Thursday, July 30, 2009

Plato's Republic, Book VI

Socrates continues his line of thought regarding philosopher-kings. The guardians will simply have to be philosophers, "those who know each thing that is and who are not inferior to the others, either in experience or in any other part of virtue." But first, Socrates wants to demonstrate that both qualities are possible.

Proceeding along, we come across a famous definition of the philosopher: "a lover of wisdom." Socrates also remarks that such a thinker would not "consider human life to be something important." Subsequent remarks make it clear that the idea is that the philosopher will thus be courageous, and not afraid of death. But I wonder whether or not such disregard for one's own life may lead to disregard for others. One thinks of Paul Johnson's essay on Shelley titled "The Heartlessness of Ideas" in his book Intellectuals. As we have previously noted, the Republic seems to give little regard for the rights of the individual.

Moreover, the philosopher should be "good at remembering, quick to learn, high-minded, graceful [in thought], and a friend and relative of truth, justice, courage, and moderation."

Adeimantus interjects that philosophy doesn't always produce the types of men that Socrates claims. Many would observe that of philosophers, "the greatest number become cranks, not to say completely vicious, while those who seem completely decent are rendered useless to the city." I wonder if our resident philosopher will take these words in stride.

Socrates points out that the lack of honor accorded to philosophers by the cities is not a reflection upon the former. The true philosopher cannot be blamed if his fellow citizens condemn him as useless when they should be coming to him for advice.

Admitting that the great number of philosophers are, in fact, vicious, Socrates then proceeds to show why this isn't a slight on philosophy. His dismissal here is essentially the no true Scotsman fallacy. Since philosophers love that which is true and good, those who are not so cannot be philosophers. Yet even if Socrates' tautological definition is accepted, it seems to me that a seeker of truth could still be unjust and courageous, so long as he were truly striving to be true and making general moral progress. Surely one does not become a true philosopher only when one becomes a true saint.

Having expunged the bulk of humanity from the camp of the complete philosophers, Socrates examines the ways in which one who seems fit for philosophy may be corrupted. He points out that the better a nature is, the more potential it has for corruption, and hence the worse it may become; paradoxically, the very good things which a man has will be those whereby he is corrupted. Some of this anticipates the Christian idea--which was borrowed, if memory serves, from Plotinus, who was of course a follower of Plato--of evil as a privation, rather than a positive entity. And Socrates's point about corruptibility is used by C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, where Screwtape laments the pitiful quality of souls who entered Hell during the age of modernity.

Railing against the Sophists, Socrates places especial blame on the practice of punishing one who isn't persuaded by their empty words. We must ask ourselves what is objectionable here: the methods or merely the truth taught. One wonders whether pupils will be allowed to disagree with the teachers in Socrates's city.

After a little more railing on his eternal enemies, he throws up his hands against the folly of the mob. The majority will never love beauty; hence they can never be philosophers. And even if someone is wise, and just, and the like, the praise of the masses, or at least those close to him--here Socrates seems to contradict himself severely, even as he gives proof to his earlier paradox--will ensure he never sets down the hard road of actually learning philosophy.

He offers another complaint: philosophical training is gone about precisely the wrong way. Instead of completing one's training in philosophy while young, one should prepare one's mind early, only becoming a true philosopher after years of hard work. This strikes me as sensible advice.

Then, seeming to reverse his earlier opinion, Socrates notes that if only so-called philosophers were better men--or if people did not incorrectly identify false philosophers as representatives of the class--that true philosophers would be thought better of. And here I thought we were allowed to disdain the masses. Perhaps some other time.

After a long diversion, Socrates gets back into the discussion of constitutions. He insists that a philosopher would never deign to rule unless he were allowed to wipe the legal slate clean. And he wonders why people don't trust philosophers. As a thought exercise, writing a constitution is a decent idea; but, in practice, overthrowing the entire legal edifice is never a good idea. Once that precedent has been established, the law no longer has any permanent basis and degenerates into the whims of the rulers. Sooner or later, it becomes time for the enemies of "the people" to meet the guillotine. On a more relevant note: didn't Socrates insist he would have no need to legislate so long as he could control the educational establishment? And now he wants to come up with all the laws. Slippery fellow, that Socrates.

