Does Plato’s Republic prefigure Trump a la Andrew Sullivan on the BBC? A question from Nader Hashemi

Nader Hashemi, my colleague and friend, wrote me a note questioning Andrew Sullivan’s clever use of a abridged/reconstructed citation Plato’s Republic on the BBC to sneer at democracy and suggest that it easily becomes tyranny. It is worth listening to. The BBC also has a disgusting clip from a fascist named Roger Kimball about how Trump needs to put his program over on the American people quickly. This spectrum, to put it mildly, is very limited and undemocratic, disregarding of democratic revolt from below (the only hope for decency in America and elsewhere). Here is Nader’s letter:

“I don’t trust Andrew Sullivan’s reading of Plato in this 3 minute clip: does he have it all right?

‘BBC Newsnight on Twitter
In case you missed it… What can Plato teach us about Donald Trump? Viewpoint by @sullydish'”


“Dear Nader,

Thanks. Andrew does have the citation broadly right, though he abridges and reshapes a longer passage (roughly 557a-565) as you surmise. The suggestion on Trump and sex is one striking bit of anachronistic license, a notion of decrying the “injustice” and “inequality” of the “establishment” another. In addition, in the larger context of book 8, Socrates seems to be speaking of social-psychological mechanisms of a decline of regimes from philosopher-king to tyrant – Andrew focuses on one piece: democracy to tyranny. But this is, of course, in the Greeks, an implied cycle (kuklos) – and a tyrant of a certain kind, as Aristotle underlines in book 5 of the Politics, becomes a philosopher-king. Aristotle, of course, means Alexander the Great (who was certainly not so hot and a murderer of Demosthenes, a great democratic student of Plato) and not a Trump/Bannon/Nazi/crusader. One of the fundamental questions about the Republic is whether this hidden pointing to a circle or cycle is, in fact, what Plato meant to urge on his students, as Martin Heidegger and Leo Strauss imagine, or whether Socrates’s startling arguments against tyranny – that even tyrants are always troubled and miserable, often high on themselves but then way down, are.

Much of the Republic, the lone dialogue that features warriors – Glaucon, Adeimantus, Polemarchus (the name means war leader) as well as Thrasymachus (fierce fighter, though a rhetorician) is a battle about whether philosophers should go down, as Socrates did, to die for asking questions in a democracy. Socrates did this not only to preserve philosophy, but, as is elsewhere unrecognized, including by Andrew, to encourage or preserve democratic dissent against murderous “democratic” tyrannies (at the time, Meletus, Anytus and Lycon, Socrates’s accusers; in America, the Alien and Sedition Acts, slavery, Jim Crow and the modern prison system/New Jim Crow, genocide against indigenous peoples, the Palmer raids, incarceration of Japanese-Americans, the turning away of the St. Louis carrying European Jews fleeing Hitler, Joe McCarthy, Trump inter alia). Though often despising the masses, as in this passage, Socrates’s is the cardinal, principled democratic protest

What Socrates says in the passage in book 8 on the emergence of tyranny out of democracy rests on claims about equality – true for Athenian male democrats, but very limited at the time (coexisting with slaveowning, the subjection of women, and the like) – and “liberty.”

Now the core theoretical feature of today’s democratic regimes is an emphasis on the primacy of the equal basic rights of each citizen. That is John Rawls’ argument in A Theory of Justice, shared by Ronald Dworkin, me (Democratic Individuality) and many others. But this notion of equal rights or liberties clashes with the Republic‘s snotty allusion to liberty as women are free and equal to men, “asses rub up against you in the street” (one can just hear the aristocratic clucking… – Sullivan abridges this unattractive passage) – and so on. But equal basic liberties are hardly “doing what you want,” a la Socrates here and Trump. For each of us must affirm the equal basic liberties of every other, uphold the rule of law, and thus, block racism, discrimination, patriarchal abuse, i.e. rape (one of Trump’s already many crimes), inter alia, towards any person.

In book 8, Socrates refers “the many-colored – παντοδαπός – raiment of democracy,” suggesting patriarchally that children and women likes such things. Andrew does not quite recognize the aristocratic sneering here (likely that of an aristocrat like Glaucon more than Socrates, who was no aristocrat…).

