Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

Welcome to Satyagraha

Welcome to Satyagraha.  I hope you find the material here of interest.  For more about me and the blog, click here.

I’m currently running for US Congress in California’s 24th District (Santa Barbara County and San Luis Obispo County) on a peace and solidarity platform.  Campaign website

Written by John Uebersax

December 10, 2012 at 11:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Culture in Crisis: The Visionary Theories of Pitirim Sorokin

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Introduction

Pitirim Sorokin, a leading 20th century sociologist, is someone you should know about. Consider this quote of his:

The organism of the Western society and culture seems to be undergoing one of the deepest and most significant crises of its life. The crisis is far greater than the ordinary; its depth is unfathomable, its end not yet in sight, and the whole of the Western society is involved in it. It is the crisis of a Sensate culture, now in its overripe stage, the culture that has dominated the Western World during the last five centuries….

Shall we wonder, therefore, that if many do not apprehend clearly what is happening, they have at least a vague feeling that the issue is not merely that of “prosperity,” or “democracy,” or “capitalism,” or the like, but involves the whole contemporary culture, society, and man? …

Shall we wonder, also, at the endless multitude of incessant major and minor crises that have been rolling over us, like ocean waves, during recent decades? Today in one form, tomorrow in another. Now here, now there. Crises political, agricultural, commercial, and industrial! Crises of production and distribution. Crises moral, juridical, religious, scientific, and artistic. Crises of property, of the State, of the family, of industrial enterprise… Each of the crises has battered our nerves and minds, each has shaken the very foundations of our culture and society, and each has left behind a legion of derelicts and victims. And alas! The end is not in view. Each of these crises has been, as it were, a movement in a great terrifying symphony, and each has been remarkable for its magnitude and intensity. (P. Sorokin, SCD, pp. 622-623)

Background

Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin (1889–1968) was born in Russia to a Russian father and an indigenous (Komi, an ethnic group related to Finns) mother. Like other intellectuals of his age, he was swept up in the revolt against the tsarist government. He held a cabinet post in the short-lived Russian Provisional Government (1917), and had the distinction of being imprisoned successively by both tsarist and Bolshevist factions. Eventually sentenced to death, he was pardoned by Lenin, emigrated, and came to the US. There he enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career, much of it at Harvard University, where he served as head of the sociology department.

His experience and acute observations of Russian politics left him uniquely suited for understanding the transformational forces of the 20th century. By 1937 he published the first three volumes of his masterpiece, Social and Cultural Dynamics, but he continued to refine his theories for nearly three more decades.

Based on a careful study of world history – including detailed statistical analysis of phases in art, architecture, literature, economics, philosophy, science, and warfare – he identified three strikingly consistent phenomena:

  1. There are two opposed elementary cultural patterns, the materialistic (Sensate) and spiritual (Ideational), along with certain intermediate or mixed patterns.  One mixed pattern, called Idealistic, which integrates the Sensate and Ideational orientations, is extremely important.
  2. Every society tends to alternate between materialistic and spiritual periods, sometimes with transitional, mixed periods, in a regular and predictable way.
  3. Times of transition from one orientation to another are characterized by a markedly increased prevalence of wars and other crises.

Main characteristics of the Sensate, Ideational, and Idealistic cultural patterns are listed below. (A more detailed explanation of alternative cultural orientations, excerpted from Sorokin’s writings, can be found here.)

Sensate (Materialistic) Culture

The first pattern, which Sorokin called Sensate culture, has these features:

  • The defining cultural principle is that true reality is sensory – only the material world is real. There is no other reality or source of values.
  • This becomes the organizing principle of society. It permeates every aspect of culture and defines the basic mentality. People are unable to think in any other terms.
  • Sensate culture pursues science and technology, but dedicates little creative thought to spirituality or religion.
  • Dominant values are wealth, health, bodily comfort, sensual pleasures, power and fame.
  • Ethics, politics, and economics are utilitarian and hedonistic. All ethical and legal precepts are considered mere man-made conventions, relative and changeable.
  • Art and entertainment emphasize sensory stimulation. In the decadent stages of Sensate culture there is a frenzied emphasis on the new and the shocking (literally, sensationalism).
  • Religious institutions are mere relics of previous epochs, stripped of their original substance, and tending to fundamentalism and exaggerated fideism (the view that faith is not compatible with reason).

Ideational (Spiritual) Culture

The second pattern, which Sorokin called Ideational culture, has these characteristics:

  • The defining principle is that true reality is supersensory, transcendent, spiritual.
  • The material world is variously: an illusion (maya), temporary, passing away (“stranger in a strange land”), sinful, or a mere shadow of an eternal transcendent reality.
  • Religion often tends to asceticism and moralism.
  • Mysticism and revelation are considered valid sources of truth and morality.
  • Science and technology are comparatively de-emphasized.
  • Economics is conditioned by religious and moral commandments (e.g., laws against usury).
  • Innovation in theology, metaphysics, and supersensory philosophies.
  • Flourishing of religious and spiritual art (e.g., Gothic cathedrals).

Integral (Idealistic) Culture

Most cultures correspond to one of the two basic patterns above. Sometimes, however, a mixed cultural pattern occurs. The most important mixed culture Sorokin termed an Integral culture (also sometimes called an idealistic culture – not to be confused with an Ideational culture.) An Integral culture harmoniously balances sensate and ideational tendencies. Characteristics of an Integral culture include the following:

  • Its ultimate principle is that the true reality is richly manifold, a tapestry in which sensory, rational, and supersensory threads are interwoven.
  • All compartments of society and the person express this principle.
  • Science, philosophy, and theology blossom together.
  • Fine arts treat both supersensory reality and the noblest aspects of sensory reality.

Update:  A more recent article that concisely describes the features of Materialism, Ideationalism, and Idealism is ‘What is Materialism? What is Idealism?‘ (Uebersax, 2013b)

Western Cultural History

Sorokin examined a wide range of world societies. In each he believed he found evidence of the regular alternation between Sensate and Ideational orientations, sometimes with an Integral culture intervening. According to Sorokin, Western culture is now in the third Sensate epoch of its recorded history. Table 1 summarizes his view of this history.

Table 1
Cultural Periods of Western Civilization According to Sorokin

Period Cultural Type Begin End
Greek Dark Age Sensate 1200 BC 900 BC
Archaic Greece Ideational 900 BC 550 BC
Classical Greece Integral 550 BC 320 BC
Hellenistic – Roman Sensate 320 BC 400
Transitional Mixed 400 600
Middle Ages Ideational 600 1200
High Middle Ages, Renaissance Integral 1200 1500
Rationalism, Age of Science Sensate 1500 present

 
Based on a detailed analysis of art, literature, economics, and other cultural indicators, Sorokin concluded that ancient Greece changed from a Sensate to an Ideational culture around the 9th century BC; during this Ideational phase, religious themes dominated society (Hesiod, Homer, etc.).