After a brief diversion, Socrates returns to the guardians, who, in addition to all that has been discussed previously, i.e. the extensive physical training, must also find time for book learnin', to put it colloquially. Most importantly, one must attain knowledge of the good, which, to Socrates, is even more important than possession of the virtues, justice included. Rather than enter into a discussion about what the good is, which would take a considerable while, Socrates promises to pay that debt some other time.

Without giving a definition of the good, he does claim, however: "What the good itself is in the intelligible realm, in relation to understanding and intelligible things, the sun is in the visible realm, in relation to sight and visible things." In other words, goodness is what allows the one knowing to know things; at the same time it allows the things themselves to be known. Socrates also makes a distinction between knowledge and truth, which are both "beautiful things", and goodness, which is even more beautiful. In fact, all being is dependent on goodness, but, unlike for St.Thomas, it is also separate from it.

Socrates offers some words on his theory of forms: "[Students of geometry, etc.] make their claim for the sake of the square itself [that is, the ideal form], and the diagonal itself, not the diagonal they draw, and similarly with the others. These figures that they make and draw, of which shadows and reflections in water are images, they now in turn use as images, in seeking to see those others themselves that one cannot see except by means of thought." In order to reach the highest condition of the soul, that of understanding, we cannot rest content with knowledge of appearances: we must seek out knowledge of these ideal forms.

9 comments:

PJ said...

Eric: Proceeding along, we come across a famous definition of the philosopher: "a lover of wisdom." Socrates also remarks that such a thinker would not "consider human life to be something important." Subsequent remarks make it clear that the idea is that the philosopher will thus be courageous, and not afraid of death. But I wonder whether or not such disregard for one's own life may lead to disregard for others.

PJ: I'll second this concern. Soc/Plato's idea is that from the properly philosophical perspective of "all time and all being" human life simply doesn't amount to much. Since I view meaning (in the broadest possible sense) as intrinsically relative to the constitution of conscious agents, I think he is dead wrong about this. It is our mode of subjectivity (and not the form of the Good) that is, in my view, the enabling condition of our intelligible world. But this is probably too fundamental of a disagreement to negotiate here. I would be curious, though, to hear whether you observe a tendency like this in any Christian thought. The ultimate source of the intelligible world, identical with the final aim of a righteous life, is established as inescapably "beyond" this world--is there not a dangerous tendency, then, to denigrate what is merely worldly, temporal, fleeting, contingent (and isn't all of this at least plausibly the very element of human life, the only life of which we're rationally certain)?

Eric: Surely one does not become a true philosopher only when one becomes a true saint.

PJ: Actually, I think this is pretty much his position (given an appropriately rationalistic gloss of "saint").

Eric: One wonders whether pupils will be allowed to disagree with the teachers in Socrates's city.

PJ: Yes, this bothers me as well. Plato/Soc's identification of truth with eternal fixity world seem to render his preferred literary form -- the dialogue -- obsolete (at best).

Eric: After a little more railing on his eternal enemies, he throws up his hands against the folly of the mob. The majority will never love beauty; hence they can never be philosophers.

PJ: I found this assertion rather weird. He seems to be arguing from the refusal of the majority to "tolerate" the reality of the beautiful itself to the impossibility of the majority being philosophical--even just philosophical enough not to disapprove of philosophers. It may well be that most people locate beauty in appearances, but Plato/Soc makes this out to be an almost principled stance, which it generally is not. Just a quibble here, since not much hinges on this.

Eric: And even if someone is wise, and just, and the like, the praise of the masses, or at least those close to him--here Socrates seems to contradict himself severely, even as he gives proof to his earlier paradox--will ensure he never sets down the hard road of actually learning philosophy.

PJ: What's the severe contradiction?

PJ said...

