My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Plato’s Republic is an ironic novel of ideas, a satire designed to mock the pretensions of reason, and an ingenious exposure of its narrator’s unreliability, with intermittent flights of utopian lyricism that make its critique of utopian thought all the more poignant. It is usually seen as the foundational text of political philosophy in the west, and many subsequent canonical political concepts can be found somewhere in this book, from Hobbes’s social contract to Rousseau’s general will to Wollstonecraft’s feminism to Hegel’s statism, not to mention that the whole argument might be read as a reply to Nietzsche avant la lettre. But what if we can’t understand the Republic until we learn to see it as the ancestor not of any later political treatise, but rather of Don Quixote and Gulliver’s Travels, of Moby-Dick and The Magic Mountain, of Lolita and Herzog?
For one thing, Plato didn’t write treatises; he wrote dialogues. A treatise takes the form of an argument that advances by the force of logic; it is an impersonal genre, and its author—Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza—does not stage his own personality but rather casts himself as a channel for truth. By contrast, a dialogue by its nature dramatizes its speakers as characters whose situations and particularities come to the surface and interfere with the transparency of reason. A dialogue is set amid the plural claims of this world, no matter that its speakers may argue for the transcendent. The dialogue is the child of the drama and the ancestor of the novel.
When this dialogue begins, our narrator, Socrates, is on a day trip with Plato’s brother Glaucon to the Piraeus for the festival of the huntress-goddess Bendis. He’s not there to worship, but rather “to see how they would manage the festival,” a first-paragraph detail that strikes the dialogue’s keynote of investigating how human communities are organized. Then Plato’s other brother, Adeimantus, waylays Socrates along with some friends and strong-arms him into spending the night.
Later, at the house of another friend, Socrates falls into a discussion first with an old man named Cephalus and then with a bitterly cynical Sophist named Thrasymachus about what might constitute justice. Cephalus defines justice as we might expect a worldly and successful man, a proto-bourgeois who styles himself “money-maker,” to define it: “speaking the truth and paying whatever debts one has incurred.” Socrates quickly dispatches this—sometimes we need to lie for the benefit of our friends, for one thing, a precept that will become important later.
Then Thrasymachus, representing the Sophist position, issues a much more forceful challenge (“he coiled himself up like a wild beast about to spring, and he hurled himself at us as if to tear us to pieces”): “justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” That is, Thrasymachus anticipates much later critiques by Marx, Nietzsche, and Foucault when he claims that whatever we call “justice” is merely a rationalization imposed by the most powerful members of a society on the weakest members to justify the former’s rule. (For the social and political background of this confrontation of Sophist with philosopher, see my essay on I. F. Stone’s Trial of Socrates.)
Socrates logically rebuts this skeptical philosophy to a plainly unconvinced Thrasymachus, who sardonically replies to Socrates’s clinching argument, “Let that be your banquet, Socrates, at the feast of Bendis.” From the Sophist perspective, why should he be convinced? Logic, like a justice, is only a manner of speaking, and isn’t Socrates’s will-to-truth just another form of the urge to dominate? The remainder of the Republic may be read as a full-scale reply to Thrasymachus’s moral nihilism, as Socrates dominates a long colloquy on justice with Glaucon and Adeimantus. They decide that justice is best observed in the macrocosm of a city, from which they will reason backward to the constitution of the individual soul, hence the discussion’s lengthy turn to politics.
The detail and care with which Plato stages this disquisition, with the festival for the divine huntress succeeded by Socrates’s menacing quasi-detention and Thrasymachus’s beastly challenge, which will ring our ears throughout the work, show how novelistic in texture the Republic really is, at least in its opening. This more-than-hint of fiction, with its attendant conflicts and ironies, shadows every conclusion to which Socrates comes through the abstract force of formal logic. Even the shape of the argument itself is pleasantly bewildering. In the crystalline realm of Socrates’s reasoning, the structure of the just city is entailed by the structure of the just soul; but he has to describe the just city before he can form any picture of this soul. The work, as a proof, has to be read backwards, a defamiliarization of fabula by syuzhet that would be the envy of any experimental novelist.
The general ideas that have been extracted from this text are so well known that I will summarize them only briefly and in logical sequence, rather than as they’re given in the dialogue. Socrates comes to believe that the soul consists of three divisions: the rational part, directed toward transcendent knowledge of immutable being, rather than of beings subject to change and decay; the spirited part, which has as its object honor and victory in human society; and the appetitive part, driven with lust and desire toward the mere things of this world, such as food, sex, and material gain. A good person is one in whom the rational commands and directs the spirit and the appetites; otherwise, spirited-directed people will become merely domineering, while appetite-driven people will become squalid and base.
In the soul as in the city, a just society should be dominated by the most rational people, those whose primary desire is for transcendent truth. The just city should be ruled, in other words, by philosophers. The minority of philosophers—such rational people are, like all good things, rare—will preside over the city’s spirited defenders and its appetitive citizenry, whose task as craftspeople will be the physical and social reproduction of the polis.
