Saturday, August 23, 2008

Civilization Review: Plato, The Republic, Books I-IV

All references and quotations are from:

Plato. The Republic. Trans. G.M.A. Grube. 1974. Plato: Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997. 971-1223.

The text citations follow the standard Stephanus edition page numbering used for Plato's works. (In most translations, the Stephanus page numbers and section letters appear on the outer margins of the pages.) In this essay, a reference to a passage on page 478, section b would be indicated by (478b). The Republic occupies pp. 327-620 in the Stephanus edition of Plato.

The issue taken up by Plato in The Republic is justice. Why is it important? What are its benefits? Most importantly, what is it, and how is it to be found? It is not like the Book of Exodus, in which law is effectively established as a corrective to every-man-for-himself lawlessness governed by divine favor. Nor is it like Pericles' Funeral Oration, which extols the virtues of a magnanimous and prosperous society. In the The Republic, Plato analyzes the basic structures upon which society is built, and he extrapolates from those a definition of a just society, as well as that of a just individual.

It's clear that Plato views society as an organic construct, something that's grown and developed of its own accord, and that questions of justice are part of that growth. But he also recognizes that the perspectives forming those questions are limited; they take the structures of society for granted, and they focus on how one is to best function in the society that is there. Essentially, they're the perspectives of moss on a tree; their only concern is with the hospitality of the bark, rather than what it is about the tree that makes the bark hospitable or not. In order to cut through the bark, Plato uses a system of inquiry called the dialogue. He presents the inquiry as a fictional discussion between the figures of his youth: the famous Athenian skeptic Socrates and the intellectually ambitious friends who found conversation with him irresistable. At first, the friends tell their assumptions and theories, which they, led by Socrates, question and generally undermine. But as The Republic continues, Socrates takes the initiative in the affirmative aspects of the discussion. Using ideas as bricks, he asks the young men around him to scrutinize each brick as he picks it up, and as each passes muster, he uses those bricks to slowly build the edifice of an ideally just society. And since the structure of that edifice is readily apparent, he extrapolates from it to present a view of the ideal, just individual.

Plato begins by examining the more limited, self-centered notions of justice--the ideals of what's right and good according to a clump of moss looking for comfort on a piece of bark. Justice is speaking the truth and paying one's debts (331d), which is a general description of just behavior rather than justice, or providing benefits to friends and harm to enemies (332d), which Plato has Socrates pick apart little by little and end with the pronouncement that "it is never just to harm anyone" (335e).

One wishes Plato had expanded a bit more on his critique of providing benefits to friends, because he's implicitly attacking the role of politics in societal decision-making. In society there are inevitable conflicts between the privileged few and the unprivileged many (or even, which is more often the case, the various factions of the privileged), and the advocates of a particular side argue that the benefits paid to their friends are ultimately of benefit to all. They all hypothetically agree that rising water lifts all boats; they just argue whether pumping it in or letting it trickle down is the best way to get there. But judging the value of relative benefit doesn't seem to occur to Plato; he might even regard such judgments as beneath the dignity of his discussion.

However, he does attack what many of us see as the underlying view of the trickle-down advocates, which is voiced by the Thrasymachus character: "justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger" (338c). But what Thrasymachus proposes is a tautology: justice is the advantage of the stronger because the stronger molds the law to further its advantages (338d). This view is undermined through establishing the premise that ruling is a craft, and that the only advantage for any craft is "to be as complete or perfect as possible" (341d). The object of the craft of ruling is to create a stronger society, with justice being good rule, and injustice being poor rule. If a ruler is not approaching the craft of ruling as being for the relative advantage of all, and making society function as an effective unit, he or she is not working towards the benefit of society, and is therefore representative of injustice (351e-352a).

Plato highlights a paradox in order to establish that discussing justice in terms of existing society is futile. Injustice, as long as the reputation for justice is maintained, is of far greater benefit to the individual than a commitment to just behavior, e.g. treating others with respect, fulfilling one's obligations, and whatnot (363e-364a). Reputation is all that matters, and as long as reputation is maintained, anything goes (363a). And, as injustice provides one with greater wealth, the only conclusion is that "gods and humans provide a better life for unjust people than just ones" (362c). In order to prove justice is better than injustice, and to praise it by itself--to echo the plea of the Glaucon character (358c-d)--Plato has Socrates back off from this area of discussion. He launches into an examination of society's foundations, and selecting the ideal from each element, he builds his utopia.

The description of society's foundation is familiar. Individuals have basic needs, such as food, shelter, clothing, and health care, and they unite into a society because no one is capable of meeting all of those needs through his or her own ability. An individual is more skillful at meeting some of those needs than others, and one unites with others of different skills in order to provide maximum benefit for all. In this context, it is best for one to specialize in one skill or craft so all can also enjoy the benefits of maximum expertise. The need for leaders (or as Plato calls them, guardians) is recognized, as the society must protect itself from outsiders, as well as from citizens attempting to maximize their advantage at the expense of their fellows. And following the notion that one is of maximum utility to the society if one's expertise is exclusive to one craft, Plato implies that the quality of a guardian's ability to lead is directly tied to the exclusivity of focus on the craft of leading.