Now, Socrates (and perhaps Plato), despite a decent attitude toward slaves elsewhere (see Meno), is, actually, quite silly in what this citation says. Sullivan identifies Plato with Socrates here – but in fact, Plato is like Shakespeare – not simply “Macbeth” or “Juliet” or “Henry V” or even “Rosalind” – and what Socrates says is, at best, a closer approximation of Plato’s views, sometimes, than Shakespeare’s characters are to him. Andrew doesn’t notice that Plato’s Socrates is incoherent about this here – makes a really stupid argument about it. One might stop and question whether Plato is suggesting, to close readers such as those who studied with him for 20 years, i.e. Aristotle, that this argument might be inadequate. That is certainly, for example, the intent of the silly comparison of philosophers to dogs at the beginning of book 2 (the very argument Socrates repeatedly defeats in book 1). See “Socrates’s worst argument ever: the philosopher and the barking dog” here. I suspect that provoking questions about particular sentences or passages is an aspect of what Plato does at many points…

Andrew says that he learned of this passage in book 8 as a graduate student, where he studied with Harvey Mansfield, a Straussian and neocon activist, at Harvard. Harvey also taught William Kristol. During the Bush period, Mansfield defended torture and “commander in Chief power” in the Wall Street Journal. He pretty self-consciously moved from conservative a la Burke to fascism, as did some less clever Straussians (neo-cons) like Walter Berns and Bill Kristol.

In contrast, Andrew sharply opposed torture – I was allied with him on this during the period, much more than comparatively quiet Democrats…

Carl Schmitt whose Political Theology initiated the idea of commander in chief power (“he is sovereign who makes the decision in the state of the exception” is the first sentence of his 1923 Political Theology). Schmitt was a devotee of the Fuehrer between 1932-36 – the chief lawyer – Reichskanzler – for Prussia; in the 1960s, he wrote as a fascist advising Franco; Strauss sharpened his thinking in a 1032 reflection about “On the Concept of the Political.” Schmitt’s ideas are at the root of the neo-cons. Andrew commendably saw through and rejected this. But he did not think more deeply about what he had been taught about Plato and Socrates, is not engaged in philosophical reflection on Plato’s writings as Plato himself – again with serious students – sought to encourage. Given the diversity of paths which tempted Plato and Socrates, both of whom taught aristocratic boys leaning toward tyranny and tried, as with Glaucon in the Republic or Alcibiades, to abate this impulse, “Plato” has some learned followers, like Heidegger and Al-Farabi, among Nazis and reactionaries, even though Socrates’s action in Athenian democracy is the prototypical defense of dissent and nonviolent civil disobedience.

For Andrew does not think about the argument about liberty at all. He just intones – heightened by BBC’s music, the sound of marching fascists – Socrates’s deriding of the “cloak of many colors”. This cloak is liked, once again, by women (Sappho has a poem about one) and children, as Sullivan does not invoke here. For though a follower of the gaudy, quasi-Hegelian conservative Michael Oakeshott, Andrew does not get the laws which make what Oakeshott names a civil association possible: laws that uphold the individuality of each person. See On Human Conduct, third essay. Amazingly, Andrew does not even include gays – as he himself is, and long outspokenly and presciently for gay marriage – in those demeaned by the “old dispensation” which Socrates here seems to be affirming. Looking at Andrew’s intoning on the BBC, someone might say: one had better watch out for songs or speeches that run uncritically through one’s memory over and over, possess or mesmerize one, from one’s time as a graduate student…

In contrast, Plato’s long-standing students probably read each of the dialogues carefully, considered their interplay, and argued over them pretty much line by line. In the Crito, for example, Socrates goes to his death with the voice of the democratic laws – the laws of Athens – ringing in his ears as the Corybants – the practitioners of the Mystery religions of which Socrates was one – hear the droning murmur of the flutes. See my chapter on the Crito “On Reading and Socrates’s Agency” here. This hardly sounds like the snotty account of democratic laws in book 8 of the Republic, a favorite of Straussians like Harvey Mansfield and Allen Bloom – and one has to question each characterization and decide between them.

About Socrates’s decision to go to his death, as Gandhi’s translation of the Apology reveals, he founds what Gandhi names satyagraha and we call civil disobedience. He sought to teach ordinary Athenians and “the laws” to attend to and at least tolerate questioning. He took, I suggest, a far view…For his sacrifice – for only a part of a full or “Platonic” idea of justice, a toleration of dissent – was realized, beginning some 1700 and 2000 years later, in practices of Arab toleration of other “peoples of the book” and of English and American equal “freedom of conscience.” As with gays, lesbians and transsexuals, even its extension is still in process, and as Bannon/Trump’s Islamophobia and anti-Mexican hysteria reveals, this core idea of decency is to this moment a tremendous fight.

In this context, consider Socrates’s cautious thought in the Apology about a human wisdom: that he was wiser than others only in this: that they think they know but do not, and I neither know [the ideas] nor think that I know. That insight contradicts the city in speech in the Republic point-blank. There may be partial ideas of justice in Socrates – deep notions of right and wrong, even ones to die for…- and perhaps Plato, but no fully worked out idea of “the regime” (politeia, the I suspect ironic title of the document, what is customarily translated and automatically and mistakenly seen\revered as Plato’s conception of The Republic).

