PLATO I: Socrates
(These notes on Plato are drawn from my lecture course on tape. Please read the short dialogue, Laches)
Francis Bacon sarcastically summed up a major philosophical question in the first sentence of his essay “On Truth”: “What is truth,” asked jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” The cynical Bacon was, of course, citing a Scripture in which he had little belief and as part of his campaign to subvert all notions of truth in which Christians believed. For Bacon, truth was to be sought in a process of trial-and-error experimentation in which there were no preconceptions. This was to be the method of a pure scientific inquiry that, to my knowledge has never been used by any serious scientist and has certainly never born fruit.
The mere fact that scientists almost always begin with preconceptions, which are based in turn on the preconceptions of scientific thinkers stretching back in unbroken succession to the ancient Greeks, should suggest that truth is a bit more complex a problem than Bacon—or Descartes or Newton—might have imagined. Our English word “truth” is derived from a Germanic word suggesting a certain kind of honest and virtuous character, but the Greek word aletheia is from the same root as lethe—escaping attention, forgetting. The “a” is negative and so a-letheia is the quality of not escaping the mind or senses, that is, what is apparently real. Philosophically, a more accurate translation of aletheia or the Latin veritas is “reality.”
This is not a quibble over words but a distinction between subjective honesty and objective truth. A man may honestly believe that New York is the capital of the United States or that Lincoln waged war to free the slaves. In reality, neither belief is true. But is there such an objective reality? Much of Greek philosophy was taken up with the search for the existence and nature of reality.
By the Fifth century, one can discern three basic strains in Greek metaphysics: First, the materialist strain. Anaxagoras and later Democritus sought explanation for phenomena in purely natural phenomena. Others, especially in Sicily and Italy, persisted in a more mystical approach. Finally, there is the tendency represented by Heraclitus, who made the fire or the Logos—more or less the same thing—the arche or basic element.
Heraclitus thought the universe was governed by a kind of mathematical proportion in which some portion of fire was equivalent to everything else. Perhaps his greatest significance for the later 5th century is Heraclitus’ emphasis on human ignorance and the significance of sense-perception in the world, or, to use the bad grammar of a more recent thinker “in the ever-changing world we live in.” The world of experience is an everflowing and everchanging river in which there are few if any logs or overhanging branches to catch hold of. While there is little evidence that Heraclitus was a moral relativist, it is easy to see how such an approach could lead itself easily to skepticism, the denial of the possibility of perfect knowledge.
Similarly, the materialism of Anaxogras could easily lead to religious skepticism, but all these lines of speculation, if taken up by cynical amateurs, might lead to the conclusion that whatever absolute truth was—if it did exist—it had little relevance for everyday life. That was certainly the line of argument pursued by the rhetorical teachers and amateur thinkers who were known as the sophists or wiseguys. Protagoras and Gorgias, along with their disciples and colleagues, challenged the existence of the gods and undermined tradition—though it is important to acknowledge that Protagoras undoubtedly defended the traditional view of the virtues taught by Greek poets.
It was these sophistic arguments that Socrates, an Athenian stone-cutter turned philosopher, spent his life rebutting, albeit by using the very techniques employed by the sophists and thus exposing himself to the same criticisms they incurred.
Most of what we know of Socrates, who wrote nothing and did not seem to trust the written word, comes from two students: Plato the brilliant philosopher and Xenophon, soldier and historian. The portraits are naturally in conflict—Xenophon seems him more as a practical moralist and public-spirited citizen, while Plato treats him as the author of his own systematic philosophy. Where they overlap, however, we are fairly sure grounds. Born about 470, the son of a sculptor, Socrates, according to Plato, took an interest in the Ionian philosopher Anaxagoras, who had argued that nous was the central principle. He lost interest when he discovered that Anaxagoras did not follow up on this insight and was content with purely material explanations.
Unlike the deracinated Sophists who wandered from town to town, Socrates was, in many respects, a normal Athenian and participated in civic life and in army—battles. Aristotle pointed out the principal significance of Socrates: he turned away from speculations about nature and the universe and devoted himself to ta ethika—the things of human character and behavior: morals, politics. As Cicero later put it, he took philosophy down from the sky and made it dwell in ordinary houses—a clever remark, considering the critique of Aristophanes that Socrates had his head in the clouds.
Like the sophists, Socrates was a critic of tradition and convention. His methods are probably those of Plato’s Socrates in the early dialogues. He ridiculed those who professed to have specialized knowledge—poets, rhetores, soldiers, statesmen—and subjected their arguments to ruthless logical scrutiny until, in the end, the expert confesses he has no idea of anything. Plato’s Socrates ends up proposing a theory of absolute reality and unchanging principles, which human customs and norms reflect imperfectly, and perhaps Socrates, under the influence of Pythagoras and Parmenides did hold such a view. Nonetheless, such negative criticism is obviously a dangerous technique since most students are only to happy to hear that everything their parents and preachers have told them is ignorant bunk.
