The Reading Room

In The Reading Room with Plato, Again: Work-Life Balance

In our last visit with Plato, we considered what insights he has regarding free speech and cancel culture. Another topic one can’t help but read about these days is the need for psychological balance as we pursue happiness and fulfillment. Countless op-eds and magazine articles have bemoaned the dilemma: If I work 80 hours a week at the firm, I’ll make six figures, but can’t see my kids’ little-league games and dance recitals. How can I have balance? A point Socrates and Plato made repeatedly is that you can make your life better if you have different priorities. Internal harmony is literally the centerpiece of Plato’s theory of justice.
At his trial, Socrates admonished his fellow Athenians that they had their priorities backwards: they valued money or fame or honors, but didn’t put any energy into developing virtue. He suggested that instead, they should have the development of virtue as their highest priority, and noted that while being virtuous can bring money or reputation, simply being wealthy or famous won’t make one virtuous. (This is the same speech in which Socrates famously claims that the unexamined life is not worth living.) Plato uses Socrates’ speech as a starting point for a theory of justice that he develops more fully in his longer work Republic
Wait, you say, what’s a theory of justice got to do with virtue or personal priorities? The Republic is an extended analogy: since we can describe both people and polities as just or unjust, Plato reasons, we might be able to get some insight into how to be a just person by thinking about a just society. Frequently mistaken for utopianism, the city described in the Republic is simply stipulated as just. The move is: Say I want to be a more just person. What should I do? Let’s imagine we had a city that was perfectly just. What would have to be true of it? The way we answer that question points us towards the essence of justice, and then we’d be able to know something about how I could become more just. If some of the answers are things that would be difficult or impossible to arrange, that need not disrupt the analogy. For example, if the city is perfectly just, we can deduce that one thing about it that would have to be the case is that the rulers wouldn’t be interested in exploiting their power for their own enrichment to the detriment of the common good. The fact that we rarely find rulers like that in the real world doesn’t make that observation false. The point is to figure out what that insight means with respect to an individual’s choices and priorities. Obviously designing a political order such that it’s perfectly just is a tall order, but any individual person can choose their priorities and work towards whatever goals they see fit. That’s how the analogy works.
The main conclusion Plato comes to in this extended analogy is the importance of balance. In a perfectly just society, we can deduce that there'd be no civil strife. (Right? Because if the society were plagued by civil strife, it would therefore not be perfectly just.) What sorts of considerations would ensure that there was no civil strife? If everyone had a job that (a) they were good at doing and (b) they enjoyed doing. The first condition means that the society benefits from the optimally-used talents of all its members, and the second condition means that no one is annoyed and resentful about what they have to do for a living. Is it likely that we’d be able to set that up? Of course not. But it’s nevertheless true, and the point again is the analogy. Plato means the constitution of the polity to be analogous to the constitution of one’s psyche. But while we may not be able to organize a society such that everyone is doing the function they’re best suited for, we can certainly choose, as individuals, to orient our own selves around this principle. What are the proper roles of each “part” of the person’s character? What “part” of the psyche should “be in charge”? Plato sees us as made of (broadly speaking) our appetitive nature, our emotions, and our rational faculties. Each has its proper role to play in a healthy psyche. What our rational faculties are best suited to do is to deliberate, to guide action. Emotions and appetites are only satisfied by their own object. What happens when I want conflicting things? Or when I want something short-term that detracts from my long-term well-being? The wants can’t settle that on their own. But reason can. Reason is the part that can consider various wants, rank them, and choose the course of action that’s most beneficial to me overall.
Isn’t it self-evidently silly to presume we could have a society run by perfectly wise and just philosopher-kings, the superficial critic asks. But it’s not at all silly to think an individual person could choose to be “governed” by reason, as opposed to being governed by one’s fears, hatreds, passions. These aspects of our psyche may have a role to play, but to be governed by one’s passions with no self-control is no kind of freedom. The “philosopher-king” is ultimately an allegory for rational self-control, for moderation of one’s passions towards the end of one’s long-term well-being. To balance short-term desires against long-term flourishing requires more than just the desires. It requires reason. Plato ends up describing the just city as one in which all the parts of the city function harmoniously, with the result being a city that is safe, peaceful, and prosperous. Justice is, for him, another word for the internal balance that brings this about. So, following the analogy, the just person has inner balance, isn’t “conflicted,” and has moderation of the passions. An immoderate person would be the one who is never satisfied with what they have accomplished, who works 80 hours a week but then feels guilty about missing the dance recital, who cuts corners for expediency but regrets it later. So if we want to have a happier life, we need to have our priorities straight. Cultivate justice and virtue, and let the material success flow from that, not the other way around. That’s why the unexamined life is not worth living.