Following this, in the Greek Classical period (roughly 600 BC to 300 BC), an Integral culture reigned: the Parthenon was built; art (the sculptures of Phidias, the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles) flourished, as did philosophy (Plato, Aristotle). This was followed by a new Sensate age, associated first with Hellenistic  (the empire founded by Alexander the Great) culture, and then the Roman Empire.

As Rome’s Sensate culture decayed, it was eventually replaced by the Christian Ideational culture of the Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages and Renaissance brought a new Integral culture, again associated with many artistic and cultural innovations. After this Western society entered its present Sensate era, now in its twilight. We are due, according to Sorokin, to soon make a transition to a new Ideational, or, preferably, an Integral cultural era.

Cultural Dynamics

Sorokin was especially interested in the process by which societies change cultural orientations. He opposed the view, held by communists, that social change must be imposed externally, such as by a revolution. His principle of immanent change states that external forces are not necessary: societies change because it is in their nature to change. Although sensate or ideational tendencies may dominate at any given time, every culture contains both mentalities in a tension of opposites. When one mentality becomes stretched too far, it sets in motion compensatory transformative forces.

Helping drive transformation is the fact that human beings are themselves partly sensate, partly rational, and partly intuitive. Whenever a culture becomes too exaggerated in one of these directions, forces within the human psyche will, individually and collectively – work correctively.

Crises of Transition

As a Sensate or Ideational culture reaches a certain point of decline, social and economic crises mark the beginning of transition to a new mentality. These crises occur partly because, as the dominant paradigm reaches its late decadent stages, its institutions try unsuccessfully to adapt, taking ever more drastic measures. However, responses to crises tend to make things worse, leading to new crises. Expansion of government control is an inevitable by-product:

The main uniform effect of calamities upon the political and social structure of society is an expansion of governmental regulation, regimentation, and control of social relationships and a decrease in the regulation and management of social relationships by individuals and private groups. The expansion of governmental control and regulation assumes a variety of forms, embracing socialistic or communistic totalitarianism, fascist totalitarianism, monarchial autocracy, and theocracy. Now it is effected by a revolutionary regime, now by a counterrevolutionary regime; now by a military dictatorship, now by a dictatorship, now by a dictatorial bureaucracy. From both the quantitative and the qualitative point of view, such an expansion of governmental control means a decrease of freedom, a curtailment of the autonomy of individuals and private groups in the regulation and management of their individual behavior and their social relationships, the decline of constitutional and democratic institutions.” (MSC p. 122)

But, as we shall consider below, at the same time as these crises occur, other constructive forces are at work.

Trends of our Times

Sorokin identified what he considered three pivotal trends of modern times. The first trend is the disintegration of the current Sensate order:

In the twentieth century the magnificent sensate house of Western man began to deteriorate rapidly and then to crumble. There was, among other things, a disintegration of its moral, legal, and other values which, from within, control and guide the behavior of individuals and groups. When human beings cease to be controlled by deeply interiorized religious, ethical, aesthetic and other values, individuals and groups become the victims of crude power and fraud as the supreme controlling forces of their behavior, relationship, and destiny. In such circumstances, man turns into a human animal driven mainly by his biological urges, passions, and lust. Individual and collective unrestricted egotism flares up; a struggle for existence intensifies; might becomes right; and wars, bloody revolutions, crime, and other forms of interhuman strife and bestiality explode on an unprecedented scale. So it was in all great transitory periods. (BT, 1964, p. 24)

The second trend concerns the positive transformational processes which are already at work:

Fortunately for all the societies which do not perish in this sort of transition from one basic order to another, the disintegration process often generates the emergence of mobilization of forces opposed to it. Weak and insignificant at the beginning, these forces slowly grow and then start not only to fight the disintegration but also to plan and then to build a new sociocultural order which can meet more adequately the gigantic challenge of the critical transition and of the post-transitory future. This process of emergence and growth of the forces planning and building the new order has also appeared and is slowly developing now….

The epochal struggle between the increasingly sterile and destructive forces of the dying sensate order and the creative forces of the emerging, integral, sociocultural order marks all areas of today’s culture and social life, and deeply affects the way of life of every one of us. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

The third trend is the growing importance of developing nations:

“The stars of the next acts of the great historical drama are going to be – besides Europe, the Americas, and Russia – the renascent great cultures of India, China, Japan, Indonesia, and the Islamic world. This epochal shift has already started…. Its effects upon the future history of mankind are going to be incomparably greater than those of the alliances and disalliances of the Western governments and ruling groups. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

Social Transformation and Love


While the preceding might suggest that Sorokin was a cheerless prophet of doom, that is not so, and his later work decidedly emphasized the positive. He founded the Harvard Research Center for Creative Altruism, which sought to understand the role of love and altruism in producing a better society. Much of the Center’s research was summarized in Sorokin’s second masterpiece, The Ways and the Power of Love.

This book offered a comprehensive view on the role of love in positively transforming society. It surveyed the ideals and tactics of the great spiritual reformers of the past – Jesus Christ, the Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, etc. – looking for common themes and principles.

We need, according to Sorokin, not only great figures like these, but also ‘ordinary’ individuals who seek to exemplify the same principles within their personal spheres of influence.  Personal change must precede collective change, and nothing transforms a culture more effectively than positive examples. What is essential today, according to Sorokin, is that individuals reorient their thinking and values to a universal perspective – to seek to benefit all human beings, not just oneself or ones own country.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to the subject of yoga (remarkable for a book written in 1954), which Sorokin saw as an effective means of integrating the intellectual and sensate dimensions of the human being. At the same time he affirmed the value of traditional Western religions and religious practices.

The Road Ahead

Sorokin’s theories supply hope, motivation, and vision. They bolster hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that it may not be too far distant. The knowledge that change is coming, along with an understanding of his theories generally, enables us to try to steer change in a positive direction. Sorokin left no doubt but that we are at the end of a Sensate epoch. Whether we are headed for an Ideational or an Integral culture remains to be seen. It is clearly consistent with his theories that an Integral culture – a new Renaissance – is attainable and something to actively seek.

One reason that change may happen quickly is because people already know that the present culture is oppressive. Expressed public opinion, which tends to conformity, lags behind private opinion. Once it is sufficiently clear that the tide is changing, people will quickly join the revolution. The process is non-linear.

The West and Islam

Viewed in terms of Sorokin’s theories, the current tensions between the West and Islam suggest a conflict between an overripe ultra-materialistic Western culture, detached from its religious heritage and without appreciation of transcendent values, against a medieval Ideational culture that has lost much of its earlier spiritual creativity. As Nieli (2006) put it:

“With regard to the current clash between Islam and the West, Sorokin would no doubt point out that both cultures currently find themselves at end stages of their respective ideational and sensate developments and are long overdue for a shift in direction. The Wahabist-Taliban style of Islamic fundamentalism strays as far from the goal of integral balance in Sorokin’s sense as the one-sidedly sensate, post-Christian societies of Northern and Western Europe. Both are ripe for a correction, according to Sorokin’s theory of cultural change, the Islamic societies in the direction of sensate development (particularly in the areas of science, technology, economic productivity, and democratic governance), the Western sensate cultures in the direction of ideational change (including the development of more stable families, greater temperance and self-control, and the reorientation of their cultural values in a more God-centered direction). Were he alive today, Sorokin would no doubt hold out hope for a political and cultural rapprochement between Islam and the West.” (Nieli, p. 373)

The current state of affairs between the West and Islam, then, is better characterized as that of mutual opportunity rather than unavoidable conflict. The West can share its technological advances, and Islam may again – as it did around the 12th century – help reinvigorate the spirit of theological and metaphysical investigation in the West.

Individual and Institutional Changes

Institutions must adapt to the coming changes or be left behind. Today’s universities are leading transmitters of a sensate mentality. It is neither a secret nor a coincidence that Sorokin’s ideas found little favor in academia. A new model of higher education, perhaps based on the model of small liberal arts colleges, is required.

Politics, national and international, must move from having conflict as an organizing principle, replacing it with principles of unity and the recognition of a joint destiny of humankind.

A renewal in religious institutions is called for. Christianity, for example, despite its protestations otherwise, still tends decidedly towards an ascetic dualism – the view that the body is little more than a hindrance to the spirit, and that the created world is merely a “vale of tears.” Increased understanding and appreciation of the spiritual traditions of indigenous cultures, which have not severed the connection between man and Nature, may assist in this change.

Sorokin emphasized, however, that the primary agent of social transformation is the individual. Many simple steps are available to the ordinary person. Examples include the following:

  • Commit yourself to ethical and intellectual improvement. In the ethical sphere, focus first on self-mastery. Be eager to discover and correct your faults, and to acquire virtue. Think first of others. See yourself as a citizen of the world. Urgently needed are individuals who can see and seek the objective, transcendent basis of ethical values.
  • Read Plato and study Platonism, the wellsprings of integral idealism in the West.  For a warm-up, read works of Emerson — Platonism come to America.
  • Cultivate your Intellect and encourage others to do likewise: read history, literature, and poetry; listen to classical music; visit an art museum.
  • Practice yoga.
  • Be in harmony with Nature: plant a garden; go camping; protect the environment.
  • Reduce the importance of money and materialism generally in your life.
  • Turn off the television and spend more time in personal interaction with others.

A little reflection will doubtless suggest many other similar steps. Recognize that in changing, you are not only helping yourself, but also setting a powerfully transformative positive example for others.

The Supraconscious

Sorokin’s later work emphasized the role of the supraconscious — a Higher Self or consciousness that inspires and guides our rational mind. Religions and philosophical systems universally recognize such a higher human consciousness, naming it variously: Conscience, Atman, Self, Nous, etc. Yet this concept is completely ignored or even denied by modern science. Clearly this is something that must change. As Sorokin put it:

By becoming conscious of the paramount importance of the supraconscious and by earnest striving for its grace, we can activate its creative potential and its control over our conscious and unconscious forces. By all these means we can break the thick prison walls erected by prevalent pseudo-science around the supraconscious. (WPL, p. 487)

The reality of the supraconscious is a cause for hope and humility: hope, because we are confident that the transpersonal source of human supraconsciousness is providential, guiding culture through history with a definite plan; and humility, because it reminds us that our role in the grand plan is achieved by striving to rid ourselves of preconceived ideas and selfishly motivated schemes, and by increasing our capacity to receive and follow inspiration. It is through inspiration and humility that we achieve a “realization of man’s unique creative mission on this planet.” (CA, p. 326).

References and Reading

  • Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. Social and Cultural Dynamics. 4 vols. 1937 (vols. 1-3), 1941 (vol. 4); rev. 1957 (reprinted: Transaction Publishers, 1985). [SCD]
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Crisis of Our Age. E. P. Dutton, 1941 (reprinted 1957). [CA]

updated 11 March 2015

Yoga and Voting for Peace

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Art by Dan Morris

ONE definition of Yoga is the integration of the spiritual and material realms in the human being, making a union of Heaven and Earth.

Given this definition, it is possible to approach politics as a form of Yoga.  This would of course be very different from the usual practice of politics today.  Rather, it would try bring into social affairs and institutions of government divine and eternal principles of Truth, Beauty and Goodness.

While we’ve grown accustomed to think of politics as selfish and egoistic, in truth it is something that can glorify the Divine.  Among the animals only human beings have devised such things as governments and elections — methods with which, if used rightly, we can greatly improve our lives and planet.

Today the world is in great peril, with a dangerous combination of growing populations, militarism and materialism, combined with threats to the environment and climate.  But since we believe in a benevolent and superintending Spirit, we remain confident that solutions will reveal themselves in due time.

Putting these two thoughts together, we may see that political institutions like elections and voting, if approached rightly, give us a means of shaping a positive future.

What does it mean to approach politics rightly?  Some basic guidelines are evident.  First we know that our choices should be governed by unselfish rather than selfish or egoistic aims.  Our goal as ‘yogic voters’ should be to better the condition of all, not only of some.  Further, it follows from the principles of Yoga, that our actions should seek to unify, not divide members of society.  In addition, right politics and voting should leave our mind more calm and peaceful, not agitated and angry. These principles alone would exclude perhaps 90% of usual politics.

Today we are faced with one great need above all, which is to end the terrible program of constant war that our country (that is, the government and corporations) has pursued.  To help you exert a countering and correcting force of Love, I have placed my name on the ballot in the June 7 primary as an independent peace candidate for US Congress in our district.  A vote for me will be recognized as a vote for peace.  In this way the ordinary process of an election is turned into a referendum against war and for peace.  Since we do not have direct referendums on war, this means of producing one appears promising and I hope others will follow the example in future elections.

Every vote for peace will have a positive karmic effect, helping to improve our country and world.  It is to enable you to gain positive karma for yourself and others that I am running.  The direct goal is not to win the present election, but to begin the journey to peace.

I may add that the alternative — to vote for a Democrat or Republican politician — would, in my opinion, have little effect, as both represent materialistic values and the differences between them are negligible; I also believe they habitually promote divisive issues with the aim of diverting public attention from more fundamental needs for change, such as ending war.

Therefore please let me ask that you visit my campaign website and consider voting for peace.

If you should like to share this information, that would also be appreciated as I am relying on grassroots means of reaching voters.

