Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Politeia (Part III: Philosophical Ascent)

Book VI

The distinction between the philosophers and the 'philodoxers' opposed to them turns out to be a distinction between those who do not merely stop with individual splendid or good things, but consider and reflect on the splendid itself or the good itself, and those who never get beyond the many, wandering from one to another without cease. If the guardians are to shape the just city, however, they must have a clear model according to which they can shape it; thus we must have philosophers, lovers of wisdom, not philodoxers or lovers of opinion, leading the city.

This raises the question of what natures are philosophical, which must be known if the just city is to be constructed properly. Glaucon and Socrates agree that the philosopher is a lover of learning of all kinds, a lover of truth rather than falsehood, who gives learning and truth a higher priority than pleasures of the body. One who gives learning and truth such an honored place will not be afraid of bodily death, will associate with others so as to learn, will learn swiftly, and will have thoughts that are measured and orderly.

Adeimantus notes, however, that people will reply that in reality most philosophers become kooks, and even the decent philosophers are largely useless. Socrates notes that something can be useless not because it fails to be of value but because others do not make use of it. As for philosophers becoming kooks and cranks, or even vicious, the important question is how the kind of nature we are starting with becomes corrupted. Even vigorous plants and animals, perhaps especially the vigorous ones, will go bad if it is outside its proper milieu. If you give a promising young man a bad upbringing, a bad education, you can hardly expect him to grow in a proper philosophical way, except "by divine dispensation" (493a). Socrates sharply criticizes the sophists -- it is one of the most direct attacks on the profession in the dialogues -- for only being concerned with teaching opinions of the majority and yet daring to call it wisdom, when the majority themselves are philodoxers more than philosophers.

Education and constitution are closely tied, then, and Socrates complains that no political constitution in ancient Greece seems to be the right one for the kind of philosophical education needed by the guardians. And the education tends to be backward -- people learnf philosophy early on, and then no more; whereas they should get lots of physical and mental exercise early on so as to prepare them for philosophy. And what constitutes a genuine philosophical education, rather than a false one like that given by the sophists?

Socrates gives us several images in succession in order to convey what this philosophical education might be. We start with the Analogy of the Sun and the Divided Line. But these are in a sense merely preparatory for what is, after the Myth of Atlantis, the most famous Platonic Myth of all.

  Additional Remarks

* The discussion of the corruption of a philosophical nature so closely tracks what we know of Alcibiades that he is almost certainly in view.

Some of the descriptions of the kinds of people who do manage to "consort with philosophy in a way that's worthy of her" (496a) are also quite specific. Socrates, who manages it because of his divine sign, and Theages, who manages it because his physical illness reduces the chances of temptation, are specifically named. Are the other descriptions describing particular people? If we were to interpret the passage at (496a-e) on the hypothesis that there are particular people in view, do we know enough to identify them, even if only tentatively? The first kind the "noble and well brought-up character" who is exiled, sounds a lot like Xenophon, who was, in fact, exiled, although the word here could mean that he fled rather than was exiled. Others of Socrates' students were forced to flee or were exiled, but Xenophon is the only one who had a significant philosophical after-history. Paul Shorey, in the notes to his translation, suggests that besides Xenophon (Socratic), Plato could have Anaxagoras (pre-Socratic) or Dion (post-Socratic) in mind. It would be tempting to take the description of the great soul (megale psyche) to be Plato himself (the attitude described fits the descriptions of Plato in the Platonic epistles, for instance), except for the fact that Athens in Plato's day wasn't even a small city by our standards today, much less for the ancient Greek world; its full population would certainly have been several hundred thousand people, and may have been as much as half a million, although only about forty thousand people would have been citizens in the strict sense of the term. Any other guess would require knowing more about the fates of Socrates' students than we do. Several of Socrates' students fit the profile of people from other crafts, such as the Simon the leatherworker who was supposedly somehow connected to Phaedo and who (according to that philosophical gossip mill, Diogenes Laertius) was the first person actually to write down Socrates' arguments. All of this is speculative, of course, but it is interesting speculation and, moreover, it reminds us that for both Socrates and Plato the arguments in the dialogue were about real life and real people.

* Peter Losin, Plato's Analogy of the Divided Line, argues for a somewhat different interpretation of the Line than is usually given. He gives a salutary warning worth keeping in mind when interpreting all of Plato's images in this middle part of the dialogue:

...we must remember that the sun, the line, and the cave are images (Rp 509A9, 517A8). As they are developed Glaucon is repeatedly asked to imagine or picture things (508B9, 508D4, 508D10, 514A2, 514B7-8); and they are qualified by some of the most explicit caveats in all of Plato's writing (see 505A1-4, 506C6-D5, 507A1-5, 517B7-C5). Socrates himself warns Glaucon against taking his spatial language too literally at 529A9-C2. So we must not be overly literal in reading what Plato so explicitly cautions is not to be taken as a straightforwardly literal account.

Book VII

The Allegory of the Cave is about the education of guardians, but it is worth also recognizing that it continues to answer the question of why philosophers can have the bad reputation of being useless despite being (if Socrates is right) so necessary to the good government of the city. And, of course, since the description of the city is a model for individuals as well, and guardians in the city represent reason in the individual, everything here is also arguing about what is required to give reason its proper role in one's life. If anyone asks why one should consider Plato a philosophical virtuoso, Book VII of the Republic more than suffices as an answer.

One of the key points is that education is not about putting knowledge into people. It depends on the fact that everyone already has the capacity to learn. Moreover, it requires the full person: "the instrument with which one learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body" (518c). And the object of study that matters is the good itself. This is the kind of study that is necessary if the guardians are to have a clear model on which to base their shaping of the just city. But, of course, to shape the city they must also "share the labors of the city, each in turn, while living the greater part of their time with one another in the pure realm" (520d). To this end they need to be trained in music, poetry, athletics, and the crafts, including mathematics; but most importantly they need dialectic, which allows them to go beyond the merely hypothetical to actual principles.

Dialectic is a dangerous subject, however; it needs to be introduced carefully:

I don't suppose that it has escaped your notice that, when young people get their first taste of arguments, they misuse it by treating it as a kind of game of contradiction. They imitate those who've refuted them by refuting others themselves, and, like puppies, they enjoy dragging and tearing those around them with their arguments. (539a-b)

Dialectic needs to be practiced instead with a love for truth and in a way that shows the goodness of philosophical life; otherwise it is counterproductive. It needs to be learned slowly and it must culminate, somewhere down the line, with understanding the good itself.

Thus we have completed the description of the beautiful city, and the character of those who live lives appropriate to it. Plato will now go on to tear it down.

  Additional Remarks

* If you haven't ever watched Orson Welles's narration of the Allegory of the Cave, you obviously must:

* Notice that Socrates explicitly emphasizes that his account of education applies to women as well as men (540c).

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