Philosophy in the Street: Reading #1


Cavemen, Kings, and the Social Order in Plato

 

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

Alfred North Whitehead[i]


[1] Whitehead’s claim is one of the more famous generalizations in the history of philosophy. And most who are familiar with the development of Western civilization agree with him, although many feel that the trend Whitehead describes is a mixed blessing at best. What goes unremarked by many commentators on Plato, is the significance of the doctrine of reincarnation in his political theories. His understanding of the self, his theory of knowledge, and his social theories, his religious agenda─ all these hinge in one way or another on Plato’s understanding of reincarnation. 

 

[2] Plato is well known for his metaphysical theory, but his concerns were not restricted to abstract theory. He was also committed to practical aspirations─ social applications of his understanding of reality. Plato was a political thinker. He is famous for saying:

Unless. . . either philosophers become kings in our states or those whom we now call our kings and rulers take to the pursuit of philosophy seriously and adequately, and there is a conjunction of these two things, political power and philosophical intelligence. . . there can be no cessation of troubles. . . for our states, nor, I fancy, for the human race either. Republic V, 743d

 

[3] How does the wisdom that characterizes the philosopher kings come to be developed? In Plato’s view, what is required cannot be distilled from sense experience. This is because for him, the realm of sense experience is like a cave existence. In one of the most famous non-Biblical myths in the Western tradition, we read:

Picture men dwelling in a sort of subterranean cavern with a long entrance open to the light on its entire width. Conceive them as having their legs and necks fettered from childhood, so that they remain in the same spot, able to look forward only, and prevented by the fetters from turning their heads. Picture further the light from a fire burning higher up and at a distance behind them, and between the fire and the prisoners and above them a road along which a low wall has been built, as the exhibitors of puppet shows have partitions before the men themselves, above which they show the puppets. . . See also, then, men carrying past the wall implements of all kinds that rise above the wall, and human images and shapes of animals as well, wrought in stone and wood and every material, some of these bearers presumably speaking and others silent. . . If then they were able to talk to one another, do you not think that they would suppose that in naming the things that they saw they were naming the passing objects?. . And if their prison had an echo from the wall opposite them, when one of the passers-by uttered a sound, do you think that they would suppose anything else than the passing shadow to be the speaker? [No.] Then in every way such prisoners would deem reality to be nothing else than the shadows of the artificial objects.   Republic VII, 514a - 515c

 

[4] That is the stage setting; what then is the drama? The drama is an archetypal one─ the quest for freedom. The prisoners sit locked in place, as Plato tells us, “their legs and necks fettered from childhood, so that they remain in the same spot, able to look forward only, and prevented by the fetters from turning their heads.” Recall the aversion conditioning against violence given to the character Alex in the film A Clockwork Orange: his head is locked in place and he’s forced to look at the flickering shadows of films. That’s the idea; that's how things are at the bottom of the cave. The cave prisoners never see realities, but erratic, flickering shadows cast onto the cave wall in front of them by the dancing, unsteady light of a fire. An undignified and dismal situation. 

 

[5] But again: under such circumstances, how is the development of wisdom possible? All that we know in life is rooted in sense experience, but sense experience, for Plato, is unreliable─ it is no more than a series flickering shadows. And so, the development of wisdom will not involve the mind looking outward, into the sense perceived world─ the cave─ but will instead be attained through the mind looking inward. While knowledge is not possible through sense experience, sense experience is not the only source of human cognition. Through anamnesis─ recollection, memory─ the individual human can recall what was seen between lives. Here’s how Plato puts it:

They say that the soul of man is immortal. At one time it comes to an end─ that which is called death─ and at another is born again, but is never finally exterminated. . . Thus the soul, since it has been born many times, and has seen all things both here and in the other world, has learned everything that is. So we need not be surprised if it can recall the knowledge of virtue or anything else which, as we see, it once possessed.   Meno  81b-c

 

[6] Under the guidance of a midwife, as Plato’s teacher Socrates styled himself, the individual psyche is brought to give birth, as it were, to the wisdom latent within itself─ wisdom attained prior to the psyche’s taking on human form. Here, then, is one use of the doctrine of reincarnation in Plato’s philosophy. Reincarnation allowed him to solve a major philosophical problem generated by his metaphysics─ how the embodied psyche could come to know an unchanging reality while imprisoned in a cave of flickering change.

