Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Republic

A dialogue on some topics relating to Plato’s “The Republic”

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Glaucon, I am sure that you know Plato’s “The Republic”.

I do.

Then you have also noted his way of presenting an argument?

I have. I find it most convincing.

I see. Would you agree that our understanding of a matter is improved through critical thought?

Undoubtedly.

And that mindless and uncritical agreement does little to achieve this?

It is so.

Would you further agree that this applies also to the speaker, who might be more stimulated to investigate his own position, deepen his own understanding, and improve his arguments, when faced with some opposition? That there might even be cases, where a speaker comes to reject his old opinion?

You speak the truth.

Then I will also claim that the reader of a dialogue will be better off when this dialogue is not a one-sided presentation of ideas by the first speaker, interleaved with a blanket agreement by the second; especially, in those cases where the claims are specious, simplistic, one-sided, leave out a discussion of special cases, or similar.

Truer words were never spoken.

We might even argue that, unless satirical, a great convincer, or someone with an interest in finding the truth, or someone who respects his audience, should avoid such one-sidedness—even that an argument will often be more convincing when it is given a hard test and survives that test, than when it is left untested.

For sure.

As you agree so far: Would you still consider Plato’s reasoning convincing?

I admit that my faith is weakened, and I will return to his thoughts with a more critical mind.

Your doubts please me. Still, while his reasoning is often weak, there is much reason and many good ideas in his writings.

So there is.

Some, however, I find troubling, be it because of changing times or different preferences.

I, too, have always thought.

Are you not contradicting yourself, Glaucon?

I am indeed.

Any way, consider topics like the formation of opinions in the populace: While Plato makes a great case against lies in general, he appears to make exceptions when it comes to the rulers of a country. He also favors censorship of myths and legends to give the broad masses the right ideals.

This is so.

Today’s leaders are obviously often duplicitous, but they are far from Plato’s ideal.

How so?

Plato has an image of the best of the best being groomed for high office, as philosopher kings, while today’s leaders … Well, you do follow politics?

I do; and I see what you mean.

In fact, Plato seems to see a ladder of decay of government or governance where democracy is just one step short of tyranny as the penultimate stop on the ladder.

He does. But have you not yourself called democracy the least evil among forms of government?

Echoing Churchill—yes. I am not necessarily saying that Plato is right with his hierarchy, but I do find the perspective interesting.

It is indeed.

But to return to my earlier thoughts, it is clear that Plato’s ideas are often dependent on each other and do not necessarily function on their own. For instance, if we had a rule that a philosopher king might be allowed to lie to his citizens, while his citizens would be forced to speak the truth to him, and that rule actually proved beneficial, could we conclude that the same rule would be beneficial when the philosopher king gives way to an incompetent populist?

Certainly not.

Could we conclude that the same rule applies even for a merely reasonably competent politician?

No. I see your point that it has to be the philosopher king, or the rule might prove faulty.

Of course, even with a philosopher king, and even assuming that the rule is beneficial, which would still need verification, there is an ethical problem.

How so?

It juxtaposes a pragmatic benefit with an ideal of how to handle knowledge: At the very core of my beliefs on forming opinions, growing of knowledge, and similar, is the right to do so on one’s own terms, based on own thinking and with free access to information not distorted by others. Indeed, I have used a part of “The Republic” to illustrate this very thing.

Your insight blinds me like the sun does a cave dweller.

But a ruler lying to his people would be exactly such a distortion. So would censoring myths, legends, and tales to change their real or imagined message to something else. So, indeed, could a too one-sided dialogue be.

So it is. I do recall a certain vehemence on your part against distortion of literature.

I am pleased that you paid attention. From another point of view, one of the central ideas of the modern law system is that everyone should be equal in front of the law, and when a ruler is allowed to lie, while his citizens are not, then they are not equal in front of the law.

True.

