CHAPTER 6: POSTSCRIPT TO PLATO

THE DIFFICULTY of the Republic lies in part in the fact that Plato tries to achieve so much in so little space. The question, What is justice? is originally put as a simple request for a definition; but it becomes an attempt to characterize both a virtue which can be manifested in individual lives and a form of political life in which virtuous men will be at home, insofar as they can ever be at home in the world of change and of unreality. Both have already been described in the course of outlining the arguments of the Republic; what remains is to stress their internal connection. For in fact Plato’s morals and Plato’s politics are closely interdependent. Each logically requires to be completed by the other. We can best understand that this is so by examining the structure of two dialogues of Plato, one wholly devoted to the question of how the individual should live, and the other entirely concerned with politics. In each case we shall discover that the argument ends in mid-air, and that we are forced to look elsewhere for a complementary argument. The first of these dialogues is the Symposium, a work which belongs to the same middle period of Plato’s life as the Republic does; the second is the Laws, which was written at the very end of Plato’s life. Socrates is the central character of the Symposium, and this is moreover the pre-Platonic Socrates, the teacher of Alcibiades and the target for Aristophanes. By the time of the Laws Socrates is no longer present in the dialogue at all. This in itself emphasizes the sharp contrast: the agnostic Socrates would never have set himself up as a legislator.

The Symposium is an account of a drinking party to celebrate Agathon’s victory in a dramatic competition. The guests compete, too, in making speeches about the nature of ἔρως, sometimes translated as “love.” But if it is so translated, one must recall that ἔρως hovers halfway between love and desire, and that the pre-Socratic philosophers had made it the name for whatever impulses drive all beings in nature toward their goals as well as for the specifically human impulses to grasp and to possess. In the Symposium Aristophanes explains ἔρως by an extended joke, a myth about human origins. Men originally had four arms, four legs, and so on-were, indeed, like two of our present human beings fastened together. Being far stronger and more adroit like this than they are now, they threatened the hegemony of the gods, who overcame this threat by an act of separation. Ever since, men, being but half-beings, have wandered through the world searching for the being who will complete them. The difference between heterosexual and homosexual love is explained with reference to the sort of being which was originally divided in two, and hence to the sort of being each individual needs to complete his nature. (We may note that this is also used to explain what is taken for granted by all the characters, the superiority of homosexual to heterosexual love.)

Ἔρως is thus desire for what we do not possess. The lover is a man who is unsatisfied. But is love in fact such that we can only love what we do not have? Socrates in his speech recounts the doctrine into which he was initiated by the priestess Diotima.

Ἔρως, according to her account, is a desire which will not be satisfied by any particular object in the world. The lover ascends from the love of particular beautiful objects and people to the love of αὐτὸ τὸ καλόν, beauty itself, and at this point the lover’s search is accomplished, because this is the good which the soul seeks. The object of desire is what is good, but good does not mean, is not defined as, “what the soul desires.” “There is certainly a doctrine by which lovers are men searching for the other half of themselves; but on my view love is not desire either of the half or of the whole, unless that half or whole happens to be good.” Good therefore is not just that which we happen to desire at any given moment; it is that which would satisfy us, and which would continue to satisfy us once we had made the ascent of abstraction from particulars to the Form of the Beautiful. This ascent has to be learned; even Socrates had to receive this account from Diotima. In the Symposium itself Plato draws no political morals from this; but what morals could be drawn if we were to accept what is said in the Symposium?

The good can be achieved only through an education of a particular kind, and if this education is to be available to more than a random selection of mankind, it will have to be institutionalized. What is more, the institutions of the educational system will have to be directed and controlled by those who have already made the prerequisite ascent from the vision of particulars to the vision of the Forms. Thus, from the Symposium with its entirely nonpolitical argument-the dialogue ends with everyone else drunk and asleep while Socrates explains at dawn to a barely awake Agathon and Aristophanes that the man with a genius for tragedy must also have a genius for comedy and vice versa-we can infer a picture of a society with an educational system directed from the top.

Everything of course depends upon the connection between good and the Forms. Plato’s first correct insight is that we use the concept of good in order to evaluate and grade possible objects of desire and aspiration. Hence the also correct conclusion that good cannot simply mean “what men desire.” His second correct insight is that the good must therefore be what is worth pursuing and desiring; it must be a possible and an outstanding object of desire. But his false conclusion is that the good must therefore be found among the transcendental, out-of-this-world objects, the Forms, and hence that the good is not something that ordinary people can seek out for themselves in the daily transactions of this life. Either knowledge of the good is communicated by a special religious revelation (as it is by the priestess Diotima to Socrates) or it is to be reached by a long intellectual discipline at the hands of authoritative teachers (as in the Republic).

The Forms are important to Plato both for religious and for logical reasons. They provide us both with an eternal world not subject to change and decay and with an account of the meaning of predicative expressions. Therefore, when Plato encountered radical difficulties in the theory of Forms he reached a point of crisis in his philosophical development. The most central of these difficulties appears in the dialogue called the Parmenides and is presented in the so-called Third Man argument. Where we have to (or more) objects to which the same predicate applies, because they share a common characteristic, we apply that predicate in virtue of the fact that both objects resemble a common Form. But now we have a class of three objects, the two original objects plus the Form, which must all resemble each other, and thus have a common characteristic, and hence be such that the same predicate applies to all three. To explain this we must posit a further Form; and so we embark on a regress, in which nothing about common predication is explained because a further explanation is always demanded, no matter how far we may go. These and kindred difficulties led Plato toward a series of logical inquiries which he himself never brought to a conclusion; some of his later lines of thought prefigure modern developments in logical analysis, while others anticipate Aristotle’s published criticism of Platonic positions, and may even have resulted from the young Aristotle’s spoken ciriticsms. Yet Plato himself quite clearly never abandoned belief in the Forms. His puzzlement about them may, however, explain a curious gap in the Laws.

The Laws is a work which reminds us that Plato has an independent interest in political philosophy. The Laws concerns the nature of a society in which virtue is universally inculcated. In the first parts of this very long work the emphasis is upon the nature of inculcation; in the later parts practical proposals for legislation to be enacted in the (imaginary) about-to-be-founded Cretan city of Magnesia are discussed. As with the society of the Republic, there is to be a hierarchical order of rulers and ruled in the city. As with the society of the Republic, true virtue is only possible for those who belong to the restricted class of the rulers. But in the Republic the whole emphasis was upon the education of the rulers. In the Laws there is nothing like this. The education of the rulers is discussed only in the last book, and then not at great length. And this can be understood in the light of Plato’s mature puzzlement about the Forms. The rulers are certainly going to have to grasp the nature of the Forms; but Plato does not and perhaps cannot tell us just what it is that they are going to have to grasp. Certainly the education of the rulers is represented as going further and being more exacting than that of the mass of the citizens. But it is in what Plato has to say about the mass of the citizens and their education that the fascination of the Laws resides.

In the Republic the role of ordinary people in the state corresponds to that of appetite in the soul. But the relation between reason and appetite is depicted as a purely negative one; reason restrains and checks the nonrational impulses of appetite. In the Laws the positive development of desirable habits and traits takes the place of this restraint. The common people are encouraged to live in accordance with virtue, and both education and the laws are to nurture them in this way of life. But when they live in accordance with the precepts of virtue, it is because they have been conditioned into and habituated to such a way of life, and not because they understand the point of it. That understanding is still restricted to the rulers. This emerges most clearly in discussion of the question of the existence of the gods or god. (For sophisticated Greeks of Plato’s period singular and plural expressions about the divine appear to be interchangeable.) In the Republic explicit references to the divine are sporadic. Stories of the traditional gods, purged of immoral and unworthy actions, will have their part in education. But the only true divinity appears to be the Form of the Good. In the Laws, however, the existence of the divine has become the cornerstone of morals and politics. “The greatest question . is whether we do or do not think rightly about the gods and so live well.” The divine is important in the Laws because it is identified with law; to be obedient before the law is to be obedient before god. The divine also seems to represent the general primacy of spirit over matter, soul over body; on this is founded the argument for the existence of god introduced in Book X.

The ordinary people are to be induced to believe in gods, because it is important that all men should believe in gods who attend to human affairs, and who are not subject to human weakness in that attention. But the rulers are to be men who have “toiled to acquire complete confidence in the existence of the gods” by intellectual effort. What others hold as a result of conditioning and tradition they have grasped by the use of rational proof. Suppose, however, that a member of the ruling group comes to think that he has found a flaw in the required proof- what then? Plato gives a clear answer in Book XII. If this doubter keeps his doubts to himself, then well and good. But if he insists on disseminating them, then the Nocturnal Council, the supreme authority in the hierarchy of Magnesia, will condemn him to death. The absence of Socrates from the dialogue is underlined by this episode. His prosecutors would have had an even easier task in Magnesia than they had in Athens.

Plato’s determination to uphold a paternalistic and totalitarian politics is clearly independent of any particular version of the theory of Forms; for long after he has abandoned the version which in the Republic helps to sustain such a politics, he is prepared to advocate the political views which it sustained. But it is also clear that Plato’s political philosophy is not merely only justifiable if, but is only intelligible if, some theory of values as residing in a transcendent realm to which there can be access only for an intellectually trained elite can be shown to be plausible. This is the connection between the nonpolitical vision of the Symposium and the entirely political vision of the Laws. But what is the turn in Plato’s thought which transformed Socrates from hero into potential victim? We can distinguish at least two turning points.

The first is the rejection of the Socratic self-knowledge through the discovery of one’s own ignorance; the second is the belief that to give true answers to the Socratic questions somehow imposes an obligation to incarnate these answers in social forms. This belief is a curious blend of political realism with totalitarian fantasy. That the possibility of living a virtuous life depends for most people upon the existence of the right kind of social structure does not entail that we ought to create a social structure in which virtue is imposed. Indeed, on Plato’s own view virtue is not imposed: it is either rationally apprehended by the few, or it is impossible, its place being taken by an externally conforming obedience, for the many. But it does not follow that Plato did not believe in imposing virtue; but rather that the confusion imbedded in his beliefs obscured from him that this was what he believed in.