 

[7] The ascent from imprisonment in the cave begins with recollection, recollection of what the psyche had experienced between lives.  As Plato has Socrates say on the day of his execution: "Then our souls had a previous existence, Simmias, before they took on this human shape." (Phaedo 76c) But of course, there’s more. How is it that the psyche came to find itself in the wretched condition described in the Myth of the Cave? 

 

[8] Heir to the asceticism of Orphism and Pythagoras, Plato believed that the proper task of the psyche was liberation from the drives and impulses of the body. The goal of the psyche was liberation from the body and, by extension, from the sense-perceived world. For Plato, the body was emphatically not the self but was instead the prison of the self. The true self, the psyche alone, was believed by him to be contaminated by its unfortunate association with the body. To be embodied was a source of pollution; the cleansing of that pollution was dissociation from its source:

And purification. . .consists in separating the soul as much as possible from the body, and accustoming it to withdraw from all contact with the body and concentrate itself by itself, and to have its dwelling, so far as it can, both now and in the future, alone by itself, freed from the shackles of the body.  Phaedo 67c-d

 

[9] Nothing less, Plato asserted, was the business of philosophy. That is why, for the true philosopher, death is not to be dreaded; death is no more than a culmination of the practice of philosophy, which is the discrimination between the true self (the psyche) and its prison (the body). Again Plato puts his words into the mouth of Socrates: "Those who rightly practice philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death."  (Phaedo 64a)

 

[10] For those who did not rightly practice philosophy in life, the penalty was─ reincarnation. Plato held that to be born into nature is a failure; he saw rebirth as the consequence of being insufficiently diligent in the discrimination of the self from the body, a discrimination that is the essence of the practice of philosophy. In addition, he asserted that individual faults would find expression in the conditions of future rebirth:

 . . .if at the time of its release the soul is tainted and impure, because it has always associated with the body and cared for it and loved it, and has been so beguiled by the body and its passions and pleasures that nothing seems real to it but those physical things which can be touched and seen and eaten and drunk and used for sexual enjoyment, and if it is accustomed to hate and fear and avoids what is invisible and hidden from our eyes but is intelligible and comprehensible by philosophy─ if the soul is in this state, do you think it will escape independent and uncontaminated? . . .those who have cultivated gluttony of selfishness or drunkenness, instead of taking pains to avoid them, are likely to assume [when reincarnated] the form of donkeys and other perverse animals.  Phaedo 81b-e 

[11]

But donkeys and other perverse animals are not our concern here. The undisciplined and unphilosophical were also reborn as humans, and their human incarnations stood as evidence of past performance. The most complete account of how this occurs is, typical of Plato, presented in another myth─ this time the myth of Er, which is found in the Book X of the Republic. The myth tells of a warrior named Er, who was killed on the battlefield. Twelve days after the battle, as he was laid on a funeral pyre, Er suddenly revived and offered an account of what happens after death.  According to Er, the souls of the dead were assembled and told:

"Souls that live for a day, now is the beginning of another cycle of mortal generation where birth is the beacon of death. No divinity shall cast lots for you, but you shall choose your own deity. Let him to whom falls the first lot first select a life to which he shall cleave of necessity. But virtue has no master over her, and each shall have more or less of her as he honors her or does her despite. The blame is his who chooses. God is blameless.” So saying, the prophet flung the lots out among them all, and each took up the lot that fell by his side. . . And whoever took up a lot saw plainly what number he had drawn.   Republic X, 617e - 618a

 

[12] The gathered souls of the dead had lots assigned to them─ thrown to them. These lots determined the order of choosing new lives: number 1 would go first, number 2 second, and so on. And the story proceeds:

And after this again the prophet placed the patterns of lives before them on the ground, far more numerous than the assembly. They were of every variety, for there were lives of all kinds of animals and all sorts of human lives, for there were tyrannies among them, some uninterrupted till the end and others destroyed midway and issuing in penuries and exiles and beggaries, and there were lives of men of repute for their forms and beauty and bodily strength otherwise and prowess and the high birth and the virtues of their ancestors, and others of ill repute in the same things, and similarly of women.  Republic X, 618b 

 

 

[13] Now “patterns of lives”─ that is, specific lives that could be chosen─ were set before the assembled souls. Note that there were more lives to be chosen than there were souls choosing, so the order of choice set by the first casting of lots was not of decisive importance.  Indeed, it is announced to the souls that:

Even for him who comes forward last, if he make his choice wisely and live strenuously, there is reserved an acceptable life, no evil one. Let not the foremost in the choice be heedless nor the last be discouraged.  Republic X, 619b

 

[14] Plenty of lives to choose from. But now comes the dangerous part. As the scenario unfolds, we find that each soul chooses an incarnation on the basis of the habits developed in previous lives. Unreflective and impulsive habits of life were a particular liability. And the fate of the soul to which lot number 1 had fallen, the soul that got to choose first, was a cautionary tale. For that undisciplined soul grabbed a life that, at first sight, seemed desirableC the life of a king. But he grabbed rashly, before reading the fine print, as it were. And this unhappy soul learned too late that the king=s life it had chosen was that of King Thyestes:

When the prophet had thus spoken he said that the drawer of the first lot at once sprang to seize the greatest tyranny, and that in his folly and greed he chose it without sufficient examination, and failed to observe that it involved the fate of eating his own children, and other horrors, and that when he inspected it at leisure he beat his breast and bewailed his choice, not abiding by the forewarning of the prophet. For he did not blame himself for his woes, but fortune and the gods and anything except himself.  Republic X, 619c 

 

 

[15] On realizing the bad news, the intemperate soul behaved in characteristic fashion: it blamed fortune, it blamed the gods, it rashly ascribed blame everywhere except where it actually belonged─ to itself. As is typical in social theories rooted in a belief in karma and reincarnation, Plato holds the individual to be entirely responsible for her or his own predicament. But now the drama of the myth moves from general dispositions to more specific qualities of character. The more reflective souls choose their lives with care, but their choices still express their previous experiences.  Plato has Er say:

. . . he said that it was a sight worth seeing to observe how the several souls selected their lives. He said it was a strange, pitiful, and ridiculous spectacle, as the choice was determined for the most part by the habits of their former lives. He saw the soul that had been Orpheus', he said, selecting the life of a swan, because from hatred of the tribe of women, owing to his death at their hands, it was unwilling to be conceived and born of a woman. . . The soul that drew the twentieth lot chose the life of a lion; it was the soul of Ajax, the son of Telamon, which, because it remembered the adjudication of the arms of Achilles, was unwilling to become a man. The next, the soul of Agamemnon, likewise from hatred of the human race because of its sufferings, substituted the life of an eagle. . . he saw the soul of Epeus, the son of Panopeus, entering into the nature of an arts and crafts woman. Far off in the rear he saw the soul of the buffoon Thersites clothing itself in the body of an ape.  Republic X, 619e - 620c

 

[16] The incarnations chosen by the famous souls reflect the various proclivities for which they were renowned. There is, we are given to understand, a rightness to the process. And the process is not over yet; there is a final test for each soul, a test that again exposes the strengths and weaknesses of previous lives. After specific lives are chosen and locked in, as it were, the souls were again gathered together. Now began an ordeal:

. . .they all journeyed to the Plain of Oblivion, through a stifling heat, without trees or any plants, and there they camped at eventide by the River of Forgetfulness, whose waters no vessel can contain. They were all required to drink a measure of the water, and those who were not saved by their good sense drank more than the measure, and each one as he drank forgot all things. After they had fallen asleep and it was the middle of the night, there was a sound of thunder and a quaking of the earth, and they were suddenly wafted thence, one this way, one that, upward to their birth like shooting stars.   Republic X, 621a-b

 

[17] And that’s how we all got here. And in fact, we didn’t do too badly─ we, that is, who earned incarnation as humans instead of animal incarnations like Ajax, Agamemnon, and Thersites. And between lives, between incarnations, we all got to apprehend reality directly: as we saw earlier, in the passage from Meno 81c, the individual soul “has seen all things both here and in the other world, has learned everything that is.” This is very valuable knowledge because, as we’ll soon see, it is what determines a human's station in life. But to return to the story, an ordeal is underway─ an ordeal that is the final test before incarnation. The Plain of Oblivion is hot, very hot.  And the souls are tormented by a terrible thirst. (Never mind that is the body that gets thirsty─ let’s walk with Plato’s myth.) There is a river, the River Lethe, the River of Lethe. The souls walk with their precious cargo of knowledge. When then reach the banks of the River of Forgetfulness, they are told that they all must drink a measure from the river. If in previous lives an individual soul developed the habit of controlling bodily appetites, it will take the smallest of sips, and depart with much of its hard-won wisdom intact. Those capable of such self-control are rare, in Plato’s view. For the great majority of us at the banks of the River of Lethe: gub, gub, gub. . . And here we are.  

