I mentioned in an earlier post that this semester I am co-teaching a graduate course on the group and the individual. I am using R. G. Collingwood’s the Idea of Nature to structure my lectures. He talks of three phases in Western culture, the organic, the mechanical, and the evolutionary. I chose Plato’s Republic to illustrate the organic, Hobbes’s Leviathan for the mechanical, and Herbert Spencer’s essay on the social organism for the evolutionary. As it just so contingently happens, two out of three of my choices overlap with the books discussed by the English sociologist W. G. Runciman in his recent little book, Great Books, Bad Arguments. He talks of Plato and Hobbes, differing from my third choice in opting for Marx’s Communist Manifesto. (As I conceded in another post, I am a little edgy about my own choice of Spencer. In absolute terms, I would not want to defend him against Runciman’s choice of Marx. But I needed something to fit my pattern and so Spencer it was. I suspect that from a teaching viewpoint, he will be terrific.)
I should say that Runciman seems to me to be stronger on the Bad Arguments part of his thesis than on the Great Books. But I am not really interested in what he thinks. I am interested in what I think. Why do I think these are works worth going back to, worth reading again and again, worth putting before my students and saying as I did last week when I started in with the Republic: “Most things that we read or hear or see are probably a matter of taste and judgment. If you read something by Michael Ruse, and if you don’t like it, you could well be right. But there are some things against which we are measured. If we cannot respond in some way—we don’t have to like them—then the fault lies in us. Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Shakespeare’s King Lear. To which must be added Plato’s Republic.”
To recap for those who need a memory brush up. The Republic is generally considered one of Plato’s middle dialogues, featuring Socrates but in fact being used as a vehicle for Plato’s own ideas. More specifically, the Republic is on the topic of justice, which in the context has less to do with legal meanings and more with the general issue of good or right conduct, and it is thought that the first book may well be earlier and genuinely Socratic and then, wanting himself to turn to the topic, Plato used the first book as an introduction to his own thinking which occupies the later (two through 10) books.
It takes place at the house of Cephalus, a retired (and successful) businessman, and first pits Socrates briefly against Cephalus and then his son Polemarchus and (completing the first book) a visiting sophist Thrasymachus. This discussion is incomplete and unsatisfying, and so then the dialogue with Socrates is taken over by the (real life) brothers of Plato, Glaucon and Adeimantus. Socrates is challenged to show why we should be just, and to this end he introduces his celebrated analogy between humans and the state. The state, at least the ideal state as envisioned by Plato, will have three parts (and of course the slaves and helots). At the top will be the rulers, the men (and women) of gold, then the auxiliaries (silver), making collectively the Guardian class. Beneath them will be the rest of the population, farmers, traders, craftsmen and so forth (people of iron or brass, a base metal). Analogously humans have their reason, their spirited or courageous part, and their appetites. Plato argues that the just state/person is the state/person with the parts in harmony and where each part acknowledges its rightful role. It is not that Plato is against the appetites; it is rather that they must be under control, and more than this, under control without tension. Plato argues that the just state/person and only the just state/person is happy and takes it as axiomatic that being happy is what we all desire.
The Republic then goes on to discuss the education of the Guardians and this leads Plato into his celebrated Theory of Forms or Ideas, the eternal models of everything here on Earth. To this end, Plato introduces his three analogies or metaphors of the Sun, the Line, and the Cave. The world of Forms is ruled by the ultimate Form of the Good, as our world is governed by the Sun. The Forms are at the top of understanding, with mathematics just below, and then in our world knowledge (as of science) and at the bottom imagination. We are like prisoners in a cave looking at puppet shadows on a wall projected from a fire behind us. The philosopher can break free and go outside to see true reality. In an obvious allusion to the fate of Socrates, put to death for filling the minds of the young with too many good ideas, the philosopher who returns to the cave to tell the prisoners about reality stands in danger of violence and death, from those very prisoners.
