The Good, the Bad, and the Bat-Shit Crazy of The Republic by Plato

INTRODUCTION: The Republic is the most read and discussed of the Socratic dialogues written by Plato, and for good reason. It offers some intriguing ideas that have influenced philosophy, politics, religion, and even science fiction to this day. That said, the book isn’t without its stinkers, and many people have reasonably asked whether a state or nation employing all of Plato’s guidance wouldn’t be more dystopian than utopian. To avoid the error committed by many religious people regarding scriptures (and probably by a few scholars regarding Plato’s work,) we shouldn’t ignore the parts that are — let’s say…, complete lunacy, and also shouldn’t contort language and reason to make the questionable ideas palatable. With that in mind, we’ll start with a couple of The Republic‘s banana ideas before examining a few that have stood the test of time.

PLATO’S WAR AGAINST POETRY & THE ARTS: In The Republic, Plato goes on a tirade against the arts on the basis that they aren’t truthful and that they encourage readers and viewers to behave from the lesser elements of their “soul” – the emotional and desirous bits. Plato’s condemnation of art is informed by two of his major teachings. First, the “tripartite soul” in which reason is king and emotion and desire are lesser elements of humanity that should be checked by reason. Ergo, he doesn’t like that reading Homer makes people weepy or riled up. Second, in Plato’s conception of forms, for any given thing under the sun there’s an ideal form that was made once by god, then there are actual items made by craftspeople, and then there are the imitations made by artists. In Plato’s mind, this leads to a warped situation in which the craftsmen stray from the ideal by copying what artists presented, rather than seeking the divine ideal, and Plato is all about the pursuit of the ideal.  

Plato would grant artists the opportunity to prove that their works are of service to the state, but barring their demonstration that the art advances reason and is truthful it would be outlawed. To me, it sounds a lot like the Soviet Union where art was mostly jingoistic pieces that encouraged a Stakhanovite effort. At any rate, I’ve got to give this one to Aristotle who saw the cathartic value of art and poetry. There is value in the existence of a wide variety of modes of expression and ways of thinking about the world. It allows us to break new ground. I was just reading a book by Yeats in which he wrote: “Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.” This may not seem like sound thinking in our rational age, but I like that such a counterweight exists.

THE SHARING OF WIVES & CHILDREN BY THE RULING CLASS: Plato’s Republic would be ruled by a philosopher-king, and it requires the ruling class to be specially educated and controlled to avoid pursuit of wealth and comfort. One such control is that the aristocrats can only have kids (unaborted ones, at least) under certain conditions, but the children wouldn’t know who their biological parents were.

Plato is no fan of democracy. In fact, democracy is the stage right before tyranny in Plato’s model of political devolution. [It starts with Plato’s ideal, Aristocracy, which devolves into Timocracy with the declining character of leaders (because they’re not well-trained philosophers.) Timocracy devolves into Oligarchy as the lesser quality ruling class becomes obsessed with wealth. This leads to Democracy because people get fed up with the oligarchs having all the money and they revolt. But since anyone can become leader, a tyrannical type will eventually rise to the top and use an iron-hand to maintain power.]

There’s a reason why, to my knowledge, this approach has never been tried, despite the immense popularity of Plato and The Republic. It relates to a previously mentioned point as it pertains to Plato’s ineptitude with regards to human psychology. Plato [like several other philosophers of the ancient world] believes one can kill emotion and desire through the power of pure reason. Reason maybe our smartest mental activity, but it’s neither fastest nor particularly capable of steering the ship. At any rate, this joint parentage scheme makes me think of the Harry Harlow experiments in which baby monkeys were put either with a wire mesh or cloth-covered “mother surrogate.” We’ve learned a lot about how psychopaths are made since the days of Plato. I think Plato’s guardian class would be chock-full of lunatics.

THE SUPREME IMPORTANCE OF GEOMETRY: I love a triangle as much as the next fellow, but I think Plato may have gone a little overboard with his views about the transcendent value of geometry.

WHAT PLATO GOT RIGHT: There are definitely ideas in The Republic that continue to contribute to humanity’s understanding of itself and the world. Here are a few good reasons to read The Republic — despite all that junk mentioned above.