 

[18] Plato’s reincarnation myth, the Myth of Er, provides an explanation for the varying circumstances in which humans find themselves. How did we come to find ourselves imprisoned at the bottom of a cave? Simply stated, through ignorance and indiscipline. It is because we failed to sufficiently perfect ourselves in the discipline of philosophy that we find ourselves abjectly identified with our body and its appetites, utterly committed to the delusion that our highest hope is to feel good.

 

[19] We are not equally situated in that cave, and for Plato there are good reasons for that. A person’s station in the cave is determined through the capacity to grasp wisdom. Wisdom, as we’ve seen in the passages from the Meno, cannot be gained through the sense experience that acquaints us with no more than the flickering shadows cast onto a cave wall.  Wisdom is gained through the capacity to turn inward─ through the capacity to recollect what had been seen between lives. The learning that matters for Plato is not the acquisition of facts in the world, but through the access of what lies latent (and forgotten) within the psyche.

 

[20] The rightness of the differences in social station among people is taken to be a direct result choices made by individual psyches in their between lives pilgrimages. Discrimination and judgment are needed in the choice of a life; self-control is needed at the banks of the River Lethe. And since the gains of a wise choice of life can be negated through an intemperate gulping down of the waters of the River of Forgetfulness, it is clear the self-control is even more important than discrimination. We can say, then, that social station is determined by the capacity to rule and govern, most particularly, on the capacity to rule and govern oneself. To cite again the claim made by Plato as to the basis of a well-ordered society─ either philosophers must become kings or kings must become philosophers. And the philosopher-kings in this ideal society will tell the citizens the following story about their social stations:

While all of you in the city are brothers. . .yet God in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are the most precious─ but in the helpers silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen. And as you are all akin, though for the most part you will breed after your kinds, it may sometimes happen that a golden father would beget a silver son and that a golden offspring would come from a silver sire and that the rest would in like manner be born of one another. So that the first and chief injunction that the god lays upon the rulers is that of nothing else are they to be such careful guardians and so intently observant as of the intermixture of these metals in the souls of their offspring, and if sons are born to them with an infusion of brass or iron they shall by no means give way to pity in their treatment of them, but shall assign to each the status due to his nature and thrust them out among the artisans or the farmers. And again, if from these there are born sons with unexpected gold or silver in their composition they shall honor such and bid them go up higher, some to the office of guardian, some to the assistantship, alleging that there is an oracle that the state shall then be overthrown when the man of iron or brass is its guardian. 

Republic 415a-c

 

[21] The people of the society envisioned by Plato will be of a common general stock, but through admixture of this common stock with four different kinds of metals─ so the tale goes─ there will be four distinct social groups. The rulers are those with gold mixed in; their helpers (typically called Auxiliaries, a military/police class) are those with silver mixed in. Those with admixtures of baser metals, brass and iron, really are a single group in Plato’s scheme─ they are those who make things work. Before going further, it is important to note a peculiar feature of this tale, as Plato presents it. It is, he says just before he introduces it, a “noble lie.”

How, then, said I, might we contrive one of those opportune falsehoods of which were just now speaking, so as by one noble lie to persuade if possible the rulers themselves, but failing that the rest of the city?  Republic 414b-c

 

[22] Why a lie, however “noble”? Did Plato simply invoke the idea of social groups as a political ruse? One might understandably suspect so. But in fact his motives are not so sinister. The noble lie about social groups was needed as a device for persuading people of the urgent need for meritocracy, for leadership by the most able. And this attempt to persuade would be addressed for the most part to people whose memory had been dulled by the waters of Lethe before they were born─ people who lacked the philosophical acumen required to understand their predicament, people who know only what they want and nothing of what they need. Thus the tale incorporates a dire prophecy that warns of the demise of the state should any of Brass or Iron constitution come to rule: a regular testing and sorting-out of children was necessary. Such regular testing is necessary because in general like breeds like─ but not always. Sometimes a Brass or Iron child was born to rulers; sometimes a Gold or Silver child to workers. Vigilance is necessary. Membership in a social group is not strictly determined by birth, but by individual ability, ability that can be ascertained through testing. Sentimentality had no role here: the survival of the state was at stake. So the tale was told.

 

[23] It is important to note that the social groups spoken of by Plato are not castes, at least not as found in modern India. This point is made forcibly by Plato scholar A. E. Taylor:

. . .we must be clear, in the first place, on the point that there is no system of “caste” in the Republic. The characteristic of “caste” is that one is born into it, and that once born into a caste it is impossible to rise above it. You may forfeit your caste in various ways, as a Brahmin does by crossing the seas, but no one can become a Brahmin if he is not born one.

 

[24] Taylor’s point that Plato’s social groups are not castes is accurate: in India, an infant born an Untouchable, a Chandala, can never “test out” of that abject circumstance. And this point must be supplemented with another insight: neither are these groups economic classes, as classes are conceived in contemporary America. In Plato’s ideal republic, the Rulers and their Auxiliaries (those mixed with gold and silver) are mandated to live a Spartan existence which, from the standpoint of 21st century American aspirations, would be profoundly repugnant and would simply not make sense in terms of a class analysis. Here’s how he puts it:

In the first place, none [of the two higher groups] must possess any private property save the indispensable. Secondly, none must have any habitation or treasure house which is not open for all to enter at will.  Their food, in such quantities as are needful for athletes of war sober and brave, they must receive as an agreed stipend from the other citizens as the wages of their guardianship, so measured that there shall be neither superfluity at the end of the year nor any lack. And resorting to a common mess like soldiers on campaign they will live together. Gold and silver, we will tell them, they have of the divine quality from the gods always in their souls, and they have no need of the metal of men. . . .for these only of all the dwellers in the city it is not lawful to handle gold and silver and to touch them nor yet to come under the same roof with them, nor to hang them as ornaments on their limbs nor to drink from silver and gold.  Republic  416d - 417a

 

[25] Hardly la dolce vita. This austere regimen for the Rulers and Auxiliaries was deemed necessary by Plato, for should the Gold and Silver groups become wealthy and acquisitive, they would become corrupt and incapable of ruling through wisdom. Wealth has its place, but only among the Brass and Iron groups. It is not individual wealth, but the political influence of wealth in society─ the emergence of a plutocracy─ that Plato deplored. There is, to the modern mind, an interesting twist here. To quote Taylor again:

. . .the whole “capital” of the State is in the hands of the demiourgoi [the people of Brass and Iron]. A “merchant prince,” under such a classification, is just as much one of the “industrials” as his clerks and office-boys.[ii] 

 

 [26] And in fact, from the standpoint of contemporary assessments, the situation is even more─ shall we say─ peculiar. But first, a brighter moment. Plato was one of the earliest thinkers in the Western tradition to demand that women be treated equally in all ways to men. That meant that women were to be included among both the Rulers and the Auxiliaries. By extension, that also meant that the person of Gold who was the ruling philosopher might be the philosopher-queen as well as the philosopher-king. But whether queen or king, these Gold folk did not have lives of their own.  Of the women of Gold stock, we read─

That these women shall all be common to all these men, and that none shall cohabit with any privately, and that the children shall be common, and that no parent shall know its own offspring nor any child its parent.  Republic 457d

 

 [27] But this commonality of sexual access does not have a swinging Dionysian dimension to it. Quite the contrary. Romance and passion are firmly set aside in favor of reason and utility. The plan, as Plato spells it out, is twofold: on the one hand it is designed to keep the Rulers’ loyalties and concern for the state undistracted by the favoritism that family life inevitably generates, on the other hand the plan is designed to facilitate the production of more and better Gold people. My interest here centers on the latter concern, the concern to produce more and better Gold people. The plan to implement this concern is an enterprise known today (with no small notoriety) as eugenics. The hope is to “improve the breed” of humanity by enhancing, through selective breeding, both the quantity and the quality of the most promising among us. It is worth noting that the core of Plato’s argument, as presented in the following passage from the Republic, was extremely attractive in Europe and America a hundred years ago. But for now, here’s Plato:

Tell me this, Glaucon. I see that you have in your house hunting dogs and a number of pedigreed cocks. Have you ever considered something about their unions and procreations? [What? he said.]