Aristophanes may have written the Clouds only in jest—as Plato would like us to believe—but the conservative comic poet may well have been alarmed by a fellow-citizen, a real Athenian, who was using arguments that might have been borrowed from those exotic foreign sophists who were undermining the morals of the youth. When an impoverished debtor sends his son to study with Socrates at his famous Phrontisterion—the Think Tank—where he learns how to argue his way out of anything—the kid learns how to make the inferior and untrue argument prevail over the better and true one. He even proves to his father that he is justified in beating the old man, and when he goes off with the intention of giving his mother the same treatment, the horrified father burns down the Think Tank with the professors in it (as a few scholars though not most believe).
In 399, Socrates was accused of atheism, of introducing new gods, and of corrupting the young. Despite an eloquent defense, he was convicted by a narrow margin. The normal sentence was death, but the condemned man had the opportunity to propose a less grisly alternative, such as exile or fines. Socrates, however, insisting on his own innocence and on the benefits he had conferred upon the city, suggested that he be feasted at public expense as if he were an Olympic victor. The vote for death, not unexpectedly, was by a much wider margin than the original conviction.
Friday, February 24, 2006
Plato II: Socrates Refuting Sophistry
posted by Thomas_Fleming at 13:15
The early Socratic dialogues composed by Plato can serve as a good introduction to Socrates’ dialectic: the Lysis, which discusses friendship; the Laches, which treats of courage, and the Euthyphro a work that takes up piety but also introduces the trial of Socrates.
Before taking up these dialogues individually, I should summarize the method. In each, Socrates confronts a group of friends—or in the case of the Euthyphro a single friend—and the conversation turns on some specific question such as: “What is the best method of wooing a handsome young man?” “Is running in armor a good exercise for future soldiers?” “Is it right to prosecute one’s father for murder.” After some initial chaffing that lures the reader into thinking he is reading a short story, Socrates spoils the fun by revealing that each of these questions presupposes a more fundamental one on the nature, respectively, of friendship, courage, and piety.
In all the early dialogues we meet with roughly the same kind of argument. In the first place, there is the overall dialectic: take the point apart and argue the aspects separately until contradictory conclusions are reached. That is the point of aporia—a situation of helplessness—that forces all the participants and, of course, the reader to realize that he does not really understand the issue at all.
How does Socrates win his case? First, by luring his interlocutors into agreeing that any quality such as courage or piety, no matter how diverse the expressions it takes, is a unity. Thus one should not speak of apparently courageous or pious acts until one has determined what capital-C courage and capital-P piety are. Secondly, he lures his victims into accepting the idea that any scale of better or worse, more or less virtuous corresponds to such numerical scales as bigger and smaller, and in such cases there must be absolute yardstick, as there is in measurement. Finally, he also introduces the notion that the purpose of an action is more important than the action itself—this is usually put in the form of a distinction between a what and a for the sake of what.
The Laches is perhaps the clearest example of how it works, and a very charming piece of literature. Lysimachus and Melesias are discussing how to rear their sons and not make the same mistake their illustrious fathers made, who were great patriots but neglected their offspring. [Melesias is son of that Thucydides son of Melesias who was leader of the aristocrats in Athens]. The argument turns on whether the exercise of running in armor is valuable, and they invite two military heroes, Nicias and Laches, to offer their advice. When the generals have a difference of opinion, they turn to Socrates who shows them that since they are really talking about how to make young men courageous, they must first determine who has the expertise in such a matter Socrates, because of his military record, is judged worthy as an expert. Then, there is the matter of the subject. It is obviously a virtue (arête), and the virtue in particular must be courage: andreia.
Socrates begins by quizzing Laches on what the common quality is of all courageous actions. His answer, “endurance,” is inadequate, because some forms of endurance are cowardly and foolish, and knowledge is indispensable to courage. On the other hand, the calculating man who knows he will win can hardly be more courageous than the foolhardy man who resolves to risk everything. So we have reached our first impasse.
Nicias thinks he has the answer from something Socrates has said in the past: Every man is good in that he is wise, thus courage is a form of wisdom: the knowledge of hope and fear, as Socrates phrases it. Thus no animal could be courageous, because they lack understanding. But Socrates reverts to his earlier statement that courage must be one of the parts of virtue—along with temperance, justice, etc. But if courage is a form of knowledge, namely of what is to be hoped and feared, it must be comprehensive and not limited only to the future, as Nicias proposed. This must be true because in any other science, e.g. medicine, the scope is not limited by time. In this sense, though, complete knowledge of all things to be feared and hoped—including the supernatural—is the whole of virtue, not merely the part of it that is courage. The only thing the group can agree on is that the two fathers should listen to Socrates and not to Nicias or Laches.
The Lysis proceeds according to a similar scheme, this time through an analysis of friendship. More interesting, perhaps, is the Euthyphro. The scene is laid in Athens at the beginning of the fourth century B.C. The philosopher has come to the basileios stoa in connection with a suit that has been lodged against him. He is accused of teaching atheism (and/or religious innovation) and of corrupting the young. He meets a young acquaintance, who asks what business takes him to the court, and when Socrates (the philosopher facing a trial) ironically praises his accuser as a man who knows enough about politics to start at the right end—with the education of the children—Euthyphro (for that is the young friend’s name) misses the joke and declares that in accusing Socrates (the indicted philosopher), the politician Meletus is destroying the city “from the hearth,” that is, by attacking the very center of civil life.
