City of Pigs

Enough or Not Enough?

When does a person have enough to live a good life? Is it by possessing the simple basics of life: sufficient food, water, air, clothing and shelter? Without these things, we suffer and die, but, taken together, are they sufficient to live well and thrive as a human being?

In Plato’s “Republic,” Socrates describes as healthy a society in which everyone shares the work according to ability and the modest sustenance it provides. The people are not greedy or envious, taking joy or sadness in the successes or failures of their collective enterprises. In the evenings, they sit on the grass, eat off leaves and drink from gourds. They have no fancy spices, but honey for sweetness, and wine and conversation for their entertainment. In this way, they live at peace with themselves, protected from covetous invaders by their collective ‘poverty.’ They have nothing that anyone would wish to steal.

This bucolic vision is interrupted by one of Socrates’ interlocutors, Plato’s brother, Glaucon, who angrily denounces the society Socrates describes as a ‘City of Pigs,’ unfit for proper men who refuse to countenance a world without war, plunder, call-girls, fancy upholstery, fine sauces and luxury imports from around the world. Glaucon’s world is one of great ambitions, great architecture, literature and even philosophy, for when has philosophy ever developed in the woods? In his view, we need civilization, culture, the distinction of noble and base, rich and poor, the superior and the inferior. Yes, there is strife, but we are made to strive, and without striving we will never reach our true potential. Socrates calls the city that Glaucon describes a “Fevered City.”

Who has the right of this, and who decides when enough is enough? Outside of extreme hunger and poverty, it seems that the judgment that one does not have enough of anything is subjective. When Kierkegaard proclaimed that ‘Truth is Subjectivity’, I believe this is the sort of case he had in mind. No one can tell you that that you do not have enough wealth, beauty, success or renown. Only you can say what is sufficient for you to live in a way that you judge fitting for yourself.

This is a gray area. With the exception of clean air and potable water, both of which are directly necessary for life, the value of the other things are what you want them to be. What, in your own mind, can you not do without? Only you can decide. For example, if you receive only 500 calories a day, you do not have enough to eat, period. But does a person ever have insufficient Beluga Caviar, prime rib, or expensive champagne? When the tap water is potable, does anyone truly thirst if they do not drink bottled water?

Or consider clothes. When, and on what basis, do I judge that I have enough or the right kind of clothes? Actually, I have more clothes than I absolutely need, and some of them I hardly ever wear. My judgment is that I have more than enough clothes, so I do not think much about them. However, a different person with different sartorial interests might judge that he or she never has enough clothes, or at least not fashionable enough clothes.

The same goes for shelter. Enough shelter, objectively speaking, is any enclosed space that provides sufficient protection from the elements and is large enough to lie down. In California, estate agents ask you how much house you want to buy. So you have a choice between more or less house, and what is ‘enough’ house? If you ask the people living in McMansions by the Sea, they will say that any house under 4000 square feet is not enough house. If you ask the poor immigrants living ten to an apartment what would be enough house, I think they might answer differently.

So, what ought we to conclude about whether we have enough of what we need to live a good life? If we go with the grasping world, nothing ever will be enough. Philosophically considered, there is an imbalance living continuingly in want of things that have no direct bearing on one’s well being.

In Plato’s story, Socrates acquiesces to Glaucon’s wishes. He builds the Republic to keep the fevered city from succumbing to its own excesses and attachments to unworthy values. He reminds the company, however, that the truly healthy and happy way to live is the one he described in his rustic idyll of the simple life.

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