Stasis and homonoia in Plato

A virtue is a power of achieving and maintaining a state of excellence in the carrying out of a function. In the Republic, Plato makes large claims for the virtue of justice (dikaiosyne), calling it “a soul’s virtue” in carrying out its function of living well (See Rep. 353d-e). A soul (psyche) is that which animates disparate parts into a organic whole. Since this concern for properly functioning wholes is always in the backdrop of Plato’s notion of justice, it helps to know the end states that Plato has in mind for justice to accomplish and to overcome:

Stasis is a state of discord between parts that disrupt the healthy functioning of the whole. In Greek medicine it is almost a synonym for nosos, or disease. The contemporary medical term metastasis, which means the transfer of disease from one place in the body to another, has this original sense of stasis as its root. In its political meaning, stasis is a civil war, in which allegiance to party (and opposition to other parties) overcomes a common allegiance to a larger whole. Stasis is thus a broad term that implies internal divisions of all kinds of the parts within an encompassing whole.

Homonoia is the healthy condition from which stasis is the deprivation. Homonoia is defined by Liddell and Scott variously as “oneness of mind, unanimity, concord.” In the passage I will quote below, Grube and Reeve translate it as “a sense of common purpose.” It is derived from Greek prefix homo-, which means “alike” or “same” and nous which mean “mind” or “understanding” or “insight.” So homonoia is something like a common understanding or shared insight into the nature of a matter. Between the two poles of stasis and homonoia there exists an entire of spectrum of intermediate possibilities.

So the work of justice will be to purify its patient from notions of the good that are inherently factional and replace those with notions that are consistent with a larger homonoia. Consider the following conversation between Socrates and Thrasymachus from Book I of the Republic as an example:

Injustice, Thrasymachus, causes civil war [stasis], hatred and fighting among themselves, while justice brings friendship and a sense of common purpose [homonoia]. Isn’t that so?
Let it be so, in order not to disagree with you.
You’re still doing well on that front. So tell me this: If the effect of injustice is to produce hatred wherever it occurs, then, whenever it arises, whether among free men or slaves, won’t it cause them to hate one another engage in civil war [stasis], and prevent them from achieving a sense of common purpose [homonoia]?
Certainly.
What if it arises between two people? Won’t they be at odds, hate each other, and be enemies to one another and to just people?
They will.
Does injustice lose its power to cause dissension when it arises within a single individual, or will it preserve it intact?
Let it preserve it intact.
Apparently, then, injustice has the power, first, to make whatever it arises in — whether in a city, a family, an army, or anything else — incapable of achieving anything as a unit, because of the civil wars [stasiazonta] and differences it creates, and, second, it makes that unit an enemy to itself and to what is in every way its opposite, namely, justice. Isn’t that so?
And even in a single individual, it has by its nature the very same effect. First, it makes him incapable of achieving anything, because he is in a state of civil war [stasis] and not of one mind [homonoia]; second, it makes him his own enemy, as well as the enemy of just people. Hasn’t it that effect?
Yes.

— Republic 351d-352a (Grube/Reeve translation)

Platonic justice (1) induces a respect for differences of function among the members of a whole, and (2) must presume a common allegiance toward that whole among these diverse parts. This common allegiance rests on the condition known as homonoia. In fact if we examine the Book 4 definitions of the four virtues, we can see how each has its place within a larger aim of achieving wholeness of a kind:

1. Justice — “Minding one’s own business and not being a busybody.” (433a)  Comment — This is a call not to turn into factional antagonists against other functions within the city.

2. Courage — “Power and preservation, through everything, of the right and lawful opinion about what is terrible and what is not.” (430b) Comment — What is most terrible will turn out to be stasis: “Is there any greater evil we can mention for a city than that which tears it apart and makes it many instead of one?” (462a)

3. Moderation — “Unanimity (homonoia)…an accord of worse and better, according to nature, as to which must rule in the city and in each one.” (432a)

4. Wisdom — “A kind of knowledge belonging to some of the citizens that counsels not about the affairs connected with some particular thing in the city, but about how the city as a whole would best deal with itself and the other cities.” (428c-d)

 

So the concepts of stasis and homonoia are at the very heart of Plato’s Republic.

 

The Cardinal Virtues and the Divided Line

Picking up again an earlier discussion (here and here) about the Divided Line image from Republic, Book VI, which I have argued is the hermeneutic key of the organization and aim of the entire dialogue, let me lay before the definitions of the four cardinal virtues that are given provided there. It is important to contextualize these definitions within the terms of Book IV — they are based on a tripartite psychology (434d – 441a) consisting of a “desiring part” (epithumia), a “spirited part” (thumoeides), and a “calculating part” (logistikon), which correspond to money-makers, auxiliaries and guardians in the city. Later parts of the dialogue will disturb this threefold organization, but it is background to the last stated definitions of the virtues given in the dialogue. The Divided Line opens them up further, but not explicitly. It is up to the reader of the dialogue to grasp the necessity for the line and determine for his/herself how the virtues could be explored further by its help.

For now, I am just going to present the definitions of the four virtues, slightly different for city and soul, next to the corresponding segments on the Divided Line. See if you can grasp the morphological kinship. (All of the quoted texts are from Allan Bloom’s translation of the Republic, Basic Books, 1968.)

JUSTICE (Dikaiosyne)

Justice-in-the-city definition — “Minding one’s own business and not being a busybody.” (433a)

Justice-in-the-soul definition — “As far as ruling or ruled are concerned, each of the parts in him minds its own business.” (443b-c)

DIVIDED LINE — corresponds to eikasia, which means the ability to grasp an image as an image and not mistake it for reality.

 

COURAGE (Andreia)

Courage-in-the-city definition — “Power and preservation, through everything, of the right and lawful opinion about what is terrible and what is not.” (430b)

Courage-in-the-soul definition — A virtue in which one’s “spirited part preserves, through pains and pleasures, what has been proclaimed by the speeches [of the guardians] about that which is terrible and that which is not.” (442c)

DIVIDED LINE — corresponds to pistis, which means trust, belief or confidence

 

MODERATION (Sophrosyne)

Moderation-in-the-city definition — “Unanimity (homonoia)…an accord of worse and better, according to nature, as to which must rule in the city and in each one.” (432a)

Moderation-in-the-soul definition — A “friendship and accord of these parts — when the ruling part and the two ruled parts are of a single opinion that the calculating part ought to rule and don’t raise faction against it.” (442c-d)

DIVIDED LINE — corresponds to dianoia, the thinking through opinion toward noetic insight; thinking towards the whole by means of the parts.

 

WISDOM (Sophia)

Wisdom-in-the-city definition — “A kind of knowledge belonging to some of the citizens that counsels not about the affairs connected with some particular thing in the city, but about how the city as a whole would best deal with itself and the other cities.” (428c-d)

Wisdom-in-the-soul definition — Possession of the knowledge of that which is beneficial for each part [of the soul] and for the whole composed of the community of these three parts.” (442c)

DIVIDED LINE — Noetic insight; understanding of the whole that forms the animating union of the parts; grasp of form (eidos)

 

Just food for thought:

One of the defects of the presentation of the virtues is that Socrates proceeds as if there are four and only four virtues, without providing a ground for this number. His discovery of the virtue of justice depends on there being four and only four. But in at least one other place I know (the dialogue Protagoras), piety is listed a fifth distinct virtue. Shall we leave ourselves open to the possibility that the omission is both important and intentional?

PIETY (Eusebia)

Piety-in-the-city — Not given explicity

Piety-in-the-soul — Not given explicitly

DIVIDED LINE — No equivalent segment. Ties to the “Good Beyond Being” perhaps?

On political agnosticism

I am a political agnostic, or at least I try to be.

Let me put this agnosticism in personal context. Just like anyone else, I have my political opinions and habitual reactions to political happenings. I like everyone else suffer from biases that color my view of the world: I “see” more acutely confirmatory evidence for my opinions and can glaze over those that call them into question. I enjoy polemics against leaders from other political persuasion. I can point out evidential support for my beliefs, but such “evidence” is within the context of my prior opinions. However much I would like to attribute my opinions to a superior intellect or access to better information, I simply can’t. I meet intelligent people of varying stripes: those whose opinion agree with mine and others who disagree.

Beliefs are not knowledge. In fact political beliefs can be the very impediment for becoming knowledgeable about that which we tend to overlook or discount. So while I have beliefs, I don’t credit them as being knowledge. They simply are not.

Note that by claiming to be an agnostic, I am not therefore what is called an independent or moderate. For however those labels may take a stance of agnosticism toward parties and partisanship, neither is shy about professing and acting upon their beliefs as if they were knowledgeable.

Well, what to do? How ought I participate in a democratic process? The essence of injustice for Plato is to act upon another without knowledge of the sphere in which they operate, without appropriate respect for the immanent law/nomos of the good in which they know how to effect. Justice is “doing one’s own work and not meddling in the proper work of another.” I cannot see how voting or assuming political office in our current system is consistent with that conception of justice. (See my earlier post “On Tyranny” for some background to my thinking on this.) The positive side of justice to “do one’s own work,” i.e. to accomplish what one knowingly can, obedient to the immanent laws of the production of good in the world. The baking of the baker and the carpentry of the carpenter are positive expressions of just action. But the presumptive meddling of the carpenter in the baking of the baker (or vice-versa) is unjust. Our system is unjust in the Platonic sense of being institutionalized meddling, whether Republican, Democrat, Green Party, Libertarian, etc.

The most heretical-sounding position toward which my philosophical education leads concerns voting. The world is complicated and not reducible to sound-bites and political platforms. Those who pursue zealously the opportunity to rule over others, despite their manifest ignorance concerning the mass of this complication, are hubristic in the extreme. To choose right-wing hubris over left-wing hubris or vice-versa is akin to choosing the color of the whips and chains used against others. Can we really vote knowingly when candidates must practice every form of disguise and keep us diverted from the fact of their own ignorance? Professions of ignorance and doubt are punished at the ballot box. Confident-sounding opinions are extravagantly rewarded. I don’t vote not out of apathy, but in open acknowledgment of my ignorance. I would like to know, but find that I don’t. I am still waiting for the barest evidence of knowledge (even knowledge of ignorance) in those who would presume to rule me and others.

To practice the “political art” of Plato and Socrates in modern America requires, or it seems to me, the following:

1. To pursue excellence in one’s craft.

2. To respect the excellence and autonomy of the other’s craft.

3. To acknowledge that where the other is expert, the other is authoritative for me.

4. Not to participate in systems of meddling, nor act as an authority where one is not — which includes not voting.

5. To pursue political knowledge and work to cure one’s own political ignorance.

6. To question the claims to political knowledge of those who would presume to rule, perhaps leading them or others into pursuing a more just course, such as a humble life in pursuit of excellent work.

7. To acknowledge openly and inquiringly my own ignorance, submitting it to whatever would cure me.

So — in the light of number 5, 6 and 7 above, feel free to correct me in the comments where you find me in error. Make clear to me political obligations that my ignorance keep me from seeing. I truly want to be a good citizen and contribute as I can to a just political order.

Any thoughts?

Plato contra Popper on ‘Who should rule?’

I want to correct a basic misunderstanding of Plato’s political philosophy. Here is one version of the most common misreading:

Plato was the theorist of an aristocratic form of absolute government. As the fundamental problem of political theory, he posed the following questions: ‘Who should rule? Who is to govern the state? The many, the mob, the masses, or the few, the elect, the elite?’

 

Once the question ‘Who should rule?’ is accepted as fundamental, then obviously there can be only one reasonable answer: not those who do not know, but those who do know, the sages; not the mob, but the few best. That is Plato’s theory of the rule by the best, of aristocracy.

 

It is somewhat odd that great theorists of democracy and great adversaries of this Platonic theory – such as Rousseau – adopted Plato’s statement of the problem instead of rejecting it as inadequate, for it is quite clear that the fundamental question in political theory is not the one Plato formulated. The question is not ‘Who should rule? or ‘Who is to have power? but ‘How much power should be granted to the government?’ or perhaps more precisely, ‘How can we develop our political institutions in  such a manner that even incompetent and dishonest rulers cannot do too much harm?’ In other words, the fundamental problem of political theory is the problem of checks and balances, of institutions by which political power, its arbitrariness and its abuse can be controlled and tamed.  — Karl Popper, from In Search of a Better World (The emphases in bold are mine.)

The only thing about Plato that Popper got right is that the question “Who should rule?” is fundamental to his thought. That Popper thinks that he can elide that question is problematic and ultimately self-contradictory. For in Popper’s own statement of the fundamental political question (‘How can we develop our political institutions in  such a manner that even incompetent and dishonest rulers cannot do too much harm?’) simply leaves unstated who this “we” is. Is it the representatives of a democratic majority? Is it some enlightened cadre at the University of London or Zurich? Who is the “we” who is asking the question, who is going to actively “develop” the institutions, who is free from the “incompetence and dishonesty” of the rulers “we” would check, who see the way to “controlling and taming” the proposed government’s “arbitrariness and abuse” without itself being arbitrary and abusive? Popper has not at all asked a fundamental question capable of displacing the Platonic one. Plato’s is more fundamental, however sympathetic I am to Popper’s aim of restricting the worst totalitarian excesses. No “we” can act politically without deciding on a ruler, even if “we” decide “we” are the proper ruler.

Plato’s question is really one of asking who can justly rule and his answer is the one who is him/herself just. (Pretty obvious, isn’t it?) And justice turns out to be “minding one’s own business” — in other words, avoiding rule in situations where one has no competence to rule. Justice is a form of humility, of modesty, of lack of pretense to rule where a better ruler is present. If the baker knows/cares more about baking, then in situations of baking the baker should rule — even the President. To overreach, to rule in situations where one lacks situational competence, is unjust, unwise and demonstrates a lack of self-control. It is tyranny in embryo. (See my previous discussion of tyranny here.) For Plato, the one who is most equipped to rule is the one most aware of his/her lack of competence and most unwilling to overstep the bounds of his/her modest competence. In a situation of general incompetence, only the one who is aware of his/her incompetence will be sufficiently cautious.

What in the resume of Presidents Bush or Obama or Garfield or Hayes qualified them to assume rule over healthcare or education or Middle East politics or sugar subsidies or immigration policy or high finance or etc.? How foolish are “we” to think that democratic majorities will be modest in their aspirations to rule over every nook and cranny of their neighbors’ lives? What good are constitutional checks “we” put in place when the voters and rulers lack the requisite self-constitutions to give them heed? And are “we” willing to consider that the nation-state may be essentially corrupt in its presuppositions, that its sheer size is an impediment to both justice and decency?

It is exceedingly odd that Sir Karl Popper has made Plato the poster boy for the totalitarian temptation. Yes, Plato thought that experts should rule — but only when they are in fact experts. Plato was very quick to deny that there was anything like a “general expert, which is why his ideal ruler is the one most likely to deny such expertise in him/herself. Would that our rulers would follow suit!

 

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…

The city is the soul writ large (Slow reading of Book II continued)

Picking up again in Book II from where we left off in our slow reading of Book II, Socrates proposes a certain way of getting at the notion of justice in the soul. Here is the text:

Glaucon, then, and the rest besought me by all means to come to the rescue and not to drop the argument but to pursue to the end the investigation as to the nature of each and the truth about their respective advantages. I said then as I thought: “The inquiry we are undertaking is no easy one but [368d] calls for keen vision, as it seems to me. So, since we are not clever persons, I think we should employ the method of search that we should use if we, with not very keen vision, were bidden to read small letters from a distance, and then someone had observed that these same letters exist elsewhere larger and on a larger surface. We should have accounted it a godsend, I fancy, to be allowed to read those letters first, and examine the smaller, if they are the same.” “Quite so,” said Adeimantus; [368e] “but what analogy to do you detect in the inquiry about justice?” “I will tell you,” I said: “there is a justice of one man, we say, and, I suppose, also of an entire city.” “Assuredly,” said he. “Is not the city larger than the man?” “It is larger,” he said. “Then, perhaps, there would be more justice in the larger object and more easy to apprehend. If it please you, then, [369a] let us first look for its quality in states, and then only examine it also in the individual, looking for the likeness of the greater in the form of the less.” “I think that is a good suggestion,” he said. “If, then,” said I, “our argument should observe the origin1 of a state, we should see also the origin of justice and injustice in it.” “It may be,” said he. “And if this is done, we may expect to find more easily what we are seeking?” [369b] “Much more.” “Shall we try it, then, and go through with it? I fancy it is no slight task. Reflect, then.” “We have reflected,” said Adeimantus; “proceed and don’t refuse.” — Perseus Project translation

That’s the text I would like to discuss. Here is some commentary to get us started: (more…)

Slow Reading Project: Republic, Book 2

Let’s go at it again, even slower this time — my plan is about two posts a week (Thursdays and Mondays, perhaps) until we reach a natural stopping point. For those who are new to this and want to know about slow reading, go here. For those who are new and/or want to review our previous slow reading of Book 1, start here. Let me review briefly the rules:

A. Let’s stay focused on just this part of the larger dialogue. Please, those of you who have read the entire dialogue, don’t make connections to anything beyond our current reading for now — although earlier texts are fair game. For now, let’s try to consider only the dialogue up to the end of today’s passage.

B. Read slowly. Try to incorporate every detail into your experience of the text. Aesthetize: try to see, hear and smell what is going on. Sympathize: try to understand the motives of the characters

C. Please comment in order to contribute. Make sure that you check the comments later on, since that is where the life of this Slow Reading will be conducted. Feel free to comment in response to other commenters as we go along. Don’t just think you are talking to me. You should know that I am actually out of the country — this post is being posted automatically according to a schedule — so I may not be able to respond quickly to your comments. I encourage other posters to step in in my absence.

I will give a few notes and observations to help you with your reading. They are not interpretations exactly, just pointers, notes, provocations and hints. Feel free to totally disregard them! In several places, I include questions. You don’t have to answer those either. I have no fixed answer in mind myself — questions just arise for me as I read slowly — as they should for you. Now on the the reading: (more…)