Plato and the birth of ambivalence

I’ve been teaching a class on anthropology of education this fall, and we spent the first several weeks of class reading various moments in educational theory and philosophy (Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Dewey, Nyerere, Freire). The first week, we read Book 2 of Plato’s Republic, which (famously) explains how the need for an educated “guardian class” emerges from the ideal division of labor in a city. Our class discussion focused mostly on Plato’s remarkably static and immobile division of labor, a point which rightfully seems to get a lot of attention from modern commentators on the Republic. (Dewey put it pretty succinctly: Plato “had no perception of the uniqueness of individuals.”)

But I was more intrigued by Plato’s remarkable, zany account of the origins of ambivalence, which I don’t think has gotten so much recognition. We have to be a bit anachronistic to read “ambivalence” into this text, to be sure, since the term in its modern psychological sense was coined by Eugen Bleuler in 1911. Nevertheless, I want to explore here how Plato comes up with something that really seems like a concept of ambivalence avant la lettre. It emerges in the text from his long meditation on the nature of a guardian, which is premised on the initial assumption that the guardian’s nature (or anyone’s nature) has to be singular and coherent.

SOCRATES: Do you think that there is any difference, when it comes to the job of guarding, between the nature of a noble hound and that of a well-bred youth?

GLAUCON: What do you mean?

SOCRATES: I mean that both of them have to be sharp-eyed, quick to catch what they see, and strong, too, in case they have to fight what they capture.

GLAUCON: Yes, they need all these things.

Hilariously, the dog is being set up from the outset as the being that cumulates vision and muscle, and therefore gets to be the founding image of a human guardian class. These two facilities are also something like the two branches of what we now call the national security services —  “sight” metaphorically gets us the “intelligence services,” and muscular strength stands in for the “armed forces.” That is, the guardian is a miniature state apparatus. Of course, it also needs some moral virtues:

SOCRATES: And they must be courageous, surely, if indeed they are to fight well.

GLAUCON: Of course.

SOCRATES: Now, will a horse, a dog, or any other animal be courageous if it is not spirited? Or haven’t you noticed just how invincible and unbeatable spirit is, so that its presence makes the whole soul fearless and unconquerable in any situation?

GLAUCON: I have noticed that.

SOCRATES: Then it is clear what physical qualities the guardians should have.


SOCRATES: And as far as their souls are concerned, they must, at any rate, be spirited.

GLAUCON: That too.

So the guardians are also supposed to have coherence between mental and physical characteristics. Their spirited and invincible “souls” go along with their finely honed physical faculties. And yet a problem occurs to Socrates: who would want to live alongside these fighting machines?

SOCRATES: But with natures like that, Glaucon, how will they avoid behaving like savages to one another and to the other citizens?

GLAUCON: By Zeus, it won’t be easy for them.

SOCRATES: But surely they must be gentle to their own people and harsh to their enemies. Otherwise, they will not wait around for others to destroy them, but will do it themselves first.

GLAUCON: That’s true.

SOCRATES: What are we to do, then? Where are we to find a character that is both gentle and high-spirited at the same time? For, of course, a gentle nature is the opposite of the spirited kind.

GLAUCON: Apparently.

SOCRATES: But surely if someone lacks either of these qualities, he cannot be a good guardian. Yet the combination of them seems to be impossible. And so it follows, then, that a good guardian is impossible.

GLAUCON: I am afraid so.

I don’t think it’s far-fetched to construe this image of “a character that is both gentle and high-spirited” as an image of ambivalence, in two senses. (1) Affectively, the guardian should be able to inhabit mixed affect. (2) Sociologically, the guardian is supposed to inhabit a tense double role, solicitous towards the in-group and “harsh” towards the outside. Of course, it now seems obvious to social researchers that people can occupy ambivalent, contradictory roles. But that only makes it more entertaining to see Socrates state that role ambivalence is outright impossible (because it contradicts the intrinsic coherence of one’s nature).

