PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy
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Introduction to Political Philosophy
PLSC 114 - Lecture 4 - Philosophers and Kings: Plato, Republic, I-II
Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]
Professor Steven Smith: There is one person in here, I don’t know who it is, and you will not know who it is yet, but there is one person in here for whom the reading of Plato’s Republic will be the most important intellectual experience you have at Yale. It is a book that one of you will go back to time and time again and it will stick with you forever. What I would like you to do is to remember this and four years from now, when most of you are ready to graduate, if that one person in here would email me and let me know who it is, okay? Maybe it will be you. Maybe? Possibly. Or you. Okay. This is the book that started it all. The Apology, the Crito, these are warm-ups to the big theme, to the big book, theRepublic. Every other book in this political science that has since been written, beginning with Aristotle’s Politics and moving on to the present day is, in one way or another, an answer, a response to Plato’s Republic. It started the whole thing.
The first and most obvious thing to say about the Republic is that it is a long book. Not the longest book you will ever read, but long enough. In fact, in part, because of this, we are only reading approximately half the book, the first five books, to be more specific. The first five books that deal with and culminate in the best city, Plato’s ideal city, what he calls Kallipolis, the just city, the beautiful city, ruled by philosopher-kings. The second half of the book turns in somewhat different, certainly equally important directions, but would take us much more time than the time we have allotted to deal with. So you will read that on your own. You can take another course, what have you. The Republic is a very perplexing book, you will find out. Its meaning will not be evident to you on a first reading. It may not be clear to you on a tenth reading, unless you approach it with the proper questions and the proper frame of mind.
Chapter 2. What Is Plato’s Republic About? [00:03:04]
So let’s start by asking a simple question. What is the Republic about? What does this book deal with? This is a question that has perplexed and divided readers of Plato almost from the beginning. Is it a book about justice, as the subtitle of the book suggests? Is it a book about what we today might call moral psychology and the right ordering of the human soul, which is a prominent theme addressed in this work? Is it a book about the power of poetry and myth, what we would call the whole domain of culture to shape souls and to shape our societies? Or is it a book about metaphysics and the ultimate structure of being, as certainly many of the later books of the Republic suggest? The theory of the forms, the image of the divided line and so on and so on. Of course, it is about all of these things and several others as well. But at least at the beginning, when we approach the book, we should stay on its surface, not dig at least initially too deeply.
As one of the great readers of Plato of the last century once said, “Only the surface of things reveals the essence of things.” The surface of the Republic reveals that it is a dialogue. It is a conversation. We should approach the book, in other words, not as we might a treatise, but as we might approach a work of literature or drama. It is a work comparable in scope to other literary masterworks–Hamlet, Don Quixote, War and Peace, others you might think of. As a conversation, as a dialogue, it is something the author wants us to join, to take part in. We are invited to be not merely passive onlookers of this conversation, but active participants in that dialogue that takes place in this book over the course of a single evening. Perhaps the best way to read this book is to read it aloud, as you might with a play, to yourself or with your friends.
Let’s go a little further. The Republic is also a utopia, a word that Plato does not use, was not coined until many, many centuries later by Sir Thomas More. But Plato’s book is a utopia. It is a kind of extreme. He presents an extreme vision of politics. He presents an extreme vision of the polis. The guiding thread of the book is the correspondence, and we will look at this in some length and you will discuss it in your sections, no doubt. The guiding thread of the book is the correspondence, the symmetry between the parts of the city and the parts of the soul. Discord within the city, just as discord within the soul, is regarded as the greatest evil. The aim of the Republic is to establish a harmonious city, based on a conception of justice that, so to speak, harmonizes the individual and society, how to achieve that. The best city would necessarily be one that seeks to produce the best or highest type of individual. Plato’s famous answer to this is that this city–any city–will never be free of conflict, will never be free of factional strife until, in his famous formula, kings become philosophers and philosophers become kings.
