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Essays on Society: Public & Private Modernities and the "Good Citizen"

What are the Implications for Understanding of the Public and Private Realms of

Plato’s Equation of the ‘Good Citizen’ with the ‘Good Man’?

Plato’s equation of the good citizen with the good man rests on a specific vision of the ideal State and what it means to be human. It is rooted in a strict division of the private and public realms. His equation has far-reaching implications that are still relevant to contemporary times in which societies, faced with diversifying populations, demands for recognition and autonomy and global discourses that seek to secure human dignity, are called to rethink their social, cultural and political structures. Citizenship is the perfect lodestone to be positioned at the heart of my discussion of these implications as it constitutes the binding factor between individual and community, governed and government, private and public, ancient and modern. This essay considers each of these elements and delving into classical Western thought aims to uncover the moral predicament contemporary societies are faced with. First, I take on Plato’s vision of the ideal State and citizen in relation to his division of the private and public realms. Second, I critically discuss the implications of his equation in more depth. In the final section I build a bridge to the contemporary.


The practice of citizenship took shape in Greece over the course of several centuries, long before Plato entered the realm of thought and theorised about it. The City-States in which it emerged were geographically composed of small fortified clusters that were scattered across the country-side, loyal to a particular deity, ruled over by elite families and sustained through idiosyncratic traditions. Developed against a background of scarcity, citizenship as a mode of ‘public being’ operated as a basis for discrimination and distribution. It entailed a privileged status: Only citizens were imbued with the capacity to receive the spoils of war, such as land, slaves and women; had the right to bear arms; enjoyed the luxury of protection; and above all, they were free (Riesenberg 1992:4-12). In adopting this social category, Greek civilisation sought to overcome its archaic tribalism and kinship. Speech and action replaced blood feuds and democratic decision-making took the place of vengeance. The act of ruling existed in a variety of hierarchically ordered forms: To command animals was superior to owning objects; slaves trumped animals; to rule over women was better than to rule over slaves; and the noblest form of authority entailed the governing of one’s fellow citizens (Pocock 1995:30-31).

Plato, lamenting the condition of society, was a traditionalist, concerned with the restoration and preservation of values, and a functionalist, in that he envisioned his ideal State to prosper when each did his own, in accordance with one’s natural disposition. His City-State was harmonious, economically stable and publicly homogeneous. While the capacity for citizenship came with birth, its evolvement required an all-encompassing education which meant that all aspects of public life –games, spectacles, religious ceremonies, athletics, theatre and politics- were geared towards the citizen’s moral formation and consequent approximation of the gods (Riesenberg 1992:39-41). Indeed, public life in the Platonic sense entailed virtuous enhancement, acquisition of knowledge and the attainment of one’s highest station: political man (Dossa 1989:114).

For Plato, the human soul was coterminous with the State: Just as the soul harboured appetites, spirit and reason, the city was divided into appetitive labourers (slaves and women), spirited warriors and reasoned citizens. Athens, being the ideal City-State, adored knowledge and therefore the best of men were philosophers (Santas 2010:76-78). Within this framework, the good man was equated with the good citizen as it was in public life that man’s virtue was to be attained. Morality required the subjugation of the body, just as the citizen subdued the slave; the abandonment of selfish concerns; it required knowledge of the ‘good’ accessible only to those endowed with rationality; and it necessitated the emancipation of oneself from the private, followed by one’s complete assimilation to the public. Thus, to be moral –to be fully human- was effectively a capability of a mere few (Veltman 2005:45; Canovan: 1992:260).

Following Plato’s logic, it is not surprising that he was adamant about barring the majority of the State’s inhabitants from becoming citizens and developing their higher selves. As Greek society became more complex in terms of distribution and interdependency, a new type of citizen was required. This new moral man was to be public-spirited, occupied with higher thoughts and eminently concerned with the welfare of the State. While such a transformation required him to abandon the realm of necessity, his freedom could only be sustained by keeping the private realm sufficiently populated by others (Riesenberg 1992:29-33; Elshtain 1981:12). By barring these unfortunate souls from the public realm, and thereby making it impossible for them to become fully human, I would argue that Plato legitimised the continued subjugation of the masses. This exclusionary system was not only justified in that it kept the State operational, Plato moreover believed most people to be naturally prone to selfishness and materialism and therefore unfit for the proper management of property, which constituted a prerequisite for citizenship (Okin 1991:12-13; Ignatieff 1995:56). It should be remembered that his aim was not to render his City ubiquitously virtuous, but to save those few souls capable of being good (Elshtain 1981:22).

The exclusion of non-philosophers from the public realm did not mean, however, that they were incapable of virtue altogether. Yet, whereas philosophers had the capacity to discern what it meant to be virtuous, as they had knowledge of the Forms and were able to utter words worthy of publicity, non-philosophers could only be aware of the imperative of virtue, which they could partially acquire through habit and emulation. Lacking rationality, and occupied with the mundane, their utterances were disconnected from action, spoke not of the affairs that mattered and were thus left to sink away into the pits of the forgotten (Veltman 2005:52-53; Vasiliou 2008:259; Elshtain 1981:14). This further illuminates why Plato’s division of the private and public realms was of such vital importance. His City was to be created through pure speech, not to be defiled by the murmurings of the ignorant and irrational. His call for the establishment of an exclusive private symposium within the public fits this logic, as it constituted an environment in which philosophers could safely engage in discourse, education and intimacy (Elshtain 1981:23): As the non-philosophers were dependent on emulating the philosophers, it furthermore seems to me that such a sanctified space was crucial in that it enabled citizens to move away from diversity, so abhorrent to Plato, and arrive at a uniform display of virtue, fit for mimicry (Riesenberg 1992:33).

