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Plato’s Republic: An Apology

Republic

Republic by Plato

My Rating★★★★★

Is the attempt to determine the way of man’s life so small a matter in your eyes—to determine how life may be passed by each one of us to the greatest advantage? (1.344d)

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I propose therefore that we inquire into the nature of justice and injustice, first as they appear in the State, and secondly in the individual, proceeding from the greater to the lesser and comparing them. (2.368e—369a)


The Republic: An Apology

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” 

~ Alfred North Whitehead

The Famous Republic

‘The Republic’ is either reverenced, reviled or just plain ignored. Though it keeps resurfacing, it has been pushed back often, being accused of bigotry, racism, elitism, casteism, anti-democratic nature, the list is endless. But it is beyond doubt, one of the preeminent philosophical works and has been quoted, referenced or adapted by almost all of the major thinkers since.

The ideas of Socrates have had an afterlife that is as long and varied as the thousand year journey envisioned for souls in the famous Story of Er. It is impossible to catalogue the full list of impacts but Whitehead’s quote (introductory to this review) gives adequate flavor. The practical influence of Republic is more difficult to gauge than its impact on the theorizing of later thinkers – over the centuries, individuals have discovered in Plato’s works the inspiration for undertaking political or social or educational reform and have used it as the springboard for much revolutionary thought, and deeds.

Republic has inspired in addition to all the expository analysis, also countless creative interpretations, which have shaped our vision of future possibilities, limits and of extremities. Many depictions of both utopian societies and their dystopian counterparts, ranging from Thomas More’s Utopia to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984, have their roots in the ideal city brought to life by Socrates, Glaucon, and Adeimantus. Contemporary films such as Gattaca and The Matrix may not owe direct inspiration to Republic, but they participate in a long tradition of artistic works that ultimately trace their concerns back to the political, social, and metaphysical issues raised in Republic.

But in spite of all this, the original work retains a reputation for being difficult and hard to penetrate. This has meant that the scholars have more or less appropriated this brilliantly composed treatise, and that is a pity. There is great suspense in every page as you eagerly try to work your way through Socrates’ arguments… anticipating now, guessing now, failing now, but always on the edge of your seats at the sparkle of his wit and wisdom. The dialogues are constructed with an almost unbelievable care and subtlety. The drama is breathtaking and all-pervading, even in the stock responses to theoretical or rhetorical questions. One is never allowed to sit and absorb passively, but is forced to constantly interact with the dialogue. It is as much fun to read as a Shakespearean drama.

The Offensive Republic

Now, to examine some of the reasons why The Republic offends modern sensibilities:

Much of the contemporary discomfort with Plato’s state arises from his countenancing of censorship, a rigid caste system, etc. But these are in a way unfortunate misunderstandings. A close reading of the text would make clear that these catch-all descriptions of Plato’s state are not as representative as they are made out to be. For example, the caste system that is first to get blamed is hardly a rigid hereditary system, but a strict meritocratic system that is much more equal than anything that we have seen till date. It involves a strict battery of tests (similar to the aptitude tests of today) based on which every individual is to be judged (and opponents of IQ tests may relax – these are meant to be much more practical examinations).

Also, the popular rendering of the title as “The Republic” itself is unfortunate, giving it an obvious political and ideological overtone. In the manuscripts and ancient citations, the title of Republic is given as Politeia (“Constitution”) or Politeiai (“Constitutions”); Peri dikaiou (literally, “concerning that which is just”) is sometimes listed as an alternative title.

The Misunderstood Republic

I had planned on giving a blow by blow defense of the most reviled aspects of The Republic, but that is not the point I wish to make here. The primary mistake in criticizing The Republic is to assume that it was meant to be a political treatise in the first place. It is not. The whole argument begins from a question of identifying what ‘Justice’ is and whether it is beneficial to live a ‘Just Life’. This is the crux. ‘Why’ and ‘How’ to be Just and ‘What’ is this “Justice’ anyway? That is what Socrates wants to explore. He takes detours in this exploration. He uses metaphors – of State (as larger manifestation), of Caves, etc. But they all lead us back to the same basic question.

