Monday, October 4, 2010

FLG Will Attempt To Answer His Own Question

In the previous post, FLG asked "Why do so many people misunderstand Plato?"

FLG thinks he may have an answer. Most people fail to follow FLG's advice about reading an author sympathetically and have probably basically dismissed Plato, for one issue or another they have with his Just City, before they get to the end of Book IX. Here, Plato writes of the maintainer of justice, aka philosopher-king:
he will be a ruler in the city of which we are the founders, and which exists in idea only; for I do not believe that there is such an one anywhere on earth?

In heaven, I replied, there is laid up a pattern of it, methinks, which he who desires may behold, and beholding, may set his own house in order. But whether such an one exists, or ever will exist in fact, is no matter; for he will live after the manner of that city, having nothing to do with any other.

FLG ain't fucking crazy. The book is about the right ordering of the soul. Focusing on the intricacies of the organization of the Just City as if it were an actual state is dumb.

Likewise, and FLG has written it before, Rousseau is the Citizen of a Geneva that is just an idea, not the actual Geneva. Although, he was that too. But that's not the damn point.


Andrew Stevens said...

I think that's the first argument you've made for your interpretation of Plato which I admit has some force. The problem is that I don't think anybody denies that Plato is very concerned with the correct ordering of the soul. This is very different, though, from saying "and Plato also doesn't want you to take his Just City seriously even as an aspiration, because it's all purely a metaphor."

I can't agree with how you're defining reading someone sympathetically here though. You seem to be saying now that, if we disagree with an author, we should just assume that he can't possibly mean what he's saying and look for ways in which he may have undermined himself, so we can say, "See, he doesn't really believe all that bunkum anyway."

FLG said...

Fair enough points.

I think a lot of people, at least in my experience, start worrying about how authoritarian his city appears. And by Book IX have basically started skimming.

I didn't mean to say that if "we disagree with an author, we should just assume that he can't possibly mean what he's saying and look for ways in which he may have undermined himself, so we can say, 'See, he doesn't really believe all that bunkum anyway.'"

FLG said...

You know, Andrew, I've been thinking about this. It's obviously a difficult argument to make that this long discussion of a city is only a metaphor. And to be honest it's a belief I acquired only after reading A LOT of Plato. It's woven in there throughout his work. I'm certain of it, but not sure how to sift through everything and make a concise argument.

Andrew Stevens said...

I actually agree with you that The Republic probably rarely receives a very sympathetic reading nowadays. I admit I'm not sure I've ever given a careful read to Books IV and V, almost for exactly that reason. He does bring me back by Book VI though and I think I've read Books VI-IX pretty carefully, though not in a while.

I agree that your reading of "the Republic is just a metaphor and Plato didn't mean all that authoritarian stuff" is a very sympathetic reading to modern ears, but I don't know how sympathetic a reading Plato himself would say it was.

Back in 1993 or so, I attended a lecture from a man who wrote a paper subtitled "How The Republic Undermines the Republic" (I don't remember the actual title, though I'm pretty sure it included the word "diversity") and essentially gave your reading, arguing that there were all sorts of hints and clues that Plato didn't really mean what he was saying. I'm afraid to say that he didn't receive a very sympathetic reception from the audience I was in.

FLG said...

You nailed my biggest point of doubt. Am I twisting Plato into somebody who a modern reader, me, can be sympathetic towards?

I like to think I'm not and everybody else is misreading him, but I dunno sometimes.

Andrew Stevens said...

My last post was a response to FLG's first comment and did not respond to his second. This comment responds to his second.

Are you sure it's actually woven in though? I actually see where you're coming from. In most of his writings, Plato seems like a very wise and thoughtful guy. I agree with Plato on very large sections of thought. He was a tremendous writer and an absolutely first-class thinker. It does seem a bit strange that his views on political philosophy should be so wildly divergent from my own. It is tempting to try to shape and bend his views so that they are more congenial. But sometimes even Homer nods (or alternately, Plato is right about tyranny and I'm the one in the wrong). I'm not saying that's the whole of your argument. I'm sure there's a lot more to it than that. (There's no question that, for example, you can analogize the classes of people in the Republic to what we know Plato viewed as the parts of the soul. But this is not evidence that he didn't believe that different people give themselves over to different parts of the soul and should be treated differently because of this.)

Jacob T. Levy said...

I am not a Plato scholar and am resolutely agnostic on the correct reading of any ancient Greek philosopher; I don't start to understand things until Rome.

But as I understand the current literature on Plato (a different matter) the current view is neither the one you're critiquing nor the one you're espousing. The general view seems to be that the city in speech is much more than a metaphor for the soul, it really is about politics and cities; but the argument it develops about justice in the city is very different and much more complicated than the surface authoritarianism that comes of just reading Socrates' parts of the dialog as if they were straightforwardly Plato's policy proposals.

Alpheus said...

I should have made this comment on one of the Republic posts before (or maybe I have and I've forgotten it, or maybe somebody else has). I think it's a lot easier to swallow the Republic if, like the ancient Greeks, you see the city, the soul, and education as interconnected (because man is a "political animal").

From a Greek perspective, it's almost meaningless to talk about any one of three without considering the other two. And, of the three, most Greeks seem to have found it easiest to talk about the city.

I don't know if it makes sense to say that the Republic is *really* about the soul and not the (authoritarian) city. But I agree that people are missing a lot if they think the book is just a fascist political program.

Miss Self-Important said...

JTL is right. People who cite Plato's city as an example of the authoritarianism of Greek thought or authoritarianism generally are usually not scholars of Plato or political thought but people in other fields who believe that their own arguments somehow gain credibility by being couched in an introduction that offhandedly generalizes about some writer of the past and then never brings him up again. (This is basically what Yglesias does in the quote you cite.) People who study American politics have a particular predilection for using Tocqueville this way. This is not so much a misreading as a failure to bother with reading, and it's usually totally irrelevant to their own arguments about voting behavior or modern Iranian authoritarianism or whatever. These are uninteresting people to attack.

Besides, if your appraisal of the situation is correct, then all the people who do appreciate Plato and aren't taking it to be purely metaphorical are actually endorsing the Just City as a desirable regime, and all our classicists are actually aspiring authoritarian communists.

But in terms of actually thinking about Plato, how can it not be essential to think about the "intricacies of the organization of the Just City"? Unless Plato just invented arbitrary scary things to put his readers off, it matters that he demands the community of women and children and not, say, packs of wolves set loose on the city to eat infants left unattended. That could be scary and weird too, but it wouldn't work like the community of women and children. And why bother with such an elaborate city metaphor in the first place if none of its components mattered? Why not an animal metaphor? Or a divine metaphor?

Is it possible that the Just City is actually just and that this doesn't mean it should or could be made real? That the demands of pure political justice are impossible for real cities to abide by since they would require the absolute annihilation of distinctions between men, and therefore the individual himself? This would say a great deal about actual cities and actual politics.

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