Socrates allows two exceptions to his belief in hierarchy. First, it does not apply to gender: when it comes to souls, there is no meaningful difference between men and women (“there has been no kind of proof that women are different from men with respect to what we’re talking about”), so female philosophers as well as male philosophers should rule in the city. Second, Socrates likewise states that philosophical aptitude is not inherited; given this, it will be necessary to promote to the ruling classes some of those born in the subordinate classes who are nevertheless fit for command. To keep order in the city, however, it is necessary that all classes agree to the justice of the general three-class division, so Socrates proposes the dissemination of a “noble falsehood” to mythologize and naturalize the prevailing inequality. This falsehood holds that citizens were fashioned by the gods in three classes of metal—gold, silver, and iron—corresponding to their placement in the social order.
The theory of the noble falsehood suggests the importance of education in Socrates’s utopia. Education—training in physical strength, music and poetry, and mathematics—is how Socrates plans to nurture rationality in the philosophical soul and basic self-discipline and self-control in the souls of the citizenry. Socrates, therefore, places restrictions on the curriculum. The music he proposes to teach, for instance, should reflect “the rhythms of someone who leads an ordered and courageous life,” whereas poetry that “gives a bad image of what the gods and heroes are like,” like that of Homer and Hesiod, hardly draws the student toward piety.
Moreover, poetry itself poses a problem for Socrates since it so often takes the form of imitation. In forms like the lyric, the drama, and even the dialogic parts of the epic, the poet aims to represent certain types of characters and their emotional states. These imitative genres are dangerous because, as vectors of emotional contagion, they induce the audience itself to mimic these disordered attitudes and feelings. Mimesis, anyway, is an essentially inferior activity, Socrates argues, since all extant phenomena are themselves only pale reproductions of the rational ideas accessible to the eye of reason alone. The poet, then, produces imitations of imitations, third-order copies, more degraded even than base matter; for this reason, Socrates says that there is an “ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy since each orients the soul in a different direction, and a worse one in poetry’s case. Poetry, therefore, should in the just republic be restricted to “hymns to the gods and eulogies of good people,” whereas,
If you admit the pleasure-giving Muse, whether in lyric or epic poetry, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of the law, or the thing that everyone has always believed to be best, namely, reason.
Because all earthly things change and decay, Socrates understands that his own ideal republic will fall. He theorizes, therefore, the “five constitutions”—i.e., five types of state or political regime—and further explains how they collapse into one another in a vicious cycle. The best type of regime is the one he has evoked, with its rational rule by philosopher-monarchs. These monarchs’ spirited children, however, will grow weary of reason, or be incapable of it in the first place, and produce in place of the ideal republic a timocracy, consecrated to love of strength and honor. Their own children will use their strength to hoard wealth (in Socrates’s ideal republic, by contrast, the philosopher-kings lived in a commune, sans personal riches or even private property); the timocrats’ children, therefore, will institute an oligarchy. The vast population dispossessed by the oligarchs will in turn mount a revolution and install a democracy, but democracy, with its chaotic diversity and its lack of all general social standards, will be unable to defend itself when a tyrant seizes it. The tyrant, a man of uncontrolled appetite, battens on the state until brought low by his own paranoia and isolation as a usurper who can’t trust any of his fellow citizens. Presumably, the children of tyranny will grasp the value of philosophy and begin the cycle anew.
The previous six paragraphs summarize, as I said, the political theory that can be isolated from this book, and it is an ambitious theory synthesizing ontology, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics. Yet the Republic is a narrative dialogue, not a systematic sequence of axioms, and it is as a narrative dialogue—as the ancestor of the novel—that I propose to read it.
Novels are frequently ironic, and they convey their irony by well-planned disjunctions between what characters say and what they do, and by equally intricate echoes among the different phases of the narrative. For example, aided by Thrasymachus’s eye for the self-justifying hypocrisy of power that frames this whole discourse, can we help but notice how Socrates has imaginatively structured an ideal society that happens to be ruled by those of his own social class and vocation? This is not an anachronistic observation, not a reading of Marx or Foucault back into the text, but merely an application of one part of the text (Thrasymachus’s early speech) to another (the central description of the just city). This is what it means to read the Republic like a novel.
Another way to read a novel is to look for motifs, for patterns of description and incident that suggest a subtextual, implicit significance. One obtrusive pattern is Socrates’s frequent apologetic recourse to “images” to substantiate what we would expect to be merely logical arguments. But this imagery at the micro-level is writ large in the dialogue’s whole structure, for what is Socrates doing but providing an image of the just city and the just soul? He even pleads, around the middle of the book, that he is, like the imitators he scorns, producing a mimetic fiction and is therefore not responsible for proving its possibility:
Do you think that someone is a worse painter if, having painted a model of what the finest and most beautiful human being would be like and having rendered every detail of his picture adequately, he could not prove that such a man could come into being?
