And yet the philosopher turned politician is also said to be a kind of artist and imitator. In Book 6, Socrates argues that the philosopher, looking to the true Forms, will become divine and orderly in imitation of the divine and orderly Forms; and that he will not be a "bad craftsman" of the virtue of others, into whom he will impart what he sees (500d). Socrates argues that people won't resist philosophy so much if they imagine the philosophers to be "painters who use the divine pattern" in bringing about the just city (500e).
This is the important moment many of you were waiting for. Socrates is finally going to tell us something about the relationship between non-philosophers and their philosopher rulers. The passage is all about the resistance of most people to philosophy, and yet the interaction here is couched in purely aesthetic terms. The city and the character of its citizens are the tablet or canvas on which the philosopher will work his masterpiece:
"...I suppose that in filling out their work they [i.e., the philosophers] would look away frequently in both directions, toward the just, fair, and moderate by nature and everything of the sort, and again, toward what is in human beings; and thus, mixing and blending the practices as ingredients, they would produce the image of man, taking hints from exactly that phenomenon in human begins which Homer too called god-like and the image of god." (501b)
For a moment, we almost seem to reconcile the ideal city with the poet! But besides the disturbing assumption that we will all passively take our parts in this new order, there is deeply troubling language about what to do with things that mess up the pretty picture. The philosophers will take the city and dispositions of the citizens as a tablet
"...which, in the first place, they would wipe clean. And that's hardly easy. At all events, you know that straight off in this they would differ from the rest—in not being willing to take either private man or city in hand or to draw laws before they receive it clean or themselves make it so." (501a; my emphasis)A bit later he says the philosopher will "rub out one thing and draw in another again, until they made human dispositions as dear to the gods as they admit of being" (501c). The artistic image is supposed to reconcile people to this project, but this language of erasure is quite unsettling. And later in book 7, our suspicions are confirmed when we hear details about how a philosophical takeover would be accomplished: all over the age of ten will be "sent out into the country," and the children will then be raised in conformity with the philosophers' divine plan (541a).
In the wake of the twentieth century, it is very hard to hear such things said with anything less than utter dismay. Karl Popper (1902-1994), a notable philosopher of science, reacted with especial vehemence to Plato as he watched a real-world political revolution unfold. In 1938 his native Austria was annexed to Hitler's Germany, and when he got the news, he immediately set to work on a book that became The Open Society And Its Enemies, a two-volume attack upon the thought of Plato and Marx. Popper admits that the great troubles of modern times "spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous—from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows" (ix).
In Plato, Popper sees a dangerous radical whose commitment to Utopian social engineering is doomed to bring about catastrophe. The danger lies specifically in his aestheticism, that is, in his desire to bring to life a whole pretty picture of a new and just society. Utopianism harbors the fallacy that a total reconstruction of our social world would lead instantly to a new workable system. This could never happen. "Even with the best intentions of making heaven on earth, it only succeeds in making it a hell—that hell which man alone prepares for his fellow-men" (168).
Popper clearly couldn't think of Plato's political artist without seeing in him another politician with aesthetic pretensions: Adolf Hitler. Hitler had dreams of becoming a painter as a young man, but was rejected by the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts. We have to wonder what world history would be like had Hitler been accepted to that Academy. The tragedy of Plato is, for Popper, that his own thinking threw him into the arms of tyrants, while the real Socrates died for his political convictions.
Socrates had refused to compromise his personal integrity. Plato, with all his uncompromising canvas-cleaning, was led along a path on which he compromised his integrity with every step he took. He was forced to combat free thought, and the pursuit of truth. He was led to defend lying, political miracles, tabooistic superstition, the suppression of truth, and ultimately, brutal violence. (200)You can certainly decide for yourself whether this is a fair characterization of The Republic. Like Plato himself, Popper wrote from a situation of deep depression and dread at the current political scene. But as we finish our reading of this great and irritating work, it's worth acknowledging both the power and the danger of its artistry.
For further reading:
Karl Popper. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Volume 1: The Spell of Plato. Princeton UP, 1971.