Cautionary Tales

Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs; drawing by David Levine

Plato’s Republic, as every schoolboy knows, asked the question, What is Justice? As almost every schoolboy also knows, the surprising answer was that justice consists in “sticking to your own task.” Many readers express outrage at the reduction of the fundamental social virtue to “Cobbler, stick to your last.” Injustice seems an altogether larger and more horrible thing than the shoemaker aspiring to the carpenter’s job, and they wonder what Plato can have been thinking of. Not the least of the innumerable surprising ideas that Jane Jacobs has packed into Systems of Survival is her claim that Plato got it right.

What did Plato get right? Surely not that the worst of all evils is a breach of the principle of the division of labor? According to Ms. Jacobs, that is the argument and it is largely correct. Or, rather, it is Plato’s larger argument that is right: the morality appropriate to governments—to Plato’s “Guardians”—is distinctively different from the morality appropriate to the productive and trading classes, and must be kept so. Plato saw that human society is governed by two distinct moral codes—“moral syndromes,” Ms. Jacobs calls them—and disaster can strike when they are mixed.

Borrowing from Plato, she labels these two codes the “commercial” syndrome and the “guardian” syndrome; the first is the moral code appropriate to trade, commerce, and industry, the second the moral code appropriate to hunters and gatherers, warriors, and governments. The first stresses the avoidance of force and fraud, recommends openness to novelty, praises inventiveness, thrift, investment-mindedness, accepts the value of comfort and convenience and the utility of competition. The second stresses prowess, obedience to authority, loyalty, the rightness of vengeance, the legitimacy of deceiving one’s enemies, fortitude, resignation to fate, respect for tradition, and exclusiveness. It also emphasizes leisure and display rather than production or trading.

These two are “syndromes” because they must work together in one package; mix and match is not a possibility. An army whose commanders shunned force and fraud (which “are in warre the two cardinal virtues,” according to Thomas Hobbes) would perish miserably; companies that use strong-arm tactics on the competition loot the economy for the benefit of their CEOs, but do nothing for production. It’s not so much “Cobbler, stick to your last” as “Warriors and traders, stick to your code.”

Ms. Jacobs’s debt to Plato extends to the literary form of Systems of Survival; the book is a symposium, with half a dozen lightly sketched characters worrying away at the moral basis of economic and political life and whether “breakdowns of honesty” are today getting out of hand. The dialogue form isn’t whimsical, and it isn’t an attempt to borrow Plato’s prestige for Jacobs’s opinions. It reflects her belief that

we need continual but informal democratic explorations on the part of people who must thread their ways through governmental, business, or volunteer and grassroots policies, or…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.