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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

How to Interpret Plato?

With the discussion of the philosophic education concluded by the end of Book VII, Socrates is essentially  finished with the construction of the ideal city. The remainder of the Republic is mainly devoted to a comparison of the just and unjust lives in terms of which is the best to choose – the second part of Glaucon’s question from Book II. It is only after we have knowledge of what  is the nature of a city, and soul, in which reason rules, what the life of reason is, that we are in a position to make this comparison. Plato’s discussion of the various possible forms of the city, and of their degeneration from the ideal city to the tyrannical city, thus carries through the analogy between the individual and the city. If you go on to read it – which I’ve been recommending throughout – it would be important to keep in mind that it is not an historical account of how political forms actually change.  It is instead a diagnosis of each of the various forms and analysis of the directions in which they are likely to change. Socrates is able to accurately diagnose the disease that affects each of them , now based upon a true and complete picture of a healthy soul and a healthy city.  Now that we have a fuller understanding of what justice is and what it entails, we can understand how and in what way all other forms of life, individual and collective, fall short. And this is essential to an evaluation of the just life as the best.

Plato’s discussion of the education of a philosopher was intended , among other things, to indicate that the notion of a philosopher-king might be acceptable to those he would rule. The simplest way to achieve this ideal would be to install in power, to award unlimited, supra-legal power, to philosopher-kings. And the easiest way to achieve that, would be to get rid of everyone over the age of ten  (541). Now if nothing else in the discussion of the ideal city raises the question of its possibility, this little bombshell dropped into the discussion, and then quickly passed over, certainly does.  Once again, it seems we are invited to wonder whether Socrates is being entirely serious about this model of the ideal city. Perhaps, like some conservative interpreters insist, it is mostly a rhetorical device, not to be taken literally as the goal to be achieved.

There are many ways of interpreting the Republic. But one crucial question for any interpretation is whether this ideal is to be taken literally or not. If it is taken literally, then its achievement would certainly be difficult, if not impossible. It would be what should actually be aimed for in practice (perhaps even if that meant separating all who are under 10 from their parents), as well as being the standard according to which all other forms were to be avaluated.

Let’s briefly review the main structural elements of the ideal: there is a three class system with a strict division of labour based upon a supposedly natural distribution of exclusive talents; there is a strict system of censorship in education and manners; there is a communism in terms of property for the rulers, and a “communism of wives” that replaces the traditional family; there is total involvement  on the part of the rulers in the most intimate details of individual and social life; justice here means a static hierarchical relation among the subordinate parts of the whole, because each class, even the one that is responsible for directing action, is subordinate to the smooth functioning of the whole; each individual and each group accepts their limited role in the larger scheme of things, i.e. no one strays from their station in life.

Of this scheme a number of serious criticisms can and have been raised. It is worth it to mention a few:

  1. The ideal is derived from a theory of  the human psyche and of human nature that has not been proven. Plato by and large assumes a tripartite soul and deduces the ideal city from the nature of this soul, thus begging the question. There is nothing wrong in the deduction of the city from the soul. But there is something wrong in his view of the soul as composed of three entirely separate elements, among which only relations of subordination and superiority are possible. In this version of the soul, the appetites exist for the sake of reason , and the desirous and affective part(s) have no value in themselves.

The Sophists had assumed that human nature was appetite and spirit tending toward unlimited self-assertion. Plato assumes the same thing, only adding to human nature the element of an impersonal reason that subdues and ultimately forgets the whole life of the body, the senses and perhaps action as well. Where the Sophists had a soul limited to struggles between individual appetites, Plato still has a struggle within the soul, within human nature. Human nature is taken to be as fixed and unchanging as are the forms, and as it is for the Sophists. That such struggles exist is not sufficient to demonstrate that they are natural, in the sense of ultimate and inevitable. Plato begins, then, with an assumption, which is not seriously challenged until Rousseau, and in any case, begs the question of the justness of the ideal city with this assumption.

  1. Even if we accept, with Plato, that the individual is not an isolated unit, not a finished whole, Plato has

Gone too far in the opposite direction. In excluding the vast majority not only from ruling, but  even from any form of participation in the public and common affairs of the city, he has undermined the very conditions that make for a  personality capable of having a sense of duty and belonging, or community. These subordinate members are in a sense no longer fully human – they are denied their full humanity – because they are denied the space, the arena and the freedom in which to assert and develop their own persons. Before you can have a genuine solidarity, it must be among people who have a separate sense of self ; self-direction or separation is a pre-condition or co-condition of genuine solidarity. You must have developed a will in order to limit it. And with the possible exception of the philosopher-kings, this is not true of anyone in the state. The “parts” tend to become mere conditions of the smooth functioning of the whole. Is this not the case, for example, with the “emancipated” women of the guardian class? The choice facing humans is not necessarily only between Thrasymachus and the “ideal” city. Are there perhaps other possibilities?

