Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Four paths through the Republic's woods

This post is linked to the one on Polemarchus as a philosophical democrat here and is part of a series of reflections on how to read the Republic which I will post on over the next few weeks. The posts suppose the Republic to be much more ironic and humorous – importantly, a comedy in relation to much that is weak or bad in Athens (though no comedy about the death of Socrates) – than philosophers and scholars have thought.

It is perhaps easy to come to read the Laws with some suspicion. The Athenian Stranger is the one who escaped drinking the hemlock, the one whom the laws, conjured by Socrates in the Crito (line 54b-c), warn is not to be taken seriously either in Athens or “the place of the dead.” He is Socrates and not Socrates. But how did Plato expect his students to read the sometimes conflicting arguments of his character named Socrates? Did he perhaps invite the same Socratic questioning of, the same testing out of each argument?

Is the Republic (and are other dialogues) supposed to be read as a book which reveals truths simply (to be read the way we read a not very bright textbook) or is the purpose of a dialogue veiled, both from the point of view of figuring out a) what is true and b) what Plato thinks (two not necessarily coincident matters, since Plato, like Socrates, often does not know what is true)? Philosophy is, after all, searching for the truth through questioning; every argument fashioned is provisional in some important respects notably in relation to the interlocutor(s), can be seen anew, surpassed...

I should note: about the idea of the good, Plato offers only a beautiful metaphor (it is the sun in the noetic universe). What Plato figured out about it – see Jay Kennedy’s interesting work – and whether Pythagorean numbers, serious enough for Plato, cast very much more light on it might be doubted.* In fact, one might think with Socrates in the Apology that though one knows some specific and important things about acts that are just or about numbers, one still is better off than others only in this – that about the truth as a whole, one does not know nor does one think one knows...

Perhaps Plato encouraged his present and future students to look for flaws and interconnections in the way that one might hear Polemarchos leaping into the dialogue as a witness and pointing to the weaknesses of Thraymachus’s argument in book 1 (see line 340a-c and here). In the first book, as the last post demonstrated, Plato underlines the progress of Polemarchus from democratic war leader (his name) and bully to doing philosophy. This thought is deepened by looking across dialogues (again, something fairly rare among modern teachers of political thought; one of Strauss’s insights is to read many dialogues and to think about them, to some extent, in tandem), Thus, Socrates celebrates Polemarchus, by contrast with his brother the orator Lysias, in the Phaedrus.

Polemarchus drank the hemlock as a democrat, one of the 1500 put to death by another of Socrates’s students, Critias, for opposing/fighting the Tyranny of the Thirty. The image of the philosophical warrior democrat fighting for the democracy to defeat the tyranny is one possible lesson – one Heideggerian way through the woods of the dialogues – that a student might find as Plato’s student Demosthenes, murdered by Alexander’s minion Archias - and thus, indirectly by Alexander's advisor Aristotle - did.

Another way of reading the dialogue, just under the surface, for the aristocratic boys, from up the hill in Athens, the great military leaders Glaucon and Adeimantus, brothers of Plato, and sons of Ariston (the best), is to be hungry but to have their hunger curbed through sometimes philosophical speech. That is the apparent action of the dialogue (one might speak, in this respect, a la Strauss, of The Argument and Action of Plato’s Republic).** If Glaucon is not fully taught virtue in the dialogue, if there is no sign, in contrast to Polemarchus, that he turns toward philosophy, he is, nonetheless, interested in it, and becomes a man of virtue. He is not known historically outside of this dialogue and a brief account in Xenophon; he does not become a tyrant, as his hunger, faced with the austere city, the city of sows as he names it, suggests he might.

A third way, on the surface of the Republic and in the depths, is the notion, tempting to Plato and other aristocratic students of Socrates, of the philosopher-king. The philosopher king rules tyrannically if “wisely,” expelling everyone over 10 from the city, killing children born out of season a la Sparta, cleaning up the gods of Athens through censorship, and leading a lean warrior/athlete regime – a vision of the beautiful city, the kallipolis, a la Glaucon, the military leader. Whether this is a chimera which is meant to outlast the dialogue with Glaucon is unclear (that it is the utopia Plato aims for, however, though grasped in this way by Heidegger, Strauss and with less insight Popper, is even less clear). Still, this vision is undergirded by hidden writing in the Republic as I suggested in "Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?," Constellations, 2009, here.

