Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Going down - on a democratic interpretation of Plato, part 1

This post and the next will deal with some correspondence with Will Altman, Hilary Putnam, Steve Wagner, Peter Minowitz and Carl Blinn on "some wonders of Plato" here. I am just now rethinking some of Plato’s subtleties on the philosopher-king, tyranny and democracy, with the hypothesis that he may be closer to the historic Socrates so far as we can make Socrates out – one who did not affirm or act for philosopher-tyranny, and in addition, as Plato's dialogues report, did not know what the idea of justice was, and whose daimon or inner spirit often warned him against participation except in matters of conscience at the risk of his life - than I had previously thought. See Do philosophers counsel tyrants? here. The very ending of the second part will deal with a wonderful thought of Eva Brann’s which gives a surprising and uniquely democratic turn to Socrates and Plato against tyranny.

Will Altman has written me on the primary metaphor of the Republic: going down (katabasis). “Yesterday, I went down to the Pieraeus with Glaucon.” The word carries a strong sense of the Odysseus's journey to the underworld in Homer. This is also the directional metaphor for Glaucon’s story of the invisibility ring with which Gyges becomes the tyrant in Lydia in book 2. In this case, a shepherd goes down into the earth, finds a (Trojan) horse with a large naked corpse inside, wearing only a ring, steals the ring, ascends and commits crimes to become tyrant. It is of course this challenge – what if you could be Dick Cheney and appear to be Little Bo Peep, or in Oscar Wilde’s vision, the hidden portrait of the soul and the beautiful-seeming Dorian Gray - that the book answers. But the most striking metaphor of the cave to which the philosopher returns is in book 6. You must go down into the cave where having the idea of justice, the good and the beautiful, you will see a thousand times better than others. And yet you will be seen by powerful people as foreign and frightening, excoriated and very likely put to death.

It is also the myth in book 10 of the man Er who goes down into the underworld, sees the souls choosing a guiding spirit, how they are shaped by their previous experiences in a cycle, and after 12 days, wakes up on a pyre just before being set afire to tell the tale. It is a theme of the resonant Homer Plato mirrors and transforms (the shepherd of book 1 who fattens the sheep for consumption is analogous to Polyphemos, the shepherd, in whose cave Odysseus and his companions wait to be eaten; Polyphemos also parallels the tyrant-shepherd Gyges).* In the Republic, lotus eaters appear in book 7 – they too go out of this world - and of course Odysseus is the last figure in the Myth of Er. Odysseus, too, goes into the underworld (the cave) and meets Tiresias who alone among the dead can see – compare the end of Meno where the implied parallel with Socrates himself is striking.

Will sees an analogy to Demosthenes, the great orator and in antiquity known to be a student of Plato, who heroically arouses Athenians to fight for democracy against Phillip of Macedon and is murdered by Alexander’s agent Archias; he also traces a link to Cicero, another great Platonist, whom Marc Antony (the real Marc Antony, not the formidable but sanitized version we learn in high school in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”) murdered and cut his ears off and then nailed them to the wall separately and alongside his head as a message to the people to keep their ears shut against democracy. Altman ties these figures to Socrates, who, as I have long emphasized, listens to the music of the democratic laws of Athens as the Corybants, the participants in the mysteries, hear the flutes. As a philosopher and in this respect, not a partisan or predictable beyond thinking through cases though obviously willing to take a stand on life and death issues, Socrates, one might say, is a critical democrat. He is critical of unjust laws, and more deeply of the attack on philosophy (the asebeias graphe under which he is tried – a rarely used indictment about blasphemy against the city’s gods). He refuses to give up asking questions. He thus, as King and Gandhi underline, founds civil disobedience at the price of his life. He stands for what is decent in democracy. This is not quite Demosthenes and Cicero. They went down to fight and die directly for the democracy against tyranny. But the distance between civil disobedience and this revolt against Empires is not so vast. Theirs is, following Socrates, certainly a possible interpretation of Plato.

