Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Πλάτων and Πολιτεία


About a year ago, I reread Πολιτεία by Πλάτων (The Republic by Plato), and I have mulled over some thoughts and ideas that I want to discuss in regards to that epic work. It is a dialogue between Σωκράτης (Socrates) and several of his companions (some of whom are critics, others who are disciples or friends) regarding the happiest of men. This leads them to the idea that being just is being happy, which further leads them into the discussion of "what is justice" which then descends into the hypothetical creation of the "most just polity." All this is to demonstrate a) what justice is, and b) why the most just man is happiest (especially in comparison to several other archetypes). The centerpiece of the book is a thought-experiment: the creation of the hypothetical πόλις (polis), Kallipolis (i.e. "beautiful city"), which is an attempt to harmonize the individual with the city, a city which will produce the best, highest type of individual. Plato, in order to illustrate what is the happiest man, must illustrate that man who embodies ἀρετή (arete) of mind, body, spirit, and patriotism, must create an environment that will produce such an individual. That environment, Kallipolis, is the embodiment of ἀρετή for the πόλις.

When reading the book, one can see where Socrates ends and Plato begins. It's demonstrably obvious. Socrates was a man who asked questions in order to reduce things to base principles. In other words, he would ask questions until some sort of self-evident truth was revealed, or else invalidating discrepencies made any attempts at axiomatic statements pointless. However, Socrates behaves strongly out-of-character throughout this work, but most notably after the beginning of Book II, when the hypothetical "just city" is being conceptualized. This is Plato speaking through Socrates in axiomatic statements. Only Book I really feels like an actual Socratic dialogue, because it is the only one in which Socrates is really engaged in a debate, and it is the only one in which he asks questions.

The opening line, "I went down to the Piraeus," mirrors a descent into Hades made by Odysseus, a descent that would be made by many heroes and warriors throughout mythic and legendary literature. But Plato's descent is much more mundane, and concerned not with glory, wealth, immortality or the rescue of a deceased loved-one, but rather with the intellectual and the philosophical. And indeed, throughout this work, we are confronted with a great deal of dark delving into the inherent contradictions within the human spirit that make such discussions as the nature of justice and the idea of the happiest man futile. An ascent is made, halfway through the book, into the idea of the Forms and universals, before descending into the afterlife again, in a discussion in Book X.

An astute reader will pay attention to the characters and their names, and how Socrates treats them. Polemarchus, whose name means "warlord" or "general," is concerned with honor and duty. Glaucon, whose name invokes terms such as "shining" or "glittery" is concerned with gain and glory, whereas his brother, Adeimantus, is obsessed with wealth and material gain. Cephalus, the host and master of the house to which Socrates has been compelled to visit, is aged and representative of Athenian tradition. It is not surprising that Socrates ousts him from the conversation almost immediately, and Cephalus excuses himself, permitting the discussion group to operate beyond the boundaries of tradition and convention and to explore the outlandish, hypothetical, and outright weird.

The discussion in Book I is sparked by a question regarding the nature of justice (since they agree that the happiest man is a just man). Socrates' interlocutors make statements, to which Socrates responds with questions. These questions force his companions to refine their ideas, rethink them, and inevitably abandon them. Socrates' questioning leads them to inescapable conclusions that their ideas are self-contradictory, hypocritical, or illogical. In the end, no satisfactory definition of justice can be enunciated. So, instead of examining something from a microcosmic perspective (i.e. the just man), Socrates decides to examine justice from the perspective of a just πόλις.


As goes the ideal, or just, state, so will go the ideal man. This is a theme that recurs later in the book, where Socrates compares different governments with their analogous individuals, psychoanalyzing both the individual and, by extension, the government to which he is coupled.

Thus begins the erection of an imaginary πόλις, from the very ground up. The genesis of this state was the certainty of a sort of pre-Marxian idea of class-struggle between haves and have-nots which generates misery, strife, injustice, and corruption within men. The antidote to this class struggle is to create a society in which class is sort of a moot point, and society is organized as an αριστοκρατία (aristocracy) in the purest, most original sense, meaning "rule of the best" (analogous to the modern idea of a "meritocracy" perhaps). Plato seeks to eliminate all factionalism and conflict from his πόλις, and argues that the only way to do so is to produce the best sort of ruler that will be ultimately just. These best are obviously philosopher-kings, but before you can object to having the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche enthroned above you in all his hateful contrarian, Hobbesian splendor, Socrates and his fellows axiomatically (meaning Plato and his fellows) state that only certain types of thinkers are philosophers. How convenient!

