JLC 100 Georgetown University Plato Argument of A Government Discussion

JLC 100 Georgetown University Plato Argument of A Government Discussion

JLC 100 Georgetown University Plato Argument of A Government Discussion

Department of the Classics, Harvard University Plato’s Politics and the American Constitution Author(s): Eric Havelock Source: Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 93 (1990), pp. 1-24 Published by: Department of the Classics, Harvard University Stable URL: Accessed: 29-03-2020 10:42 UTC JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at Department of the Classics, Harvard University is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Harvard Studies in Classical Philology This content downloaded from on Sun, 29 Mar 2020 10:42:02 UTC All use subject to PLATO’S POLITICS AND THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION1 ERIC HAVELOCK T HE thesis I propose to you this afternoon is one that I hav reached only reluctantly and over a long period of time.

As an English schoolboy and Cambridge undergraduate specializing in th classics, I imbibed a belief-or more properly an assumption-that Plato and Platonism were something like a beacon of light shed upon the human condition and the human dilemma. Here was an expression of the classic ideal, unmatched in force of argument and clarity o comprehension. I have now reached the conclusion that this belief was, and is, wrong. Platonism may be all very well as an inspirational or intellectual force in art, metaphysics or logic, and perhaps, though doubtfully in ethics. But as applied to the management of public affairs and the role of the citizen, its influence has been wholly negative. If the case for its application in ethics is doubtful, in politics it has been disastrous. Thi is a conclusion gradually enforced upon me not by any process of theoretic reasoning, but by contemplating the causes, course and conse- quences of the two world wars of our century.

The accident of m birth date prevented me from being drafted for combat in either of them. Membership in the home front has given me opportunity for retrospective reflection. I was already finishing the first draft of my argument when there suddenly appeared in the public domain, within a month of each other, three articles by three different authors with independent objectives 1 Although in failing health Eric Havelock was concerned to give this lecture a Harvard, and did so, with sudden energy and brilliance, on March 16, 1988. He died o April 4, 1988. This content downloaded from on Sun, 29 Mar 2020 10:42:02 UTC All use subject to 2 Eric Havelock each of which, however, se read as an anticipation of m the text of a lecture by Isa 1988) 11-18. Its title reads: “On the Pursuit of the Ideal.” This sounds like an exhortation, but the reader soon discovers that Berlin’s theme is not confidence but doubt, not affirmation but warningspecifically, a warning against Platonism. Reviewing the variety of moral solutions to human problems offered by writers and thinkers from antiquity to the present, Berlin observes (11-12): What was common to all these outlooks was the belief that solu- tions to the central problems existed, that one could discover them…. Societies could be transformed in the light of true ideals….

At some point I realised that what all those views had in common was a Platonic ideal…. Later he speaks of “the theoretical objection, a fatal one, it seems to me, to the notion of the perfect state as the proper goal of our endeavours (16)…. We must engage in what are called trade offs rules, values, principles must yield to each other in varying degrees.” (18) This is an anti-Platonic lesson, and the same sense of it comes through, in two papers appearing in the immediately preceding issue of the same periodical, which I will notice as the argument proceeds. As the nations gather themselves together for conference rather than collision in the last decade of this disturbed century, can it be that a rejection of Plato and Platonism, in all matters pertaining to action political and military, is an idea whose time is arriving, whose time indeed has come? Plato’s Politics and the American Constitution As some in my audience will be aware, one of the publishing events of 1987, in the area of non-fiction, was the appearance of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.2 A generation earlier in 2 Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York 1987).

This content downloaded from on Sun, 29 Mar 2020 10:42:02 UTC All use subject to Plato’s Politics and American Constitution 3 1944, Karl Popper had finished the first edition of a work whic the title The Open Society and Its Enemies.3 If I group these tw together, it is not to compare anything they share in common other, but to expose and examine a collision between them. Ea in effect is written as a report on, and response to, the politica phy of Plato’s Republic. No two responses could be more d Bloom writes (381): Throughout this book I have referred to Plato’s Republic, for me the book on education, because it really explain what I experience as a man and a teacher, and again (266): The regime of philosopher-kings is usually ridiculed and r as totalitarian, but it contains much of what we really wa one thinks a man like Socrates should be ruled by inferiors to adjust what he thinks to them. Popper had written otherwise (87): I believe that Plato’s political programme, far from being superior to totalitarianism, is fundamentally identical wit believe that objections against this view are based upon an and deep rooted prejudice in favour of idealizing Plato. and again (vii): [This book] springs … from my conviction that, if our tion is to survive, we must break with the habit of deferen great men. Great men may make great mistakes…. Their influence, too rarely challenged, continues to mislead those on whose defence civilization depends, and to divide them. Here, surely is a stark warning against any educational program based on an uncritical worship of the so-called Great Books of the past. For Popper, a need to reinterpret Plato becomes part of a larger 3 K[arl] R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (London 1966).