An opposed theme in the Republic, however, is that philosophers hide under a wall in a dust storm. They are like the soul of Odysseus at the end of the Myth of Er choosing a private life and being as glad of it as he would have been to have made the first choice (the first to choose, reminiscent of Cephalos in book 1, good only by habit in a previous life, eagerly seizes the life of a tyrant destined to eat his own children). The choice between two such lives in the Republic as a whole seems clear. Glaucon is persuaded by Socrates to honor justice, not to become a tyrant (he is hungry at the thought of the austere city, demanding “where’s the relish?” and might become that tyrant who consumes among the entrails, at the Temple of Zeus Lykaios - Zeus in the form of a wolf - but a morsel of human flesh). Perhaps he becomes private (we do not know of Plato’s brother from history, aside from the Republic and as a minor figure in Xenophon). Even some sophisticated admirers of Leo Strauss - Steve Lenzner in conversation, Roger Masters, and Peter Minowitz - seek to emphasize that the philosophers are selfish, have more engaging things to do, do not go down willingly to the cave. Thus, the two lines of thinking, developed in the Republic, are internally at odds.

Altman has published a series of brilliant articles on Plato’s dialogues. He has suggested a hidden reading of Plato that is different from Strauss’s, an altruistic and pro-democratic reading (see the pdf. article here on “Altruism and the Art of Writing: Plato, Cicero and Leo Strauss” in Humanitas). He has begun to take on clashes and confusions in other philosophers who think Plato merely contradicts himself or develop one strand or the other without seeing the complexity. Plato was a “divine man,” as thoughtful and persistent as anyone who has ever written on these things, and a teacher of unparalleled influence. So the possibility of hidden writing, of a seemingly contradictory meaning which points subtly in the direction he wants the reader/student to pursue is real. Stand aside in many circumstances but not in the direst of them: philosophers must then “go down.”

It is not only Strauss who thinks that the dialogues are a form of mysterious writing (of course, Strauss is strongly affected in his reading of Plato by his fervent disgust for Weimar and Athenian democracy; I have yet to find a favorable reference in Strauss to Athenian democracy). Plato himself says that his writing has a hidden meaning in a brilliant passage in the Phaedrus where he interprets writings as like statues.(lines 275d-277a) When you ask them a question, they have no father to defend them. Anyone can misinterpret them. But with a dialogue, a writing in which the author’s own thinking is not obvious, a careful reader can find insights that will continue the process for ever (it will extend, among other things from one such reader to others) and make him happy "to the farthest possible limit of human happiness."

I have long wondered what Plato taught his students in the academy. In the Seventh Letter, he says he will never write on legislation, but provide hints for some “few” who do not need much help and can figure it out for themselves. This is perhaps a dangerous way to proceed since in these complicated matters, some of the most brilliant like Heidegger here, may figure out the wrong thing. Plato probably challenged his students to listen to the arguments, to think out what is wrong, for example, with the Athenian Stranger’s accounts of philosopher-tyranny (that a tyrant can rapidly change a city for good or ill – Laws, 708-11). He left his students as Altman says, to consider the contradiction between book 4 of the Republic’s account of justice – having one task and minding one’s own business (recalled as if in a musical theme by the image of a philosopher hiding under a wall against the dust storm of politics in book 6 and Odysseus happily choosing a private life at the end of book 10) and the philosophers who go down. For the latter lead, as book 6 says, two lives, the second of which – the political – they are less suited for, just better suited for than politicians who are filled with desires and “hungry,” and rule by faction and murder (in the stasis or internal strife of the Peloponnesian War, as Thucydides tells us, and, sadly, ordinarily):

“…you [the philosophers in kallipolis, the beautiful city] have been begotten by us to be like kings and leaders in a hive of bees, governing the city for its good and yours. Your education is better and more complete, and you are better equipped to participate in the two ways of life. So down you must go each in turn to where the others are and habituate yourselves to see in the dark. Once you have adjusted, you will see ten thousand times better than those who already dwell there. Because you have seen the reality of beauty, justice and goodness, you will be able to know idols and shadows for what they are. Together and wide awake, you and we will govern our city far differently from most cities today whose inhabitants are ruled darkly as in a dream by men who will fight each others over shadows and use faction in order to rule as if that were some great good." (520d-e, trans. Sterling and Sharp)

