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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Political Science Review: Plato

The second political text we read was the famous text The Republic by Plato. One interesting fact about the book is that it was not titled The Republic in original Greek but rather was simply Politeia (though with Cyrillic letters), which means 'the political system'. Calling it a republic is a bit of a misnomer with our modern sense of the word, as the system of government that Plato ultimately arrives at is not very republican at all but is much more a hierarchical meritocracy. Also, for the record, I would like to point out that when I say republican I do not mean the modern travesty of a political party that exists in the United States today, but rather the notion of a government loosely defined to be run by and for the people.

While part of me recognizes that it is unfair to judge Plato's writing and arguments from my privileged perspective of modernity, I still didn't like this text very much. A large part of my dislike was that I found it frustratingly tedious to read, as it is written as a dialogue and Socrates' interlocutors simply spent most of their time making comments like "well, how could it not be?" and "of course that is how it must be so" no matter the quality of his argument. While that is simply a stylistic critique, I do have more substantive criticisms as well.

The Republic is a long book, so I won't go through all the arguments that I found weak or otherwise lacking, but will rather attempt to outline what is, in my opinion, the most significant error in the text. In 533c - 534a, Socrates argues that geometry and other sciences are only "thought", which is a lesser form of knowing than "knowledge". Knowledge apparently encompasses dialectic, which is what Plato claims his political analysis falls under, and therefore, since it is the highest and truest form of knowing, Plato is clearly correct. I found this completely hypocritical, since the reason geometry was a lesser form of knowledge was that it made use of hypotheses untouched that no account could be given of (in mathematics, these are called axioms). In other words, it is a set of facts that are taken as given. However, Plato himself (through the character of Socrates) spends the first several sections of the book making all sorts of unqualified statements which are simply accepted as fact, such as gods exist and are completely good, there is a normative morality and goodness, and there are four virtues (justice, wisdom, courage, and moderation), among other such claims. Even if the entire text was internally consistent (which I do not believe it always is), the arguments it purports are still dependent upon the claims which he simply accepts as true and given. Therefore, according to his own definitions, Plato's analysis is not knowledge but is mere thought.

While I think there are positive aspects of the text, as a whole I found the arguments unsatisfying. I have had more than one person tell me that is an exceedingly arrogant stance to take, given that Plato is considered one of the greatest thinkers to have existed, but I have a hard time with that attitude. Famous men are very often famously wrong (some of Aristotle's claims are patently ludicrous, but I will get to Aristotle next). I think The Republic is worth reading if one has the time due to its wide-ranging impact on our society, but it should be read without credulity and deference undeservedly given.


Jolly Bloger said...

Yes! It is a thankless task being critical of the Greek philosophers. I think they get far more credit than their ideas merit - lets move on! But man, nothing gets an intellectual more fired up than suggesting that Plato was arrogant or Lucretius was a fool.