Namaste,

John Uebersax

 

National Gifts: A Foreign Policy of Friendship

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foreign-assistance-map

THE OTHER day I visited with interest (and some dismay) the website for the United States foreign assistance programs.

It claims that our country is planning to devote $33.9 billion in fiscal year 2017 to help foreign countries.

Ignoring the $8.3 billion in military assistance, this still leaves a respectable $25.6 billion dedicated to economic and humanitarian assistance.

Or is it respectable?  Who today is so innocent as not to suspect that much of our so-called economic assistance is really a way of steering the economy, infrastructure and values of a foreign country to render it more exploitable?

It need not be so.  I propose to my fellow Americans an alternative.

The current US population is something over 300 million.  Were each person to contribute a mere 33 cents annually (parents paying the amount for infants and young children), we would easily raise $100 million.

Each year we could single out one amongst the family of nations, and bestow on this nation, as a gesture of pure friendship, some great gift purchased with it.

The first stipulation would be that there are no strings attached.   We seek nothing in return for the gift, except the benefit of the recipient and the honor of making it.

The second is that the gift must have nothing to do with economics or materialist values.  We would wish, rather, to give in the name of eternal friendship between the people of that country and our own.

The most suitable gifts, I suggest, would be libraries, museums, parks, gardens and monuments.  Perhaps there are others, but I personally would not like to see the list extended too far beyond these definite examples of non-material goods.

The figure of $100 million, or perhaps as much as twice that,  would suffice for a truly magnificent gift, yet at the same time is sufficiently restrained as to not seem crass.  By comparison, the new Library of Alexandria, Egypt cost $200 million, the Sifang Art Museum in Nanji, China, $279 million, and the MuCEM of Marseille, $260 million.

I have in mind one historical precedent for this, namely a library for the University of Leuven which the American people (independently of their government) donated to the people of Belgium following World War I.

To consider the premise from the reverse perspective, consider the affection which Americans retain to this day to their French cousins in gratitude for the gift of the Statue of Liberty.

An examination of current foreign aid recipients shows we now favor poor nations and generally ignore more prosperous countries like Japan and Canada.  But in friendship we should not make such distinctions.  If I may, I would like to nominate Japan, a great friend whom we take for granted, as the first recipient.

To merely begin this program would, besides the immediate result of honoring our old friends and making new ones, have the effect of changing history.  It would become immediately apparent to all how easy and, relatively speaking, inexpensive this is, and how much vastly superior it is as a foreign policy than war, competition and exploitation. It would signal nothing less than a turning point in human evolution.  Henceforth the advanced level of our technology and the vast power of collective capital would be matched by our wisdom and charity.

To speed the progress of so worthy an endeavor let some wealthy American — for example,Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg — take the first step by supplying, for one year only, some substantial fraction (but not to exceed 50%) of the total.   In return they would go down in history as one of the great benefactors of humanity.

Or let those whose reputations suffer from past errors or partisan connections demonstrate their patriotism and good will to all — a George Soros or the Koch Brothers — by taking the first step.  They will then be applauded by all for their magnanimity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written by John Uebersax

March 30, 2016 at 11:03 pm

The Fable of the Crafty Chief

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THERE was once a happy and prosperous tribe. Their chief was wise and fair.

A neighboring tribe became jealous of their success, and began to raid them, stealing their cattle and corn. The chief then raised an army of strong men. The next time the enemy tribe raided them, the chief and his men delivered a sound defeat, and they never attacked again. Nevertheless to discourage further mischief the tribe decided to keep a some men permanently armed and ready to defend them.

The chief grew old and his son then became leader. Unlike the father, the son was selfish and greedy. No matter how much he had, he always wanted more. He depleted the public treasury until he had amassed a great fortune. Then he began to eye the wealth of neighboring tribes, and sent raiders to steal from them. When the neighboring tribes protested and tried to defend themselves, he sent soldiers to intimidate them and demand tribute. The other tribes, weaker, began to submit.

But the people did not like this. They decided to hold an election to select a new chief.

Yet the son was crafty, and he conceived a scheme to retain his position. He went to the women of the tribe and spoke as follows: “I see how the men of the tribe oppress you women. They make you grind corn, cook, and wash clothes all day, while they enjoy hunting and sitting around the fire smoking their pipes. But if you vote for me in the election, I promise to fix things. I will improve your status relative to the men, and redress this great injustice.” This met with much approval with the women, and they agreed to vote for him.

Then the son went to the farmers and similarly spoke: “I know how much difficulty you have with the cattlemen. They steal your water, and let their cows eat and trample your crops. They grow rich while you grow poor. But if you vote for me, I will fix things. I will see to it that the cattlemen are put in their place. I will take some of their land and money for you to distribute amongst yourself.” This too met with much approval with the farmers.

And so it happened that when the election occurred, all the women and all the farmers voted for the chief; and although nobody else voted for him, he received enough votes to achieve victory. Once secure in his position, he resumed his previous behavior, only more boldly and on a larger scale. He now openly raided neighboring tribes, stealing their things. He hired mercenaries to form a large and invincible army, and taxed his people to pay for it. As the son ruthlessly plundered all the neighbors, the tribe became hated and held in contempt by all.

In time, even the weather changed. The earth would not yield her crops, and the cattle grew thin. The tribe became poor, suffered, and demanded a new leader. Yet every time an election was held, the crafty chief applied his scheme. No matter how poor the tribe became, there were always groups who believed they had less than others, and by exaggerating these disparities and promising to fix them he continued to win. And here is the paradox: that while each group acted rationally — for indeed inevitable differences in the distribution of things among the tribe occurred — when each group only sought greater justice for itself, all suffered greatly.

Thus it was that the people, by continually fighting amongst themselves about how to distribute what little resources remained, collectively had less and less, until they ceased to be a tribe at all, so that now even their name is forgotten.

Written by John Uebersax

March 8, 2016 at 3:54 am

George Washington’s Solemn Warning Against Party Strife and Plea for Unity

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WashingtonPrayer3

From George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)

A solicitude for your welfare, which cannot end but with my life, and the apprehension of danger, natural to that solicitude, urge me, on an occasion like the present, to offer to your solemn contemplation, and to recommend to your frequent review, some sentiments which are the result of much reflection, of no inconsiderable observation, and which appear to me all-important to the permanency of your felicity as a people. These will be offered to you with the more freedom, as you can only see in them the disinterested warnings of a parting friend, who can possibly have no personal motive to bias his counsel. Nor can I forget, as an encouragement to it, your indulgent reception of my sentiments on a former and not dissimilar occasion….

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another….

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed,

it is of infinite moment
that you should properly estimate
the immense value of your national union
to your collective and individual happiness;
that you should cherish a cordial, habitual,
and immovable attachment to it;
accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it
as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity;
watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety;
discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion
that it can in any event be abandoned;
and indignantly frowning upon
the first dawning of every attempt
to alienate any portion of our country from the rest,
or to enfeeble the sacred ties
which now link together the various parts.