To identify this basic concern, we need only look at the complex structure of the dialogue itself. Republic’s “narrative” is structured in an almost circular pattern. This circular pattern is complex, evoking the narrative patterns of epic poems such as Iliad and Odyssey. Most basically, the dialogue’s two main concerns (defining justice and ascertaining its relationship to happiness) are treated in two corresponding sections (books 2-4 and books 8-9) that are interrupted by what is nominally a series of digressions in books 5-7, and 10. These nominal digressions, of course, create the dialogue’s most memorable metaphors, but they are meant to be digressions that add to the core. Not the other way around.

At its most basic level, Republic is an effort to forge a consistent and meaningful redefinition of “Justice”. The aretê that is explored lies in nothing outward, but rests solely in the mature reason and regard for what is beneficial to the soul. Not all the details in these allegories stand up to logical analysis, but they are not meant to.

This is made clear by the fact that The Republic’s interlocutors repeatedly draw attention to the incomplete, provisional, and at times unsatisfactory nature of their treatment of justice, happiness, the ideal political community, the theory of the ideas, the cognitive faculties of human beings, etc. The inadequacy of “the method we are employing” is acknowledged at 4.435c-d, at 6.504b-d and in many other places.

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The Personal Constitution: A Constitution of the Perfect Life

The Perfect State sketched out (which is the stub of almost all criticism) is only an approximation devised to arrive at the Perfect Man, and that is why the so called bad aspects can be deemed acceptable. The mistake, as stated already, is to see it as a purely political treatise while it is in fact a treatise on justice and how to live the perfect life – the ‘Constitution’ of a perfect life.

“He will look at the city which is within him, and take heed that no disorder occur in it, such as might arise either from superfluity or from want; and upon this principle he will regulate his property and gain or spend according to his means.”

In the end, the state is not fleshed out enough to really form a complete constitution for any state that can exist in reality (and not just as an idea). But the psychological part (it is curious how this part has generated so much less criticism, in comparison) is – we return in the end (and all the way in between) to the original question of how an individual should order his life – what his virtues should be. It is a political critique piggy-backing on a  personal enquiry and hence any commentary of it cannot treat them differently. Censorship, slaves, aristocracy are all wonderful aspects in an individual but not palatable in a state (to modern eyes). Hence, we can only criticize that the greater to smaller equality is not well realized (i.e. from state => individual). But then Socrates, as above, is always eager to make the point about the provisional nature of his metaphor which is only meant to incite thinking and not as an answer – that is just not the way to deal with true lovers of truth, with true philosophers.

[Cheeky counterproposal by the reviewer’s alter-ego: “Or all the personal stuff is just a convenient cloak for the political criticism that is the real purpose! After all, we cannot forget the historical milieu in which Plato composed it. He had enough axes to grind!”]

Indeed, the more we approach certain aspects of the text from analytic and conceptual standpoints, the more we find that Socrates and his companions make innumerable assumptions and leaps of logic that is not satisfactory or fully justified. Each of these can be fairly scrutinized and contested, and have been. We may raise any number of questions about its relevance to our experiences and value systems. Much of Republic, especially its political philosophy, argument for Censorship and Social structuring, is at odds with modern ideals; some readers will doubtless be dissatisfied with, among other things, its unapologetic elitism and naive (almost laughable) confidence in the integrity of “philosopher-rulers.” Some, however, may find that its critique of ancient Athenian society opens the door to meaningful questions about contemporary cultural practices and priorities. And even more meaningful questions on how to organize our inner impulses and constitution.

Philosopher, Be Thyself

We need to understand that the Platonic Dialogues, in principle, are not meant to represent a simple doctrine that can be followed, they instead are meant to prepare the way for philosophizing. They are not easy guide books to follow. They require work from the reader, above and beyond the ideas presented. That is one of the reasons for the dialogue nature in which they are structured. Plato’s overarching purpose in writing the Republic was to effect a change in his readers similar to the change that Glaucon and Adeimantus undergo at Socrates’ hands in the fictional world of the dialogue. This purpose can be summed up in the word protreptic, from the Greek protrepein, which means “turn (someone) forward,” hence “propel,” “urge on,” “exhort.” Plato uses literary art, which in his case includes but is not limited to philosophical argument, to move his reader toward a greater readiness to adopt a just way of life.