Two ways of life, the philosophers who defend the city’s good even to the death (because the harms others suffer – the need for a philosopher to defend a common good – is too great a price to bear and thus, harms her own good as well). This is a great and true vision, one that captured Socrates even as Plato himself seems to have held back and created the Academy, hoping at least not as swiftly as Socrates to pay that price. Here is also a theme of many dialogues: the metaphor of awakeness, those who govern or lead, for the good of the city, as opposed to those who “fight each other over shadows” (consider Sarah Palin, the Republican/authoritarian party, and much of the Democrats; look at the sleepwalking of Obama in Afghanistan). The reactionary interpretation of Plato focuses on the idea that philosophers will not go down, or worse, will unite to rule and transform the cave as servants of the leader (consider Heidegger’s affection for Hitler’s “delicate hands” and national socialism, see here and here). In contrast, a Demosthenes might focus on the idea of being a leader or kingly soul to defend the democracy against tyranny.

I should note a qualification on the selfishness (philosophers care only for themselves, will not go down**)/altruism (philosophers have only compassion for others) debate in which Will Altman takes part with other interpreters of Plato. The debate stems from reading a problem in the Republic, something that Plato wanted students to think about, through a misleading Christian prism, an anachronism. As Aristotle suggests about friendship in book 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics, a good friend is one who has love of self, enough independence of personality to see another person clearly, genuinely honor that person's good (knowledge of others and self-knowledge are integral to one another). In defective friendships for use or money or advancement, the "friends" see neither themselves nor the other. These have a bizarre kind of selfishness. See my Democratic Individuality, ch. 7. Aristotle got those distinctions from Plato (the Seventh Letter draws them as well). For Plato, understanding oneself as Socrates does and going down to fight for philosophy, and one might say, what is decent in democracy (for instance, its toleration of philosophy for many years) is of a piece. Adeimantus's unanswered question, what will make the guardians happy about their austere and collective life applies doubly to the philosopher. Why should she not get lost in her wanderings and contemplations? Why go down to death? But the penetrating student might find resources for the answer in the thoughts above, might recast this argument in the Republic. The glory of Socrates was that he went down.

For Strauss, the hidden message of the Republic is that the philosophers go down to rule tyrannically but “wisely.” They are selfish in thought and might not go down, but when they do, they manipulate others to serve themselves. This is the core of Strauss’s admiration of Hitler in the early and perhaps through the 1930s – see here and here.** For Strauss, one of the truths that are shared among philosophers but would not “decently” be shared among the many is the most people aren’t decent. They are the “last men,” Strauss and some of his followers’ mantra of revulsion, one which led Strauss himself to consider nuclear war a possible way out – a return to the “spring” of the stone age, and for some reason, history cycling though again (see the end of the “Restatement” in On Tyranny and here and here). But Heidegger’s and Strauss’s wise tyranny is, for Plato, nothing of the kind. See here. Heidegger’s and Strauss’s politics also require ignoring King and Gandhi’s apt naming of Socrates’s civil disobedience (see Do philosophers counsel tyrants? here). Heidegger’s interpretation is an anachronism and a vicious one. It combines the selfishness of “philosophers,” not living under a wall, but fishing in the cave for a cadre of anti-democrats – imperial authoritarians such as the national socialists in Germany or the neocons in America. Note ironically that both Heidegger and Strauss, so eager to return to the Greeks and "the cave" of natural reflection, uncorrupted by Christianity, are, in this respect, trapped in Christian categories.

Now there are additional problems for a vision of Plato following Socrates, who was a philosophical or critical democrat (went to his death with the voice of the democratic laws murmuring in his ears) and did not, as one who did not know, affirm a kallipolis. Both the vision in the Republic and the Laws – that all must be raised to say the same things, have the same feelings – must not be what Plato ultimately meant to be enacted. Plato’s statement in the Seventh Letter – that he will never write a book on legislation - must be true. He must be subtly warning against the dangers of even a “wise” tyranny. Heidegger and Strauss take this ideal in the Republic and the Laws to be “justice,” but the qualifications even there, that this is but an ideal sketch to get a picture of justice in the soul, or in the Laws, that the Athenian Stranger is often dicey, a pseudo-Socrates, one who escaped rather than lead the final drinking party of the Phaedo and take the poison, suggest some room for this alternate interpretation.