In the first place, I said, among these themselves, a select breed, do not some prove better than the rest? [They do.]

Do you then breed from all indiscriminately, or are you careful to breed from the best? [From the best.]

And. again, do you breed from the youngest or the oldest, or, so far as may be, from those in their prime? [From those in their prime.] And if they are not thus bred, you expect, do you not, that your birds' breed and hounds will degenerate? [I do, he said.]

And what of horses and other animals? Is it otherwise with them? [It would be strange if it were.] . . .How imperative, then, is our need of the highest skill in our rulers, if the principle holds also for mankind. . . It follows from our former admissions, I said, that the best men must cohabit with the best women in as many cases as possible and the worst with the worst in the fewest, and that the offspring of the one must be reared and that of the other not, if the flock is to be as perfect as possible. And the way in which all this is brought to pass must be unknown to any but the rulers, if, again, the herd of guardians is to be as free as possible from dissension.  Republic 459a-e

 

[28] The guardians, the Rulers, those of Gold admixture, are to be treated no differently than animal breeders treat their livestock. The goal, again, is to enhance both the quantity and the quality of the highest group in the state─ the Gold people from which the philosopher-queens and philosopher-kings may emerge. And we are not yet finished with “noble lies.” The Rulers are superior by virtue of their bravery and philosophical acumen, yes─ but even among them there are degrees of excellence. And to even further enhance good breeding among them, Plato proposes that the following ruse be foisted on the younger, breeding age Rulers:

Certain ingenious lots, then, I suppose, must be devised so that the inferior man at each conjugation may blame chance and not the rulers. . .  And on the young men, surely, who excel in war and other put, suits we must bestow honors and prizes, and, in particular, the opportunity of more frequent intercourse with the women, which will at the same time be a plausible pretext for having them beget as many of the children as possible.  Republic 460a 

 

[29] Time, now, to take stock of where we are. Plato is committed to the attainment of wisdom. That attainment is best facilitated in a well-ordered state, and such a state can be brought about only by the rule of philosophers. Philosopher-kings or queens are born to be such; their birth is in fact a rebirth, a reincarnation, that reflects the qualities accrued in previous lives─ as we’ve seen in the Myth of Er. Politics and religion are not separate enterprises for Plato; politics for him is ultimately a religious enterprise, an enterprise based on the practice of philosophy. And for that enterprise to succeed, it is imperative that the state be ruled by philosophers, by those possessed not of opinion, but of true knowledge. Meritocracy, rule by those of merit, is indispensable. Plato’s eugenic proposals, his insistence that Rulers were to have no traffic in wealth, his noble lies─ all these are in the service of one thing, meritocracy. The lie of social groups, metaphorically identified with various metals, is intended to strike fear into the populace should any of the inferior types, the Brass or Iron, presume to rule the state. The lie of a fair lottery of mating among young Rulers─ a lottery which is in fact carefully rigged─ is designed to ever improve the quality of the stock among Rulers. Again, meritocracy and eugenics will be served, and enhanced.

 

[30] We conclude our discussion of Plato with the following question: could the political recommendations of Plato, as he conceived them, have become successfully implemented in Western culture? Grounded as they were in the doctrine of reincarnation─ their strident commitment to meritocracy and eugenics intact─ could those recommendations have found robust social expression? 

 

[31] We must remember who Plato was, what Plato was: he was the preeminent philosopher─ of his own time and, if we are to take Whitehead’s assessment seriously, of all subsequent Western philosophy. But a philosopher is first and foremost a theoretician, and that is something we need to bear in mind. Theoreticians think in terms of ideals; experiment for them tends to be thought experiment. Plato’s disposition in this regard is evident not only in his proposals to ensure a meritocracy in his ideal republic; it is also nicely exemplified in his proposals about the appropriate way to approach the study of astronomy:

It is by means of problems [theoretical models]. . .as in the study of geometry, that we will pursue astronomy too, and we will let be [ignore] the things in the heavens, if we are to have a part in the true science of astronomy. . . .    Republic VII, 530c

 

 [32] As Plato proposes studying astronomy through rational theoretical models─ like geometry─ instead of direct observation, so his political ideals reflect a privileging of rational models over firsthand experience of flesh-and-blood humans. To a philosopher who dismissed the realm of sense experience as a “cave,” who defined the human self through a rejection of the body in favor of a rational psyche, this might be deemed consistent. But just as such astronomy could never have produced the sophisticated cosmologies of the present, so his eminently rational aspirations for a meritocracy grounded in reincarnation theory could never have borne fruit.  Had Plato’s theories been given the chance to become embodied in the sweaty realities of history, it is all but impossible that his blueprint for grouping people according to their capacity for wisdom─ which to say, according to their histories in previous lives─ would have lasted more than a generation after his death. And there is a simple reason for this.