Young Euthyphro’s court business turns out to be even more curious than the prosecution that will cost Socrates his life; he is prosecuting his own father for homicide. Since homicide prosecutions at Athens had to be instigated by private individuals, generally by the victim’s relatives, Socrates tries to find out what connection there was between Euthyphro and the victim. The young man responds by mocking the philosopher, insisting that the gods do not make such distinctions. The pious young man, who is all for a strict interpretation of the law, is (like the gods) no respecter of persons, though, as it happens, there are, circumstances that mitigate the father’s guilt. A servant, it seems, had killed a slave, and Euthyphro’s father had tied up and neglected the guilty party until he could receive official instructions. In the meantime, the murderer died. None of this carries any weight with a young man convinced of his own righteousness.
The rest of the conversation turns on the question of piety, and it is hard to miss the connection between Socrates’ accuser and Euthyphro. Both of them assume that they know what is right and best for the city, and both are in fact destroying the city “from the hearth”: Meletus, in the metaphorical sense that in prosecuting an honest moral philosopher, he is undermining justice, which is the foundation of civil life, while young Euthyphro is literally attacking his own household in the person of his father.
This is the basic matter of the dialogue, at least as I choose to interpret it, but Plato’s point here is not to defend Socrates or ridicule Euthyphro or even Meletus. By the end of his career Plato might even repudiate every single positive point he seems to be suggesting. The point of the dialogue lies in the technique. Let us look more carefully. Once again, we begin with a superficial question—whether it is right to prosecute a father—and Socrates quickly forces Euthyphro to concede that what is at stake is the definition of piety, not just of this or that pious act. Euthyphro, who claims to be an expert, is confident, but the best the can do is his statement that piety is what pleases the gods. Socrates makes short work of that notion by pointing out that E. also accepts the traditional stories of gods fighting each other. Thus there cannot be unanimity.
Socrates then turns to the chicken-and-egg question. Do the gods love holy actions or are actions holy simply because the gods love them? In parallel cases, he points out, we love things because they are lovable—we don’t make them lovable by loving them. In agreeing, Euthyphro concedes his entire point, since he has to concede that holiness does not depend upon what pleases the gods. A better reasoner might have answered Socrates that surely it is in the divine nature only to love what is worthy of being loved, thus his distinction is meaningless, but Euthyphro’s theology is too primitive for that—and perhaps that is the point of Socrates’ argument.
The two then take up the line that holiness is an aspect of justice, namely doing what is right by the gods—sacrifice and prayer. But what do the gods need from men, asks Socrates? Well, says Euthyphro: the gods like these things—honor, praise, etc. But then the holy is what pleases the gods, and that hypothesis has already been refuted. Euthyphro resists Socrates’ invitation to start over again—gotta run.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible to judge Socrates, who left nothing in writing. Most scholars have judged him by his students—and that seems fair enough—but they have limited themselves largely to Plato, who is, admittedly, the most brilliant philosopher who has ever written. There were other students, though, for example Xenophon. A fine man and good soldier but who through his friendship with Spartans found himself fighting with the Spartans against his own city—not exactly a model Athenian. Then there was Xenophon’s comrade-in-arms, Meno the Thessallian, whom Xenophon describes as crafty, greedy, and treacherous beyond all men.
Socrates’ closet comrade was Alcibiades, and what a patriot he turned out to be. Then there were his two most infamous disciples: Plato’s uncles, Critias and Charmides. It was his harsh critique of democracy and his close association with the enemies of democracy that brought Socrates into such disfavor after the overthrow of the 30 that his accusers were able to make their case against him.
Among the accusers was Anytus, one of the democratic leaders who had fortified Phylae. As Socrates points out, he could not be accused of having consorted with the 30—that was forbidden—so he was tried on what the philosopher viewed as trumped up charges. Then again perhaps not.
The trial and execution of Socrates is routinely compared with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Both, after all, attempted to reform the religious and moral order of their respective peoples; both acted from what they believed to be divine inspiration; both spoke out boldly and made enemies and ran afoul of establishments; both met their death bravely and willingly. Many Christians do not much like the comparison, with good reason, but others have seen nothing harmful in viewing Socrates as a pagan anticipation of Christ, one of those men sent to revive moral and spiritual traditions that had become corrupt.
There are, however, important differences—not the least of which is that Christ believed himself to be the son of God, while Socrates’ only supernatural claim was the divine voice he heard occasionally, warning him of moral dangers. Jesus consorted with lowest classes, came to save the world, while Socrates was an elitist who despised the ignorance of everyone. One might also contrast Christ’s positive message of love that transcended rules of Jewish tradition with Socrates’ negative critique of all existing forms of wisdom
I’ve always believed the Athenians were justified in executing the teacher of cynics, rebels, and traitors, but that is another matter. What Socrates accomplished was to take the insights of his predecessors, Parmenides in particular, and pave the way for the creation of systematic moral philosophy.