It's at this point that Plato's rigorously logical arguments take him down a bad road. He doesn't account for the variety of skills that one can develop in a craft, or that certain skills are transferable from one craft to another. For example, take a skilled farmer. A successful farmer, as his or her success grows, will require laborers, and the original farming skills will be required to develop and supervise those skills and their application among the subordinates. (Plato acknowledges that laborers have a presence in society [371d-e].) But management skills develop in response to shifting goals within the farm, as well as conflicts that arise between laborers, such as whose secondary skills are more appropriate for a particular task, or whose tasks make a greater demand on the laborer. Those skills are relevant to the tasks of ruling a society, which calls upon the ruler to determine the society's goals, evaluate the best path for getting there, and arbiting the internal conflicts that inevitably arise from their pursuit. Plato thinks in very reductive terms, and it leads him to ignore valid arguments that inconvenience his structural ideals.

Plato's view of the ideal leader takes him into the realm of absurdity. He essentially calls for his guardians to be intellectually inclined versions of the Spartan warrior ideal. (If it were any more fatuous, you'd expect to read Socrates and the others deride their fellow Athenians as "boy-lovers.") The ideal guardians must have keen senses, as well as speed, strength, and courage (375a). They must show spiritedness, so as to be "fearless and unconquerable" (375b), but they must also be "gentle to their own people and harsh to the enemy" (375c). And a guardian "must be a lover of learning and wisdom" (376b). Furthermore--and this is where Plato becomes especially inane--no guardians should possess private property (416d), and they should "have common messes and live together like soldiers in a camp" (416e). To be fair to Plato, he does acknowledge to a degree how ridiculous this all sounds, but he dismisses it by reasserting that this is what is necessary for the society to work best (421b-c).

Plato's reductiveness takes him down other bad roads as well. He was very clearly concerned about the potential bad influence of literature and music on the young, and he calls for all sorts of censorship and restrictions with regard to the arts. For example, since gods represent the ideal, it is demeaning to them to depict them changing shape, and all such passages in literature should be struck (381c). Nor are gods capable of falsehood, so the misleading dream Zeus sends Agamemnon at the beginning of the Iliad must be expunged as well (382c). Passages treating death and the afterlife as dreadful and terrifying are also inappropriate, as they might demoralize soldiers facing battle (386a-c). It goes on and on--heroes and gods shouldn't even be shown laughing or crying excessively. Plato has an obvious distaste for Homer, and he goes beyond recommending the elimination of passages to wanting to destroy the very cores of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Depicting Achilles as insolent towards his superior Agamemnon, or the gods, or showing him as spiteful or cruel, as with his treatment of Hector's corpse, presents a bad role model for the young and should be banned (391a-c). Plato doesn't specifically address the potential bad influence of depicting Odysseus' penchant for deceit, but one expects he would toss the Odyssey in the bonfire, too. The only stories (and narrative techniques, musical instruments, and poetic meters) that will be allowed are those that promote courage, moderation, and overall good character (403c).

Plato may be the master of the dialogue, but it's ironic that he doesn't recognize that the depictions in Homer and elsewhere create a dialogue of their own with the reader. The portrayal of Achilles calls for one to interrogate one's notions of honor and obligation, and the extremeness of it brings one's notions of moderate behavior into stronger relief. Plato has no taste or appreciation for subtlety or nuance. He appears to see all surface depictions as promoting an ideal; he's oblivious to the qualities of dissonance and irony that give narratives their dynamism. The ideal-promoting work he calls for would inevitably be insipid, and ultimately all would turn away from it. It's a prescription for destroying literature in a culture altogether.

However, despite Plato's using all the rope he could ever need with which to hang himself, he ultimately finds generalizations about society and the individual that belie the preposterousness of much of what he asserted along the way. He identifies the virtues of an ideal city as wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice (427e). Justice occurs when all the elements of the society are working in perfect concert within themselves and with each other (433a-e). And the extrapolation from this that creates Plato's notion of the just individual is worth quoting at length:

One who is just does not allow any part of himself to do the work of another part or allow the various classes within him to meddle with each other. He regulates well what is really his own and rules himself. He puts himself in order, is his own friend, and harmonizes the three parts of himself [rationality, spiritedness, and appetite] like three limiting notes on a musical scale--high, low, and middle. He binds together those parts and any others there may be in between, and from having been many things he becomes entirely one, moderate and harmonious. Only then does he act. And when he does anything, whether acquiring wealth, taking care of his body, engaging in politics, or in private contracts--in all of these, he believes that the action is just and fine that preserves this inner harmony and helps achieve it, and calls it so, and regards as wisdom the knowledge that oversees such actions. And he believes that the action that destroys this harmony is unjust, and calls it so, and regards the belief that oversees it as ignorance. (443c-e)
Plato brings things full circle in this summation: he addresses the structure of justice in the individual, and he displays understanding of how one sees justice in everyday life. The moss is brought to understand both the bark and the tree.

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