Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Platonic Clarification

I have been taken to task in the comments for my stance on Plato's Republic. Well, not exactly taken to task, but people have raised some objections.

First, MSI says:
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.

This is a very fair point. The people I was referring to are mostly, for lack of a better word, idiots and intellectual name droppers.

MSI continues, but I think I can answer her better by focusing on two other comments.

Alpheus writes:
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.

Look, FLG, as opposed to me, is, or at least I intend him to sound like, a slightly drunken foreign correspondent in some hole in the wall expat bar on the other side of the world. That means cynical, pithy, maybe a tad belligerent, and exasperated. Sometimes, perhaps, I take it too far, and this might be one of those cases. (Wait. There's a difference between you and FLG? Yes, yes there is.)

If you ask me, not FLG, then of course it's not ALL about the soul. Plato isn't concerned about some jackass living in a cave all by himself correctly orienting his soul. It's about how one lives in a society, in particular a polis. Plato's conception of Justice requires more than one person, and so it cannot be about an individual soul.

Jacob Levy writes:
...as I understand the current literature on Plato ... the current view is neither the one you're critiquing [authoritarianism] 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.

I haven't actually done much secondary reading on Plato. I'm really too busy focusing on reading primary source stuff, which doesn't make me a very good academic scholar, but hey whatever. So, I'm not exactly sure what very different and much more complicated means exactly, but that's a damn good description of where I actually stand. My hyperbolic focus on the soul is more 1) in push back against the idiots who do in fact focus on the authoritarianism (See Rufus) and 2) to emphasize the importance of the soul parallel, which even if it isn't everything I think a lot of people don't give adequate attention to.

But I do think that the connection with Rousseau is profound. Just FYI on that.

PS. Likewise, despite FLG's incessant focus on time horizons, I don't think it is the only explanation for every political disagreement. It does help me think through issues, especially differences on economic policy, but I'm not some sort of monomanical crazy person. Although, I did, once, when I was in college, have sex on a blood-soaked alter.


Miss Self-Important said...

I think you should read Strauss's essay on the Republic in The City and Man if you haven't already. It almost made me like Plato.

FLG said...

Damn good tip. Others have told me the same. I'll have to pickup a hard copy, but I did find a google digital one. I laughed out loud at this:
Glauon is characterized by the fact that he cannot distinguish between his desire for dinner and his desire for virtue.

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