~ * ~

Written by John Uebersax

February 17, 2016 at 5:33 am

On the Ancient Titles of Plato’s Republic

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Politeia_beginning._Codex_Parisinus_graecus_1807IN HIS Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius cites Thrasylus (d. 36 CE) to the effect that the work of Plato we call The Republic had two Greek titles, Politeia (Πολιτεία) and peri dikaiou (περὶ δικαίου; DL 3.60). From the better-known former one, we get (somewhat indirectly) our title The Republic. We will return to that, but first let’s consider the second title. This is usually translated as On Justice, but that is incorrect. The Greek word for justice is dikaiosune. While derived from the same root (dike), the word dikaiou, a pronoun, means a just man or person. Further, the word ‘just’ here is somewhat misleading. In modern English we tend to equate justice with social justice. In that sense a just man would be one who deals fairly with others. But the Greek concept of dike is broader — more like what we call ‘in right measure’ (the goddess Dike is sometimes pictured holding a balance scale). A more accurate translation of dikaiou therefore is a rightly ordered or righteous person.

The word politeia means a system of government, a form of political regime, or, by extension, a constitution. We get the word Republic not from the Greek word, but from the title of Cicero’s dialogue, Res publica (the public thing), which he styled in imitation of Plato’s work. However, as noted by Tarrant (2012) and others, some manuscripts give this title as politeiai, a plural form. This would be translated as systems of government, constitutions, or regimes.

We end up with the possibility that (although Plato, as far as we know, himself named none of his dialogues) the title of the work we call The Republic would, by ancient readers, have been understood as something like Regimes: On the Righteous Person. This would have made it clear that the dialogue is a work on ethics and psychology, with discussion of city governments supplying an allegorical framework for investigating the good and bad government of ones soul or psyche.

References

Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. R.D. Hicks (tr.). Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA. 1925 (repr. 1972).

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s Republics. Journal of the International Plato Society, 12, 2012.  Online version: mar 2013.

Written by John Uebersax

January 15, 2016 at 3:47 am

On the Psychological Meaning of Plato’s Nuptial Number

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platonic-year

ALTHOUGH Plato’s Republic is usually thought of as a treatise on government, it is actually much more a work on psychology and religion. After all is said and done, Plato is a moral and religious philosopher (see e.g., More, 1921), and his greatest concern is the salvation of souls (Guthrie, 1975, p. 434 & p. 561). Whatever his level of interest in civil affairs might be, his interest in the interior life is much greater, and the latter ought to be our principal focus in studying Plato.

It would be too extreme to suggest that nothing in the Republic ought to interest political scientists. We have recently seen some very learned and productive investigations of the work by political philosophers (e.g., Schofield, 2007; Harte, 2013). The real issue is that not enough attention is paid to mining the treasures the Republic contains at a psychological, moral, and religious level. It is in these other areas that much more remains to be discovered, and, further, material with arguably greater potential to improve the human condition.

An potential objection to this view is the argument from tradition. “The Republic,” some will say,” has even since ancient times been understood as principally a literal work on politics; we have no business changing this time-honored approach.” There are several obvious problems with this reasoning. Rather than pursue them all here, we will mention one important one. As Leo Strauss (1952) noted, writers like Plato often have good reasons to disguise the their true message. Even as far back as St. Augustine (Against the Academics, 3.17-18; cf. Ficino, Epist. 1.13, To Bessarion) the suggestion has been made that Plato needed to veil his message, because its religious and moral themes are too threatening to the greater number of people whose principle concerns are materialistic.

The City-Soul Analogy

Discussions of city and psyche are integrally linked in the Republic. The work begins with Socrates (Plato’s mouthpiece in the work) proposing to some companions to investigate the nature of Justice. At first it’s not exactly clear whether he means Justice in a state, in an individual, or both. By the end of Book 1, where Socrates’ arguments revolve around the idea that the just man is happiest, it begins to seem that the greater concern here is personal morality and psychology. At the beginning of Book 2, Socrates, suggesting that his previous arguments were not fully convincing, suggests to take a different course, namely via the city-soul analogy (Annas, 1999; Blössner, 2007): because it’s hard to visualize Justice as it operates in our own souls, and since the same principles of Justice operate in souls and cities, we can, using the “letters writ large” (Rep. 2.368c–2.369a) in cities, learn about souls.

Socrates then proceeds to describe a hypothetical just city, and several less just ones. However dozens of times he takes pains to remind us that everything said about cities also applies to souls (see Waterfield, 1993, p. xvii for a partial list of instances).

Literal or Allegorical?

A reasonable position, then, is that some descriptions of just and unjust cities in the Republic can be interpreted literally, but other instances should be understood more with concern for their allegorical meaning. How then, may we choose which approach to take in a particular case?

Elsewhere I have attempted to frame this question in a rigorous way, applying the principles of probabilistic evidence evaluation (Uebersax, 2015). Ultimately, though, this simply supplies a formal justification for what common sense already tells us: if a passage makes sense literally, interpret it so; if it doesn’t, and if we can find a plausible allegorical meaning that fits with what we think Plato’s overall psychological and moral message is, then interpreted it allegorically.

We may further consider the ancient Greek exegetical concept of a skandalon or ‘stumbling block.’ This refers to something an author intentionally places in a work to serve a twofold purpose. First, it trips up those who aren’t likely to profit from the real message by sending them down a wrong track. Second, the incongruity of the skandalon alerts more attentive readers that there’s a hidden meaning beneath the surface. So, for example, if a myth portrays a god as acting in a truly scandalous way, we ought to look for an allegorical instead of a literal meaning.

The preceding considerations suggest a practical interpretative strategy we might take with the Republic. If a section seems to make good sense understood politically, then interpret it at a political (and, because of the city-soul analogy, also a psychological) level. However if it seems absurd, ridiculous, completely impractical, opposed to common sense, or morally objectionable, take that as evidence that it is an allegory.

Such then, is our guiding hypothesis. It is only a conjecture until we can demonstrate it in action. That we propose to do here by taking a particularly clear case where literal interpretation gets us nowhere, namely the discussion of the so-called nuptial number in Book 8.

The Nuptial Number

For millennia people have puzzled over a section of Plato’s Republic that describes the so-called nuptial number (Rep. 8.545d−8.547a). This occurs within the speech of the Muses, wherein Socrates playfully claims to speak for the gods. By what seems at face value an implausibly complex formula, he derives a number that allegedly designates the optimal time for marriage and procreation amongst the guardians of the hypothetical just city. Much earlier (Book 3) Socrates has proposed that citizens in this city either comprise, or should be thought of as comprising, separate races that correspond to the metals of gold, silver, bronze, and iron. At the beginning of a well-constructed state, the guardians are of the golden race. By their marrying at a certain point (indicated by the nuptial number) in a great planetary or cosmic cycle, the chances are maximized that guardians’ offspring will themselves be golden and hence well suited to protect and rule the city. Otherwise less noble children will be born, who will not guard effectively; conflict will ensue, and the city’s integrity will be imperiled.