THE ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE: Because of sci-fi works such as The Matrix, this is probably the most widely cited bit of The Republic. However, it’s not just a fictional or hypothetical idea anymore. One will also see references to Plato’s cave in nonfiction works of neuroscience and physics that deal with how our perceived world doesn’t equate to the objectively real world. Plato offers a very clear thought experiment in Book VII.

PLATO’S GENDER PROGRESSIVISM: In The Republic, Plato argues that women can be guardians of the state as well as men, and that women must receive the same education in order to do so. Lest the feminist jump all-in on Plato, it should be noted that he maintained some pretty misogynist / patriarchal views (e.g. women being like children,) as well as some bizarre ones (e.g. the wandering womb hypothesis.) However, in at least that one regard, Plato was ahead of his time.

KNOWLEDGE ACQUIRED UNDER COMPULSION OBTAINS NO HOLD: Given that Plato’s Republic would feature some harsh limitations of individual freedom, from lack of artistic expression to inability to know one’s own mom, it’s nice to see that he held some freedom-loving views, as well.

COURAGE IS STAYING SPIRITED IN ONE’S DECISIONS IN THE FACE OF PLEASURE OR PAIN: Much of The Republic is an attempt to define and distinguish the cardinal virtue of justice. In fact, in many Socratic dialogues, the primary objective is to understand virtues, and they’re often discussed at length, not always resulting in a firm conclusion. I like the definition of courage provided in The Republic. One makes a decision based on the virtuous path, and sticks with it even when pleasure or pain might divert one.

THE TENDENCY TOWARD DIMINISHING EFFECTIVENESS IN POLITICS: While I share neither Plato’s enthusiasm for aristocracy nor his pessimism about democracy (there’s a reason the world has abandoned the former in preference for the latter,) I do think there’s a potential grain of truth in his model of political devolution that’s mentioned in Books VIII & IX. I think there can be a proclivity towards weaker and less effective leaders over time under certain systems of governance. One can see this in the Soviet Union, and arguably in North Korea. It seems possible that there are systemic causes for devolution of political effectiveness, at least under certain approaches to governance. (I’d argue this is one of the reasons that democracy is best, because it can fully overturn the apple cart of governance rather than struggling with whatever continuity issues contribute to declining effectiveness.)

READ THE REPUBLIC, both for its great and for its dystopian ideas, because even when it’s bad, it’s stimulating.

Escaping the Cave [Common Meter]

Climbing a mountain, I feel like
  I've escaped Plato's cave.
 My senses reel as though they're a
   crew of newly freed slaves.

The sky is bluer, rivers green,
  each grit granule is clear.
 And even at the very edge,
   there's ease in feeling fear.
 By "ease" I mean not frozen stiff,
   but like a friend so dear
 that one can take one's grand peril,
   a gift received with cheer.

Take me to the mountains, I say,
  where it's serene and real,
 and I can open up my sight
   to a world that's ideal.

BOOK REVIEW: Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas

Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short IntroductionAncient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Annas’s task of creating a concise guide for such a broad topic is a daunting one. For perspective, I’ve read books in this series [AVSI] on Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Socrates – each of which is a slim subset of the material called “Ancient Philosophy.” Furthermore, it’s not as though there was great homogeneity of ideas among the ancients. And, adding to the challenge, the author attempts to address the full scope of ancient philosophy: i.e. ethics, epistemology, logic, and metaphysics.

The book is forced to both restrict itself to an inch deep (because the subject is a mile wide,) but also to make choices about what schools, philosophers, and sub-topics it will address. History did part of the work – e.g. for many ancients, only fragmentary or secondhand evidence of their positions survived. So, we see a lot about Plato and Aristotle because their words remain. The book also devotes a disproportionate emphasis to what some call “philosophy of life,” i.e. ethics and how / whether to pursue a happy and meaningful life – i.e. how to live. This emphasis is both because that’s what many ancients focused upon, but also because it’s what people find relevant when looking back to them. [As opposed to ancient metaphysics, which science has largely made obsolete, ancient ethics and thoughts on happiness aren’t necessarily outmoded.] The first chapter sets up this focus on philosophy of life in an interesting way by discussing humanity’s mixed motivational system — reason v. emotion.

One question that the book robustly considers is the degree to which ancient philosophy is still relevant. This is taken up most directly in chapter two, but the final chapter (on what constitutes ancient philosophy) also has germane things to say on the subject.

I found in this book a quick guide to comparing schools of the ancient world across the breadth of philosophy, and would recommend the volume – particularly as a starting point prior to delving deeper into sub-topics.

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BOOK REVIEW: Symposium by Plato

SymposiumSymposium by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Project Gutenberg (FREE)

Symposium is a collection of speeches in praise of Love (the Greek god and the emotional experience) given at a banquet in Ancient Greece. The participants are men of renown, including: a playwright, a physician, a philosopher, a statesman, etc. The narrative is delivered as a secondhand telling after the fact, and isn’t intended as a verbatim transcript of all the speeches.

There are seven speeches, each unique and most playing off the others. Phaedrus starts by emphasizing the underrecognized importance of the unsung god, Eros. Next, Pausanias stresses that there isn’t one kind of love, but two. Eryximachus focuses on the all-pervasive nature of love and, as a physician, mentions the bodily dimension of love. Aristophanes’s speech seems largely in jest, but stresses the fact that people don’t comprehend the power of love. Agathon rebukes the others for emphasizing love as a gift to humans, and, instead, suggests one should focus on praise of the deity. Socrates’s encomium is a departure, as one might expect given his love of questioning and hatred of speechmaking. First, he questions Agathon about whether love is really synonymous with beauty or good, as the youth’s speech had suggested. Second, he recounts his instruction on the subject from Diotima, which is mostly a recounted dialogue between her and he.

The last speech is afield. A drunken Alcibiades wanders in late. [The others decided not to drink because most drank too much the previous day.] Alcibiades gives a speech in praise of Socrates, his once lover, with whom he’s on the outs. From Alcibiades we learn not just about his relationship with Socrates, but also some interesting biographical facts about the philosopher, such as his proclivity to get lost in thought for extended periods and his bravery in combat.

This is an interesting work, and well worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Socrates: A Very Short Introduction by C.C.W. Taylor

Socrates: A Very Short IntroductionSocrates: A Very Short Introduction by C.C.W. Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 Stars Page

In Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Socrates is forever challenging sophists and others who propose to know what virtues are while they are demonstrably unable to define or delineate them. I wonder how he would have felt about being one of the foremost examples of a person that people firmly believe they know, when there is good reason to believe that much of what we know is false. Socrates is described in comedic plays like Clouds by Aristophanes, but those descriptions are written for comedic effect. There is a large body of works by Plato describing Socrates’ philosophical jousts, but it seems clear that some of these writings reflect Plato’s views which may or may not have been shared by Socrates. There are a few matters of official records, and numerous isolated mentions from people who either loved or loathed Socrates (loving and loathing not being states conducive to accurate reporting.)

This book attempts to concisely review what is known about Socrates and his philosophy, what is myth, and what can, at best, be regarded as the features of a fictional Socrates. The book starts with a chapter on Socrates’ life and what is widely believed true about his biography. Then the book outlines the body of writings that discuss and describe Socrates, particularly those of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle. Next there is a chapter that explores the philosophy Plato’s Socrates, a fictional construct partially based on the man and partly shaped by his student’s views. The last two chapters discuss the legacy of Socrates (real and mythical) in philosophy and culture.

There is a Further Reading section at the end to give the reader some sources to continue their investigations. I found this to be a fine overview, well-organized, and readable. It will be more useful to those who read Plato, and relevant works of Xenophon.

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BOOK REVIEW: Meno by Plato

MenoMeno by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Online: MIT Classics

The central question of this dialogue is the teachability of virtue. The dialogue called Protagoras also delved into this question. Lest one think there’s no benefit to be had from reading a second take on the subject, the ultimate answer in this dialogue is the opposite of that seen in “Protagoras.” Socrates agreed with Protagoras that virtue was teachable. However, here Socrates concludes that it isn’t, citing the fact that there are no viable teachers of virtue (ever the anti-Sophist,) and yet there are people who consistently behave virtuously.

[If one wonders how two of Plato’s Socratic dialogues could feature completely different answers on the same question, the mid- and late dialogues are often thought to reflect Plato’s personal views more than his teacher’s. “Protagoras” is an early dialogue, while “Meno” is a middle dialogue. (It’s also possible they weren’t written by the same author as a number of dialogues attributed to Plato are in doubt.)]