The dialogues are thus intended to perform the function of a living teacher who makes his students think. One must philosophize to understand them. One must look at the microcosm of the dialogues as well as the macrocosm of the world that we inhabit simultaneously to understand them. It is in this process that the dialogues assist, insist and themselves provide a training in.

We can only conclude by asking questions, in the true spirit of the dialectic method:


Can we then say that we are convinced, that justice, as defined by Socrates, is something intrinsically valuable? Are we convinced that the just man can be “happy” even if he does not enjoy a reputation for justice, nor any other material benefit, in this life or after?

OR


Have Socrates and his companions persuaded us that the ideal city-state they describe in Republic is truly the best political community possible? Do we believe that Socrates himself thinks so? Is that what we take away from such a deep examination of how to live our lives? Or do we let the Story of Er guide us back to the truer motives of the interlocutors?

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“I really do not know as yet, but whither the argument may blow, thither we go.”

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Posted by on January 6, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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The Consolations Of Philosophy – How to Use Philosophy to Guide Your Life

The Consolations Of PhilosophyThe Consolations Of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As I went through the book I was unable to make up my mind whether it was a work on philosophy masquerading as a self-help book to reach a wide audience or if it was a pretentious self-help book with aspirations to be a book on deep philosophy.

Even after I finished it, I am not sure how to judge it. Should I judge it harshly or picking and choosing among the works of these great philosophers to fit them into the narrow framework that Botton has drawn for them and thus making them draw his yoke? Or should I be lenient with thought that Botton makes lofty thoughts so accessible by dragging them down and tethering them to the normal privations of men and offering consolations for the same?

The title is of course a brilliant one and almost irresistible. Not original maybe, as Boethius has already used it, but Boethius’ was a private consolation with his own philosophy (personified as a woman) while Botton offers up his philosopher‘s thoughts for a public audience for his reader’s consolation. I am no judge on which was the more effective work as I am yet to read the original work.

As for the book itself, Botton tries hard to make it entertaining and relevant and uses almost a bullet-point like efficiency to ensure that he can pack everything into a ‘airport size’ book.

The framework of the book is to use the wisdom of six philosophers, almost in chronological order, to offer consolations for some of the common maladies that afflict the average person. The fact that he spends more time and pages detailing out the lives of the philosophers should not deter from the fact that he does manage to stick admirably to the overall structure of the book and does offer a coherent sequence and logic of ‘consolations’.

Consolation For Unpopularity

Botton uses the example and philosophy of Socrates and his life to illustrate that the judgement of others should have no real bearing on how we judge ourselves. This is not to say that we should count ourselves superior by being in the minority. No, the real message is that the weight of numbers supporting any argument or moral standpoint has nothing to do with the real strength of that position. Only reason should guide us in our judgements of ourselves and of others. In the hatred unfairly directed towards an innocent philosopher we recognize an echo of the hurt we ourselves encounter at the hands of those who are either unable or unwilling to do us justice. But if your reason tells us we are right, we should stick to our beliefs and we might be redeemed as Socrates was by the very people who condemned him and be consoled by the prospect of posterity’s verdict.

Consolation For Not Having Enough Money

What is wealth? Is it mere material wealth or is it anything that provides us real happiness? These were the questions that Epicurus grappled with. His answer was that just as we are not capable of judging what is good for our physical body and would gladly gorge ourselves with unhealthy food to the point of death (as a lot of us do). so we are not capable of judging what is truly good for our souls, for our life.

I want to belabor this point – If left to ourselves and our instinctive tastes, we would find no reason to refrain from consuming as much as we can of everything that tastes good and this only leads to a decay in bodily health. It takes an expert opinion and self-control to be able to give up this unhealthy habit and adopt a moderate and healthy diet that allows us much better health.

Epicurus says that we similarly gorge on money and all the other pleasurable thing sin life and jump head long into the rat race thinking that is important. But only deep reflection can show us that it is a bad for our spiritual well-being and health as all that good food is for our bodily health.

So he says pleasure is the ultimate goal of life – but what gives you true pleasure can only be found by deep reflection. So what should we dedicate all our energies to if we want a happy life?