Plato on Justice III A
posted by Thomas_Fleming at 17:36
To understand Plato’s political and social theories, it helps to know a little about his background. He was born in Athens probably shortly after 430. His family was distinguished on both sides. He was related to the family of Solon the lawgiver as well as to Critias and Charmides who led the 30 “tyrants”. He wrote poetry and the hostility to the poets he expresses in the Republic was later attributed to his failure as a composer of tragedies, but this story has the usual false air of ancient biography. He probably transferred his literary/intellectual ambitions to philosophy under the influence of his mentor Socrates.
It is certainly true that his dialogues are perhaps the most beautifully written Greek prose of any period and the conversations and character portraits are as good as those of any play or novel. Even if all of Plato’s teachings were to be rejected, he would still be read as a literary master, and that can be said of no other important or original philosopher. Only Cicero comes close as a writer, but he was not an original thinker. David Hume produced a literary masterpiece but it was not philosophical but his great History of England, still worth reading today.
Perhaps under Socrates’ influence, Plato had political ambitions but, as he said in the 7th letter (if it is genuine) he gave those up in disgust when the Athenian democracy put Socrates to death in 399. With some of the other students, he left Athens for Megara after the master’s death. Megara was a center of Socratic interest, and it is important to note that the Megarian philosophers emphasized the skeptical side of Socrates. Eucleides, the head of the Megarian school, befriended Plato. Although know all too little of Eucleides, he is said to have embraced the certain features of the Eleatic School: Parmenides and Zeno. He was a stern monist who taught that goodness was One, and he also was a keen student of logical discourse—as Socrates had been—and without arguing with an opponent’s premise, he showed the absurdity of the conclusions drawn from it. This eristic technique is by no means inconsistent with the style of Parmenides’ student Zeno, author of the famous paradoxes, but he would also have learned the technique from Socrates himself. Was Eucleides also a conduit of Eleatic ideas for Plato? Perhaps.
Plato probably traveled widely in the following decade. We do know that he visited Sicly in 387, where he met the tyrant Dionysius I and made friends with Dion, a distinguished statesman who would come to a bad end, and with Archytas of Tarentum, a leading Pythagorean philosopher. A story is told that on returning from Sicily, his ship was captured by pirates and he had to be ransomed out of captivity. It was then about 385 that he set about his life’s work: his teaching in the grove of Akademos, which lay about a mile beyond the walls of Athens.
Although the primary training Plato instituted in the Academy was in his logical method of dialectics, in mathematics, and science, many of his students went on to become statesmen, which—given Plato’s lifelong interest in politics—may have been the primary objective of the school. In his later years, Plato lectured on his more secret doctrines—an abstract account of the universe that probably has much in common with the Timaeus. While this more Pythagorean approach thrilled some students—one of whom is supposed to have committed suicide so he could verify the theory in the next world—it apparently annoyed students interested in more practical matters.
Plato must have been a somewhat overbearing teacher. He disliked and virtually drove away the most brilliant scientist who attended his lectures, Eudoxus of Cnidos, who made important contributions to mathematics and science. Plato’s greatest student was, of course, Aristotle, and although the stories told of a quarrel between master and student are probably false, it is true that Aristotle began setting up his own school during one of Plato’s prolonged absences and that many of Aristotle’s most important ideas in metaphysics, ethics, and politics do not merely extend Plato’s thought: they explicitly reject it.
While he was working at the Academy, Plato was, of course, also writing the philosophical works that have made him the most important single philosopher of all time: his version of Socrates’ Apologia (defense speech), 25 dialogues, and 13 letters some of which are probably genuine.
We do not know when Plato began writing or even the relative chronology of his works. However, the evidence of style and argument have suggested a breakdown into Early, Middle, and Late dialogues. The early dialogues display Socrates’ characteristic methods: Break down conventional opinions by taking them apart and showing that they lead to positions that contradict each other and a logical dead end—aporia.
In dialogues of The Middle Period, great works like the Phaedo and the Republic, the focus shifts. Often the dialogue is framed by an introduction in which a conversation is recalled, and instead of reaching a dead end, the interlocutors are lead to agree on the necessity of an absolute form or model for virtue or courage, one that is beyond this realm of change and motion and sense-impressions, and, we discover, these forms or ideas turn out to be not only realer than their counterparts in this world, but the only actual reality that exists. The things in our world are mere imitations, and artworks are particularly valueless because the characters of a tragedy, for example, are imitations of imitations.
In the Late Period—dialogues such as Parmenides and Theaetutus—Plato abandons his entire effort to entertain the reader, study character, and construct believable effective dialogues. We are long beyond the historical Socrates, who often slips from view, and Plato embarks on a devastating critique of the very theories he had adopted in the Middle dialogues. It was these works that gave rise to the later Academy’s obsession with skepticism and doubt of all certainty. More and more, it seems, Plato was led to abandon certainty and to trust only reason itself, the vital and living logos through which men might hope to approach an ever elusive and receding reality.
Plato, although he is not primarily a moral or political philosopher, wrestled with such questions throughout his career. In the Gorgias and Protagoras he shows us a Socrates analyzing with questions of justice and virtue. In each case, the argument is framed as part of a discussion of the usefulness of the two main rivals of philosophers—the sophists and the rhetoricians, though the line between the two is quite blurred.