Eric: After a long diversion, Socrates gets back into the discussion of constitutions. He insists that a philosopher would never deign to rule unless he were allowed to wipe the legal slate clean. And he wonders why people don't trust philosophers. As a thought exercise, writing a constitution is a decent idea; but, in practice, overthrowing the entire legal edifice is never a good idea. Once that precedent has been established, the law no longer has any permanent basis and degenerates into the whims of the rulers. Sooner or later, it becomes time for the enemies of "the people" to meet the guillotine.

PJ: You're in good company here: Hegel too refers us to the French Revolution to make a closely related point.

Eric: On a more relevant note: didn't Socrates insist he would have no need to legislate so long as he could control the educational establishment? And now he wants to come up with all the laws. Slippery fellow, that Socrates.

PJ: Good eye. Do you have a specific reference for the earlier passage? It would be interesting to compare.

I'll follow-up later with some remarks on the sun analogy and the divided line.

Cheers,
PJ

A Wiser Man Than I said...

The ultimate source of the intelligible world, identical with the final aim of a righteous life, is established as inescapably "beyond" this world--is there not a dangerous tendency, then, to denigrate what is merely worldly, temporal, fleeting, contingent (and isn't all of this at least plausibly the very element of human life, the only life of which we're rationally certain)?

It's a good question. The so-called New Atheists, Sam Harris in particular, but also Richard Dawkins, make this argument in their books. This was also (one of) Edward Gibbon's critiques of Christianity at large, particularly monasticism.

On the whole, I would say that Christians have been rather too worldly than the other way around. For every St. Simeon Stylites, there are half a dozen Renaissance popes.

And if history is to be given credence, it has been the unbelievers who have denigrated life which conflicts with their own enjoyment of the here and now.

For all the focus on the afterlife, as long as one's future remains in doubt, one has reason to work out one's salvation by doing good works. Mother Teresa didn't let heaven distract her from the poor of Calcutta; it gave her impetus to love them.

Plato/Soc's identification of truth with eternal fixity world seem to render his preferred literary form -- the dialogue -- obsolete (at best).

I disagree. While Socrates believes truth to be fixed, he's far from certain of his ability to attain it. Hence the dialogue.

And if truth is always changing, I'm not sure what good it is to try to find it. As soon as you have it, it may be gone.

What's the severe contradiction?

He claims that men are too foolish to recognize real beauty, but they are somehow capable of recognizing potential in philosophers, i.e. an appreciation thereof. Now I understand that his point is that most people stop at images, without proceeding to the ideal, but if you're going to insist that the mass of men are incapable of appreciating a distinction, it strikes me as absurd to go around and insist that the mob will praise those who are almost good. Severe is a bit strong, but I think there is a contradiction here.

Do you have a specific reference for the earlier passage?

425 b.

High and Dry said...

On geometric forms: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5mer7_isocelekramer_fun

High and Dry said...

now you can just click it

PJ said...

PJ (earlier): The ultimate source of the intelligible world, identical with the final aim of a righteous life, is established as inescapably "beyond" this world--is there not a dangerous tendency, then, to denigrate what is merely worldly, temporal, fleeting, contingent (and isn't all of this at least plausibly the very element of human life, the only life of which we're rationally certain)?

Eric: It's a good question. The so-called New Atheists, Sam Harris in particular, but also Richard Dawkins, make this argument in their books. This was also (one of) Edward Gibbon's critiques of Christianity at large, particularly monasticism.

On the whole, I would say that Christians have been rather too worldly than the other way around. For every St. Simeon Stylites, there are half a dozen Renaissance popes.

And if history is to be given credence, it has been the unbelievers who have denigrated life which conflicts with their own enjoyment of the here and now.

For all the focus on the afterlife, as long as one's future remains in doubt, one has reason to work out one's salvation by doing good works. Mother Teresa didn't let heaven distract her from the poor of Calcutta; it gave her impetus to love them.

PJ (now): I guess my question is about the logic of the position. I don't doubt that lots of Christians have had fulfilling lives doing genuinely good work, or that plenty of atheists have led bad, unhappy lives. The issue is of what sort of life is required by one's theoretical commitments. Even your counterexample almost seems to bear out my contention: Mother Teresa has a reason to love the poor because in doubt about the ultimate state of her soul.

