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Introduction to Plato’s Republic, Part 2

5,017 words

lightincave [1]Part 2 of 2

Author’s Note:

The following text is based on a transcript by V. S. of a lecture [2] on Plato’s Republic. As usual, I have edited his transcript to remove excessive wordiness and corrected a couple of small mistakes.  

Plato writes in his Seventh Letter that he never set forth his own philosophy in any of his writings. That’s a pretty extraordinary statement for one of our greatest philosophers to make. But the question is: If he never wrote down his philosophy, then why in the world are we reading these dialogues? Well, he never wrote it down, but you can infer his philosophy from the dialogues not by reading what he says, but by looking at what he does. The dialogues are not doctrines or compendia of doctrines, but they are psychagogical or spiritual exercises.

If you read the dialogues as compendia of positions, you find that Plato seems like a rather extravagant and goofy fellow. Plato believes in communism and in eugenics and in censorship, and things like that. How disreputable. “Thank God we’ve progressed beyond Plato!” That kind of attitude. Plato becomes an odd sort of footnote, essentially irrelevant to the modern consciousness, because we are all so sure that we’ve progressed beyond him, and he’s a sort of intellectual pygmy compared anybody who lives today who happens to be in tune with our superior culture. So, any second-rate mind who’s in tune with our modern culture can feel superior to Plato. This is the sort of attitude that you get, which I find, frankly, irritating. But you get this with college undergraduates, and they say, “Well, wasn’t Plato just a product of his time?” Or something like that.

Well, yes, but nothing important about anybody is really a product of his time. If Plato were merely a product of his time no one should read him. And insofar as Plato was a product of his time he fails to be a philosopher, because what is essential about the philosophical project or the philosophical ambition is precisely to become untimely, to transcend one’s time and place and make statements that are true universally.

Plato’s dialogues, if read as spiritual or psychagogical exercises, can lead us to an understanding of Plato’s views if we can follow where he’s leading us, leading our souls, if you will. Because the effect of the Platonic dialogues, properly read, is what Plato wants to bring about. Presumably, the state of mind that Plato wants to bring about is what Plato’s philosophy really is. So, we can figure out Plato’s philosophy not by looking at his words but by looking at his words and following them along in their rhetorical effect, and when we get to that effect, we get to what Plato was aiming at. And once we can describe that situation we know Plato’s philosophy. But we don’t know just by treating these dialogues as compendia of doctrines and not treating them as having as an intent, a transformative effect, that they are supposed to have on you. It’s the effect, not what the words say but what the words do, that communicate Plato’s philosophy.

To understand Plato’s teaching you have to not only follow the words but follow the deeds. You have to read these texts as having a rhetorical effect, a transformative effect on the personality of the main interlocutor that Socrates speaks to. Once you see what that effect is, where it’s all tending, that’s Plato’s view of things. Once you put it into words, then you capture Plato’s view. So, the question is what would be the best soul for Plato? Well, the best soul for Plato isn’t the rational or spirited or desiring soul simply understood. But it is something like this: it’s a kind of fusion of rationality and spiritedness that characterizes the best soul. What does that mean? Spiritedness for Plato is directed towards values or ideals. But in the simplest forms, spiritedness is directed towards values.

There are many things that humans can value, so their ability to value is extremely fluid and polymorphous. But the first thing that anybody seems to value is one’s self. A spirited attachment to the self is not, however, what one would call an instinct for self-preservation. Why is that? Well, that would be a desire. Desire is the promptings to maintain life, to gain the necessities of life and so forth. You could talk about a life instinct, but spiritedness isn’t a life instinct. A spirited attachment to the self is not an attachment to one’s physical existence. It’s an attachment to the idea of the self. Spirit is an attachment to ideal values, unreal, non-concrete ideal values. What is the idea of the self? It’s one’s self-image. When one forms an attachment to one’s self-image one can call that one’s sense of honor, one’s self-esteem. But along with this notion of self-esteem comes this concept of honor.

The clearest example of this is when someone treats you in a way that doesn’t fundamentally accord with your image of yourself. What happens when somebody does that to you? If you think well of yourself, and somebody cuts you off in traffic or barges in front of you and cuts in line at a movie theater or crashes into you and pushes you aside with their overladen baskets in the grocery store, what’s the reaction that you have? Anger. You feel dishonored, disrespected, and you get angry. So, anger is always connected with this spirited part of the soul. It gets angry over ideals that are not properly respected, including the ideal of one’s self.

