Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

Archive for the ‘Socrates’ Category

Key to the Republic of Plato

leave a comment »

I
N A SERIES of articles here I’ve been arguing that Plato’s Republic is not about politics at all (except perhaps, indirectly), but rather is intended as a sublime allegory for the complex moral and cognitive workings of the human psyche; and that this allegorical and psychological perspective is the key to the interpretation of the Republic. To recap what has been said in earlier articles here, the basic premise is that in the Republic Plato uses his description of an ideal city-state mostly as a vehicle for explaining the proper and harmonious operation of the human psyche, which can be likened to a city.  By this means Plato seeks to help his readers comprehend and acquire the virtue of Righteousness (dikaiosyne, or rightness of soul).

This view was known in antiquity (Proclus mentions it in his Commentary on the Republic), although not an especially common one. In modern times, writers have been more inclined to uncritically accept the premise that the Republic is a literal political treatise; even the esoterically inclined Thomas Taylor, who himself wrote a masterly essay on the allegorical meaning of the Odyssey, was unwilling to part with the notion.  It is of some interest, therefore, to note that, in the 19th century, the American Platonist, Hiram K. Jones, urged most strongly for an allegorical reading of the Republic: “Let us then have done with all this improbable and silly notion about a figmentary political State.”

Jones published his take on the Republic in “Key to the Republic of Plato,” which appeared in the journal The Platonist in 1890.  Main extracts from the article are supplied below.

Johnson’s interpretative innovations include the suggestion that the citizens of psychopolis (e.g., our thoughts, passions and judgments) can, at least in some cases, be meaningfully regarded as male and female, and may have offspring — I made similar suggestions in the table of allegorical correspondences here.  Even more original and noteworthy is his opinion that the population of our inner city may be very large, containing not merely a few, or a few dozen or hundred, but “multitudes” of inner citizens.  He explains this by implicating human innate knowledge of Platonic Forms — a fundamental and emblematic principle of Platonic psychology, developed especially by Plotinus and later Neoplatonist philosophers.  The traditional Platonic view is that human beings have a divine spark in their soul, an image of God and/or God’s consciousness, and that this spark includes knowledge of every principle, form or relationship.  Jones seems to suggest that, even if this vast knowledge is unconscious, it spawns an unfathomably complex and numerous population of thought structures which interact, and which require some form of governance to avoid conflict and ensure harmony.  If that is indeed his meaning, then this could easily be his most important original contribution to philosophy.

Where did Jones get the idea to interpret the Republic allegorically?  Possibly from that consummate allegorical exegete, Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BC – c.50 AD), whose works would have certainly been known to him, either directly or from the writings of Platonist colleagues like Alexander Wilder.  Philo allegorically interpreted the Pentateuch, his rule being that every figure and event corresponds to something in the human psyche.  Philo’s views, though he himself was somehat forgotten, were enormously influential in shaping subsequent Christian allegorical interpretation of Scripture.

Another possible influence is Swedenborg, who, like Philo, subjected the Bible to extensive allegorical interpretation; there were many Swedenborgians in Jones’ circle of contacts.  Swedenborg, incidentally, was himself almost certainly influenced by Philo:  his brother-in-law, Erik Benzelius the younger, was one of the foremost Philonists of his time and worked with Thomas Mangey in the production of the first critical edition of Philo’s works (Williams-Hogan, p. 211).

Curiously, Jones was of the opinion that Laws was not written by Plato, but by a satirist.  Jones’ fellow American Platonist, Tayler Lewis (1845) had earlier opined that, in contrast to the allegorical nature of the Republic, Laws was Plato’s literal attempt to design a just political state.  Why it occurred to neither of them (or nobody else, as far as I can tell) that Laws too is an allegorical work is unknown.


N
THE JUDGMENT of the thoughtful and the critical, the Republic of Plato has been regarded as his greatest achievement. Accepting this estimate as just, the question is before us: in what consists this claim, that in this we have the greatest work of a man who in universal human opinion ranks among the very first of men: What is its merit? … What was the aim in the author’s mind? What did he undertake to do in the framing and constitution of this work?

As the first step in this enquiry we will assume hypothetically that he did not attempt to conjecture and frame for mankind a model Social-Polity, a model Political-State. The hypothesis that he thought himself submitting to mankind a model Political-State was seized upon and used against him by his own contemporaries, and countrymen, such as could not, or did not reach the plane of his thought…. The presupposition, that we have, or can have the key to Plato — the philosopher — from critics and expositors who have not in their mental constitution the philosophic capacity to reach the plane of his thought and theme, is only misleading….

To-day, the universal eminence of Plato in the judgment of mankind is attributable to the essential ideal order and quality of his thought; eminent itself in that it is grounded in the identification of Ideas, Essential Forms, as the first principles of things known and knowable.

Plato therefore as Philosopher is always Ideal, Essential, in his subject and aim. History, Biography, Art, Social Sciences, Political Science, Moral Science, Institutions, Laws, Government, are no where found to be the theme, and end of his contemplations. But Spirit, Life, Causes, First Principles, Essence, Idea, and thence the generations of the mutable and transient orders of things.

Returning to the question, however, namely: What was the aim of the Philosopher in the production of this work, — it is assumed that “The Politeia” — ”The Republic,” as translated — is a Soul Polity, and not a Social Polity: and that the healthy perfections of the Soul are rooted in the Idea and principle of Justice. And as to the mode and process of searching for and identifying this principle and cause, we must find its form and essence in the interior life of the Soul, and not in the conventionalities and notions and workings of an external political State. (pp. 255−257)

THE AIM then of the philosopher is not to invent a model State, but to discover rather the Model-Soul — the [individual] Soul in realization of Justice in itself — a state of Health and Righteousness, and Savedness, — and true life on the one hand, and on the other the contrariety, namely, the soul in realization of injustice in itself, a state of disease, impurity, and wretchedness, and destitution of all true life.

In the next place then, — after what method does the Philosopher propose to pursue the investigation? What manner of discourse does he propose to institute? … says Socrates:

“… the Inquiry we were attempting was no trifling one, but one as appears to me, suited for clear seeing (clairvoyant) persons.”

“Since then,” said I, “we are not very expert, it seems proper to pursue some such mode of investigation of it, as if some one should order persons not very sharp sighted, to read small letters at a distance! and then discover to them the same letters large elsewhere and in a large field; it would then appear desirable, me thinks, first to read these, and then to examine the less, as it is found that these are the same.”

“We will first then, if you please, inquire in what manner it exists in States; and then we will in like manner examine it in the individual, attentively observing the similarity of the greater to the idea of the less.” [Republic 2.368]

Justice in States is assumed to be a similitude of justice itself — an objective likeness; justice itself is subjective, ideal, essential, causal, celestial in God, and psychic in man; while its political existence is phenomenal.

The Philosopher then proposes to take the phenomenal, conventional manifestation as a letter and symbol of the subject idea; its similitude with the real form affording a vehicle apt for discourse, in which we are to look attentively, from the similitude to the subject idea itself. (pp. 259−260)

platonist-exemplar

The Platonist (1881−1888) and Bibliotheca Platonica (1889−1890) were published by Jones’ friend and colleague, Thomas Moore Johnson.