Perhaps Plato was the defender of Socrates – the Socrates who conversed in the market, not hidden as Plato in the academy, the Socrates who went to his death to save philosophy and the Athens which nurtured a wise man rather than the Plato who was an advisor (to Dionysius) and teacher of advisors to tyrants, a Plato who affirmed Socrates rather than a Plato who subtly clashed with the Socrates who questioned but did not know. This Plato must also have differed with the Athenian Stranger and even the Socrates of the Republic who appear to know justice, however qualified (for the artisans and even for the guardians until they become philosophical after age 50, for example) in the hierarchical city. Now even on the worst interpretation, Plato is no fascist (no imperial racist like Heidegger, as Hilary Putnam rightly insisted to me – see on some wonders of Plato here). But perhaps Strauss’s attempt to make Socrates but the creature of Xenophon and to identify him with a Xenophon-like Plato is just wrong.

So getting at an alternate esoteric interpretation like the one Altman is working out is plainly a good idea. When one ascends in Plato, one recognizes that going down (katabasis) will result in being attacked and crucified (Socrates, Demosthenes, Cicero, and at a distance, King – who had read Hegel and Plato carefully – and perhaps Gandhi).**** But they still go down to fight for democracy (for a democracy which would tolerate philosophy in the case of Socrates, for the Athens of his long, 70 years rather than the Athens that killed him). Perhaps as Altman says, the idea to be challenged – sneeringly insisted on by Strauss repeatedly against a quote from Marx’s German Ideology – is the idea of each person doing one job only. This idea of justice, this conception of "oneness," is, after all, a "noble lie." It seems that philosophers must take on the political (Strauss thinks this too), but contra Strauss, they must do it to defend democracy – and philosophy – against tyranny. Note that the tyranny might include that of the deluded people, as King says in the Letter from the Birmingham City Jail who required Socrates to drink the poison. Note also that the one man/ one job idea excludes democracy – the artisans or rowers would do a second job as citizen/soldiers. So perhaps Socrates for actual Athens might like, occasionally, those who did their job and acted as citizens and soldiers (himself included).

Now Aristotle was an advisor to Alexander the Great. He stood against Demosthenes. As a student of Plato, Aristotle admires, in book 5 of the Politics, the implied circle in the Republic’s decline of regimes if a tyrant of a certain kind were to become a philosopher-king. (See lines 1316a27-32 and "Do philosophers counsel tyrants?” here). Aristotle incarnates the pattern which Strauss hints at of serving/counselling “philosopher”-tyrants. Discovering this element in Aristotle – who has some creative thoughts about democracy as well (for instance, that ruling and being ruled in turn is the nature of citizenship and that citizens deliberating as a group can sometimes be wiser than a wise man) led me to think that Strauss was closer to Plato and to differentiate Socrates more sharply from Plato. Now, several people including Hilary Putnam and Carl Blinn have objected to this since we know of Socrates only from the accounts of others – not just Plato, but Xenophon and Aristophanes.

But there is some subtle process, for example thinking about contradictions between dialogues – say, between the account of the democratic laws in the Crito and that in the Republic, book 8 which no one would hear going to their death, which may give a glimmer of such distinctions, or between Socrates’s questioning about justice and the seemingly fully formed idea of kallipolis in the Republic or about the differences of Aristophanes’ Socrates in the Clouds – that his best student was Chaerophon, a democrat as Plato’s Socrates says in the Apology who asked the Delphic oracle who was the wisest of them all, and gave Socrates his test or, in a later idiom, calling to see whether others were wiser, and Plato’s and Xenophon’s accounts which are not named for democrats (there is, for Plato, no Chaerophon to complement the Crito or the Critias or the Meno, and the like). Some of these are Platonic artifices, however, that is, attempts to elicit further argument or thought toward hidden meanings. So the complexity of figuring out – at least getting a glimmer - of what Socrates as distinct from Plato meant is, as Hilary suggests, considerable though probably worth the attention. Further, none of those who wrote are among Socrates’s or Plato’s democratic students – for instance Chaerophon and perhaps Polemarchos for Socrates, and Demosthenes for Plato, unless of course, Plato, after long struggles, turns out surprisingly, despite his many reservations - Socrates obviously had many, too - to be such a student (Plato, as Socrates, is of course a philosophical democrat in certain circumstances, i.e., for the democratic golden age and against the Tyranny of the Thirty).