The trouble with spiritedness is that it’s a somewhat undiscerning capacity to value ideas. So, for instance, even murderers and psychopaths and so forth have a certain attachment to themselves, a certain fondness for their selves that goes over and above their self-preservation instincts. You also form spirited attachments to things that are close to you like your family and your friends. You talk about sentimental attachments. These are spirited attachments because they are attachments to things that are somehow very intimately connected with and almost definitive of one’s identity. So, there’s a sort of broadened sphere of the self. One gets upset when somebody attacks a member of your family. Somebody disrespects your sister, you get angry over that, too. Or somebody says your momma wears army boots, and you get upset about that and want to knife them.

But the thing is that some families are just packs of wolves. Some people would be better off being raised by wolves than by their own parents. And yet, people still form these attachments to them. Or attachments to one’s hometown. Or one’s native tongue. Or one’s homeland. Spiritedness forms attachments that are somewhat undiscriminating as to the truth, the proper things that one really ought to value.

When writers like Adam Smith talk about moral sentiments, what they are really referring to is this part of the soul. Let’s not treat it as mere sentiment, though, because there are some sentiments that are good. When you talk about sentimental attachments you are talking about attachments to things that are familiar and old oftentimes, these things that are very much caught up with your own sense of self, your own history, and so forth. These sorts of things can take on a negative, dark quality very easily because with sentiment there comes a sort of false sense of innocence and self-congratulation. People get sentimental about innocence. Sentimental people tend to have an exaggerated sense of their own innocence, which is not a good thing oftentimes.

But, on the other hand, the last thing you want is a human being who is not fundamentally oriented towards values—values over and above creature comforts and self-preservation. Human beings can be turned into very mean animals by being ruled by nothing but concerns over creature comforts and self-preservation. People can be enslaved by their desires. So, the last thing you want is human beings who are without values. That’s nihilism. Therefore, the rule of pure reason in the soul is really in danger of being nihilistic. A concern simply with facts, with the logical, with the mathematical, the rigorous, the factual, that pure fact-oriented reasoning is the kind of reasoning that the scientist who said, “This is just a morally neutral activity. We’re just hired brains, and we’ll work for anybody. We’re not concerned with the ethics of these things. We’re concerned with simply getting to the facts.” And there are people who erect this kind of really morally cowardly or nihilistic attitude and turn that into a kind of moralistic mission. A kind of religion of science. There’s a sense of high calling and purpose associated with this and yet at bottom these people are nihilistic.

The possibility of a Mr. Spock strikes me as deeply disturbing. What happens with these people is that since pure reason, reason understood as a mere calculative faculty, doesn’t give rise to values. But since they have to act, they end up being ruled, oftentimes, by the basest, headiest desires. There’s a strange kind of alliance between a kind of amoral, scientific rationalism and the most heady forms of hedonism. Here, again, I will lapse into Star Trek. Just think of Mr. Spock. What makes Mr. Spock tick? It’s kind of hard to understand what motivates Mr. Spock. Being in a ship that explores the cosmos and collects facts is the perfect place for a Vulcan. But occasionally Mr. Spock goes insane and runs amok when his desires take over every seven years, right? What you’ve got is a strange combination between a distracted scientific rationalism, and a kind of insane hedonism, and these things oscillate.

Another example of this from pop culture is an episode of The X-Files. I really hate The X-Files. I hate it because it’s an amazing combination of cynicism and credulity that it tries to spread through our culture. It’s just become so boring, too. The characters never grow. After seven years of seeing aliens and blood-sucking vampires and things like this, Scully just couldn’t be the same sceptic that she was at the beginning. The characters never grow. But the point is that there’s one episode that I find most amusing that I call “The Robot Cockroaches from Outer Space” episode, because I forget the episode’s real name.

There’s this one scene where there’s a scientist. She’s a bug scientist, an entomologist. A sexy entomologist. She’s with Fox Mulder in a darkened lab at night, and she’s talking about cockroaches. She says, “I admire insects. They don’t have any pretensions. They just eat and sleep and breed, and that’s it.” At that point you expect the two of them to turn and look at one another and then tear one another’s clothes off, right? Because that’s what it’s sort of leading up to. But the point is that there’s an odd combination of a scientific mind that sees through values, it sees them as essentially subjective and arbitrary and therefore not worthy of any respect, a kind of cynicism about values, and a kind of hedonism that thinks that animals really are preferable to us because they don’t have any of these moral pretenses that we do. They just run around and follow their little desires and die whereas human beings have this strange tendency to erect systems of values and civilizations and cultures and things on just purely physical impulses like sex. Cockroaches don’t write love sonnets or commit suicide over love. They just reproduce and die in a sort of blissful unconsciousness. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we were that way? That’s the kind of attitude.

