Beyond the Republic
by Michael Jacques (e-mail: MJacques@liberator.net) [February 17th, 2003]
As you may or may not know, I am an undergraduate student in philosophy, and this of course entails that I take classes in many areas of philosophy; it's my good fortune this semester to be reading some of my favorite writers. However, I'm also in a Greek philosophy class, which covers primarily Plato's Republic and selections from Aristotle.
In my estimation, Socrates was an insightful and honest thinker who deserves to be celebrated as one of the founding fathers of Western philosophy; his use of elenchus (questioning with the intent of assessing the true beliefs of the subject) is clever and revolutionary throughout the Platonic dialogues. However, I feel that the attitudes cultivated by Plato and Aristotle (especially in the Republic) are entirely out of touch with the realities of human life. Plato, at least nominally the voice of Socrates, expects a group of people to be happy in a peaceful and ordered society where the state chooses one's career and deprives the individual of the "illusions" furnished by drama and a great deal of poetry.
“The fulfillment of the duty that compels me to search for philosophical truths as well as serve the disadvantaged gives me a happiness that none of those lesser pleasures could ever serve.”
Granted this perfect state would not be as mistrusted as our modern states are, but when asked how such a trustworthy and ideal state could come into being, the Republic declares that all we have to do is make sure all of our rulers are philosophers. This is of course a hopeless and ridiculous ideal, but what concerns me is Plato's idea that the people will be happy with so little, that the state should not grant freedom of literature and the press because people are so weak and stupid that they cannot fathom justice; that is, the people (and especially the youth) can derive no idea of justice that is anything other than the state ideal.
I confess again to (and apologize for) yet another semi-philosophical digression; the current and political importance of this discussion is something I hope to be able to uncover and make clear. Philosophy, if it is not used in the service of the present and the future, will become a dead art: it is crucial that the philosopher, as with any writer, keeps a ready eye on what is and remains important. I am brought now to incident that occurred in my Greek philosophy class this past week, one that I think is indicative of the attitudes held both by Plato and by many Americans today. Upon inquiring into what things make us happy, the professor received many responses, and quickly sorted them into categories such as companionship, power, self-advancement, pleasure, and security. Feeling that an important cause of happiness was left out, I raised my hand and was called on.
"Justice," I said.
"As a source of happiness?" the professor replied. "You don't seriously believe that, do you? You're just saying that because we're reading Republic."
Honestly, I was a little too shocked to respond; I had meant what I said, so I was forced to respond with a smirk and a brief shrug. But I do hold that justice alone can be a source of happiness, that without consideration for its possible effects or rewards I am made happier by justice. It is a value I place side by side with human freedom, and it is the serving of my highest values that satisfies me the most. Of course it's not the same happiness that comes from watching a comedic film or enjoying a good meal, but it is many times more powerful.
The fulfillment of the duty that compels me to search for philosophical truths as well as serve the disadvantaged gives me a happiness that none of those lesser pleasures could ever serve. The professor for this course obviously finds this to be ridiculous, as any follower of Plato would. That the individual could self-derive the principles of truth and justice is an absurdity to both the philosopher-king and the American president: we are encouraged to follow our leaders and not ask too many questions or speak too freely; if we could know our leaders to be perfect then perhaps this wouldn't be such a bad idea.
But I'd be suspicious if told that ideal had ever been achieved, be it in ancient Greece or the United States. We must be aware that almost any man, young or old, poor or rich, white or black, anyone, can determine what is just and unjust. The struggle is then to make these ideals more of a reality; in other words, to impose better values on the world by making just what was previously unjust.
The attitude that the youth and the general public are wholly incapable of deriving "true" values and being just is not only inconsistent with, but contrary to, the ideal state. In that perfect world, perhaps everyone would indeed choose to be just and serve the needs of the republic, but the self-derived and self-fulfilling justice rewards more than that enforced by the state. This state, however, is an impossibility, as it ignores the basic facts of human history: we are never happy with an imbalance of power or wealth and yet we cannot rest with total equality.
The equilibrium of the Republic cannot be achieved from the natural and preferred chaos of humanity. Human life must remain competitive, because it is contrary to our nature to live otherwise. Where there is competition, there will be injustice, and where there is injustice, there will be those who fight and struggle for justice. As history has shown us, these men have refused (and will continue to refuse) to accept the conventional views of justice, working instead towards a newer and more true vision for human life.
Resources and Avenues for Further Study
Google: Society: Philosophy: Philosophers: Plato: Works: The Republic
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