Monday, August 31, 2009

Plato's Republic, Book IX

Book IX contains a description of the tyrannical man, and three arguments that he will be the least happy of men. Plato/Soc then proceeds to extrapolate from these results to make a case for paternalistism.

In order to characterize the tyrannical man, Plato/Soc introduces a distinction between lawful and lawless desires. Lawless desires are present in everyone, as is evident in the disordered state of even the best people's dreams. The tyrant is the man in whom the lawless desires reign supreme; he does not use reason to organize his life in accordance with the good. This is to say that he is constantly indulging in "feasts, revelries, luxuries, girlfriends, and all that sort of thing" (573d). He shrugs off responsibilities and steals whatever he needs to feed his various appetites.

As his first proof that a tyrant is the most unhappy of men, Plato/Soc argues that such a man should be described as a slave to base and arbitrary desires, to the part of him least human. Furthermore, even when such a man wins political control, he is so hated that in order to protect himself he must pander to the ugliest sorts of people in order to protect himself from the others whom he subjects to continuous abuse. He debases himself and lives in constant fear of his underlings, who he knows would like to see him dead.

The second proof draws on the earlier distinction between the three parts of the soul. Each part, it is now added, acquires from its object a distinctive sort of pleasure. Depending upon which part of the soul holds sway, a person will be profit-loving, honor-loving, or wisdom-loving, and will judge objects accordingly. These pleasures are arranged hierarchically, each more comprehensive than the last. The argument, then, is that the philosopher understands the pleasures of tyranny and can weigh them correctly, but the tyrant does not understand the pleasures of philosophy and uses the wrong standard when he tries to judge them. So if philosophers report themselves as most happy, we are compelled to take their word for it.

The third proof incorporates an additional premise to the second argument in order to get a similar, but more ontologically substantive result. The new premise is that pleasure and pain are always relative one to the other; to give a crude example, intense pain in your past might make pleasurable for you an experience that is painfully boring to someone of a more sheltered upbringing. Hence all of the pleasures have their place on a single continuum and can, at least in principle, be quantitatively assessed, one against the other. We are said to be most pleased by what most fills us as the kind of being that we are, i.e., rational beings. Knowledge of what is is eternal provides a far more substantial pleasure than profit or honor, which pass away and must be continually renewed. These things have more being, Plato claims, and so the pleasures they afford are more truly pleasurable. The majority of people, unacquainted with the forms, live at the low end of the pleasure scale and have a consequently distorted experience of the world. In fact, with the aid of some screwball math, Plato/Soc. is able to inform us that the tyrant lives 729 times less pleasantly than the king. (My translator, for what it's worth, contends that Plato fudges the numbers and that, really, the tyrant lives only 125 times less pleasantly.)

Yet, we must remember, even philosophers must attend to the lower parts of the soul. The appetitive and spirited parts of the soul are to be ruled, not replaced, by the rational part. Furthermore, it needs to be emphasized that rational pleasures, for philosophers, are not simply tacked onto the other kinds of pleasures enjoyed just as much by non-philosophers. Philosophers are able to most effectively direct their lower desires in order to maximize pleasure afforded and to avoid frustration or excess. Disordered desires, as we've seen, lead to unhappiness.

From this, Plato/Soc extrapolates an argument for a strongly paternalistic form of government:

"Therefore, to insure that someone like that [i.e., like those irrational people who are slave to their appetites] is ruled by something similar to what rules the best person, we say that he ought to be the slave of that best person who has a divine ruler within himself. It isn't to harm the slave that we say he must be ruled, which is what Thrasymachus thought to be true of all subjects, but because it is better for everyone to be ruled by divine reason, preferably within himself and his own, otherwise imposed from without, so that as far as possible all will be alike and friends, governed by the same thing." (590c-d).

I've a few questions still to respond to from the previous Book. I'll get to them as soon as I can. Sorry about the delay!

Cheers, PJ

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Resisting the Totalitarian Temptation

Even after a second read, Liberal Fascism is almost as difficult to evaluate as the term fascism is to define. Parts of the book are quite excellent. For instance, Jonah Goldberg is generally successful in proving that Italian Fascism is a phenomenon of the left. His chapters on Wilson and Roosevelt are not only quite engaging; they are also persuasive. Still, the book possesses a number of flaws. It was a mistake to approach the subject both chronologically and thematically: the result is a good deal of repetition.