THE PARABLE, and fable, and allegory and myth, are each different modes of discourse by means of representatives. And the more exalted the nature of the subject the more mythic must be the representative, that is the more mystic the subject, the more must the representative scenic form violate the literal ordinary consistencies. The law of this order of speech requires that things and animals, and men, and institutions, shall speak and act, and work in various violations of the consistency, and the literal truth of their natural history.

Plato then proposes to constitute a State or commonwealth whose fashion and working shall be so framed as that the mind shall find in it transitional facility, a looking from the symbol to the thing symbolized, from the speech to the thing spoken of — Justice in the commonwealth, is the ostensible manifestation, the phenomenon of Justice itself.

Plato then proposes to search for the Idea, Justice itself, whose intrinsic power worketh righteousness in the Soul and in the State as its effects: and he initiates the mythic State as a mode of investigation and search.

Justice in idea, and essence and cause is not to be found in the actual social institutions. In these are the plane of its manifestations and effects only.

It was no part therefore of Plato’s design to surmise, and submit for the adoption of mankind a model political state. This matter as an aim lies rather in the province of the politician and Statesman, than in that of the philosopher. And whether or not the Greeks already had as much common sense and science about that, as mankind have since, or ever will arrive at, it consists not with the range of Plato’s thought as Philosopher, nor with the common sense and judgement of Plato, or any other noteworthy man, to present to mankind such a formula for a practical system of human society.

This then is a Mythic State regarded in the letter, which in much of its fabrication and working, intentionally violates the common sense and the common plan, and the common proprieties of the mere social and political institutions — as much in the Greek, as in the English and American social manners and tastes and judgments and facts; and not more so than in our own Mythic use of Israelitish and Roman and Scandinavian, histories and Biographies, and occurrences — and many other like uses in our oracular, and Poetic and Philosophic customs of speech. (pp. 260−261)

AND NOW what say we? Is it possible or not? Is it probable or not, that the Greek was enlightened to see and know, that the justification [JU: making righteous] of the Soul is the salvation of the Soul, for this and for all worlds and experiences, present, past, and future. And was it therefore perceived by this embodiment of their wisdom, that the most worthy and exalted service he could devote himself in, would be the revival and and establishment of this central truth in the mind and spirit of his countrymen and of his age.

And let us then have done with all this improbable and silly notion about a figmentary political State — which both as a theme and a performance is so inconsistent and unequal in form and tone and dignity and quality and worth, with the general character of his thought, as to require the most damaging exceptions and apologies for gross errors and puerilities, as it must be, while we attempt to read the treatises named the “Republic” and the “Laws” as a model social system devised by the Philosopher. (pp. 263−264)

Meeting of the Plato Club of Jacksonville, Illinois.  (Jones seated left of center, just behind table.)

IN THE Thought of the Greek, as indeed in the Thought of all the enlightened ages, the Soul is assumed to be microcosmic — a comprehension in its constitution of all the principles and forms and powers constitutive of the macrocosm — the great world outside of the Soul. So as that all things, all principles, and all forms and powers constitutive of the great outside world exist also in strictest counterpart within the soul of man. And this is the ground and reason of man’s capacity to be conscious of and to form knowledge of all things from Deity to the atom.

And the awakening to the consciousness and the knowing of these elements and factors of his being and existence is the experimental process and history, of all the educations and disciplines of the actual life; man could not know that which is foreign to and not himself unless there should exist the counterpart to it within himself.

— multitudes of intellections, of thoughts, of reasons, of understandings of judgments; and multitudes of sensations of affections, of desires, of motives, of aims, of will and deeds. Within is , and these are necessarily related in rational order and process and harmony and peace, or in chaotic order and process and strife and tumult.

Hence there exist within the Soul order and harmony and peace and health and plenty and divine joy; and there exist also in the Soul contentions and strifes and tumults and riots and wars and pestilence and famine and deadly dearth of good. He who does not know this has not begun to know himself.

And these actors in the Soul are distinguished as masculine and feminine in all oracular and philosophic terminology — in all epic and dramatic method the intellectual and rational principles of the mind are masculine, while the sentient principles, the affections and emotions and desires are feminine.

And in these several forms of discourse concerning the invisible forms and powers it is customary to designate them as men and women. (pp. 266−267)

MOREOVER, the intellectual, and moral powers are progenitors, and they generate thoughts and affections. These thoughts and affections are sons and daughters. And these all are the men and the women and the children of the world within the Soul.

And if you will believe it there are in this method and these terms of viewing the subject, as many men and women and children and other things in the Soul, as there are outside of it: and ere we exhaust the self knowledge we shall discover that there is as much to do, to effect order and harmony and health and peace and plenty among the men and women and children and things in the Soul, as among the men and women and children in the social state.

We have heard much of that internecine warfare between the sensual and the spiritual powers in man, and we have heard also of that peace within which passeth all understanding, and we have heard also that he that ruleth his own spirit is mightier than he that taketh a city: and these things will be greatly magnified in our appreciations ere we shall have solved the problems of life.

And it is here within the Soul, and of these populations of the Soul, that the Soul Polity of Plato’s “Republic” must be understood: and into this must we look if we would see and know the kingdom of the Heavens. It will be found within us, or not at all.

To be saved from our selfishness, to be saved from our sins, to be made just is a chief business of life, and it is not accomplished as some may imagine. (p. 268)

Chapel classroom at the Concord School of Philosophy, where Jones was a featured instructor.

THE MAN must know himself, a labor much declined. He must know himself in his intellectual and moral principles and powers, in his own thoughts and affections and ambitions and desires and passions and will and way. And more than this, he must establish his Intellectual and moral powers as guardians and rulers over his animal nature. In this guardianship his intellectual and moral forces must be a unit — the house must not be divided against itself. His intellectual faculties whose function it is to see and to know what is right and true and good, and his moral powers of feeling and knowing and believing what is right and true and good must watch together, and walk together and work together and fight together against all invading enmities and foes, if he would establish and maintain the celestial order and rule in the commonwealth within. These are the relations of the Mythic men and women and children treated of in the Republic of Plato.

The Soul that is unconscious of, and uninformed of these conditions and reasons of divine order and peace and is actually void of them….

A divine polity within the Soul, then, a “kingdom of Heaven within you”, is thus seen to be the Politeia which Plato seeks to disclose and establish in the view and belief of his fellow-men. And what lower order of theme — what less important subject should most probably engage the best thought, and the labor of producing the greatest work of the life of a man so eminent in the discussion of the problems of the inner nature of man and of the world.

But so far the investigation has reached merely some characterization of the fruits — the productions of the influx of a regenerating principle in the Soul, and still the question recurs —how does it come to pass? “We were inquiring,” says Plato, “into this — what is the nature of justice; and we were in quest also of the perfectly just man, how he became so, and what was his nature if he really exists.” [Republic 5.472]

With us, the natural history of the working of this principle and the production of these fruits, most briefly outlined are, that by means of ordeal, and a quickening unto reminiscence, of the goods of the Father’s house — determination to arise and go to the Father, and through confession and obedience and duty and service and love of good and truth and beauty and purity the Soul shall reach the best abode. All which is the reversal and contrariety of the career of dissipation and sin — the strewing of the portion of goods in riotous living — the delights of sensuality.

