Republic (380? BC, Plato)

Everyone who knows Plato knows of Republic and knows of the allegory of the cave, I imagine, or at least my popular-informed conception of Republic considered the cave to be its central point or climax. As reading through the previous dialogues has already shown me, though, I knew nothing of Plato, and likewise here the cave takes up a couple of pages of only one of ten parts of Republic and is only a minor example among a multitude in the work that showcase the brilliance of his thought – or at least the fecundity of thinking it fosters in the reader. As Socrates and company hash out the utopia – all “merely” to prove the value of being just rather than unjust, even when the latter seems to result in so much reward for its perpetrators – they seem to traverse nearly every topic in social philosophy, from censorship to feminism to euthanasia to child-rearing and eugenics. One figures later philosophers like Nietzsche or a few postmodern mavericks would be unlocking bold new vistas and possibilities, but almost all of it seems prefigured or accounted for by Plato. (The same with cinema: those old, black-and-white movies are the dodderingly senile retirees to modern hyperkinetic spectaculars, except for the fact that many of these latter are blatantly derivative and restrict themselves from territory the former were much bolder and more insightful in exploring, and the latter have in fact often been preempted by the advances of the past.)

While propositions like shared wives and children and guardians forbidden from owning property still feel extremely radical – and totally sensible – probably the most apparently reactionary is the injunction to censor the education of the young, as well as popular art. The argument is very familiar – the young and the brave need good role models – but with Plato’s reasoning the idea almost feels attractive rather than ridiculous, which it does in the mouths of so many political/cultural ideologues. What’s interesting again is that Christian-style monotheism appears here as a necessary device – Voltaire’s quote “If God did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him” leaps to mind – to manipulate the masses into emulating impossible idealizations, only perhaps permitting a select few to see the less pleasant truths when initiated into certain mysteries, on the belief that seeing capriciousness and flaws and duplicity in gods and heroes will weaken the constitutions of the very people to be tasked with the city/state’s maintenance and defense. This is true, naturally – but then Plato also acknowledges that states currently are manned by people totally deficient in heroic qualities, whom he identifies as such in order to argue against their behavior for something more enlightened. In other words the gloss of perfection should not extend to people by “virtue” of their position or power, for these do not signify virtue at all but often in fact the exact opposite.

Much of Republic requires an understanding of contingency and hypotheticals this way in order not to draw the wrong conclusions. In a more realized state, it would probably be true that romantic poets and illusionists of many sorts (like the vulgar imitative) would distract an upright citizen from a noble purpose – but what Socrates leaves unsaid is the immense value of these arts in sustaining citizens in the midst of states that are illusions themselves. When he describes the recurring cycle of political change in the later books – the basis of which rests on a recondite mathematical explanation of an imperfection in the human lifespan which creates imbalance – it is very clear that the democracy phase is that of Plato’s Athens, let alone the current-day democracy of the United States. In a system as flawed in crucial ways as this – where people are “free” to do as they please regardless of its wisdom or justice – the role of art is less clear, since after all reflections of heroism may be difficult to find in public life, and one must note on this score that Socrates himself cites epic poets and tragedians for positive examples in this and several other dialogues, and more often than he talks about real living contemporaries. His apparent derision towards artists – he makes a point of saying his favorite element of this dream society is its severe restrictions on poets – really seems to serve as a warning against the fetishization of art, which can distract the bedazzled from pursuing the perfection and excellence only dimly evoked by even the greatest illusionists. (Consider “the golden age of television” and the surfeit of artworks of all sorts we enjoy today, even as we set records for mass shootings and black poverty rates.) Presumably, too, visionaries like Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso or William Blake and John Keats represent painting and poetry as well beyond the mere duplication of reality, as having the capability to generate new and heightened reality through individually filtered expression that hearkens more to the divine than to the factual. Its purpose is not to mimic a functional craftsman, but to reinfuse objects with a reverent subjectivity.

The motivation for this whole project, besides, was not some committee for city planning, but rather a necessary means to illustrate principles of justice, so it may not even be pragmatic advocacy that concerns Socrates and Plato at all. (Its failure, as mentioned before, is deemed a mathematical inevitability.) One of Plato’s eccentricities as a logician is frequent recourse to fables or parables to emphasize his points in place of empirical data, where the usual question-and-answer is apparently inadequate to his purposes, and the dream of the Republic is a much-extended version of the same thing in this sense – instead of appealing to visions of the afterlife, as he does in a previous dialogue addressing the same issue of justice, he appeals to visions of utopia to show how perfectly ordered and superior is the state that exalts and administers and exemplifies justice, which just coincidentally (albeit convincingly) puts philosophers in charge for a change.

One of the most crucial points in holding the society together is a shared vision for its participants – as many have done later (and perhaps earlier) Plato likens the populace of a Republic to a human body as a whole, which attends to all of its components equitably and suffers if any particular part endures injury. One gets close to tears to read this suggestion 2400 years later with its plain empathy which is still so needed yet so hard to find. Even with those against whom the people of the Republic may combat, they are “all Hellenes,” and therefore no enemy should be slaughtered, pillaged, razed, ruined or humiliated. Given the greater international interconnectedness of today – creation myths no longer much claim Greeks were special, unique products of God – it would be basic to update the idea so that no fellow man would be treated thus, as well as the notion of the body wherein one person in one nation is responsible for the necessities of life for many in many other nations. The justice applied within the Republic because it is the optimal way to nourish a flourishing society – which, if Adam Smith is to be trusted, is also the best way to run an economy – must then be applied to all of those with whom that Republic interacts; perhaps then endless territorial and resource warfare and even the dangerous charade of “unlimited acquisition of wealth” will not be the requirements that Socrates’ party must assume.

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