On Plato's Terms
The rule of the wise is just, but no picnic.
Jun 5, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 36 • By MARK BLITZ
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.