For the best regime, that of philosophical rule, declines through three others to the worst tyranny. But everything was a circle for the Greeks. As I discovered in book 5 of the Politics following Strauss’s 1967 lectures as reported to me by Mike Goldfield who heard them, Aristotle offers the criticism that it would be perfect and a circle (kuklos) if a tyrant of a certain kind became a philosopher-king:

"Again as to tyranny he [Plato, Republic] does not say whether it will undergo revolution or not, nor, if it will, what will be the cause of it, and into what sort of constitution it will change; and the reason for this is that he would not have found it easy to say, for it is irregular; since according to him tyranny ought to change into the first and best constitution, for so the process would be continuous and a circle..."***

In addition, as Socrates points out, extremes are nearest one another. A philosopher, misled by bad friends and corrupted, goes very bad. In contrast, the average monarch will do nothing very good or very bad (one might wonder about Bush, who urged by Cheney, seems to have done in the rule of law in the United States; perhaps these Socratic phrases “misestimate” what bumbling can accomplish…). Nonetheless, for Socrates, the potential philosopher who goes bad will become a tyrant.

As Socrates puts it in the Republic, “consider we know it to be true of every growing thing, whether seedling or flesh, that when it is deprived of the food, climate, or location suitable to its growth, it will suffer the greater damage, the greater its inherent vigor. For evil is a greater enemy of the good than of the ordinary” (491d-e,564a). He also suggests that a potential philosopher is most easily corrupted (488-489c, 492, 572e-573). “Great crimes and systematic wickedness are not the products of half-hearted natures but of the vigorous ones who have been corrupted by their upbringing. Mediocrity will never attain to any great thing, good or evil.” For the careful or esoteric reader, Plato links the potential philosopher by implication to the tyrant: “then the qualities we assumed in the philosopher’s nature will necessarily thrive and mature in all excellence, provided he is properly taught. But if sowing, planting and germination take place in the wrong environment, the contrary outcome must be anticipated – unless some god comes to the rescue.”

Socrates suggests that his inner voice, his daimon, what we might gesture at by calling his conscience but he sees as a more robust guiding spirit, helped him to continue questioning, to ward off the temptations of corruption that seize those “philosophers” who sit at the doors of the rich (Thrasymachus, for example, who speaks because the aristocratic boys throw money at him).

This image of the philosopher-tyrant - or the philosopher who counsels a receptive tyrant - is the view of Martin Heidegger, pioneered in the mid-1920s and proclaimed in his 1943 The Essence of Truth: Plato’s Cave-Metaphor and the Theatetus as the essence of Nazism. It is the philosophers who become guardians, set all the rules for the tyrant:

“We must now see if what has been said can be verified from Plato’s own presentation. With this intention we turn to the final section of book VI of the Republic. In regard to the ‘state’ (as we somewhat inappropriately translate polis) and its inner possibility, Plato maintains as his first principle that the authentic guardians of human association in the unity of the polis must be those who philosophize. He does not mean that philosophy professors are to become chancellors of the state, but that philosophers are to become phylaches, guardians. Control and organization of the state is to be undertaken by philosophers, who set standards and rules in accordance with their widest and deepest, freely inquiring knowledge, thus determining the general course society should follow.(paragraph 13, p. 73 - h/t Tracy Strong). See here.

This is the view imbibed from Heidegger by Leo Strauss, who is, by his own posthumous account, an under-laborer for Heidegger’s great philosophical – and grotesque political - insights. See here. Though a Jew, Strauss’s Nazism came from taking a wrong way through the woods – one that Plato’s aristocratic students were to test and, he hoped, be able enough, to overcome – with Heidegger (Note Aristotle took a version of this path as did Al-Farabi; twentieth century Germany was particularly unlucky soil, as Socrates says in the Republic, to be reared with reactionary prejudices…).

Plato’s subtle method of teaching, however, left it to the student to decide. He himself was one of the aristocratic boys - the brothers Glaucon, Adeimantus and Plato, sons of the best - who were tempted to advise tyrants. Unlike Socrates, he had a three year misadventure with Dionysios the younger of Syracuse. As the Seventh Letter reveals, Plato best student, Dion, became the ruler, a potential philosopher-king though on behalf of laws, and was swiftly murdered by a false friend, Calippus. Here Socrates’s questioning with Polemarchus in book 1 of the Republic, about whether friends are true or not in politics – whether the leaders can tell their friends from their enemies - takes on a far darker significance.