But man is a moral free agent, and this history must be initiated in the motions of his own mind and will. He must voluntarily turn his mind and heart in contemplation and desire of what is most divine. He must arise and open his door and admit the gentle angelic stranger who stands without knocking, knocking, and waiting that he may be admitted; and straightway shall he be led in the way of all truth and duty and service. (pp. 269−270)

I HEARD a very eminent and very orthodox Christian clergyman affirm that Plato was a regenerate man in the Christian idea of the term. No man can so frame and amplify such views and discourse of these doctrines of life without the most profound experimental acquaintance with this subject. (p. 273)

Bibliography

Anderson, Paul Russell. Hiram K. Jones and Philosophy in Jacksonville. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (19081984), vol. 33, no. 4, 1940, pp. 478–520.

Anderson, Paul Russell. Platonism in the Midwest. Philadelphia: Temple University, 1963.

Bregman, Jay. The Neoplatonic Revival in North AmericaHermathena, no. 149, 1990, pp. 99–119.

Jones, Hiram K. Key to the Republic of Plato. Bibliotheca Platonica, vol. 1, no. 4 (Nov.−Dec. 1890), pp. 255−273.

Pitner, T. J.; Black, C. E.; Norbury, F. P. Obituary: Dr. Hiram K. Jones. Illinois Medical Journal, vol. 5 (June 1903−May 1904), pp. 173−174.

Pontiac, Ronnie. The Platonist on Sunset Blvd: Part 1: Hiram K. Jones the Western Wonder. Newtopia Magazine. January 15, 2013.

Lewis, Taylor. Plato Contra Atheos: Plato Against the Atheists.  New York: Harper, 1845.

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

Uebersax, John. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology. 29 August 2014. Accessed 17 July 2017.

Uebersax, John. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic.  Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology. 30 December 2015. Accessed 17 July 2017.

Uebersax, John. Psychopolis: Plato’s Inner Republic and Personality Theory.  Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology. 12 January 2017. Accessed 17 July 2017.

Williams-Hogan, Jane. The Place of Emanuel Swedenborg in Modern Western Esotericism. In: Eds. Antoine Faivre & Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion. Leuven: Peeters, 1998. (pp. 201−252).

To cite:  Uebersax, John.  Hiram K. Jones’ allegorical key to Plato’s Republic.  Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology.  19 July 2017.  Accessed <day month year>.  https://satyagraha.wordpress.com/2017/07/07/jones-republic/

Advertisements

On the Psychological Meaning of Plato’s Nuptial Number

with 2 comments

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?

with 3 comments

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

The ‘Natural City’ in the Republic: Is Plato Really a Libertarian?

with 2 comments

1280px-Sir_Lawrence_Alma-Tadema,_RA,_OM_-_Sappho_and_Alcaeus_-_Walters_37159

img-thingLATO believed that the ideal political situation would be a State with citizens neatly divided into Worker, Soldier, and Guardian classes living and working in harmony under the leadership of a philosopher-king, right? Actually there are good grounds to question whether this is what Plato really means in the Republic.

Rather, Plato’s remarks in Republic 2.369b et seq. might be taken as his true view of the ideal political arrangement. There, before he mentions any other kind of government, he proposes a system that we might today call a natural law stateless society (or anarchy — but in the sense of having no government institutions, not social chaos). That is, Plato first proposes that if people were content with simple pleasures, they could live happily, in harmony with each other and with nature, and social affairs could be conducted without institutional government.

In words that call to mind Hesiod’s myth of the Golden Age (Works and Days 109–142), Socrates here says of such a society, “They and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another.” (Rep. 2.372b) He calls this first city the “true and healthy” State.

He elaborates that governments become necessary only when people go beyond necessities and insist on luxuries: delicacies, courtesans, elaborate meals, fancy clothes, and the like (Rep. 2.373a).

His interlocutor, Glaucon, insists that people will not accept such a simple way of life, which he deprecates as a “city of pigs.” Only then does Socrates agree to consider for the remainder of their conversation various forms of the “luxurious State,” which he also calls the fevered or inflamed State (2.372e).

All the famous provisions of the ideal City-State in the Republic — the tripartite division of citizens into Worker, Soldier, and Guardian classes, for example — apply to this second-best State or second city.

Which, then, does Plato recommend? Should we strive for the first, naturalistic city? Or the more luxurious but complex City-State that occupies most of the discussion? Perhaps a clue is found in Socrates’ response to Glaucon’s objection. He never contradicts his original suggestion that the natural city is best. He merely agrees that there is no harm in discussing the luxurious State, because then “we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate.”

Then why, you may ask, does Plato spend so much time in the Republic talking about things like the three classes of citizens, training and education of the Guardians, philosopher-kings, etc.

Possibly because all this pertains to Plato’s use of the Republic as an allegorical analysis of the human psyche, based on the principle of the city-soul analogy. In other words, this later discussion is primarily a psychological allegory — which is the main level at which the Republic is meant to be understood. However — and this is merely a possibility — perhaps Plato could not resist the opportunity to express his true political views briefly, and in an ironic and somewhat cryptic way. Certainly the pacifist themes at the end of these remarks (2.373d-e) would make sense for someone who, as Plato did, grew up during the Peloponnesian War — which was not only pointless to begin with, but resulted in humiliating defeat for Athens, a devastating plague, and massive social upheaval.

But even so, we should also be prepared to interpret this as psychological allegory. Understood in that way, the second city may represent a well-governed soul in search of its lost homeland and its desired state of repose. But once the homeland is reached, happiness is maintained without such strong conscious attention to self-government. That is, one may reach a condition that is the psychic equivalent of Engels’ notion of the withering away of the state (i.e., a perfect utopian society).  It might be objected that such a perfect condition is simply impossible — either for an individual or for society — because of imperfections in the nature of each.  However in the case of an individual we could allow that such a state may potentially be experienced temporarily (as with a Maslowean peak experience), and, if so, may still be quite valuable for personality integrity and growth.  Those familiar with Zen Buddhism might see a possible connection with this mental condition and the 10th image of the Oxherding Pictures (10. ‘Both Vanished’).

Read what Plato wrote and decide for yourself what he means. The passage below is from Benjamin Jowett’s elegant translation of the Republic (1892; italics added). The full citation is: Jowett, Benjamin (ed., tr.). The Dialogues of Plato in Five Volumes. 3rd edition. Vol. 3 – Republic, Timaeus. Oxford, 1892. <http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/166>

[2.372a]
… Socrates. Let us then consider, first of all, what will be their way of life, now that we have thus established them. Will they not produce corn, and wine, and clothes, and shoes, and build houses for themselves? And when they are housed, they will work, in summer, commonly, stripped and barefoot, but in winter substantially clothed and

[2.372b]
shod. They will feed on barley-meal and flour of wheat, baking and kneading them, making noble cakes and loaves; these they will serve up on a mat of reeds or on clean leaves, themselves reclining the while upon beds strewn with yew or myrtle And they and their children will feast, drinking of the wine which they have made, wearing garlands on their heads, and hymning the praises of the gods, in happy converse with one another. And they will take care that their families do not exceed their means;

[2.372c]
having an eye to poverty or war.

But, said Glaucon, interposing, you have not given them a relish to their meal.

True, I replied, I had forgotten; of course they must have a relish — salt, and olives, and cheese, and they will boil roots and herbs such as country people prepare; for a dessert we shall give them figs, and peas, and beans;

[2.372d]
and they will roast myrtle-berries and acorns at the fire, drinking in moderation. And with such a diet they may be expected to live in peace and health to a good old age, and bequeath a similar life to their children after them.

