Four paths through the Republic’s woods

I am writing a book on Socrates and Plato, tentatively called: Alone among the Dead. Here is a draft of the first chapter of the section on the Republic. Comments are welcome.

Four paths through the Republic’s woods

The Republic is, I think, much more ironic and humorous – importantly, a comedy in relation to much that is weak or bad in Athens, though not about the death of Socrates – than philosophers and scholars have often thought.

It is perhaps easier to read the Laws with some suspicion. The Athenian Stranger is the one who escaped drinking the hemlock, the one whom “the laws,” conjured by Socrates in the Crito (line 54b-c), properly warn is not to be taken seriously either in Athens or “the place of the dead.” Though he is an unnamed Socrates in his seeming role in the dialogue, he is, much more importantly, a not Socrates. But more generally, how did Plato expect his students to read the sometimes conflicting arguments of the character named Socrates? Did he perhaps invite the same Socratic questioning of, the same testing out of each argument?

Is the Republic – and are other dialogues – supposed to be read as a book which reveals truths simply (to be read the way we read a not very bright textbook)? Or, alternately, is the purpose of a dialogue veiled, both from the point of view of figuring out a) what is true and b) what Plato thinks (two not necessarily coincident matters, since Plato, like Socrates, often does not know what is true)? Philosophy is, after all, searching for truth through questioning; every argument Socrates fashioned is provisional in some important respects, most notably in relation to particular interlocutor(s) and particularly formulated questions. With a change of premise or a conjuring of a more dazzling image like the ring of Gyges, each can be seen anew, and as in a torch-race on horseback at night, surpassed…

About the idea of the good, for example, Plato offers only a beautiful metaphor: it is the sun in a noetic universe which is much vaster than the physical universe. What Plato figured out about it and whether Pythagorean numbers, serious enough for Plato, cast much more light on it might be doubted. In fact, one might think with Socrates in the Apology that though one knows some specific and important things about just acts or about numbers, one still is better off than others only in this – that about the truth as a whole, one neither knows nor does one think one knows…

Perhaps Plato encouraged his present and future students to look for flaws or incompletenesses and interconnections in Socrates’s argument in the way that one might hear Polemarchus leaping into the dialogue as a witness and pointing to the weaknesses of Thraymachus’s argument in book 1 (see line 340a-c). In the first book, as we will see, Plato’s writing underlines the progress of Polemarchus from democratic war leader – his name – and bully to beginning to do philosophy. This insight is deepened by looking across dialogues (again, something fairly rare among modern teachers of political thought; one of Strauss’s insights is to read many dialogues and to think about them in tandem). Thus, Socrates celebrates Polemarchus as a young philosopher, by contrast with his brother, the orator Lysias, in Phaedrus.

As a democrat, Polemarchus was forced to drink the hemlock, one of 1500 put to death by another of Socrates’s students, Critias, for opposing/fighting the Thirty tyrants. The image of a philosophical warrior- democrat opposing tyranny is one possible lesson – a first, non-Heideggerian way through the metaphoric woods of the dialogues – that a student might find, as Plato’s student Demosthenes, murdered by Alexander’s minion Archias, and thus, indirectly by Alexander’s advisor, Aristotle, also did. What happens to Polemarchus and Demosthenes, also casts the first book of the Republic in a darker context.

A second way of reading the Republic, just under the surface, focuses on the aristocratic boys, from up the hill in Athens, the military leaders Glaucon and Adeimantus, brothers of Plato, and sons of Ariston (the best). Glaucon is hungry but has his hunger curbed through sometimes philosophical speech. That is the apparent action of the dialogue. One might speak, in this respect, a la Strauss, of The Action and Argument of Plato’s Republic. If Glaucon is not fully taught virtue in the dialogue, if there is no sign, in contrast to Polemarchus, that he actually turns toward philosophy, he is, nonetheless, interested in it, and, to some extent, becomes a man of virtue. Further, he is not known historically outside of this dialogue and a brief account in Xenophon. Glaucon does not become a tyrant, as his hunger, faced with the austere city, the city of sows as he derides it, implies he might.

