due to the judgment of their equality. And oligarchy and democracy come together in their giving citizens over to the primacy of appetites. The desires are unchained, released from exile, and the democratic soul “hands over the rule within himself until it is satisfied; and then again to another, dishonoring none but fostering them all on the basis of equality” (561b).
Ultimately, this ties sexual disorder with wealth. For Plato, The “Feverish” (or luxurious) city the Second Book of The Republic is characteristically described by what he calls the “unlimited acquisition of money.” The interpretative nuance rests upon connecting a lack of limits with the restless pursuit of acquiring money. Desire is grounded in a teleological framework whereby it can be fulfilled by its proper object. Thus, without limit, desire is disordered. Perhaps we could even say that what results is something that falls beneath desire.
Wealth becomes combined with letting all desires go unchecked. The democratic son is ruled by unnecessary desires, which Plato describes as one that “goes beyond” (559b). The “feverish city” does not fulfill desire, nor does it aim to repress them. Instead, it aims to release them from the supposed bondage of limits. Going beyond is to move above the limits of nature, and human nature more specifically.
The all-too-brief description of Plato’s account of the democratic soul should lead us to inquire about what can be done in response. With respect to the unleashing of desires—especially in the realm of sex—programs such as sexual-harassment training fundamentally miss the root problem. It is not an external problem, but one belonging more properly to the soul, and the kind of persons that such individuals have become.
This is why Plato argues for what he considers to be the ultimate solution: philosophy. Aristotle makes the same point in Book II of the Politics. However, the question here is worth further consideration: Why philosophy? Philosophy seems ill-suited as a healing remedy for the disorders that have befallen democratic souls. While many reasons could be given, allow me to focus on one that Plato seems most concerned to articulate. This argument is made at the end of Book IX of The Republic. In this concluding section, Plato is not so much concerned with the actual political founding of the Kalipolis (best city), but that this city is set-up within our own souls:
‘I understand,’ he said. ‘You mean he will in the city whose foundation we have now gone through, the one that has its place in speeches, since I don’t suppose it exists anywhere on earth.’
‘But in heaven,’ I said, ‘perhaps, a pattern is laid up for the man who wants to see and found a city within himself on the basis of what he sees. It doesn’t make any difference whether it is or will be somewhere. For he would mind the things of this city alone, and of no other’ (592a-b).
Philosophy is the paradigmatic activity of seeing what is Eternal—the Good—which is the destiny for which all are made. Plato is telling us that what we do, those actions that we put into the world, are expressions and vestiges of a pattern that we are imitating. Thus, philosophy places us into contact with a paradigm that is ultimately not of human, but divine, origin. The notion of “patterns” is central here in Plato’s diagnosis, especially when considering the role it plays in his account of democratic regimes. In a striking assessment, Plato remarks that the democratic soul wouldn’t be at a loss for patterns at least (557e).
There is no such thing as a good polity unless the subjects that constitute it are well-ordered. Institutions and social structures are what they are because of the souls that founded them and make them up. If things are to change, reasonably so, it will only be when democratic citizens become particular types of souls. The continued inability to make this point in our public discourse, let alone think it worthy at all, is already indicative of the kinds of souls we are. Perhaps Plato would advise us that we do not need more “democratization.” What we need is souls to be more philosophical—open and drawn outside to the full truth themselves and to the purpose of their being. It will be here that the human and the Divine will meet, and where we could recognize the ultimate pattern upon which our life is to be based. Platitudes such as rule of law, institutional responsibility, freedom, and various social movements are rather empty when devoid of seeing those psychological and imaginative characteristics that reflect the democratic soul.
And so we return to the beginning. Mary Rose Samarriba is right to call attention to the disturbing connections between sexual activity and financial gain. Likewise, Ms. Noonan’s judgment that once sex is taken out of its proper context, it is just another want, a desire like any other. The perennial temptation facing democratic societies will be an unleashing of desire that is ordered to nothing but its own release from the supposed bondage of limits, nature, and the Good for which human beings did not create. Perhaps it may be the case that only when we take the conditions of the democratic soul seriously, can we be open to staving off its worst tendencies. In doing so, we will also protect those most in need, especially from those barbarians who want their desires to burst into actuated flames.
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