The Republic asks us to consider seriously, what would a city look like ruled by philosophers? In this respect, it would seem to be the sort of perfect bookend to the Apology. Remember, the Apology viewed the dangers posed to philosophy and the philosopher and the philosophical life from the city. The Republic asks us, what would a city be like if it were ruled by Socrates or someone like him? What would it be like for philosophers to rule? Such a city would require, so Socrates tells us throughout the opening books, the severe censorship of poetry and theology, the abolition of private property and the family, at least among the guardian class of the city, and the use of selected lies and myths, what would today probably be called ideology or propaganda, as tools of political rule. It would seem that far from utopia, theRepublic represents a radical dystopia, a satire, in some sense, of the best polity. In fact, much of modern political science is directed against Plato’s legacy. The modern state, as we have come to understand it, is based upon the separation of civil society from governing authority. The entire domain of what we call private life separated from the state. But Plato’s Republic recognizes no such separation or no such independence for a private sphere. For this reason, Plato has often been cast as a kind of harbinger of the modern totalitarian state.
A famous professor at a distant university was said to have begun his lectures on the Republic by saying, “Now we will consider Plato, the fascist.” This was, in fact, the view popularized by one of the most influential books about Plato written in the last century, a book written by a Viennese émigré by the name of Karl Popper, who in the very early 1950s, right at the height of the Cold War and of course the end of the conclusion of the Second World War, wrote a book calledThe Open Society and Its Enemies. He wanted to know what were the causes or who was responsible for the experiences of totalitarianism, both in Stalin’s Russia and in Hitler’s Germany. In the course of this inquiry, he concluded that not only Hegel and Marx were important in that particular genealogy, but this went back to Plato as well, Plato principally. Plato, who Popper accuses in a passionate, albeit not very well written book, accuses Plato of being the first to establish a kind of totalitarian dictatorship. Is that true?
Plato’s Republic is, we will discover as you read, a republic of a very special kind. It is not a regime like ours devoted to maximizing individual liberties, but it is one that puts the education of its citizens, the education of its members, as its highest duty. The Republic, like the Greek polis, was a kind of tutelary association. Its principal good, its principal goal, was the education of citizens for positions of public leadership and high political responsibilities. It is always worthwhile to remember that Plato was, above all, a teacher. He was the founder of the first university, the Academy, the Platonic Academy, where we will find out later Aristotle came to study, among many others–Aristotle being but the most famous. Plato was the founder of this school. This, in turn, spawned other philosophical schools throughout the Greek world and later, the Roman world. With the demise of Rome, in the early Christian centuries, these philosophical academies, these philosophical schools, were absorbed into the medieval monasteries. These, in turn, became the basis of the first European universities in places like Bologna, Paris, Oxford.
These were, in turn, later transplanted to the New World and established in towns like Cambridge and, of course, New Haven. We can say today that this university is a direct ancestor of the platonic republic of Plato’s Academy. We are all here the heirs of Plato. Think of that. Without Plato, no Yale. We would not be here today. I think that is a fact. Just ponder that for a moment. In fact, let me even say a little more about this. The institutional and educational requirements of Plato’s Republic share many features with a place like Yale. For example, in both the Platonic Kallipolis, the just city, as well as this place, men and women–men and women–are selected at a relatively early age because of their capacities for leadership, for courage, for self-discipline, and responsibility. They spend several years living together, eating together in common mess halls, exercising together, and studying together, of course, far from the oversight of their parents. The best of them are winnowed out to pursue further study and eventually assume positions of public leadership and responsibility. Throughout all of this, they are subjected to a course of rigorous study and physical training that will lead them to adopt prominent positions in the military and other branches of public service. Does this sound at all familiar to you? It should. Let me put it another way. If Plato is a fascist, what does that make you? Plato, of course, is an extremist. He pushes his ideas to their most radical conclusions. That’s what it is to be a philosopher. But he is also defining a kind of school. He regards the Politea or the Republic, because that is the original Greek title of the book, Politea or regime. He regards the politea as a school whose chief goal is preparation for guidance and leadership of a community.
If you don’t believe me about this, maybe you will consider the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the great readers of Plato’s Republic. Rousseau wrote in his Emile, “To get a good idea of public education,” he says, “read Plato’s Republic. It is not a political treatise, as those who merely judge books by their title think, but it is the finest, most beautiful work on education ever written.” Rousseau. So, there we go.
