Friday, July 03, 2009

Plato's Republic, Book III

Book III continues the discussion about what kind of stories should be told to the future guardians of the city. As before, only virtuous deeds and characters are to be favorably depicted. The guiding concern here is the good of the city as a whole, not that of individual members or family units. Hades, for instance, should not be depicted as a frightening place--for then guardians might not be so willing to go to their dead for the polis.

One need not be a libertarian to be alarmed by the values and assumptions underlying this program. The good of the whole is given an at least quasi-absolute status, and seems at times to be something almost opposed to the good of its individual members--for it is to be oriented toward an extra-human conception of the Form of the Good. (I would not a have problem, by contrast, with a theory that sometimes demands sacrifices of the individual for a collectively negotiated good, responsive the actual needs and desires of the populace; though the details of negotiating this good without trampling rights of minorities, etc., may be an endlessly thorny issue, I can at least embrace the ideal in a way that I am reluctant to embrace the Platonic Good.) We'll have to discuss this further when Plato elaborates on his theory of the Good--for I am almost certainly basing my judgment on a simplified, perhaps even caricatured, conception of his metaphysics of forms.

Similar metaphysical assumptions inform Plato's faith in a harmonious order of being, which can be known by a rational soul. What is most beautiful is ordered and rational and in harmony with the good. If separate goods seem to conflict, this is because we've allowed ourselves to become blinded by our passions or caught up in mere appearances.

Here is a particularly alarming consequence of this unitary conception of the good: "[A]s for the ones whose bodies are naturally unhealthy or whose souls are incurably evil, won't they let the former die of their own accord and put the latter to death?" "That seems to be best both for the ones who suffer such treatment and for the city." (410a). Yikes! To a modern reader the complete lack of any sensitivity to individual human rights or dignity of the person is downright alarming. The challenge for us, I suppose, is to understand how Plato can be so unconcerned, and then to articulate and justify the grounds of our objection.

Plato himself had little faith in the common man's ability to understand and accept his proper place in the political order. Even though falsehoods are bad, he endorses mass deceit of the populace in order to bring their souls into harmony with the truth. This is his infamous "Myth of the Metals." Everyone in the city is to be told that he occupies the place he does by virtue of having a specific nature -- each associated with a particular metal -- and that all are equally children of the same earth mother. In this way everyone is to feel akin to everyone else and to accept the position he is alloted and the rule of those above him.

In the last paragraph of this book, Plato attempts to address some of the concerns you expressed about the loyalties of the guardians. The guardians, he stipulates, are not to own private property, they are to be sustained by taxes on the city, and they are to share common quarters with one another. The idea here is that they be nurtured into a completely universal sense of selfhood, and, lacking any particular commitments to which they could oppose the good of the whole, come to completely identify their individual good with the good of the polis.

I look forward to everyone's thoughts and comments --
PJ

6 comments:

A Wiser Man Than I said...

One need not be a libertarian to be alarmed by the values and assumptions underlying this program.

It goes beyond even the control explicitly mentioned in the text. The slippery slope argument is a logical fallacy, of course, but the problem with State control is that a small restriction often necessitates even larger ones. I'll try to give you some idea of what I mean.

Socrates has expunged a number of passages of Homer. Yet the rest of Greece has not, presumably, followed his line of thinking. Thus, whenever a visitor arrives from another city, the guardians must ensure that the visitors do not divulge censored passages. (I'm operating under the assumption that once the "noble lie" is known to be one, there will be a non inconsiderable backlash.)

The same goes for any who journey outside the city. We can't have people learning about the goings-on of other cities, for fear that the citizens desire changes to the way things work in their own city. This is basically what happened in the Soviet Union at the end of WWII. Rather than allow soldiers to risk telling the truth of how things were in the capitalist countries, Stalin shipped the army en masse to his gulags.

I'm not at all supposing that Socrates is, for instance, intent on setting up slave labor camps, only that these things have a disturbing propensity to occur whenever totalitarians try to restrict the truth.

One last point: if this censorship is only for the sake of the guardians, the problem is lessened, but it still exists.

"[A]s for the ones whose bodies are naturally unhealthy or whose souls are incurably evil, won't they let the former die of their own accord and put the latter to death?"

This was basically the policy of Sparta, Athens great enemy in the Peloponnesian War. If Socrates were openly advocating replacing the Athenian model with the Spartan while his city was at war with the latter, it's not surprising that he would have made a number of enemies.

Your point about human rights--I would say natural rights--is a good one. Concern for the good of the whole can never completely trump the good of the individual, at least in my mind.

The idea here is that they be nurtured into a completely universal sense of selfhood, and, lacking any particular commitments to which they could oppose the good of the whole, come to completely identify their individual good with the good of the polis.

I'm glad Socrates takes up this theme, and await his development of it in futures books. I have an observation on this point, but I think it can wait until this doctrine is more fully developed.

PJ said...

I like your point about "inter-polis" relations. Plato/Soc seems to assume that an ideal city is self-sufficient, and that no one would have any reason to desire non-military engagement with other city-states.

I have a hard time believing that this was ever a particularly enlightened policy. Certainly it is untenable today.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

I have a hard time believing that this was ever a particularly enlightened policy.

It definitely made more sense in a primitive economy, in which most of the needs of a city could be met internally. It makes almost no sense in a society in which a large percentage of things are produced in a different area than that in which they are consumed.

We shouldn't be too hard on Socrates for not conceiving the economic complications of the modern world. There's plenty to chide him about even without worrying about anachronisms.

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Anonymous said...

What do you think about the part at 386a where Socrates makes the conclusion that those stories in poetry about gods following his three patterns can not be told to the guardians. He states that he thinks future guardians should and should not hear if they are to honor gods, their parents, and not take their friendship with one another lightly. I find it funny that Socrates would say their parents when later in the book he says the children are taken away from their parents to be raised by philosophers in the common with everyone else.... your thoughts? I'm trying to use that argument and prove that it is flawed (in that the parents arent involved in the childs life) for a philosophy paper...

julia dokashenko said...

Apart from an amazing book there are lots of wise phrases and statements which us pure understanding of those days life. I've written an essay Plato’s Republic