Friday, August 5, 2011

A Platonic Diversion

A number of followers have been asking me to say something about Plato’s Republic – perhaps his best-known dialogue – or at least to give over its gist. In what follows, I don’t venture any original thoughts about it, but I make a sheepish attempt at giving over the gist of some of the Republic’s thrust.

The main thesis of the dialogue is that the perfect state is one governed by philosophers kings. Philosopher kings are steeped in knowledge and have insight into the truth of things. They feel a sense of duty to go out and serve the state by providing guidance and direction, informed by their immense understanding of reality. But how does one become a philosopher king?

This forms the brunt of the story. To be a philosopher king, one has to have intelligibly apprehended the form of the good – in its myriad relations. And to master the form of the good, one needs to intellectually contemplate the various forms in their totality. For binding them together and standing at their apex is the form of the good. Having met with the form of the good, the philosopher is inevitably driven to exemplifying moral rectitude in his own conduct.

How, then, does one go about in apprehending the forms? The answer is through engaging in dialectic, a form of metaphysical study. Yes, but what sets dialectic apart from other forms of study? It is distinguished by the fact that it pays no attention at all to things as they are perceptibly manifest. It focuses entirely on the true natures of things, that is to say, their abstract forms. It reasons them out purely intellectually, without having recourse to concrete, this-worldly examples. Good; but how does one gain the capability of engaging in this kind of study? After all, it seems so remote and detached.

Plato’s answer: by undergoing a proper education, one with a focus on mathematical subjects. Pure mathematics is empirically detached, meaning that it deals exclusively in abstractions. It might on the periphery draw on tangible instances of the forms it seeks to understand; but it nevertheless engages the mind in a good deal of abstract contemplation. Its study goes a long way toward preparing the mind to dabble purely in the essences, or forms, themselves. In this way, it helps liberate the mind from the gravitational pull of sensory encounters. And insofar forth, it is an integral component of a would-be philosopher’s education. (It is by no means the sole component; but its intense study is what immediately precedes taking up the study of dialectic.)

With a contemplation of forms and an apprehension of the good, backed by ample drill in mathematics, having been achieved, the philosopher is ready to rule. Yet the public at large resists rule by philosophers. Why would this be? It is owing to the fact that philosophers exhibit an aloofness that causes them incur the ire of the uninitiated. The public is simply incapable of properly assessing their value. Plato employs the image of a cavern to illustrate the point about the philosopher’s flight to the world of intelligibles.

He says to imagine a situation in which prisoners, facing a wall, are chained to the ground, so that they cannot move about or look to the side or to the rear. Behind them, extending over the entire length of the wall they face, runs an elevated passageway, sealed at the front by a low-standing divider. The prisoners’ backs are turned to this passageway; and behind this passageway there burns, in turn, a blistering fire. A winding path leads from this point out unto the exterior of the cavern.

Now, on the passageway lying to the rear of where the prisoners are standing a procession occurs, in which puppet figures of various sorts are found carrying things over their heads and running to and fro. Owing to the fire burning in the background, an image of these goings about is projected onto the wall that the prisoners are facing – in the form of shadows. The shadows of the passing figures and objects are thus cast upon the wall for the prisoners to see. Over time, the prisoners have become accustomed to them, and have developed avid interests in the variegated courses of action that these shadowy images (seem to) take and in the fluctuations they undergo. This is no different than the way people in the real world are captivated by events pervading life in the actual community.

Bear in mind, now, that these prisoners have been chained to the wall since infancy and have never witnessed the light of day. They have never had occasion to experience things in the real: not even the objects moving in the passageway or, for that matter, the fire burning behind them. What this means is that, for them, the shadowy scene on the wall is the totality of reality.

This much is background. At this point, Plato says to imagine that someone comes along and unchains one of the prisoners. The prisoner is now free to look behind him and behold the sight of the figures and objects moving about in the background, the images of which are projected onto the wall that the prisoners face. He is now free, also, to view the fire, which is the source of the light by means of which the prisoners gain a view of the shadowy figures jumping about in front of them. Yet, this prisoner resists taking in these various sights, being, as he is, blinded by the sudden onslaught of light emanating from the fire. He is, moreover, bewildered by the entire scene and reluctant to venture out for fear of what the situation might hold in store. To him, it appears so very unreal.

He is, however, nudged by his liberator to take incremental steps and make his way out of cave. He slowly and unsteadily hazards the trek, passing the various bodies and artifices along the way. Finally he finds himself on the path leading to the exterior of the cavern. As he approaches the opening, he experience his first whiff of light’s illumination, coming from the outside. Soon he has exited the cave and been thrust into the light of day, illuminated by the sun’s rays.

Once again, he is overwhelmed by the the shining bright light and seeks escape by casting his gaze downward. He finds himself looking into a pond of water, in which are reflected images – such as his body – from above. The sight of these images is all he can muster at first. But then he looks up somewhat and begins to catch glimpses of the various objects populating the surroundings. These are the very objects at whose watery images he looked at just a moment earlier, and whose visibility is owing to the light carried by the sun’s beaming rays. As he becomes increasingly acclimated to them, he casts his gaze further upward and is met with a view of the sun itself, providing the light through whose agency the things he sees around him are made capable of being seen. At that point, he is, however, taken back into the cave.

As he enters, he finds himself fumbling about,owing to the dungeon-like darkness that prevails. He only awkwardly makes his way around, missing his steps here and there. It is rather like he can hardly abide the experience. In any event, he chances to encounter his erstwhile comrades, who heap on him the meanest kind of derision. Noticing his shaky gait, they hasten to treat him as someone who has succumbed to utter deliriousness. Just the same, he approaches them and tells them of the amazing sights he has blissfully witnessed.

