Mark Blitz’s Plato’s Political Philosophy makes, and keeps, some large promises.
At the top of the list is Blitz’s intention to bring to light Plato’s depiction of the full range of human life by “articulating the realm of political philosophy,” the sphere of distinctively human existence, according to Blitz. It is a realm suffused by opinions about human life as a whole and about the whole itself, the cosmos of which man is but a part.
An understanding of these opinions can enable readers of Plato (guided by Blitz) to discern what is both distinctive and noble about human life by indicating how what is beyond politics is, in fact, above it. Human life is thereby elevated and enlarged by awareness of its place in the larger cosmos, rather than flattened out or reduced to insignificance.
An unstated motive here, it would seem, is to make plausible to our dogmatically skeptical age the idea that actions of moral beauty issue from excellent human souls. Our souls are open to a cosmos whose intelligibility is increasingly clarified the more we reflect on the world in which we live. And that world is the political world. Blitz offers a stunning reprise of the premodern dictum according to which man is the microcosm.
Blitz’s method, and his chosen audience, are capacious. He takes a “generalizing approach” that ranges throughout nearly the entire Platonic corpus, and he aims to benefit both beginners and scholars. He seeks to convince the former of the importance of Plato’s “more refined, complicated, or abstract thoughts” while still benefiting the “more advanced” through his own reflections on Plato’s ideas. Above all, Blitz wishes to remind both of “how Plato’s most abstract thought is rooted in ordinary political and moral questions,” and to demonstrate how “to uncover his practical answers to them.”
Blitz does not obtrude his ambition: He stresses, instead, the apparently more modest goal of “thinking together with Plato.” Yet one shouldn’t be misled into believing that Blitz’s aim is merely academic. When this book is read in conjunction with his Duty Bound (2005) and last year’s Conserving Liberty, it becomes apparent that Mark Blitz seeks to understand the limits of our political order as well as defend and ennoble it. He is as keenly aware of the practical importance of politics as he is of the theoretical significance of the political.
In Duty Bound, he developed the idea that responsibility is the virtue that guides and limits freedom in a democratic order founded on natural rights—an order that he, in keeping with the usage of political theorists, calls liberal democracy or liberalism. It is to be distinguished not from conservatism, but from orders founded on (or dedicated to) principles other than natural rights—such as moral virtue or the common good of ancient political philosophy. Duty Bound’s early parts show how stolid institutions like federal bureaucracies and seemingly staid and stale fields such as administrative law can be realms within which genuine human excellences can do their work, especially when seen through the prism of reasonable responsibility as a virtue.
In this manner, Blitz counters the complacency of those who think our political life is a machine that runs of itself, and others who look down on modern democratic politics with knee-jerk contempt. Blitz counters crucial challenges to liberal democracy in a manner that does full justice to the spirit of freedom.
In Conserving Liberty Blitz is at his most practical, even if theoretical considerations do not recede entirely. He makes the case that a conservatism founded on reason rather than tradition offers the best prospect for preserving our country’s core principles as well as its characteristic practices and institutions. America can continue to serve as the bulwark of a freedom that amply provides the conditions for human happiness.
In the final chapters of Duty Bound, however, Blitz identifies challenges to our liberal democratic order that can be met fully only by transcending liberalism, by seeing it from a higher, or more comprehensive, perspective. In those chapters, he places the theme of responsibility within the broadest context of human ends, goods, and choice.
Liberal democracies tend to flatten both aspirations for, and visions of, the human good. They also leave their citizens with little guidance regarding key questions of modern life, and the answers to some of these questions may well determine whether human beings will even continue to desire the good ends entailed in human happiness.
Blitz neither indulges in vague formulas about balancing desired outcomes, nor reverts to claims about the dignity of the human person rooted in revelation. Rather, Blitz explores what is required for us to pursue human goods, especially moral and intellectual goods. Moreover, he does so without being moralistically or legalistically prescriptive: He deftly distinguishes his arguments from those on both left and right which have “an atavistic ring” in their flight to simple traditions, poetic imaginations, or “prescientific worlds.”
In Duty Bound, he writes:
These standpoints . . . threaten to give away what one most wishes to protect, our rational powers. . . . Genuine reflection on what makes our goals good and on the place of thought in enriching or even threatening these goods is a central task if we are to govern technology responsibly, especially given the emergence of biotechnology. Post-Heideggerian thought can contribute to this.
