March 28, 2008

Scott Buchanan's introduction to Plato's Rebublic.

Wherever I go in my mind,
I meet Plato coming back.

This Greek epigram is the perfect introduction to Plato's
Republic. It expresses the affection and skepticism that the
reader will forever after feel for Plato the person; it expresses
the love and irony that he will make any reader feel for the
world; it will also tell him how to read this book, confidently
expecting that Plato will be helping him to remember what he
already knows not well enough. It also suggests that some
roads that his mind habitually follows are false roads, and
that the better part of wisdom consists in knowing what one
does not know.

These two lines arc the best introduction to Plato at any
time in history, but they arc also right for any stage of one's
own intellectual biography. Reprinting Plato's Republic at
this point in history and at our own stage of intellectual con-
fusion could, with much good reading and discussion, make
the next generation a great period in history. Plato was writing
at the uncertain end of the Peloponnesian War, the World
War which decided the fate of the ancient world. Thucydides'
account shows it as a war between democracy and oligarchy,
between empire and allied nations, and therefore a war in
which internal revolution was as important as external hos-
tility. Plato's city, Athens, was on the losing side, but in a
deeper sense there was no winning city. War aims were never
clear; the only aim that was effective was the determination
that one city should not be allowed to rule the world by
conquest. A world federation was proposed as a permanent
principle of peace, but it was laughed off as a woman's idea.
There was a terrible defeat of the best army and navy, and
this battle shook the world in the deepest foundation of its

Athens, a city of normally brilliant and active minds, had
developed a war mind, ideas that would justify fear and
hatred of the enemy, and also an imagination that would
justify suspicion of dangerous subversive plots in its colonies
and allies, as well as treachery and treason at home. Men of
high character turned out to be tricky politicians. There was
deep concern about the distribution of wealth and the
validity of democratic forms of government. There was evi-
dence that religion and money were being used for political

This root of insanity drove the better minds to two typical
postwar patterns of thought: the collecting and comparison
of other forms of government, and the construction of pat-
terns of reform, Utopian constitutions. The Republic registers
and reflects all this turmoil, and puts it all together to make
sense. Wherever Athens had wandered in its mind, it met
Plato coming back. It is remarkable that anything written
in those circumstances could make sense; it is all the more
remarkable that it made sense of the immediate nonsense.
But most remarkable of all, it is nearly true that the Republic
is the book above all others that makes sense of any govern-
ment anywhere any time. If sense could be made of Athens
then, sense can be made of our time, thanks to Plato.

If this claim is true, and not merely the enthusiasm of a
devotee, this must be a remarkable book indeed, too re-
markable to explain or simplify, as recent new editions have
done, but fortunately not too remarkable to read well. The
fact is that it is not being well read at present. It is being
identified with our war-mindedness. Learned readers say that
Plato was a Fascist because he proposes a totalitarian state, or
that he was Communist because he talks about common prop-
erty. It is easy to invent other such sad wise-cracks. Perhaps it
would be better for a many-times reader, whose first reading
was done in the middle of World War I when there were other
epithets and shibboleths, to call attention to two formal
characteristics of the book, attention to which will save the
first reader from some of the bad reading habits we all share.

This book is a dialogue written by a very superior dramatic
artist. The playwright Plato created Socrates, who is the hero
of this piece, a character who steps out of this and other
dialogues and dominates the world intellectually. Further-
more these dialogues are in the great comic tradition, and
Socrates is one of three of the greatest comic characters of
all time; the others, that I am thinking of, are Don Quixote
and FalstafL Still further Socrates is the deliberate comedian,
the person who knows how much funnier he is than his
audience will ever know. It is Socrates who meets the
Athenian plutocrats, reactionaries, and reformers in the first
book, teasing and angering them to do their worst for our
enlightenment. And then Socrates is the person who takes
on two bright naive youngsters while he gives them the ride
of their lives into the many-dimensioned labyrinths of his
reasoned imagination. There is great dramatic distance pro-
vided in these circumstances, and there are deep love and
irony in their author.

