The Republic is widely recognized to be Plato’s masterpiece, but for centuries it has been the subject of much debate: is it about the ideal state, or the soul, or art, or education, or something else altogether? Interpretations have been many and various, for three main reasons: 1. studies have tended to concentrate on parts of this very long dialogue to the exclusion of other parts; 2. some of the opinions expressed in the dialogue are routinely regarded as being those of Plato himself; 3. the manifestly problematic inconsistencies and faulty argumentation are discussed and occasionally corrected as philosophical problems in their own right, and not as an organic part of the conversation. This book analyses the dialogue as a dialogue, a conversation between the characters presented in it, and examines the dialogue in its entirety. The result is a holistic interpretation making sense not only of the dialogue as a whole, but also of its parts, including the peculiarities. Each character is a paradigm representing an aspect of the central theme of the dialogue (apparent good), and it is because of what they represent that the conversation takes the overtly rambling and unstructured course that it does, while actually having a tight and well structured dynamic. Embracing the peculiarities rather than ignoring them, explaining them away, or correcting them piecemeal, is the first step on the way to understanding a Platonic text. Indeed, in general it is counter to philosophical thinking to impose on a text what one considers should be its meaning, rather than to examine and explain what is actually there.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

A Touch of Plato

The Cave Analogy does not work if we take it seriously. One obvious solution is to assume that Plato is interested not so much in details as in the big philosophical picture. The Devil, however - in this case Plato - is in the details as well as the big picture. Every detail fits into the big picture, and the big picture may only be seen once the details have fallen into place. The details themselves may only be fully appreciated in the context of the big picture. Here’s a small example.

On the first page of the dialogue, Socrates, narrating the events of the day before, makes it clear that he would have gone back to Athens had he not been persuaded to stay in Piraeus, the port of Athens. At the beginning of Book V, half way through the dialogue, having given an account of the good city, Socrates relates how he was about to talk about the degenerate cities when he was persuaded to talk instead about sharing women and children, a subject which somehow leads hin to talk about other subjects such as the Philosopher King, the Sun Analogy, the Divided Line Analogy, and the Cave Analogy: he returns to his original intent only at the beginning of Book VIII. Who persuades Socrates to engage in this long dialogue in the first place (Book I), and who persuades him to digress for three books (V-VII) on those subjects now considered to be the high point of Platonic philosophy? The answer to both questions is Polemarchus.

After much analysis it becomes evident that Polemarchus represents the type of person who thinks that doing well is chasing the next pleasure, whatever it may be. The political tag this type receives in the dialogue is “democratic”. Polemarchus represents the psychic democrat, not the political democrat, although there is some overlap. At the beginning of the dialogue, he attempts two forms of persuasion on Socrates: firstly, by democratically threatening him with mob power (whether in jest or not); secondly, by enticing him as he himself would be enticed, by a number of pleasures that will be theirs if Socrates stays. The digression in Book V begins when Polemarchus is unwilling to pass on the democratically fascinating subject of the sharing of women and children.

It is more than merely interesting that apparently great philosophy is instigated by a desire for novelty and pleasure on the part of the democratic, charismatic, mobster who won’t take no for an answer. All the more so when we recollect that Polemarchus is a passive listener for most of the dialogue.

The two instances in Books I and V reveal unusual attention to detail, especially considering how confused “Plato” appears to be in the Cave Analogy, from one sentence to the next. Polemarchus enlists the help of others: in Book I, Polemarchus gets his slave to stop Socrates; in Book V, he gets Adimantus to insist on discussing the subject that derails the main discussion. The physical persuasiveness of Polemarchus is brought out in both cases, with the process of persuasion including at some point the act of tugging on a sleeve; in both cases, the exact same phrase appears, and this appears nowhere else in the Platonic corpus - “catching hold of the tunic”. Here are the two passages:

327b2-5 Observing us from afar as we were setting off homewards, Polemarchus, the son of Cephalus, ordered his slave to run and order us to wait about. And the slave, behind me, catching hold of the tunic, said, “Polemarchus orders you to wait about.”