It goes without saying that Plato’s equation of someone’s “nature” with their personal characteristics belongs to a social metaphysics of virtue and character that has become archaic, though certainly not altogether incomprehensible to us. Nevertheless, we see that curiously, ambivalence comes across here as a sort of upper-class virtue, one of the things that gives the guardians their exceptional and necessary qualities. Fortunately for the argument, Socrates soon finds his way out of his initial view that ambivalent natures are impossible:

SOCRATES: We deserve to be stuck, my dear Glaucon. For we have lost track of the analogy we put forward.

GLAUCON: How do you mean?

SOCRATES: We have overlooked the fact that there are natures of the sort we thought impossible, ones that include these opposite qualities.


SOCRATES: You can see the combination in other animals, too, but especially in the one to which we compared the guardian. For you know, of course, that noble hounds naturally have a character of that sort. They are as gentle as can be to those they are familiar with and know, but the opposite to those they do not know.

GLAUCON: Yes, I do know that.

SOCRATES: So the combination we want is possible, after all, and what we are seeking in a good guardian is not contrary to nature.

GLAUCON: No, I suppose not.

Oh good — the philosophical project of designing a race of supreme but benevolent overseers can continue after all! Now back to the dog analogies.

SOCRATES: Now, don’t you think that our future guardian, besides being spirited, must also be, by nature, philosophical?

GLAUCON: How do you mean? I don’t understand.

SOCRATES: It too is something you see in dogs, and it should make us wonder at the merit of the beast.

GLAUCON: In what way?

SOCRATES: In that when a dog sees someone it does not know, it gets angry even before anything bad happens to it. But when it knows someone, it welcomes him, even if it has never received anything good from him. Have you never wondered at that?

GLAUCON: I have never paid it any mind until now. But it is clear that a dog does do that sort of thing.

SOCRATES: Well, that seems to be a naturally refined quality, and one that is truly philosophical.

One has to love the easy slippage from behavioral dispositions to characterological qualities. Argument was easier in these days.

GLAUCON: In what way?

SOCRATES: In that it judges anything it sees to be either a friend or an enemy on no other basis than that it knows the one and does not know the other. And how could it be anything besides a lover of learning if it defines what is its own and what is alien to it in terms of knowledge and ignorance?

GLAUCON: It surely could not be anything but.

SOCRATES: But surely the love of learning and philosophy are the same, aren’t they?

A charming assertion, unsubstantiated by social analysis of “philosophy” (as a modern academic discipline) but no doubt presumptively justified here by the Greek definition of philosophy as “love of wisdom.”

GLAUCON: Yes, they are the same.

SOCRATES: Then can’t we confidently assume that the same holds for a human being too—that if he is going to be gentle to his own and those he knows, he must be, by nature, a lover of learning and a philosopher?

GLAUCON: We can.

I think the reasoning here is something like: If species A does behavior X and has nature Y, then it follows that if species B does behavior X, it must also have nature Y. The unargued premise being: a being’s behaviors follow transparently from its nature.

In any event, we can now “conclude” (at least if we accept the rest of the argument) that the guardian class needs to have this ambivalent nature in order to fulfill its function:

SOCRATES: Philosophy, then, and spirit, speed, and strength as well, must all be combined in the nature of anyone who is going to be a really fine and good guardian of our city.

GLAUCON: Absolutely.

SOCRATES: Then that is what he would have to be like at the outset. But how are we to bring these people up and educate them?

So ambivalence here emerges as the necessary dispositional structure of a good “guardian of a city.” The guardians must be contradictory by nature and ambivalent in behavior: oscillating between philosophy and brute force, kindness and brutality depending on context. What becomes interesting — but what I don’t have time to explore in any more detail here — is that this nature is not entirely innate, but also has to be produced and reinforced by education. So ambivalence is both a functional necessity and an educational product.

I just find that a bit fascinating: that one of the markers of the ruling class, for Plato, is their structural ambivalence. To be sure, this ambivalence is as much a bivalence of virtue as a flexibility of affect, so in that sense it is far from a strictly psychological account of ambivalence, but one can, I think, see the germ of ambivalence as a potential badge of class distinction. In a world where everyone fulfills a social function preordained by their natural capacities and aptitudes, it becomes a curious marker of superiority to have multiple capacities, multiple affective dispositions.