The Healthy City Versus the Luxurious City in Plato’s Republic: Lessons about Consumption and Sustainability in a Globalizing Economy

Contemporary Justice Review 10 (1):115-30 (2007)
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Early in Plato’s Republic, two cities are depicted, one healthy and one with “a fever”—the so- called luxurious city. The operative difference between these two cities is that the citizens of the latter “have surrendered themselves to the endless acquisition of money and have overstepped the limit of their necessities” (373d).i The luxury of this latter city requires the seizure of neighboring lands and consequently a standing army to defend those lands and the city’s wealth. According to the main character, Socrates, war thus finds its origin in communities living beyond the natural limits of necessity. In short, the healthy or true city is sustainable, limiting its consumption to actual needs, while the luxurious city seems not to be sustainable, living beyond its needs in a perpetual quest for more. Plato spends the rest of the Republic in the attempt to reveal the political organization and virtues—in particular, the virtue of moderation—necessary for the luxurious city to be just, healthy and thereby sustainable. The contrasting images of the two cities and Plato’s subsequent discussion raise important questions about the interrelations between justice, consumption and sustainability. In this paper we appropriate Plato’s images of these metaphorical cities to discuss over-consumption and unsustainable practices by the nations of the contemporary “first world”, which in turn perpetuate poverty and environmental degradation in the nations of the “two-thirds world”. Matters of equity and justice are preeminent in our discussion.

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Ian Deweese-Boyd
Gordon College


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