Tuesday, September 05, 2006

"Plato's Republic: A Biography"

Plato defeated me in college, and I remain beaten. The stuff baffles me.

Now Simon Blackburn, usually a cause of enlightenment for me on philosophical questions, has written a book titled Plato's Republic: A Biography.

I'm afraid the excerpt from the book does not make me any more confident that I understand Plato, but it does make it clearer why I've long been befuddled by the philosopher. (Read the passage below and you'll see what I mean.) I'm tempted to have another go at Plato.

The entire excerpt (it appears to be from the introduction) is available here; a few choice paragraphs follow:

An equally shocking thing about it in some people's eyes is that, in writing Republic, Plato utterly betrayed his teacher Socrates. Socrates is the first and greatest liberal hero and martyr to freedom in thought and speech. For writers like John Stuart Mill and George Grote - practical, liberal, utilitarian thinkers - this was the real Socrates, the eternal spirit of reflection, criticism and potentially of opposition to the state itself. But in Republic he is an out-and-out dogmatist, rather than the open-minded, patient, questioning spirit his admirers love. He is shown as the spokesman for a repressive, authoritarian, static, hierarchical society in which everything up to and including sexual relations and birth control is regulated by the political classes, who deliberately use lies for the purpose. He presents a social system in which the liberal Socrates would have been executed much more promptly than he was by the Athenian democracy. In Republic the liberal Socrates has become the spokesman for a dictatorship. In presenting this figure Plato even betrayed his own calling, being once a poet, who now calls for the poets to be banned.

A work may have many defects yet be forgiven if the author comes through as a creature of sweetness and light, just as Plato's literary creation, the Socrates of the earlier dialogues, does. But there is not much help here. True, there must have been enough sweetness and light in Plato to create the figure of the heroic, liberal Socrates in the first place. But if that figure evaporates, as it does in Republic, there is not much else to go into the balance. We know very little about Plato, and what there is to know is not generally appealing. If he is put in historical context, we may find an archetypal grumpy old man, a disenchanted aristocrat, hating the Athenian democracy, convinced that the wrong people are in charge, with a deep fear of democracy itself, constantly sneering at artisans, farmers and indeed all productive labour, deeply contemptuous of any workers' ambition for education, and finally manifesting a hankering after the appalling military despotism of Sparta.

But as so often with Plato, there is a complication to that picture, nicely brought out in Nietzsche's reaction to the fact that, on Plato's deathbed, he turned out to have been reading the comic writer Aristophanes: "there is nothing that has caused me to meditate more on Plato's secrecy and sphinx-like nature, than the happily preserved petit fait that under the pillow of his deathbed there was found no Bible, nor anything Egyptian, Pythagorean, or Platonic - but a book of Aristophanes. How could even Plato have endured life - a Greek life which he repudiated - without an Aristophanes?"

We are told that Jesus wept, but not that he ever laughed. With Plato, as with Socrates, laughter is often nearer than it seems. This is a good sign. Perhaps the grumpy old man was not quite so grumpy after all. But this does not really matter, for it is the concrete, enduring book that concerns us, not its shadowy and departed author. And it is a good dictum that while many books are wrongly forgotten, no book is wrongly remembered. So we need to work harder to come to terms with the unquestioned staying power of Republic. We need to understand something of the hold this book has had and continues to have on the imagination of readers.

--Marshal Zeringue