Plato’s Republic

Plato usually wrote relatively short pieces, like the Euthyphro, Meno, etc. In all his writings there are only two book length works, the Republic and the Laws. The Laws was the last thing Plato wrote, at eighty, and it is a grim and terrifying culmination of the totalitarian tendencies in his earlier political thought. It is also pretty dull, since Plato had all but abandoned his earlier lively dialogue format. The Republic, however, is the supreme product of Plato’s most mature years, thought, and style. It contains virtually the entire universe of Plato’s philosophy.

The word “republic” is from Latin: Res publica means “public matters” or “the state.” In Greek, the title was the Politeia, which means the Constitution. But the Republic does not start out about politics. It is initially a familiar kind of Socratic dialogue about justice, just as the Euthyphro is about piety and the Meno is about virtue. The Republic is divided into ten Books. Each of these was originally what would fit onto one papyrus scroll. [By late Roman times, the scrolls were cut up and sewn together into codices, or the kind of bound books that we continue to use.] The entire first Book of the Republic may originally have been one of the standard early dialogues that Plato wrote about Socrates. Later it was expanded. Unusual features of the dialogue, however, are (1) that Socrates [note well that Plato continues to use Socrates to speak Plato’s ideas in all his mature works] actually narrates the entire thing, (2) that he speaks with a large number of people, not just one, (3) that these include two brothers of Plato himself (Glaucon and Adeimantus), and (4) that, after the dialogue about justice proceeds in the fashion that we expect of Socrates, things take an unexpected turn: One of the characters, the sophist Thrasymachus, begins to object that he knows quite well what justice is, and that the kinds of definitions the others have been giving are nonsense.

Thrasymachus says, “I declare justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger” Republic 338c [W.H.D. Rouse translation, Great Dialogues of Plato, Mentor Books, 1956, p.137. The following two citations are Rouse’s translation also]. Robbery and violence are normally called “injustice,” but when they are practiced wholesale by rulers, they are justice, i.e. the interest of the stronger, the rulers. Thus, when we consider ordinary citizens, “the just man comes off worse than an unjust man everywhere” (343d). Since the rulers do not obey the principles they impose on the citizens, they are in those terms “unjust.” So Thrasymachus says, “You will understand it most easily, if you come to the most perfect injustice, which makes the unjust man most happy, and makes those who are wronged and will not be unjust most miserable” (344a).

…Tyranny is not a matter of minor theft and violence, but of wholesale plunder, sacred and profane, private or public. If you are caught committing such crimes in detail you are punished and disgraced; sacrilege, kidnapping, burglary, fraud, theft are the names we give to such petty forms of wrongdoing. But when a man succeeds in robbing the whole body of citizens and reducing them to slavery, they forget these ugly names and call him happy and fortunate, as do all others who hear of his unmitigated wrongdoing. [Republic 344a-c, H.D.P. Lee translation, Penguin Books, 1955, p.73.]

Thus to Thrasymachus the tyrant is happy and fortunate, and he is so precisely because he breaks the rules (“justice”) that he imposes on the weak. What the weak call “justice” is really slavery, and no one truly strong would act that way. Such sentiments are familiar in modern philosophy from the still popular and influential German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).

In Book I Socrates proceeds to refute Thrasymachus and does so. If the weak, after all, can prevent the strong from taking what they want or can prevent someone from becoming a tyrant, then they are the strong! Thrasymachus is finally quieted. At the beginning of Book II however, Socrates is told by Glaucon and the others that this was all too easy. They argue that anyone would be unjust, given the opportunity, just as Gyges seduced and murdered his way to the throne of Lydia, once he had found a ring that made him invisible, because everyone believes that injustice leads to happiness, if only one can get away with it. They want Socrates to prove that it is better to be just than to be unjust even if the unjust man is praised, celebrated, and rewarded and the just man is reviled, punished, and rejected. Socrates must prove that such a just man is actually happy and such an unjust man (a tyrant perhaps) is unhappy.

