Monday, May 16, 2011

Some Rough Thoughts on Plato's Republic

One of the things that's often overlooked about Plato's Republic is that there's a sense in which the ideal republic Plato discusses at length through much of the book is not the ideal republic. That is, when Socrates first considers the question, he makes a proposal for the ideal republic that is rejected by his interlocutors; the famous republic of the Republic is Socrates's second attempt. The first attempt, toward the end of Book II, is very short, cut down by Glaucon almost at the beginning, but is interesting in its own right. Given (1) necessity and (2) the ability to divide labor, people form a city. What lifestyle do they have?

Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves? And when they are housed, they will work, in summer, commonly, stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and shod. They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reeds or on clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds strewn with yew or myrtle. And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another. And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means; having an eye to poverty or war.

(I use Jowett's translation because it's easily accessible.) Glaucon is aghast; the picture is of one in which the people have no amenities. True, says, Socrates, those need to be added:

Of course they must have a relish-salt, and olives, and cheese, and they will boil roots and herbs such as country people prepare; for a dessert we shall give them figs, and peas, and beans; and they will roast myrtle-berries and acorns at the fire, drinking in moderation. And with such a diet they may be expected to live in peace and health to a good old age, and bequeath a similar life to their children after them.

(The roasting of myrtle and acorn by the fire is likely a euphemism for sex.) To which Glaucon replies that this is fine if you're building a city for pigs. They should have nice furniture and fine foods and snacks and the like. What is the difference between Socrates's proposed city and the sort of city Glaucon wants? Socrates's city is one in which people restricts themselves to things they actually need -- necessary desires. But what Glaucon wants is a city in which people can pursue unnecessary desires -- luxuries of various kinds. And this radically changes everything.

There's a sense in which Socrates is less concerned throughout the Republic with a just society than with identifying what a society has to be for injustice to be (relatively) impossible. In a society in which people restrict themselves to necessary desires, there is no room for injustice: people are concerned only with necessities, and they work together to make sure that they have necessities. Injustice is only possible when people are motivated to get things they don't need: unnecessary desires open a space for pleonexia, the craving to have more and to be more than other people, and pleonexia is the cause of injustice in a city.

Through the rest of the Republic, then, Socrates has to answer one important question: What has to be done to make injustice relatively impossible given that people will act on unnecessary desires? Many of the institutions he proposes (common property and common marriage among the guardians, strict division of classes, banishing all the poets except those who devote themselves solely to hymns to the gods and eulogies of the just, etc.) are often regarded as somewhat weird. But the general principles they are exemplifying actually make a considerable amount of sense:

(1) Everyone should regard everyone else's good as their own, as people do in a healthy family.
(2) Only those best fitted to rule for everyone's benefit, namely, those who are just and wise, should be allowed to rule.
(3) Conflicts of interest and temptations to corruption, especially monetary ones, should be eliminated among the rulers.
(4) Everyone should learn to do their part for everyone's benefit.

These and others all make perfect sense: if you want to eliminate injustice, you want something like these principles. The tricky thing, however, is how you can best guarantee that your society will conform to these principles, given that people are allowed to act on unnecessary desires. And Socrates's republic is a solution. How do you guarantee that everyone regards the good of others as their own good? You actually make them family. How do you eliminate the temptation of money among rulers? You make it illegal for them to have anything to do with it, and, what is more, convince them that it is poisonous to them. How do you make sure everyone learns to do their part for everyone's benefit? You eliminate every source of education that doesn't teach this. The city Socrates sketches is one in which, despite unnecessary desires, there is no injustice because the rulers have virtually no interest but the public interest, no one learns anything but what benefits the public good, the government is carefully manipulated to keep the just and the wise in power, and people still do what is required to fulfill necessary desires. All the strangeness traces back to this.