In the Protagoras Plato shows that Protagoras’ subjective defense of the conventional morality of the poets is inadequate and points to the need for a more perfect and abstract understanding of virtue per se, as opposed to all the particular virtues of prudence, justice,, courage, in which the Greeks believed. Such a process of values clarification requires (as Socrates usually argues) a standard, a measuring-stick by which we can measure higher and lower.
Plato’s early dialogues, as I have explained, are aporetic in that they lead to an unresolvable dilemma. In the middle dialogues, he tries to find the solution in a theory of abstract forms. In the case of the virtues, each particular virtue displayed in the world would be an imitation of the perfect form or idea of that virtue, while the most perfect form of all is the form of virtue itself. The best articulation of this theory is found in the Phaedo, which describes the death of Socrates, but we also find it in Republic V , where Plato’s Socrates argues that the true guardians must be philosophers who aim at perfect wisdom. He must understand what are the fair and the honorable, the opposites of the ugly and base, the just and unjust, the good and the bad “and all the ideas or forms: each of these is one in itself but by sharing and participating in bodies and their actions they present the appearance of multiplicity or diversity.
Justice A: Gorgias
Before taking up Plato’s political theories, we should look at the questions of justice he poses in the Gorgias and the Republic. Although Gorgias is one of the most literarily brilliant dialogues. I’ll limit my remarks to the treatment of justice. Gorgias, the great sophist and rhetor, has come to Athens to teach. Socrates arrives too late for Gorgias’ lecture but he is able to question Gorgias and two of his followers, Polus and Callicles, first on the utility of rhetoric—which Socrates pronounces worthless—and on the nature of justice. Socrates dispenses with rhetoric as a false art, not based on true knowledge, and used to deceive stupid people.
Gorgias’ students maintain that rhetoric is the supreme value because the orator can use his skill to gain power, wealth, and prestige which give him the freedom to do as he pleases. Polus, whose character has not been entirely ruined, recites his lessons without understanding fully what he is saying, and he is easily tricked by Socrates into agreeing that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it, thus the pursuit of power for personal ends is both degrading and ultimately harmful to the politician. The method is already familiar to readers of the early dialogues: Every thing we do is usually for a purpose that is more important than the action itself: We eat to nourish our bodies, walk in order to get somewhere, etc. Thus if a politician uses his power to kill or banish someone, it is because he thinks it is good for himself, but it what he does harms himself, then acts in ignorance and does not have real power. This is true both if is punished for his injustice, which Socrates says is better, and if he goes unpunished, because the infliction of a just punishment improves the mind or character of the criminal. Thus the Macedonian usurper Archelaus, whom Polus had begun by citing as an example of supreme happiness, is actually supremely unhappy, and it is our duty to a friend or kinsman, if he is behaving unjustly, to bring him to justice.
At this point, the conversation is interrupted by Callicles who wonders if this is some kind of joke. He then proceeds to put forward in a crude form the argument that Thrasymachus will use in the Republic: Justice is not a convention, defined by the weaklings who rely on religion or tradition. It is a fact of nature displayed in the exercise of power by the strong.
Callicles is not impressed when Socrates shows him that the servile majority can be stronger, because of their numbers than a strong intelligent man. That is stupid, he says, I am talking about real power as exercised by educated and competent aristocrats like me. Socrates expresses joy that he has found the ultimate antagonist, because, he says, if he can convince Callicles, there is no one he cannot convince.
Socrates offers a conventional Greek argument that the man who controls himself and limits his appetites is superior to the man of uncontrolled passion. Not so, says Callicles. A real man is the one with the largest appetites to satisfy and one who has the power to satisfy them. All talk of moral restraint comes from weaklings. The source of some of Nietzsche’s zanier thoughts on the will to power derive from Callicles.
Going round Robin’s barn, Socrates condemns rhetoric as no better than poetry: a means of entertaining, flattering, and degrading the mob. Orators have always been of this type, though Callicles tries to defend great statesmen of the past. But if Pericles had made Athenians better, then why did they turn on him—and on Miltiades and Cimon? Conviently for us, Socrates recaps his argument [506c-507a]: what pleases us is different from the good, thus we should do what is pleasant for the sake of the good, not vice versa. The good is such because of some quality of excellence, and this is due at least in part to right order, thus the good soul is the orderly soul, that is to say, the temperate soul.
What Plato does not appear to grasp is that the virtue of temperance is a “given” of Greek, not other cultures, one that has been taught by the religion, poetry, and traditions he is undermining. Nonetheless, this traditional view, subjected to his dialectic, leads to the conclusion that it is better to suffer injustice than to inflict it, because unjust acts disorder the soul. Callicles and the men he admires are not true statesmen, because in order to flatter the mob they must become like the mob, while a true statesman would educate them and make them better.
Callicles follows the argument without difficulty but rejects the conclusions. He warns Socrates that a man who goes around annoying everyone and despising the heroes of Athens’ past may find himself on trial. He has said from the beginning that philosophy was fine in moderation so long as it did not blind the student to the reality, which is that power over others is indispensable to happiness. Socrates cannot actually refute this argument except by recourse to a religious myth that good and evil receive their reward not here on earth but in the hereafter. Why Plato thinks his version of these Sicilian stories will impress people who have given up their own religion, I cannot say, but in the Republic, he goes still further in making up his own religion, telling the story of Er as an explanation of reincarnation. No one has swallowed the myth of Er as a true story, but Plato had better luck with the myth of Atlantis he concocted in other later dialogues.