The rest of the Republic answers this challenge. It does so by way of an analogy. Socrates says that it is difficult to distinguish what is going on in the soul, but it is easier to see what is going on in the state. Thus the state will be examined by analogy to the soul. Now we would say that the state is the macrocosm (makros, “large,” kosmos, “universe”), the large scale analogue, and the soul is the microcosm (mikros, “small”), the small scale analogue. When matters are sorted out for the state, then the soul can be understood in its own right.

As it happens, Plato ends up using the theory of the soul that he also proposes in the Phaedrus. The soul, on this view, has three parts, which correspond to three different kinds of interests, three kinds of virtues, three kinds of personalities —

reason knowledge philosophers wisdom justice
spirit honor warriors courage
desire pleasures commoners temperance

depending on which part of the soul is dominant — and so, properly, to three kinds of social classes that should be based on the three personalities, interests, and virtues.

“Spirit” is in the sense of a “spirited” horse. Plato thinks that this is the energy that drives the soul and may be used to reason to keep desire in line. Temperance, or moderation, will mean the limitation of desires. The word “temperance” is now a little archaic, and it tends to suggest “temperance” as it came to mean abstention from alcohol, as was advocated in the early days of this century by Cary Nation and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who brought about Prohibition. The three parts of the soul also correspond to places in the body: reason to the head, spirit to the heart, and desire to the organs of desire, mostly in the abdomen. Plato simply made a good guess that reason had something to do with the brain. There wasn’t a lot of evidence about this; and many people, including the Egyptians and Aristotle, thought that intelligence was centered in the heart. When the Egyptians mummified bodies, they actually used to throw the brain away, while the heart was carefully prepared and replaced in the body. Remember later in the course to compare Plato’s parts of the soul and social classes with the doctrine of the gunas and the varnas later in Indian philosophy.

Now, Plato was originally looking for justice, but justice does not appear in the list of virtues. The answer is that justice applies to them all in the sense of their organization. Reason (and the philosophers) should be in control, with the help of spirit (and the warriors). The philosophers and the warriors are thus the “Guardians” of Plato’s ideal state. This does not seem like a familiar sort of definition for justice, but the result, Plato says, is that each interest is satisfied to the proper extent, or, in society, everyone has what is theirs. The philosophers have the knowledge they want; the warriors have the honors they want; and the commoners have the goods and pleasures they want, in the proper moderation maintained by the philosophers and warriors. The root of all trouble, as far as Plato is concerned, is always unlimited desire.

John E.E.D. Acton, or Lord Acton (1834-1902) famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Even Plato was aware of this and that commoners might be envious of the power of the Guardians, desiring it for themselves so as to obtain greater goods and pleasures. Thus Plato proposes a set of rules for his Guardians that would render their position undesirable to the commoners:

  1. The Guardians must live in poverty, with any possessions they do have held in common. The very things, then, that mean the most to the commoners will be denied to the rulers. Historically, the precedent for something like this was Sparta, though the Spartans didn’t go quite this far. This does seems to be the first serious proposal in political history for something like complete communism, though it does only apply to the Guardians. It doesn’t seem like a bad idea even today to apply to politicians.When I used to live in Honolulu, occasionally I liked to visit the State Legislature when it was in session. The Hawaii State Capitol is unique, with an open central courtyard instead of the traditional dome and rotunda. On each side of the courtyard, you can look through windows down into sunken chambers for the two houses of the legislature. When the legislature is in session, you can enter a visitors balcony through doors in the windows. You sit in the balcony, however, on hard wooden benches, like church pews, while the legislators below sit on huge, stuffed, reclining, leather chairs that look good enough to sleep in — and you will often see the lawmakers, indeed, sleeping in them. This has always struck me as just the opposite of what Plato would have required. It is the visitors, the commoners, who should have the comfort and the “servants of the people,” the politicians who should have the Spartan conditions.
  2. The Guardians will even have their families in common. Children will be raised in common and will not know who their real parents are. These children will also not be randomly conceived. They will be bred deliberately to produce the best offspring, as though the Guardians were a pack of hunting dogs. Even Plato realizes that such cold blooded match making might be too much for the Guardians, so he proposes that the process be kept secret from most of them. Every year, after the breeding committee, or whatever, secretly makes its choices, there is to be a kind of fertility festival. Everyone chooses names by lot, and the name they draw, or no name, is the choice of the gods for them. This is the kind of thing that Plato calls a “noble lie”; for the lottery is to be rigged by the breeding committee. Everyone will actually draw the name designated for them; and those who draw a blank were simply thought undesirable for offspring. The idea that people should be bred just like animals is usually called “eugenics” (eu, “well,” and gignomai, “come into being” or “born”) and was popular early in this century; but the only regime that has tried to formally implement eugenics was Nazi Germany. So it is not surprising that Plato thought this should all be kept secret.
  3. After two fairly disturbing proposals, Plato gets to one that is more congenial. At the beginning of Book V Adeimantus brings to Socrates’s attention his casual remark that wives and children will be held in common by the Guardians, which makes it seem as though women are going to be Guardians along with the men. Socrates says that he hesitated to make an issue out of it, but that, yes, there will be women Guardians. Women have all the same parts of the soul and so all the same interests, virtues, and personality types as men. Since children will be raised in common, individual women will not be burdened with the task of child rearing and will be free to take their places in their proper occupations along with the men. If the warrior women are not as strong as the men, then they may not be at the forefront of the battle, but they should be at the battle. This equality even extends to athletics, which is somewhat shocking, since Greek athletes went naked. Words like “gymnasium” and “gymnastics” both derive from gymnos “naked.” The Greeks rather prided themselves on not thinking that it was shameful or ridiculous to go naked, as all the “barbarians,” their neighbors, thought. But Socrates says that nothing is ridiculous except what is wrong, and that in time people would get used to naked women athletes just as at one time they got used to naked men. This all, of course, has not come entirely true, since no athletes go naked today. But the male and female nude torso statues that were installed in front of the L.A. Colosseum at the time of the 1984 Olympic Games do reflect Plato’s version of the Greek ideal of physical beauty.With these views about nudity, the Greeks were all the more impressed with India when Alexander the Great arrived there and found naked holy men. These were Jain monks, and others, who had renounced the world even to the extent of renouncing clothing also. The Greeks called them the gymnosophistai “naked philosophers”; and Greek philosophers like Pyrrho of Elis, who was with Alexander’s army, reportedly spent a great deal of time talking with them. Pyrrho, at least, seems to have actually picked up some ideas from Indian philosophy thereby. Naked monks still exist in India. They are called digambara or “sky-clad,” since the sky is their only covering.
  4. The last rule is not just for the Guardians. Plato realizes that even with his breeding program, there will be children born to the Guardians who do not belong there. That is especially likely when we realize that it is not intelligence that distinguishes Plato’s philosophers but the dominance of a particular kind of interest. Anyone dominated by desire, however intelligent, belongs among the commoners. There will also be children born to the commoners who belong among the Guardians, and so there must be some way to sort everyone out. That will be a universal system of education. A very large part of the Republic is about education. Those who go all the way in that system and will be qualified to be the philosopher rulers will actually be nearly fifty before they have finished all the requirements.

Of all the serious criticisms that can be made against Plato’s ideal state, I think that a couple of the most telling are that his theory involves two serious internal contradictions:

  1. That, although Plato, like Socrates, had always defined philosophers as those who know they are ignorant, he always talks about the philosopher Guardians as though they will actually be wise. But if a philosopher is not wise, then he may not make any better a ruler than someone who is virtuous because of correct belief (as described at the end of the Meno). Plato’s theory, therefore, really depends on philosophy actually be able to produce wise people. In two thousand years, that has clearly not happened. It is fairly obvious that philosophy professors are, on the whole, no wiser as persons than anyone else; and in academic philosophy departments most professors are not even trying to pursue wisdom in any ordinary meaning of the word.
  2. That, although Plato defines the soul as consisting of three parts for everyone, he really talks about each of his social classes as though they only had one part of the soul, the dominant part. Thus, he can contemplate the Guardians living in poverty because he disregards the fact that philosophers and warriors will have desires and so are not likely to be happy in circumstances that deny the existence of desire. Plato’s life for the Guardians violates human nature, not just as any reasonable person would see it, but as Plato defines human nature himself. It is easy to see how Plato could have stumbled into this mistake by the nature of his analogy between soul and state: the soul has three simple parts, but the state has three parts that consists of things that each have three parts. Some people, like Leo Strauss, have consequently argued that Plato’s theory of the state is not meant to be taken seriously and is only a device of argumentation. Possibly, but the Republic sounds pretty serious — and the Laws even more so.

