4.10.09

The Republic II: Thrasymachus Strikes Back

[The following is an imagined dialogue between Plato’s Socrates and a re-modeled, modern Thrasymachus. The latter has lost none of his bloated arrogance and spiteful anger. But in this sequel, he is no longer an idiot. He pursues Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates fully, and exposes both the logical discrepancies and real world dangers of the Republic’s argument. As far as possible, I’ve allowed Socrates to speak in his own words. Quotes are marked.]

Socrates and Thrasymachus attend another gathering a couple of weeks later. Thrasymachus is considerably more sober this time. They meet, exchange pleasantries, and resolve to continue the discussion they had before.

Thrasymachus: Right! Let us remind ourselves of the challenge that inspired your rambling dialogue on morality and politics. I confess that your associates Glaucon and Adeimantus defended my position with much greater nuance and sophistication than I could manage. Shall we look at what they said?

Socrates: Let’s.

Thrasymachus: Your friend Glaucon posited that the origin of morality is a kind of social contract: ‘once people have experienced both committing wrong and being at the receiving end of it, they see that the disadvantages are unavoidable and the benefits are unattainable; so they decide that the most profitable course is for them to enter into a contract with one another, guaranteeing that no wrong will be committed or received’. The contract ‘is a compromise between the ideal of doing wrong without having to pay for it, and the worst situation, which is having wrong done to one while lacking the means of extracting compensation’.

This theory is predicated on the view that ‘people do wrong whenever they think they can, so they act morally only if they’re forced to, because they regard morality as something which isn’t good for one personally’. To sum up: ‘everyone thinks the rewards of immorality far outweigh those of morality – and they are right’.

A cynical view, to be sure. But a realistic one. And there is value in such realism, as I hope to show. Instead, your associates desired you to overthrow this social contract theory, and ‘show how morality is worth while in and of itself for anyone who possesses it and how immorality harms him’. A foolhardy task! Many brave men have tried and failed to answer this question. But you were undaunted. Can you remind me of how you began your counter-argument?

Socrates: I would be delighted to. I immediately suggested a comparison which would make the workings of morality easier to identify and understand. I argued that ‘morality can be a property of whole communities as well as individuals’. It can ‘exist on a larger scale in the larger entity and be easier to discern’. Once we did that, we would ‘examine individuals too, to see if the larger entity is reflected in the features of the smaller entity’. My friend Adeimantus thought it ‘an excellent idea’.

Thrasymachus: More fool he! The comparison you suggested is utter CLAPTRAP! Do you honestly think that morality in a community is THE SAME THING as morality in an individual’s soul? Surely you are aware that using a particular word in two different contexts can change its meaning? The thing that makes a community ‘moral’ doesn’t necessarily have to be the same thing that makes an individual ‘moral’. So you see? The entire framework of your argument is predicated on a FALSE COMPARISON.

But let us leave that to one side, and examine your ideal community in more detail.

Socrates: Alright. The key principle of a perfect city must be specialization. Consider: ‘different people are inherently suitable for different activities, since people are not particularly similar to one another, but have a wide variety of natures’. So it follows that ‘productivity is increased, the quality of the products is improved, and the process is simplified when an individual sets aside his other pursuits, does the one thing for which he is naturally suited, and does it at the opportune moment’.

Thrasymachus: I believe this logic to be sound. Proceed.

Socrates: Thank you. The same applies to the military and government; it’s another area of expertise. The guardians of our community must be courageous and passionate (and so ‘perceptive, quick on their feet and strong’), but must also ‘behave with civilized gentleness towards their friends’. Balancing these opposite impulses requires a ‘philosopher’s love of knowledge’, so that they are able to determine friend from enemy, and good and bad.

Thrasymachus: And how are we to achieve such perfectly balanced individuals?

Socrates: We start at the beginning, when a person ‘absorbs every impression that anyone wants to stamp upon it’. You see, human nature can be MOULDED, and immorality OVERCOME. To do this, we establish a suitable mythology, culture and education system, designed to instill good values in the community. Let’s break this down:

Poems, plays and songs that undermine self-discipline and morality will be banned. Moral poems, plays and songs are always more beautiful anyway, so it will be no great loss.

A religion is fabricated to promote the idea that the citizens’ country is ‘their mother and their nurse’, and so must be defended at all costs. Thus, the military will give their lives to protect their community.

Religion and education will buttress the government/military/worker class system, to make sure that each order sticks to their allotted task. However, it will maintain that a ‘copper’ child can be born of ‘gold’ parents, and vice versa. Thus, the class system can be penetrated by children with the right natural abilities, and the principle of specialization will be preserved. (There is an element of social mobility here, based on genes. Aristotle’s ideal city, built on the backs of slaves, is more rigid.)

Religion and education will also persuade the elite to treat their subjects as ‘earth-born brothers’, and so prevent the military-wing behaving ‘like brutal despots’. Practical arrangements will enforce this view. Guardians won’t have private property, they will live communally and be given just enough resources to sustain their lives. They will be rewarded only with honour, buried in great tombs and worshipped as gods.

