Victor Nuovo: Justice and happiness one last time
Editor’s note: This is the 14th in a series of essays or reflections about the Republic, a book written two and a half millennia ago by the great philosopher Plato.
Plato’s philosophical play is complete in four acts. Act Five is an epilogue, whose theme is a question that seems constantly to recur: Is the pursuit of justice really worthwhile?
When Socrates asked whether the truly just state is possible, I was reminded of the common saying that politics is the art of the possible and wondered how it might apply here. Socrates’ answer is this: The possibility of a just state depends those who govern it, in particular, philosopher kings; they will govern justly, for they are knowers of true justice, and their love of it is a total dedication.
But although this might be beneficial for the city, and bring wellbeing to all its parts, Socrates’ friends object that philosopher kings would not be happy doing this. They serve, because it is their duty, but duty is a hard taskmaster, drawing them away from the reality that they love. Moreover, in an imperfect world such as ours, philosopher kings and their faithful followers are often at a disadvantage when they come up against adversaries who scorn truth and justice, who seek only their own advantage while giving mere lip service to equity and fairness. Theirs seems to be an easy way to prosperity, at least for themselves, which is all they care about.
Now just as Plato supposed that the successful founding of a city required a founding myth, so he seems also to have supposed that it requires an eschatological myth, which promises to set things right. Eschatology is that part of theology dealing with last things: with what happens after death.
The Republic concludes with such a myth. It goes like this: Er, a warrior-king, was killed in battle, and when after 12 days, his body, curiously free from decay, was retrieved and made ready on the funeral pyre, he came back to life. He then told his people all that he saw during the interval of his death.
His departed soul came to a place of judgment. There he saw above a pair of pathways into the heavens, and below, two more into the earth. They were places of entry and egress. The dead who accompanied him were judged for their deeds, and some were made to descend into the earth, with placards fixed to their back listing their misdeeds, others, who were deemed just, ascended to the heavens. At the same time he saw other souls emerging from the earth, covered all over with filth and grime, whilst others clothed in light descended from above.
They all gathered in a pleasant meadow where they told each other about what they had seen or suffered. Those who made the journey to the lower regions told how they were punished tenfold for every wrong deed, they were recompensed for all the harm they caused to others. They also told of some among them, cruel tyrants in life, who were not allowed to return, but after exquisite torture, like being skinned alive, as though souls had skins and could suffer physical pain, were thrown into a deep abyss, Tartarus, never to return.
Er goes on to tell how the souls having completed their postmortem journey were led, and he along with them, to another place and they were made ready for another entry into the cycle of existence. And the tale goes on, too long to tell. Its point is already clear. Something like recompense after death is required to set things right.
To lend credibility to this story, Socrates explains why the story could be true. He contends that body and soul are two different things, although together in this life they are fused and comprise a single person. He argues that whereas the body is mortal, so that diseases and corruptions that afflict it are also able to cause its death, this is not so with the soul. The corruptions of the soul do not kill it but only deform it further. An immortal soul that is devoted to evil, then, is destined, because of its very character, to endless corruption, psychological pain and misery. The only antidote to this is to live justly and to cultivate moral virtue.
In the light of this story, we can imagine how, if they believed it to be true, philosopher kings might be willing to take up their duty as rulers in an imperfect world, being assured that after death they will be rewarded with permanent domicile in the heavenly regions, on top of the world, and how the rest of us might be persuaded to find a place or station in society whereby we also might perform some labor that would prove beneficial to others, that would never do harm, but always good, for having done good in this world we too might come to dwell in heaven, or at least pass through it before we return to another life.
We must take care in interpreting this myth. It was not meant by Plato to offer consolation, or to commend something like faith in a transcendent promise. Plato’s myths are for musing, not believing. His concern is with justice and morality here and now. If Plato adhered to anything like a dogma, it is this: The good itself is the only source of being and value, among which are wisdom, and beauty, or whatever it is that endows our thoughts and actions, our lives and the artifacts we contrive for the living with life, our institutions and practices, with nobility and purpose. This is not something to be believed, rather it is to be practiced with minds and hearts and bodies. The proof is in the doing of it and the understanding that arises along with it, and with a sort of pleasure that accompanies them.
And, to illustrate what this means, Socrates often looked to the practices of Mechanics, Cabinetmakers, Plumbers, and suchlike. Their expertise or wisdom consists in knowing how to make things work. It is the product of trials and experience, by which they come to understand the internal order and operation of things and how they may be employed to a good effect. This is rational understanding, and it brings enjoyment. Moreover, these artisans are by training and disposition doers of good, and not only of what is useful, but what is fine and beautiful also.
If this wisdom and this rationality could by common agreement be extended to a whole life, of life together in society, the result could be a dominion of sweet reason and peace. Our hope is in ourselves, in our capacity to make this happen.