Based on my limited acquaintance with the texts, this is a real problem for Augustine. He likens earthly existence to a pilgrimage--and he absolutely abhorred travel. Thomas, however, could draw on Aristotle to show that activities can be, at the same time, intrinsically valuable, yet also be valuable for another, external end. Does this sync up with your understanding of the traditions?

PJ said...

PJ (earlier): Plato/Soc's identification of truth with eternal fixity world seem to render his preferred literary form -- the dialogue -- obsolete (at best).

Eric: I disagree. While Socrates believes truth to be fixed, he's far from certain of his ability to attain it. Hence the dialogue.

PJ (now): Right, but would dialogue have any place in the ideal city? The assumption of the whole arrangement is that the philosopher-king is in contact with the form of the good, and he makes or appropriately delegates all of the decisions about how things are to be run. It seems like the only people encouraged to ask questions are the guardians-in-training--and this only in about the fifteenth year of their education.

Eric: And if truth is always changing, I'm not sure what good it is to try to find it. As soon as you have it, it may be gone.

PJ: I would just like to see a little bit more attention given to truths about processes. What if becoming is more fundamental than being?

Eric: He claims that men are too foolish to recognize real beauty, but they are somehow capable of recognizing potential in philosophers, i.e. an appreciation thereof. Now I understand that his point is that most people stop at images, without proceeding to the ideal, but if you're going to insist that the mass of men are incapable of appreciating a distinction, it strikes me as absurd to go around and insist that the mob will praise those who are almost good. Severe is a bit strong, but I think there is a contradiction here.

PJ: I think Plato/Soc recognizes this tension. In actual cities only a few people accidentally attain a philosophical nature, and, like the historical Socrates, they are rejected by the majority of men. It is only in the ideal city that mechanisms will be in place to identify and nurture potential philosophers.

Eric: 425 b.

PJ: The point there was quite limited: that it would be a waste of time to legislate about hair styles and other such dimensions of custom and daily life. Legislation about crime or trade of office-holding, for instance, remains a possibility.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Even your counterexample almost seems to bear out my contention: Mother Teresa has a reason to love the poor because in doubt about the ultimate state of her soul.

We now know that Mother Teresa lived through what St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul. In another of the paradoxes of Christianity, those who love God most are able to experience His absence most intensely, just as Christ Himself felt on the cross. For all but the holiest men and women, this would be too much for our weak faith.

In a sense then, you're right. But we need to remember that the Mother Teresa's of the world are, alas, exceptions, and that she would argue that she served God out of love for others, even when she doubted His existence. She wasn't trying to bargain with God, trading service for salvation; Christianity doesn't work like that.

Based on my limited acquaintance with the texts, this is a real problem for Augustine. He likens earthly existence to a pilgrimage--and he absolutely abhorred travel.

St. Augustine was, to put the matter mildly, a pessimist. He also lived during a time in which Rome was falling apart. It made little sense to him to worry about the earthly city to the neglect of one's salvation.

Keep in mind, too, that, as he recounts in Confessions, the pleasures of the world, chiefly the theater, prevented him from knowing and serving God. He would have been a careless Bishop if he didn't try to prevent his flock from making some of his same mistakes.

Thomas, however, could draw on Aristotle to show that activities can be, at the same time, intrinsically valuable, yet also be valuable for another, external end. Does this sync up with your understanding of the traditions?

Both St. Thomas and St. Augustine would defend good actions. Thomas even defends innocent play and the like if they do not distract us from God. I think this was substantially Augustine's position, only he was more concerned about distractions. Both were also intent on placing the active life in the service of the contemplative.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Right, but would dialogue have any place in the ideal city?

I see your point. I don't see what the citizens would be able to discuss. Perhaps they could dialogue about the superiority of various strains of wheat.

Legislation about crime or trade of office-holding, for instance, remains a possibility.

Because of the totalitarian conception of the Republic, I think we need to be especially wary of legislation enforcing conformity if the educational program doesn't work, or if the people simply don't like the guardians.

That and I'm a paranoid libertarian.