Yes, Socrates, he said, and if you were providing for a city of pigs, how else would you feed the beasts?

But what would you have, Glaucon? I replied.

Why, he said, you should give them the ordinary conveniences of life. People who are to be comfortable are accustomed to lie on sofas,

[2.372e]
and dine off tables, and they should have sauces and sweets in the modern style.

Yes, I said, now I understand: the question which you would have me consider is, not only how a State, but how a luxurious State is created; and possibly there is no harm in this for in such a State we shall be more likely to see how justice and injustice originate. In my opinion the true and healthy constitution of the State is the one which I have described. But if you wish also to see a State at fever-heat, I have no objection.

[2.373a]
For I suspect that many will not be satisfied with the simpler way of life. They will be for adding sofas, and tables, and other furniture; also dainties, and perfumes, and incense, and courtesans, and cakes, all these not of one sort only, but in every variety; we must go beyond the necessaries of which I was at first speaking, such as houses, and clothes, and shoes: the arts of the painter and the embroiderer will have to be set in motion, and gold and ivory and all sorts of materials must be procured.

[2.373b]
True, he said.

Then we must enlarge our borders; for the original healthy State is no longer sufficient. Now will the city have to fill and swell with a multitude of callings which are not required by any natural want; such as the whole tribe of hunters and actors, of whom one large class have to do with forms and colours; another will be the votaries of music—poets and their attendant train of rhapsodists, players, dancers, contractors; also

[2.373c]
makers of divers kinds of articles, including women’s dresses. And we shall want more servants. Will not tutors be also in request, and nurses wet and dry, tirewomen and barbers, as well as confectioners and cooks; and swineherds, too, who were not needed and therefore had no place in the former edition of our State, but are needed now? They must not be forgotten: and there will be animals of many other kinds, if people eat them.

[2.373d]
Certainly.

And living in this way we shall have much greater need of physicians than before?

Much greater.

And the country which was enough to support the original inhabitants will be too small now, and not enough?

Quite true.

Then a slice of our neighbours’ land will be wanted by us for pasture and tillage, and they will want a slice of ours, if, like ourselves, they exceed the limit of necessity,

[2.373e]
and give themselves up to the unlimited accumulation of wealth?

That, Socrates, will be inevitable.

And so we shall go to war, Glaucon. Shall we not?

Most certainly, he replied.

Then, without determining as yet whether war does good or harm, thus much we may affirm, that now we have discovered war to be derived from causes which are also the causes of almost all the evils in States, private as well as public.

Undoubtedly.

And our State must once more enlarge;

[2.374a]
and this time the enlargement will be nothing short of a whole army, which will have to go out and fight with the invaders for all that we have, as well as for the things and persons whom we were describing above.

greek key divider

Further Reading

Annas, Julia. The Inner City: Ethics Without Politics in the Republic. In: Julia Annas, Platonic Ethics, Old and New, Ithaca, 1999, pp. 72–95 (Ch. 4).

Guthrie, William K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 4, Plato: The Man and His Dialogues: Earlier Period. Cambridge, 1986. (See pp. 445–449 for an excellent treatment of the topic.)

Uebersax, John S. The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation. 2014.

Uebersax, John S. Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic. 2014.

 

Psychological Correspondences in Plato’s Republic

with 5 comments

IN a series of articles I’ve proposed that we should devote more effort to understanding Plato’s Republic as a psychological allegory. The table below summarizes interpretations of key elements of the Republic. The basic reasoning behind these, as previously described, is as follows:

  1. The Republic is mainly a work on individual psychology, morals, and religion. It is also a practical work, in that Plato aims to help readers advance in these areas. We agree with Hoerber (1944), Guthrie (1986), Waterfield (1993), Annas (1999), Blössner (2007) and others who suggest that any interests Plato may have had in political science are subordinate to these greater concerns of his. As Socrates states explicitly in 2.368d–369a and reminds of us frequently, the ideal city is presented as a conceptual tool that enables us to better understand the ‘politics’ our interior life.
  1. Plato succeeds in this because the human psyche can, in fact, be accurately likened to a commonwealth of citizens (the city-soul analogy). Modern psychology has confirmed this seminal insight of Plato. Psychic pluralism is recognized by dozens of modern personality theories (for reviews see Rowan, 1990 and Lester, 2010; see also Carter, 2008). Different theories give different names for these inner ‘citizens’: subselves, subpersonalities, complexes, schemas, ego states, potential selves, etc.; but for convenience we may select the term sub-ego as roughly meaning any or all of these things.
  1. We have a separate sub-ego associated with, at the very least, every one of our social roles, personal relationships, jobs, affiliations, projects, goals, hopes, plans, self-images, appetites and desires, passions and emotions, and so on. And these are only our conscious sub-egos. Nobody knows how many more ‘people’ there are within us operating at a sub- or unconscious level. Our psyche, therefore, may easily contain hundreds or thousands of autonomous or semi-autonomous sub-egos of varying complexity, each vying to attain its interests.
  1. This commonwealth of the psyche — psychopolis — can be well or poorly governed, congenial or conflict-ridden, integrated or fragmented, harmonious or discordant (see e.g., Lester pp. 55−62, 77−80, 90f., 151f.; Rowan pp. 86, 89f. 92f., 200−206, 211−215). Plato’s aim in the Republic is to instruct us how to achieve a well-governed, harmonious psyche by a moral regimen he terms philosophia, the love of Wisdom.
  1. A major and distinctive feature of the Platonic system is that ethics and epistemology are inseparable. In a poorly integrated and conflicted soul-city, each sub-ego seeks only its own narrow interests. In a well-governed and integrated soul-city, each sub-ego looks to the good of all, as well as to its own interests. For example, in a vicious soul-city, a money-seeking sub-ego might seek to acquire wealth by questionable means, putting it into conflict with other sub-egos. Psychic harmony and integration result when sub-egos consult the innate moral sense (moral noesis; vision of the Good) and moderate their activity accordingly.
  1. The soul-city analogy supplies Plato with a metaphoric language that enables him to describe aspects of the structure and dynamics of the psyche for which other terms and concepts are inadequate. Many details of his model city would be impossible, absurd, or injurious to implement literally; we should instead understand these as metaphors that illustrate principles of the interior life. It is, for example, like telling someone, “I can’t find exact terms to describe how intelligent Sam is, but if intelligence were height he’d be 10 feet tall.” The analogy makes perfect sense. But it doesn’t mean that human beings are or can be 10 feet tall. Similarly when Plato describes implausible details of his theoretical city (e.g., a caste system, a ruling class, eugenics, common wives, that rulers should lie to citizens, etc.) we should not assume that he means them literally, but only as metaphors for psychological principles.

Table 1 supplies psychological interpretations for some of the key elements of the Republic. These should be understood as illustrative rather than certain or dogmatic. It is important in any case that allegorical interpretation be guided by an explicit theoretical foundation, to avoid imposing wrong and idiosyncratic meanings (a constant danger with this approach). Our guiding premise here is that Plato is concerned with the moral salvation of the individual — something we can assert with a fair degree of confidence by considering, among other things, his other works, the writings of later Platonists, and his cultural influence generally.