One further formal dramatic point helps the reading. The
dialogue is of the stuff that morality or miracle plays are
made. The name Cephalus means 'head' with the connota-
tion of dull honesty that goes with banking or coupon-cutting;
he is the typed character whom Plato can lampoon as the
perennial oligarch. Polemarchus is the 'battle-chief represent-
ing the conservative military class. Thrasymachus is the 'rash
fighter' who would have liked to know about armored divisions
and Blitzkriegs. Glaucon has a 'clear' and perhaps empty
mind, and Adeimantis is an adolescent 'poet-soothsayer'.
Socrates is the magical 'master of life'. These names, all
historic by the way, would have made it impossible for an
intelligent Athenian to read the dialogue without both high
and low laughs. The modern reader should recall the talking
plays of Bernard Shaw.

The second warning is already suggested. The republic or
polity that Socrates magically or mythically presents is a
Utopia most emphatically. There is evidence for this in the
text when Socrates offers to write man large, as a state in
whose parts and functions justice-by-itself can be found, and
also near the end when it is said most eloquently that this
nolitv is laid no in heaven, never has existed and never will
exist, but can be seen by those who wish to put their house
in order. But there is sharper evidence than this if one throws
off the hypnotic charm of the argument and sees the im-
possible possibility of the construction. There is no provision
made for elections, law-making, courts, tax-collecting, execu-
tive functions, or policing; this should make one hesitate to
suppose that rules for setting up a government are being
made, and made badly. Literally, one must suppose that
nothing takes place in the community but education; even
the philosopher-king must do his lessons. The state is made
up of craftsmen, tradesmen, soldiers, and philosophers, but
no men. When human difficulties arise because of this, they
are solved by numerology. The censorship of art including
the banning of tragic poets, the community of wives, and the
training of guardians and philosophers, these and many other
pieces of machinery arc the stuff of comic drama and the
right treatment for the stew that was boiling in the Athenian

But let not the serious mind despair. Comedy of this
kind carries a precious burden of light. The old story on
comedy is that its tropes and jests are taken from primitive
formulae for the exorcism of evil spirits, and therefore that
the purging of such evils in laughter is in behalf of sanity and
virtue. It is dangerous to try to explain the comic poet and to
assume that one can reveal his secret Utopia, but it is dif-
ferent with Plato since his comic art runs high and delivers
his secret in dialectical statement and counter-statement and
finally in luminous myths. Plato first uses his Utopia to
launch his satirical purge of Athenian folly, and then he turns
it around to expound a metaphysics of ethics. The republic
is the principle of justice in motion, a highly formalized
theatrical imaginative presentation or imitation of the thin-
nest and most comprehensive of abstiactions, "everything
performing its function", as it is unobtrusively defined in the
fourth book. This is obviously an important principle in
law and politics, the principle that tells us that the common
good of the state are peace, freedom, and order. But it is
just as obviously much more; it is the principle by which
each man sets his own inner state in order, if he is wise
enough to know himself. In this last Socratic turn of phrase
there is the final jest. Where is such wisdom to be found?

The Delphic oracle had once told Socrates that he was the
wisest man in Greece. In good skeptical faith Socrates spent
his life, as he put it, in testing the veracity of the oracle. He
outdid the oracle in the wit and depth of his discovery: his
wisdom consisted in knowing that he did not know. Human
wisdom consists in knowing what to do with one's ignorance,
and that is knowing a great deal. It is very important to keep
it well in mind that Socrates is the comic hero who proposes
that: Until philosophers are kings, or the princes of this world
have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political great-
ness and wisdom meet in one, cities will never have rest from
their evils. It is also Socrates who talks longest and most
knowingly about the philosopher's being the most corruptible
of men.

Let no reader be gullible enough to conclude from this
book concerning Plato's political opinions, what is the best
form of government, how equality of opportunity or security
by police power are to be attained. Let him stretch his
imagination to the fantasy and the fun so that he may catch
some glimpse of the principle of the liberal state which is
founded on law and universal education and dedicated to the
achievement of knowledge and virtue by its citizens. This is
no mere tract for the time:;, no program of reform. It is
rather the preamble to all law, or better the preamble to
enable the citizen to understand the preambles to all laws.
Aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, tyranny these
and other governments must come and go; the republic sheds
its varied measures of light through all of them. To the
individual it is the light that matters, and it is in terms of
this light that he will vote, legislate, and obey the laws well
or illy.

In a profounder sense this book is not a book of politics.
The republic is the country of the human mind, and it is
on its highways that you and I meet Plato coming back.


No comments: