On “little kingdoms”

Book 9 of the Republic ends with the question of how the true philosopher, the one fitted by nature and education to rule in the city, would comport himself in a (mostly corrupt) actual city, one quite unlikely to recognize his/her authority to rule:

[592a] He will gladly take part in and enjoy those which he thinks will make him a better man, but in public and private life he will shun those that may overthrow the established habitof his soul.” “Then, if that is his chief concern,” he said, “he will not willingly take part in politics.” “Yes, by the dog,” said I, “in his own city he certainly will, yet perhaps not in the city of his birth, except in some providential conjuncture.” “I understand,” he said; “you mean the city whose establishment we have described, the city whose home is in the ideal; [592b] for I think that it can be found nowhere on earth.” “Well,” said I, “perhaps there is a pattern of it laid up in heaven for him who wishes to contemplate it and so beholding to constitute himself its citizen. But it makes no difference whether it exists now or ever will come into being. The politics of this city only will be his and of none other.” “That seems probable,” he said. — Perseus Project translation of Plato’s Republic, 592a-b

The Republic toggles its concern between the just constitution of the city and the just constitution of the individual soul. One is left with the unsettling notion that only the latter can actually be, that the just are cursed in some way to be homeless, strangers in the land of the unjust. The Republic is perhaps an atopia, rather than eutopia. But there is another possibility…

In Chapter 37 of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, there is a conversation between Will Ladislaw and Dorothea Casaubon. Dorothea is trapped in a mostly loveless marriage to a failed scholar, Edward Casaubon, a family relation of Ladislaw. In a (partially) adventitious meeting, Ladislaw expresses toward Mr. Casaubon some resentful disparagement, against which Dorothea chides Will, defending her failed husband through an appeal to Ladislaw’s sympathy for him. That results in the following exchange:

“You teach me better,” said Will. “I will never grumble on that subject again.” There was a gentleness in his tone which came from the unutterable contentment of perceiving—what Dorothea was hardly conscious of—that she was travelling into the remoteness of pure pity and loyalty towards her husband. Will was ready to adore her pity and loyalty, if she would associate himself with her in manifesting them. “I have really sometimes been a perverse fellow,” he went on, “but I will never again, if I can help it, do or say what you would disapprove.”

“That is very good of you,” said Dorothea, with another open smile. “I shall have a little kingdom then, where I shall give laws. But you will soon go away, out of my rule, I imagine…”

The phrase “little kingdom” struck me as pointing to the effect that virtue can have in the small social setting. In such circumstances, the virtuous can rule, if only for a time. Athens does not beg Socrates to rule them, but it is clear that he is allowed to “rule” in the small gathering in the house of Cephalus. In the Middlemarch passage, it is not even clear who is being the most philosophical, Dorothea with her loyalty-love or Will with his recognition of the superior claim placed upon him. Each brings the “little kingdom” into existence jointly. Is this not true politics? Is there a sense in which the large scale enterprise that conventionally goes by the name of “politics” can be a distraction from this smaller but truer version? Perhaps we should practice “politics” at the highest level that truth will allow, among our neighbors in our neighborhood, and let the scoundrels fight each other for the remainder…

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