Table 1: Psychopolis

Plato’s Republic as Psychological Allegory

Figure Psychological Interpretation
The polis The community of ones psyche, personality, mind or soul; psychopolis
Citizens of the polis sub-egos, complexes, dispositions, etc.
Rulers Specialized sub-egos responsible for inner government; rational in nature.
Auxiliaries, soldiers Sub-egos concerned with protecting the ‘city’ from inner and outer threats, and enforcing laws of the rulers. These are also associated with: (1) seeking social recognition and honor, and (2) incensive passions like indignation and anger.
Artisans, workers Appetitive sub-egos concerned with gratifying desires, material gain, etc.
Sophists Sub-egos which deceive us with false reasoning, biased judgment, wishful thinking, etc.
Poets (of the bad sort) Like sophists, but associated with nonrational fancies, delusions, follies
Philosopher-king A special ruler sub-ego which seeks harmonization and integration of entire personality based on Wisdom, Virtue, and ones innate moral sense (vision of the Good)
Education of rulers Measures taken to develop the philosophical sub-ego(s): e.g., by dialectic, virtue, contemplation, music, etc.
Prisoners (Cave Allegory) Sub-egos ‘chained’ to faulty (distorted by self-interest) notions of goodness and associated false reasonings
Regimes Alternative systems by which psychopolis is governed
   Spartan/Cretan Natural, wholesome following of instinct; playful, childlike, spontaneous, innocent.
   Monarchy/Aristocracy Government by the best and most virtuous elements of ones soul
   Timocracy Rule by honor-seeking or self-righteous sub-ego(s); may lead to over-control and rebellion by appetitive sub-egos.
   Oligarchy Government by sub-egos concerned with material gain
   Democracy Short-sighted hedonism; ‘if it feels good, do it’; no consistent course.
   Tyranny Obsessive, destructive pursuit of single desire or appetite (e.g., addiction)
Men ‘Male’ elements of personality: logic; impersonal idealism; action and initiative; anger and aggression; the intellect.
Women ‘Female’ elements of personality: feelings, sensations; affections; the will.
Children Newly conceived sub-egos
Golden/Silver races Nobler (more virtuous, wise, authentic) sub-egos and thoughts
Bronze/Iron races Baser (less virtuous, etc.) sub-egos and thoughts
Intermarriage Sub-egos of differing nobility may interbreed, producing children of a mixed nature. We must test sub-egos to determine their quality, and cannot rely on pedigree alone to judge worthiness to be rulers.
Tyrant’s progress (Books 8 & 9) A non-virtuous regime tends to invite further weakening our virtue, wisdom, and discernment, so that the next regime is usually worse. There is a characteristic trajectory of decline through the regimes of aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. One may, however, avoid this descent by means of philosophia.
Reincarnation (Myth of Er) Like above; one personality structure succeeds another according to lawful principles. For example through neglect of virtue one may become an animal (i.e., irrational).   Improvement is also possible (cf. Phaedrus 248b−250c: a philosopher will fare well in the ‘next life.’)

While above we have considered how modern personality theory may inform our understanding of Plato’s Republic, it is the reverse question that is perhaps more important: what insights about psychology does this, the greatest philosophical book the West has produced, contain, and how may we apply them in fields like personality theory, counseling and psychotherapy, and cognitive science? This would seem at face value an enormously promising question. Is it just possible that the Republic supplies a bridge, as it were, between the ancient wisdom of humankind — the perennial philosophy — and the modern, scientific mind? Final judgment must await further study. However I believe the existing evidence is sufficient to warrant a much more concerted effort than we have yet seen for psychologists to study the Republic and Plato’s other works.  We may, however, make some preliminary conjectures. The Republic, at a minimum, may contribute to modern personality theory the following concepts:

  • There is a somewhat hierarchical structure to sub-egos; some are acquisitive and appetitive; others rule or govern; an intermediate class enforce ‘laws’ and protect the psychic community.
  • There is a natural telos or optimal end point for personality development and the organization of psychopolis. We are designed by nature to reach a point of harmonious mental integration. Therefore psychotherapy and counseling should seek to align themselves and cooperate with this natural process.
  • Human beings have an innate moral nature. Self-actualization is an inherently moral process. Traditional concepts of virtue, morality, religiosity, and even sin (moral error) cannot be dismissed, but rather need to be understood and included in modern personality theory.
  • Human beings have a mode of intellectual knowing above discursive reasoning. This is noesis: an immediate apprehension or ‘seeing’ of first principles of logic and mathematics, morality, and religion (Uebersax, 2013). Incorrect reasoning that originates from narrowly defined self-interest (egoism) is remedied by an ascent to noetic experience.
  • Plato, in effect, proposes a technology for achieving what Abraham Maslow (1968, 1971) called peak and plateau experience and ‘Being‘.
  • There are several common regimes, better and worse, by which individuals govern the internal community. There are also common patterns of transitions from one regime to another. Vicious regimes tend to become more vicious.   Specific means are available (dialectic, contemplation, piety, ‘fair thoughts, true words, and good works’) by which one may progress from worse to nobler and better integrated regimes.

References

Annas, Julia. The Inner City: Ethics Without Politics in the Republic. In: Julia Annas, Platonic Ethics, Old and New (Ch. 4, pp. 72–95), Ithaca, 1999.

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

Carter, R. (2008) Multiplicity. New York: Little Brown.

Guthrie, William K. C. History of Greek Philosophy. Vol. 4, Plato: The Man and His Dialogues: Earlier Period. Cambridge, 1986. (See e.g., pp. 434–435 & note on p. 561.)

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.

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition. New York, 1968.

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York, 1971.

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. London, 1990 (repr. 2013).

Uebersax, John. Higher Reason.  Paso Robles, CA: Californians for Higher Education Reform,  November 2013.

Uebersax, John. Psychology, Philosophy, and Plato’s Divided Line. Online article. Author website. 2014.

Uebersax, John S. The Republic: Plato’s Allegory for the Human Soul. Satyagraha: Cultural Psychology. 29 August 2014. Accessed 17 July 2017.

Uebersax, John. Platonism as Psychotherapy. Christian Platonism.  26 June 2014.  Accessed 1 December 2014.

Uebersax, John. The Monomyth of Fall and Salvation. Online article. Author website. 2014.

Waterfield, Robin (tr.). The Republic of Plato. (Introduction). Oxford, 1993 (repr. 1998).

rev. 30 Dec 2015

Emerson the Platonist

with 4 comments

Emerson_220x220

“THE mind of Emerson may best be studied from the standpoint of Platonism. If one examines the chief centers of his teaching to be found in his conception of nature, soul, love and beauty, art, and mythology, he will find that Emerson in his most characteristic utterances is indebted to Plato and the Platonists. In those great intellectual teachers Emerson found a body of thought which he so thoroughly appropriated that to understand the character of his mind it is necessary to watch it consciously forming itself in keeping with the main trend of Platonic speculation.”
~ John Smith Harrison

“Out of Plato come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought.”
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:39)

People today have often heard that Ralph Waldo Emerson, the eminent 19th century American Transcendentalist, was influenced by Indian (Vedantic) religion.  Less well known, though, is that he was even more influenced by Platonism.  Emerson was an avid reader of Plato all his life.  In Emerson’s Collected Works [CW] Plato or Platonism are mentioned over 300 times.  His personal journals [J] contain over 250 references.  And he refers almost as often to later Platonists like Plutarch, Plotinus and Proclus.

