Published in Gregorianum, 76 (#2, 1995), 343-62.
James V. Schall, S. J.
ON THE UNIQUENESS OF SOCRATES
Political Philosophy and the Rediscovery of the Human Body
To conclude, then, our discussion of the Republic, we suggest that the consideration of the good city is meant to reveal how political life would have to be transformed in order to admit of philosophic rule and why it is unreasonable to expect, perhaps even to desire, such a transformation.
-- Christopher Bruell, "Plato's Political Philosophy."1
The sexual differentiation of the human body ... suggests that ... the human body is not simply "one's own affair"; the body is a sign and at the same time the instrument of a determinate and whole-seeking eros, rather than of a limitless and merely self-indulgent appetite. Hence ... the assertion of a purely private prerogative in sexual matters is indicative of the failure synoptically to grasp the connubial significance of the sexual character of the human body. Though we do not yet know the precise details of Socrates' reformed nomos for sexual mating, we may expect that it will be intended to combat self-centeredness by encouraging more attention to the connubial significance, as distinguished from the physiological separateness, of the human body.
-- Darrell Dobbs, "Choosing Justice: Socrates' Model City and the Practice of Dialectic."2
Near the end of his speech in The Symposium, Alcibiades affirmed that "many are the marvels which I might narrate in praise of Socrates; most of his ways might perhaps be paralleled in another man but his absolute unlikeness to any human being that is or ever was is perfectly astonishing" (221). To describe the philosophic life simply as the imitation of Socrates is both accurate and ironic. It is accurate because the life of philosophy, the erotic seeking of the knowledge of the whole, involves a lifetime of questioning, of personal sacrifice, of moral and physical courage, of discovering what we can about each topic -- be it the soul, the city, or the cosmos -- that is presented to our curiosity and our wonder. "Knowledge is presumably dependent on what is, to know of what is that it is and how it is?" Socrates asks Glaucon in Book V of the Republic, as if the answer were self-evident, which Glaucon agreed that it was (477).
And yet Socrates does not like imitation, even imitation of himself. Imitation stands too far away from what is. He worried about the poets and the musicians for this reason, imitations of imitations. The potential young philosophers in The Apology, moreover, the very ones Socrates is accused of corrupting, do him a disservice, when, after enjoying in the streets his free performance in questioning their fathers to see if they were wise, go home to imitate him before these very fathers. The fathers as the leading politicians became angry and plotted against Socrates for corrupting their youth. Socrates, to be sure, took no money for his philosophy. He never claimed to be a teacher. He was merely following his daemon, wondering what the Oracle meant about his wisdom in comparison to others. If the youth were corrupt by imitating him, it was their own fault. He did not teach them.
If Socrates was wise, it was only because he knew what he did not know, though his gradual examinations of what others did not know did produce a genuine knowledge to replace a real ignorance. When he is imitated in a less than serious manner, even by people he likes and spends time with, however, genuine philosophy is not being served. The philosopher spends his serious time discussing the serious things. And in The Laws, we discover that God is the only really serious thing and that our own affairs, politics and the like, by comparison, are not really serious. This view of the unseriousness of human affairs was not meant to denigrate politics and human affairs, but to liberate them so that they would be properly located in the order of things. They were not themselves the highest things. Political philosophy was designed primarily to explain how political things could be arranged so that the philosopher would not be killed, would be able to devote himself to the highest things.
The irony in describing the philosophic life as the imitation of Socrates follows from this less than sincere imitation of his methods by the potential young philosophers, the direction of whose souls we by no means yet know, nor do they. The dialogues of Plato are continual examinations of differing souls and the ways of life they might choose, of those few who choose the philosophic way, of those many who get lost thinking that other ways are better. The reading of Socrates that Plato gives us is a self-reflective examination of the direction of our own souls. It leads to self-awareness and self-illumination; it leads to the sometimes frightening prospect of knowing ourselves. The way of life of the philosopher did cause some astonishment in Athens and not just to Alcibiades, the most volatile and most dangerous of the potential philosophers whom Socrates encounters. Indeed, Socrates himself maintained that he lived as long as he did in Athens, till he was seventy, because in a democracy, where all opinions are by law equally inconclusive, it was difficult for the many who held the power to tell the difference between the fool and the wise man.
The wise man, when he appeared in the democracy, was taken to be as outlandish as the demented man. Normal folks avoided them both except for their curiosity value. Besides, who is to tell the difference between the one and the other, between the philosopher and the fool? Distinctions in democracies are all political, not natural. We are not allowed to acknowledge natural distinctions. Since it requires a certain amount of virtue even to recognize virtue, the philosopher will be largely invisible in most existing polities in which the highest virtue is statistically rare. The one who is most capable of recognizing the philosopher's worth is paradoxically the one who sees him as the most dangerous threat to his own way of life. No one praises Socrates more perceptively than Alcibiades. No one is more careful to refuse to listen to him. No one is, ultimately, more corrupt and more dangerous. The drama of the relation of Socrates and Alcibiades in The Symposium is the ultimate drama because it directly concerns which way a talented and handsome potential philosopher will choose in his own soul to live his life.
Clearly both Callicles in the Gorgias and Alcibiades recognized in Socrates a danger to their own chosen paths in life. When they were young, like Glaucon and Adeimantus, they studied philosophy. But they did not want to hear justice praised for its own sake. Distinctly unlike Plato's two brothers Adeimantus and Glaucon in Book Two of The Republic, Callicles and Alcibiades did not want to understand the force of the arguments against justice, since they lived according to these arguments. Callicles and Alcibiades suspected what effect philosophy would have on their souls. Thus they decide that philosophy is a threat to what they want to do in life, how they want to live. Callicles and Alcibiades, when challenged, refuse to listen to Socrates because they cannot meet his arguments. But they implicitly understand his arguments and where they lead. Their rejection of philosophy is not unphilosophical in the sense of its being unknowing. They do not wish to change their lives, so there are things they do not wish to know, at least in public. They are first committed to the demos in their loves. Their politics is preferred to philosophy. Popularity is preferred to truth. They do not wish this love of the demos to be tested except by the demos. Their lives, and through them, their polities become closed to philosophy, to the imitation of Socrates, the gadfly who keeps his city alert so long as he is allowed to live in it.