We live in a culture where there’s a tag-team routine between pure science, which sees through values and creates an atmosphere of cynicism, and a carnivalesque, hedonistic popular culture that’s all too happy to have all these pretenses torn away, because after all these things get in the way of our satisfaction.

There’s something deeply disturbing about the mind that’s ruled by pure reason, because pure reason needs to be ruled itself. It needs to be ruled by an orientation towards what is good. Anything that we excogitate is not unconditionally good. There are all kinds of inventions of science that might not ought to exist, if we think in terms of oughts, what is good. The activity of reasoning itself needs to be governed by an orientation towards the good, towards values.

The Platonic view is something like this: the mind that is ruled by an orientation towards ideals, bereft of reason, could be brutish and irrational. But at least it’s idealistic. At least it has certain enthusiasms. At least it’s open to the good however mistaken it might be about it. Whereas the mind that is exclusively rational without a value orientation is capable of seeing through the difference between truth and falsehood, but it has no values to guide its activities. So what one needs is a kind of fusion, if you will, of value orientation with rationality. One needs, in short, knowledge of the good. One needs an orientation of the rational soul towards the good and by the good.

The whole reproductive regime of the Republic is a picture of a world where human attachment is annihilated except for attachment for the city. It’s an inhuman and unrecognizable world. Natural human preferences that we have for one person over another, for children and parents and kin, or for things that are ours, are being uprooted by this rule of pure functional rationality which basically says human beings have one aim which is to perform their function in society and everything that competes with that aim has to be annihilated or eliminated in the name of functional perfection. It’s a kind of engineering mentality. It says everything has its particular role to play and we have to eliminate all accidental factors that don’t contribute to that aim. There’s something insane about that. Especially when you apply that to human beings.

The proposal about sexual equality is made in total abstraction from the body, which is utterly preposterous. We’re talking about putting women in the military, and the first that Socrates proposes is that physical differences are absolutely irrelevant. It’s only mental faculties that should be taken into account. What a preposterous notion! We’re talking about the police, for God’s sake! Why would one abstract away from this? Well, if one has a kind of weird, bloodless logicality, these aren’t the differences that make any difference.

Then there’s this discussion of wives and children in common and community of property. The communist proposals. Again, these illustrate the impropriety of abstracting away from the human propensity to prefer things. Preferences, personal preferences are just part of human nature. They could be good or bad, but they can’t be gone. All of these weird proposals are there precisely to illustrate the limits of a kind of bloodless rationality in the ruling of life.

But what Plato is pointing towards is really his mature position. His mature position, as I understand it, is this: You find this claim in Socrates. To know what’s good is to do it. If you know what is right, and if there are no forces preventing you from acting on it, then you do it. So, virtue is a kind of knowledge of the good. So, it’s possible to bring together knowing—rationality—with the good. It’s possible to educate our sentiments, to educate our spiritedness to imbue it with the capacity to distinguish between truth and falsehood in the realm of values. This is at the core of what Platonic philosophy is about. The best kind of soul, therefore, is a soul that is primarily oriented towards values, but is purified by and educated by reason in such a way that it becomes discriminating between true and false values. So, there’s a kind of fusion of rationality and spiritedness that seems to be at the core of this.

The ruling principle seems to be spiritedness. Spiritedness is the final ruling factor for the simple fact that reason has to be ruled by values. Yet, at the same time, your value orientation needs to be informed by reason, to be educated by reason, to be made subtle by reason, and to have its illusions purged away.

Now, if one asks what kind of city would that be, what kind of city would be analogous to that? Well, it would be a city ruled by its spirited types, but these spirited types would be liberally educated. They would be educated by philosophers to be discerning about issues of truth and falsehood. It would be a city ruled by gentlemen, gentlemen who go to school and get liberal educations from philosophers. And if you stand back and look at the whole drama of the Republic, that is exactly what the Republic is. You see this young gentleman being educated by this older philosopher. The best kind of regime is not the rule of philosophers, but the rule of men who are educated by them.

This, the concept of spiritedness, comes out in Books II, III and IV. The Greek word is thumos. It’s located in the chest. Remember from the Timaeus the three parts of the soul. There’s reason which is in the head, spiritedness which is located in the chest where the heart and lungs are, and desire which is located in the belly. There’s a physiological sensibility to that, because when you get angry your heart beats, when you hear stirring music, like a national anthem, you feel it in your chest. So, there’s actually a physiological meaningfulness to locating this capacity to value in the heart and lungs. The discussion of it is throughout the Republic but is especially concentrated in Books II, III and IV.