In the introduction, George Orwell laments: “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable'.” (p.4) In modern discourse, this often means anyone who is not sufficiently progressive. This is a tendency Liberal Fascism seeks to rectify. To an extent, Goldberg avoids slinging around the term Fascism as a generic pejorative. However, he has the annoying habit of pointing out insignificant coincidences between fascists of yore and modern liberals. This not only detracts from his more substantial arguments, it also ensures that almost everyone fits under the ever-expanding definition of fascism.

One gets the impression, then, that Goldberg is confused about his subject. Granted that fascism is a bit nebulous, one would hope that the writer of a book on the matter would be able to use the term correctly—or at least consistently. He gives the following definition: “Fascism is a religion of the state. It assumes the organic unity of the body politics and longs for a national leader attuned to the will of the people. It is totalitarian in that it views everything as political and holds that any action by the state is justified to achieve the common good.” (p. 23)

Proceeding with his definition, it is unclear how a number of the examples Goldberg cites can be construed as fascistic. While the students in Dead Poets Society may invite parallels to a militarized culture (pp. 373-4), they cannot be seen as fascists since the State nowhere enters into the picture. Likewise in V For Vendetta, “The villains and the hero alike are all fascists.” (p. 375) In what manner dismantling a totalitarian regime is fascistic I leave for the exasperated reader to decide.

The book ends by urging conservatives not to avoid adopting a religious significance about the State. This is a laudable endeavor, but it would have been more successful had Goldberg presented a clearer alternative to fascistic government. He explains that “if libertarianism could account for children and foreign policy, it would be the ideal political philosophy.” (p. 344) However, since political philosophy deals with imperfect man, flaws will be inherent in any system. But this is no reason to dismiss libertarianism. After all, it is difficult to see another group in America which better recognizes that there is a realm outside the State, and which is, therefore, better suited to resist the temptations of totalitarianism.

There are, it is true, extensive references to “classical liberalism”, usually in the context of explaining how it differs from progressivism. He notes that conservatism “is the conviction that a properly ordered republic has a government of limited ambition.” (p.402) But I have trouble remembering the last time conservatism thought such a thing. Although they are not fascistic, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—which Goldberg supports—are hardly indicative of “limited ambition.”

Blemishes aside, Liberal Fascism provides a good history of the Left. It is now time for conservatives to begin the introspection Liberal Fascism insisted that liberals take. Justin Raimondo's Reclaiming the American Right provides a good place to start.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wisdom and Innocence (and Charity, and Truth, and...)

There is a bumper sticker that reads: God, please save me from your followers. Just as the disciples of the Deity often present the most considerable obstacle to knowing Him, a like argument can may be made for the earnest devotees of Gilbert Kieth Chesterton. This is most unfortunate, since we merely aim to be grateful to one who has offered us spiritual strength, and may have even led us to God. To his fans, Chesterton is a brilliant writer whose (almost) every line demonstrates his profundity. We discover that he had an epigram for everything: one which conveys an essential truth in a way that is always witty and seldom inconsiderate. We laugh at his jokes and groan at his puns, and we are always edified. As Pearce's writing attests, if we try to write, we betray the master's influence, what with our semi-colons, alliteration, and attempted paradoxes.

But it would be a mistake to allow poor imitation to ruin one of "the giants of twentieth-century literature". The most obvious place to begin a study of such a giant is with the man's own books; I would recommend The Everlasting Man. But another splendid place to start is Joseph Pearce's well-written and thoroughly researched biography, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of GK Chesterton. Pearce maintains a good balance between telling the tale of Chesterton and providing selections from his writings—poetry, essays, books, novels—which are integral to understanding the man, and which greatly increase one's admiration of him. As might be expected from Pearce, who has since penned a number of similar works on Catholic literary figures, focus is placed on Chesterton's relationships with members of the literary world. Much is made, for instance, of his friendships with Hilaire Belloc and Fr. Ronald Knox, but also of those with George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, with whom he frequently disagreed. We also learn about the ways in which C.S. Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Sayers, and George Orwell—among others—were influenced by him.

The charity with which Chesterton conducted himself, even while arguing, is not only the primary reason he was capable of maintaining friendships with so many different personalities, it is a major attraction of his writings today. He also gives the Faith an intellectual respectability of which his fellow Catholics ought to be aware, but which its opponents rarely fathom. To Shaw, for instance, Chesterton was not simply a delightful companion; he was also a worthy opponent.

