On Plato's Terms
The rule of the wise is just, but no picnic.
Jun 5, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 36 • By MARK BLITZ
WHAT SHOULD WE MAKE of Plato's Republic? It is, on its face, an odd and even preposterous book, one that glorifies practices that should disturb any lover of individual freedom. Its government is based on lies more outrageous than those the slimiest--or best--of our politicians have the wit or courage to concoct. Its religious life is so dogmatically controlled that toleration is not even imagined, let alone dismissed. The arts are limited more completely than the most narrowminded prig could dare to hope. The family is destroyed, private property eliminated, and (some) incest permitted. To move this scheme from the drawing board to the streets, moreover, everyone in the chosen venue who is over ten must be removed. No wonder that, a generation ago, many readers were hard pressed to see the difference between the Republic and the totalitarian regimes we were bound to destroy.
Despite these obvious political problems, however, most still treat it as a work that freely or "liberally" educated men and women should read. When journalists blather about saving Western Civilization, scholars build up and then bury themselves under the Great Books, and academics plot to establish mandatory Western Civilization courses, the Republic is always among the works on their minds. Few students at good colleges can avoid it.
How can we account for this split between what our political preferences should reject and what our educational practices promote? How should we deal with this discrepancy?
One explanation is inertia and indifference. Despite our taste for novelty, we mostly do today what we did yesterday. We are in the habit of treating the Republic as a work we should read and of not taking seriously the political parts we despise.
The bright side of this inertia is to keep the Republic alive, so that it might occasionally stir someone. An indifferently observed antique may surprisingly attract us in its original beauty. The dark side is that the accumulated tarnish becomes so impenetrable that the original beauty is almost altogether lost. What did we see in the Republic in the first place? To understand this is to see the reasons beyond habit why we read it, and why we can accommodate its tension with liberal democracy.
The Republic is the founding work of political philosophy. It subjects phenomena such as law, justice, happiness, and virtue to unrelenting study. It questions the ways of life and modes of action and education that we almost always take for granted. It looks for the true and permanent merit behind our practices.
Such questioning makes political philosophy inherently liberalizing, for it frees our minds from the hard, rigid ways of unquestioned tradition, custom, religion, and law. This liberalizing, rather than indifference or academic habit, is the first major substantive explanation for the Republic's continued importance.
The second is its use in improving liberal democracy by presenting possibilities that our way of life too easily overlooks. Liberalism leaves many important matters to private choice--marriage, profession, religion, much development of character and artistic culture. How should we exercise this choice? The Republic helps to guide us by inspiring us to the excellence of character and intellect whose substance is downplayed or occluded in our democracies.
The Republic's utility for liberalism does not eradicate its radicalism. It usefully examines justice and virtue, but it remains politically illiberal. It frees us intellectually, but it tries to attract the most able to a life of endless seeking of truths that are beyond the concerns of ordinary patriotism and happiness.
Plato softens the rigor of his underlying radicalism in several ways. One is to emphasize the practical need for continued examination, lest we prove confused about our deepest goals. Another is to portray the radical split between philosophical exploration and ordinary action only with certain audiences at certain times. Elements of both approaches come through in many of his dialogues, as we see in the Apology and in the Republic itself. The effect is to dampen Plato's radicalism for most practical purposes.
This Platonic presentation would largely suffice for us today as well, if we did not face two additional problems. We believe discussions such as the Republic's to be models for action, so the gap between our liberal democracy and the Republic's practices makes it especially hard not to condemn. And we think that philosophers' love of truth must be opposed to all lying, including all ameliorative rhetoric.