Saturday, September 13, 2008

Civilization Review: Plato, The Republic, Books V-VII


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.

My discussion of The Republic, Books I-IV, can be read here.


The centerpiece of the middle section of The Republic is Plato's theory of knowledge. He divides knowledge into two categories: that of intellect, and that of opinion. Intellect, which he divides into sub-categories of understanding and thought, is concerned with "being," or the ideal of things. Opinion, which he subcategorizes into belief and impression (or imaging), concerns itself with "becoming," or the concrete examples through which that ideal manifests itself in our physical reality, although it is more accurate to state that Plato views it as the examples of the ideal that manifest itself to one's physical senses. (509d-511e, 533e-534a) To borrow the example so beloved of every professor I've had who's explained this, intellect is concerned with the ideal or abstract definition of a chair, while opinion is preoccupied with the individual examples of chairs one perceives through sight and/or touch.

The focus of The Republic is, of course, defining justice and the ideal of a just society, and Plato incorporates his theory of knowledge into the work's agenda by identifying intellect, understanding, and thought with his preferred leaders, or "guardians." He does this through the use of the famous "cave" parable. Humanity is imprisoned in a dark cave in chains facing forward from childhood on, with the only light coming from a fire burning above or behind one. All one sees are shadows cast on the wall from puppeteers, and one "would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows" (515c). If one were freed and compelled to look at the light, one would be pained and dazzled by it, as well as initially unable to see the puppets whose shadows were cast on the wall, but eventually one would become acclimated to that light, and then to the sunlight outside. One would eventually know the reality inside the cave, as well as of the reality outside it. Plato likens the perceptions of the prisoners in the cave to opinion, while the developing perceptions of one who has been freed are identified with intellect--the ideals are perceived, rather than their manifestations. One with a full grasp of the ideal has achieved Plato's notion of understanding. In Plato's just society, the "guardians" will have achieved understanding, and they must return to the cave in order to rule those who have not. As Plato writes, "the city will be governed, not [...] by people who fight over shadows [...] but by people who are awake rather than dreaming" (520c-d).

Obviously, Plato considers the only appropriate "guardians" to be philosophers, as only philosophers, in his view, would have understanding of the true and the good, and would best be able to exercise judgment in government affairs. He is quite emphatic on this point, asserting that "no one but they should be leaders in cities" (485a), and extolling the philosophical temperament's love of learning, wisdom, and truth, as well as its inclination to abandon the pleasures of appetite. The philosopher, in Plato's view, is the natural aristocrat of humanity, as opposed to the sophist, who regards wisdom as the knowledge required to manipulate others to one's petty ends (493a-b), or the greater masses, who are variously described as blind (484c), cowardly and slavish (486b), dreaming instead of awake (520c-d), and having "no experience of truth" (519b). According to Plato, until philosophers take the reins of power, "cities will have no rest from evil [...] nor [...] will the human race" (473d).

Plato lionizes the intellectual, and it's certainly seductive, but it's a view any contemporary individual with a reasonable knowledge of history would reject. One shudders when one comes across statements like, "They'd [the philosophers would] take the city and the characters of human beings as their sketching slate, but first they'd wipe it clean" (501a). It echoes through such horrific periods as the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France, not to mention the reigns of such figures as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, and even the disastrous handling of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. One can hear the despots' self-justification in passages like this:

SOCRATES: And will a thinker high-minded enough to study all time and all being consider human life to be something important?
GLAUCON: He couldn't possibly.
SOCRATES: Then he will consider death to be a terrible thing?
GLAUCON: He least of all.
To be fair to Plato, he means the above in a somewhat more acceptable context than the one presented here, but it's a small leap from the attitude behind such statements to one that rationalizes large-scale butchery and mass-murder. Self-styled "guardians" tend to become so preoccupied with their pursuit of the "ideal" that they lose all respect for the lives of the people they're supposed to be ruling. Justice becomes subservient to power, and power can do no wrong.

There's a large degree of self-aggrandizement in Plato's promotion of the "philosopher-king" as the preferred ruler, and his resentment over the low status of philosophers in society becomes almost comical at points. He goes out of his way to defend philosophers from the charge that they either end up cranks or benignly self-absorbed and useless:

None of our present constitutions is worthy of the philosophic nature, and, as a result, this nature is perverted and altered, for, just as a foreign seed, sown in alien ground, is likely to be overcome by the native species and to fade away among them, as the philosophic nature fails to develop its full power and declines into a different character. (497b)
Societies, as presently constituted, aren't good enough for philosophers, and they only serve to corrupt them. Philosophy, in Plato's view, can only flourish in a society where philosophers rule. He conflates an argument against marginalization with an argument for power.

Extended passages of absurdity bracket the discussion of the natural hegemonic rights of philosophers, and some of it is so ridiculous that it can be hard to take anything Plato writes seriously. The notion that future "guardians" should give special emphasis to the study of such subjects as arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy is the least of it. (Plato's rationale is that because such subjects emphasize abstract thinking over concrete knowledge, they are best able to guide the student away from opinion and its emphasis on "becoming," and onto knowledge with its emphasis on "being.") The most egregious silliness is right at the beginning of Book V, where the reader is subjected to a lengthy discussion of why men and women should exercise together in the nude, as well as an explanation of why parents and children should be separated and never know each other as such. Plato also argues against the husband-wife relationship, and that "women are to belong in common to all the men" (457c). There's also his view that particularly accomplished young men should have sex with as many women as possible, as it would increase their potential for having genetically superior children. Keeping history in mind, one finds notions like that fairly common in totalitarian regimes as well.

One can reject much from these sections of The Republic, but one easily accepts much of it. Plato's theory of knowledge is a fine discussion of the difference between analyzing something in the general as opposed to the particular, and the explications of his view of the ideal leader create questions with which to scrutinize all who would seek to govern. Most remarkable of all is the parable of the cave and the view of the dialectic as a means of scrutinizing assumptions in one's pursuit of the truth. As for his view of the desirability of the philosopher as ruler, one wishes he realized that his hopes would never be found in an individual; the "guardian" in terms of contemporary society is the law.

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The reading list for the Civilization Saturday feature is here.

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