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.

6 comments:

PJ said...

Another excellent summary -- thanks! I've interspersed a few comments below. Look for my piece on Book IX in the next few days.


Eric: 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.

PJ: May I press you on what, specifically, you find objectionably tyrannical about the ideal state described in the Republic? I'm interested in how you might position your ideal in relation to the constitutions Plato/Soc outlines. (I'm guessing that you too want an aristocracy, only of some other kind?)

Eric: I see shades of Hegel's dialectic here, which I invite PJ to expound upon.

PJ: There is something Hegelian in the claim that a society can be specifically characterized by its self-conception, and that this will cause it to break down in a determinate way so producing a new form of social life. Plato, however, likens this to a natural process, and envisions it as cyclical. For reasons that would take us too far afield, Hegel would dispute both of these claims.

A particularly weird piece of this discussion is the explanation of why the ideal city devolves into a timocracy. Shouldn't a perfect state be able to maintain itself? The relevant passage is at 546 and features some downright baffling numerology. The only way I can make sense of it is by latching onto the one mention of sense perception amidst the rest of the mumble-jumble. On this interpretation, the problem is that the philosopher-kings are forced to make their political decisions in the world of appearances, which inescapably distorts their perfectly formed intentions. Anyone have any other thoughts on this passage?

Eric: 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.

PJ: Even Plato/Soc describes democracy as a "divine and pleasant life"--only with the crucial qualifier, "while it lasts." I think it's indisputable that the freedom and diversity fostered by democracy are genuine political goods. Democracy, after all, is not incompatible with some hierarchical ordering of goods. The problem is of how to preserve our freedom and diversity without thereby excluding other goods such as security and stability.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

May I press you on what, specifically, you find objectionably tyrannical about the ideal state described in the Republic?

Basically, Socrates runs roughshod over all of the institutions which are integral to civilization regardless of the type of government. The family, to take only the most obvious example, is the most important building block of a society, and Socrates will have none in his city.

Political philosophers go astray, I think, when they envision the State as a positive entity which, in order to exact justice, must infringe upon all aspects of a person's life. Instead, the State should be kept far away, occasionally defending against aggressors, but being mostly indifferent. The rest is left to the "little platoons", in Edmund Burke's phrase.

Libertarianism--which I see as the political philosophy nearest to perfection which man has yet envisioned--is a system in which: "no one may threaten or commit violence ("aggress") against another man's person or property," to borrow from Murray Rothbard.

Socrates is careful to never advocate outright violence, at least that I can see; but he cannot build his Republic without force. Whether it be censorship of the poets, or the abolition of marriage, the more ideal his State becomes, the oftener he must violate liberty.

I'm basically indifferent to the type of rulers and the means by which they are chosen--though I'm especially skeptical of democracy. My main concern is that the State is small and generally non-violent. The main battle takes place outside the realm of the State, in the realm of culture.

Anyone have any other thoughts on this passage?

I too found it confusing. I think there are two main points here. First, purity of the leaders must be maintained. We risk running headlong into eugenics here, but I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that nature plays a large role in determining the man--though I would, of course, leave much room for both cultural forces and free will.

Second, we live in a fallen world. Socrates redeems himself in large part because he recognizes that utopia is a chimera. Even the ideal republic is peopled by flawed humans, and will thus eventually degenerate. History is resplendent with examples of such decay, so I would say he's on solid ground.

The problem is of how to preserve our freedom and diversity without thereby excluding other goods such as security and stability.

You sound a bit like John Rawls here. I think the real problem, for Socrates, is what I have alluded to: the good, however ill defined, requires philosophy and wisdom. There is no wisdom in chasing pleasures aimlessly.

Insofar as diversity allows you and I to pursue separate philosophical digressions--to Hegel and Aquinas respectively, perhaps--we would count this as a good thing. But if we are not seeking the same aim, namely to work toward the Good, we are acting wrongly.

I would add that security and stability are goods which are balanced against each other, but all ultimately contained within the Good.

PJ said...

Eric: The family, to take only the most obvious example, is the most important building block of a society, and Socrates will have none in his city.

PJ: Right, I also think that abolishing the family is a bad move. To be as charitable as possible, however, we must reiterate that he is motivated by legitimate concerns about political unity and about the loyalties of law-enforcement.

Eric: Political philosophers go astray, I think, when they envision the State as a positive entity which, in order to exact justice, must infringe upon all aspects of a person's life.

PJ: Replace your weasel-ly "all" with the more modest "sometimes," and I completely disagree. But to pursue this (again) would take us far afield.

Eric: Socrates is careful to never advocate outright violence, at least that I can see; but he cannot build his Republic without force.

PJ: All he needs is a bit of land, a few guardians, and a large group of able-bodied adolescents. Use your imagination: uninhabited islands, unemployed Ph.D.'s, orphanages... He could totally do it.

Eric: I think the real problem, for Socrates, is what I have alluded to: the good, however ill defined, requires philosophy and wisdom.

PJ: Absolutely. I was interpolating my own views.

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Marie said...

I am still unsure about the democracy according to Socrates. I don't understand what he thinks about it, if he thinks it is good or bad and why.