A third way, on the surface of the Republic and in its depths, is the notion, tempting to Plato and other aristocratic students of Socrates, of the philosopher-king. The philosopher king rules tyrannically if “wisely,” expelling everyone over 10 from the city, killing children born “out of season” a la Sparta, cleaning up the gods of Athens through censorship, and leading a lean warrior/athlete regime – a vision of a “beautiful city,” a kallipolis, that befits Glaucon, a leader in the battle of Megara. Whether this is a chimera which is meant to outlast the dialogue with Glaucon is unclear, however. That it is a utopia Plato aims for, though seen in this way by Heidegger, Strauss and, with less insight, Sir Karl Popper, is even less clear. For, as chapter will show, Socrates starts to discuss a simple Pythagorean city which Glaucon, once again, challenges as banal, without, literally, a refined sense of taste: “lacking relishes.” One has to forget the actual dialogue in the Republic to focus on the guardian city, the kallipolis, as supposedly a city of Socrates or Plato. Still, the image of the guardian city is undergirded by hints – or hidden writing – in the later books.

For the best regime, that of philosophical rule, declines through three others to the worst tyranny. But everything was a circle for the Greeks. As I discovered in book 5 of the Politics learning from Strauss’s 1967 lectures at the suggestion of Mike Goldfield, Aristotle offers the criticism that it would be perfect and a circle (kuklos) if a tyrant of a certain kind became a philosopher-king:

“Again as to tyranny he [Plato, Republic] does not say whether it
will undergo revolution or not, nor, if it will, what will be the cause of it, and into what sort of constitution it will change; and the reason for this is that he would not have found it easy to say, for it is irregular; since according to him tyranny ought to change into the first and best constitution, for so the process would be continuous and a circle…”

In addition, as Socrates points out in the Republic, extremes are nearest one another. A philosopher, misled by bad friends and corrupted, goes very bad. In contrast, the average monarch is lukewarm, will do nothing very good or very bad. For Socrates, the potential philosopher who goes bad becomes a tyrant.

Socrates says, “consider we know it to be true of every growing thing, whether seedling or flesh, that when it is deprived of the food, climate, or location suitable to its growth, it will suffer the greater damage, the greater its inherent vigor. For evil is a greater enemy of the good than of the ordinary” (491d-e,564a). He also suggests that a potential philosopher is most easily corrupted (488-489c, 492, 572e-573). “Great crimes and systematic wickedness are not the products of half-hearted natures but of the vigorous ones who have been corrupted by their upbringing. Mediocrity will never attain to any great thing, good or evil.” For the careful, perhaps esoteric reader, Plato links the potential philosopher by implication to the tyrant: “then the qualities we assumed in the philosopher’s nature will necessarily thrive and mature in all excellence, provided he is properly taught. But if sowing, planting and germination take place in the wrong environment, the contrary outcome must be anticipated – unless some god comes to the rescue.”

Socrates suggests that his inner voice, his daimon – what we might gesture at by calling his conscience, but what he sees as a far more robust guiding spirit – helped him to continue questioning, to ward off the temptations of corruption that seize those “philosophers” who sit at the doors of the rich. The Thrasymachus, a metic – immigrant – from Chalcedon,(check) for example, will speak only because the aristocratic boys throw money at him.

This image of the philosopher-tyrant – or a philosopher who counsels a receptive tyrant – is, once again, the view of Martin Heidegger, pioneered in the mid-1920s and proclaimed to the world in his 1943 The Essence of Truth: Plato’s Cave-Metaphor and the Theatetus as the essence of Nazism. He and two of his students strove to do this with Hitler; Heidegger did not quite, however, succeed in his aspirations. Nonetheless, ideally, he continued to maintain, philosophers who become guardians, set all the rules for the tyrant:

“We must now see if what has been said can be verified from Plato’s own presentation. With this intention we turn to the final section of book VI of the Republic. In regard to the ‘state’ (as we somewhat inappropriately translate polis) and its inner possibility, Plato maintains as his first principle that the authentic guardians of human association in the unity of the polis must be those who philosophize. He does not mean that philosophy professors are to become chancellors of the state, but that philosophers are to become phylaches, guardians. Control and organization of the state is to be undertaken by philosophers, who set standards and rules in accordance with their widest and deepest, freely inquiring knowledge, thus determining the general course society should follow.(paragraph 13, p. 73 – h/t Tracy Strong). See here.

