Victor Nuovo: Plato, justice and perfecting the soul
Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of essays or reflections about “The Republic,” a book written two and a half millennia ago by the great philosopher Plato.
Several years ago, I published in this newspaper a series of essays on Plato. I had been reading Plato’s Laws and was persuaded by his argument that the purpose of the rule of law is to establish civil peace, and that the only durable peace is one based neither on conquest, nor on coercion and fear, but on rational persuasion, friendliness, and reconciliation. To be effective, the rule of law had to become seated in the human soul. These topics seemed to me to be timely and worth publicizing. To my surprise and delight, the essays were well received. So I suggested to Angelo Lynn that I would like to follow them up with a series of essays on Plato’s Republic, and he, with his usual kindness and generosity, encouraged me to write them.
The theme of The Republic is justice, which is always timely. Like the Laws it explores the nature of civil government, and, more deeply than the former work, it considers how justice perfects the human soul. Therefore, it may be of greater interest. Of course, The Republic is a great classic, the flagship of Plato’s fleet of philosophical dialogues, it displays his consummate artistry and offers the most complete and obviously most authoritative expression of Platonism that we have; and because Platonism is a major tradition of Western civilization, ever lasting and renewable, I desired to share my thoughts about it with others, hoping that they might enjoy a similar reception.
I am not a Platonist. Nevertheless, one of the great joys in life for me is to read and write about Plato, and the joy I refer to is not a passing amusement but a deep and profound satisfaction and fulfillment. This may seem paradoxical and requires an explanation, which I will postpone until the end the series.
It became clear to me that, before I could begin explaining Plato’s Republic, it was necessary to introduce my readers to Socrates. He is the principal narrator of that book and appears in all of Plato’s dialogues, except the Laws. Plato, who never addressed his readers directly in his writings, made Socrates the public face or persona of philosophy. He presumed that his readers would have been familiar with Socrates and his fate and the circumstances leading up to it. Socrates was executed on a charge of impiety and corrupting the youth. The Republic is Plato’s most impressive memorial to him and a most elaborate defense of his way of life.
There are more reasons to consider Socrates. Pick up any history of Greek philosophy and you will most likely read that Socrates is the founder of Greek philosophy. This is not a true statement, but there are reasons why historians persist in making it. It should be noted at the outset, that I use the term philosophy to refer not to the academic discipline taught in colleges and universities, but to a revolution in learning, to the pursuit of knowledge by rational inquiry rather than by received tradition. In fact, philosophy, in this sense, began a century before Socrates, in the Greek city of Miletus, in Asia Minor; its great personages were Thales, Anaximander, Aniximenes, which are not household names. Not long after this, Pythagoras, who was born in Asia Minor, began a school in southern Italy, and philosophical enquiry flourished there also.
Historians generally treat early Greek philosophers under the heading “Presocratics,” as if to say that all philosophical activity before Socrates was preparative of his advent. This also is false. Rather, Greek philosophy has had two beginnings. The first philosophers were naturalists, whose primary interest was cosmology, how the world came to be and how it was organized. They invented the idea of nature as a self-subsisting system that is the source of everything that is. For the most part they were materialists. They supposed that there was some material substance, which, through various physical transformations generated worlds and everything that is in them. Socrates probably began his philosophical studies as one of them. One of the charges brought against him was that he claimed that the sun was a rock, and the moon a pile of earth, and in Aristophanes’ mocking characterization of him in his comedy “The Clouds,” he is made out to be a worshipper of meteorological phenomena: space, air, and clouds.
However, at some point in midlife, Socrates underwent a conversion. He turned his back on nature and gave his attention exclusively to moral questions and to the moral foundations of civil society. He became the second founder of philosophy, of moral and political philosophy, or at least of a tradition of it that has come to dominate our culture. Insofar as any of us believes that civil society is essential to human flourishing, and that to succeed it must be grounded in rationally defensible moral principles, we are “Socratics.”
Therefore, the next two essays will be devoted to discovering Socrates. Plato, who is our primary source of Socrates’ philosophical practice, seems to have believed that the charges against Socrates were trumped up and politically motivated, that Socrates was not surprised by them, and that he deliberately baited and provoked his antagonists. Stay tuned.
Postscript: I invite readers of this essay to join me in reading Plato’s Republic. There are many English translations of it available. To begin with there is an old reliable translation by Benjamin Jowett, published a century and a half ago but still available in various paperback editions, and very readable. Among recent translations, the two that I prefer are: Plato, Republic, G.M.A. Grube, translator, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company; and The Republic of Plato, Allan Bloom, translator, New York: Basic Books.