Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Plato's Republic, Book X

Despite the love and respect he has for Homer, Socrates resumes his talk concerning the prohibition of certain types of poetry, for "no one is to be honored or valued more than the truth." So much for the noble lie.

He transitions to a discussion of his theory of forms. As everyone who has studied philosophy knows, there is a rather large, and seemingly unbridgeable chasm, between the world of the mind and the world of the senses. Various philosophers have emphasized one of these worlds, though most strive to unite the disparate realms. For instance, Plato is an idealist, who places a premium on the mind, whereas Aristotle, largely in reaction to his teacher, emphasizes the world of sense.

Socrates argues that to make a bed, the craftsman had to have the form (idea) of the bed in his mind. There are actually three beds, the one "in nature", made by the god, the one which is the work of the carpenter, and the one made by the painter. Moreover, while the carpenter may make many beds of similar quality, and likewise with the painter, the god has no need of replicating an already perfect form. The painter, meanwhile, is an imitator, for his product is the third from the natural one, that is, the perfect form of the god.

The objection which Socrates has to the poet is that he, like the painter with the bed, imitates mere appearance rather than things as they are. He argues that imitation of appearance is far inferior to the production of things as such. Since this is so, anyone who is an imitator can have no knowledge of real things; if he did, he would not waste his time imitating. For instance, a poet who writes about doctors cannot know how to be a doctor, or he would spend his time in doctoring. William Carlos Williams might disagree.

May we uncharitably suggest that Socrates knows nothing about living, seeing as he spent all of his time pestering people with questions? It strikes me as unjust to suggest that all of our time must be spent either in action or in philosophy to be deemed profitable. If memory serves, Socrates himself engages in this dialogue on a return from religious festivities, at which, again, if memory serves, plays were acted.

Moreover, there are those truths which are difficult to convey without recourse to poetry, or, at least, which may be better understood through this medium. In addition, the great poets, including a few contemporaries of Socrates himself, were often those with a very keen grasp of human nature. Dare we claim that Shakespeare was an imitator who knew only the world of appearance?

Returning to the dialogue, "there are three crafts, one that uses it, one that makes it, and one that imitates it." Only the user of the craft has knowledge of the thing he uses. The imitator, meanwhile, is bound to distort the thing he is imitating. Our senses can be unreliable; for instance, they tell us that a stick in water looks crooked. But the best part of our soul, the rational part, knows that this is not true. Likewise, our reason tells us that the poets are mere imitators; the part of our soul which rejoices in imitation must be subordinate to the part which studies things as they actually are. Poets cannot be let into the city because they agitate the people, removing the careful balance between the parts--both of the citizens, as well as that within their souls.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that poets influence the masses only. Decent men may be corrupted by them, too. In praising the unmanly behaviors of the characters of a tragedy, courage in the face of misfortune becomes less esteemed. For this reason, the only poetry allowed will be that which praises the good, in accord with truth.

Socrates notes, almost in passing that the soul is immortal. Glaucon, evidently tiring of being agreeable, makes him attempt to prove it. Socrates notes that "bad is what destroys and corrupts, and the good is what preserves and benefits." We should thus seek out a thing which "has an evil that makes it bad but isn't able to disintegrate and destroy it"; for then we have found something incapable of destruction. But the evils which attack the soul, cowardice and the like, clearly do not destroy it. Injustice, for instance, never kills souls by itself, though the unjust man may be killed in body by others.

While as a Christian I agree with Socrates about the immortality of the soul, I remain unmoved by his argument. If he prefers this line of argument, I'd like some way of knowing how we'd tell if a soul were dead, assuming such a thing is possible. Since God is the only necessary being, He alone is necessarily immortal, though it seems that, for reasons that would take us into the realm of theology, He suffices to imbue souls with being incessantly, rendering them, for all intensive purposes, undying. In any event, if St. Thomas or another has proven the immortality of the soul from reason alone, the proof has failed to penetrate my sometimes thick skull.

Returning to the Republic, we must forsake the study of the soul in the prison of the body and use philosophy to truly study it. (This is one of the points in which Aristotle and St. Thomas break with Plato. For the latter, faith in the resurrection of the body required a reinterpretation of its relation to the soul.)

Socrates returns to the theme of justice to determine how the unjust and the just will be in relation to the gods. They will love the just and hate the unjust. Even when it seems as if the just suffer, like Job, the gods have a plan, which will become clear in the end; in the long run, the unjust cannot triumph. Again, while I cannot follow the reasoning of Socrates completely, ultimately, I agree with him. At the very least, in this fallen world, what sweet consolation to believe that good will eventually triumph. Though I will add that it does no good if such consolation only amounts to self-deception.

Our philosopher then recounts the story of Er. He dies, but is revived twelve days later, allowing him to describe the abode of the deceased. Regarding the dead: "For each in turn of the unjust things they had done and for each in turn of the people they had wronged, they paid the penalty ten times over, once in every century of their journey... But if they had done good deeds and had become just and pious, they were rewarded according to the same scale." Those sufficiently evil were condemned to pay back their wrong for eternity.