We should find Friendship, good companionship – association with people who recognize our true nature with all our defects is what we really need. in fact all our mad scramble after money and power is just a manifestation of our need to be esteemed and listened to by our fellow beings. We may seek a fortune for no reason but to secure the respect and attention of people who would otherwise look straight through us. But do we need money to get them to respect us? Would not a true friend value every word of yours and respect you even if you were penniless?

The second most important constituent of happiness is Freedom – the freedom to be ourselves. This eventually connects back to being with people who will accept us as us. Epicurus and his friends made a radical innovation. In order not to have to work for people they didn’t like and answer to potentially humiliating whims, they removed themselves from employment in the commercial world of Athens (‘We must free ourselves from the prison of everyday affairs and polities’), and began what could best have been described as a commune, accepting a simpler way of life in exchange for independence. They would have less money but would never again have to follow the commands of odious superiors.

Simplicity did not affect the friends’ sense of status because, by distancing themselves from the values of Athens, they had ceased to judge themselves on a material basis. There was no need to be embarrassed by bare walls, and no benefit in showing off gold. Among a group of friends living outside the political and economic centre of the city, there was – in the financial sense – nothing to prove.

So, Happiness, an acquisition list:

1. A hut 2. Friends 3. To avoid superiors, patronization, infighting and competition 4. Thought 5. Art.

Happiness may indeed be difficult to attain. The obstacles are not primarily financial.

Consolation For Frustration

All frustration arises from a faulty view of the world says Lucius Annaeus Seneca. We are frustrated because we expect the world to behave in a particular way and then reality turns out to be different. the Great Stoic philosopher advises us to be always aware that the worst scenario is always possible and to be prepared for it so that when it does happen we are ready for it and will not descend into anger, shock, anxiety or despair, all of which are marks of an unprepared mind that was not in tune with reality. Correct your worldview to accept the fact that reality is cruel and thus find escape from these common frustrations. This does not mean that you should accept everything, you may struggle mightily to avoid the misfortune but you just need to be aware of its possibility to be not prey to anger, grief and other frustrations.

Consolation For Inadequacy

Michel de Montaigne consoles us about the ultimately human nature of us all. We have to accept that we are not perfect, no one ever was. Once we accept that every inadequacy we find so appalling in ourselves is shared by millions and is one of the side effects of being human and being alive, we will learn to be less embarrassed by them and can live a more fulfilling life.

Consolation For Heartbreak

The nerve to invoke the greatest pessimist of the western world to console heartbroken young Werthers!

But it is Arthur Schopenhauer who is being called upon to give advice on how to deal with rejection and broken love affairs. Schopenhauer’s famous ‘will to life’ theory which modern readers might as well read as a sort of natural selection through conditioned unconscious eugenics states that we are controlled in who we find attractive and lovable by a great force of nature which is concerned only with the need to propagate the species. It is not concerned with our happiness and more often than not we will end up with people who are our anti-thesis and inconducive to our happiness. So a happy marriage is a statistical anomaly and unnatural rather than something we can naturally expect.

So, if and when you find yourself a Young Werther with a broken heart or a girl for that matter, understand that it is not you who were rejected but it was just that the union was not approved by the good of the species by the ‘will to power’ or natural selection. This might sound like an artificial explanation but think about it, please, it is all just genetics.

Consolation For Difficulties

Finally Friedrich Nietzsche makes his grand entry and gives The Ultimate Consolation – You do not need consolations in life!

All life’s difficulties are to be embraced. So accept your unpopularity, poverty, inadequacy, frustrations, heart-breaks and every sorrow as necessary to become the best you can be. If you do not have these difficulties you will be a mindless creature without knowledge of life. Use all these grief and ills of life to forge a character and life that is noble and grand.

Your greatest gifts are your difficulties.

Disclaimer: I have modified the views expressed in this review from that in the book to match my own understanding of these philosophers at times (especially for Nietzsche). At other times I have reproduced the core message of the book without modification. I have not distinguished the two as the original works of all these great minds are always available to anyone who finds any disparity between this review and their own convictions. I have done justice neither to this book nor to the philosophers in this review and would ask you to pursue them further if you find it interesting. I will try to do a comprehensive review of Will Durant‘s The Story of Philosophy as a counterpoint to this simplistic interpretation of multi-faceted thoughts.

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Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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