While this argument-by-image may be the philosopher’s concession to sublunary necessity—pure logic just isn’t possible down here on earth—it is also a performative contradiction, or a subsidiary aspect of the even larger performative contradiction inherent to the mismatch between Socrates’s argument and Plato’s genre. The Republic is a fiction that argues against fiction. Here is a character in an imitative genre—a narrative dialogue—inveighing against literary imitation, and here is a “fictionalized” philosopher forced again and again to use fictions to make his ideas intelligible. We have already seen his advocacy for the noble falsehood. There is also, in Book VII of the dialogue, the famous myth of the cave that allegorizes the difference between transcendent knowledge of being (as when one is outside in the sun) and immanent knowledge of beings (as when one is confined to a cave, watching a shadow-play on the wall).
Finally and most spectacularly is the dialogue’s conclusion, where Socrates tells the myth of Er to illustrate the ultimate triumph of justice. Er was a man who died and came back to tell of the rewards and penalties of the afterlife. In this text steeped in Homer and Hesiod, alluded to on every other page, Plato here challenges them on their own ground with a literally epic finale that describes in detail the very structure of the universe as seen by souls on their way from one life to another. The tale culminates when the souls of the dead, having enjoyed or endured their just desserts for their most recent lives and having chosen new lives in turn, return to our world:
[T]hey travelled to the Plain of Forgetfulness in burning, choking, terrible heat, for it was empty of trees and earthly vegetation. And there, beside the River of Unheeding, whose water no vessel can hold, they camped, for night was coming on. All of them had to drink a certain measure of this water, but those who weren’t saved by reason drank more than that, and, as each of them drank, he forgot everything and went to sleep. But around midnight there was a clap of thunder and an earthquake, and they were suddenly carried away from there, this way and that, up to their births, like shooting stars.
As Socrates argues in the Phaedrus, poetry is a divine madness, and the poet is inspired in his visions and his rhythms by the very gods. The supposed “quarrel” between poetry and philosophy notwithstanding, this truth holds no less for the philosopher when it comes time for him to fashion images of the just soul and the well-ordered city, to say nothing of the cosmos at large. Mere reason will not suffice.
“[W]hatever direction the argument blows us, that’s where we must go,” Socrates tells his interlocutors at one point, as if he were helpless before some iterative chain of logic to which he bound himself with a premise that is itself not articulated until the dialogue’s second half (i.e., the primacy of reason in the soul). This line hints to me at an argument Socrates can’t make by the terms of his own logic, but which we might discern anyway.
Socrates clearly describes the defects of the soul’s non-rational divisions; by contrast, reason, ordained as it is to apprehend the perfection of the idea, is presumably faultless. Yet I would suggest that Socrates’s forgetting that divine inspiration is the source of poiesis, even as he utters poetry in praise of reason, is a flaw. If the fault of the soul’s appetitive part is an insatiable quest for more and more physical satisfaction, and if the fault of the soul’s spirited part is a desire for victory or conquest without limit, then might we not theorize a parallel danger in the soul’s rational part? And doesn’t Socrates exemplify this danger when he follows the autonomous logic of his argument past all experience, including the poet’s experience of divine inspiration? Socrates himself, obviously pained to lose Hesiod and Homer, of whose verse he can quote line upon line, invites my riposte:
[I]f the poetry that aims at pleasure and imitation has any argument to bring forward that proves it ought to have a place in a well-governed city, we at least would be glad to admit it, for we are well aware of the charm it exercises. […] Therefore, isn’t it just that such poetry should return from exile when it has successfully defended itself, whether in lyric or in any other meter?
Reason leads him to forget what he should have known in the first place, which is the best defense of poetry: neither an apprehension of the ideal nor a philosophical concept can be had or told without poiesis. Poetry, not philosophy, is therefore the true queen of the sciences, the legitimate archon of the city, and the best captain of the soul.
It is a grave mistake, then, to quote the Republic as if it represented “Plato’s philosophy.” In this strange book Plato does not issue any philosophy. Instead, he dramatizes philosophy’s conditions of possibility, its pitfalls, perplexities, and potentials. When we think of this book, do we remember the syllogisms, or do we remember Thrasymachus pouncing like a beast, the benighted citizens bound in their firelit cave, the souls of the dead flying back to life from the riverbank of Unheeding? And when we think of Socrates, do we always recall his arguments, or do we rather remember his ironic diffidence, his cunning humility, his drive for truth? What can we call the writer who shows us such people as Thrasymachus and Socrates, such images as the just city and the myth of the cave, but some term akin to “poet”? As a consummately ironic artist in narrative and dramatic prose, Plato may well be nothing less than the first novelist of genius.