Taking Plato’s theory at face value, however, does not answer the whole challenge originally posed by Thrasymachus. This might give us a definition of justice, after a fashion, but it does not show why it is better to be just or why the just person is happier. Plato does that in Book VIII of the Republic by examining “imperfect” states. He imagines what would happen if his ideal state decays.

  1. The ideal state itself Plato calls an “aristocracy” (aristos, “best,” and krateîn, “to rule”), the rule of the best. The principle of this state is the reason of the philosophers. The danger he sees to this state is that Guardian parents might not wish to give up children who do not belong among them. If they do not give up the children to become commoners, then some other interest will come to operate among the philosophers. They will cease to be philosophers and so will not be respected by the warriors or commoners.
  2. The warriors will take over. They have the monopoly of force anyway, so they decide to use it. The kind of state they will establish Plato’s calls a “timocracy” (timê, “honor”), the rule of honor. The principle of this state is the spirit of the warriors. We may say that this kind of state has actually existed, not only with Sparta in Plato’s day but in mediaeval Europe or Japan, or among the Kshatriya caste in India, with the kind of feudal military society that they all had. European or Japanese nobility felt themselves superior to the desire for wealth (although they didn’t always live in poverty) and tended to fight each other over issues of honor. This kind of state will decay, however, when the children of the warriors fall to the temptation to use their military power to obtain wealth.
  3. The rulers thus become the rich. Plato calls this an “oligarchy” (oligos, “few,” and archê, “beginning,” “power” “sovereignty”), the rule of the few. A more appropriate term, however, might be one that we use, “plutocracy” (ploutôn, “wealth,” and so the god of the underworld, Pluto), the rule of wealth. The principle of this state is the desire of the rich; but it is still a very disciplined desire, for no one can become or stay rich if they simply indulge themselves in pleasure and spending. We can certainly say that there have been such states. Commercial republics like Venice, Genoa, and the Netherlands come to mind. The limitation of desire is also evident in many of the so-called “robber baron” industrialists of American history. Someone like John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), the often reviled founder of Standard Oil, lived simply and almost ascetically. By the time he died he had actually given away about $550,000,000 ($8.25 billion in 1995 dollars), more money than any American had actually possessed before him. The plutocratic kind of state will decay when the children of the rich decide simply to enjoy themselves and dissipate their wealth, or when the poor decide to take advantage of their numbers by overthrowing the rich.
  4. The result is a “democracy” (dêmokratia; dêmos, “people”), the rule of the people. Plato pays grudging respect to democracy as the “fairest” (kallistê, “most beautiful”) of constitutions. The principle of this state is the desire of the many. This is “democratic” in the sense that all desires are equally good, which means anything goes. Because the desires and possessions of some inevitably interfere with the desires and acquisitiveness of others, Plato thinks that democracies will become increasing undisciplined and chaotic. In the end, people will want someone to institute law and order and quiet things down. Giving sufficient power to someone to do that leads to the next kind of state.
  5. The tyrant succeeds in quieting things down. Then he establishes a new kind of government, a tyranny (tyrannis, “tyranny,” from tyrannos, “tyrant”). The principle of this state is still desire, but now it is just the desire of the tyrant himself. Many have noted that nothing quite like this actually happened in Greek history. Tyrannies tended to precede, not follow, democracies. That is what happened at Athens. Consequently, a better case can be made that the whole pattern of “imperfect governments” was a device Plato used for argumentation. However, while the collapse of democracies into tyrannies did not occur in Greek history, it has ironically occurred several times in our own century. The precise process described by Plato occurred in Italy when Mussolini came to power and in Germany when Hitler came to power. It is now in danger of happening in Russia. The English historian Thomas Babington, better known as Lord Macaulay (1800-59), believed that democracy would survive only until people got the idea that they could vote themselves wealth (though this principle has been attributed to many others). Since that wealth must be taken from the people who create it, they are not going to like that, and the incentive for them to create it in the first place will be, to a greater or lesser extent, removed. [note]