Er goes on a journey, and sees a complicated collection of spinning and lit whorls, reminiscent, perhaps, of the Paradiso. The Fates, daughter of Necessity, command the souls to choose a life from a panoply before them. Socrates counsels: "And we must always know how to choose the mean in such lives, and how to avoid either of the extremes, as far as possible, both in this life and in all those beyond it. This is the way that a human being becomes happiest." May it be so for us.

Here ends the Republic. My thanks to those who participated, especially PJ.

4 comments:

PJ said...

Hi Eric,

Very nice analysis of Plato/Soc on the subject of "imitation." I've interspersed a few comments below.

Eric: Despite the love and respect he has for Homer, Socrates resumes his talk concerning the prohibition of certain types of poetry, for "no one is to be honored or valued more than the truth." So much for the noble lie.

PJ: As I understand it (a qualification which means I don't have any citations at my finger-tips), "truth" for Plato is assessed always against the eternal realm of forms. So the noble lie is still more "true" than an accurate description of affairs that would be less conducive to bringing the city into conformity with the Just. (I'm with you, however, in regarding this as an unnecessarily confusing use of the term "true.")

Eric: Moreover, there are those truths which are difficult to convey without recourse to poetry, or, at least, which may be better understood through this medium. In addition, the great poets, including a few contemporaries of Socrates himself, were often those with a very keen grasp of human nature. Dare we claim that Shakespeare was an imitator who knew only the world of appearance?

PJ: I completely agree. Plato/Soc's position here is another relic of his insistence that we dwell completely within the realm of appearances, wherein the true forms of things are hopelessly distorted. What if there were a class of truths brought into existence by human action, by our beliefs and practices, by the various projects we undertake and the ways that we choose to live together? Plato/Soc seems not even to consider these possibilities -- though he does leave it an open question whether someone might, in the future, be able to present a sound defense of poetry (607d). Quite tangentially, as I happen to have an independent interest in this issue, I would be curious to hear what kinds of truths you take to require a distinctly poetic articulation.

Eric: While as a Christian I agree with Socrates about the immortality of the soul, I remain unmoved by his argument.

PJ: Yes, it's a terrible argument. He convincingly distinguishes the body from the soul, but hardly establishes the immortality of the latter.

Eric: Socrates returns to the theme of justice to determine how the unjust and the just will be in relation to the gods. They will love the just and hate the unjust. Even when it seems as if the just suffer, like Job, the gods have a plan, which will become clear in the end; in the long run, the unjust cannot triumph. Again, while I cannot follow the reasoning of Socrates completely, ultimately, I agree with him. At the very least, in this fallen world, what sweet consolation to believe that good will eventually triumph. Though I will add that it does no good if such consolation only amounts to self-deception.

PJ: Self-deception, indeed. As Plato/Soc says of his account, "it would save us, if we were persuaded by it" (621b). The Myth of Er is a very strange close to the Republic. Why, after presenting three arguments to the effect that justice is good in and of itself, that the just man is the happiest of all men, does Plato/Soc feel compelled to invoke the threat of hundredfold punishment (or reward) in an afterlife? How little faith he has in his readers!

The one point he makes that I do like is that many people happen into a virtuous life by accident, that they might just as easily have chosen a life of vice, and that only with philosophical reason can one choose the life of virtue with a full understanding of what one is doing.

Eric: Here ends the Republic. My thanks to those who participated, especially PJ.

PJ: My pleasure! I hope we can do it again next summer with another volume.

Cheers,
PJ

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Quite tangentially, as I happen to have an independent interest in this issue, I would be curious to hear what kinds of truths you take to require a distinctly poetic articulation.

Well, the Bible's usage of poetry, especially the Psalms, seems evidence, to me at least, that the relationship we have with God may often be expressed best through that medium.

To take another example, while Thomism is anything but poetry, and while it is incorrect to insist that Dante was merely a Thomist, the Divine Comedy is a beautiful expression of Christianity, both in what it requires of us, and what we may attain through it.

I'm afraid I don't have any concrete examples. I only know that the edification I receive from Dante is different from that which I get when reading St. Thomas.

Why, after presenting three arguments to the effect that justice is good in and of itself, that the just man is the happiest of all men, does Plato/Soc feel compelled to invoke the threat of hundredfold punishment (or reward) in an afterlife?

I would argue that some faith in the afterlife is, if not strictly necessary, of immense consolation, given that without divine retribution some may flaunt it with impunity.

I hope we can do it again next summer with another volume.

I look forward to it. Do bring this up next time we meet as I wanted to run a few suggestions by you.

generic viagra said...

I have always thought that when certain pieces of writings are prohibited is because they reveal a truth that some people want to keep secret!

Anonymous said...

thanks :)