This content downloaded from on Sun, 29 Mar 2020 10:42:02 UTC All use subject to 4 Eric Havelock enterprise-no less than th years after they were writt the findings of Platonic sch not as though they belonged Bloom would agree (381): The real community seek the truth…. of But m in friends…. These “true friends” in fact seem destined to be cast in the role of Bloom himself and his fellow Straussians, as they have been called, the pupils of Leo Strauss, the philosopher of Chicago. In fact, in the contrast between Popper and Bloom lies a paradox. Both profess to be manning battlements against an enemy. Fifty years ago, the enemy was perceived as a political tyranny exercised by a minority over a majority; in 1988 it is perceived as a cultural tyranny exercised by a majority over a minority. Casting one’s mind back to the day when Popper wrote what was his first major work, one can perceive a sudden illumination, a candor of perception, forced upon the European mind by the stress of the hour, a perception formed at the expense of a classical author long revered.

To be sure, Popper wrote from the security of a college in New Zealand. But he had become by that time a refugee from his native Austria, escaping the long shadow of National Socialism, and he wrote at a time when the Nazis had conquered and occupied all of Europe except Bri- tain, Sweden and the Iberian peninsula. Bloom’s meditations, like those of his mentor, Leo Strauss, were written from the security of the American heartland, at peace with itself and the rest of the world. If the judgments passed by these two scholars of Plato upon the effects of Platonic teaching are so diverse and indeed irreconcilable, may this reflect a gulf between two historical experiences, in one of which the watchword was danger, in the other a comfortable assurance, one that we feel we all now share? If so, which of them corresponds to the present reality of our times? Is the respected tradition of the elders, as represented in Platonism, a sure guide to what we should think now? Or do we have to turn away from Platonism in order to survive? As it happens, two other recent publications have made the subject of Plato’s politics a topic of current interest. I. F. Stone’s book, The This content downloaded from on Sun, 29 Mar 2020 10:42:02 UTC All use subject to Plato’s Politics and American Constitution 5 Trial of Socrates, looks for an explanation of condemnati Athenian jury to the elitist and anti-democratic opinions Socrates’ mouth by his pupil.4 Attention is diverted from Pla tics to what are supposed to have been Socratic politics, s which can never be settled with certainty. The two, however popular scholarship sufficiently identified with each other to reviewer’s retort to Stone to the effect that “philosophers still dents whose view of Plato comes from Karl Popper’s book, Th Society and Its Enemies, 20 years after classicists and phi stopped taking it seriously.”5 This kind of comment is too partisan to be helpful. It does ever, reflect that kind of hostility towards any revisionism car Plato’s expense, which had already, thirty years earlier, been Strauss himself, in a fifty-page review of my own Liberal Te Greek Politics.6 My offense in that work had been to argue th politics, so far from representing a uniquely classical m designed to compete with and, if possible, to overthrow a Greek model of a very different and much more liberal variety More pertinent than such polemics has been an extensive ar Gordon S. Wood in the NYRB of February 18, 1988, reviewing of no less than ten recent books written by a group of schola Wood identifies as the “Straussians.”7 Their common top American constitution, suitably so, at its 200th anniversa shared view of it as understood by Wood could be labelled constructionist-the kind of interpretation favored by Judge B confirmation testimony before the Senate. Wood perceives tional basis for such conservatism in the attitude of fervent d felt by his pupils toward Leo Strauss as their master and Strauss himself Wood detects the intellectual groundwork for cal conservatism to be laid in an acceptance of Plato’s tex Republic in particular-as a form of received word, almost text, handed down from the fathers: a classical equivale tempted to say, for Holy Writ. 4 Boston 1988. 5 Julia Annas, New York Times Book Review (February 7, 1988) 7. 6 New Haven 1957; Leo Strauss, “The Liberalism of Classical Political Phi The Review of Metaphysics 12 (1959) 390-439. 7 Gordon S. Wood, “The Fundamentalists and the Constitution,” NYRB 35 18, 1988) 33-40. This content downloaded from on Sun, 29 Mar 2020 10:42:02 UTC All use subject to 6 Eric Havelock It can be fairly said, I think, both conduct a management o commentators, to derive fr surface-an undercurrent of reading on Straussian lines back tiny ourselves to Plato’s text. thrown down by the Str political things that Plato actu and idiom of the Greek langu One is first required to resta Platonic political constitutio structure as revealed by Plato The revelation occurs in the f it occurs almost by indirection ment which on the surface is a moral one intended to define what are really personal virtues, but Plato does so by first looking at them as they are writ large (so he supposes) in the community. The culminat- ing virtue-the fourth in his list-is justice. Describing how it operates as the supreme political virtue, Plato slips in, as it were, a description of the political requirements which render his brand of justice viable: No great civic harm would be done by a general interchange of jobs, the carpenter and the cobbler for instance exchanging tools and social status…. But suppose a man designed by nature to be an artisan or tradesman should get above himself because of possessing some wealth or a command of votes or bodily strength, and so undertake to enter the military class; or suppose a member of the military class should try to enter the senatorial and guardian class while lacking the qualifications; such persons meanwhile interchanging tools and status; or even suppose a single individual undertook to combine all these activities in himself. Interchange and plurality of functions on this scale could only mean political disaster … there being three existing natural orders (gene), plurality of functions and shifting between the orders can only mean maximum damage to the