Chapter 3. “I Went Down to the Piraeus” [00:17:38]
Let’s now peek into the book itself. Just peek. We won’t go too far. Let’s start with the first line. Who remembers what the first line is? Oh, come on. You should know this. You’re looking at the book. You’re cheating. “I went down to the Piraeus.” I went down to the Piraeus. Why does Plato begin with this line? There’s a story that I heard. I’m not sure if it’s altogether true, but it’s a good story, at least, about the famous German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who said that on his first teaching of the Republic, he went through the whole book, taught the whole book in one seminar, one semester. The last time he taught it, the final time he taught it, he never got beyond the first sentence, “I went down to the Piraeus.” What does it mean? Why does he begin with this? “I went down,” a going down. The Greek word for this is catabasis. “I had made a descent.”
There is a book by a famous contemporary to Plato. It’s a man named Xenophon, who wrote a book called the Anabasis. The anabasis means a going up, an ascent. But Plato begins this dialogue with this stigma. “I went down.” The descent to the Piraeus. It is clearly modeled on Odysseus’ descent to Hades in the Odyssey. In fact, the work is a kind of philosophical odyssey that both imitates Homer, but also anticipates other great odysseys of the human mind, works by those like Cervantes or Joyce. The book is full, you will see, of a number of descents and ascents. The most famous climb upward, although we will not actually read these parts for this class, concerns the climb to the divided line, the famous image of the divided line in Book VI, and the ascent to the world of the imperishable forms. Then, in the last book of the Republic, Book X, there is, once again, a descent to the underworld, to the world of Hades. The work is not, in a sense, written simply as a sort of timeless philosophical treatise, but as a dramatic dialogue with a setting, a cast of characters and a firm location in time and place.
Let’s say a little more about that time and place already indicated in the sentence, “I went down to the Piraeus.” Plato was born in 427, which is four years after the commencement of the Peloponnesian War. He was a young man of 23 when the democracy in Athens was defeated. He was only 28 when the restored democracy executed his friend and teacher, Socrates, in 399. Almost immediately after the trial of Socrates, Plato left Athens and traveled extensively throughout the Greek world. Upon his return, he established this school at Athens he called the Academy, for the training of philosophers, statesmen, and legislators. Plato lived a long time. He lived until the age of 80. Except for two expeditions to Sicily, where he went at the request of Dionysius to help try to establish a philosophical kingship in Syracuse, he remained in Athens teaching and writing. The Republic belongs to that period of Plato’s work after his return to Athens, after the execution of Socrates.
Chapter 4. The Seventh Letter [00:22:05]
The dominant feature of Plato’s political theory, David Grene, a great reader of Plato, has said is “the root and branch character of the change it advocates and existing institutions.” Plato’s desire for a kind of radical makeover, of Athenian and Greek political institutions and cultures, grew out of his experience of political defeat and despair. The utopianism of the book is, in many ways, the reverse side of the sense of profound disillusionment that he felt at the actual experience of the Athenian polis. This was not only true of his experience at home, but of his failed efforts to turn Dionysius’ kingship in Sicily into a successful example of philosophical rule. In fact, we have–and I want to read to you in just a moment–a lengthy transcript of Plato’s own account of why he came to write the Republic. One thing, of course, you note in theRepublic, is that Plato is nowhere present. He is not a participant in his own dialogue. He is the author, but not the participant.
We don’t know precisely what Plato thought, but we are helped, at least, by a kind of intellectual autobiography that he wrote and that we still have, in what is conventionally referred to as The Seventh Letter. Plato wrote a series of letters that we have. People have argued over the authenticity of them, although I think by now it is established that they are his. In the most famous of these letters, the lengthy seventh one, he gives us, again, something of an autobiography and tells us a little bit about why he came to write this book. Isn’t this amazing that 2,000-2,500 years ago, we still have the letters of the man who wrote this book? Let me read to you what Plato says about how he came to write this book. “When I was a young man,” he said–and this is written as he is very old. “When I was a young man, I felt as yet many young men do. I felt at the very moment I attained my majority I should engage in public affairs. And there came my way an opportunity that I want to tell you about. The democratic constitution, then loudly decried by many people, was abolished. And the leaders of the revolution set themselves up as a government of 30 men with supreme authority.”
