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socrates on statesmanshipCicero famously said of Socrates that he was the one who brought philosophy down from heaven to earth. This must be some other Socrates than the one of the Platonic dialogues, perhaps Xenophon’s of the Memorabilia. After all, even the comic Socrates of Aristophanes’s Clouds is a meteorologist, a watcher of the heavens, though he does it hoisted up in a basket, butt up. Of course, he is a sky watcher, since that is where the vaporous and loquacious Clouds—Aristophanes’s comic version of the Forms—are to be found. Perhaps it would have been more accurate to say that Socrates connected earthly matters, such as politics, to the invisible heavens, the realm of the forms.

There are three Platonic dialogues overtly and extendedly concerned with politics. The first, the second longest of all the dialogues, is the Republic, in Greek Politeia. It bears the subtitle, added in antiquity, “On the Just.” The second is the Statesman, in Greek Politikos; its ancient subtitle was “On Kingship.” And the third, the Laws, Nomoi in Greek, subtitled “On Legislation,” is by far the longest.

In the Republic Socrates is both narrator and main interlocutor. In the Statesman he is the originating occasion of the dialogue but not a participant. He sits it out as an auditor, perhaps at times somewhat skeptical; the leading speaker is a visitor, or stranger, from Elea, Parmenides’s hometown. Finally, the Laws don’t even take place in Athens but in Crete, and Socrates doesn’t appear at all, though there is an anonymous visitor, a stranger from Athens. Who doubts that the Laws is a work of practical politics, in fact the mother of constitutions? As the Athenian says: “Our logos…is of cities, and frameworks and law-giving.” (678a) Perhaps we might even say that the farther Socrates is from a dialogue the more it is merely earthly.

When I speak, in my title for this brief talk, about “The Actual Intention” of the first two of these dialogues, I imply that in them all is not as it seems. Here is Rousseau’s opinion of the Republic, taken from the first book of his Émile: “Those who judge books merely by their titles take this for a treatise on politics, but it is the finest treatise on education ever written.” And, indeed, the central books of the ten that comprise the Republic are taken up with the ontology, the philosophical framework, that must underlie education, and with the ensuing education itself. To be sure, the education discussed is that of the philosopher kings who will found and maintain that best Politeia, the civic framework with which the Republic is concerned. (473c)

And yet again, neither this civic framework for the best city, which will be superintended by the philosopher kings, nor its justice is actually the intended topic of the Republic. For recall that this city is devised as a model writ large of the soul (368d), a model from which we can conveniently read off the nature of individual, internal justice. The book we call the Republic rests on are two tremendous assumptions: One is that political frameworks—not only the best but even more strikingly the worst—are analogous to, enlarged projections of, the soul. And the other, even prior one, is that the soul ought to be our first topic of inquiry, and it is only on the way to it that we discover political ideals: Psychology absolutely precedes Politics; Souls make States.

Thus it would be a fair argument to say that the particular political justice which is generally understood to be the peculiar contribution of the Republic is, in fact, a civic construction meant in the first instance to incorporate a notion appropriate to internal, psychic justice. For the three castes of the best city are delineated in such a way that the famous definition of justice as “doing one’s own business,” which falls out from the community’s constitution, is applicable to the soul as Socrates conceives it. In other words, the just city is built from the first to be an enlarged soul.

Philosophy-1-landingLet me outline how Socrates makes it work. These castes are functionally defined, each by its own specific task within the city. Moreover, they form a hierarchy of command and responsibility such that any one caste’s transgression is in fact rebellion, factional strife. Such internal dissension is, however, nearly the worst fate—as any Greek knew or should have learned in the course of the Peloponnesian War (Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 2.82)—that could befall a political community, because it is the prelude to tyranny. To reiterate: for Socrates, the maladjusted and dysfunctional soul is the antecedent cause of political evil.

It is to me an unresolved problem whether Socrates was in politics the anti-egalitarian he is sometimes accused of having been. In his demeanor, and what matters more, his conversations, he seems as populist as possible, not much impressed by smart young aristocrats about to go to the bad, like Critias, Charmides and Alcibiades; moreover, in the Republic he says of a democracy that it’s “handy for searching out a politeia” (577d)—which happens to be what he himself is doing right then, down in the city’s most democratic district, its harbor. The solution to the problem depends on how we look at the kallipolis, the “fair city” that he’s found or made: Is it and its justice a serious political proposal, on a par in earnestness with Aristotle’s Politics in antiquity or Locke’s, Montesquieu’s, and Rousseau’s works at the beginning of modernity? In view of the motive for the constitution of Socrates’s city, that is a reasonable question.

To lend my exposition some specificity let me give you the briefest reminder of the model city, both as best and as paradigmatic for the soul—and let me once more anticipate the result: The human soul too will be a hierarchy of functional parts, and it too will sport the virtues displayed by the city, now operating in individual human beings much as they did in the community.

At the bottom of the city’s castes, then, are the craftsmen and tradesmen whose business it is to perform their particular work well and profitably, and to attend just to those assignments and no other. Beyond that, they are pretty free and prosperous, and thus satisfied. They are without a specific caste virtue other than competence, for they are driven by appetite rather than character. But they are the class for the particular operation of the most encompassing virtue, justice. Justice is the virtue of the part and the whole, of each part doing its own thing and thereby preserving the integrity of the whole. (Temperance is another non-specific virtue, that of agreeableness in the sense that each caste is accepting of its position in the hierarchy.)

The middle caste consists of the warriors who guard the city, and it is the training ground of kings. This caste is defined by their spiritedness, and it is the locus of honor, the source of a soldier’s satisfaction through danger. These warriors do have a particular virtue, courage.

The ruling caste is comprised of the philosopher kings, whose virtue is wisdom and in whom the intellectual part, thoughtfulness, dominates. Their satisfaction is the highest; their happiness is subject to interruption by the duties of governing. This hardship is, however, alleviated by their affection for the young they teach—and by a more selfish fact: that the city is essentially set up to protect philosophizing, one of quite a few signs that all is not as it seems in this Republic.

There are certainly some other odd, even bizarre, aspects to be observed in this political device. Its strict hierarchy of command is inverted in respect to prosperity; the lowest caste, the craftsmen and merchants are the rich ones, the warriors are allowed no wealth. At the end of the books on the construction and the deconstruction of this city, we’re told outright that it is “a model laid up in heaven” for anyone to look at who “wishes to found himself; he’ll practice its politics only and no other.” (592b; italics mine) In other words, we really have all along been participating in soul-construction rather than city-construction. But oddest is the notion that the governors of this “fair city,” the philosopher kings, don’t want to rule it—indeed, this reluctance is a criterion of fitness.

Socrates_and_Alcibiades,_Christoffer_Wilhelm_EckersbergIn fact, the education is set up so as to cancel political ambition—indeed, to capture the love of future kings for another realm, to alienate them from the earthly city. For they are to have a carefully graduated program of learning, elevating them beyond the world of appearances into the world of forms, the world of pure trans-earthly being. That’s why Cicero’s dictum that I began with—about Socrates bringing philosophy down from the heavens to the earth—sounds so, well, inept.

In particular, the study that is the capstone of the education, that levers the learner into this world of being and drags him out of the terrestrial slime, is dialectic (531 ff.), of which more in a moment. Now for Socrates—to the astonishment and disgust of a practical statesman like Jefferson, who waded contemptuously through the “whimsies” and “nonsense” of the Republic (to Adams, July 15, 1814)–the study of supra-worldly forms, of beings, is the proper foundation for government. This is especially the case insofar as statesmanship is concerned with the virtues of justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom. For obviously, to properly locate these in the city, in the civic community, it is necessary to know them. But to know them is not a matter of empirical research but of dialectical (that is, ontological) inquiry, a matter of the study of beings as beings, the study of Being itself. So the education does, after all, have a political purpose—if we agree that ethics, the inculcation and preservation of virtue, is the end of the polis and its politikoi, the civic community and its statesmen. I do not think any contemporary citizen, attached to our Madisonian tradition, can really agree—nor wholly disagree—and that is one of the many reasons why the Republic is indispensable to political inquiry. For it raises the question of justice in this original way: Is justice in the sense of the Republic, as the proper adjustment of the faculties of the soul—in particular the ready subordination of the lower parts to reason—the condition for political unity and civic peace? From this question falls out a whole slew of problems: Can we commit ourselves to a psychology of faculties such as those involved in the Socratic psychic constitution? And if so, is the adjustment of the functions and their subordination to reason a persuasive analysis of psychological soundness? And if so, does it follow that the adjustment is a political—or even a social—task? And if so, can a democracy produce government wise enough to accomplish these psychic adjustments, to induce virtue?

Before going on to the Statesman, I want to return to Rousseau: Is the real business of the Republic indeed education, rather than politics? Socrates never says so explicitly, nor can he, since the program there presented is not just an education for leadership loosely speaking, but very specifically the education of kings—and, as Socrates makes very clear, of queens. (540c) It is an education very specifically geared to the Republic’s polis—although it will, amazingly, become the general model of higher, liberal education, lasting until the middle of the last century.

Nevertheless, I think Rousseau is right. Indeed, some aspects of this “fair city” have been politically and socially realized: the equality of men and women and (to some extent) the community of marriage partners and children. But by and large it has remained, blessedly, “a pattern laid up in heaven,” for it has its repulsive aspects. Its educational program, on the other hand, has, as I said, cast loose and become viable even in a democracy, because what is nowadays called its elitism is not an intellectually integral part of this kind of learning. In fact, the college where my two translation partners and I teach, St. John’s College, is a remarkably close incarnation of it, and it revels in its intellectual egalitarianism. That is one more element in an argument that political justice is not the actually intended topic of the Republic.

9781585102907So now to the dialogue called The Statesman, a conversation to which Socrates only listens. Here, at one point, things become startlingly explicit. Near the very middle of the conversation the stranger makes an announcement under the form of a rhetorical question asked in that throwaway tone that alerts the reader of dialogues to a crucial turn. It concerns the ostensible search for the true statesman. “Has it been proposed,” he asks, “for the sake of this man himself rather than for our becoming more dialectical about all things?” (285d) And the answer is: Plainly for learning to think dialectically. We thought we were learning about governing well; it turns out we are involved in a logical training exercise using a universally applicable technique—dialectic, the expertise of dividing and collecting subjects by terms.

Socrates is, once more, not a participant in this conversation, and this dialectic is not quite his dialectic. His dialectic was a way by which apt students, through being questioned cleverly and answering carefully, had their opinions, their mere assumptions about the way things are, demolished and then reconstituted, so that they might be led up into a solid knowledge of the true sources of these things. It was, in short, an ascending way of learning. The stranger’s dialectic is a method that works the other way around. From a tacitly assumed overview of the whole, the accomplished dialectician makes divisions (diaireseis). When he has arrived at what will in later time (when this method has turned into the technique of classification) be called the “lowest species,” he goes back up, making a collection of terms. These add up to a definition. Many of our students begin by thinking that that is what Socrates does when he philosophizes—he makes definitions. Of course a collection of terms is not what Socrates looks for when he asks, say, the question, “What is justice?”—but it is a preparation for an answer.

Is definition-making, however, what the Elean Stranger believes to be the profitable end product of the dialectic for which the statesman is only an example? No, nothing so unsubtle, as I’ll try to show in a minute.

Not that this more subtle use of division is likely to have satisfied the auditing Socrates. We three translators of the Statesman express this sense of his skepticism by our assignment of the last speech of the dialogue. Someone says: “Most beautifully…you’ve completed for us the kingly man, stranger, and the statesman.” Now the stranger’s interlocutor in the Statesman is a young man who is also called Socrates. There is some question among scholars whether the older or the younger Socrates speaks this valedictory line. We thought our Socrates, the older one, couldn’t have thought it, and so he didn’t say it.

Here is what the stranger does with the dialectical art of division. First, the whole dialogue is a composition of divisions. To see its handsome design, that of a tapestry, it is helpful to work through its dialectical episodes and the way they are sewn together, like the pieces of a figured robe. The beauties of this dialogue are not imaginatively visual but logically structural; this text is a texture. But this cloaklike characteristic is not just a stylistic formalism. It signals that this new dialectic is a craft that produces practical results. Its physical exemplification, and the great metaphor of the dialogue, is weaving, cloak-making in particular. And making intertwined, protective, enveloping compositions turns out to be the royal art: the discerning and composing craft of the statesman. This is no transcendentally derived wisdom, but a technical expertise. For the subject of the Statesman, as contrasted with the Republic, is unambiguously political; it is concerned with human herds. However, from the vantage point of the king of crowds, of herds, the internal relations disposing the soul of an individual human being, which are the concern of the Republic, recede; they lie below the royal oversight. And with that distance diminishes the interest in justice, which was, after all, the right relation of the soul’s parts. So justice is indeed no big concern of the statesman, be it of the man or of the dialogue named after him.

So the statesman, who is, thus, not a philosopher king but an expert ruler, sees each soul from afar as displaying one permanent characteristic. My colleague Peter Kalkavage will point out the exceedingly interesting consequences for statesmanship of what he discerns and what, again as a consequence, true statesmanship must be. It is, its royal denomination notwithstanding, an expertise much closer, I think, to our idea of politics than the philosophical rule of the Republic.


Then what happens to the stranger’s startling claim, with which I began my remarks on the Statesman? How can the dialogue’s real purpose be an exercise in dialectic when it will be shown to be so precise and practical a doctrine about managing multitudes?

Well, the Statesman is neatly reflexive. It is, one might say, a self-reentrant dialogue. For by relentless dialectical division the stranger establishes the precise location of the statesman in the whole economy of crafts and sciences, materials and products, regimes and rulers, virtues and vices. And in the course of doing that, he is indeed also giving a lesson in the method of division to young Socrates. It may even be that his teaching actually has more effect on a finer young man who is also present, a second silent listener, one of old Socrates’s two favorite partners in inquiry, namely Theaetetus (the other being Glaucon in the Republic).

Then here’s the denouement: The art of dialectic, the ability to distinguish perspicaciously the parts of any subject, an art for which weaving is a very precise figure, is the true statesman’s expertise. Statesmanship, then, is the craft of setting up a civic framework, a loom upon which the citizens of various temperaments, here the warp and woof, are interwoven into a cloak-like texture, which represents at once the body politic and its protective cover, as if to say that a well-interlaced citizenry will wrap itself in its own constitution for security.

On this conclusion old Socrates may, after all, have smiled. For among the Greeks weaving is always a women’s art, and that women might match men as rulers is a teaching of his Republic. So ends the Statesman, a dialogue that sets forth a doctrine of governing which requires an expertise for which participation in the dialogue is itself the training.

Books by Eva Brann may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay appeared in The St. John’s Review (Volume 55.1, Fall 2013) and is republished here with permission. Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD, 21401-1655 (she does not use computers).

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