Aristotle moved away from Plato and founded his own school, in some ways to the right. The differences between them are often subtler than standard accounts suggest (Aristotle does take up the philosopher-tyrant in the rule of the outstanding man in book 3 as well as in book 5 of the Politics; Plato considers Crete and Sparta, two of Aristotle’s three best cities in the Laws). But Aristotle did happily choose Alexander and there survives no account of differences as with Plato and Dionysius…

So I think Altman’s defense of Demosthenes is admirable, and captures a decisive feature of the influence of Greek democracy though history (John Laurens, a leading abolitionist in the American Revolution who was also killed in battle, as I will trace in ch. 11 of my forthcoming Emancipation and Independence, modeled himself on Demosthenes). There is a real alternative here which I had not fully taken in when I wrote "Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?" (Constellations, March 2009).

But to qualify this, first, it must be stressed, Plato himself was tempted by the idea of philosopher–tyranny as we can see from the Republic and from his journey to advise the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse described in the 7th Letter. It is not just the implied circle which connects tyranny and the philosopher-king in the Republic’s depiction of the decline of regimes. It is also the arguments that extremes are nearest to one another; that of the mediocre, nothing great will ever come; that monarchs are comparatively stable and satisfied, tyrants often driven, hungry, and perhaps rarely want something different. This thought of course recalls Xenophon’s Hiero or On Tyranny, the subject of Strauss’s first book in the United States, and much of Aristotle’s account of the possibilities of tyranny in Politics, book 5. There is, no kidding, a connection here, a line of action that Plato explored in Syracuse.

Now following Kant, Hilary Putnam objects to the 7th Letter as a work of Plato, two pretty shrewd judges of the matter. But if one reads the Letter carefully, it is a work of art. Plato there conjures his best student Dion coming to him after death or in exile and speaking of how Plato, if he had come to Syracuse, could have persuaded Dionysius, the young tyrant, to rule philosophically. He could have prevented Dion’s death in the attempt. Plato’s perhaps after-life Dion conjures the idea of philosophy calling Plato to account for his unwillingness to take the journey, his unmanly doubts, indicting him for being a mere idea, a shadow, and not an action.

“Suppose he [Dion] should be killed or banished by Dionysius and his other enemies and should come to me in his exile and say, `Here I am, Plato, a fugitive, not because I lacked hoplites or horsemen to ward off my enemies, but only for need of the persuasive words by which, as I well know, you are always able to turn young men towards goodness and justice and make them friends and comrades of one another. This weakness which you could have remedied is the cause of my being here in exile from Syracuse. But my own misfortune is a small part of your dishonor. You are always praising philosophy, and saying she is held in little esteem by the rest of mankind; but in betraying me now have you not, by neglecting this opportunity, also betrayed her? If we had happened to be living in Megara you would certainly have come as a helper in answer to my call, or you would consider yourself the most trifling of men. And now do you think you can escape the charge of cowardice by pleading the length of the journey, the greatness of the voyage and its fatigue? Far from it." *****

These are as powerful metaphors - the conjuring of the idea of philosophy - comparable to the idea of the democratic laws speaking in the Crito. Not only are there few other writers who have the inventiveness to do this; this is, in any case, dazzlingly and characteristically, what Plato does, a philosophical/musical signature as it were. If the Seventh Letter isn’t by Plato, the Tempest isn’t by Shakespeare.

Second, however, the Seventh Letter describes both on the surface and in the depths three great failures of the idea of the philosopher-tyrant. The first and obvious one is Dionysius himself. Initially eager to talk with Plato (see Plutarch’s "Life of Dionysius") but then subject to flattery and conniving (Seventh Letter), Dionysius listens to Plato but once for he could not withstand the test of daily argument and study:

“If the pupil be truly philosophic, in sympathy with the subject and worthy of it because divinely gifted, he believes that he has been shown a marvelous pathway, and that he must brace himself at once to follow it, and that life will not be worth living if he does otherwise. After this he braces himself and him who is guiding him on the path, nor does he desist until either he has reached the goal of all this studies, or else has gained such power as to be capable of directing his own steps without the help of an instructor. It is thus and in this mind that such a student lives, occupied indeed in whatever occupations the student may find himself, but always beyond all else cleaving fast to philosophy and to that mode of life which will best make him apt to learn and of retentive mind.” (340c-e)

Note that the student of philosophy lives two ways of life, his ordinary one and the one of the ascent. So the idea of justice in book 4 of the Republic, to secure a common good by pursuing one and only one job under the rule or mind of the philosopher (the one free person) who beguiles them all with a noble lie****** does not appear to be Plato’s goal either or even a part of the philosophical quest. This point makes the abandonment of any other life in the Republic seem like lotus-land even though the philosopher comes to see, by herself, in the cave, is visionary.

