Monday, November 8, 2010

Artists of the Polis

In Book 10 of the Republic, Socrates renews his attack upon poets as mere imitators of imitations of reality. They are not to be trusted, because they do not work from the truest patterns, the Ideas or Forms, but merely from the copies of those true patterns found in the world. This sounds like a very dismissive attitude towards aesthetic objects like poems and statues—as if to say the artist never penetrates to anything essential, but merely copies like a child or a monkey whatever he sees on the surface. It's as if every artist should announce a disclaimer akin to "I'm not a doctor but I play one on TV."

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.

—Richard Armstrong

For further reading:

Karl Popper. The Open Society and Its Enemies. Volume 1: The Spell of Plato. Princeton UP, 1971.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

More on Plato's Republic

A couple things from my lecture I had to rush through at the end:
First, Plato seems to think that knowledge of the good is necessary if we’re going have knowledge of the other forms.  The good “illuminates” the other forms like the sun illuminates the objects outside of the cave.   Without knowledge of the good, we don’t seem to have knowledge of anything.  The whole foundation collapses.  Furthermore, philosophers need to have knowledge of the good in order to perform their function as rulers of the polis.  This raises a crucial question: how are philosophers supposed to identify the idea of the good?   Plato criticizes mathematical reasoning because it proceeds from unproven axioms or “hypotheses.”  We have to assume the truth of these axioms in order to derive all of the system’s theorems.   As one of my students put it in section, mathematics itself does not have the resources to prove its own axioms. (I wish I’d thought of that!)  By contrast, when philosophers use the method of “dialectic,” they can somehow reach a first principle that is justified or proven rather than assumed.   Some people equate this proven first principle with the idea of the good itself.  And once you’ve attained that, you can derive knowledge of the other ideas including the ideas in mathematics.  But how in the world (or outside of it) are we supposed to arrive at that first principle?   Plato says very little about the method of dialectic in this dialogue, except to suggest that it can lead to knowledge of the good.  Maybe you just have to try the dialectic and--if you’re a philosopher--“you’ll know the good when you see it” (like pornography).  In other words, maybe the idea of the good is something we can intuit once we’ve had the proper training.   We will recognize it when we’re in its presence.  But it seems like you could say the same thing about mathematical axioms, and Plato is dissatisfied with them for that reason.  Intuitiveness or self-evidence doesn’t seem like the right kind of criterion.  So this is a perplexing problem for Plato.

A second issue I raised at the end is how to match up the objects and images in the cave with the lower part of the divided line.   At first glance, it would seem that the shadows on the wall correspond to images of sensible objects and the artifacts held up in front of the fire correspond to the sensible objects themselves.   The problem is that the prisoners are chained in such a way that they can only see the shadows.   But we don’t walk around only seeing our reflections and images, in fact, that’s the exception.  So shouldn’t the prisoner’s be facing the artifacts?  After all, most of the time, we perceive sensible objects and not their reflection. 
Or do we?  Perhaps Plato is saying that our perceptual apparatus does not allow for an objective identification of things like tables and chairs (never mind their ideas or forms).  We see things from different angles and perspectives, and this skews how the objects appear to us.  Furthermore, our eyes play tricks on us—they construct an image for us based on past experience of what works, not how the object really looks.  (See some evidence of these illusions below.)  The only way to properly perceive sensible objects—the second lowest part of the divided line—is to employ measurement and other scientific techniques.  Short of that, we’re stuck looking at images and reflections—even when they aren’t obviously reflections from a mirror or pool or water.   
—Tamler Sommers

Line (a) and line (b) are the same length. Do they appear that way?

The wheels appear to be spinning...but they aren't!
The hearts are moving clockwise. But look at it for a second and they appear to move counter-clockwise.