Philosophy Phriday: Plato’s Ants

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the ninth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Richard Polt.

On Formiciform Virtue: Plato’s Ants

As he imagines scenarios for the afterlife—which he’ll be entering within a few hours—Socrates speculates that if there’s reincarnation, those who have practiced “social virtue” should come back as members of “a social and orderly species” in their next life. Yes: they may be reborn as ants (Plato, Phaedo 82b).

The notion brings to mind the ideal society, as described in the Republic. If the division of labor is held up as the very essence of justice, then in the best city, everyone would do only his or her own proper job (433a-b). Socrates discourses at length about how to breed and train the perfect soldiers, the best of whom will be educated to be perfect philosopher-rulers. With a few philosophers on top, the military in the middle, and a large lower class comprising professional craftsmen, farmers, and laborers, the just city is a smooth operation that looks more and more like a formicary. Why wouldn’t its average citizen come back as an ant?

But at the end of the Republic, in a new afterlife myth, Plato envisions a different fate for our well-behaved citizen. He’s rewarded in heaven for a thousand years, and then gets to pick his next rebirth—whereupon he chooses the life of a bloody tyrant, and ends up eating his own children.

Well, that went south quickly. Why this gruesome turn of events? Because “he had participated in virtue out of habit, without philosophy” (619c). He’s never before had the chance to decide how to live, so he decides like a fool.

The myth hammers home the point that the so-called just city is only a model for the just psyche (592b). People should get their own, internal anthills in order—keeping appetites on the bottom, thumos (roughly the ego) in the middle, and reason on top.

In short: Don’t be an ant. Think.

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Daily Ant.

RichardPoltDr. Richard Polt teaches philosophy at Xavier University. His publications include Heidegger: An Introduction and The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st CenturyHe is known, among other things, for his bonkers collection of typewriters.