Recent economists in the area of Public Choice theory [e.g. James M. Buchanan and the Virginia School of Public Choice], have described how the politicization of economic goods inevitably creates increased public conflict as the sense grows that wealth is something to be seized and distributed through state action. As everyone comes to believe that their prosperity depends on political success and consequent government largess, such a dynamic will tend to destabilize democracy, since in politics there are always losers and they begin to think that they are victims of the regime and have no stake in it. Capitalism is often disparaged as a system with “winners and losers,” but the losers in capitalism are just the unsuccessful businesses, while the winners do win by providing what is most agreeable to consumers. In politics, the “winners and losers” are both consumers, and the losers are those who are then legally robbed to pay off the winners, who have the power of the state to take what they want (if you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can at least get Paul to vote for you). One would think that the United States Constitution shuts off any drift towards a regime of seizure and redistribution because of the “Takings” clause of the Fifth Amendment: “Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The Takings clause, however, was an early casualty of enthusiasm over the New Deal and has steadily eroded ever since. It is only now that a movement has developed, and received some attention from the Supreme Court, to enforce it — though the recent Kelo v. City of New London decision represents a setback.

For Plato’s argument, the tyrannical state is the final refutation of Thrasymachus. It is clearly the most unhappy kind of state. Thrasymachus, of course, can argue that he doesn’t care. It is Plato’s analogy, not his. All that matters is whether the tyrant himself is happy or unhappy. Plato’s answer to that is to identify the nature of the “tyrannical personality”: since the tyrant is subject to completely unlimited desire, he can never be satisfied with anything he has. He will always want more. That is also the answer in a famous scene in the 1948 movie Key Largo, with Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. Robinson is a gangster holding a hotel full of people, including Bogart, hostage. Bogart at one point asks him what he really wants out of all this. Robinson can’t say, so Bogart, like Socrates, makes a suggestion: is it that what he really wants is just more? Robinson says, yes, yes, he wants more, more! That is the tyrannical personality.

In our century, it is not hard to find tyrannical personalities to fit Plato’s description. Both Hitler and Mussolini were undone by their inability to be satisfied with their successes. When Hitler had conquered France, there was only one country left in the world at war with him, Britain. Stalin’s Soviet Union was busy mollifying Hitler by supplying him anything he needed. If Hitler had been content to absorb his conquests and develop Germany’s potential, there is no doubt that he would have been in little danger for some time to come. He destroyed himself because he just had to invade Russia. Similarly, Mussolini was cautious enough that Italy remained neutral when Britain and France declared war on Germany for invading Poland. He lost his caution when he saw France defeated and decided to jump on Hitler’s bandwagon. It meant, literally, his death. Otherwise Mussolini might have ridden out the war and died peacefully in bed, like his colleague the dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco.

Franco, however, is one of the people who spoils Plato’s argument. Hitler really wanted Franco in the war. And he knew that Franco, and Spaniards in generally, really wanted to recover Gibraltar, after over two hundred years, from Britain. [Gibraltar was captured by Britain in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession and ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 — one of the British admirals leading the capture had the extraordinary name of “Clowdisley Shovell.”] Since Gibraltar was a thorn in the side of German and Italian operations in the Mediterranean, Hitler told Franco that if Spain entered the war, German troops would take Gibraltar and then give it to Spain. It was the kind of offer Franco couldn’t refuse, but he did. Franco knew how to limit his desire, but that didn’t prevent him from being a serious tyrant — and now we know that Hitler’s own envoy to Franco, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, was actually advising him against accepting Hilter’s offer! [Eventually, in 1944, Hiltler learned that Canaris had been working against him and had him executed.] Worse is the case of Josef Stalin, who had an uncanny ability to bide his time and to take advantage of every opportunity. To the embarrassment of Western leftists, World War II itself began with Hitler and Stalin actually partitioning Poland between them. When Stalin subsequently invaded Finland, there was a moment when it looked like the Soviet Union might join Germany as the common totalitarian enemy of the Western democracies. When Stalin became an ally of the West instead (when Hitler invaded Russia), he could cash in his position with a post-war empire than would have been the envy of the Tsars. Poor Poland, whose fate called Britain and France to war in 1939, and whose exiled citizens fought bravely in many of the major actions of World War II, including many Polish pilots in the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain, was at Yalta left to Stalin without argument by Franklin Roosevelt and remained a vassal state of the Soviet Union until 1989.

