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.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Updating the Political Analogies

The classification of constitutions according to types of polis and citizen facilitates the discussion of various types of soul, referred to analogously as aristocratic, timocratic, and so on. The political analogy presents a hierarchical tripartite constitution with one part controlling the other two, thus producing various types of constitution according to which part is controlling; this is for the benefit of the hierarchically-minded timocratic Glauco and Adimantus. Socrates chose the polis because it would appeal to the timocratic Glauco and Adimantus on several levels, including ambition, power, and hierarchy, while also being a single entity recognizably having parts, a helpful analogy for the soul not usually considered to be a single entity with parts.

The soul, however, is not actually hierarchically tripartite. It has one or other general motive, depending upon the way good is conceived, and Socrates provides a money-making clue to aid in the identification of each type, although money-making is of course not part of the soul’s constitution. A modern equivalent analogy might be the university and the academic. My presentation is very rough and ready, just to give a general idea.

The conventional aristocratic university is a centre of research for the sake of research. It does what a university is supposed to do. It is difficult for such an institution to exist for any length of time since it has no interest in making money.
Aristocratic academics occasionally discover something new and interesting, and share their findings with others with no thought of personal advantage. They are prepared to lie to keep non-aristocratic students interested in academic research, albeit for the wrong reasons.

The timocratic university best fits the mythical image of the ivory tower. It attempts to emulate the aristocratic university while improving upon it in terms of recognition and reputation. It acquires the trappings of what it conceives to be aristocratic, which is basically anything beyond the ordinary, and anything that overawes the ordinary. The timocratic university will be old, venerable, and steeped in history, enjoying sufficient means (land revenues, bequests, etc.) to support itself without having to resort to ordinary money-making. It is far more impressive than the aristocratic university.
The timocratic academic competes with other timocratic academics in order to gain recognition as a true academic. Academic success is measured in terms of recognition and grudging respect from fellow timocratic academics. Excellence is a function of reputation. Academic success has little to do with the ordinary man in the street, or society as a whole. Research will be on abstruse subjects of little importance to society. There is a danger that the timocratic academic may gradually become enamoured of the trappings, while becoming less enamoured of timocratic research, which comes to be seen for what it is, a waste of time and energy. The timocratic academic will, however, continue to maintain the fiction since reputation is the end.

The oligarchic university is less detached from society. It concentrates on research into practical matters, and aims to support itself through patents and research grants. It must struggle to restrain itself from more populist fields which promise to be more lucrative.
The oligarchic academic is a hard-headed no-nonsense scientist with little time for subjects such as philosophy, sociology and literature, although, again, the lure of easy cash income through more lucrative research and teaching positions has to be suppressed constantly.

The democratic university promotes the study of any and every subject since they are all of equal worth. This open policy requires much greater investment than in the oligarchic university, requiring a greater number of fee-paying students in addition to patents and research grants. Fortunately, the wide range of studies available attracts a great number of democratically-inclined students. Disciplines are too restrictive, and so-called multidisciplinary studies are promoted. True multidisciplinary studies require years of investment in learning each discipline before combining them, but the democratic university treats the tasting of various studies in various disciplines as multidisciplinary.
The democratic academic is a multidisciplinarian in the democratic sense. Democratic academics write on anything and everything, teach anything and everything, and are generally exciting and entertaining people.

The tyrannical university exists to promote itself. All means are legitimate towards the university’s self-aggrandisement. Sex, violence, films, postmodernist pseudoscience and any other subject found to attract the masses will be exploited under the guise of education. Student fees are more important than the students themselves. Thrasymachus the sophist would feel at home in the tyrannical university, although the tyrannical university exploits academics as much as students, requiring its staff to apply for research grants whether they need to or not, obliging them to write papers (rather than books) and send them to “respectable” journals, since such publications earn the university credits, and so on. Academic integrity is frowned upon.
The tyrannical academic cynically plays along with the undermining of reason and truth, constantly devising new ways for self-promotion within the system at the expense of academic integrity, while adopting all the trappings of previous constitutions, such as the notions of excellence, multidisciplinary studies, and bulk-publishing. Thrasymachus and the myriads like him are angry and resentful at the happiness of others.

This, then, is how universities might be classified according to the results of Plato’s Politeia. Of course, as Glauco notes in the dialogue, there are no such constitutions in reality. The point is that the analogies are made up to help understand types of soul.

One constitution not yet considered here is that of Socrates, the dialectical aristocrat. Like the conventional aristocratic academic, Socrates lies through his teeth to engage non-aristocratic people in a contemplation of truth, but unlike the conventional aristocratic academic, he lies in such a way that there is a chance that his interlocutors might become puzzled enough to activate their own dialectic thought.

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