This is the view imbibed from Heidegger by Leo Strauss, who is, by his own posthumous account, an under-laborer for Heidegger’s great philosophical – and grotesque political – insights. See here. Though a Jew, Strauss’s Nazism came from taking a wrong way through the woods following Heidegger. Plato set this false path for his aristocratic students to test and, Plato hoped, be able enough to overcome. Yet Aristotle took a version of this path, as I have underlined, as did Al-Farabi. And Twentieth Century Germany was particularly unlucky soil, as Socrates suggests in the Republic, to be reared with reactionary prejudices….

Plato’s subtle method of teaching encouraged this danger. Plato left it to the student to decide and these ways and at least one other. He himself was one of the aristocratic boys – the brothers Glaucon, Adeimantus and Plato, sons of the best – who were tempted to advise tyrants. Unlike Socrates, he had a three year misadventure with Dionysios [check sp] the younger of Syracuse, and was even briefly enslaved by him. As the Seventh Letter reveals, Plato best student, Dion, actually became the ruler in Syracuse, a potential philosopher-king – this term is significantly not used by Plato, however – on behalf of laws. But Dion was swiftly murdered by a false Athenian friend, Calippus. In this context, Socrates’s questioning with Polemarchus in book 1 of the Republic, about whether friends are true or not in politics – whether leaders can tell their friends from their enemies – takes on a very dark significance.

The appearance from hidden writing in the Republic is that Plato was taken with philosopher- tyranny and Heidegger hints at this with references to the Seventh Letter in The Essence of Truth. Yet this depiction pits Plato, as himself a would be philosopher-tyrant, against Socrates, the civil disobedient. Strauss offers an arcane account of Socrates, based on an unargued preference for Xenophon’s Memorabilia, and ignores or despises civil disobedience (Strauss announces that a liberal supports Martin Luther King and says pointedly that he does not ). In effect, for Heidegger and Strauss, Socrates disappears in an image – a misinterpretation of Plato (or a more accurate interpretation of Xenophon ).

But this false interpretation misses an obvious question. Was Plato not more loyal to Socrates, his teacher and friend, than this? As chapter four (part 2) shows, Socrates had gone to his death, providing a pattern for later satyagraha or civil disobedience, with the laws of the democracy speaking to him as the Corybants, the participants in the Greek mystery-religions of whom Socrates was one, hear the flutes. In the Apology, he is, once again, surprised by the nearness of the vote (shifting a mere 30 votes out of 500 would have acquitted him). He suggests modifying the laws of Athens to be like those of other cities, for instance, permitting four days for a trial with a potential death sentence instead of one. As chap showed, he projects the idea of laws that allow questioning, genuinely democratic laws, not the unjust distortion of Athenian “democratic” tyranny, into the far future.

Other possibilities for reform in a democracy might begin to suggest themselves to students and questioners over epochs, as I have underlined, in Cordoba or the repression of Protestants, 1200 or 1800 years later. Note that these ideas emerged in a caliphate in Cordoba and in Puritan Revolution England and after to prevent other cities from murdering their wise women and men…

As the Apology warns and as readers of the Crito need to bear in mind, the instrumental consequence of Socrates obeying the laws and going to his death was to discredit democracy – those very “laws” Socrates listens to – for nearly 2000 years…That Athens killed its wise man – that what is “popular” may sometimes be the Ku Klux Klan, McCarthy, anti-Arab and anti-Mexican bigotry a la Bannon/Sessions/Trump, and so forth – is the charge against the democratic city. Of course tyrannies, as the Thirty (and Hitler) prove, often do at least as badly….

These possibilities of reform all suggest a way that Athens, pretty much as it was, could have avoided this fate. Nothing in the Apology requires or even suggests the rule of a philosopher-tyrant – a tyrant who becomes a philosopher-king and rules without laws – to achieve this central aspect of justice. In fact, a Socrates could emerge only in democratic conversations.

Technically, I might say, such a regime would have achieved an important aspect of justice, the customary or legal toleration of questioning or philosophy, since no actually existing political regime, according to Socrates, is mainly just or incarnates “the” idea of justice; a “more perfect union,” to put it, as Barack Obama says it in an American idiom, is worth fighting for over generations….

