The Magazine

On Plato's Terms

The rule of the wise is just, but no picnic.

Jun 5, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 36 • By MARK BLITZ
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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?