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.

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