In addition, the particular city in speech or kallipolis in the Republic is a) doubtfully just – it accords with the psyche of the general Glaucon and persuades him not to become a tyrant, but is, broadly speaking, but the argument of a day with a particular interlocutor, and is b) without a plausible causal mechanism. For even if a tyrant of a certain kind seeks to become a philosopher-king, just who is to expel (or kill) everyone over the age of 10? Will it be the little band of philosophers? That band whose theme, with Socrates, is to help friends but not to kill “enemies”?

The whole point of Socrates “going down” into the cave is to defend both philosophy and a democracy which allows questioning against tyranny. Philosophy and democratic dissent – what is admirable in democracy, for instance, Henry David Thoreau against the slave-owners and their “laws” in “Civil Disobedience” – have the same root: questioning. Democracy is a large city of cities, one of which is a small circle of philosophers, who, fashioning arguments daily, seeing the limitations of those arguments, asking further questions and fashioning arguments anew, defend it against tyranny.

This idea in the dialogues, incarnate in Socrates, Polemarchus, and even Chaerophon (see Aristophanes’s Clouds, the Apology and Gorgias) and Plato’s student Demosthenes, is a surprising and admirable fourth route or alternative.

Here are four, mutually inconsistent paths, requiring questioning, arguments, difficult to sort through, in the Republic.

As a note on the third path, I would like to underline an error in Strauss’s idea of hidden readings. On his line of thinking, a conflict between a masterful argument against tyranny and a coded message: that a kind of tyrant becomes a philosopher-king and rules tyrannically – must be resolved in favor of the coded – and hence, not much argued – message. That may sometimes be true, if one makes further arguments than that (reactionary) philosophers must fear of persecution by the existing authorities. Yet as a rule, it is neither obvious nor philosophical. For it makes the reader a decoder of texts, not a thinker about them. To put the issue in slogan form, Strauss, unlike Plato and Socrates, is a cryptographer, not a philosopher.

For on Strauss’s reading, the Republic, the greatest indictment of tyranny ever written, is self-refuting in hinting that a tyrant can become a wise or philosophical tyrant. This reading is, also, elaborated in Xenophon’s Hiero, as Strauss shows in his first book in the United States (1948) after emigrating from Germany, and in book 5 of Aristotle’s Politics where tyrants can become popular by ruling, a la Simonides’s advice to Hiero, for a common good. To see the contradictory paths in the Republic and Strauss’s affirmation of the hidden one, a putative refutation, without much reasoning, of a remarkable surface argument, I found rather sad.

Thinking about it further, I realized that there was no reason to accept the slightly veiled pointing toward philosopher tyranny. In fact, the Republic offers many resources for rejecting this view, for instance, as subsequent chapters will explore, the development of Polemarchus as one who turns toward philosophy, the image of Socrates going down to protect the Athenian democracy and advance questioning in the future, the image of Socrates’s modeling of what we call satyagraha or civil disobedience, the question of how a neophyte Socrates or Plato could grow up in the “city in speech,” and the question of whether Socrates’s proposal for censorship of Homeric culture is plausibly argued. In fact, an interesting response to Athens’ charge against Socrates of disbelieving in the gods for Plato, speaking ironically through the character, Socrates, would be to show what would be necessary, how much that is vital and moving must be eliminated, to clean things up. The designer of this city has to put blinders on the guardians and potential philosophers. But does one become a philosopher by having all possible experience and culture sucked away? By being, most of one’s life, a non-questioner?

Think of the story of Buddha, roughly contemporaneous with Socrates, 800 miles distant, where Siddhartha’s father, fruitlessly, attempts to protect his son from seeing pain and aging… Will the king remove himself as he ages from his son? Are Plato’s guardians but stupefied princes who, as it were, never leave the palace grounds?

For Plato, I will suggest, the aim of the Republic and the Laws especially was to inspire further questioning by his students who read and reread it, argued over it, for years perhaps, line by line. That aim threatens those who hope to absorb the master’s teaching literally. Strauss and Heidegger detect some hidden meanings but are slavish. For instance, that Polemarchus, the war-leader of the democrats, alone turns toward philosophy is also a hidden meaning…

Reactionary readings, though prominent, are a misunderstanding. There is no reason to follow Heidegger’s lead.