Although Plato didn’t know about such a variety of tyrannical personalities, he seems to have felt that his ultimate argument about the unhappiness of the tyrant was not strong enough. To seal the argument, he ended the Republic with a myth: the Myth of Er. Er was supposed to have been a soldier who was struck down and left for dead in a battle. When the bodies were collected after ten days for burning, Er revived and said that he had seen the reward of the good and the punishment of the wicked in the hereafter. After the judgment of the gods, the souls of the dead went to a place of reward in heaven or a place of punishment in the underworld. Since Plato believed in reincarnation there were no eternal rewards or punishments — except for an evil few who were not allowed out of Hades. All the others had to face the prospect of their next life, and they were given the opportunity to choose the character of their next life from a variety of alternatives.

The Republic thus ends rather lamely with the argument that we better be good or the gods will punish us. We hardly needed to go through the whole book just to be told that. But in the midst of this there comes a very striking moment. Er describes the souls choosing their next life. The first one he sees doing this chooses badly — the life of a tyrant who is fated “to eat his children and suffer other horrors” [Republic 619b-c, Rouse p.420]. Plato’s comment about this reveals an important principle of his thought: This was a person who had lived a good life and had just returned from a reward for it in heaven. But, says Plato, he had “some share of virtue which came by habit without philosophy.” That is how Rouse puts it, p.420. Lee’s translation is, “having owed his goodness to habit and custom and not to knowledge,” p.399. The terms in Greek are aretê, “virtue”; ethos, “custom,” “habit” (only one word in Greek); and philosophia. So Rouse’s translation is more literal.

This was a prescient critique of Plato’s own student Aristotle, who later believed that virtue actually was a matter of habit and that the good had no independent nature to know, as Socrates and Plato had thought. Plato, of course, can allow for Aristotle’s kind of virtue, but he regards it, as at the end of the Meno, as a matter of correct opinion only, not knowledge. The shortcoming of that kind of virtue is that, being habitual, it is effective only in habitual circumstances. In unfamiliar circumstances, where novel cases of good and evil must be recognized, the person does not possess the knowledge that would make that recognition possible. Socrates had asked Eurthyphro for a definition of piety so that he would “look upon it” and “use it as a model” (Euthyphro 6d) to recognize novel cases of piety and impiety. The soul that picks the terrible life of a tyrant obviously has no model and doesn’t know what it is doing. This is why Meno actually makes a good observation at Meno 97c, when he says, “he who has knowledge will always succeed, while he who has right opinion will sometimes succeed, sometimes not.” Although Socrates oddly disagrees with this, the point is to be well taken that right opinion will only work for a limited sphere of possibilities, the familiar ones, while knowledge will always work.

In the end, probably the most enduring image of the entire Republic, as an expression of Plato’s view of life and the world, is the Allegory (or Simile) of the Cave. This occurs in Book VII (at 514), following his discussion of the Divided Line (in Book VI), which illustrated the levels of knowledge and reality in the discussion of the nature of philosophy and the good. (At right, the Divided Line is in black and the elements of the Allegory of the Cave are in red.) Plato says that we are all like prisoners chained up on the floor of a cave. We are so restricted that we can only look in one direction, and there we see shadows on the wall that seem to talk and move around. We and our fellow prisoners observe, discuss, and remember what these shadows do or say. But, what happens if we happen to be released from our chains? We stand up and look around, and we see a fire burning at the back of the cave. In front of the fire is a low wall, and on the wall puppets are manipulated, which cast the shadows that are all we have ever seen. So suddenly we realize that all the things we have ever known all our lives were not the true reality at all, but just shadows [skiai — significantly the same word that occurs at the end of the Meno, when Plato says that the statesman who can teach his virtue and make another into a statesman will be like the only true reality compared with shadows (100a)]. But there is more. There is an exit from the cave, which leads up to the surface. There we are at first blinded, but then begin to see trees, animals, etc. which in the cave were only represented by puppets. Eventually we notice that all those things exist and are knowable because of the sun. Returning to the cave, we would at first be blinded by the darkness, and our fellow prisoners would have no idea what we were doing or saying — they would probably regard us as insane — but we could not, of course, take them seriously for an instant.