According to Plato’s test, Dionysius fails. He wants the appearance or fame of philosophy without the work. Plato continues:

“Those on the other hand, who are in reality not philosophic, but superficially tinged by opinions, - like men whose bodies are sunburnt on the surface – when they see how many studies are required and how great labour and how the orderly mode of daily life is that which befits the subject, they deem it difficult or impossible for themselves, and thus they become in fact incapable of pursuing it; while some of them persuade themselves that they have been sufficiently instructed in the whole subject and no longer require any effort.”

“Now this test proves the clearest and most infallible in dealing with those who are luxurious and incapable of enduring labour since it prevents any of them from ever casting the blame on his instructor instead of on himself and his own ability to pursue all the studies which are accessory to his subject.”

Yet Dionysius had already “heard it all.” He met with Plato as a teacher but once, and later wrote an idle book on politics:

“This then, was the purport of what I said to Dionysius on that occasion. I did not, however, expound the matter fully, nor did Dionysius ask me to do so; for he claimed that he himself knew many of the most important teachings and was sufficiently informed owing to the versions he had heard from his other teachers. And I am even told that he himself later wrote a treatise on the subjects on which I then instructed him, composing it as though it were something of his own invention and quite different from what he had heard but of this I know nothing. I know indeed that certain others have written on these subjects but what manner of men they are not even themselves know.” (340e-341c)

As a second candidate, Dionysius exiles Dion. When Dionysius marries his wife to another, Dion takes up arms against him. Miraculously, Dion returns and chases Dionysius out. Dion, Plato’s best student, would seem to be the philosopher-king.

But Dion had relied on an Athenian friend Callias – a friendship of drinking and convenience, of use, not of philosophy, who helped assassinate Dion. In the context of Dion, Plato does not speak of the philosopher-king. But Dion’s brief kingship is a hidden message of the 7th Letter. At the conclusion, Plato says, that Dion was like an able ship’s captain who knew that a storm was arising, took precautions, but could not know how serious it was. He was overwhelmed. He was mortal (Sein zum tode – a central merit of Heidegger’s account). It is of course no error for a philosopher to “go down” and be killed, Dion’s fate. But Plato does not simply, though he could have, throw in his lot with Dion. Though he mourns him fiercely (the Letter is written explicitly to Dion’s friends), he observes and discusses Dion’s fate at some remove. When Dion came in exile to gather Plato who had been allowed by Dionysius, finally, to leave his imprisonment, Plato says that he admired Dion’s action but did not go. Dion had first summoned him to Syracuse to tutor Dionysius, engaged him with Dionysius's household and rituals (Strauss, a comparatively simple atheist, misguidedly does not take statements like this seriously). Further, some of Plato's unwillingness was to honor Dionysius for not cutting his throat when he could have; some to have a hope of healing there between Dion and Dionysius still,******* to work as he says, for laws and “moderation”:

“And I when I heard this bade him summon some of my friends to his aid, should they be willing –‘But as for me,’ I said, ‘it was you yourself, with the others, who by main force, so to say, made me an associate of Dionysius at table and at hearth and a partaker in his holy rites; and he, though he probably believed that I, as many slanderers asserted, was conspiring with you against himself and his throne, yet refrained from killing me, and showed compunction. Thus, not only am I no longer, as I may say, of an age to assist anyone in war, but I also have ties in common with you both, in case you should ever come to crave at all for mutual friendship and wish to do one another good; but so long as you desire to do evil, summon others.’ This I said because I loathed my Sicilian wandering and its ill-success.”