Why is this book, that I first read when I was 17 (thanks to my classics master who decided he would rather teach Plato than Moses in the scripture classes), one that I keep coming back to time and again, for refreshment and stimulation? For me, it is because at different times of my life it has spoken to different but then (or now)-pertinent important issues. When I was 17 and away at an all-boys, private, Christian school, it was the education and lifestyle of the Guardians that resonated. Obviously inspired by Sparta, Plato wanted the Guardians to live communally, without personal valuables (especially gold and silver). They were to be raised and live this way so that their lives would be dedicated to the good of the whole and, notwithstanding their intelligence and power, they would not grab all of the goodies for themselves.
This prescription was incredibly influential in 19th-century Britain when there was need of administrators to rule the Empire, especially (after the Mutiny) the Raj. One needed bureaucrats (like Ronnie in Passage to India) who would serve the people they ruled, without plundering for their own ends. The English public school system (that I talked of earlier this year) was designed to produce just such people. However rich one’s parents, one lived communally, in relatively stripped down circumstances, and the nonstop ideology was that great gifts mean great responsibilities, one is here on earth to be of service to others. Even in the 1950s, there was much more than an echo of this through my teen years and the Republic spoke so strongly to me about this. (It obviously spoke strongly to my schoolmates also, large numbers of whom are scattered through what is now the Commonwealth, having had lives as teachers and doctors and administrators and aid workers and so forth.)
Then I remember in the 1970s, particularly with the rise of feminism, it was the parts of the Republic where Plato talked of men and women and of the role of the latter in the idea state that resonated and that led to one great class discussion after another. More recently, as you know, I have been working on the science and religion relationship, and I have been brought to think hard about the nature of mathematics. Is Plato right in thinking that mathematics is discovered not invented, and if he is, where then are the objects of mathematics? Is there some transcendent world that includes e, and ∏ and the square root of minus one? And if so, does this open the possibility of an even greater world wherein we find the ultimate objects ruled by the Good, which (certainly according to many Christians) is to be identified with the Godhead? This certainly does not for me prove the existence of God, but does it make possible in this age of science the very idea of a transcendent necessary being? (I am not going to attempt to answer this question now, but I will be getting back to it later in the fall.)
This time around I am back to Plato’s basic question. Or at least to his basic assumption. Only the good man (or woman) is the happy man (or woman), and conversely. In a way, it seems a bit silly. Surely there have been rogues in the past who have been perfectly happy? Perhaps so, but as a general rule more and more it seems to me that Plato is onto something. The really happy person, the really good person, is not someone looking for rewards, either here or in the future. (If I make a big charitable donation, God, will this give me a leg up towards getting into the Kingdom of Heaven?) It is rather the person who is in balance, who has his or her emotions under check and who moves forward from this.
I have been thinking of this in the context of my recently dead friend David Hull. He had things that could have soured his outlook. He was very short in a society that prizes big, beautiful people. He was gay when it was a great social disadvantage, and he lost his lover and many friends during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. His father committed suicide when he was young. And yet he was a good man. He gave and gave, he was a joy to be with and to talk and eat and laugh. He was a man who was balanced, who had his nature functioning so that all parts did what they should, without tension.
I think also of some of the great fiends of history. Adolf Hitler for example. He strikes me as being many things, but happy is not one of them. Even at the peak, visiting Paris after the fall of France, he was driven, thinking of the next conquests and of the supposedly vile nature of so many of his fellow humans. At a more intimate level, I think of a colleague I had for many years in Canada. In respects, he was the most talented of all. But he a pain to his fellow professors, he bullied the secretaries, he gave good marks only to those who toed the party line, he left a trail of wrecked marriages. And of all I knew, it was he who was always griping about life’s iniquities and how unfairly he was being treated.
In a way, I don’t blame him so much as pity him. I just wouldn’t have wanted to spend my days here on Earth like that. And I’m not being prissy or moralistic. I am just agreeing with Plato. And as my own children grow and prepare to leave the nest I am thinking hard about whether I have done a half decent job. It is not a matter of the success in the eyes of the world. It is a matter of whether they are balanced, able to give, happy to be alive.
Great Books, Bad Arguments? Take the Republic off that list.