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.
We can deal with the problem of rhetoric by overcoming our moralism and holding fast to the difference between loving truth and speaking it. We can deal with the problem of "utopianism" by suggesting that the Republic is not a blueprint for action but, rather, a means to examine the limits of justice. It develops extreme versions of practices in which all communities engage: the instability of these extremes shows that political life never can be simply just; the effect is to moderate our most fantastic political hopes and ambitions.
Each community must teach that something special unites its citizens, that its distribution of wealth and position is not random or unfair, that its rulers are able to see what is best, that some types of art and education should be promoted and others disdained, and that common effort must when necessary supplant individual satisfaction. The Republic's stories about citizens' origin and class position, and its attempt to institute perfect breeding, common ownership, and rule by philosophers are extreme ways to meet these needs. The absurdity of these tales, however, the conflict between lives devoted to philosophic examination and to managing political trivia, and the inevitable division between private desire and common good, all show that political life cannot perfectly embody wisdom, just distribution, and devotion to the common good.
Part of Plato's intention in the Republic is to make such political imperfection visible.
Stanley Rosen disputes this interpretation in Plato's Republic: A Study. He labels it "Straussian," while acknowledging his debt to Leo Strauss. Plato would not have elaborated the Republic's institutions so fully or consorted with tyrants in Syracuse had he not believed them to be practically good and hoped to implement them. The source of political extremism is not citizens' desire for a perfect justice that proves unattainable politically, but philosophers' ambitions. Still, Rosen is too much a student of Strauss to believe that we can separate anything Plato writes from its dramatic context. He therefore often backtracks from the more extreme versions of his claim: The Republic is a "daydream" whose source is the philosopher's wish to be a tyrant, but it also recognizes both the danger of implementing this wish and the philosopher's contrary desire not to rule.
Rosen's point, finally, is that, although rule of the wise is just, it will not bring happiness.
Rosen's book is a long, detailed, thoughtful discussion of each section of the Republic. It makes arguments in every chapter that are worth pondering. Perhaps surprisingly, however, given Rosen's view of Plato's political purpose, he does not say much about the Republic's political institutions that is not apparent in Strauss, Allan Bloom, and others. Rosen's most intriguing practical arguments concern Plato's failure to uncover the phenomenon of political prudence that is central in Aristotle. Rosen also questions the analogy between the city and the soul around which Plato organizes much of his discussion. Here, however, he does not credit sufficiently the difficulties with the comparison to which Plato himself points.
Rosen's strength is his discussion of Plato's famous "Ideas," and other philosophical subjects. He does not accept arguments that Plato is not serious about the Ideas' existence. He explores their basis in "the everyday act of discerning shapes, patterns, forms, or looks that allow us to distinguish one thing from another." He reminds contemporary thinkers who believe that everything is a matter of what comes into being and passes away that, ultimately, "the absence of formal structure leaves us with nothing to talk about and thus nothing to say."
Rosen illuminates Plato's Ideas by giving a searching and powerful discussion of the meaning of models, paradigms, and examples, for (among other things) Ideas are models. But Rosen so fully splits recognizing an Idea such as justice from judging which actions are just that he claims that knowing what justice is theoretically is useless politically. He arrives at this disjunction only by downplaying ways of connecting ideas and actions that split them less completely: originals and their images, wholes and their parts, aspiration and what satisfies it.
But why should recognizing what, say, courage is not help us to become more courageous, and act more courageously?
Rosen's overall argument leads him to a peculiar understanding of the Republic's view of the philosophic life. He claims that the Republic is philosophically tyrannical because its education of potential philosophers produces Platonists or Socratics. Rosen does not clarify why this is dogmatic, however. The openness and frequent inconclusiveness of Plato's dialogues suggest otherwise, as does the fact that the Socratic search for wisdom is not identical with its achievement. Rosen recognizes this openness generally, but apparently thinks that the regime of the Republic is less forgiving. He chooses here to ignore Socrates' views in favor of what he himself believes that the rule of philosophers requires.
Moreover, although Rosen probes the connection between justice and happiness, he does not explore in depth Plato's view that the philosophic life is the happiest and most just. No other life can use our reason as fully, love as steadily what is as majestic, come as close to what is good, or overcome as courageously the usual ties that bind us. Rosen considers the Republic to be an advertisement for philosophy, but he presents his version of its outsized ambitions more forcefully than he does its actual allure. This neglect is connected to Rosen's excessive separation of the happy and the just soul, which in both cases is one where all our powers excel. In this sense, philosophy is its own reward.
In Rosen's more extreme statements, he accuses the Republic of tyranny, but he does not tell us to ignore or shun it. He sees it correctly as a warning against the rule of pseudo-philosophers, and employs it as a caution against philosophy becoming ideology. In fact, the Republic's combination of inspiration to virtue and understanding of practical limits also shows one way that philosophy may be useful to us politically without degenerating to ideology. In this regard, I wish that Rosen had gathered and analyzed his several remarks about nature, for "nature," as philosophers understand it, forms a crucial link between Plato's thought and our own guiding principle of natural rights.
The reader will benefit from Rosen's highly intelligent and rigorous analyses of philosophical issues. But he can turn away safely from his more excessive practical claims.
Mark Blitz, Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, is most recently the author of Duty Bound: Responsibility and American Public Life.