Tuesday, September 21, 2010

More On Plato And Rousseau

Since MSI and The Ancient questioned FLG's assertion that Rousseau is basically Plato plopped into the French Enlightenment, FLG feels that he must articulate this indisputable truth more thoroughly.

First, let's address Rousseau's self-description as a Citizen of Geneva. FLG doesn't think he means Geneva. Yes, he was a citizen of Geneva before being banished. But his Dedication to the Republic of Geneva, while nominally to the people of the real Geneva, isn't about the actual Geneva, but instead more along the lines of Plato's Just City. It's a place only partially realized in the world of becoming and which Rousseau articulates as Geneva, the Just City lost to him. Consequently, when he writes Citizen of Geneva, he is stating a fact, his having been born in Geneva, but the more important meaning is that his soul is well-ordered and therefore he is a citizen of the Just City wherever he goes, and the name he gives to that city is Geneva.

Second, Rousseau, like Plato's Socrates, unable to live in the Just City which in point of fact is pretty much impossible, chose to live in a city not dissimilar from the role of Athens in its time - Paris.

Third, Rousseau, like Plato, was concerned with the Good above and beyond what is practical. In the preface to Emile he writes:
Propose what is feasible, they repeatedly tell me. It is as if I were being told to propose what people are doing already, or at least to propose some good which mixes well with the existing wrongs. Such a project is in certain ways much more unrealistic than my own, for in that mix the good is spoiled and the bad is not improved. I would rather follow exactly the established method than adopt a better method halfway. There would be fewer contradictions in man, for man cannot aim at the same time at two opposite goals. Fathers and mothers, what is feasible is what you are willing to do. Must I answer for your will?

In any kind of project, there are two things to consider: first, the absolute goodness of the project; second, the facility of its execution.

This is very different from the Aristotelian conception of focusing on Nature and Moderation.

Lastly, and most importantly, let's get to Republic and Emile. From Book One:
From these necessarily opposite aims come two contrary forms of education -- one is public and common, the other individual and domestic.

Do you wish to get an idea of public education? Read Plato's Republic. Those who merely judge books by their titles take this for a treatise on politics, but it is the finest treatise on education ever written.

When people wish to go back to a land of fantasies they cite Plato's institutions. But had Lycurgus put forth his system only in writing, I would have found it to be far more impracticable than Plato's. Plato sought only to purify man's heart, whereas Lycurgus denatured it.

Public institutions do not and cannot exist, for where there is no longer a homeland there can no longer be citizens. These two words, homeland and citizen, ought to be erased from modern languages. I know very well the reason for this but I do not want to discuss it here; it has nothing to do with my subject.

Let's take these in order. There's public education and domestic education. Straightforward so far.

Plato's Republic is a book on education. Politics? Not so much.

The institutions articulated by Plato are a way to go back to the land of fantasies, which FLG takes to mean they are largely fantasies themselves. Again, as FLG says over and over, Plato's Republic is about the soul. The rest is just allegory. Indeed, Rousseau puts it much better when he writes "Plato sought only to purify man's heart." His soul, therefore, was the primary focus. And likewise for Rousseau with Emile.

Now, Rousseau's thoughts about public institutions is key for FLG. Basically, you've got Plato let's create a Just City in Speech to explain how a soul can be rightly-ordered. Rousseau, tossed out of Geneva, his Just City, and likewise lamenting the fall of Rome and Sparta, says "Here's how to rightly order a soul even if the society around the person lacks virtue." But here's the thing, neither can actually work in practice. You cannot reorder a city of existing, unjust men into a Just City. Nor can you raised a Just Man in an unjust city. Both Plato's and Rousseau's approach is to articulate what would be required to do so, and in both case one must come away with the conclusion that it cannot be done. Then, if it cannot be done, then what do they mean? What they mean is what FLG has said.

Ah, "But FLG," you say. "Many, many people have taken these men literally." "Imbeciles!," FLG replies. "Look where taking these two men literally got those people."

Aristotle you can read literally. He means what he says. He generally uses anecdote where Plato used metaphor and allegory. Just as we are not literally in a cave looking at shadows, nor could a Just City be created, as Socrates admits in the dialogue.