He’s referring to the Tyranny of the Thirty that existed after the Athenian defeat. “Some of these men [some of the members of the Thirty], you must understand, were relatives of mine and well known to me. And what is more, they actually invited me at once to join them, as though politics and I were a fit match. I was very young then and it is not surprising that I felt as I did. I thought that the city was then living a kind of life which was unjust and that they would bend it to a just one and so administer it more justly. So I eagerly watched to see what they would do. And you must know, as I looked on, I saw those men in a short time make the former democracy look like a golden age.”
He is referring to his relatives, men like Critias and Charmides, who turned Athenian politics into a tyranny and, which he says, makes the “democracy look like a golden age.” Let me continue in Plato’s words. “I looked at this, you see, and at the men who were in politics, at the laws and customs. And the more I looked and the older I grew, the more difficult it seemed to me to administer political affairs justly. For you cannot do so without friends and comrades you can trust. In such men it was not easy to find. For the city, you see, no longer lived in the fashion and ways of our fathers. Eager as I had once been to go into politics, as I look at these things and saw everything taking any course at all with no direction or management, I ended up feeling dizzy. I did not abandon my interest in politics to discover how it might be bettered in other respects, and I was perpetually awaiting my opportunity. But at last, I saw that as far as all states now existing are concerned, they are all badly governed. For the condition of their laws is bad almost past cure, except for some miraculous accident. So I was compelled to say, in praising true philosophy, that it was from it alone that was able to discern any justice. And so I said that the nations of the world will never cease from trouble until either the true breed of philosophers shall come to political office or until that of the rulers shall, by some divine law, take the pursuit of philosophy.”
There you see in that wonderful and a kind of probing self-examination of his early motives and expectations, you see the disillusionment of the older Plato looking on what the Tyranny had done. But also looking at the states, the nations of his time, seeing their management, seeing their decay and conflict and saying and suggesting that no justice will ever be expected until, as he says at the end, kings become philosophers and philosophers kings, a direct reference to theRepublic. This little autobiography, goes on at considerably greater length, I should say. But this provides a kind of introduction, as it were, to the Republic. We have in Plato’s own words here, the way he viewed politics and his reasons for his political philosophy. Yet, in many respects, if the Republic was the result of comprehensive despair and disillusionment with the prospects of reform, the dialogue itself points back to an earlier moment in Plato’s life and the life of the city of Athens. This remarkable letter was written when Plato was very old, approximately 50 years after the trial and execution of Socrates. But the action of the Republic takes place long before the defeat of Athens, before the rise of the Thirty and the execution of Athens [correction: should have said Socrates]. It refers to that period that Plato says in the letter looked like “a golden age, when many things seemed possible.” That brings us back to the opening, the descent to the Piraeus.
Chapter 5. Analyzing the Beginning of Republic and the Hierarchy of Characters [00:30:00]
The action of the dialogue begins at the Piraeus, the port city of Athens, somewhere around the year 411, during what was called the Peace of Nicias, that is to say, the peace that endured a kind of respite, truce that was established during the fighting between Sparta and Athens. At the very beginning of the dialogue, we see Socrates and his friend Glaucon. What are they doing? What are they doing? Do you remember? What are they doing at the very beginning?
Professor Steven Smith: Where?
Professor Steven Smith: Right. Let me put it a slightly–yes, they are walking back to Athens from the Piraeus. But maybe to put it a slightly different way, they’re trolling the waterfront. What is the Piraeus? It is the harbor of Athens. What do you expect from harbors? What are harbor cities like? What do you find down at harbors?
Professor Steven Smith: Water, yeah. They’re seedy, aren’t they? You find various kinds of disreputable and maybe unseemly things going on there. We are forced to ask ourselves: What are Socrates and Glaucon doing there? Why are they there together? What are they doing? What do they expect to find? These seem to be questions that immediately come to mind. We learn shortly afterwards that they have taken this descent to the Piraeus to view a festival, a kind of carnival. It sounds like something one might expect to see in a Fellini film. A kind of carnival, a carnivale, a Mardi Gras, where a festival is going on. What’s more, a new goddess is being introduced into the pantheon of deities. This seems to suggest that–referring back to the Apology, that it is not Socrates, but the Athenians who innovate, who create and introduce new deities. Socrates remarks that the Thracians, the display of the Thracians, put on a good show, showing that his own perspective is not simply bound by that of a city. It suggests, from the beginning, a kind of loftiness and impartiality of perspective characteristic of the philosopher, but not necessarily the citizen.