Understanding Emerson’s deep debt to Platonism, one he readily admitted, is important for a full appreciation of Emerson’s message and its relevance for today’s troubled world.  One of the unfortunate trends of higher education in recent decades has been a systematic denigration of the Western Tradition.  We are told that the Western Tradition is the source of all the evils of society:  capitalism, slavery, war, repression of natural instincts, imperialism, patriarchy, etc. – the list goes on. But this view is founded on ignorance and prejudice.  An impartial study of the Western Tradition shows that it is founded on the perennial philosophy and the ancient religious beliefs of humankind common to humanity.  Plato, for example, drew heavily from more ancient religious sources – Pythagoreanism, Orphism, Egyptian religion, etc.  A great deal of his philosophy, in fact, is expressed in myth, not logical arguments.

For too long people have looked at Emerson and Transcendentalism and merely taken it for granted that it constitutes a rejection of the Western Tradition, and a decisive turn to the East.  This is a modern revisionist view, and simply does not correspond with the facts.

We can identify at least three distinct themes of Platonism reflected in Emerson and other American Transcendentalists:

1. A view of man. The essence of the Platonist view of man is that we, as human beings, have a two-fold nature.  We are, of course, material creatures, living in a temporal, material world.  But at the same time we have an eternal nature, which exists outside of time.   We must, first of all, reject the modern materialistic view that sees man only as a collection of atoms, a machine.  But we must not reject our material nature altogether or try live as world-denying ascetics.  What we seek is to live an integrated life. having, so to speak, a foot on both realms – material and eternal, earth and heaven.  We are as a Sacred Tree, a Cosmic Priest, uniting heaven and earth.

2. A view of Nature.   The material world as it appears is, in a sense, a reflection of deeper spiritual realities, eternal Forms in a Platonic Ideal realm.  Nature has spiritual meaning.  Nature is constantly teaching us spiritual things.

3. Self-cultivation.  From Platonism, Transcendentalism derives its emphasis on the individual responsibility for self-cultivation, especially cultivation of ones moral and intellectual life.  Distinctly Platonic is the emphasis on building the strength of the intellect in the service of spiritual growth.   Well is the story told that engraved on the door of Plato’s Academy a sign read, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.”

Emerson and Transcendentalism offer a great deal in themselves for modern readers.  But Transcendentalist writings may also serve to increase interest in Platonism, the Western Tradition, and the perennial philosophy. If more people read Plato today we would have fewer arguments about religion.  Plato is a common element of Christianity and paganism, orthodoxy and esotericism.  He unites East with West.  He harmonizes moralism and naturalism.

While a definitive treatment of Emerson’s Platonism has yet to be written and would be valuable, that is not the goal here.  (If I am unable to write a longer piece soon, perhaps I can add to this article incrementally as the opportunity presents itself.) For now at least, let these few remarks, along with a few quotes by Emerson, and a Bibliography, suffice to get this idea out on the web.

Quotes of Emerson

The unity of Asia and the detail of Europe; the infinitude of the Asiatic soul and the defining, result-loving, machine-making, surface-seeking, opera-going Europe,—Plato came to join, and, by contact, to enhance the energy of each. The excellence of Europe and Asia are in his brain…In short, a balanced soul was born, perceptive of the two elements…. A man who could see two sides of a thing was born.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:53-54)

AMONG secular books, Plato only is entitled to Omar’s fanatical compliment to the Koran, when he said, “Burn the libraries; for their value is in this book.” These sentences contain the culture of nations; these are the corner-stone of schools; these are the fountain-head of literatures. A discipline it is in logic, arithmetic, taste, symmetry, poetry, language, rhetoric, ontology, morals or practical wisdom. There was never such range of speculation.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:39)

Plato is philosophy, and philosophy, Plato,—at once the glory and the shame of mankind, since neither Saxon nor Roman have availed to add any idea to his categories. No wife, no children had he, and the thinkers of all civilized nations are his posterity and are tinged with his mind. How many great men Nature is incessantly sending up out of night, to be his men,—Platonists! the Alexandrians, a constellation of genius; the Elizabethans, not less; Sir Thomas More, Henry More, John Hales, John Smith, Lord Bacon, Jeremy Taylor, Ralph Cudworth, Sydenham, Thomas Taylor; Marcilius Ficinus and Picus Mirandola.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:40)

Society is glad to forget the innumerable laborers who ministered to this architect, and reserves all its gratitude for him.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:42)

Plato absorbed the learning of his times,—Philolaus, Timaeus, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and what else; then his master, Socrates; and finding himself still capable of a larger synthesis,—beyond all example then or since,—he travelled into Italy, to gain what Pythagoras had for him; then into Egypt, and perhaps still farther East, to import the other element, which Europe wanted, into the European mind.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:42)

Plato is clothed with the powers of a poet, stands upon the highest place of the poet, and (though I doubt he wanted the decisive gift of lyric expression), mainly is not a poet because he chose to use the poetic gift to an ulterior purpose.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:43)

We are to account for the supreme elevation of this man in the intellectual history of our race,—how it happens that in proportion to the culture of men they become his scholars; that, as our Jewish Bible has implanted itself in the table-talk and household life of every man and woman in the European and American nations, so the writings of Plato have preoccupied every school of learning, every lover of thought, every church, every poet,—making it impossible to think, on certain levels, except through him. He stands between the truth and every man’s mind, and has almost impressed language and the primary forms of thought with his name and seal.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:44-45)

At last comes Plato….; he is the arrival of accuracy and intelligence. “He shall be as a god to me, who can rightly divide and define.” This defining is philosophy. Philosophy is the account which the human mind gives to itself of the constitution of the world.
~ Emerson, Representative Men, ‘Plato; or, the Philosopher’ (CW 4:47)

We have two needs. Being and Organization. See how much pains we take here in Plato’s dialogues to set in order the One Fact in two or three or four steps, and renew as oft as we can the pleasure, the eternal surprise of coming at the last fact, as children run up steps to jump down, or up a hill to coast down on sleds, or run far for one slide, or as we get fishing-tackle and go many miles to a watering-place to catch fish, and having caught one and learned the whole mystery, we still repeat the process for the same result, though perhaps the fish are thrown overboard at the last. The merchant plays the same game on ‘Change, the card-lover at whist, — and what else does the scholar? He knows how the poetry, he knows how the novel or the demonstration will affect him, —  no new result but the oldest of all, yet he still craves a new book and bathes himself anew with the plunge at the last. The young men here, this morning, who have tried all the six or seven things to be done, namely, the sail, the bowlingalley, the ride to Hull and to Cohasset, the bath, and the spyglass, they are in a rage just now to do something: these itching fingers, this short activity, these nerves, this plasticity or creativeness accompanies forever and ever the Profound Being.
~ Emerson, J 6.5- 6 (1841)

[John] Locke is as surely the influx of decomposition and of prose, as Bacon and the Platonists of growth. The Platonic is the poetic tendency; the so-called scientific is the negative and poisonous. ‘T is quite certain that Spenser, Burns, Byron and Wordsworth will be Platonists, and that the dull men will be Lockists.  Then politics and commerce will absorb from the educated class men of talents without genius, precisely because such have no resistance.
~ Emerson, English Traits, ‘Literature’ (CW 5.239-240)

Of Plato I hesitate to speak, lest there should be no end. You find in him that which you have already found in Homer, now ripened to thought,—the poet converted to a philosopher, with loftier strains of musical wisdom than Homer reached; as if Homer were the youth and Plato the finished man; yet with no less security of bold and perfect song, when he cares to use it, and with some harp-strings fetched from a higher heaven. He contains the future, as he came out of the past. In Plato you explore modern Europe in its causes and seed,—all that in thought, which the history of Europe embodies or has yet to embody. The well-informed man finds himself anticipated. Plato is up with him too. Nothing has escaped him. Every new crop in the fertile harvest of reform, every fresh suggestion of modern humanity, is there. If the student wish to see both sides, and justice done to the man of the world, pitiless exposure of pedants, and the supremacy of truth and the religious sentiment, he shall be contented also. Why should not young men be educated on this book? It would suffice for the tuition of the race.
~ Emerson, Society and Solitude, ‘Books’ (CW 7:198-199)

We cannot prove our faith by syllogisms. The argument refuses to form in the mind. A conclusion, an inference, a grand augury, is ever hovering, but attempt to ground it, and the reasons are all vanishing and inadequate.  You cannot make a written theory or demonstration of this as you can an orrery of the Copernican astronomy. It must be sacredly treated. Speak of the mount in the mount. Not by literature or theology, but only by rare integrity, by a man permeated and perfumed with airs of heaven, — with manliest or womanliest enduring love, — can the vision be clear to a use the most sublime. And hence the fact that in the minds of men the testimony of a few inspired souls has had such weight and penetration. You shall not say, “O my bishop, O my pastor, is there any resurrection? What do you think? Did Dr Channing believe that we should know each other? did Wesley? did Butler? did Fénelon?” What questions are these! Go read Milton, Shakspeare or any truly ideal poet. Read Plato, or any seer of the interior realities. Read St Augustine, Swedenborg, Immanuel Kant. Let any master simply recite to you the substantial laws of the intellect, and in the presence of the laws themselves you will never ask such primary-school questions.
~ Emerson, Letters and Social Aims, ‘Immortality’ (CW 8: 346-347)

The savans are chatty and vain, but hold them hard to principle and definition, and they become mute and near-sighted. What is motion? what is beauty? what is matter? what is life? what is force? Push them hard and they will not be loquacious. They will come to Plato, Proclus and Swedenborg. The invisible and imponderable is the sole fact.
~ Emerson, Letters and Social Aims, ‘Poetry and Imagination’ (CW 8:18)

For Plato, it would be pedantry to catalogue his philosophy; the secret of constructing pyramids and cathedrals is lost, and not less of Platonic philosophies.
~ Emerson, J 7.62 (1845)

It seems as if the day was not wholly profane in which we have given heed to some natural object. The fall of snowflakes in a still air, preserving to each crystal its perfect form; the blowing of sleet over a wide sheet of water, and over plains; the waving rye-field; the mimic waving of acres of houstonia, whose innumerable florets whiten and ripple before the eye; the reflections of trees and flowers in glassy lakes; the musical, steaming, odorous south wind, which converts all trees to wind-harps; the crackling and spurting of hemlock in the flames, or of pine logs, which yield glory to the walls and faces in the sitting-room,—these are the music and pictures of the most ancient religion.
~ Emerson, Essays, 2d series, ‘Nature’ (CW 3:172)

I cannot recite, even thus rudely, laws of the intellect, without remembering that lofty and sequestered class who have been its prophets and oracles, the high-priesthood of the pure reason, the Trismegisti, the expounders of the principles of thought from age to age. When at long intervals we turn over their abstruse pages, wonderful seems the calm and grand air of these few, these great spiritual lords who have walked in the world,—these of the old religion,—dwelling in a worship which makes the sanctities of Christianity look parvenues and popular; for “persuasion is in soul, but necessity is in intellect.” This band of grandees, Hermes, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Plato, Plotinus, Olympiodorus, Proclus, Synesius and the rest, have somewhat so vast in their logic, so primary in their thinking, that it seems antecedent to all the ordinary distinctions of rhetoric and literature, and to be at once poetry and music and dancing and astronomy and mathematics. I am present at the sowing of the seed of the world. With a geometry of sunbeams the soul lays the foundations of nature.
~ Emerson, Essays. 1st Series, ‘Intellect’ (CW 2:345-346)

In what I call the cyclus of orphic words, which I find in Bacon, in Cudworth, in Plutarch, in Plato, in that which the new Church would indicate when it speaks of the truths possessed by the primeval church broken up into fragments and floating hither and thither in the corrupt church, I perceive myself addressed thoroughly. They do touch the intellect and cause a gush of emotion which we call the moral
sublime; they pervade also the moral nature. Now the universal man, when he comes, must so speak. He must not be one-toned. He must recognize by addressing the whole nature.
~ Emerson, J 4.154 (1836)

You shall not read newspapers, nor politics, nor novels, nor Montaigne, nor the newest French book. You may read Plutarch, Plato, Plotinus, Hindoo mythology and ethics.
~ Emerson, Letters and Social Aims, ‘Inspiration’ (CW 8:295)

And as man is the object of Nature, what we study in Nature is man…. For Nature is only a mirror in which man is reflected colossally. Swedenborg or Behman or Plato tried to decipher this hieroglyphic, and explain what rock, what sand, what wood, what fire signified in regard to man.
~ Emerson, Natural History of Intellect, and Other Papers, ‘Country Life’ (CW 12: 164-165)

The purple light of Plato which shines yet into all ages, and is a test of the sublimest intellects.
~ Emerson, J 3.419 (1834)

Aristotle Platonizes.
~ Emerson, J 3.489 (1835)

I read the Timaeus in these days, but am never sufficiently in a sacred and holiday health for the task. The man must be equal to the book. A man does not know how fine a morning he wants until he goes to read Plato and Proclus.
~ Emerson, J 6.213 (1842)

Bibliography

Bregman, Jay. “The Neoplatonic Revival in North America.” Hermathena, No. 149 (Special Issue: The Heritage of Platonism), Winter 1990, pp. 99–119.

Brown, Stuart Gerry. Emerson’s Platonism. The New England Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Sep., 1945), pp. 325–345.

Cameron, Kenneth Walter. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Reading. Haskell House, 1941 (rev. 1962).

Dombrowski, Daniel A. Thoreau the Platonist. Peter Lang, 1986.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. 12 vols. Centenary Edition. Houghton Mifflin, 1903–4. [Cited as CW, followed by volume no. and page(s)]

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes. 10 vols. Houghton Mifflin, 1909–14.  [Cited as J, followed by volume no. and page(s)]

Flanagan, G. Borden. “Emerson’s Democratic Platonism in Representative Men.” In: Alan Levine and Daniel S. Malachuk (eds.), A Political Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, University of Kentucky, 2011, pp. 415–449.

Harrison, John Smith. The Teachers of Emerson. New York: Sturgis & Walton, 1910.

Howe, Daniel Walker. Making the American SelfCh. 7, The Platonic Quest in New England, pp. 189–211. Oxford University Press, 2009 (orig. 1997). (An earlier version appeared as: Daniel Walker Howe, The Cambridge Platonists of Old England and the Cambridge Platonists of New England, Church History Vol. 57, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 470–485.)

Pollock, Robert C.  A Reappraisal of Emerson. Thought, Volume 32, Issue 1, Spring 1957, pp. 86–132. Reprinted in: Harold C. Gardiner (editor), American Classics Reconsidered: A Christian Appraisal, New York: Scribner, 1958 (pp. 15–58) and in Arthur S. Lothstein, Michael Brodrick (eds.), New Morning: Emerson in the Twenty-First Century, SUNY Press, 2008 (pp. 9–48).

Richardson, Robert D. Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. University of California, 1995. (See especially. pp. 65f.)

Van Anglen, K. P.  “Greek and Roman Classics.”  In Joel Myerson and Sandra Harbert Petrulionis (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism, Oxford University, 2010, pp. 3–8.

Woelfel, James. The Beautiful Necessity: Emerson and the Stoic Tradition. American Journal of Theology & Philosophy, Vol. 32, No. 2 (May 2011), pp. 122–138.

The Supreme Court, Gay Marriage, and Prisoners of Plato’s Cave Arguing About Shadows

leave a comment »

shadows on wall of platos cave

Despite my best efforts to ignore the subject, I’ve been forcibly informed that on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 the US Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments on the pending gay marriage case.  The case interests me no more than the arguments amongst prisoners in Plato’s cave about the shapes of shadows flitting on the wall (Republic 7.514ff).

One group with a childish concept of ‘rights’ will face another with an equally erroneous concept of ‘morality.’ No arguments based on logic or explicit first principles will be raised.  The names associated with the foundations of moral philosophy, names like Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, and Cicero, will not be mentioned.  One faction of a dumbed-down, culturally illiterate society will square off against the other.  They should name the case Folly vs. Folly.

Her blindfold will spare us seeing Lady Justice roll her eyes in exasperation.

I suspect the Supreme Court will ultimately endorse gay marriage, since, Reason long since having fled the halls of the Court, the matter will be decided politically.  If so, some good may come from the Supreme Court placing itself so far out on a limb that all Americans will start to see that it is better for us have these issues decided by logic and good-will, not animosity, power-politics, and the machinations of demagogues.

But since Fate has thrust the matter before me, I will weigh in on it.

Proponents of gay marriage assert that marriage is a right.  Now is this true?  Is it obviously true?  Should we not begin by defining what a right is, and then supply a reasoned argument why marriage is a right?

And if marriage is a right, is it a civil (legal) right or a natural right?  A natural right is an inalienable right, one that exists, say, in a state of primitive nature before governments are instituted.  Consider this example.  If two strangers (let’s say a man and woman, just to keep the example simple) accidentally wash up on a deserted island and then decided to start making babies, they would not, and could not, be married.  Marriage would have no meaning.  Marriage is a category that produces a relationship of a pair of people to the rest of society. If there is no society, it is meaningless to speak of marriage.

Now someone might reply.  “No, you are wrong.  It is God who marries two people.”  Well, fair enough — we can easily clarify that.  Marriage exists both as a religious and a secular institution in today’s society.  We are not considering here the issue of religious marriage.  That is for churches to consider, not the Supreme Court.  Our focus of attention here is exclusively secular marriage, of the kind that would require two people to get a marriage license, register at City Hall, check “married” on a census survey, etc.

Now since, as our example suggests, a secularly defined marriage does not exist without a society, it would appear to be more a civil right than a natural right.  Again:  having sex is a natural right; but being designated by society as “married” is not a natural right.

This suggests that marriage, if a right at all, is a civil right.  Civil rights are decided by legislation.  There is nothing inherent in the nature of civil rights that unconditionally demands that all people, in every case, are entitled to exactly equal treatment.  Cases in point:  children are not allowed to drink alcohol; felons are not allowed to vote (in some states).  But let’s stop with this.  There is plenty of room to argue either way here — that gay couples should or should not, based on issues of justice and society’s best interests, enjoy a civil right to be married.  This should be discussed, but it should be done in a constructive and unprejudiced manner.

However it must also be asked whether marriage is a right at all.  There are other paradigms for looking at marriage which seem at least as plausible.

We can, for example, see marriage as a privilege.  Let’s again consider the state of a primitive, aboriginal society, before the development of a formal government.  In a clan or small tribe, we can likely find examples of the principle that not everybody is sanctioned by the community to be married.  Consider the nature of marriage: it is a ceremony attended by many others, perhaps the whole village.  It is a cause for community celebration. There are dowries to be paid. Moreover, the married couple typically must show some evidence of being able to contribute to the life and welfare of the community — as judged by the standards and values of that community.  In the traditional wedding ceremony, we still have the part that says, “if anyone has any just reason why this couple should not be united, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”  Presumably this part is in there for a reason. Doubtless there have been many times when this option has been exercised.  Any number of objections might be raised.  “The man is a lout, an alcoholic!”  “The woman is unfaithful!”  “They are both lazy good-for-nothings, who never help with the community labor, and will do nothing but produce more mouths to feed.”  The point is that the community has some, and perhaps a great deal to say about who should be allowed to be married. If marriage is a privilege, how else is a community to decide this except by legislation, or at the ballot box.  That is what the citizens of California did:  they went to the ballot box, and the majority voted against gay marriage.

Do I agree with that?  I’ll say this much:  that an issue like this is of sufficient gravity that it should not be decided merely by a simple majority vote.  Here is a case where a super-majority — say a 2/3 or 75% majority might demonstrate sufficient consensus to decide an issue.

Or what if, along similar lines, we see marriage as an award, an honor granted to certain couples based on merit? If we go back to the origins of marriage in primitive society, that is not an entirely implausible model, and not one that should be dismissed without fair consideration.  If a young couple has made a sufficiently good impression on their family and village, people will help them out with a place to live, gifts, etc., as though to say, “we’d like to have more people like you; get working on it!”

In that case it is absurd to claim that everyone is entitled to “equal treatment under the law.”  If marriage is an award, then one can no more insist that everyone is equally entitled to marriage than that everyone equally deserves a ticker-tape parade just because an astronaut gets one, or a reception with the president because the Super Bowl winners get one.   But, you might ask, who decides who gets the ‘award’ of marriage and who doesn’t.  That is society’s prerogative, just as in the case of other awards.

No doubt in the Supreme Court case someone will raise the issue of uniform enforcement:  if a gay couple is married in Massachusetts, and it isn’t honored in California, that will make the administrative tasks of the federal government impossible.  That is a specious argument.  By this reasoning we should simply eliminate the individual states altogether as administratively inconvenient, and adopt a single, uniform national code of law.  Further, by such reasoning any state could pass a strange law concerning marriage (e.g., permitting marriage for children under the age of 12) and the other states would have to honor it.

There is one potentially interesting topic likely to emerge in the case.  If gay marriage is considered a right based on “equal treatment under the law,” how can society then deny a right to polygamous marriage?  What will be interesting is to see the fancy footwork as the pro-gay marriage attorneys try to side-step that question.

Meanwhile the United States is in a state of perpetual war, a matter which concerns all our welfare and basic issues of justice 100 times more than the issue of gay marriage.

No comments please.  This subject hold no interests for me.  I write only to bemoan the fact that this topic is being mishandled by all parties.