Now Plato’s students – and careful readers subsequently – would have to stack up the satire of the “city in speech” in the Republic and the idea of philosophers’ going down with Socrates’s own example, his action in going to his death for questioning. For the “beautiful city” is the city of Glaucon, an aristocratic officer in the battle of Megara; it is a garrison city of warriors and not a city of philosophers. And it has mocking features to appeal to Glaucon who repeatedly sees it as a regime of “pleasure” – even though silenced by Socrates. For instance, men and women wrestle naked and the best warriors – Glaucon? – mate with the most women…Socrates even suggests sarcastically that all people over the age of 10 would have to be expelled in order to found it – but by whom? And that all the guardians must have the same customs, the same emotions…Where is then the place for a Socrates to emerge in this city, let alone, politics on a rare occasion mating with philosophy, be somehow its shadowy ruler? See “If the city in speech is Glaucoma’s, what city is Socrates?” here and Glaucoma’s Military Obsession here.

Similarly, thinking philosophically and not according to the rhetoric of law courts, students would have to assess the contradictory arguments of “the laws,” conjured by Socrates to convince his rich friend Crito to let Socrates die in Crito: “You are our slave, more even than your father’s; you, a free man have a contract with us and have stayed in Athens willingly longer than anyone else…” Though Crito is silenced by Socrates’ “laws”, one of these arguments is wrong. And as Crito knew from hanging around Socrates for a long time, questioning fathers is the first feature of philosophy – consider Socrates’s driving out of the dying father, the war merchant Cephalus in the first book of the Republic.

Now the Athenian “laws” are naturally sophists like Crito and not philosophers. Careful readers are expected, by Plato, to notice this. Thus, asking further questions, seeing what Socrates (and Plato) are, in fact,driving at, is complex. As a graduate student, taught by a smart sectarian (Mansfield), this is not in Andrew’s ken. He is not, in Plato’s sense, a theorist..,It is also out of the league of anyone who dwells in vivid quotes out of context – most Anglo-American-German scholars about Plato…

Now, Andrew himself is an Irish Catholic Tory Royalist – a pretty sharp contradiction- who is gay. For a long time, on his blog, the Daily Dish, ultimately read by a million people, Andrew was a brilliant writer, one of real insight. Once again, he defended habeas corpus against Bush fiercely, was the first to recognize Obama’s potential in The Atlantic in early 2007, and loved loved loved him (Obama is much more of a genuine conservative, compared to the racist imperial authoritarians who parade in Congress and are obsequious to Bannon/Trump and are misnamed…). And Andrew commendably came to be critical of Obama – shocked by him – for protecting American torturers…

But mocking or sneering at ordinary people as marching fascists as this citation, Andrew and the BBC abet Trump/Bannon. Consider – as Andrew and the BBC entirely miss – the people have become aroused against Trump and are fighting, in millions, for basic rights for women and against racism Saturday January 21 and against the ban on Moslems, at airports this past Saturday (and with lots of protests in-between and after). Andrew’s citation from the Republic, overly demeaning of ordinary people, miss this uprising utterly. It is especially ironic that as a gay person, Sullivan is so sneering about “liberty.”

Sullivan also opposed Bernie and the huge movement, particularly of young people (those under 40), which crystallized around him and is showing up, once again, in these protests. And reverting to a silly kind of Toryism, Andrew misses Bernie’s role in opposition even now and the hope for something decent in America.

I am glad Andrew got on the BBC, but the main point in America is about the uprising against tyranny from below, something Andrew and the BBC have so far missed. The elite – corporate media – often does. But that is, by the way, what Socrates died for…

Gandhi’s translation of the Apology, the movement for Indian independence that he worked for (the result was less good), Martin Luther King who enormously admired Gandhi as the most influential avatar of Jesus and learned from him – and these protests today and many others (against the Iraq War, Occupy, Arab spring and the like), get Socrates, and interestingly, I suspect, Plato deeply right. Andrew – and the BBC -do not.

All the best,


Nader subsequently suggested a course at the University of Denver on Judith Shklar on cruelty (othering), Plato and the creation of the Trump-Bannon tyranny (Nazism). I am reshaping my course on Democracy and War for this spring on these matters with the theme: Plato and Thucydides on how democracies die, the Trump phenomenon and how to defeat racist tyrants. For those at DU, Ints 4820 will, I think, be Tuesdays 2-5. I will use Shklar’s essays on the liberalism of fear and the very good article by Dylan Matthews in Vox on how her ideas help one to think about Trump’s monstrousness here.

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