polity, amounting to extreme wickedness. (Resp. 434a3-c2) These words expose the bare bones of Plato’s polity-the essential This content downloaded from on Sun, 29 Mar 2020 10:42:02 UTC All use subject to Plato’s Politics and American Constitution 7 skeleton on which is hung all the flesh and blood details tional program. The only viable state is a rigidly defined not a single class state, as in Marxist theory, but one of There is the majority possessing no political power what military oligarchy possessing the power of physical cont their weapons; there is a final authority which enjoys ab tive and judicial powers, the membership of which is dr military. These are those who as described later in the t handed over to an educational system which after selecti them for their job. The job of the military in turn is to plete control over the masses who, though a majority, ar from the beginning as hopelessly inferior, incapable of superior types and not designed to possess any politi powers of any sort whatever. They are not the kind should ever have them. The military, however, do posses ingredients which entitle them to ultimate power on qualified. This ultimate power, it should be remembered by men who have intellectual qualifications but all of who careers in the military. The design is unmistakably a blue we would now designate a totalitarian state. Plato’s politi tarian not as a matter of philosophical convenience or opp out of conviction. The scheme is far removed in spirit and substance from the kind of democracy in which Plato at the time was living and writing. The distance of what he says from current political reality has encouraged the view that what he proposes is intended to be purely theoretic or even imaginative. This is not true. He is looking at a prototype provided by the oligarchic revolution in Athens of 411 B.C., a matter to which I shall return later in this paper. Plato introduces his blueprint gradually. The governing class itself having been subdivided into a military majority and what we might call a political minority, the precise character of the latter body, and what kind of people they are, is deferred to the second half of the treatise where we discover that they are to be what Plato identifies as philoso- phoi, usually, if misleadingly, translated as philosophers. These are styled archontes, or “rulers,” the title commonly employed for magistrates in Greek states, but they also carry the title king (or prince), a deliberate anachronism which by associating them with a Homeric title (basileus) now surviving in Greek states for ceremonial purposes seeks This content downloaded from on Sun, 29 Mar 2020 10:42:02 UTC All use subject to 8 Eric Havelock to invest them with the adv tional past. But as their cha they become a wholly Platon himself and his pupils, ess trained to supply proper pri to apply for their services. While the verb “philosop Platonic, the discipline na “philosopher” who practice appear to have gained curren inference that he used them lum and being its graduates offered by which rival pe labored effort (Resp. 485a-4 philosophos implies. The pre ment to a sophia, the conten cal and dialectical, translate lectual the that whole rather than word a is, ph philo Plato’s totalitarian political both legislative and judicial o intellectuals. A proposition such as this one is of a kind which has a flavor at once radical and revolutionary, and yet rather preposterous: it reads like a challenge formulated by an admitted genius to the conventions of contemporary society, demanding that this genius, along with a small elite of his fellows, be given absolute political power over a vast uncultivated majority. Defending the proposition, Plato betrays a strain of anxiety, even bitterness, expressed in many pages of the treatise, which need not surprise us considering the claims the author is putting forward essentially for himself and his academic circle. He is defying the ethos, the common sense, of the natural man. One notes his wayward, not to say elaborate attempt to justify the personality of his “philosopher,” not only as a philosopher, but as the only type of person who, besides possessing true knowledge, is familiar with the whole gamut of ordinary human experience with all the normal pleasures and so is able to judge which is the best pleasure of all. Take experience: which of our three men has the fullest acquaintance with all the pleasures…. All the advantage lies This content downloaded from on Sun, 29 Mar 2020 10:42:02 UTC All use subject to Plato’s Politics and American Constitution 9 with the philosopher who cannot help experiencing both t kinds of pleasure from childhood up…. How does he c with the ambitious man, is he less well acquainted with th ures of honor than the other is with the pleasures of wisdo honor comes to them all. The rich man is esteemed by ma ple, so are the brave man and the wise man. So the ple being honored is familiar to them all. Only the philosophe them can know how sweet it is also to contemplate the tr far as experience goes, he is the best judge of the thre 58 1c-e) This is the academic consolation prize which Plato would co for himself and for his pupils. In the immediately preceding he has bitterly protested that the philosopher, in his sense of never enjoys the honors he should receive. He is treated as a Yet a proposal that philosophers be given supreme political cannot avoid having a secret and seductive attraction for coll ers and professors, most of all professors of philosophy. We k not possible, but we feel it might be or ought to be. It is we w deserve political power even though we are customarily shunt We have to be content with power over our classroom, our st This is surely one source of that spell, noted by Karl Popp Plato can still cast over contemporary leaders of a western especially teachers of what we call the humanities, a spe Bloom himself seems ready to acknowledge (266): The regime of philosopher-kings is usually ridicule regarded as totalitarian, but it contains much of what we want. Having put forward a totalitarian political program envisaging a rigidly structured class state presided over by an intellectual elite, the treatise diverges into an exposition of the curriculum designed to produce the type of human being and brain that is required (B…
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