Pearce readily demonstrates Chestertonian charity towards his subject, to the point where we might suspect that he is overly reluctant to criticize him. He nonetheless pronounces against a book if he believes it was written poorly, or against a point if he believes it was wrongly made. For instance, when speaking of The Resurrection of Rome "The prose wanders off in all directions, following endless theological or historical tangents"; and Four Faultless Felons was "completely forgettable and not worthy of the author." After letting Shaw and Chesterton argue it out over the pacifism of the former, Pearce concedes that: "With the wisdom of hindsight it is difficult to side with Chesterton against Shaw on the issue of the First World War."

One is left to conclude that Chesterton is criticized so infrequently because he rarely deserves more than his self-deprecating wit already provided. Often, he deserved much less. We find ourselves siding with Etienne Gilson: "Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed; he was deep because he was right; and he could not help being right; but he could not either help being modest and charitable."

It is difficult to say which offers the greater appeal: his depth of thought or his charity towards others. Thankfully, we need not choose: Chesterton's large frame left ample room for both. In a world that has forgotten both how to think and how to love, Pearce offers welcome insight into a man who could do much to help us remember.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Plato's Republic, Book VIII

Book VIII starts with a useful summary of the Republic Socrates has envisioned: wives are to be held in common, children should be educated in common, and all citizens must hold a common way of life. Also, the kings are to be "those among them who have proved to be the best, both in philosophy and in warfare". Since I have been reading Liberal Fascism, I note here that Socrates has envisioned a proto-fascist State. The term totalitarian, now almost exclusively pejorative, was coined by Mussolini to describe his own regime, that is, a society in which every citizen had his place and no one existed outside the state The term also applies rather well to the Republic. I mention this again because, while Socrates does an admirable job outlining the problems inherent in other constitutions, we should not allow ourselves to the implicit tyranny in his supposed aristocracy.

Socrates then returns to his discussion of the four types of constitution, which he had mentioned in an earlier book. These are: timocracy or Spartan, praised by most and elsewhere described as "victory and honor-loving"; oligarchy, filled with a host of evils; democracy, antagonistic to oligarchy; and genuine tyranny. To this we add the already discussed aristocracy, "which is rightly said to be good and just." He then proceeds to examine the constitutions and the type of people they are likely to produce.

But first he offers an explanation as to how aristocracy decays into timocracy. Inferior babies are born of the guardians; these cleave toward "money-making and the acquisition of land, houses, gold, and silver" while the aristocracy continues to pursue the old, honorable ways. As when Thomas Cromwell looted the monasteries and scattered the wealth among the nobles, the inferior types set about destroying the old older, erecting a new constitution in its stead. This new constitution is halfway between the aristocracy and oligarchy: timocracy, which spends its time making war. (Here the historical parallel to the English Reformation breaks down, though it is instructive to a point.) The timocratic citizen is eager for honor and victory, but lacks the refinement of a true aristocrat. He is also too fond of money. Socrates also suggests that a timocratic child may become militant if his father is unmanly. I see shades of Hegel's dialectic here, which I invite PJ to expound upon.

Next, oligarchy is examined. Perhaps plutocracy is a better name for it, because it is the rule of the rich. I would argue that our present Government is basically of this type. As a further aside, if my premonition is correct, and if Plato's argument is valid, will we next emerge into a... democracy? Or, because our oligarchy is part democracy, would the next step for us be tyranny? The practical application of Plato's theory is very intriguing.

Anyway, a timocracy easily morphs into an oligarchy as the decadent rich forget the aristocratic traditions and value money above all else. Socrates offers that wealth and virtue are inversely related; extolling the latter deprecates the former. Moreover, we can tell what citizens value by what they practice; or as Jesus Christ might put it, "By their fruits you shall know them."

Socrates suggests that the oligarchs would put laws into place that refuse political office to those who haven't sufficient wealth. In practice, governments have seldom found that necessary. In 2006, for instance, fully half of U.S. Senators were millionaires.

The first fault of the oligarchy is that mere possession of wealth does not necessarily make one fit to rule. The second fault is that there grows a chasm between the oligarchs and the citizenry, until there are effectively two cities. Along this divide forms the next civil war, which will bring us to the next constitution. Further, the oligarchs will not divide labor so that farmers farm, and merchants sell, and so on. Nor will they be able to fight effectively, being afraid, and loving money too much to use mercenaries. But their fear of the mob will also leave them reluctant to use them to fight their battles. Worst of all, there will be citizens so poor that they have no real place in the city, something Socrates's totalitarian city would never tolerate. These will have no choice but to beg for their sustenance. In addition to beggars, there will also be robbers, thieves, and similar evil-doers in an oligarchy.