Similarly, modern thoughts on topics like the Rechtsstaat are steeped in ideas like safe-guards of democracy, use of checks and balances, giving the citizens rights towards the state rather than vice versa, …

Pardon me for disagreeing, but that sounds more like the 18th-century idealism.

Consider yourself pardoned: Unfortunately, proponents of a true Rechtsstaat are rarely heard today and the insight into what is needed has lessened; and many fall into the trap of considering any state that enables their own ideology and politics as an ipso-facto Rechtsstaat, if rarely using that name, while states that do not are condemned irrespective of to which degree they adhere to the ideals of a Rechtsstaat. Still, when we contrast even the 21th-century take with Plato’s times, the world is very different—and there are many of us who do hold and propose strong Rechtsstaatlichkeit.

I see your point. But: If we do have a philosopher king, what would the purposes of safe-guards be? And: Do we really need safe-guards specifically for democracy?

Good questions. The first is likely easier to answer: Such safe-guards, or their presence or absence, must never be based on the assumption of an ideal situation. The situation might or might not be ideal today, but even then there is no guarantee for tomorrow. If I trust all my fellow humans, I could leave my door unlocked or even forego a lock entirely—but I do not. I might know and trust my neighbors sufficiently, but what about the mail-man? The mail-man’s vacation replacement? Guests of my neighbors? All strangers who pass by the house in the course of the day?

It is clear now. You say that the next king need not be a philosopher, despite having been carefully chosen and groomed.

Or that he was a philosopher king and has since succumbed to insanity or dementia, or that the choice was not careful, or that the grooming was flawed, or whatever other complications can occur. Worse, if the philosopher king is seen as a literal monarch, rather than e.g. one of the members of a governing council, then the main difference between him and the tyrant, who is the lowest rung on the ladder, lies in his person—not in the system of government. The later concept of an “enlightened despot” has a great overlap with Plato’s “philosopher king”, and illustrates in its very name how small the difference can be—the one despot happens to be enlightened, the other not.

Quite true.

To turn to the second point, I agree that safe-guards for democracy might seem a bit paradoxical in light of my other writings. The answer falls into at least three parts: Lesser evil, semantic misunderstanding/misuse, and the self-servingness of politicians.

I see what you mean by “lesser evil”, from past discussions, but you have to explain the others.

My pleasure: In terms of semantics, words like “democratic” are often used to imply certain things that are not necessarily relating to democracy. It is, for instance, possible to have a democracy without strong due process and to have due process without democracy; however, due process is often incorrectly seen as a part of democracy. Similarly, it is possible to have freedom of speech without democracy; and while it is arguably not possible to have true democracy without freedom of speech, many self-proclaimed democracies do have strong limits on speech. In such a context, “safe-guards of democracy” could include safe-guards for various civic rights, aspects of the Rechtsstaat, and similar—which I, incidentally, consider more important and beneficial than democracy per se.

That makes sense. What about the politicians?

Here we do not so much have an argument for as much as an explanation of such formulations, or of the safe-guards themselves: Politicians, in the modern sense, are kept in power by what passes for democracy and they are correspondingly set on preserving it…

Very true.

Wonderful. Then this will be a good point to wrap the discussion up, before our dialogue reaches Platonesque proportions.

If it is not too bold, I have some questions concerning the above and the later books of the “The Republic”.

Well, strictly between you and me, I have only read about half of it so far. You know how I tend to have a dozen books open in parallel, often over months, and how that annoying dialogue format makes it hard for me to keep my concentration up. It is true that the preceding might give an incorrect view of Plato’s ideas through this incomplete and unfocused reading, but I thought it better to get this text out of the way now, before I forget what I already wanted to say and before I have so much other material from the rest of the “Republic” that this text would grow too long and chaotic.

A most wise decision.

Glaucon, you are, unless I am much mistaken, a great sycophant.

I regret to admit that this is true.

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Written by michaeleriksson

January 13, 2019 at 2:33 am