It turns out that whenever Glaucon is described he is described as being spirited. Whenever topics having to do with spirited things are discussed, Glaucon is the person who discusses them. Glaucon is described as erotic, musical, and spirited, and these are the kinds of topics he deals with. The musical dimension of Glaucon is the thing that makes him susceptible to liberal education, because as it turns out music refers to all the liberal arts, all of the things having to do with the muses. So, the best regime is a society where you have gentlemen who are educated in the liberal arts by the philosophers, but the philosophers don’t rule.

Alfarabi was a Medieval Arabic philosopher. This is Leo Strauss on Alfarabi’s commentary on Plato: “We may say that Alfarabi’s Plato eventually replaces the philosopher-king who rules openly in the virtuous city by the secret kingship of the philosopher, who being a perfect man precisely because he is an investigator, lives privately as a member of an imperfect society which he tries to humanize within the limits of the possible”[1] [3]

The philosopher is a person who strives for spiritual perfection in the midst of a society that he doesn’t expect to become perfect, but he seeks to humanize that society as much as possible. How? Ultimately, by educating its rulers. One of the things that the Republic tries to make clear is that the analogy between the city and the soul is extremely useful, but that it ultimately breaks down when you talk about philosophy, because there can be no city that’s analogous to the philosophical soul. There’s a kind of incommensurability of the interests of philosophy and the city. There’s never going to be a complete harmony between the interests of philosophy and the interests of a society.

Why is that? Every society ultimately, for Plato, would be partial, parochial. Even the best societies are going to have an Us or Them quality to it, whereas philosophy can’t be limited by those kinds of considerations. Philosophy is cosmopolitan. Every society has to have basic, unquestioned presuppositions that the average functioning citizen simply believes in if the society is going to work. But philosophy can’t have any unquestioned presuppositions. You can’t have certain things just undiscussed. So, the interests of political stability are always going to be inimical to the interests of philosophical investigation. One of the things that the Republic tries to teach is precisely this disanalogy, or the fact that there will never be a society analogous to the soul of the philosopher, and that philosophers will always, therefore, have to live in imperfect cities. But if you look at what Socrates does in the Republic, he’s trying to improve that imperfect city by educating the minds of its ruling class.

Replies to Questions

1. One of the things that is interesting in the Timaeus and Critias is that the Atlantid society, which is utopian at the beginning, undergoes the same kind of decline that Plato describes in Book VIII of the Republic when he talks about the impossibility of the perfect city. What happens to the Atlantids is that their leaders degenerate. They become hubristic and violent and awful. That’s the exact same pattern that he describes in Book VIII of the Republic when he talks about the degeneration of the ideal city into timarchy, which is a kind of violent warrior aristocracy.

2. There’s a kind of parodistic and even comical quality about a lot of these claims—the equality of the sexes, the community of wives and property, the rule of philosophers—and one of the problems of interpreters of this dialogue is that they take Plato as too deadly earnest. Whereas if you have some knowledge of the comedies of Aristophanes, not just the Clouds, but specifically a comedy called The Assembly of Women, you find that is one of the subtexts for the proposals about the equality of the sexes and wives and children in common. Plato is drawing upon this Aristophean comedy, and so all of his proposals are infused with this same kind of comic, jovial, and light-hearted quality. When you read this, you’re supposed to be smiling. But unfortunately there have been too many interpreters of Plato who have not smiled. They haven’t had the comic sensibility.

If you have to put Plato’s writings in any literary genre, they’re not tragic. They’re comic. That’s an impoverished set of categories, but that was the main set for the Greeks. Tragedy, comedy, and the satyr plays. They’re not satyr plays. They’re comic. They’re funny. What happens in all of these Platonic dialogues is the classic comic trope: the deflation of pretense. The simplest example is the Margaret Dumont-style dowager who is full of herself slipping on a banana peel. Pretense is punctured and brought down.

In a sense, what happens in the Republic is Glaucon’s pretenses are being brought down to Earth in some way, and also there are certain pretenses that are characteristic of pre-Socratic philosophy that are being punctured and parodied and brought down, too. And the pretenses of Utopianism. All of these things are being very, very jovially, light-heartedly, ironically parodied.

3. There are a number of people who have held this view of the Republic. I’m not unique or original in any of this, really. The first person who had a sense of the comedic qualities of the Republic, although he was a notoriously unsmiling and pedantic writer, was Aristotle. Aristotle’s Politics has several long criticisms of Plato’s Republic, yet the criticisms of Plato’s Republic are completely consistent with the thesis that Plato didn’t mean any of these things in earnest. Aristotle’s flat-footed, literal-minded interpreters usually interpret him in this way. They say, “Aristotle believed that Plato was all in earnest about this, and Aristotle is earnestly going about refuting all of these silly notions that Plato believed.”