Of course, Plato recognizes that it is all strange -- he goes out of his way to highlight it at several points. And this is why he makes what is perhaps the most brilliant move in the dialogue: he doesn't just design a just society in a world of unnecessary desires, he shows how it breaks down. There is nothing in the kallipolis itself that will lead to break down; as long as it maintains the form outlined, it will have no room for injustice. But human beings often judge by appearances rather than by realities, and, indeed, sometimes can't help but do so. This means that in the world of appearances -- our world -- errors will form spontaneously. People won't quite get what they deserve -- the unworthy will be rewarded, the worthy left unrewarded. Such mistakes are inevitable. Individually they can be corrected, of course, over time, but as time goes on they will build up. And as they build up, the unity between the interest of the rulers and the public interest will begin to break down under the pressure caused by unnecessary desires. Then we have the famous succession of societies increasingly open to injustice: the kallipolis built on virtue collapses into the timarchy built on honor (where desires for social reputation take precedence over virtue), which in turn collapses into the oligarchy built on financial respectability (where desires for profit take precedence over virtue and honor), which in turn collapses into the democracy built on toleration (where unnecessary desires for frivolous pleasure take precedence over virtue, honor, and profit), which is the last society maintaining a basic coherence before it all collapses into tyranny built on force (where unnecessary desires for monstrous pleasures take precedence over virtue, honor, profit, and toleration). Each society after the kallipolis has a line it doesn't want to cross, and feels increasing pressure to cross it if errors are not corrected. The timarch is willing to give up even necessary desires for the sake of honor, and so (to use an example Plato doesn't use) would keep his promises because it would be shameful to be caught in a lie. But the honorable are not always rewarded with desirable things, the dishonorable sometimes are; and old timarchs aren't able to do heroic deeds like they once were. So money, possessions, become increasingly important, and soon take precedence simply, and then we have oligarchs. But oligarchs are still willing to exercise self-discipline and self-sacrifice: it's hard work bringing in the money, and so oligarchs will sacrifice everything except necessary desires if they have to do so. And they keep their promises, too, not because it's the right thing to do, or because it's shameful to be caught lying, but because if you lie people stop trusting you and that's unprofitable. But oligarchs have to take risks, and often lose what they earned; some people just luck out despite not having done any work; and you can work your entire life and die without having enjoyed anything of what you earned. Even worse, the oligarchical society is not unified in the way the justice-based and the honor-based societies are: it is really two societies, the society of the wealthy few and the society of the poor multitude, in a precarious alliance. And as the principles of business respectability break down, and the poor many see the wealthy few more and more chasing after frivolous pleasures (which are often very obvious) rather than working hard and being respectable, they start to rumble. An oligarchy, in other words, begins to degenerate quickly from a society of wealthy people pursuing their own profit (and incidentally benefitting the poor in at least some ways) to a society of wealthy people bribing a society of poor people not to rise up against the wealthy as they pursue attractive pleasures. And how do you do this? By giving the poor attractive pleasures. Thus oligarchs slowly become democrats.

It's in this context that Plato's account of democracy must be understood. What he understands by a democracy is a society in which people pursue what they'd like and not what is good for everyone (unless the two happen, by accident, to coincide). He's so down on democratic society (Socrates becomes very sarcastic in his description of democracy) because it's the least unified society that isn't yet in a state of breakdown, and thus is the coherent society that is most open to injustice. He's well aware of the attractions. But in a pure democracy, as he understands, no one sacrifices their own interest for the public interest; that's why he rates oligarchy higher -- oligarchs will at least take a severe hit for the team if it increases the likelihood of profit in the long run, and an oligarchy is at least still pretty unified in its vision, even if its vision is mostly limited to prosperity for the rich and sufficient comforts for the poor that they let the rich be rich. Democrats, however, only sacrifice (e.g., in keeping their promises) when they are worried that it will put a stop to their pursuit of pleasures, and they are not merely two societies, rich and poor, but many societies. This is why they are built on principles of tolerance: democrats take a long enough view to recognize that if they don't restrain themselves to relatively harmless pleasures, other people will put a stop to their pursuit of pleasure entirely; they live and let live. As long as you aren't harming anyone else, you can do whatever you want, even if it is not virtuous or honorable or profitable, and why do I allow this? Because if I try to meddle with you, you might try to meddle with me. Thus a democratic society, in a pure form, is not so much a unified society as an elaborate alliance of many societies. And this is part of the attraction, of course: in a purely democratic society, you get to be a society of one. And the only price you have to pay is letting other societies of one do their own thing.

Which works marvellously for as long as everyone agrees about what is harmful and what is not. And there is the problem, the set of factors that inevitably leads to demagoguery: people begin to realize that they can do whatever they like as long as they convince enough people to go along with it. In the extraordinarily complex and shifting set of alliances that constitutes a democratic society there is very little to prevent persuasion from creating massive imbalances of power -- I can come closer to the line between harmless and harmful pleasures than you can because if you try to do anything about it everyone else will slap you down because I've convinced them that when I do it it's not harming anyone, or, if it is, not as much as your interference is. And sooner or later, if this is not corrected, it all just tips over and someone has the power to pursue even harmful pleasures. And then we are in tyranny, barely a society at all, being a sort of cold war (and sometimes hot war) of everyone against everyone else, and held together only by the fact that one of the warring parties holds all the big guns. When that breaks down, of course, you have no society at all, just a barbaric chaos.

All these are pure cases, of course. Plato thinks that what makes a society just, or timarchic, or oligarchic, or democratic, is the fact that the sort of people who predominate in the society are themselves just, timarchic, oligarchic, or democratic in outlook. Thus all real societies are in a constant state of shifting around as people learn what is right (and thus move up the series) or are wooed away from what is good for everyone (and thus move down the series). The kind of society you have begins with you, on Socrates's argument. It must have been a frustrating argument, and Plato knew this. The Republic, although written much later, is set during the Peloponnesian War: Greek city against Greek city, civil wars everywhere, Athens fighting a war almost no one thought it could win unless the Spartans just gave up, and here we have Socrates arguing in the midst of it that what really matters to society is whether you are just. There are no external solutions. No institutions or customs can ultimately prevent the breakdown, although some can slow it. The only thing that reverses the slide into anarchy is for you and me and everyone else to cultivate an increasingly pure pursuit of the Good itself.

And, of course, we know what happens when the person who has seen the Good comes back into the Cave and tries to persuade the people there that everything they call good is only good in the sense that the shadow of a puppet-dog is a dog.

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