From this brief overview we can gain that Plato designed his City-State on the basis of a strict division of the private and public spheres, in which the former constituted the realm of necessity inhabited by children, women and slaves, less capable of reason and dependent on emulation, and the latter that elite sphere in which the uniformly virtuous citizen came into being, who was exclusively capable of engaging in speech and action and acquiring the knowledge constitutive of his humanity.


Reading Arendt (1958) provides further insight into Plato’s notion of the private and public realms. Yet, it also raises some critical questions about his equation. Building on Greek thought, Arendt regards the public as the realm of visibility, appearance and publicity itself, in which our fragile existence can be saved from the natural ruin of time (p.53-55). Through action and speech in public, men are able to reveal their identity (p.177) and rise above the inanimate; a privilege from which slaves, barbarians, foreigners, and women were excluded in Classical times (p.199). As an agonistic realm, where fierce competition for recognition and the struggle against futility takes place (Benhabib 1992:93), in Arendt’s mind, the public is also a hostile realm that, in terms similar to Hooks’ (1992:41-42) idea of the black household, renders the private realm a space for healing, a shelter where the ego can be nurtured and restored (Benhabib 2000:213).

Where Arendt (1958) fundamentally differs from Plato is in her consideration of morality. Although early on she argues that virtuousness can only be attained in the presence of others (p.49), later on she makes the startling statement that ‘goodness is not only impossible within the confines of the public realm, it is even destructive of it’ (p.77). According to her, public men are heroic, imbued with the agonistic spirit and in pursuit of glory. It is not that she does not regard virtues such as trust and generosity to be important to public life, as they facilitate the sharing of words and deeds, but in her estimation classical notions of virtue and the good life or the categorical ethics of Kant are simply incompatible with it. Public men are not occupied with the salvation of their souls, are impatient with traditional norms and regard politics as intrinsically valuable (Dossa 1989:114-116).

Arendt’s position in this regard is not so much prescriptive, but a matter of logic. Goodness is only good as long as it is invisible, even to the author himself. As Christ taught, it lies in self-forgetfulness, while public life amplifies the self. Goodness is constructed through that Socratic internal dialogue that requires one to withdraw into the silent chamber of privacy, while public life numbs the conscience, as was the case with Eichmann who features in her work as the prototype of the good citizen engaged in immoral action (Canovan 1992:177-181). Arendt’s argument significantly unsettles Plato’s equation and supports Aristotle’s argument that the good man and the good citizen are only identical in an ideal regime (Dossa 1989:114).

Besides Eichmann, Plato’s equation is further disputed by the actions of illustrious figures such as Rosa Parks and Mahatma Ghandi, who through their moral acts became ‘bad citizens’, according to the prevalent norms of public life. But more importantly, Arendt’s argument enables us to counter the gravest implication of Plato’s equation, which is that those confined to the private cannot, in terms of virtue, become fully human. Yet, if we follow Arendt through, should we then conclude the opposite to be true? Does the public, by robbing us of our morality, effectively dehumanise us? If so, then Rosa’s and Ghandi’s struggle for public participation would by implication be detrimental to their very cause. This brings us to a consideration of another important implication of Plato’s equation: the private as the realm of diversity and the public as locus of universality.

Plato’s classical depiction of the private as the realm of necessity, which enables the creation of a universally virtuous citizen in public, retained its power throughout the development of Western thought. Reminiscent of Plato’s symposium, Rousseau perceived a clear separation of the sexes to be imperative, if mankind was to survive. Even within the household, men were to have a separate space where they could engage in discourse and reinforce their citizenship (Pateman 1988:99). Whereas he regarded a female’s virtue to be achievable through her confinement to the household (Landes 1998:69) and the male’s virtuous citizenship to partially reside in his proper private fulfilment of his role as son, husband or father, which contradicts Plato’s logic (p.85), Rousseau’s concept of the Virtuous Republic was nonetheless Platonic, in that it sustained the idea that the private merely functioned in service of the privileged public. Quite similarly, Kant regarded the project of Enlightenment, which was geared towards the public realisation of rationality, to be dependent on the continued existence of a private realm, marked by obedience, uncritical discourse and heterogeneous factors such as desire, patterns of childrearing, historical experiences and sociality (Flax 1993:79-83). And again, this notion was reiterated in Locke’s philosophy, that considered the public to be the realm of universal bonds, freedom and equality, and the private to constitute the realm of natural ties and subordination (Pateman 1988:91).