All this indoctrination will engender people of good character. There is no need for me to spell out the specific legislation that will regulate this community, because those that rule it will be good and will know what to do. The important thing is to ensure that the integrity of the education system which produces these good men isn’t compromised.

Thrasymachus: I see. You certainly have an optimistic view of man’s perfectibility! I would counter that NO amount of education will be able to overcome a human being’s inherent immorality. In your ideal community, the powerful won’t enjoy the same material pleasures as the powerless. I don’t think any man, no matter how great a philosopher, will be able to stand this. Perhaps you can, Socrates? If so, you would be in the minority.

Another objection: in the real world an elite will want to pass on power, not only to the most deserving, but to their relatives and friends. This is an ingrained human behavioral pattern, which your system of people transfer goes against. Will guardians really wish their inferior children to work the fields? But we should first explore your radical proposals on women and the family before I continue down this line of reasoning.

Socrates: Very well. As regards women, I believe that ‘innate qualities have been distributed equally between the two sexes, and women can join in every occupation just as much as men, although they are the weaker sex in all respects’.

Thrasymachus:
I don’t quite understand that last bit. You must mean physically weaker, but otherwise equal. In that case, to be able to go against the fundamental assumptions of your society in order to uphold what is manifestly true and fair marks you out as a man of rare intelligence, and a true philosopher.

Socrates: Thank you.

Thrasymachus: Please continue. What about the family?

Socrates:
The population as a whole will mate according to a eugenics programme, presented in the guise of religion. The guardians will ‘take the children of good parents to the crèche and hand them over to the nurses’, and ‘they’ll find some suitable way of hiding away the children of worse parents and any handicapped children of good parents’.

Thrasymachus: Hiding away?

Socrates: Well, ‘those with a poor physical constitution will be allowed to die, and those with irredeemably rotten minds will be put to death’.

Thrasymachus:
Err... You know when I said you are a true philosopher?

Socrates: Yes

Thrasymachus: ....Never mind.

Socrates: OK, well anyway. The other key proposal is that ‘all the women are to be shared among all the men. And the children are also to be shared, with no parent knowing which child is his, or child knowing his parent’. The point of this is to make the community one giant family. They will share in each other’s pleasure and distress, and so be bound together and act as a unity. There will be no factionalism. The leadership will be harmonious and peaceful.

Thrasymachus: Once again, I will counter that transforming human relationships in this way is IMPOSSIBLE. As Aristotle has argued, this big family will produce only a ‘watery’ kind of friendship. Doing away with the family unit ignores the way human beings ACTUALLY BEHAVE: the way they choose their friends, the way they fall in love, the way they quarrel and disagree. Your ideal city is predicated on the TRANSFORMATION of humanity. IS THIS POSSIBLE!?

Socrates: ‘Is it possible for anything actual to match a theory? Please don’t force me to point to an actual case in the material world which conforms in all respects to our theoretical construct. If we can discover how a community’s administration could come very close to our theory, then let’s say we’ve discovered how it’s all viable.’

Thrasymachus: So how are we to get as close as possible to your theory?

Socrates:
Here we come to the crux of my argument. ‘Unless communities have philosophers as kings there can be no end to political troubles, or even to human troubles in general, I’d say, and our theoretical constitution will be stillborn and will never see the light of day’.

Thrasymachus:
And what makes philosophers so special?

Socrates:
They are able to see things like beauty and goodness, each ‘in itself, in its permanent and unvarying nature’. A philosopher’s ‘eyes are occupied with the sight of things which are organized, permanent, and unchanging, where wronging and being wronged don’t exist, where all is orderly and rational’. A ruler who lacks such insight will have ‘nothing absolutely authentic to contemplate and use as an accurate reference-point, before establishing human norms of right, morality and goodness.’ You see, ‘there is no way in which a community is going to be happy unless its plan is drawn up by artists who refer to a divine model’.

Thrasymachus:
Hold on. We need to look at this very closely. Most importantly, we need to question the theory that ‘beauty’ and ‘goodness’ have a permanent and unvarying nature. Your entire argument rests on the proposal that these things are OBJECTIVE. That if everyone acquires enough wisdom, they will all be able to agree on what is beautiful and good. But IS THIS POSSIBLE? Let’s look at what our reason CAN establish as objective. In very abstract fields such as mathematics and logic, we ARE able to arrive at true and eternal laws. In our attempts to comprehend the world around us, we can also arrive at semi-objective laws, which are modified according to the evidence supplied by our fallible senses. But when we find something beautiful or good, reason plays only a part in the decision. We are reacting EMOTIONALLY to external phenomena, and human emotions are infinite in their variety. There cannot be any objectivity in this field. We can’t see true beauty and goodness in itself, because the emotions that decide what is beautiful and good are SUBJECTIVE.