 

[33] Plato seems to have actually believed that people, and in particular those gifted people of high intelligence and philosophical acumen, could be persuaded or intimidated, snookered or hoodwinked, into a blithe concession in regard to some of the most compelling evolutionary imperatives within the human psyche. I don’t refer here to an imperative (if such it is) to choose one’s mate and to maintain with that mate a sexually exclusive relationship. I speak now of something even more primordial: the drive to know and cherish and provide advantages to one’s offspring. Certainly there are individual exceptions, but this drive is generally endemic to the human psyche; its pervasiveness is rooted not in culture but in nature, in an evolutionary imperative designed to secure the future existence not of intellectuals, but of the human species. Plato, the archetypal philosopher, brought himself to think in terms of pat solutions to the knotty issues surrounding the social implications of reincarnation theory. He came to believe that the primal mainsprings of human nature are susceptible to the eminently reasonable solutions that he proposes in the Republic. Only a professor could think this way. And that is why Mark Lilla, in a perceptive book titled The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, says:

One practical lesson that is often drawn from the Republic is that when philosophers try to become kings either their philosophy is corrupted, politics is corrupted, or both are. Therefore the only sensible thing is to separate them, leaving philosophers to cultivate their gardens with all the passion they have, but keeping them quarantined there so they can cause no harm.[iii]

 

 [34] Nor is this assessment of the dangers of philosophers in politics a recent one.  At the dawn of Modernism, the controversial political advisor Nicolo Machiavelli clearly had Plato in mind when he wrote:

A great many men have imagined states and princedoms such as nobody ever saw or knew in the real world, for there’s such a difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn how to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation.[iv]

 

[35] Certainly the evolutionary imperative to know and nurture and privilege one’s own offspring operates in the deep psyche of intellectuals, too. But not in all of them. Not, apparently, in the case of Plato. Consider, for example, his discussion of progeny in the Symposium. A youthful Socrates is depicted as receiving his relating his spiritual education at the hands of a wise woman named Diotima. She speaks to the young Socrates first of those who seek progeny in biological terms─ through children. This, of course, is exactly what is to be strictly controlled in the ideal state described in the Republic. This is for Plato clearly an inferior mode of progeny, and he has Diotima speak dismissively of─

. . . those whose procreancy is of the body turn to woman as the object of their love, and raise a family, in the blessed hope that by doing so they will keep their memory green, “through time and through eternity."  Symposium 208e

 

[36] We are told in the sentence immediately following of another form of progeny: “But those whose procreancy is of the spirit rather than of the flesh─ and they are not unknown, Socrates─ conceive and bear the things of the spirit.”  Plato elaborates on this theme, claiming that the friendship resulting from the pursuit of philosophy will produce a far nobler offspring than mere family-making.  Speaking of this philosophical issue, or progeny, he says:

And what is more, he and his friend will help each other rear the issue of their friendship─ and so the bond between them will be more binding, and their communion even more complete, than that which comes of bringing children up, because they have created something lovelier and less mortal than human seed.  Symposium 209c

 

 [37] Diotima is right, I think, when she tells her young student of such offspring and enjoins him “and they are not unknown, Socrates.” Certainly not unknown, but exceptionally rare. And had Plato’s highly theoretical combination of politics and reincarnation doctrine survived, we can be certain that they would yielded not the meritocracy he envisioned, but a caste system such as emerged in India. 

 

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[i].  Taylor, A. E. Plato: the Man and His Work.  New York: Meridian Books, 1964, p.275.

[ii].  Taylor, op. cit., p.276.

[iii].  Lilla, M. The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics.  New York: New York Review Book, 2001, p.44.

[iv].  Machiavelli, N. The Prince, ch.xv, in Adams, R. M., editor and translator.  The Prince: a new translation.  New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1977, p.44.