Monday, March 13, 2006
Plato IV Justice B
posted by Thomas_Fleming at 12:17
Plato’s Republic is ostensibly a treatise on the ideal commonwealth, but it is framed by a discussion of justice triggered by a rich old man’s reflection that wealth is only beneficial to a good man who lives a pious and just life. The rich old man is the metic (resident alien) Cephalus, a friend of Socrates and the father of the great orator Lysias. “But what is justice?” asks Socrates. It is surely not the conventional view that it consists in telling the truth and giving back what one owes. After all, a madman bent on suicide should not be told the truth nor should one give him back a weapon. Cephalus’ son Polemarchus breaks in, quoting the poet Simonides that justice is rendering each man his due. And we’re off on a discussion of justice that takes up the first two books.
Polemarchus takes the conventional view that by “due” Simonides meant good to friends, evil to enemies. Socrates wonders if justice is like an art, and if it is, what is its object? Most arts can be used defensively or offensively in which case the just man would be good at keeping property but also at stealing. Back to the drawing board.
If justice is rendering good to friends, evil to enemies, what happens if you mistake an good man as an enemy and harm him? Surely, that is not justice? Simonides must have meant helping friends who are defined as the good. At this point Thrasymachus breaks in to ridicule the entire proceedings, behaving even worse than Callicles had done. The historical Thrasymachus was an important orator and rhetorical theorist, and it is quite possible that Plato is being deliberately unfair in order to denigrate the entire rhetorical tradition.
Thrasymachus offers a definition of justice that would have pleased Plato’s kinsman Critias: justice is whatever serves the interest of the strong who rule over the weak. Prodded by Socrates, who asks if rulers do not sometimes act in ways that harm themselves, Thrasymachus revises his definition: Rulers, when they are truly rulers, do not make mistakes any more than a physician qua physician makes mistake. But, says Socrates, practitioners of a craft like medicine are not working in their own interest but in the interest of the patient, thus rulers practice their craft for the benfit of their subjects. Pish posh, retorts Thrasymachus, a ruler is more like a shepherd who raises and fattens his sheep for the slaughter.
Plato then has Socrates drive Thrasymachus from the field by showing that injustice is a source of weakness to the community and ends up destroying the ruler. Ultimately, he says, the unjust are miserable and only the just are happy. Thrasymachus leaves, but even Socrates disciples Glaucon and Adeimantus are dissatisfied and play devil’s advocate, taking up Thrasymachus’ argument, which they do not in fact accept, and forcing Socrates to provide a better refutation.
Their case boils down to a kind of Hobbesian social contract theory: living unjustly is a natural good and suffering injustice is a natural evil, but the evil so outweighs the good that men got together to form governments to prevent injustice. This does not mean that injustice is per se bad, only that most men are too weak to get away with being unjust. If you could choose what you wanted to be, whether perfectly and successfully just or injust, one would naturally choose the latter. Thus justice is not a good per se, but only good in a consequential sense. It is up to Socrates to demonstrate that justice is good in itself, not merely a useful fiction that allows us to live in safety.
To prove that justice is inherently good, Socrates has recourse to an analogy. It is easier, he says, to study something large, whose parts can be analyzed, than something small, and since justice in the city and justice in the individual are the same—a highly dubious proposition—it seems to me—he proceeds to sketch out the outline of a just republic.
Let us pause to examine this principle contention: that in a just city, everyone will do his own job and mind his own business without interfering in the business of others. What are these businesses? The lowest class have to do with producing food and serving the appetites, furnishing useful items like shoes, buying and selling; the middle class consists of the guardians who defend the state in war, while the highest class are those select guardians who are charged with governing the city. Minding other people’s business is always an injustice, but the greatest injustice is for non-guardians, farmers or businessmen, to interfere in the business of the guardians. Of course, that is almost the definition of democracy.
Finally in Book IV he brings the argument round to the individual. These three classes correspond to three aspects of the soul: appetite (corresponding to the lower class that serves the appetites), energy (corresponding to the soldier-guardians), and reason (corresponding to the ruling class. So long as a man maintains a proper mental and spiritual hierarchy, he is just. Justice in the soul is therefore the condition that corresponds to health in the body.
Socrates’ interlocutors seem content with what appears to be an entirely subjectivist view of justice. The truly rational man who dominates his will and whose will dominates his appetites will then be incapable of injustice. This view accords well with Socrates’ general approach to evil, namely, that it is a mistake, but it is unsatisfactory on many grounds. First, no such just men have ever appeared—let us say Christ and Socrates excepted, and so it is as utopian a view as Lawrence Kolhlberg’s theory of moral development. Second, it is completely impractical: What sort of criminal justice system could be based on this definition? (This objection would not deter Plato). Finally, although Plato seems to deal with character, the insistence on pure reason trivializes human nature and its needs. Aristotle was much closer to the truth in saying that the virtues are states of character that represent the sum total of our habits.