Let’s try another tack. We look at x and find it beautiful. We look at y and also find it beautiful. You haven’t proven why the thing that makes x and y beautiful is THE SAME THING. Can’t the emotions we feel when looking at x and the emotions we feel when looking at y be DIFFERENT, and we just use the word ‘beauty’ to describe them both? You have already made this mistake comparing the city and the individual. And you should know better. Terms like ‘beauty’ can be infinitely malleable; it can apply to all kinds of objects. There’s nothing objective that unites these objects together. They are only united in your own head. Someone else will group a different set of objects under the banner ‘beautiful’.

So when your philosopher king consults his ‘divine model’ of a perfect, pure humanity, the particular aspects he will define as ‘good’ will be subjective. Another philosopher king will come up with a different model. Consider Aristotle. He also shares you opinions on specialization, the need for moderation and the value of reason, and his perfect city ends up looking quite similar to your one. But he also believes women to be inferior to men, and that equality demands that democracy be practiced among the ruling elite. Others may believe that EVERY human being is able to achieve the philosophical life, and is thus entitled to a share in the constitution.

Indeed, I would argue that looking up and contemplating a perfect humanity is an INSULAR and LIMITED way of arriving at the ideal community. In order to understand how human beings can be perfected, isn’t it better to look down and STUDY THEM. Understand their impulses, their talents, and their capacity to commit horrific crimes. Only by knowing intimately the human capital you have to work with can you go on to build a political system that is suitable for them. I believe this will involve, not just education (which can only go so far), but also balancing incentives – social contracts, you might say – in such a way as to limit the evil we do to one another.

But we’ve digressed too far away from your argument. Lets ignore the subjectivity objections for now. Please, explain how the philosopher king will establish the ideal community.

Socrates: Well, ‘they will banish everyone over the age of ten into the countryside. Then they take charge of the community’s children and make sure that they’re beyond the reach of existing conventions, which their parents adhere to, and bring them up under their own customs and laws, which are similar to the ones we were describing before. That’s the quickest and simplest way for the community and political system we’ve been discussing to be established, to attain happiness, and to benefit the people among whom they occur.’

Thrasymachus:
So let’s recap. Your philosopher king will wipe the slate clean using BRUTAL COERCION, and then set up his new regime with a GRAND PROPAGANDA PROJECT – creating foundation myths and a religion that will indoctrinate brotherhood and a clear class system. Education will be completely controlled by the state, to ensure the propaganda keeps working. And the family will be abolished. I will repeat my misgivings, louder, since you appear unable to take note of them. CAN HUMAN NATURE BE TRANSFORMED IN THIS WAY? Won’t your citizens chafe at having their families dissolved? Won’t they rebel against being told what to think? Won’t they want to be able to choose who to have sex with? IS THIS COMMUNITY EVEN POSSIBLE??

Socrates: ‘The community may be difficult to realize, but it’s feasible: the essential prerequisite is that genuine philosophers – one or more of them – wield power’. If even one king, ‘in the entire passage of time’, ‘remains uncorrupted’ and lives ‘in a community which is prepared to obey him, then that is enough: everything which is now open to doubt would become fully-fledged reality’.

Thrasymachus: TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AND HUMANITY IS STILL WAITING FOR YOUR IDEAL CITY! WHAT DO YOU PROPOSE WE DO IN THE MEANTIME??

Socrates: Hmm. Well I guess there isn’t much a person can do. Those few who ‘have glimpsed the joy and happiness to be found in mastering philosophy and have also gained a clear enough impression of the madness of the masses; when they’ve realized that more or less every political action is pernicious and that if someone tries to assist morality there will be no one to back him up and see that he comes out unscathed, but would rather die before doing his community or his friends any good, and so would be useless to himself and to everyone else, he lies low and does only what he’s meant to do. It's as if he's taken shelter under a wall during a storm, with the wind whipping up the dust and rain pelting down; lawlessness infects everyone else he sees, so he is content if he can find a way to live his life here on earth without becoming tainted by immoral or unjust deeds, and to depart from life confidently, and without anger and bitterness’.

‘He could do much more with his life if he just lived in a suitable political system, which enabled him to preserve the integrity of public business as well as his own affairs.’

Thrasymachus:
So where are we? We use the ideal city as an example for perfecting our own souls and for living a moral life. Personal morality is the only true politics we can engage in. We should be content with this. Only in an ideal community will this private struggle translate into common good. It’s not much, is it? Even the rewards for morality seem pretty meagre. We just lie low and wait for compensation in the next world? That’s how you end your Republic, isn’t it? With an elaborate doomsday myth about how sinners will be judged? Do you really believe this? Or are you acting like a philosopher king, using propaganda to convince people to be good? Is this what we’ve sunk to?

You have to admit, there’s very little of your theories that we can salvage.

Socrates: Perhaps... but maybe there’s enough. My ideas can no longer find purchase in a post-modern world. They will be discredited and ridiculed. But the questions I’ve asked remain important, I think, and will continue to be asked. And I hope my idealism, and my attempt to defend the moral life, will live on in spite of my mistakes. I’ve only tried, in my own way, to find something true, beautiful and good in the imperfect world I live in.

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