Socrates hearkens back to his conception of the soul in perfect harmony as the ideal of justice. Every citizen of a non-ideal constitution will have lost this balance in his soul, just as the city itself has lost its balance in the way that its citizens relate to each other.

Democracy is the next constitution to emerge. Eventually the poor have had enough of the oppression under their merchant masters, and unite, like good Marxian proletarians, to overthrow the oligarchy. The best historical parallel here, I think, is the French Revolution, which will also come in handy again when we consider how a democracy becomes a tyranny.

When the poor overthrow the rich, they will have grown to a significant proportion of the population. They will thus decide that the rule of the government should go to whoever has the sanction of the majority: democracy is thus formed. The democrats, being free to do as they please, will be variant. The city will be the most beautiful for this variety; so too will its constitution since democratic citizens may enact whichever legislation they so choose. The drawback is that the rulers will be drawn from the mob: they will lack the refinement of the aristocrats. Still, it is a bit difficult to see why democracy is rated below oligarchy, save that it follows upon it, and that it leads to tyranny. Since I am not a particular fan of democracy, but I recall that PJ is, I invite him to put forth any disagreements he has with Socrates on the subject of democracy.

Socrates briefly examines desires which are necessary and which are unnecessary--though the latter is not held to be at all times harmful. Necessary desires include: "the desire to eat to the point of health", while unnecessary ones include: the desire for sex. Methinks Socrates would have made a good monk, though Xanthippe may have objected. The problem with the democratic man is that he confuses licence for the good. Lacking a proper upbringing, he is unable to restrain himself from seeking to fulfill unnecessary desires.

The democratic man "declares that all pleasures are equal and must be valued equally." This is magnificently said. Ethical concerns have largely been stripped away in many modern American debates. For instance, whatever one thinks of abortion, the dilemma regards the nature of the fetus; it has nothing to do with the woman's choice, which cannot be considered an objective good in itself. Socrates absolutely crushes this one.

He does well in the next paragraph, too. "Sometimes [the democratic citizen] drinks heavily while listening to the flute; at other times he drinks only water and is on a diet; sometimes he goes in for physical training; at other times, he's idle and neglects everything; and sometimes he even occupies himself with what he takes to be philosophy." I don't think variety of means is to be condemned so long as all are ultimately subjected to the pursuit of the good. I'm guessing that the contradictory nature of the tasks undertaken implies that the good being pursued it itself in flux, which would be problematic.

Evolving from democracy, last we have tyranny and the tyrannical man, "the finest constitution and the finest man." (Is Socrates sarcastically mocking lovers of tyranny here, such as Euripides? Otherwise, I'm not sure I follow.) Just as an insatiable appetite for money leads to the decay of the oligarchy, a preponderance of freedom--really license, since freedom requires some measure of law--leads to democracy's demise. Indeed, in the paroxysms of license during the French Revolution, the dictator Robespierre eventually lost his own head, as had other revolutionaries, such as Danton, before him. The democratic revolution eats its own.

When once the mob has run wild, Napoleon--a more effective tyrant than Robespierre--must march in to dismiss them with a whiff of grapeshot, and tyranny is established. "Extreme freedom can't be expected to lead to anything but a change to extreme slavery." A leader emerges who has the ear of the mob, or can at least effectively manipulate it. Tired of freedom, the masses long for the order which only his iron rule can bring. Once in power, "the first thing he does is stir up a war, so that the people will continue to feel the need of a leader." Thus Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, and Hitler Poland.

"But also so that they'll become poor through having to pay war taxes, for that way they'll have to concern themselves with their daily needs and be less likely to plot against him." Here we have a common sense critique of Keynes' theory that you can spend your way out of recession, or that war could somehow be good for the economy. We can forgive him for failing to take into account the Federal Bank, which allows the tyrants to spend as much as they wish, while the people, continually impoverished, remain ignorant as to the means of their impoverishment.

Well done, again, Socrates. All in all an excellent book, certainly my favorite of those covered so far.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Plato's Republic, Book VII

Book VII opens with the famous "allegory of the cave," which, it is sometimes forgotten, is intended to illustrate the effect of education (or the lack of it) on our nature. I won't restate the allegory, but just call attention to one of it's central implications. The prisoners -- representing the majority of us, not educated into the higher truths of mathematics and philosophy -- do not perceive that they are confined in a cave from which there might be any reason to escape. Even when the philosopher returns to free them, he will appear crazy, enjoining them to act on a set of norms completely beyond their experience. It would actually be rational, by the only standards to which they have access, to refuse philosophical "help."