Plato’s Political Philosophy is a signal instance of such genuine reflection. Among its most satisfying aspects is the significance of its reflections on specific virtues in both their common, conventional guises and their rarer, natural, and, ultimately, philosophical versions. Blitz shows how careful reflection enables one to follow the movement from courage as a virtue of the body to courage as a virtue of the mind. Courage first comes to sight as the most bodily virtue, the activity of standing one’s literal ground with brute spiritedness; under Blitz’s guidance, we see how that primitive version naturally points to the
paradoxical philosophic definition of a knowledge ennobled by its connection to truly good ends.
Blitz pushes this standard account one dialectical step further. On the one hand, such intellectualization of courage does reveal the truth that courage is only a part of the whole of virtue understood as knowledge; on the other hand, it conceals the truth that courage is a part of virtue that stands apart as a relatively stable whole in its own right.
Similarly, the reverence entailed in religious piety reproduces what natural piety does when, for example, Socrates stands in awe of what is best in himself, especially insofar as that part of him imposes hard demands for precise knowledge of things as they truly are. And as though to make clear that he means to maintain the distinctiveness of piety itself, Blitz later gives piety its due by suggesting that “we cannot simply split the pleasure of virtue, of moral beauty, from fearful awe.”
The conventional and natural versions of each virtue bear more than merely formal similarities to one another. Each can also actualize the potential of the same part of the soul—and without such virtues, the souls that possess them would be smaller and less whole. A link between the conventional and natural versions is imitation, intended by the virtuous person or not. So, for instance, Blitz’s conclusions would allow one to account for the superiority of Socrates’ courage to Achilles’ without having to deny the nobility of Achilles or the reality of his courage. The courage of each stands out as a striking part of the whole he is most truly a part of, even while it necessarily appears tarnished from the perspective of the whole to which he is a
Achilles’ courage on the Trojan battlefield shines forth; but as a human being within the whole of things, his limits become apparent. To Athens, Plato’s Socrates appears as a true stranger, even and especially while performing his proper function as a part of the whole of things which stands apart and opens itself moderately to that whole. We could not see Socrates’ nobility as clearly without seeing Achilles’ first.
Thus, Blitz can help us ascend from the political to (as he calls it) the “co-philosophic” world that supervenes upon those phenomena without requiring us to look back on politics with contempt. Instead, we can do so with a greater ability to see the political community as a whole, some of whose parts are splendid. Blitz’s perspective on politics allows us to see Socrates and the likes of Pericles as similar in their splendid hardness, in that each (as Blitz says of Socrates) is “noble by being himself in defending his own.”
Blitz’s concluding comments on the Platonic work on knowledge, the Theatetus, apply just as well to Blitz’s own emphasis on the centrality of politics for knowing in general, and for knowing the ends of human life in particular.
Even if justice is natural and, therefore, we can properly understand [the centrality of politics for knowledge], we could not reduce self-knowledge or freedom to politics. Freedom cannot exist apart from virtue and, hence, from the political community, but it also cannot exist apart from questioning virtue. We cannot be free apart from the confidence or courage that Socrates urges on Theatetus, but we also cannot be free apart from perplexity and wonder. The link between the human good and the city and between the good and the whole is crucial but difficult to discern.
If the difficulty of arriving at a full understanding of this crucial link overcomes more than a few readers—including this one!—of this challenging book, there is nonetheless an intermediate boon: Blitz demonstrates by example and argument that the activity of knowing is constituted not only in the upward and outward striving to comprehend the whole but also by the drive to see each part with precision. Indeed, human happiness may consist in the union of these two activities of the whole human soul. Reflection on the rational striving to combine and separate each of the beings opens the soul to itself—and, therefore, to the whole itself.
While some contemporary readers of Plato look with grim seriousness to Socrates for decisive refutations of even the most inscrutable alternatives to philosophy, Blitz delights in the pursuit of a full articulation of the permanent problems first divined in our apprehension of things. This is especially true of things experienced as wholes made up of parts, and as parts of the whole. And where, say, medieval or Renaissance readers of Plato saw a clear hierarchy of ends governing a harmonious cosmos, Blitz sees hierarchies, too—but as layers of problems whose recalcitrance is the occasion for continued thought, and such thought must be as hard as the problems themselves.
If these connections seem difficult to understand, it is because they are. And at times this reader senses that the very bounds of intelligibility are being approached—not to say transgressed. Yet by thinking together with Mark Blitz’s Plato, readers are bound to do justice to what is best in themselves by gaining greater clarity about what is simply best. “When we understand things as they are,” writes Blitz, “we are the same as others yet remain at the peak of our own powers.”
Christopher Lynch is associate professor of political science at Carthage College.