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Books > Plato’s Republic: A Biography September 10, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Books Life.

Plato’s Republic: A Biography
By Simon Blackburn
Allen & Unwin, 2006
181 pages, $22.95 

Has all European philosophy been nothing but a series of footnotes to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato and his book, The Republic, written in 375 BC? Maybe, says Simon Blackburn with philosophical equivocation, in his history of Plato’s book.

Plato is not, says Blackburn, an attractive figure we would want to emulate, the political implications of The Republic are “mainly disagreeable and often appalling”, with its advocacy of totalitarianism, militarism, nationalism, hierarchy and censorship. Plato was an aristocrat, profoundly out of joint with the Athens of antiquity that was a (limited) democracy, centuries ahead of its time. Direct participatory democracy was a right for citizens (not including slaves and women) who had the right to speak and vote in the law-making governing assembly and to sit as judges in jury courts. Major state officials were elected and, in some cases, chosen by lot so as to increase popular participation in government. Plato, however, disagreed with these democratic principles.

The Republic spelt out Plato’s anti-democratic utopia. Society should be organised around three classes, the “philosopher-kings” or “guardians” (the elite few of “philosophers or lovers of knowledge”) who had absolute power; a standing army (“auxiliaries”) who would enforce the rule of the guardians; and, last and least, “the one that works for a living” (artisans, labourers, slaves).

Plato’s contempt for democracy and egalitarianism pervades The Republic. Plato, says Blackburn, is everywhere “sneering at labouring people”, hankering after the military despotism of Athens’ rival city-state, Sparta, and wanting to banish artists because they question the social order.

Underpinning Plato’s politics is a strong philosophical animosity to materialism. The concept of so-called “platonic love” as a non-sexual, spiritual communion of souls surpassing the sweaty appetites of the unwashed is the prime example of Plato, the otherworldly dealer in transcendental abstractions. For Plato, there is a higher reality than the everyday world and, crucially for Plato’s politics, only the elite few (philosopher-aristocrats) can ascend these metaphysical heights, glimpse “The Truth” and thus earn the right to rule.

Blackburn, from “the sceptical, scientific, enlightenment tradition”, is not friendly to the political content of Plato’s philosophy, but he retains a respect for Plato’s philosophical method, embodied in the “dialogues” in The Republic between Socrates (Plato’s teacher, who shared Plato’s contempt for democracy) and a varied cast of interlocutors.

Blackburn also celebrates Socrates, the star of The Republic, as a liberal hero and courageous opponent of the state, but Socrates was opposed to only a particular type of state, a democratic one. His followers were the idle aristocratic youth (like Plato) who, with Spartan help, twice overthrew Athenian democracy and established oligarchic reigns of terror in 411 BC and 404 BC and threatened to do so again in 401 BC, a context (about which Plato has nothing to say, and Blackburn not much more) that makes Socrates’ execution in 399 BC understandable (if not defensible).

Plato’s snobbish disdain for the sophists (working philosophers who were rivals and often political opponents of the anti-democratic Plato) is uncritically echoed in Blackburn’s derogatory portrayal of them as the mercenary “spin doctors” of their age. The sophists, however, found their paying market amongst the skilled workers and traders in Athens where learning how to debate was necessary to be effective in politics and court. The class prejudice of the independently wealthy Plato has blackened the reputation of the sophists for charging fees for “dispensing their wisdom” (as Blackburn derisively puts it with the unconscious hypocrisy of generations of classics scholars who are quite happy to be paid for their services).

For two-and-a-half thousand years, anti-democrats have cheered Plato’s philosophy and politics. Blackburn, alas, despite being no friend to Plato’s ideas for this or a “higher” world, has rather missed an opportunity to take them on in a Platonic dialogue that turns the tables on the old aristocratic-stringer for despotism.

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