June 01, 2006

How I spent my summer vacation III

Plato, Republic, books VI-X

The second half of the Republic starts with the famous Allegory of the Cave, which builds on an initial analogy between the Form of the Good (illuminating and `ruling' over the intelligible realm) and the sun (illuminating and `ruling' over the sensible world). At the conclusion of the allegory, the prisoner is returned to the cave, where he endeavours to convince his fellow prisoners that their `world' is nothing more than a pale imitation of the true and brilliant reality. Socrates argues that the guardians of the city have a similar obligation: after spending some time studying philosophy but before becoming the rulers of the city itself in middle age, they are to work as educators, teaching the other members of the polis to the best the latter's abilities.

This actually contrasts sharply with the textbook picture of Plato as an ueber-rationalist, disdaining the physical in favour of idle contemplation of the metaphysical, intelligible realm. Neither does his ethical theory call for a perfectly ascetic lifestyle: while he predicts philosophers will generally be less interested in sensual pleasures and material power, preferring instead contemplation of the Forms and the pursuit of reason, they will clearly still enjoy a good meal and a walk through a fragrant garden on a warm spring day. The key is moderation, as the rational aspect keeps the appetite and spirit controlled and productively directed.

Recall that the purpose of discussing the just city is to identify the characteristics of the just person. These were identified in the first half, as the four virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and, most importantly, justice (harmony). In the second half, Plato identifies the four types of injustice, first in terms of the constitution of the city, and then by analogy in the person. It is not quite clear, however, how the four injustices related to the four virtues.

The first injustice is where the spirit -- which loves honour and pride, and in the city corresponds to the soldier/police class -- rules, in a form of government Plato calls `timarchy'. The timocratic city, unlike the just, aristocratic city, has economic injustice, slavery, is warlike, and will gradually elevate worse and worse rulers. Plato likens this to a well-educated but vain and hot-tempered person. Timarchy eventually gives way to plutocracy or oligarchy, in which the wealthy rule at the expense of the poor, breeding criminality (because everyone knows being poor turns you into a criminal, or something). Here the appetite, rather than the spirit or intellect, starts to dominate. When the population becomes too stratified, the lower classes riot and replace the oligarchs with an anarchic democratic, and the appetites run amock in a nihilistic hedonism. Finally, order dissolves entirely, and the nominal ruler is a whimsical and maniacal tyrant. It's unclear how tyranny manifests in the individual, but it may simply be an absolutely manic, obsessive personality .

The last two books are given over to miscellany. The analysis of the just and injust cities is supposed to be a vindication of the just life -- the just city is the happiest and most harmonious, while the tyrannical is the most miserable. Two more purported proofs are given, both of which amount to little more than question-begging (philosophy, identified with the just life, is claimed to be superior because it sets the standards for determining which life is the best). The last book returns to the censorship of the third, where Plato's earlier motivations are clarified: Socrates says that poetry is to be forbidden because it leads the audience away from, rather than towards (like philosophy and mathematics), the Form of the Good. The last several pages include the bizarre argument that the soul is 'clearly' immortal because injustice is the death of the soul (though this is denied a few pages later) and disease of the body does not lead to injustice.

Total pages read: 252

Interesting philosophical link: Lindsay reviews Al Gore's An inconvenient truth.

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