Note the force of Plato’s last statement. The effort to advise a tyrant was “loathsome” and of “ill-success.” Perhaps he wanted students to attend these words. He wanted to heal differences through words, eliminate murderousness, work, in several senses, for a common good:

“They [Dion and Dionysius], however, by their disobedience and their refusal to heed my attempts at conciliation have themselves to blame for all the evils that have now happened; for, in all human probability, none of these would have occurred if Dionysius had paid over the money to Dion [Plato had tried to get the money from Dion’s estate for Dion which Dionysius had stolen] or had even become wholly reconciled to him, for both my will and my power were such that I could have easily restrained Dion.”

Plato was a force in this situation. Yet he could not reconcile them, could not prevent slaughters: “But as thing are, by rushing the one against the other they have flooded the world with woes.” (350c-351a)

Dion’s aim was to produce a moderate government, a rule of laws which Plato praises. To think he aimed at philosopher-tyranny as opposed to genuine philosopher-kingship (an orderly rule not relying so much on the decisions of the tyrant) requires too much “reading between the lines.” He seems here to be quite straightforward both about Dion’s attempt, his wise judgment, and the terrible fate that overcame him, as even a good pilot in a typhoon:

“For neither Dion nor any other would ever voluntarily aim at a power that would bring upon himself and his race an everlasting curse, but rather at a moderate government and the establishment of the justest and best of laws by means of the fewest possible exiles and executions.”(351c)

Note that politics for Plato requires exiles and executions, just not as easy or widespread as the Athenian Stranger’s: the “fewest possible.”

“Yet when Dion was now pursuing this course, resolved to suffer rather than to do unholy deeds – although guarding himself against so suffering – none the less when he had attained the highest pitch of superiority over his foes he stumbled. And therein he suffered no surprising fate. For while, in dealing with the unrighteous, a righteous man who is sober and sound of mind will never be wholly deceived concerning the souls of such men; yet it would not, perhaps, be surprising if he were to share the fate of a good pilot”

- this again is a characteristically Platonic metaphor -

“who, though he certainly would not fail to notice the oncoming of a storm, yet might fail to realize its extraordinary and unexpected violence, and in consequence of that failure might be forcibly overwhelmed. And Dion’s downfall was, in fact, due to the same cause; for while he most certainly did not fail to notice that those who bought him down were evil men, yet he did fail to realize to what a pitch of folly they had come, and of depravity also and voracious greed; and thereby he was bought down and lies fallen, enveloping Sicily in immeasurable woe.” (351c-e)

Thus, both of Plato’s attempts at creating a philosopher-tyrant (Dionysius) or –king (Dion, aiming for laws) in the Seventh Letter fail. In both cases, to follow Will’s line of thinking, Plato affirms, for the Athenians, the unlikelihood of philosopher-rule and Plato's affection for democracy. About the case of Dion (the one he does not speak directly to as a potential philosopher-king), he speaks as a proud Athenian angrily of Callias the Athenian’s treachery. He insists that he and Dion wanted a rule of laws in Syracuse. Had he lived, Dion might even have harked back to the democracy of Hermocrates, the great leader who united the Syracusans to defeat Athenian imperialism. Wishing for a philosopher-tyrant – why he brought Plato to counsel Dionysius – Dion might actually be a law-preserving or even democratic leader in the line of Socrates. If so, however, why Plato did not side with him more openly perhaps becomes a question. Still, Plato held out for trying to create peace, and honored his obligations. Thus, Plato stands finally with the decent (where nonmurderous) democratic ethos of Athens.

At the very outset, Plato speaks of the Tyranny of the Thirty ruled by Socrates’s student Critias, and in which Plato’s cousin Charmides was a participant. As a young man, he reports, he was invited to participate. Critias was also the philosopher-tyrant – a third and more miserable candidate in the Seventh Letter - and even Xenophon reports that Socrates sent the tyrant a critical message about his rule: roughly, what would one think of a trainer of horses who made them more unruly?

In the Seventh Letter, Plato speaks of how Critias attempted to force Socrates into being one of five to get Leon of Salamis to be killed. As the Apology tells us, the other four fetched Leon, Socrates went home. Had the tyranny not fallen, Socrates would have been killed for this. Plato speaks in the Seventh Letter with some anger at the Athenian democracy which then turned around and murdered Socrates who had sided with it by an act of civil disobedience against the Tyranny.