He tries to persuade them of their sorry sordid state that is entirely permeated by fancifulness. They laugh at him, thinking loudly that he knows not a thing whereof he speaks. They accuse him of having stepped out into a netherworld, totally devoid of reality. He, in turn, tries his level best to impress upon them the baselessness of what their misty experience affords them and to convince them of its source in a far more imposing reality.

The moral of the story is an analogy: The world of perceptible experience is to the intelligible world of forms as the shadowy images of the cave are to sun-illuminated objects of the outside world. Just as in the tangible world objects receive their visibility through the light emanating from the sun, so too in the intelligible world the form of the good provides a driving axle to the myriad forms that are systematically interrelated. And just as in the tangible world sensory experience affords access to physical phenomena, so too in the intelligible world contemplation offers insight into abstract forms. The non-philosophical public at large is, however, resistant to this perspective and, therefore, to the rule of the philosopher king. To them, his vision of things is flawed throughout; and he is ill-equipped to hold forth effectively in the hustle and bustle of everyday social living. Philosophical rule must therefore be imposed upon the people non-voluntarily – at least at first. It is for their good. The situation in this regard invites comparison to the ridicule the liberated prisoner receives at the hands of his erstwhile fellow prisoners. 

Plato is not unaware that instituting this kind of governance is a formidable task, and that initial conditions have to be set up so as to be accommodating of the requisites of implementation. To this end, he describes at length what other social arrangements have to be made. He says that the state (i.e., society) is to be divided into three classes of citizens or inhabitants: the guardians, the auxiliaries, and the artisans. The artisans produce and live a life of personal enrichment. But the guardians and auxiliaries are charged with protecting and governing the state. To qualify, they have to meet stringent standards. Having qualified, they need to undergo a formidable education. In its early phase, this education consists in cultural and literary studies, comprising music, poetry, and the various arts. But youth’s cultural exposure needs to be limited to what is worthy of their natures; and to the end of assuring that it is, the state exercises harsh censorship, banishing impure specimens of literature and art forms from the stage and jettisoning their authors and producers along with them. The point of imposing these measures is to guarantee that the young develop along desirable lines.
We would be remiss if we did not stipulate that the education that Plato advocates for youth at this stage comprises physical exercise - gymnastics - in addition to the musical, cultural studies just emphasized.

The best of the youth receive continuous promotion and go on to become guardians proper, that is, rulers or philosopher kings. The remaining select, provided they prove themselves adequate, take their positions alongside the full-fledged guardians and become auxiliaries: soldiers with military duty. 

Education is but one aspect of the overall arrangement, though. The different classes, especially the lowest, have to be made to be content with their fates. Otherwise, conditions aren’t conducive to the manageable imposition of elite rulership. The state therefore resorts to feeding its citizenry myths, having the people internalize these myths and reconcile themselves to their alleged determinateness. The myths tell them that their class assignments are not arbitrary but necessary. The artisan class is thereby quelled.

However, the guardians must be dealt with specially. They have to be relied upon to defend the state; and they are expected to be able to act selflessly in behalf of the state. What arrangement might the state make to secure the guardian’s unflinching loyalty? Plato answers with a form of communalism.

He wants to see the state set aside a spatial region for the express use of the guardian class, where they live together and share common resources as one happy family. They meet as one in their common dining facilities, sleeping quarters, and recreational grounds, women as well as men. They roam freely amongst themselves, unobstructed. Property is not owned privately; people are not possessed of valuables (or other durable belongings); and wealth is not accumulated. As a result, self-interest is immeasurably diminished, and dedication to the common good is appreciably enhanced.

And that’s merely the beginning. To be added is that the nuclear family is abolished, with mating done rotationally and selectively for optimal breeding. Biological parentage is made little of, so that children can look at all adults as their forebears and adults can view children’s upbringing as a shared, collective charge. With this social scheme in place, guardians, future and present, are disabused of their preconceived notions of personal interest: they are enlisted in the cause of working toward the greater good.

They need merely to proceed with their philosophical education.

Plato acknowledges that guardians might, under these austere conditions, not themselves be as happy as they could otherwise be. But he drives home the point that guardians have to be persuaded that the object of the overall social arrangement is not to make one party, or one group, as happy as can possibly be; but rather to achieve the greatest degree of happiness for the state taken as a whole. The happiness of a part of the whole needs to be sacrificed for the maximal happiness of the whole. However, it is not, for Plato, a foregone conclusion that, on balance, guardians will not themselves be happier vis-à-vis the lives they lead.

In any event, they will make society better.

At this point, it needs to be interjected that Plato is not content simply to give an account of the structure of the good state. He wants, further, to extrapolate from this account to the case of an individual. He is interested in the question of what makes someone a good man, and of why someone should want to be good. He suggests that just as what makes a state a good state is that it is divided into classes, that each class faithfully adheres to its own role and does not venture to trespass over onto another’s, and finally that the state is governed and controlled by the one class that possesses immense knowledge and understanding; what, similarly, makes someone a good man is that his psyche, which comprises three parts – wisdom, courage, and temperance – operates so that each of its parts adheres to its own domain and does not presume to venture into that of another, and so that the other parts subordinate themselves to the dominion of wisdom. The person is therefore properly integrated and experiences optimal satisfaction as a result. His weakest aspect, the part of him that desires, may not in and of itself achieve total satisfaction. But to harp on this is to miss the point, already noted in connection with the state, that what counts is not the happiness of this or that part but, rather, the happiness of the whole. The work that his parts do has to be coordinated so as to achieve the maximum degree of satisfaction for the man as such. As a result, he is not only moral but happily moral.

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