Read literally, it would seem that Plato is advocating eugenics, astrology and a strange number mysticism. We are not constrained to read Plato literally here, however, and may instead consider the possibility he means this allegorically. Below we consider a plausible psychological interpretation of this enigmatic material.

Psychopolis

We begin by restating a leading premise already discussed in previous articles (e.g., Uebersax 2014a). Modern psychology has learned a fair amount about the plural character of the human psyche. In the 20th century, numerous theories were advanced to account for it (Rowan, 1990 and Lester, 2010 supply thorough reviews of this extensive literature). Among the more prominent figures associated with this view are Carl Jung, Roberto Assagioli, Virginia Satir, Alfred Adler, Andras Angyal, George Kelly, John Watkins, James Hillman, and Eric Berne (earlier work by William James should also be mentioned).

The consensus opinion of these writers is that, although in one sense each of us is a single self, in another sense ones mental life can be meaningfully understood as a community of different processes, structures, or entities variously called sub-personalities, subegos, roles, identities, ego states, belief structures, schemata, agents, and various other names. These subselves (a convenient generic term) range from very well developed structures (e.g., full-fledged alter-egos or pathological multiple personalities), to the transitory states of mind, moods, or dispositions we all experience. Even without this impressive body of theory, common sense reveals that each of us is as many persons as we have different social roles, projects, desires, appetites, interests and hobbies, relationships, affiliations, and so on. The total number of such subselves for any given person may easily number into the hundreds or thousands.

We need not, in any case, commit ourselves to the belief that these are real entities. Subself theory may, alternatively, be thought of as a convenient metaphor for the basic multiplicity of ones roles, dispositions, and states of the psyche.

The existence of so many subselves sets the stage for conflict among them — a fact only too well known to each of us. To minimize conflict, so that our psyche and our life are as harmonious as possible, we need to effectively govern this inner community, lest conflicts and factions born of opposing goals and beliefs emerge. Considering what a complex problem this is, and that implications of success or failure are so vital to our well-being, we can easily believe that it did not escape the notice of so astute a psychologist as Plato. The city-soul analogy in his hands is a powerful tool. With it he can investigate principles of inner government that would be difficult or impossible to describe or conceptualize otherwise.

To re-state our premise in the simplest terms, it is that any feature of the city which Plato describes in the Republic must have some psychic counterpart, something to do with the city of our soul, psychopolis. If we do accept this view, then how might it illumine the meaning of Plato’s problematic nuptial number?

What I propose is that by births here, Plato is referring to the process by which we give birth to new subselves. If one attends to the matter, one easily discovers that new subselves are born very often — daily, or even more frequently.   For example, suppose that one is concerned about ones finances. Eventually a new scheme to make money is born. One then begins researching, planning, and eventually putting a plan into action. These in turn bring into being more new roles, interests, skills, attitudes, mental associations, and so on. New subselves come into being and join the myriad others that jointly define ones personality. This process goes on regularly throughout life.

Now consider, too, that of these births, some are “well-born” or “fortunate” (Rep. 8.546d) — say a plan for charitable activity — and others, like a scheme for revenge, are unworthy.  A gradation in moral soundness of subselves and their associated thoughts, I propose, is what Plato is getting at when he describes various races of citizens as golden, silver, bronze, and iron. He is referring to subselves and thought chains of varying degrees of nobility or baseness. A new plan, desire, or subself born from contemplation or some noble virtue like Hope, Love, or trust in or gratitude to God, would be a child of the golden race in Plato’s framework. One conceived in anger would perhaps be a bronze child. One concerned with money or sensory pleasure might be an iron offspring. It hardly needs pointing out that adjectives like golden, silver, noble and base are extremely common and universally recognized moral metaphors. We distinguish, for example, between noble and base motives, remark that an especially virtuous person has a heart of gold, and so on.

The Tyrant’s Progress

The context in which Plato’s nuptial number occurs is significant. It begins the long section in the Republic where Plato describes the Tyrant’s progress. He explains that, when cities are not ruled in the ideal way, which is to say by the love of Wisdom and Virtue, then they follow a characteristic pattern of decline, culminating in mob rule and finally tyranny. At each stage Plato explicitly reminds us that it not only applies to cities, but to an individual soul. Much more than in civil politics, our greater concern is that our own soul not descend into tyranny. Once we fall from a state of grace, where piety, humility, and love of Wisdom direct our thoughts (the psychic counterpart of the ideal city), the usual course, Plato suggests, is a progressive descent through the psychological counterparts of timocracy (rule of honor), oligarchy (rule by greed), mob rule, and finally tyranny. Psychologically, mob rule correspond to an aimless alternation from one transient interest to another; this, unfortunately, characterizes the mental life of a great many people. In the tyrannical condition, ones thoughts and actions are dictated by the narrow interests of a single subself; conditions like drug or alcohol addiction or compulsive gambling are extreme examples.

The Tyrant’s progress, then, is an allegory Plato uses to describe the fall by degrees of the psyche to a state of extreme moral disorder (see Uebersax, 2014b). Elsewhere, for example in the Chariot Myth of Phaedrus, the ascent from the Cave in the Republic, and Diotima’s Ladder of Love in the Symposium, Plato addresses the complementary arc of moral ascent or salvation. The saved condition or state of grace is metaphorically described, I believe, by the myths of the Upper World in Phaedo, and the Reign of Cronos in Statesman.

It is this great, recurring cycle of fall and redemption in our moral life to which Plato allegorically refers. He seems to suggest that there are certain stages in this cycle that are more favorable for the birth of new subselves. When in a state of grace (or the psychological equivalent), our children — new plans, projects, or interests that we conceive — will be golden. Conversely, when we are in a phase of moral decline our mental children will have baser natures, and might bring us more grief than goodness.

Discernment, Faction and Conflict

It was in order to understand the origin of faction within the city that Socrates first invoked the Muses in a mock-serious tone:

“How, then, Glaucon,” I said, “will disturbance arise in our city, and how will our helpers and rulers fall out and be at odds with one another and themselves? Shall we, like Homer, invoke the Muses to tell ‘how faction first fell upon them?’” (Rep. 8.545d; cf. Iliad 1.6).