As a young man, Plato did not participate in the Tyranny of the Thirty. He said that that tyranny made Athenian democracy look like a "golden age." He is angry at the democracy for its crime against Socrates, but still sees its overall virtue (though the possibility of some hidden meaning here is real enough). But this seems to affirm a line of argument – to maintain the democracy against the failures of philosopher-tyranny – close to Altman’s. Even if one is looking hard for recommendations for the philosopher-tyrant, the only evidence is that despite serious doubts, Plato initially goes to counsel Dionysius. Even here, Plato is qualified, however: "if I could persuade just one man now, I should have achieved all manner of good" (see note ***** below). Plato was tempted to realize philosopher-kingship but not at the expense of justice. The idea of justice gleamed before him and he cleaved to it, did not embrace philosopher-tyranny. That experience, recounted in the Seventh Letter, isolates these three failures, and recommends “going down” for law and democracy.

*This is a response to a question from Carl Blinn who did not connect these shepherds to Homer’s Polyphemos.

**Xenophon's bizarre interpretation that Socrates committed suicide and, hence, his conduct at the trial grows out of self-concern is a root of this first point. This position is, of course, celebrated, in a peculiar kind of inverted Christian vein - selfishness is all - by Leo Strauss, even when he notes, rarely, that Socrates also defends philosophers (the selfishness of philosophers). See my "Do philosophers counsel tyrants?" on this issue.

*** The 1934 letter exchange between Klein, who gives up enthusiasm for Hitler, and Strauss who still affirms it is key. See here. Altman has a book coming out at Lexington with the resonant title: The German Stranger.

**** And at some greater distance Jesus – consider Plotinus and Greek orthodox Christianity. He practiced civil disobedience, for instance. See John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus on turning the other cheek, requiring the man who strikes you as a "superior" to hit you again with the back of his hand, an undignified act at that time, or to carry the Roman soldier’s heavy burden, which killed many and hence was legally restricted, twice as far as required (to inspire shame and guilt in the soldier at the recognition of strength and subtle defiance).

*****Here is a passage in which the argument culminates in a startling metaphor, that Plato needed to be, even to himself, an action, not an argument:

“Besides he [Dion, Plato’s best student] thought I should certainly come to Syracuse as soon as I could, remembering the association which he and I had enjoyed and how easily he himself had been thereby won to want the best and fairest life. If in the present case he succeeded as well with Dionysus as he had set out to do, he had high hopes that he might have built a true and happy way of life in the whole of his country without the murders and executions and other horrors which have since taken place. Dion had calculated all of this shrewdly and persuaded Dionysius to send for me, and himself also sent with his personal entreaties that I should certainly hasten to come before other kinds of advisers found Dionysius and turned him to a life other than the best. This is the substance of what he said, at length. `What greater opportunity are we to wait for than this which some God-sent chance has offered us? The extent of Dionysius’ dominions in Italy and Sicily is great and so is my influence with Dionysius. He is young and eager for philosophy and education; he has relatives and friends who will readily fall in with any doctrine or life I describe to them, and they are very efficacious in carrying Dionysius along. So now or never our entire expectation shall be fulfilled that the same men can become philosophers and rulers of great cities.’ This was what he urged and much more like this, but in my own thoughts about these young men, I was somewhat afraid of the outcome. For the desires of young men are quick and not seldom self-contradictory. Yet I knew the character of Dion and I knew his natural solidity of disposition and that he was already fairly mature. So as I thought and hesitated as to whether I should accede to Dion’s wishes and go or not, I finally decided that I must go and, that if ever anyone were to try to fulfill what I had thought about laws and constitutional government, now was the time to make the attempt. For if I could persuade just one man now, I should have achieved all manner of good. It was in such a mood and with such confidence that I set out for Sicily and not in the spirit that many have imagined me. And chiefly I was urged by a sense of shame in my own eyes that I should not always seem to myself a kind of argument pure and simple, never willing to set my hand to anything that was an action." Seventh Letter, lines 328d-329b.

******They are all equal, as the Meno tells us, with regard to the possibility of questioning and not forgetting – aletheia; the story of the different metals mixed with the souls of the differing classes is precisely – a lie.

*******Perhaps Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu had some of this spirit of Plato. Consider Clint Eastwood's wonderful film "Invictus."

1 comment:


THANKS! Now i fully understand. I'm taking up polsci subject this semester and this is a great help.

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