In developing his metaphor of justice, the ideal commonwealth, Plato is led to reject most of the props of Greek moral, social, and cultural life. His guardians will not hold private property or experience marriage or family life even to the degree the Spartans did. And as for the poets that produced the glories of Athenian tragedy, comedy, and choral lyric, they are banished. On the face of it, it seems insane. And it is, far more insane than it may seem, but before examining the details of the Republic and its more moderate version the Laws, we should first ask ourselves how a brilliant philosopher could so indulge his own fancy that he constructed so counter-intuitive a model: Even as a blueprint for Utopia, the Republic is absurd. The short answer is that the same quality of mind that drove Plato to seek perfect truth either in the form of his ideas or as numbers tricked him into thinking that the same method could be applied to ordinary human life.
To see his method in action, let us turn to a pair of dialogues that are probably later than the Republic: The Sophist and the Politicus (Statesman). In these works Plato has turned away from most of the methods of his dialectic, and concentrates on only one mode of analysis: the subdivision of categories. Now there is nothing inherently wrong in dividing up phenomena into families, classes and subclasses and subsubclasses. That is, after all, what Linnaeus did in organizing the scala naturae. The trick is to be sure that the differentiae—the distinguishing characteristics—are essential distinctions and not accidental or trivial differences. For example, in defining man, we could, working backwards, describe him as 1)a member of the group Homo, which belongs to 2) the primates, which are 3) mammals, which are 4) vertebrates, 5) animals, which are 6) living things as opposed to inanimate objects. This is crude stuff but roughly puts man in his place.
But what if we started with non-essential characteristics like walking on two legs. In which case we might begin by putting him in a class of featherless bipeds. Or if we started with intelligence, we might (if we believed in AI) lump him with the thinking machines. One small mistake in the beginning would lead, rather quickly, to a major misunderstanding.
In the Sophistes and Politicus, a stranger leads the student through a long series of subdivisions to define first the sophist and second the statesman. Even Plato knows that the method could be very tedious, and he confesses as much in the Politicus. But the Politicus is more than a dialectical exercise: It is a work that shows us the bent of Plato’s mind when it is at work on moral and political questions. The question he poses is simple: What is the true statesman. The first task is that he lumps the wielders of authority together—statesman, king, master of slaves, master of the house. [258 e] This is an important point, which Aristotle would later take exception to. Plato’s point is that authority may take different forms but it is essentially one thing.
The exercise of power is an art or science and thus can be divided into the operational or directive part and the critical part. He then moves on to an incredibly tedious subdivision of all forms of authority—over living/non-living, etc. Political science turns out to be care of the human class of the bipedal group, but not the kind of care that looks out for food and shelter. Plato has recourse to a myth, as he so often does, that the universal cycles have reversed direction. [271d-272b] In the previous cycle, man lived in a golden age when he was governed by a perfect and divine ruler who is the model for all good rulers. When our misbehavior caused the god to withdraw, we became weak, preyed upon by wild beasts. It was at that point that the gods gave us the gifts of fire, agriculture, etc.
Since the god-king is the model statesman, it is important to understand the extent and nature of his rule, and we are off and running on another set of subdivisions and metaphors. The Stranger takes weaving as the example and introduces the familiar notion that to judge the quality of work we need a standard. This means going back to an argument in the Sophist, where Plato proved—and a very important point it is—that non-being, as such, can exist, despite Parmenides’ famous argument. Thus we have a scale of measure running between, let us say, too-much and not-enough and a perfect measure that is the due measure.
Now the Stranger is able to run through the list of things and creatures that can be governed and made to serve a purpose. Going from carriages to domestic animals to humans, he lists first slaves and then free employees. Such men who sell their labor in the market place, says the young student, “Would never dare to claim any share in the art of ruling.” [290a]. Listing people who do make such a claim—civil servants, priests, soothsayers (all which can be dismissed) he comes again to the queer tribe of the sophists (today they would be pundits and poli sci professors), wizards and impersonators of power who must be set aside if we are to find the true ruler.
Plato now introduces the three types of constitution—rule of the one, the few, the many—which exist in both good and bad forms. A good rule of one we call monarchy, because it is consistent with principles of justice, but a bad one a tyranny; similarly we distinguish between aristocracy and oligarchy. Significantly, there is only one word for democracy, good and bad. Is any of these a true constitution? To decide, we have to remember that we have already listed ruling as one of the sciences—this is an important concession, and the place where young Socrates the student might jump in and say, but wait, is it a purely theoretical science like geometry or one that mixes abstract theory with human reality, like carpentry or dress-making. In treating politics and ethics as abstract sciences—as he always does—Plato makes a fundamental and fatal mistake.
Now, since political rule is one of the greatest and most difficult arts, it necessarily follows that few men are capable of learning it—not more than 2 or three out of 10,000. So much for democracy or even aristocracy. But not so fast. Even if political rule were an abstract and technical art, we have not yet established that human beings are of such a nature that they can be successfully ruled by an absolute force. Consider some parallels. Man is master of the beasts and when man has a dog or horse to train, he has the right to impose his will any way he likes, but we all know that certain breeds of dogs and horses require delicate handling, and if broken by force become much less valuable. Suppose mankind or part of mankind were of that type. We also know that ants and bees are entirely social insects—in some cases they are virtually clones and thus genetically identical; other beasts are herd animals like deer; while still others form pairs or small polygenous families. To rule lions is quite different from ruling termites or even cattle.