I don’t find Socrates’s arguments on the subject at hand compelling. Socrates proposes that there are certain concepts that come pre-loaded into humans. He questions one of Meno’s slaves on geometry to show that the slave seems to have a grasp of geometry without having ever been taught. Ultimately, Socrates concludes that a grasp of virtue is divinely installed in many people.

Still, there’s lots of beneficial food-for-thought, particularly when Socrates differentiates knowledge and true beliefs / right opinions.

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BOOK REVIEW: Gorgias by Plato

GorgiasGorgias by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Project Gutenberg

This Socratic dialogue explores what rhetoric is, and whether rhetorician is a real job, like plumber or secretary, or whether it’s more like “bottled water sommelier” or “social media influencer” – i.e. an undertaking by which one can make loads of money without contributing society one iota. It starts out (as usual) with Socrates questioning someone, in this case the rhetorician Gorgias. This exchange can be summed up by the ideas that: 1.) rhetoric is persuasion; 2.) the ignorant are more persuasive to the ignorant than are those with knowledge. [Gorgias boasts that he has been able to convince patients to take actions that their physicians couldn’t. Because Gorgias had to admit he didn’t know as much about facilitating health as a physician, he was forced to agree to the sad absurdity that people will often comply with slick talkers who know nothing (a plight which may prove to be the downfall of our species.)] There’s a fine epistemological discussion of the difference between belief and knowledge that is used by Socrates to show that rhetoricians aren’t concerned with knowledge so much as beliefs.

Then Polus and Callicles (young rhetoricians) take up the questioning role, turning the tables and asking Socrates what is the art of rhetoric. [And we know they’re not going to like the answer.] Socrates denies rhetoric is an art, and calls it the counterfeit part of politics. Socrates compares rhetoric to cookery, where cooks pretend to be experts in what food should be eaten but, while people often love the cook’s meals, it’s the physician who actually knows what food is best. Socrates doesn’t consider rhetoric an art because it isn’t rooted in knowledge or virtue, but rather in momentary preferences. Much of the argument hinges on the fact that the young men believe it is worse to suffer injustice than to do injustice and that being able to exert control (be it for good or ill) equates to power and happiness. Socrates accepts neither premise, and systematically refutes both. Callicles’ tack is along lines of natural justice — the strongest do as they please and pursuit of pleasure is noble. [The truth is that while Socrates may have the more sound and supportable position, the rhetoricians describe the way the world operates more accurately.]

This is a sharp and insightful dialogue, and given its surprising relevance to the present day, I’d highly recommend reading it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Alcibiades I & II by Plato

Alcibiades I and IIAlcibiades I and II by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

While these two dialogues feature Socrates questioning Alcibiades (a youth – apropos of nothing – for whom the philosopher has the hots,) they’re different. While it’s not certain that either was written by Plato, it’s much more widely accepted that the first dialogue was so authored. I found the first part to be the more engaging read.

In Part I, Socrates urges Alcibiades to put off going into politics (as the young man is about to do) until he’s more enlightened on the subject at hand – i.e. justice, expediency, and virtue as it pertains to matters of war and peace. In the second part, Socrates convinces Alcibiades that the subject of prayers should not be taken lightly, leading the young man to delay his sacrifice and prayer to a time he can be wiser about it.

The first part is more piquant. In it, Alcibiades on occasion seems to be holding his own (rather than being a talking head.) A great example of this can be seen after Socrates makes clear that Alcibiades’ education in language, the lyre, and wrestling hardly qualify him to advise Athens on matters of war and peace. Alcibiades turns the tables and asks whether it isn’t possible that he could attain the requisite knowledge of justice other than through formal education. Socrates admits that he could by discovery, but just when Alcibiades thinks he has the point, Socrates argues that the only way Alcibiades could make a discovery was if there was a time that the youth didn’t think he already knew. Socrates goes on to show that – even as a child – Alcibiades labored under the impression that he knew what was just.

The most interesting topic of the second dialogue is the question of whether lack of wisdom and madness are the same thing. In Phaedrus, Socrates explores several varieties of divine madness, and I wondered how closely this dialogue might echo that one. (It doesn’t because it’s more about madness that’s not so divine, but Socrates does refute Alcibiades’ equation of the two concepts.)

Definitely read First Alcibiades, and if you have time, the second one makes some intriguing points as well.

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