So, what, exactly, is a philosopher? Well, obviously a just person, one that is raised and conditioned in an ideal environment that cultivates not only his justice, but also his temperance, bravery, and wisdom. The philosopher is the lover of wisdom (the very definition of philosophy in Greek, φιλοσοφία, is "love of wisdom"). The πόλις is compared to a ship and the philosopher-king as its captain (the origin of the "ship-of-state" metaphor). But perhaps most importantly, a philosopher who would be king must understand the existence of the Forms, and thus the allegory of the cave is born (more on this later).

And here Socrates begins to speak axiomatically (as Plato's mouthpiece, I would argue). He states that justice, in and of itself, is not a virtue that is native to a person but rather the result of a well-ordered soul. In almost Daoist fashion, Socrates believes that people should follow their natural inclinations, and thus, for Kallipolis, divides people into soldiers, producers, and rulers. If their souls are well-ordered, people will naturally gravitate toward whatever lifestyle best suits them. If the city is well-ordered, all people will be raised as per their natural inclination. To raise people as per their natural inclination, strict measures of control need to be in place to prevent the corruption of individuals. Socrates emphasizes the four cardinal virtues, and implies that in the just society, all people will naturally come to embody these principles. In other words, the just society is one that will properly raise and educate such individuals, surrounding them only by influences deemed good and just, and by forbidding all others. Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared that Plato's Republic was the greatest educational manual ever written--the instruction and upbringing of the citizen of Kallipolis is at the very heart of the creation of a just society, and is the prime cause of all other aspects of the hypothetical πόλις's society and culture.

To preserve this society, as well as to preserve the meritocratic system of promotion and assignation of office, they create a repressive society in which many sorts of poetry, theater, and other art forms are banned from the πόλις, the reason for which is their tendency to corrupt with "untrue ideas" and "imitation." Here Plato grossly misunderstands (and misrepresents) the purpose of art, as well as its effect on the human psyche. He labels Homer as an imitator, because though Homer wrote about heroes, kings, wars, and governance, he himself did none of those things, thus invalidating himself. Plato states that Homer knew nothing of the realities of those subjects of his poems, and so, his value as a poet stands on tenuous ground. This is nonsense. Literature, poetry, and art do not exist to report truths of a tangible sort, and Plato of all men should know better after writing Books VI and VII (containing the idea of Agathon, the allegory of the cave, and theory of forms).

Nevertheless, Plato advocates the fabrication of an entire tradition, mythical cycle, and literary/poetical legacy in order to educate and serve as propaganda. Theology and mythology would have to be edited. Plato argues that the stories of the gods' misbehavior must be censored and bowdlerized in order to turn them into examples for the behavior of just citizens. The cultural heritage of the entire Greek people is called into question, and Plato deems a great deal of it unworthy and destructive.

Plato's programme for selection of philosopher-kings is predicated entirely upon their education, and a careful weeding-out of those who do not satisfy the prerequisite perceptions and skills. And here we return to exactly what the philosopher is. Plato uses the Allegory of the Cave to illustrate the philosopher as the person who breaks free of the illusion and emerges into the sunlight.

This allegory Plato uses to illustrate how the average person is, like the prisoners, exposed only to a sort of "shadow reality," whereas the philosopher, through enlightenment and contemplation, approaches the capacity to perceive the Forms. Thus, knowledge of the Forms is a prerequisite to the possession of political power. The Forms represent abstract ideals for concrete realities that the everyday person can perceive. To Plato, however, these concrete realities are pale reflections of the abstract (and more "real") Forms. These Forms are the only things that can provide us with genuine knowledge, and not just guesses, theories, or supposition. Perhaps Plato requires this ability to perceive and understand the Forms for his philosopher-kings because the ruler must be able to perceive the Good and the Just, and attempt to turn his πόλις toward these Forms.

In the end, however, Plato's city is, at its heart, nihilistic. Justice becomes a non-entity. There is no injustice to which one can compare it, so as a virtue, justice is nullified. It ceases to be a characteristic altogether in its people. Adeimantus' objection to the city is that happiness does not exist, and Glaucon argues that the city has no glory or honor. The question as to whether this city is just is leveled against how natural it is, and then the discussion shifts to whether the city is even possible in the first place.