The semblance from the Republic as well is that Plato was taken with philosopher- tyranny and Heidegger hints at this with references to the Seventh Letter in The Essence of Truth.

Yet this depiction pits Plato, as a would be philosopher-tyrant, against Socrates, the civil disobedient. Strauss, for example, offers an arcane account of Socrates through Xenophon and ignores civil disobedience. In effect, for Heidegger and Strauss, Socrates disappears in an image – a (mis)interpretation - of Plato (or Xenophon).

But this interpretation misses the obvious. Was Plato not more loyal to Socrates than this? Socrates had gone to his death, providing a pattern for later satyagraha or civil disobedience, with the laws of the democracy speaking to him as the Corybants, the participants in the Greek mystery-relgions of whom Socrates was one, hear the flutes. In the Apology, he is surprised by the nearness of the vote (shifting 30 votes out of 500 would have acquitted him)**** and suggests modifying the laws of Athens to be like those of other cities, for instance, permitting four days for a trial with a potential death sentence instead of one.

Other possibilities for reform in a democracy might suggest themselves to students and questioners over time. For instance, protection of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech for each person might prevent other cities from murdering their wise women and men…

As the Apology warns and as readers of the Crito need to bear in mind, the instrumental consequence of Socrates obeying the laws and going to his death was to discredit democracy - those very laws - for 2000 years…That Athens killed its wise man – that what is “popular” may sometimes be the Ku Klux Klan, McCarthy or anti-Arab bigotry – is the charge against the democratic city (of course tyrannies, as the Tyranny of the Thirty proved, often do at least as badly…).

These possibilities of reform all suggest a way that Athens, pretty much as it was, could have avoided this fate.***** Nothing here requires the rule of a philosopher-tyrant (the tyrant who becomes a philosopher-king and rules without laws) to achieve justice (technically, I might say, it would have achieved an important aspect of justice, the toleration of questioning or philosophy, since no actually existing political regime is simply or mainly just or incarnates "the" idea of justice; a "more perfect union," to put it in an American idiom, is worth fighting for over generations...).

But, further, the particular city in speech or kallipolis in the Republic is a) doubtfully just - it accords with the psyche of the general Glaucon and persuades him not to become a tyrant, but is, broadly speaking, the argument of a day with a particular interlocutor,****** and is b) without a causal mechanism (just who is to expel everyone over the age of 10, the little band of philosophers?).

In addition, the whole point of the philosopher “going down” is to defend philosophy and democracy against tyranny. Philosophy and democratic dissent (what is admirable in democracy, for instance, Henry David Thoreau against the slave-owners and their “laws” in “Civil Disobedience”) have the exact same root: questioning. Democracy is that city of cities, one of which is the small circle of philosophers, who, fashioning arguments daily, seeing their limitations, fashioning arguments anew, defend it against tyranny. See here, here and here.

This idea in the dialogues, incarnate in Socrates and Polemarchus, and also Chaerophon (see Aristophanes’s Clouds and the Apology) and Plato’s student Demosthenes, is a real, surprising and admirable alternative.

Here are four, mutually inconsistent paths, requiring questioning, difficult to sort through, in the Republic.

One further note on the error in Strauss's idea of hidden readings. On his line of thinking, a conflict between a masterful argument against tyranny and a coded and message: that a kind of tyrant becomes a philosopher-king and rules tyrannically, should be resolved in favor of the coded – and hence, not much argued – message. Perhaps that is sometimes true, on reflection, but it is neither obvious nor philosophical (it makes the reader a decoder of texts, not a thinker about them).

Put differently, on Strauss's reading, the Republic, the greatest indictment of tyranny ever written, is self-refuting. It suggests that a tyrant can become a wise or philosophical tyrant. This is elaborated in Xenophon’s Hiero, as Strauss shows in his first book in the United States (1948) and in book 5 of Aristotle’s Politics (where tyrants can become popular by ruling, a la Xenophon’s Simonides, for a common good). To see the paths in this striking work contradictory, the hidden one a putative refutation, without much argument, of the surface, I found rather sad.