Then, in speaking for the Muses, Socrates imagines they would urge the citizens to procreate only in accord with the nuptial number, as this will best ensure golden offspring. At issue is having new generations of rulers who can direct the city wisely. If they contain baser metals, they will attempt to manage the city by means other than Wisdom (for example, by force), and then factions and conflict will emerge. Eventually a coalition will unseat the government, and a worse regime will ensue. Therefore to produce golden children is of vital importance. If offspring are born unseasonably, then:

“the rulers selected from them will not approve themselves very efficient guardians for testing Hesiod’s and our races of gold, silver, bronze and iron. And this intermixture of the iron with the silver and the bronze with the gold will engender unlikeness and an unharmonious unevenness, things that always beget war and enmity wherever they arise. ‘Of this lineage, look you.’” (Ibid. 8.546e−8.547a; cf. 3.415b)

So too, if we give birth ‘in season’ to golden thoughts and subselves, then these will rule psychopolis; we will remain in a condition of psychological grace. They will effectively guard the acropolis of our soul, discerning the nature of new subselves, thoughts, and passions, and keep baser ones from reigning (Ibid. 8.560b-c).

But if we beget subselves during times of moral fall — while in a state of anger or worrying about money, for example — the great danger is that they will become our rulers; and when rulers such as these occupy the citadel, it is inevitable that factions will arise within us, conflict and unhappiness will result, and we will decline still further. This progressive decline is the central psychological theme of Book 8 and the first part of Book 9, as Plato chronicles the Tyrant’s progress. All this is set in motion when the rulers beget children at unfavorable times.

As to Plato’s exact formula for the nuptial number, I would not care to offer an interpretation, and the reader will see I have scrupulously avoided it. Maybe there are some subtle psychological metaphors in it, or perhaps it’s just an artistic flourish with no special meaning.  Then again, maybe he’s setting a clever trap to sidetrack those who aren’t intent on finding the deeper moral meanings in the work.

Nevertheless if what we have ventured to say is true, then knowing even this much might be of considerable practical value. It enables us to have more conscious awareness of the birthing of new subselves. One can ask oneself, “Is this particular new subself one I really want to cultivate?” A consideration of ones moral state at its conception may allow one to weed out some of the baser schemes before they go too far. If this is Plato’s meaning, then he shows himself to be at once most practical and subtle. It is also precisely the kind of insight that can be easily communicated by means of his city-soul analogy, but perhaps difficult by other means.

This is not the only place where Plato refers to golden, silver, bronze, and iron races. The theme figures prominently in his discussion of the so-called Noble Lie (Ibid. 3.414a−415d). A later article will discuss this, as well as Plato’s source, Hesiod’s Ages of Man myth in Works and Days, arguing that these also should be understood at the level of psychological and moral allegory.

John Uebersax

1st draft (Jan. 2016)

References

Annas, J. Platonic Ethics, Old and New. Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 1999; Chapter 4, The Inner City, pp. 72−95.

Augustine of Hippo. Against the Academics (Contra Academicos). Tr. John J. O’Meara. Westminster, Maryland, 1950.

Blössner, Norbert. The City-Soul Analogy. In: Giovanni R. F. Ferrari (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic (Ch. 13, pp. 345–385 ). Cambridge, 2007.

Guthrie, W. K. C, A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 4. Plato, the Man and His Dialogues: Earlier Period. Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Harte, Verity. The Politics of Ignorance. In: Eds. Verity Harte, Melissa Lane (eds.), Politeia in Greek and Roman Philosophy (pp. 139−154). Cambridge, 2013.

Hoerber, Robert G. The Theme of Plato’s Republic. Dissertation. Washington University, St. Louis, 1944.

Lester, David. A Multiple Self Theory of Personality. New York, 2010.

More, Paul Elmer. The Religion of Plato. Princeton, 1921.

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. London, 1990.

Schofield, Malcolm. The Noble Lie. In: Giovanni R. F. Ferrari (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic (Ch 6, pp. 138–164). Cambridge, 2007.

Shorey, Paul (tr.). Plato’s Republic. 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA, 1937 (v1), 1942 (v2).

Strauss, Leo. Persecution and the Art of Writing. New York, 1952.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic. 2014a. Online document. author website.

Uebersax, John S. The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation. 2014b. Online document. Author website.

Uebersax, John. Is Plato’s Republic About Politics or Psychology? What Can Bayes’ Rule Tell Us? 2015. Online document. Author website.

Waterfield, Robin. Republic. Oxford University Press, 1993.

 

 

 

Is Plato’s Republic About Psychology or Politics? What Can Bayes’ Rule Tell Us?

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Republic-Plato
fancy-drop-case-tHAT Plato’s Republic is not a literal work on political science, but a carefully crafted allegory for the internal governance of ones mind and soul seems to me beyond doubt. Several lines of evidence support this conclusion, beginning with dozens of explicit statements by Plato to the effect throughout the work (Annas, 1999; Uebersax, 2014a,b; Waterfield, 1993). Nevertheless I also know that before realizing this, I had, like most everyone else, uncritically accepted the received opinion that the Republic is Plato’s effort to describe a utopian society. So even though it may be wrong, the literal view of the Republic, widespread and deeply entrenched, can’t simply be brushed aside.

Recently it occurred to me that a strong argument for understanding the Republic as a psychological allegory can be made on the basis of formal probabilistic reasoning. Specifically, I refer to a principle called Bayes’ rule. This is a formula (named after Rev. Thomas Bayes, an 18th century mathematician) by which one can quantify the degree to which evidence supports a given conclusion. While Bayes’ rule is often considered something modern, it actually corresponds to how we naturally form inferences from empirical data. We will, in any case, omit details here. (Those interested in more background can find ample material on the web.) It is, however, assumed that the reader has at least a little knowledge of basic probability and associated notation.

First let us define the problem: we want to choose as more likely one of two hypothesis, H1 and H2, as follows:

H1: The Republic is a psychological allegory.

H2: The Republic is a literal work on political science.

We take H1 and H2 here to be mutually exclusive hypotheses: they cannot both be true. (If we like, we could add words like ‘mainly’, ‘mostly’, or ‘primarily’ to both hypotheses to make this more clearly so.)

Let E denote some empirical evidence. This can be any sort of evidence, but for present purposes we take it to be the entire text narrative of the Republic.

Our task is to choose whether H1 or H2 seems more likely after considering evidence E. In terms of probability theory, we wish to estimate the value of two conditional probabilities:

P(H1|E) = the probability that H1 is true, given E    [1]

P(H2|E) = the probability that H2 is true, given E    [2]

We may then decide in favor of H1 (allegorical meaning) if [1] is greater than [2], or in favor or H2 (literal meaning) if [2] is greater than [1].

As it happens we cannot directly estimate the values of [1] and [2]. But this is where Bayes’ rule comes in. Bayes’ rule is an extremely simple formula that describes the relationship between a conditional probability and its converse — that is, between P(X|Y) and P(Y|X).