449b2-6 But Polemarchus — for he was sitting a little away from Adimantus — stretching out his hand and catching hold of the tunic, above by the shoulder, dragged the latter, and stretching himself forward began to talk in a huddled whisper which we couldn’t hear, except, “Shall we let him off, then, or what shall we do?

It is almost as if the reader is invited to make the comparison, although the two passages are so far apart in the dialogue.

The adverbs used in both instances are reminiscent of the same or similar adverbs used in the description of the fire in the Cave Analogy in Book VII: namely, “above”, and “behind”; and a third adverb “at a distance” (or “from afar”) is also to be found in the scene in Book I, and a similar adverb meaning the same thing ("a little away") is in the scene in Book V.

While these details may not contribute very much to the philosophical account, it seems to me that they suggest very strongly that Plato is well aware of what he is doing, and that if there are blatant inconsistencies from one sentence to the next in the Cave Analogy (and elsewhere), they are intentional.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Shadows in the Cave

Here is a very small sample of a pervasive phenomenon in the dialogue. I have chosen it because it requires no philosophical background, and because it is probably the most familiar section in the dialogue.

The passage at the beginning of Book VII of Plato's Republic is so well-known that it may be worth actually reading it. Socrates is talking with Glauco (in Greek transliteration, Glaukon):

And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
Yes, he said.

Socrates presents an impossibility. On the very same wall opposite the prisoners are to be found a) the shadows of themselves, b) presumably the shadow of the wall, c) and the shadows of objects carried by men passing along the wall. Many attempts have been made to illustrate the analogy, and several shadowy versions are replicated in the Cave of the Internet.

In this version, the fire is located correctly behind and above the prisoners, explicitly stated by Socrates just a few lines earlier. The shadows of the prisoners are necessarily cast onto the ground before them, and not onto the wall. Thus, either the fire is not above and behind, or the shadows of the prisoners cannot be opposite them on the cave wall. There is something wrong with the account, and it should not be ignored. That it is ignored must be ascribed to an unthinking assumption that the account is somehow to be understood despite the discrepancies: small points in the general scheme of things may be ignored. The wall and the models cast no shadows whatsoever; they would have obliterated the shadows of the prisoners, and are therefore inconvenient.
The inconvenience may be solved in the following way:
These prisoners cast no shadows (onto the ground), not to mention the wall's apparent translucency. A more sophisticated illustration retaining the shadows of the prisoners and the shadows of the models is to be admired for its ingenuity and its more sophisticated perversion of the laws of physics:
Here at last we have both the shadows of the prisoners and the shadows of the models, thanks to some masterful bending of space. Even this, however, fails to meet the criteria of the account, where the prisoners are explicitly unable to remove their gaze from the wall directly in front of them; the shadows of themselves are expressly opposite them on the cave wall, exactly where the shadows of the models are also said to be.

To return to the passage quoted at the top of this entry. This is not Plato's account of a cave. This is not even Socrates' account. Socrates is asking Glauco whether he can imagine this cave, and it is Glauco who says that he does. Clearly Glauco does not imagine it, since it is impossible. No one is expected to accept this cave analogy at face value, except for people like Glauco.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Buy the book new - it's cheaper!

This is snapped from Amazon's site. Brand new, the book is a mere $81.48 (beyond my means, but I've already read it); used, the book costs over 10% more. I'm wondering whether the used book costs more because of the rarity value of my book having had a reader.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Beware Phishing Sites!

My book is finally out!

To celebrate, I must warn potential readers of a phenomenon confirming one of the main theses of the book, that some people think they are doing the right thing when they are gaining at someone else's expense. Days ago, before the book was out, sites began appearing all over the blogosphere claiming to allow free download of the book (as an eBook), describing the book as "fabulous", "incredible" and other such epithets lacking substance. The blurb varies only in these descriptions and the name of the poster.

Here's one site if you're interested, but you can take my word for it.

I recommend that you do not click on anything on such sites. The publisher has been made aware of the phenomenon.

Here's where you can order the book, albeit not for free:

Lexington Books


I'll be posting on aspects of the book, and certainly on reviews of the book as they appear.