But thinking about it further, I realized that there was no reason to accept the slightly veiled pointing toward philosopher tyranny and the Republic offers many resources – for instance, the development of Polemarchos as one who turns toward philosophy, the image of going down to protect the city, the question of where a neophyte Socrates or Plato would fit in the “city in speech,” and the question of whether the censorship of Greek culture, in fact, a response to Athens' charge against Socrates of disbelieving in the gods and so Plato, in this respect speaking ironically through the character, Socrates, sets out to clean them up, is to be taken seriously. Does one become a philosopher by having all possible experience taken away? Think of the Buddha story, roughly contemporaneous with Socrates 800 miles away, where Siddhartha's father attempts to protect him from seeing pain and aging...

I will take up the last two claims - whether there is a place for Plato in the city in speech, whether censorship even of the poet Plato is really a "directive" of the Republic - in the next posts.

For Plato, I would suggest, the aim of the Republic and the Laws especially was to inspire further questioning in his students who read it. That aim is a danger to those who hope to absorb the master’s teaching literally. Strauss and Heidegger read some hidden meanings cleverly but slavishly (for instance, that Polemarchus turns toward philosophy is also a hidden meaning...). But there is no reason to do so.

*The just man's happiness is said to be 729 times the tyrant's in the Republic. 729 is 9 to the power of 3 (or 3 to the power of 6). 9 is an extraordinary number (with powers to the sum of 9 or in the hundreds to 18 - thus, 9 to the power of 4 is 6561 or added 18; in addition, 9 to the power of 5 is 59, 049 or added 27; 9 to the power of 6 is 531, 441 or added 18...) whose powers form unusual, mirroring patterns. That the dialogues reflect numbers and music, structurally is probably true. But that we learn something about the idea of eudaimonia from these patterns needs to be argued...

That the dialogues reflect numbers and music structurally could also reveal a Pythagorean theory about the universe (the dialogues could, in this respect, imitate or be a microcosm of the Pythagorean universe). That would be a terrifically revealing point about the origins of mathematics and scientific understandings (about what brilliant people believed who discovered these things, who saw further and more deeply than the rest of us...). That it would actually reveal or mirror the idea of the good needs some further work.

**See Strauss’s last book, The Argument and the Action of Plato’s Laws (1973), an interesting account which, however, takes the words of the Athenian Stranger too much at face value and goes whole hog for censorship and attempting to make everyone “have the same passions, the same tastes.”

***I eventually got the lectures from Nathan Tarcov, the new director of the Struass archive at Regenstein, and found the following telling comment on Aristotle, Politics, 1316a27-32. In the Chicago transcript of his fall, 1967 course on the Politics (lecture XII), Strauss says of this passage:

"The last point is of course, especially interesting. Does it stop when it has reached the bottom? Tyranny. Or does it not by a kind of rejuvenation, almost miraculous rejuvenation, have a new kingship emerge out of the tyranny. The question is posed by Plato, but is not answered there."

The transcriber mishears “imposed.” The answer to the problem Plato “poses,” hinted at by Strauss’s comment, is that a tyrant becomes a “philosopher-king” – Strauss carefully says “king” for students and drops philosopher – who rules without laws.

This was Strauss’s core picture of Platonism/Xenophonism in practice.

****His daimon, his inner voice or guiding spirit, had suggested that he would die and not warned him to avoid this fate.

*****And even this was not Athens at the height of its democracy, tolerant of philosophy and of Socrates during his long life (70 years). It was a diminished Athens, 5 years after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War (the trial was in 399 BC), applying, unusually, a despicable and phony "law" against speaking ill of the gods for only the second time.

******Consider the different psyches, loves and visions suggested in Phaedrus; that this kallipolis is Glaucon's but not Socrates's - despite the obscure add on of the philosopher-king - will become more apparent. The divide here between what satisfies Glaucon and what Socrates sees is yawning. It resembles a little what satisfies Crito in the "laws" confused speech in Crito here and - what is more hidden - why Socrates goes to his death hearing them as the Corybants hear the flutes.

Perhaps what Socrates sees is a gleaming idea of justice to be taken up against tyranny in the here and now of Athens and which questions the accompaniment of the ostensibly "just" hierarchical city in speech.

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