Again, we’ll skip the details here. All that matters is that a simple application of Bayes’ rule in the present case leads to the two following equations:

P(H1|E) = c × P(H1) × P(E|H1)    [3]

P(H2|E) = c × P(H2) × P(E|H2)    [4]

Thus, given some evidence E, we can decide whether H1 or H2 is more likely by evaluating and right sides of equations [3] and [4] and seeing which is larger.

The term c here is a constant, and as it appears in both [3] and [4] we can ignore it. Hence we need only know which product is larger: P(H1) × P(E|H1) or P(H2) × P(E|H2). If the former, we would opt for an allegorical reading of Republic; if the latter, a literal one.

Note that we’ve introduced two new categories of probabilities:

  • P(H1) and P(H2) are the a priori or plausibility probabilities of our two hypotheses H1 and H2 — that is, these express how likely H1 and H2 are considered to be before considering evidence E. Here these reflect how likely we deem it a priori (i.e., before we consult the Republic) that Plato would have wanted to write a psychological allegory vs. a political treatise. For example, we might consider what we know about Plato’s personality and motives, the contents of his other dialogues, and so on.
  • P(E|H1) and P(E|H2) are entailment probabilities. These express the degree to which H1 and H2 would, if true, lead to or entail the evidence E. In other words, how much sense does the evidence (i.e., the content of Republic) make under the alternative assumptions of allegorical vs. literal intentions by Plato.

Now comes the fun part. In truth, we have no way of attaching precise numerical values to any of the terms P(H1), P(H2), P(E|H1), and P(E|H2). Yet we can fairly easily make two judgements of comparative magnitude. Specifically, if one considers all the available background evidence besides what’s in the Republic, one can say whether this inclines more in the direction of supporting an allegorical or a literal meaning. Similarly, one can make a reasonably confident judgment about whether the details of Republic are more consistent with an allegorical vs. a literal reading. If these two comparative judgments line up in opposite directions, we cannot draw any firm conclusions. But if they line up the same way, we can.

For example if P(H1) > P(H2) and P(E|H1) > P(E|H2), then P(H1) × P(E|H1) > P(H2) × P(E|H2), and, from equations [3] and [4], we can assert that P(H1|E) > P(H2|E). That is, taking into account both background evidence and the text itself, we would judge it more likely Plato meant the Republic as an allegory. We address the two constituent pairwise comparisons, viz., between the two plausibility probabilities and the two entailment probabilities, below.

Plausibility Probabilities

The a priori plausibility evidence, in my opinion, strongly favors an allegorical reading of Republic. Perhaps the most telling argument is that Plato everywhere else shows an intense concern for the moral improvement of the individual. For Plato the stakes of moral salvation are infinitely high: nothing less than the fate of man’s immortal soul. It seems very implausible that Plato would suddenly drop his life’s work of teaching philosophia — a religious transformation of ones life based on personal holiness and the love of Wisdom and Virtue — in order to speculate about politics.

Further, a vast body of modern psychological literature has persuasively argued that (1) at some very fundamental levels, each one of us is a community of subselves; and (2) to manage these numerous competing and conflicting parts is one of the most difficult and important tasks we face as human beings (for reviews see Rowan, 1993 and Lester, 2010). We cannot suppose this basic fact of human psychology would have escaped the notice of the ancients. This insight, for example, is at the center of Philo’s vast psychological exegesis of the Old Testament (Uebersax, 2012). Said another way, to justify Plato’s singular reputation as the greatest philosopher of the Western tradition, we would expect him to have recognized and tried to address a reality so vital to our psychological and spiritual well-being.

Conversely, the background arguments supporting the literal reading are flimsy, or at least open to considerable question. The argument ‘from tradition’ — that Plato’s Republic has traditionally been understood to be about politics — is quite useless. One might as well argue that the Garden of Eden myth of Genesis was not meant as a moral allegory because generations of uncritical exegetes have taken it literally.

The Seventh Letter might potentially imply political interests of Plato, but this is offset by extremely strong doubts as to the letter’s authenticity. There remains Aristotle’s comments about the Republic in his Politics, which take a literal meaning by Plato for granted. However these highly polemical remarks seem far more concerned with advancing Aristotle’s own views than faithfully explaining Plato’s, and so must be discounted. Surveying all the background information, then, the only thing we can be sure of is Plato’s intense and abiding concern with personal morality and religion, and this favors the view that the Republic is a psychological allegory.

Entailment Probabilities

The second question is whether the details in the narrative of the Republic would be more likely if Plato meant the work as an allegory, or if he intended it as a literal work. Here the case is even clearer. As Waterfield (1993) especially has noted, if read at a literal level the Republic abounds in absurdities, incongruities, and gaps. We are not given anywhere near the level of detail that would be required to run a real city. Further, many details that Plato does supply are utterly outrageous — so absurd in fact, that they can seem almost calculated to tease literally-minded readers. If Plato intended to describe an actual city-state, we cannot believe he would have advocated such notions as infanticide, eugenics, communal wives, and intentional lying to citizens by rulers.

We can, however, make definite sense of these otherwise absurd suggestions if we read the Republic as a psychological allegory. For example, one may wish to abort negative or unproductive chains of thought soon after their conception; or, following similar lines of analogy, to encourage marriage and begetting of offspring by the more positive and virtuous elements of ones nature.

Discussion

By the above, then, we have argued that (1) an allegorical understanding of Plato’s Republic is both more probable a priori than a literal interpretation, and (2) the content of the Republic is more consistent with psychological vs. literal intentions by Plato. By means of Bayes’ rule applied in connection with equations [3] and [4], these two comparative judgments allow us to conclude that, considering all available evidence, the Republic is more likely a psychological allegory than a literal political work.

The present is only a very brief treatment of the topic, intended more to introduce the leading principles than to arrive at final certainty. Much more work can go into identifying, evaluating, and comparing the plausibility and entailment probabilities. Herein we have taken the evidence E to be the complete text of the Republic. However the same sort of reasoning could be applied to individual passages; thus we could allow that some sections Plato wished to be taken literally, but in others, say that concerning the Noble Lie, he is writing allegorically.

I personally think that the deeper one delves into the Republic, the stronger the assurance that it is an allegory — but political philosophers may have other ideas, and probably aren’t likely to give up without a fight. In any case, the present supplies a framework in which the issue can be investigated impartially, scientifically, progressively, and in an edifying way.

Bibliography

Annas, J. Platonic Ethics, Old and New. Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 1999; Chapter 4, The Inner City, pp. 72−95.

Lester, David. A Multiple Self Theory of Personality. New York, 2010.

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. London, 1990.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. Paso Robles, CA, 2012.

Uebersax, John. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. 2014a. Online document. Satyagraha website.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic. 2014b. Online document. Satyagraha website.

Waterfield, Robin. Republic. Oxford University Press, 1993.

 

Written by John Uebersax

December 21, 2015 at 12:24 am

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