In modern terms, Plato’s description of the cave bears an uncanny resemblance to a movie theater. There we do indeed sit in the dark with our fellow movie goers, not looking at them but at the screen. Instead of a fire and puppets, we have a projector light and film. Instead of shadows, we have focused images — much more compelling than shadows, but something about whose possibility Plato did not have a clue. But what we see on the movie screen, in turn, usually bears no more resemblance to reality than what Plato expected from the shadows on the cave wall.

The freed prisoner is, of course, the philosopher. The cave itself represents the world of Becoming and its fire the physical sun in the sky. The world on the surface outside of the cave represents the world of Being, where the individual objects are the Forms. Two peculiarities of the Allegory of the Cave, however, are the status of the shadows, as opposed to the puppets, and the nature of the sun. If the puppets are the actual objects in the world of Becoming, then the shadows must be people’s opinions. We do mostly go through life paying attention to people’s opinions rather than to the things themselves, so that is suitable. Plato, of course, thinks that even the things themselves are like shadows of the Forms. The sun, in turn, is a unique kind of Form: the Form of the Good. This is a unique moment in Plato’s writings, since he does not elsewhere single out any Form as different in kind from the others, and he does not elsewhere pay any sustained attention to the good as such. He has already said in the Republic (at 506) that he cannot really give a definition of the good. He will only give us an analogy, that the good is to knowledge and truth what the sun is to light and sight.

Then what gives the objects of knowledge their truth and the mind the power of knowing is the Form of the Good. It is the cause of knowledge and truth, and you will be right to think of it as being itself known, and yet as being something other than, and even higher than, knowledge and truth. And just as it was right to think of light and sight as being like the sun, but wrong to think of them as being the sun itself, so here again it is right to think of knowledge and truth as being like the Good, but wrong to think of either of them as being the Good, which must be given a still higher place of honor….The Good therefore may be said to be the source not only of the intelligibility of the objects of knowledge, but also of their existence and reality; yet it is not itself identical with reality, but is beyond reality, and superior to it in dignity and power. [508e-509b, Lee translation, p.273.]

This is suggestive and intriguing, and Plato’s own students wanted to hear more. Once Plato even promised to give a lecture on the good. But when the day came, all he did was do a geometry proof. So we are left at a kind of incomplete pinnacle of Plato’s thought, with a sense of how important in reality the good is, but with mostly metaphorical statements about it. That was either the best Plato thought he could do or, like the Pythagoreans, he thought that his most serious views should not be spoken in public. Later the Neoplatonists would simply conclude that the Form of the Good was God, but there is no hint of that in Plato. He goes so far and then, like Parmenides, leaves us to continue the quest.

Plato’s actual argument for why we should be just suffers from a fundamental misconception. He is always recommending justice from prudential considerations, i.e. we should be just because of our own best interest, either to be happy (the main argument) or to avoid the punishment of the gods (in the Myth of Er). If there is a difference between moral and merely prudent action, however, Plato has misdirected us. Instead, morality may require actions that are not in our self-interest. This is agreed upon by Immanuel Kant, Confucius, and even the Bhagavad Gita. Thus, Confucius holds that righteouness, , is to do what is right, regardless of the consequences. That is how Kant defined the “categorical imperative,” the moral command (the imperative) that is to no ulterior purpose (i.e. it is categorical). Similarly, the Gita says, “Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward. Work not for a reward; but never cease to do thy work” [2:47]. This might not satisfy Thrasymachus; but then, with someone of that sort, while we may argue the issues, the ultimate point is not alone to persuade him, but to stop him. That is the surest way to prevent the tyrant from being happy.

Source: accessed 8/3/2010 at 10.28pm

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