On their way back from this festival, from this carnival, on their way back they’re accosted, you remember. They’re accosted by a slave who’s been sent on by Polemarchus and his friends and who orders Socrates and Glaucon to wait. “Polemarchus orders you to wait,” the slave says. He orders you to wait. He is coming up behind you. Just wait. “Of course we’ll wait,” Glaucon replies. When Polemarchus and his friends arrive, we find that his friends include Adeimantus, who is Glaucon’s brother and Niceratus, who is the son of Nicias, the general who has just brokered the peace that they are now enjoying. That’s the famous Peace of Nicias. They challenge Socrates. “Stay with us or prove stronger.” Stay with us or prove stronger. “Could we not persuade you?” Socrates asked. “Could we not persuade you to let us go?” “Not if we won’t listen,” Polemarchus says. Instead, they reach a compromise. But Socrates and Glaucon come with Polemarchus and the others to the home of Polemarchus’ father, where dinner will be provided for them, and later, a return to the festival where there will be a horseback race. “It seems,” Glaucon says, “we must stay.” And Socrates concurs.
Why does the book begin with this, let’s say, opening gambit? Is it simply a ruse to get the reader’s attention in some sense or to rope you in with some promise of what’s to follow? Already from the very opening lines we see in this a clue to the theme that is going to follow. Who has the title to rule? Is it Polemarchus and his friends who claim to rule by strength of numbers? “Can we persuade you?” “Not if we don’t listen,” he says. Or Socrates and Glaucon, who hope to rule by the powers of reason, speech, and argument? Can we convince you? Can we persuade you? Can democracy that expresses the will of the majority, the will of the greater number be rendered compatible with the needs of philosophy and the claims to respect only reason and a better argument? That seems to be the question already posed in this opening scene. Can a compromise be reached between the two? Can the strength of numbers, as well as respect for reason and a better argument be, in some sense, harmonized? Can they be brought together? Is the just city, perhaps, that Socrates will later consider, a combination of these two–of both force and persuasion? That will be something left to see. But I think you can see the big themes of the book already very present in the opening scene of the dialogue. The first book is really a kind of preamble to everything that follows. Okay? Are you with me so far on this?
Let’s talk a little bit about the participants in this dialogue. It is a dialogue. It has a fairly large number of characters, although only a relatively few number of them speak in the book. Yet, it’s something very important, as we would want to know in any play or novel or movie. We want to note something about the particular people who inhabit this dinner party that Socrates and Glaucon have been promised. Who are they and what do they represent? There is Cephalus, who we will see very quickly, the father of Polemarchus and whose home they are attending. The venerable paterfamilias, the venerable father of the family. Polemarchus, his son, a solid patriot who defends not only his father’s honor, but that of his friends and fellow citizens. We will also see Thrasymachus, a cynical intellectual who rivals Socrates as an educator of future leaders and statesmen. Of course, it is the exchange between Socrates and Thrasymachus that is one of the most famous moments of the book.
Chapter 6. Cephalus [00:38:13]
There is, in the first set of dialogues, a distinct hierarchy of characters, you might say, who we see later on express those distinctive features of the soul and the city. Cephalus, we learn, has spent his life in the acquisitive arts. That is to say, he’s a businessman. He’s been concerned with satisfying the needs of his body and making money. He represents what will later be called in the Republic the appetitive part of the soul, the appetites. Polemarchus, whose name actually means “warlord.” Think of that. The warlord is preoccupied with questions of honor and loyalty. He tells us, to get a little bit ahead of ourselves, that justice is helping your friends and harming your enemies. He seems to represent what Plato or Socrates will later call the spirited part of the soul, something that we want to return to. Thrasymachus, a visiting sophist, seeks to teach and educate, anticipating what the Republic will call the rational soul, the rational part of the soul.