Plato knew this was a problem. See Phaedrus:
I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, "FLG, he's talking about all writing. Aristotle's writing is just as open to maltreatment and abuse as Plato's." Perhaps, but perhaps not. Again, Plato was trying to articulate a world ordered toward the Good that is only accessible through Reason. Aristotle was concerned about Nature. Nature that could be observed, measured, quantified, and collected. That's less open to misinterpretation, but perhaps less True as well.

Well, FLG probably hasn't swayed any minds and he doesn't have time to write a academic paper with footnotes. So, this is all he's got right now.

PS. If any of you are interested about this Republic as being about the soul only theory, then you really need to go read Book IX. If you read it assuming that the State is merely an allegory and the real, true focus is on the soul, then reading about the tyrant's soul should illuminate it. Seriously, set aside the intricacies of the guardians and their educations and philosopher-kings, and just assume the entire thing is about the soul, hold your reservations until the end, and read Book IX.


Withywindle said...

What if I think the differences between Plato and Rousseau are more interesting than their similarities?

FLG said...

Well, since my theory is that they are for all intents and purposes the same person, and their philosophical differences derive primarily from the differences in their milieu, I'm not at all surprised at that history professor would be more interested in their differences.

Withywindle said...

Touche -- Straussian! Oh, I'm disadvantaged in all this by not really having, um, read that much of either of them. I think I'd argue there are -- must be? -- some differences in the content of their thought, in the eternal eye of God and all that. That is, it may be true that all of philosophy reduces itself to Plato vs. Aristotle, idealism vs. [I would call it historicism], but then what do we say next? Sir, your blog will stop if there are no differences between Plato and Rousseau. If you can't think of any now, read more and find some small differences, the nuances whereof excite you. If that doesn't work, make some up. Quote an Arabic translation of Plato, more accurate than the corrupt Greek. Quote Rousseau in the Swedish: "Emile, oh, Emile, bork bork bork!"

FLG said...

While I do think that all of philosophy can be lumped in Platonic and Aristotelian camps, but when you get into something like democratic theory there is enough nuance and variation that you can start to get beyond Plato and Aristotle. Well, not beyond, but to the point where those distinctions are less important.

The Ancient said...

my theory is that they are for all intents and purposes the same person ...

Perhaps FLG is chasing a boyhood memory ...

I am Brahms.

- And da Vinci?


- How many other names shall we call you?

Solomon, Plato, Alexander, Lazarus, Methuselah, Merlin, Rousseau, Abramson. A hundred other names you do not know.

- You were born?

In that region of earth later called Mesopotamia, in the year 3834 B.C., as the millennia are reckoned. I was Akharin, a soldier, a bully and a fool. I fell in battle, pierced to the heart... and did not die.

FLG --

Slightly more seriously, don't nearly all philosophers who recoil from the world as they find it and seek to imagine/construct some very different world where men can be free, or stripped of their illusions, or conformed to some less base state, etc. have quite a lot in common? (Beyond being dangerous.) Just what is it that attracts you to Plato and Rousseau? Rather than Aristotle and Aquinas, say, or -- to be entirely perverse -- Abelard and Wittgenstein?)

P.S. Lycurgus seldom gets the props he deserves. (Even the old legend about having the good grace to starve himself to death after a visit to Delphi, having bound all of Sparta to observe his laws until he returned. Imagine disposing of our ex-presidents that way ...)

FLG said...

"don't nearly all philosophers who recoil from the world as they find it and seek to imagine/construct some very different world where men can be free, or stripped of their illusions, or conformed to some less base state, etc. have quite a lot in common?"

Sure, but they do it in unique ways. I mean, Medieval barbers and modern doctors share common goals, but aren't the same.

I actually like Plato AND Aristotle. Plato is more interesting because of his idealism. Aristotle, while more influential and a very prudent guide, is a bit less interesting. Everything because of nature or habit. Almost procedural, which is probably why he was more influential.

Andrew Stevens said...

In my opinion, Aristotle was more influential primarily because he was right far more often. Truth and wisdom are rarely very interesting or exciting. Most interesting ideas are false.

Miss Self-Important said...

I agree with the charge of extreme straussianism here--philosophizing as activity always generates the same ideas, all great books say the same thing, etc. So why ever read more than one? To learn historical minutia about the various milieus of European society?

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