Two weeks ago I sat down and wrote a list of key philosophical texts that I believe I should read or re-read before I turn 40 (I’m now 37). I ended up with a list of 14 titles. I estimated that it should take me about one year to go through them if I devote to them at least one hour per day. Perhaps if I have the freedom, I will revisit this collection of 14 (in the same order) once every 5 or 10 years. More likely, this will be my last chance.
I began with Plato’s Republic (translated by Benjamin Jowett) and it took me 8 days to read it. It wasn’t my first attempt reading the Republic, but it was the first time I passed Book III and reached the end. The effect of reaching the end was similar to the effect of reading a deeply moving drama or grasping a spiritual vision. Although the “drama” takes the form of a civil dialogue between a small group of relatively old men, what makes the dialogue moving is their preoccupations and aspirations against a background that does not encourage those preoccupations and aspirations. What makes the dialogue moving is the activity of thinking about–and according to–principles in an unprincipled world, the cultivation of a taste for justice in an unjust world, and appealing to reason in an unreasonable reality.
The Republic is an old text, of course, older than the New Testament. We may, therefore, think of it as a text that is behind us. We could dismiss it based on its age. The truth, however, is that the Republic is ahead of us. It is designed to be ahead of us, in front of us, before our eyes. It is designed to be an object of aspiration, admiration, and contemplation. Perhaps I should replace the word “object” with “companion” or “teacher”. Like a good teacher or a companion, the Republic will teach us differently depending on what we already know. Like a true teacher, it educates our sensibility and prepares us for–among other things–the next time we meet, if we wish to return. Each encounter with a good teacher rests on a set of previous encounters, and it enriches the next encounters.
Let us turn to the text and the characters, starting with the harmony between various seemingly unrelated parts of the text. In Book I, for example, when Socrates and Cephalus talk about inheriting and acquiring fortune, they say: People who inherit their wealth never think much of it and people who acquire it through hard work become single-mindedly obsessed with it. Isn’t this harmonious with Socrates’ attention to justice? It is against the background of injustice that the desire, the obsession, with goodness and virtue has emerged. Another instance of harmony is between the structure of the dialogue and the ethical-political position developed in the text. Consider how the contributions to the dialogue are distributed among the characters. Socrates makes most of the contributions, which is consistent with the non-democratic position we read in the text. The person who is the best, who is most excellent, takes the biggest share of the dialogue, not because he wants it, but because he deserves it. Because that would make the dialogue most excellent and most beneficial for the other participants.
The characters can be compared not only with regard to their arguments, but also with regard to their affective engagement with the dialogue. Imagine how Thrasymachus, or someone like Thrasymachus, would enjoy convincing someone into believing his might-is-right position (i.e., that justice is whatever those in power determine). And compare that to how Socrates would enjoy persuading someone. The sense of the term “enjoy” is so different in the two character. In the case of one, it is associated with the pleasure of winning a competitive game, while in the case of the other it is associated with the joy of collaboration and co-discovery.
What we observe in the character of Socrates is the result of lifelong devotion to thinking. He describes his own place in the world in those famous allegories. Gazing at the stars, like a person navigating a ship, and being called a useless star-gazer by people unfamiliar with navigation. Having walked out of the cave, he has been thinking about “light” (wisdom & virtue), but also about the source of light (what would enable someone to be wise and to live a good life). Throughout the dialogue, he seems inexhaustible. In Book X, after having developed his elaborate system, he offers a new set of arguments against poets. He is as alert and engaged here as he is in Books I-II. What does that indicate? He is not an ordinary man who happens to think and discuss philo-sophia (love of wisdom) on occasion. He is Socrates and his whole life is given to the love of wisdom.
The arguments against poetry can stand on their own, as treated by some in literary studies, but they also fit within a broader vision of human nature and the crucial role of education that is derived from it. The strong views about education presented in the text, controlling and somewhat deceitful, rest on the idea that human nature is essentially malleable. We do things before we can understand what we are doing, like Euthyphro who is convinced of his judgment or Ion who is attached to rhapsody (both unable to explicate their convictions). A program of education is envisioned, as a result of which good taste would develop in young people before they can explain their taste. Preferences and judgments would be first formed and then, and only then, a reflective account of those preferences would be added. We begin with imitation, with acceptance, and attachments. We begin in relationships and forms of being that precede us. Our tendency to admire comes earlier than our tendency to understand why and what we admire. Thus, it is important for (this force of) admiration, which binds us, to be guided in the right direction early on.
The discussion of imitation given in Book III is in some ways more advanced than, and a very helpful companion to, Freud’s discussion of the super-ego. The super-ego is better conceived as enactive and embodied tendencies that result from observing and imitating, rather than the construction of an internal homunculus. Another contrast between Freud and Plato is in which part of the human psyche they most identify with. Whereas Freud identifies most with the ego (calling it the Ich), Socrates/Plato take sides with the super-ego, and in so doing question the Freudian “separation” between human nature and education/conscience. In Plato’s (or Socrates’) approach, a good person, a just person, emerges as a result of development. She or he emerges as a consequence of, and because of, relationships and participation in the right type of collectives. That is why the analysis of justice in individual persons runs parallel to an analysis of justice in society and the state. The just person doesn’t come for free–she or he is built almost like an artifact.
The opposite of a just person is a tyrant. And the opposite of a just state is a tyrannical state. What makes a tyrant evil, as well as unhappy, is that the worst part of his human nature have taken control over the rest. Incidentally, those worst parts are the parts that are most driven to gain control (what is worst happens to be what is most power-hungry). Similarly, in a tyranny, the worst part of society have occupied the position of the ruling class. Again, these are the most power-hungry individuals. If you let everyone be equal in a society, equally powerful, things will not work out, because the worst part, the most tyrannical will rise to power–they are the ones who want it the most. This is the foundation of Plato’s argument for the necessity of a system, for the Republic, that not only begins in the right way but has a chance of surviving.
The question of whether this vision (of the republic) is practical at all, whether it can ever be realized, is raised in Book V and Socrates challenges the question as misguided. We shouldn’t be prematurely concerned with practical affairs if our project is philosophical. And, as it happens, Socrates believes there is a pre-requisite for the possibility of the Republic and that is a kind of society in which power and wisdom can merge, in the form of the philosopher king. And this pre-requisite itself indicates Plato’s pessimism with regard to the question of practicality. At the same time, this impracticality is one of the points in the Republic. Combined with the themes of death, judgment, and reincarnation (Book X), the Republic orients us toward matters that demand effort and optimism (wisdom, virtue, good life, …) and on matters that probably demand acceptance and letting go.
I said that the Republic shouldn’t be behind us but ahead of us, in front of us, and before our eyes. Part of what makes this sentiment true is the juxtaposition of the nobility and importance of the ideas and the ideals treated in the text with their apparent impossibility. The Republic is designed to be an object of aspiration, admiration, and contemplation. Like a true teacher, it educates our sensibility and prepares us for, among other things, the next time we wish to return to it. And we ought to return to it, together and often.
If you’re considering studying Plato you might find Gregory Sadler’s YouTube videos useful. He is a professional philosopher and a very excellent teacher. This is perhaps a good place to start: