Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Plato's Republic - justice, fantasy and censorship - We'll ask Homer not to be angry

I had ambitions to write about Plato’s Republic with some thoroughness, but I guess I will just pursue one point.  Good enough.

I have been separating Socrates from Plato, an imaginative exercise based on circular criteria.  The more Socratic of the Socratic dialogues are shorter, feature proto-novelistic details about settings and characters, and end without resolving the question at issue.  The first book of Republic is one such proto-novel.  With the second book, though, the characters and details fall away, and Socrates, rather than interrogating the ideas of his listeners, directly presents his own ideas.  Perhaps the first book was written earlier, or perhaps Plato was signaling with self-parody that he was shifting to a new rhetorical mode.  The topic is classic: what is justice.  Here, he shows, is how I used to answer the question, and then here is the new way.

Socrates’s enemy in the first chapter asserts that justice is the pleasure of the strong and the suffering of the weak – what most of us would call injustice – with any other definitions simply the special pleading of the weak.  An ugly position, but a strong one, hard to refute without a number of arguable assumptions.

Plato – Socrates is speaking, but I now think of the speaker as ironic Plato – shifts the discussion to political justice and the ideal city-state, where specially trained philosopher-kings, selfless because they share property and even sexual partners, run a city based on a fictional racial caste system and eugenics.  It is not quite a version of “You know who should be in charge – we should be in charge!” but it is close, and the radical policies are of course, to anyone who remembers the twentieth century, appalling, the setup for mass murder and the destruction of human rights.

Socrates is, I find, an appealing if aggravating figure (and aggravation is part of his appeal), but in The Republic Plato becomes The Enemy, the intellectual ancestor of a lot of later ideological catastrophes.

His radical censorship, for example:

Then we must first of all, it seems, supervise the storytellers.  We’ll select their stories whenever they are fine or beautiful and reject them when they aren’t.  And we’ll persuade nurses and mothers to tell their children the ones we have selected, since they will chape their children’s souls with stories much more than they shape their bodies by handling them.  Many of the stories they tell now, however, must be thrown out.  (Book 2, 377c, tr. G. M. A. Grube)

Socrates / Plato particularly dislikes stories where gods act like humans or where there is some kind of icky sexual aspect.  He is a bit of a Puritan.  He wants to bowdlerize Homer.  Presumably Sophocles, too – “we’ll be angry with him, we’ll refuse him a chorus” (2, 383c), and Euripides and Aristophanes will likely be wiped out.  I wonder how much of Homer will be left.

We’ll ask Homer and the other poets not to be angry if we delete these passages and all similar ones (Book 3, 387b).

This is a bit of the Odyssey  in which the souls of the killed suitors are compared to bats.  The objection of Socrates is that it is too scary for a future philosopher-king!  “[S]hudders” will make them “softer.”  Hilarious.

I am aware of Leo Strauss’s argument that The Republic is satirical, a travesty, meant to be outrageous.  I don’t know.  I don’t dismiss the idea, but I have trouble following it while reading the actual text.

An irony is that late in life, as I order his works, Plato becomes a great storyteller, an early master of fantasy fiction.  The rich, bizarre Parable of the Cave in The Republic is the ancestor of endless science fiction stories, most famously, I suppose, The Matrix movies.  Plato ends the book with an elaborate afterlife fantasy.  The late dialogue Timaeus vividly describes the creation of the universe.  The unfinished Critias describes Atlantis and suggests that the bulk of it, if Plato had lived to finish it, would detail the long war between Atlantis and the Athens of 9,000 years ago.  How is this anything but a fantasy novel?  Two recent blockbuster movies have featured wars with Atlantis, and I believe a third is coming this summer.  To think that these goofy superhero movies are direct descendants of Plato.

Our next philosopher is the down-to-earth Aristotle.  We won’t find so much fantasy in the commonsensical Nicomachean Ethics, which I hope to write up in early June.


  1. I find it hard to recognise the irony in Plato. I was brought up in a Jehovah's Witness family. Plato reminds me of their prudish, fundamentalist beliefs. He seems to foreshadow some of the more dictatorial beliefs of modern times. I can't put my finger on it, but he isn't likeable. I read The Republic last year, and will reread him, but I'm in no rush at themoment as I'm slowly reading, and enjoying Nicomachean Ethics. I really got a lot out of your post, as always. Thanks

  2. The prudishness of this Socrates was something I had forgotten. I, too, have trouble seeing it, or his other totalitarian impulses, as ironic.

    My fear about the commonsensical Ethics is that I will have nothing to say about it. I can always write around it, I suppose.

  3. I don't know whether you're familiar with Popper's "The Open Society and Its Enemies", where he discusses Plato and especially the "Republic" at length, including the techniques with which Plato railroads the dialogues to the conclusions predetermined by himself. He 1) tries to separate Socrates from Plato, seeing the former as an open-minded seeker of truth and 2) regards Plato as the intellectual forefather of all ideologues who want to press society into the one mould they have identified as the only right one.

  4. I know Popper by reputation. Surprising I was neve assigned that piece. Amusing that my naive reaction parallels it so well.