Monday, March 26, 2007

Excerpts from Plato's Republic

Last quarter I audited a class on Plato’s Republic at UCI. I found it very interesting, not least as a background and foil to my OAC classes. Of course there are many things to recommend in Plato (e.g. his identification of many of the basic issues in philosophy and his attempts to answer them systematically) and much to criticize (almost every one of his proposed answers). This has been done extensively over the past two millennia, and I obviously haven’t the knowledge to add to the discussion. Instead, I thought I’d just excerpt a couple of passages which I found insightful and which I think can be seen in light of Objectivism’s views on 1. the soul of the second-hander and 2. the idea that evil leads neither to long term success nor to happiness. (For ease of readability, I’ve deleted some of Socrates’ listeners’ agreement in the quotes below.)

From “How the Philosophic Natures are Corrupted” (Book VI)
Then let me crave your assent also to a further observation.

What are you going to say?

Why, that all those mercenary individuals, whom the many call Sophists and whom they deem to be their adversaries, do, in fact, teach nothing but the opinion of the many, that is to say, the opinions of their assemblies; and this is their wisdom. I might compare them to a man who should study the tempers and desires of a mighty strong beast who is fed by him — he would learn how to approach and handle him, also at what times and from what causes he is dangerous or the reverse, and what is the meaning of his several cries, and by what sounds, when another utters them, he is soothed or infuriated; and you may suppose further, that when, by continually attending upon him, he has become perfect in all this, he calls his knowledge wisdom, and makes of it a system or art, which he proceeds to teach, although he has no real notion of what he means by the principles or passions of which he is speaking, but calls this honourable and that dishonourable, or good or evil, or just or unjust, all in accordance with the tastes and tempers of the great brute. Good he pronounces to be that in which the beast delights and evil to be that which he dislikes; and he can give no other account of them except that the just and noble are the necessary, having never himself seen, and having no power of explaining to others the nature of either, or the difference between them, which is immense. By heaven, would not such an one be a rare educator?

Indeed, he would.

And in what way does he who thinks that wisdom is the discernment of the tempers and tastes of the motley multitude, whether in painting or music, or, finally, in politics, differ from him whom I have been describing For when a man consorts with the many, and exhibits to them his poem or other work of art or the service which he has done the State, making them his judges when he is not obliged, the so-called necessity of Diomede will oblige him to produce whatever they praise. And yet the reasons are utterly ludicrous which they give in confirmation of their own notions about the honourable and good. Did you ever hear any of them which were not?

From “Portrait of a Tyrant” (Book VIII)
And now let us consider the happiness of the man, and also of the State in which a creature like him is generated.

At first, in the early days of his power, he is full of smiles, and he salutes every one whom he meets; — he to be called a tyrant, who is making promises in public and also in private! liberating debtors, and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to every one!

But when he has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader.

Has he not also another object, which is that they may be impoverished by payment of taxes, and thus compelled to devote themselves to their daily wants and therefore less likely to conspire against him?

And if any of them are suspected by him of having notions of freedom, and of resistance to his authority, he will have a good pretext for destroying them by placing them at the mercy of the enemy; and for all these reasons the tyrant must be always getting up a war.

Now he begins to grow unpopular.

Then some of those who joined in setting him up, and who are in power, speak their minds to him and to one another, and the more courageous of them cast in his teeth what is being done.

And the tyrant, if he means to rule, must get rid of them; he cannot stop while he has a friend or an enemy who is good for anything.

And therefore he must look about him and see who is valiant, who is high-minded, who is wise, who is wealthy; happy man, he is the enemy of them all, and must seek occasion against them whether he will or no, until he has made a purgation of the State.

Yes, he said, and a rare purgation.

Yes, I said, not the sort of purgation which the physicians make of the body; for they take away the worse and leave the better part, but he does the reverse.

If he is to rule, I suppose that he cannot help himself.

What a blessed alternative, I said: — to be compelled to dwell only with the many bad, and to be by them hated, or not to live at all!

Yes, that is the alternative.

PS We used the Cornford translation in my class, which I prefer to the above, but I couldn’t find a link to an online version of it. The titles for the two excerpts are, however, from Cornford's section headings.


Blogger madmax said...

Its interesting that Plato understood at least implicitly the second hander psychology and also the role of saction of the victim. Yet, he had no problem replacing his tyrant with philosopher kings. He realy was a brilliant man. Its a shame he was not more rational. His philosophic answers have done much damage.

4:37 PM  
Blogger Amit Ghate said...

Hi madmax,

I'm no expert on Plato, but it's my impression that pre-Aristotle no one even knew precisely what reason entailed (not to mention the significant elaboration the nature of reason has seen thanks to Ayn Rand's work). So it's difficult for me to fault Plato for not being fully rational. Also, nothing in my (limited) reading suggests Plato knew of the principle of the sanction of the victim, what are you thinking of with your comment?

6:40 PM  

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