The problem here is that although these philosophies enable one’s humanity to be achievable within the private realm, the public realm continues to be associated with universality and the private, that peripheral sphere, with difference, chaos and irrationality. This is where Young’s (1990) critique of impartiality comes into play. As she argues, the ideal of universal citizenship excludes those associated with physicality and emotion, such as indigenous peoples, coloured people and women (p.97). Through the rational pursuit of seeking essence and constructing the universal, the dichotomy of private and public is re-affirmed (p.97), merely different peoples are turned into absolute others (p.99), universal participation and inclusion are rendered impossible (p.105), and by seeking to free the public sphere of feelings and bodies, crucial aspects of human existence are excluded (p.109). The absurdity of such reasoning comes out in Plato’s consideration of female guardians, who upon entering the public sphere would cease to be wives, remaining only minimally mothers, and would effectively have to undergo a process of masculinisation (Okin 1991:18-21).

Following Young’s logic, I would argue that although Plato regarded the public as enabling processes of becoming human, by stringently separating the private and public and defining citizenship and virtue in universal terms, he actually obstructed the process of humanising altogether. One would expect that Plato, being a lover of knowledge, would have welcomed multiple perspectives, perceived pluriformity in terms of enrichment and would not have sought to eliminate emotions and bodies to be kept out of the process of knowledge production and human experience. This corresponds to Arendt’s (1958) remark that the productive execution of speech and action is dependent on plurality, in the sense that although equality enables communication, it is the differences among men that prompt it in the first place (p.175-176). By equating the good man with the good citizen, in which the good was to be perceived and enacted in a uniform manner, by implication Plato conceived learning about the good to have an end-point and the public not to be a place for innovation, but mere approximation. In my view, such an understanding of human reality and knowledge seriously jeopardises the advancement of civilisation in that it obstructs learning. In this regard, I am in favour of Young’s (1990:120) notion of a heterogeneous public, in which no person is forced into the private and all social institutions and practices can be subject to public deliberation.


I want to end with a brief reflection on contemporary times to show how some of these insights into Plato’s thought are relevant to current affairs.

Although some of the Classical meanings of citizenship still apply today, through a variety of revolutionary events, citizenship has significantly expanded to include more than a mere elite and broadened to encompass a variety of civil, political and social rights (Benhabib 2005:673). Furthermore, coinciding with processes of decolonisation, there has been a shift from structural non-recognition to a deliberate politics of recognition, marked by the emergence of discourses on human rights, dignity and justice (Cairns 1999). Perhaps, in this movement towards an increased appreciation of the individual, as Arendt (1958:38) argues, the private has become imbued with some degree of value.

Nevertheless, citizenship is still intimately tied to particular ideas about race, class and gender (Pocock 1995:31). More importantly perhaps, as Ignatieff (1995) argues, despite the many advancements made, to this very day the ‘myth of citizenship’ is still held to be true. This myth is that man, through his participation in public life, is able to transcend the restrictions of his private existence and become his true self (p.53). In addition, the public sphere today remains the locus of universality that allows only for particular forms of speech, which are arguably rooted in specific notions of the good (Flax 1993:88), and therefore continues to hinder the ‘Other’ from fully participating in political affairs.

The consequences are manifold. First, the public sphere which seems to be caught in the clutches of the male lust for power, continues to be deprived of that caring spirit of reproduction and nurture, necessary to render our corporations more socially responsible and our societies more environmentally friendly (Mulgan 1991:37). Second, by focussing on equality among citizens as a category and commanding citizens’ undivided attention to ‘larger issues’, those inequalities beyond the public remain obscured and personal grievances and perspectives are kept from view (Phillips 1991:78-83). Third, by privileging a particular public identity, intolerant of those ‘comprehensive doctrines’ that ought to remain relegated to the private, processes of societal belonging are obstructed. This puts the project of democracy at risk. It hinders people from wilfully abiding by collective decisions that run counter to their particular convictions; an act for which a sense of belonging is indispensable (Taylor 1999:265-276). And lastly, from my perspective: By maintaining a strict division between private and public, in which the public is linked to a rigid set of values, norms and ideas about the good, which can most clearly be seen in the context of current naturalisation schemes (see Joppke 2007), our contemporary societal structures are –just like in Plato’s Republic- unfavourable to processes of knowledge production. Consequently, the process of learning what it means to be fully human and the construction of an Ideal State, from Classical until post-modern times, remains beyond our reach.


As I have argued, Plato’s equation of the good man with the good citizen rests on a strict division of the private and public and assumes the existence of a universal good. My discussion has shown his citizenship to be a privileged status that thrives by relegating a large portion of society to the private sphere of necessity, excluding them from becoming fully human. Drawing on a number of thinkers, I have sought to critique the implications of his equation, the assumptions of which have retained considerable power throughout the development of Western thought. Specifically, I have called Plato’s equation into question by evaluating the relationship between morality and public life and I have sought to uncover some of the problematic consequences of conceiving the private and public in terms of particularity and universality. Finally, I argued that contemporary understandings of private and public still follow Plato’s logic and therefore continue to exert the same detrimental influence on society at large.


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Benhabib, S. (2005) ‘Borders, Boundaries and Citizenship’, Political Science and Politics 38, 4: 673-677.

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