  1. Connected especially with objection B. is the idea that Plato fundamentally misunderstands the nature

of politics and political life. For Plato, politics is completely subordinated, identical to morality and morality is possible only on the basis of perfect knowledge of absolute truth.  According to this   critical view, politics is not something unconnected to morality and truth, but different , with a “subject matter” of its own. On this view, a view of the “autonomy of politics” politics is concerned with bringing  about agreement on shared concerns out of a diversity of actors and interests. Politics would not involve the imposition of a static, frozen moral order on imperfect and resisting material (which is what Plato is accused of doing). Instead “the political” is concerned with the constant and continual construction of order in a process of genuine mutual accommodation between autonomous parties.  This perspective (put forward extremely well by Sheldon Wolin in his Politics and Vision) does not assume either total moral skepticism or the necessity of some moral absolute. It accepts the human condition as one of conflict, ambiguity and change. From this perspective, Plato’s conception (if taken literally) of political philosophy becomes a paradox: political philosophy in Plato becomes the science of creating order sworn to an eternal hostility to politics, that is to those things that give such a science meaning. In this view the Platonic ruler is seen not as a political philosopher, but as a despotic artist. The community is the aesthetic medium, like clay or canvas, upon which he impresses order and beauty. But the medium here can make no claims of its own. It simply confronts the artist with technical limits and problems. In this situation, the problem that Socrates faced in the Crito, the problem of obligation, does not even arise. A problem of obligation arises only where there are conflicting considerations [should I,  knowing my innocence, save myself, or should I obey the laws even when they inflict an injustice?] but Plato asks people to choose only between salvation or damnation. This conception of politics, common or at least acceptable, by the way, to a wide range of otherwise conflicting positions can be summed up this way: For Plato citizenship amounts to participation in the benefits following from association whereas citizenship truly goes beyond that to a sharing in the power of the political association. There would be no citizenship without meaningful participation. A genuine community would be one not only of “well-being”, but of belonging. Plato’s ideal city, having only a handful for whom there is meaningful participation, is not a city at all.

When practiced well, this third type of criticism will, however, recognize that Plato is aware of a  similar tension in his own philosophy. Plato is convinced that philosophy alone is capable of attaining the knowledge required to bring happiness to society, but he is also aware that knowledge can be translated into practice by the method he distrusted most, by an act of power. This awareness on Plato’s part leads to the possibility of an interpretation of the Republic, where the ideal city is not taken literally as the goal. First, we have many indications that the city of words may not be possible (i.e. that Plato himself does not think it is possible). And, if it is not possible, or if there is only a very dim possibility for its being achieved, this would also affect its desirability. To evaluate the question of its possibility and desirability keep in mind what Plato himself has put into the dialogue:

  1. in Book III, there is the admission that the happiness of individuals is not the aim;
  2. in the Myth of the Metals the problem of maximum efficiency versus adequacy is fairly near the surface; how just is the ideal city if it does not truly correspond to the natural distribution of talents and if the power of education is ignored?
  3. There is the problem of the current generation: are we really going to get rid of everyone over the age of ten? How? The entire educational focus is on entirely fresh building material
  4. The arrangements for the reproduction of the guardians are, to put it mildly, a bit weird. Aristotle will soon point this out as well; even Plato has these arrangements breaking down in the ideal city (see Book IX) and the family reasserting itself; that is, in fact, how he sees the ideal starting the process of degeneration.
  5. Even were all these problems to be overcome somehow, the rulers would still know they are ruling a city based upon a falsehood and one which is therefore not fully rational
  6. The question of its possibility comes up so frequently in Socrates’ audience that it indicates that they would think it is highly doubtful
  7. Finally, by the end of Book VII, the analogy between the city and the individual shows itself to be imperfect. In the case of the just man, rule (the rule of reason) is accepted from within, but in the city, rule must be imposed from without (by deception and by cruelty, when necessary)

So, for Plato, it is perhaps the case that if the ideal were possible (and also not self-contradictory) it would be desirable. But its possibility remains seriously open to question. Thus its desirability also remains open to question – not only for us, but for Plato himself. What is the status of the city, then, if Plato does not mean it to be taken unambiguously as a literal plan and blueprint? It can still perhaps serve as a “pure” model for the purposes of orientation with respect to actual cities. But it can also be treated as a heuristic device (a heuristic device is something used to find something else). Here it would be used as a device to explore the proper relation between knowledge and power, to serve, in other words, as the real and full apology of Socrates.

The central story of the Republic is to be found in the parable of the cave. It takes a dim view of the knowledge of the human species as a whole, but it implies that the enlightened and therefore just individual is still possible. Such an individual would face two big temptations: the temptation to withdraw from public concerns in order to maintain a communion with the divine nature of the universe; such an individual, says the parable must feel a compulsion to go back into the cave and engage with its inhabitants. The second temptation such an individual would face, would be the temptation to rule, to seek power. Philsophic natures we’ve been told, can be corrupted. Those most capable of philosophy are also the most capable of tyranny. This is perhaps the reason for Glaucon’s central role in the Republic. Glaucon is such a powerful nature facing a choice, turned to both the message of the Sophists and to the message that Socrates sends.

Just as Socrates lived a public life, but not as a politician, not as one seeking office and power, the philosopher must return to the cave, but not to rule, not to become a seeker after power, but to turn as far as possible, his fellows to the light, to break the chains of illusion that bind them. Such a person would be like Socrates. Socrates was accused of withdrawing from the city, rejecting it and undermining it. This is not true, says the Republic. Socrates’ way of life can only better the city. The true philosopher will not remain separate from public life (and in reality Socrates never left Athens and claimed to always have fulfilled his civic duties), yet he will not join the game of power. His public activity will be to break the bonds that imprisoning his fellow citizens. This is what he must do and all that he can do.

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