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Plato’s Republic: A Study by Stanley Rosen (432 pages, Yale University Press, 2008)

Plato's Republic

Plato’s Republic, Stanley Rosen says at the beginning of his book, is “both excessively familiar and inexhaustibly mysterious.” Thus it invites ever more interpretations, not, I think, by reason of any willful indeterminacy or woolly grandeur on Plato’s part, but because a false sense of knowing the work makes us overlook telling detail. Therefore, a serious fresh reading of this mother text of philosophy, psychology, politics, and pedagogy will always be of great interest.

Rosen’s study of the Republic is such a reading. It is extended—one third longer than the Platonic text itself—and densely packed with interpretations. And it is unfailingly interesting, for it is boldly conceived and strongly expressed, though its theses are moderated as good sense requires.

His underlying hermeneutic principle and its first consequence are set out in the Introduction and sustained through the book’s fourteen chapters. They are, baldly stated, that Socrates means what he says, and that Plato could not quite learn his own Socrates’ lesson. The first part of this principle expresses just what my freshmen think, but only until they come up, in the dialogue itself, against Thrasymachus’ hostile interpretation of “that famous Socratic irony,” his dissembling affectation of ignorance. Thus taking Socrates simply at his word turns out to have strange implications, among them the consequence mentioned (that Plato doesn’t quite get it), which these same students—and Rosen means his readers to include the likes of them—would find plainly implausible. For, if Socrates says just what he thinks, then, they suppose, what he says is what Plato thinks. Yet Rosen’s interpretational possibility accords to this particular dialogue an air of pathos that, in a certain mood of reading, does invest all the dialogues: a Socrates inexorably talking himself into execution, an Athens in headlong moral fall unstoppable by philosophy, a crew of beautiful youths—Charmides, Alcibiades—apparently attached to the man they imagine is their teacher and to whose teachings they are at heart recalcitrant. Rosen sees the Republic from some such perspective, but also from an even stranger and more poignant one: It is the record of a failed attempt to cure philosophers of their compulsion to seek power. It is remarkable that his mode of inexorable rationality should invest the work with so much feeling.

More than once Rosen invokes Nietzsche, who understood Socrates as an anti-tragic goblin, ready to undermine human gravity in the name of a willful rationality. Socrates, Rosen intimates, displays a will to power in his dream, the first such, of a political community governed by idea-mongers, ideologues, rather than by practical people of breeding and tradition. Thus the Republic is the womb of that wicked witch of the West, ideology. I think that he is surely right about the evils of ideology, but he has got to be somewhat wrong about the part played by Socrates in the Republic, as I will argue all too briefly below.

If Socrates’ personal mode of dissembling is a pedagogical precaution against his own power of indoctrination, then it is not the same as, is indeed rather opposed to, the compositional practice of secreting dangerous truths in a text so as to make them accessible only to very attentive and able readers. Rosen learned to clue out such hidden meanings from Leo Strauss, and it is to the “genuine Leo Strauss” that the study is dedicated. Nonetheless, it presents a very significant modification of Strauss’s approach. On the esoteric reading, Plato fully understands all the flaws of the perfectly just city to the construction of which the first half of the Republic is devoted. Thus the inside teaching is that extremism, the attempt to institute ideal justice on earth, will end in disastrous injustice, for this city is extremely coercive. Rosen points out that an argument against this thesis as an esoteric one is that it says just what Greeks, to whom philosophers were suspect, tended to believe anyhow. Rosen’s new departure, then, is this: If we attend to Socrates’ “shockingly open” statements of the measures actually required to institute political wisdom (or justice), we see that wisdom is tyrannical; truth cannot brook untruth. But nothing is worse on earth than ancient tyranny or its modern twin totalitarianism. When Karl Popper, Plato’s most effective modern opponent, accuses Plato of the latter, he is, Rosen says, correct, though he is blind to the reason why the theoretically best life must ever be the deadly enemy of the good or even the livable life, namely that truth is necessarily intolerant of perceived untruth. Rosen here takes a well-justified swipe at modernity’s way of attempting to defang the intellectuals who think that justice is to be instituted by doctrine: through side-lining them by relativizing tolerance, a flabby mode Rosen, following Nietzsche, calls decadence.

I cannot bring myself to think that Plato’s inquiring, ever-perplexed Socrates, the living antidote to those concept-mongering professors called sophists, actually enunciated such righteous extremism, any more than I believe that there cannot be a taut tolerance that opts for critically comprehending inclusiveness rather than for self-indulgent subjectivity.

But Rosen goes further: Plato’s own life, he points out, countermands the lesson taught by his teacher. In the face of his own Socrates’ brutally clear warning, he succumbed to the temptation of bringing theory into practical politics in his ill-fated ventures at the Syracusan tyrant’s court. Rosen’s account seems plausible. What else could have possessed Plato, unless it was hopeless naiveté—not a likely characteristic for the man who had himself thought of everything that Socrates cannily says in the Republic. In so succumbing, Plato opened the way to the aforementioned political evil of the West, social construction. Rosen’s hermeneutic complexities surely make it possible to read into the Republic a scope of influence not hitherto noticed.

But are they well taken? As I said, I think that something goes wrong, not because Socrates does not indeed mean what he says, but precisely because Rosen himself does not allow him to say what he means: “We watch it,” Socrates says at the beginning of the just city’s construction, “coming into being in words” (369 a)—for the sake of studying the just soul, whose justice turns out to be a well-adjusted, well-constituted framework in which the parts are differently balanced for differently constituted natures. The analogy of the soul to the city is criticized by Rosen in his Epilogue, and there his reason for understanding the construction of the ideal city as the central purpose of the dialogue rather than as a means to something else comes out with plain finality: Rosen has assumed from the beginning that the Republic is meant to be a political dialogue.

But is it? This soul-like city, which begins as a construct of words, is said at the end as well to be “founded in words” (which in Greek tends to imply “and not in deeds”). It is, in fact, impossible as a terrestrial city and exists only “laid up as a model in heaven for anyone to look at who wishes to found himself” (my italics: heauton oikizein [592 b]). Now, what on earth is Socrates saying here but that it is not a political but a psychic, a personal, polity that has been founded? To be sure, Rosen considers this passage and interprets it as meaning that the philosophers should conform their soul to the just regime, though in the preceding books, on the staged decline of the just city, it has always been the regime that conformed to the souls of its citizens.

* * *

Thus far I have reported on the Introduction, which is so idea-laden that I have by no means done it justice. The fourteen chapters that follow take up first the participants in the conversation and then, following the order of the text, the stages in the construction of the just city up to the philosophical center of the dialogue, including the institution of the philosopher-kings and their study of the Good. Then follow considerations of the stages in the best city’s decay as the citizens’ souls are corrupted; of Socrates’ critique of poetry as ethically dangerous and ontologically inferior; and finally of the soul’s afterlife.

Here, I must pick and choose; all the chapters offer much to think about and something with which to engage. So I will go to Part III, which comprises Chapters 8-10, Rosen’s study of the philosophical, that is to say, using a later term, the metaphysical center of the Republic, and within that center to the account of the Good (which is spread over the three chapters). For this mysterious Good is the culmination of the dialogue and to it the philosophers who are to be kings must ascend and from it they must come down, now prepared to rule. Let me say right away that this, the preparatory value of the Good, is what Rosen denies: “the…Good seems to be of little help to the philosopher-king…. We acquire neither practical nor theoretical knowledge by gazing at the Good.”

So, first, who is this philosopher-king for whose benefit the Republic has a metaphysical center? Open the book to its middle by page count and there he is (or she, as Socrates explicitly says)—the central human figure of the dialogue, whose introduction will raise a huge wave of derision. Rosen rightly emphasizes a crucial aspect of these philosophers: They “depend upon the existence of Ideas”; their “most important qualification is to ‘see’ the Ideas.” Accordingly, Rosen has not only explained very clearly in various places what a Platonic idea is—minimally, a formal structure necessary for identifying and speaking about things—but he has also set out lucidly what is problematic about it. He emphasizes that these structures are conceived as patterns or models, and Part III begins with a very illuminating discussion of the several meanings of Plato’s term paradeigma. Thus, philosophers have non-sensual patterns to look to. But then the question is: How does that make them fit to be kings? Rosen thinks that Plato has shown only that philosophers are lovers of ideas but not at all how the ideas bestow the practical knowledge required for kingship. I would respond that the Socratic position is that to know the ideas of Courage, Temperance, and Justice is to be courageous, temperate, and just—surely a good beginning for the life of a ruler.

The source of the being, growth, and knowableness of the ideas themselves is that notorious Good. It too is, I think, a defensible preoccupation for those who are to govern. Socrates presents it in a simile, a verbal image (eikon). The Good is like the sun in its being and power—except that it has no being, for it is “beyond being” (509 b). Rosen reasonably asks us to accept the idea of the Good as “intrinsic” to the intelligibility of human existence. But then he balks at the one metaphysical feature assigned to it, its “beyond-being.”

Yet the Good is not quite sufficiently delineated as perhaps “a set of properties of Platonic ideas,” nor put aside as “too cryptic to be amenable to an entirely satisfactory explanation.” The ancient tradition is that “The Good” was a name for “The One,” the comprehending source of unity, the principle of “one-out-of-many,” not itself a being but the unity of all beings. It is the very principle of our republic: “E pluribus unum.” That is why the philosopher-kings must come to behold it; far from being useless, it is the knowledge of communities, whether of ideal beings in their ontological context or of human beings in their private friendships or in their civic associations. For the philosopher-kings, even if they have, by my notion, no city but only themselves to rule, are yet friends and fellow-citizens. Don’t those of us who still teach the liberal arts (the very arts set out in the Republic’s curriculum for philosopher-kings) hope to educate citizens in just that way, by asking them to think about what it means to be together as a community emerging from individuals?

Perhaps Rosen’s demand for an entirely satisfactory explanation is a little too heroic for this dialogue, which is pervasively likeness-ridden. Indeed the cognitive and constitutional principle set out in the Divided Line is that of a hierarchical cascade of images, down to mere shadows. This lowest segment is apprehended by a power called eikasia; not “image-making” or “imagination,” but “image-comprehension”—the ability to recognize images—and through them the intelligible Platonic originals. My preference for the way to lead people into the Republic is through musingly squishy analogical thinking. But Stanley Rosen is probably incapable of anything but intellectual hard-hitting. Thus he offers a severe but utterly clear perspective on Plato’s Socrates, which is full of interest and, to its glory, totally devoid of jargon. Anyone can read it and learn.

This essay was originally published here in June, 2012, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. Republished with gracious permission from The Claremont Review of Books (Volume 6, No. 3, 2006).

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