Each of these figures, in many ways, prefigure the relatively superior natures of those who come later in the dialogue. The two brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, whose exchange with Socrates occupies, for the most part, the rest of the dialogue from Book Two onward, the two brothers who, incidentally, are the brothers of Plato. I should say, to my knowledge, we know nothing more about Glaucon and Adeimantus from history, but Plato put them into his dialogue. They will always be remembered as the two brothers in the dialogue. Again, they seem to represent something quite different. Bear this in mind as you are reading the book, because it is easy to kind of forget who’s talking and what they represent. Adeimantus is, we will find, the kind of hedonistic and pleasure-seeking brother. Glaucon, whose name means something like “gleaming”, “shining,” is the fierce and war-like of the two brothers. Of course, there is the philosophically-minded Socrates. Again, each of them seems to represent, in a superior way, the key components of the human soul, the appetitive, the war-like or spirited, and the rational. Together, these figures form a kind of microcosm of humanity. Each of the participants in the dialogue represents one of the specific classes or groups that will eventually occupy the just city to which Plato or Socrates gives the name Kallipolis, the beautiful city. Alright?
In the five minutes or so that remain, let’s just talk for a moment about the first conversation with the head of the family, Cephalus. We don’t need to look at this at great length. You can, I’m sure in your sections, you might want to talk about the arguments a little more specifically that are used in these first three sets of conversations between Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus. The question, more importantly– the question, I don’t know that it’s more importantly, but the question that I want us to examine a little bit here in the time remaining is what, again, these characters represent. Cephalus, as his name implies, Cephalus. What does that mean? Do you know? Head, yes, Cephalus, head, the head of the household, but also clearly the claims of age, of tradition, of family.
At the beginning of the dialogue when Polemarchus brought his friends back to the house, we see the aged father, Cephalus. He is just returning from prayer. He has just returned from performing certain acts of ritual sacrifice. He greets Socrates, in many ways, as a long, lost friend. Perhaps you have had this experience yourself, always a slightly uncomfortable one. When you bring a group of your friends back to your house, you’re expecting to have a good time, and your grandparent is there and says, “Oh, it’s so good to see a bunch of young people. I want to talk with you.” It’s always a slightly uncomfortable moment, you might say. We all have experienced this kind of thing. Everybody knows it from either end. I’m not a grandparent, thank god. But I feel the same thing often when my son brings his friends, maybe that I’ve known for a long time. “Oh, how are you doing?” and they want to get away. Socrates does something rather abrupt. “Tell me, Cephalus, what’s it like to be so old?” “What is it like to be like you?” “Do you still feel the need for sex?” Can you imagine saying that to someone’s grandfather? It gives you a little idea of the character of Socrates. Cephalus is so happy. “Oh, thank god I’m past that,” he says. “Thank god I no longer feel this erotic desire. At my old age, I can spend my time–” “When I was a young man, that’s all I did. I was thinking about sex all the time and when I wasn’t thinking about that, I was making money. But now I’ve had my fill of both and I can spend my later years, the twilight of my life, turning to the things about the gods, performing sacrifices commanded by the gods.”
Why does Plato begin this way? Well, Cephalus is, as should be clear, the very embodiment of the conventional, in both senses of that term. He’s not a bad man, by any means. But he is a thoroughly unreflective one. In attacking Cephalus as he does, Socrates attacks the embodiment of conventional opinion, the Nomos supporting the city. Note the way Socrates manipulates the dialogue, the conversation. Cephalus says that the pious man, the just man practices justice by sacrificing to the gods. Socrates turns that into the statement that justice means paying your debts and returning what is owed to you. Cephalus, in an easygoing manner, agrees and then Socrates says, “What would you think about returning a weapon that you had borrowed from a friend or someone who was in a very depressed”–we might say a depressed “frame of mind. Would that be just? How do you explain that? Would you do that if justice means paying your debts and giving back to each what is owed?” At that moment, Cephalus excuses himself from the dialogue and says, rather abruptly, “I have to go out and continue my sacrifices in the garden.” Socrates, in other words, has broken the bond of tradition and traditional authority that holds the ancient city and the ancient family together. Cephalus is banished from the dialogue. Tradition is banished and we never hear another word about it for the next 400 or so pages. That’s the way Socrates begins this dialogue, or that’s the way Plato has Socrates begin it. We’ll look a little more at some of these in our class for next time and then move into the characters of Adeimantus and Glaucon. Anyway, start your reading. Continue your reading. Your sections are going on this week, so enjoy yourselves.
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