Update on the Book Project

I began this blog for the purpose of airing out some of my ideas on Plato in anticipation of writing a book on the subject. My life is busy and my attention span short. Unless I want to sacrifice other parts of my life to writing (I don’t), the project will likely take me a very long time. That’s OK. My personal motto is from Ovid:

Gutta cavat lapidem, non vi, sed saepe cadendo.

(Dripping hollows rock, not by force, but by always dripping.)

I think it is helpful to reflect periodically on what I think I am doing and how I am doing it in order to guide my deliberations about what to do next. Here are a rough plan of my project, not of the contents, but of the process:

1. Last Summer, when I began to entertain such my book project, I set myself the modest goal of writing five sentences per day on Plato. That’s it — just five sentences a day. Sometimes I wrote more than five and sometimes sentences flowed into paragraphs, but everyday I wrote five.
2. Some time around December, I could see that my sentences were starting to coalesce around certain themes. I began sorting my scraps into rough categories. I organized them in a notebook, which has about 130 pages of these sentences and fragments.
3. I decided then that I need to move on to paragraphs and so here I am writing a blog. I really didn’t set myself any goal for posting other than regular progress. I have for the most part kept moving forward, although I have allowed myself the liberty of pursuing any topic that begs to be written.
4. I gave up standards of fluency and perfection. I tried to practice the economist James Buchanan’s advice to his students working on dissertations: “Don’t get it right; get it written!” This was hard for me, to release something into the world that I hadn’t massaged over a couple dozen times, but I know that “good enough” will yield a better harvest than “just right.” The stalk must come before before the flower.
5. I have purposefully shunned reading secondary works on Plato since beginning my project. (This has taken quite a bit of discipline — books are piling up that I am eager to read.) I will maintain this resolution unit I can produce a synoptic draft of the work “out of my head” as it were.
6. I wrote a rough program of topics to cover in my very first blog post, based on my arranging, and have been referring to that occasionally to fill in lacunae in the work. By the beginning of the summer, I hope to have aired all of the themes.
7. This summer I plan to collect those blog posts into a text editing program, play around with the order of exposition and figure out how to create a single synoptic narrative.
8. No post is finished as written, nowhere close. Each needs more examples, more extended development, more textual support. But my immediate goal is not to polish them in any sort of detailed way, but to expand them enough to provide stitching between sections. My next goal for now is a synopsis, not even a draft.
9. Finally, my work and methods should be an enactment of the ideas that they are trying to communicate. I am overcoming my fear of exposing my defects and have learned at Plato’s knee that the defective places are exactly where the real discoveries will eventually happen.

Thanks to all of you who have contributed to this work by commenting and asking probing questions. That has been a genuine help to me and I am humbly grateful to all of you.


The Divided Line as organizational key to Plato’s Republic

In my last post, I gave a very compressed explanation of the four segments of the Divided Line Analogy. (Republic, 509d-511e) But the Divided Line can be best understood by using it as an overlay for different parts of the Republic — then the parts and whole of the dialogue are mutually illuminating. The Divided Line Analogy is the representative of the whole; it give the logos or ratio of the parts in relation both to each other and to the whole itself. ( It took me about a decade of reading and rereading to figure all this out.) Here is a schematic version of some of those overlays, each of which I hope to unpack in future posts:


First, we need to distinguish the three main levels, each with its own type of object:

1. bottom level — where the prisoners sit shackled. The only “objects” are the shadows and echoes.
2. middle level — the level of the puppets, puppeteers and fire. A partition divides this level in two: (a) a front side in which only puppets are seen; (b) a back side, where one can see the puppets, the puppeteers and the fire.
3. top level — the ground outside the cave opening. The objects of attention here are the animals-themselves, the plants-themselves, and the light of the sun.

Given those three levels, one of which is divided by a partition, we get the following four “stations”:

1. eikasia — (Level 1) — turning from the shadows on the cave wall;
2. pistis — (Level 2a) — seeing the puppets on the front side of the partition wall;
3. dianoia — (Level 2b) — seeing the puppets, puppeteers and illumining fire behind the partition wall;
4. noesis — (Level 3) — emerging from the cave.


The parts of the Divided Line map to the four gradations of city in Books 2 through 5. (These divisions come from Eric Voegelin’s Order and History, Volume III: Plato and Aristotle.)

eikasia — Primitive City (369b – 372c)
pistis — Luxurious City (372c – 375c)
dianoia — Purified City (376e – 448e)
noesis — Philosopher’s City (449a – 541b)


eikasia — justice/dikaiosyne
pistis — courage/andreia
dianoia — moderation/sophrosyne
noesis — wisdom/sophia


eikasia — desiring-part/epithymia
pistis — spirited-part/thumoeides
dianoia — calculating-part/logistikon
noesis — not included. Thus, Socrates calls the threefold scheme, “deficient.” (504b)


eikasia — Cephalus
pistis — Polemarchus
dianoia — Thrasymachus, Adeimantus, Glaucon
noesis — Socrates


IGNORANCE – OPINION – KNOWLEDGE (See Republic, 477a – 478e)
eikasia — ignorance/agnoia/aporia
pistis — opinion/doxa (as belief)
dianoia — opinion/doxa (as hypothesis)
noesis — knowledge/episteme


FOUR “DRAFTS” OF THE REPUBLIC (discussed here)
eikasia — A first aporetic (i.e. unsatisfying) draft, i.e. Book I alone.
pistis — A second poretic (i.e. satisfying) draft comprised of Books I – IV and Books VIII – X
dianoia — The final written draft, i.e. the Republic as we have it.
noesis — The *real* final draft — the teaching of the Republic realized in the soul of its reader.

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…

Two…no three…great Plato essays

Posting on Eva Brann’s remarks on nescience reminded me of her great and seminal essay on Plato called “The Music of the Republic,” which is also the title essay of one of her books. I can’t recommend it too highly, even if I diverge from some of her interpretations at times. One of the glories of the internet age is that so many great things are available for free online. Not only Brann’s essay but also the second best essay I know on the Republic (“Imitation” by John White) are available for free in an a scanned version of a special issue of the St. John’s Review from 1989-90.

Here’s the link. Enjoy!

p.s. Robert Williamson also contributes an excellent essay on the nature of Plato’s Good to this edition. Williamson was among the most brilliant men I ever met. I was lucky to have studied Homer’s Iliad (in Greek of course) under his tutelage.


Philosophy and conversion

One of the chief teachings of Plato is that the aim of philosophical pedagogy is periogage, i.e. conversion. In Book VII of the Republic, Socrates tells Glaucon:

“Education is not the sort of thing certain people who claim to be professors claim that it is. Surely they claim they put knowledge into a soul it wasn’t present in, as though they were putting sight in blind eyes…

But the current discussion indicates…that this power is present in the soul of each person, and the instrument by which each ones learns, as if were an eye that’s not able to turn away from darkness toward the light in any other way than along with the whole body, needs to be turned around along with the whole soul, away from what’s fleeting, until it becomes able to endure gazing at what is and at the brightest of what is, and this, we’re claiming, is the good…

Then there would be an art to this very thing…this turning around, having to do with the way the soul would be most easily and effectively redirected, not an art of implanting sight into it, but of how to contrive that from someone who who has sight, but doesn’t have it turned the right way or looking at what it needs to.   — Republic, translated by Joe Sachs, 518b – d.

One of the frustrations of teaching philosophy in a university setting is the narrowly circumscribed (more…)

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…)