At least Plato understands that this πόλις cannot last forever. Indeed, what he describes would be absolutely impossible unless the philosopher-kings ruled with an iron fist. Plato dislikes democracy; although it is well-known that Socrates loved it, Plato uses his teacher's mouth to deride the institution. He sees liberty as giving license, a sort of blank check on behavior, leading to all sorts of vice and moral/social decay. He sees the factionalism and political conflict within democratic governments as antithetical to the sort of harmony that could produce a just man.

But to create the sort of "just society" Plato advocates would result in a puritanically repressive regime. History since Plato has been replete with those sort of societies that oppressed and repressed their populations in order to "preserve" things like "justice," "morality," and "truth." Although I agree with Plato a great deal on those three social virtues, I do not agree with his methods of creating the just society.

Plato's polity is about as realistically executable as communism or Confucianism--which is to say, it is impossible. Even on the city-state level, a population of about, say, 30,000 individuals, I'd venture to guess that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pull off without purging and exile by a bloody revolution. And, as we know from God Emperor of Dune, in the words of Leto II, "All revolutions carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction."

There are, however, good things to be found within Plato's Republic. A love of justice, and the concept of the Good, the ideal Form of good and the ultimate form of knowledge. These are things that I share with Plato. Plato argues for the equality of men and women alike in his πόλις, and believes that no position should be denied them because of their gender. However, he fails to reckon with basic human nature on a number of levels, one of them being the need for love (sexual and familial). There is equality between the sexes, but intercourse is generally for the purpose of procreation in Kallipolis, partners are assigned, and any offspring are removed from their parents and raised by the state.

But perhaps Plato's polity is a satire, and we are all just too foolish to understand the contradiction between the ideal of the just society and the impossibility to imagine one without descending into a proto-fascist regime that nullifies the very meaning of justice. Perhaps that contradiction was Plato's entire point--the entire book is an expression of the futility in creating a just regime. Thus, we inevitably come full-circle--we are incapable of divining what is a just society, even when attempting to create the ideal πόλις. Ironically, this inability to perceive the Form of justice and the Form of the just πόλις, indicates how short we fall from Plato's ideal philosopher--the Form of the philosopher if you will.

The biggest disagreement I have with Plato's Kallipolis is simply this:
  • If a people must be made to be just and good, then they do not deserve the benefits of peace and prosperity, justice and truth, that they would possess, if they cannot achieve it through democratic means.
In other words, if a democracy decays and falls into injustice, corruption, and loses its virtue, it is the fault of the people (as well as the leaders), and therefore deserves to suffer. Plato's rule by philosopher-kings would create a just society, but by his own admission (see Book X especially), it cannot change the nature of humans from being what they are. It is little more than a band-aid. And the very justice of the society is its tragic flaw--it is unjust because it has removed the liberty of choice, and the ability to select the option of being just. Depressingly, since there can be no truly just state, perhaps it must follow that there can be no truly just man. This brings into question the very existence of the Forms and perhaps the universals can only exist as amorphous, ill-defined shapes within the shadowy recesses of our minds.

1 comment:

a48a9878-9308-11e1-bbb7-000bcdca4d7a said...

Your analysis serves as an adequate inspection, and also as a symposiac assay, to the reader. There appears to be much in the way of contradiction in Plato's utopian aggrandizement: for such a plea of equilibrial appeasement, an undeniable existence of imbalance is ever-present in Kallipolis. The imbalance may not rest, necessarily, politically, but rather conceptually. Is there a sensational apathy toward the latter of The Republic, and if so, does it accrue for the sole purpose in that, for Plato's ideal city-state, Plato begins to understand that such a society is a society in which nothing happens? We've the governing Guardians whose apocryphal egos ascertain the fundamental role of performing nothing at all, save the adoption of the title “philosopher-king.” If the withstanding principles of ethical justice and impoverished wealth are to be realized, we've nothing but a system that craves to be under full observance. Though psychologically optimistic, Kallipolis is unfounded, indubitably giving rise to, in regard to Popper's assertions, a righteousness unclaimed. To disregard man his knowledge is to ask for a favored gourmet meal without the cuisine at all hours everyday. It is but a theory giving rise to the potential failure in man's estates and claims; an idea that will succumb to the emaciated will of character.

Perhaps you are correct in the assertion of Kallipolis' nihilism. Though, I suppose, the dependent variable is whether or not one wishes to relieve true intellectual advancement in favor of conceptual paradise (neither physical nor political paradise, however). I implore that you permit your syntax to stab at other philosophical texts. My tea-drinking hours need accompaniment.