This allegory builds on the allegory of the sun found at the end of Book VI. That allegory draws upon a distinction between the intelligible and visible realms. We're asked to make the following analogy (my representation only slightly garbled by blogger formatting constraints):

sight :: understanding


visible things :: intelligible things

We have faculties of sight and of understanding. Just as our faculty of sight and the presence of a visible thing is not sufficient for a successful instance of achieved vision, so our faculty of understanding is not by itself enough to grasp the intelligibility of a thing. In the first case, we need the sun to illuminate the space in which seeing might take place; so too, Plato claims, we require the form of the good in the second. And, just as the sun, besides providing a space of illumination, is itself an object of vision, so we are asked to believe that the good is itself an object in the intelligible realm, available, to those with proper training, for direct contemplation. Unfortunately, Plato doesn't offer much by way of explanation as to what the good is such as to do all of this work. If I have time I'll ask around or look at some secondary literature to find if there's something big I'm missing. Allegory can be helpful pedagogically, or as a heuristic, but it's not in general a sound argumentative technique.

Another implication to which Plato/Soc calls our attention is that education is not a matter of filling in a lack, pouring material into a vacant space in the soul, but is a matter of appropriately directing the rational faculties (518). Without making too much of it, Plato here offers a nice piece of evidence in support of some of his claims about the realm of forms. Reason, he says, is not something learned by practice in the way we acquire the bodily virtues. Hence he is able to dub it a "divine" attribute (518d-519a). If this seems like a plausible description of our rational faculties, then the existence of a more-or-less divine realm of forms accessible to it will also seem, in turn, a bit more plausible than before.

(In an interesting with disanalogy with the case of the sun, Plato/Soc claims that when the philosopher gets the good directly in his sight, only the call of justice will bring him back to the cave of political life. Plato/Soc makes it pretty clear that this is a genuine sacrifice on the part of the philosopher: the best life is one spent alone in contemplation of the good. Later, at 532b, he recurs to this theme, claiming that to view the the sun itself is to reach the "end of the visible" -- nonsense, in my view, if "end" here is a translation of "telos".)

The next issue to be considered, and which will occupy the remainder of this book, is the kind of education most conducive to the production of philosopher-kings in contact with the good. The program, in outline, is an initial education in music and poetry, physical training, and basic math, followed by a few years of compulsory physical training, then (for those successful thusfar) ten years of math, five years in dialectic, and (for those still in the program) fifteen years in practical politics. (That's about 35 years, in all -- and this from a time of comparatively low life-expectancy.)

I find a lot of this discussion to be of rather limited philosophical interest, arguing for a certain implementation of his program from sometimes arbitrary pragmatic considerations. The role assigned to mathematics, however, certainly bears comment, along with a few other remarks made in passing.

True philosophy is said to turn the soul "from a day that is a kind of night to the true day," which will involve an ascent from the realm of becoming to the realm of what truly is (521c-d). (This being-becoming opposition appears again at 526e with similar a valuation.) It is mathematics that will emerge as the next step in this education. Distinguishing numbers and calculating is said to be a subject touching all crafts (522c). Both a basic grasp of number and arithmetic and then, in a separate discussion, geometry are defended as relevant both for the art of war and for practicing philosophy. (The discussion of number and philosophy includes a fascinating foray into the metaphysics of perception, but I'm going to pass over this as tangental to our main interests in the text.) They are valuable in war for logistical reasons, and valuable to philosophy because they turn the soul toward unchangeable realities (numbers, shapes) beneath our world of appearances.

The subject of the dialogue changes somehow (under the influence of the sun analogy?) to astronomy, and it is established that the proper emphasis of astronomy is not on the celestial bodies themselves, but on the harmonies and ratios that their motions exhibit.

The next subject for our philosopher-kings-in-training is dialectic. Dialectic is that through which, apart from all sense perception, one attempts to find "the being itself of each thing" (532a). In contrast to mathematics, which begins with agreed upon hypotheses and moves toward conclusions, dialectic works toward establishing first principles (533b). It is essentially the art of philosophical argumentation, and is said to be that by which we progress to the good itself (532a-b). One properly trained in dialectic "can distinguish in an account the form of the good from everything else, can survive all refutation, as if in a battle, striving to judge things not in accordance with opinion but in accordance with being, and can come through all this with his account still intact" (534b-c).

A final suggestion, to close this book, that "the quickest and easiest way for the city and constitution we've discussed to be established" is to "send everyone in the city who is over ten years old into the country[....then] take possession of the children, who are now free from the ethos of their parents, and bring them up in [our] own customs and laws" (540e-541a). All for the greater good!