In other words, to know how to rule men, one would first—Oh Socrates—have to know what sort of a creature man is. From what one can observe, we know that men define themselves by competition for power and prestige, on the one hand, and by the loyalties and affections they experience within their families. It would be entirely unrealistic for the ruler to deny or to interfere in family life, but equally absurd to think he can deny human primates any control over their own lives and any access to the competition for power. Democracy may be as absurd and dangerous as Plato claims, but certain elements of democracy—personal and familial autonomy, opportunities for competition, the sense of belong to and having a stake in the commonwealth—are a necessity.
Back to Politicus. The legislator’s job is to make general rules; he cannot devise laws to cover every individual. Thus he—or a wise successor—should not be prevented from making whatever changes he likes to improve the system, and Greek states are wrong to pass laws that forbid such tinkering. On what basis should he makes these changes? Surely not in response to popular demand or even to fulfill the legal/constitutional system. No the true ruler should be free of all constraints in making rules for the benefit of society. Plato must have been thinking about the 9 Wisemen of the US Supreme Court.
To explain how we got into the political mess that Athens and the US are in, Plato imagines that people grow to resent, perhaps rightly, the arbitrary actions of a ruler, whom they overthrow. At this point, they have to make agreements not to injure each other and out of this social contract emerges a society that is increasingly degenerate, electing or choosing by lot the annual officials obeying written laws which do not really fit all circumstances. Imagine if games were conducted this way—choosing the players by lot or electing the most popular, imposing arbitrary rules that do not really suit the nature of the game.
Plato has complaints about virtually every aspect of Athenian social and political life. The ruler should superintend the rearing of children and not leave it up to parental caprice, while parents should choose spouses for their children that display opposite qualities, thus a perfect mix would be found. That this might not be the recipe for a good marriage does not bother him.
Back to The Republic
Plato’s method and intentions in the Politicus are to reveal all the deficiencies in conventional Greek approaches to political life. In the Republic and the Laws, by contrast, he offered two versions of the model commonwealth, the first designed to be perfect, the second to be as good as human nature can bear. The purpose in designing the Republic was to provide an example of JUSTICE writ large. And, as we have seen, this means that society must be organized into three social classes corresponding to the faculties of the soul.
The lower class of producers and consumers, Plato treats as so much human cattle to be managed, and the life he imagines for them is only a more disciplined version of ordinary Greek life. The class of guardian-soldiers, from which the ruling elite is drawn, lead a more rigorous existence. He takes up their education in Books II-III. Greek religious mythology is to be censored and all the tales of gods who make love and fight battles must be censored, and the poets are to be rigorously controlled. Death is to be treated as trivial—to make them brave—and heroic courage is to be celebrated. Only the gravest rhythms and modes, which train and discipline the soul, are to be used in music. Athletic prowess and training will not be cultivated for its own sake but only in so far as they are conducive to good health and military prowess.
To maintain the social order, a myth—actually a lie—must be imposed, that the commoners and the guardians and the rulers belong to different races corresponding to base metals, silver, and gold. To preserve this myth, it is necessary to adopt out any child of a guardian who is genetically unfit and, occasionally, to adopt in a common child who displays unusual qualities. The guardians, too, must accept discipline. They will live in a common barracks, possess no property, and live off the contributions of the common people—a more relentless version of the Spartan common messes. Socrates’ students suggest that the guardians will be unhappy in providing for the happiness of others. Maybe so, Socrates replies, but he doubts it. In either event it makes no difference since his object is to provide for the happiness of the commonwealth and not of individuals.
This observation, more than any other, shocked the liberal utilitarian George Grote, who wrote (150 years ago) what is often regarded as still the best study of the school of Socrates. As a utitilitarian, Grote accepted the Benthamite formula for justice as that which provides the greatest good for the greatest number, and neither he nor the Millses ever seem to have understood the basic principle that one cannot maximize two variables. My greatest good might well be to hog more than have the wealth and resources of society. As individuals, of course, they did not really believe there was anything that was truly an organic society—as opposed to a random collection of competing and self-interested individuals. What this led to can be seen in the life of John Stuart Mill or the moral chaos of contemporary libertarians who defend the rights of heroin pushers smut peddlers, or— some time ago on Lew Rockwell.com—the right of soldiers to change their minds about their career—what is usually called desertion.
Plato did understand that there is more to a polis than unconnected individuals. His problem lay in failing to see that the forms of social organization between the person and the commonwealth were part of an organic and developing process that links men and women to the political society.
In the next installment, we shall take up Plato’s most preposterous proposals that involve the equality of women and the institutions of marriage and the family, both in the Republic and the Laws. But even at this point it should be fairly obvious that the same rigorous intellect that enabled Plato to create systematic metaphysics that offered a secure basis for rejecting relativism, also misled him into thinking he could construct a morality and politics that were entirely abstracted from human reality and essential human needs.