Now, Aristotle was not so literal-minded as that, though, and it is possible to read Aristotle’s Politics where he is criticizing Plato’s Republic not as an earnest critique of proposals that were put forward earnestly, but simply as a kind of verbalized working out of precisely the problems with these schemes that are being proposed by Plato that Plato wants you to work out. Aristotle is being a very good student, and he’s setting out precisely all of the objections that Plato wants you to raise when you thoroughly consider what the implications of these proposals are.

In the Middle Ages, Alfarabi and Averroës, the Medieval Arabic commentators, were extremely attuned to this dimension of Plato as well.

I would also say that Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book Emile has written one of the great “esoteric” commentaries on the first five books of the Republic. Emile, of course, makes very few real references to Plato. Yet if you look at the structure of Emile and the topics that are dealt with, and line them up with the first five books of the Republic, he deals with all of the topics in the Republic, and he goes through the exact same kinds of considerations that Plato wants you to go through in understanding and criticizing the proposals that are put forward. And he makes enough references to the Republic to give the careful reader clues that that is precisely what he’s up to. So, Rousseau is a person who really read Plato in this ironical kind of way.

The people who really in this century, I think, are most responsible for the recovery of what I call “esotericism” are Leo Strauss and his school. What is esotericism? Well, esotericism is just a tradition of reading and writing between the lines. And what does it mean to write between the lines? Well, it means to communicate your doctrines indirectly, and that’s exactly the way Plato works. He communicates all of his own teachings indirectly in these dialogues. The way to understand his teaching is to read all of the things that are said, all the words, and to interpret them in light of all the deeds, all the activities, that are being narrated and then to try to get a sense of the overall direction that this is taking and the effect that it is producing in the interlocutors, the characters in the dialogue and also in your own soul. Once you have that sense of a total effect of the text, once you put that into words, you’ve got Plato. This is what it means to write between the lines. To read between the lines you have to know how we writes and to bring that back out.

Throughout most of the history of philosophy, and letters more broadly understood, people have understood the esoteric nature of people like Plato and Aristotle and the other great philosophers and have known how to read them. In the 19th century, though, there was an enormous loss—that’s the only way of putting it—a great loss of this sense of esotericism. The books of the philosophical tradition became basically silent. People started reading Plato as just some guy with a lot of crazy doctrines that he sets out in his books.

Really, in this century, Leo Strauss, a German-Jewish scholar, born 1899, died 1973, really recovered this tradition of reading between the lines. Strauss in his History of Political Philosophy, which he edited, has many articles by himself and some students of his where they practice reading between the lines. Strauss has a book called City and Man with a large essay in it on Plato’s Republic where he again reads between the lines. He also has an essay on Aristotle’s Politics in there which is very useful.

Allan Bloom, who is the translator of this edition of the Republic, is one of Strauss’s most distinguished students, and he has a long interpretive essay in here—it’s more than a hundred pages long—where he applies this Straussian approach to reading the Republic. This is why I ordered this particular edition. Moreover, the translation done with a great deal of fidelity and care. He has a kind of piety. He doesn’t try to write what Plato should have written or translate Plato as he might and ought to have been, but as he actually is, so that you get exactly the words in Greek translated into English without any attempt to impose greater elegance or coherence or perspicuity on them than is actually there in the Greek. So, this is as transparent a translation as you’re ever going to get. But he also has a long essay in the back which is very useful in giving an overall interpretation.

4. Philosophy was always regarded as a rather suspect activity by the ancients, and philosophers were persecuted. Philosophers, to protect themselves, began to write in ways that were designed to disguise their teachings as much as possible. Because no one could persecute you if they don’t understand you. Well, they can, but they can’t do it justly, and they can’t make a plausible case for it.

There’s another, deeper reason for this that’s less accidental, less political, if you will. And that is that their conception of philosophy was not just a set of doctrines, but as a way of life. The purpose of a philosophical text was not simply to communicate the teachings of a school in a way that was accessible to any bloke who wanted to pick it up and read. Popularization was regarded as bizarre and vulgar. They were texts that existed within the context of a living oral tradition, a school, and their meaning was interpreted in light of the oral tradition of the school. Their purpose was to aid the student in undergoing a kind of internal transformation of the soul which was understood to be the goal of philosophy because the well-ordered soul was precisely the healthy and happy soul, and the goal of it all was happiness.


[1] [4] Leo Strauss, Introduction to Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), p. 17; cf. “Farabi’s Plato,” Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume (New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1945), p. 384.