In a philosophical and moral sense, both Callicles and Alcibiades were more dangerous to Socrates than the five hundred and one jurors and the prosecutors -- Meletos, Lycon, and Anytos -- at the actual trial that condemned him to death in a relatively close vote. Socrates knew this more subtle peril. Though he let Socrates talk on, Callicles simply refused to converse with Socrates, a refusal that sealed Socrates', the philosopher's death. But Callicles was content to kill Socrates if he had to. That was the logic of his position. That is what the power of politics was about, in his view. Except as a kind of nostalgic and dilettantish affair in college, Callicles never gave philosophy a second thought. He held, without quite realizing the irony involved in his view, that death would silence the philosopher, the very philosopher who said that philosophy is a preparation for death. It is only because of Plato's remembrance of the philosopher Socrates that we remember the politician Callicles. Death does not silence philosophy, especially the political execution designed precisely to silence it. This is the paradox of politics when it is held to be the supreme science.
Alcibiades was more shrewd and more capable of seeing the danger latent in philosophical discourse with Socrates than Callicles was. Callicles was content to let Socrates talk, knowing he had power of life or death over him in case Socrates' talk caused civic disruption. Callicles supposed this was a great power, something Socrates was not so sure of, as he did not know whether death was an evil. Alcibiades, on the other hand, was clearly attracted to philosophy even while choosing to reject it. Consequently, in one last desperate attempt, Alcibiades both admitted the charm of philosophy and simultaneously sought to corrupt Socrates, the philosopher. Alcibiades wanted to be sure that there would be no living example of virtue to stand against his own sordid record of betrayal and self-indulgence. Had he succeeded, there could only be, for the philosophers, the imitation of Alcibiades, not of Socrates, as a viable way of life. Politics would have been superior to philosophy.
Christopher Bruell, in his essay on Plato's political philosophy, has suggested that the purpose of this philosophy was not to be put into effect in some existing constitutional order that could be described as perfect or ideal. We are not to seek to set up the best regime as it is so elaborately described by Socrates. The very effort to do so is a misunderstanding of the intent of Socrates. Aristotle, likewise, did not want this Socratic best regime to exist in practice, as he relates in the Second Book of The Politics. He also objected to Plato on the grounds of the impracticality of some of Plato's proposals, notably, the communality of wives, children, and property. Wives, children, and property, Aristotle thought, are all better taken care of if they are held in private, if they belong to someone, not to everyone. This objection makes it look like Aristotle, at close range, thought that Socrates was serious about this proposal, even though Socrates himself, in Book Five of The Republic, recognized that it was a most delicate subject and one that had to be broached with the greatest caution. Aristotle never would have said, however, that the purpose of Plato's political philosophy was itself to warn us not to attempt this actual transformation from existing state to perfect state. It was Aristotle who warned us, not Plato, in this context. Aristotle objected because he did not think the plan would work. He objected on practical grounds, on the grounds of existing human nature, on the grounds of its wretched tendencies.
But if Plato did not intend that this extraordinary proposal about political institutions was to be taken at face value, what good was it? It is a distinguished view, one that Bruell clearly elaborates, that Book Five of The Republic, and indeed the whole of the Dialogue itself, is the greatest anti-utopian document ever written. Few have ever understood it this way, no doubt. Needless to say, when this thesis first appeared with Strauss it was a provocative novelty.3 It still retains some of its heady paradox. If philosophers really examined the logic of justice, the argument went, they would see the fact that these extraordinary Socratic proposals about the communality of women, children, and property would have to be accepted in order that the real roots of disorder in the polis be ferreted out and corrected.
Considering them "in speech", however, makes this logic of justice, and therefore the limits of justice, clear. In agreement with Aristotle, we see how contrary to actual human nature these proposals are, the human nature that we all know familiarly in ourselves, in all existing cities. We should thus become immediately suspicious of any theories that claim to solve mankind's problems by proposals for radical changes in existing institutions -- most notably, those of institutional rearrangements family, property, and government that constantly reappear under various forms in modernity even until today. On this reading, The Republic prevents totalitarianism, not causes it as the famous, or infamous, thesis of Karl Popper intimated. Knowing that social engineering was dangerous, what Socrates intended, it is held, was that we positively reject the temptation to put these proposals under any form into effect. We could only do this rejecting of these proposals if we understood their charm and the logic of the proposals themselves. The Straussian understanding of Book Five retains its force because it understands how attractive the proposal to reform human nature really is. Unless we understand this charm, we will not understand how important it is to reject its spell over us.
How do we go about thinking of these questions? Though I maintain that reason and revelation are distinct and both to be reckoned with, especially where they touch on the same subject matter, I suggest that they do sometimes, as here, shed light on each other in a way surprisingly pertinent to the abiding questions in political philosophy.4 Not unmindful of Strauss' careful articulation of the first books of Genesis, I have argued elsewhere that Book Five of The Republic is illuminating when read in the context of the scriptural account of Creation and The Fall.5 I do not mean, of course, that Plato somehow read Genesis, nor that the origin of Genesis was purely philosophical. But there is a fascinating correlation of teachings in the two accounts. I have no hesitation, in other words, in finding Augustine one of the greatest readers of Plato. The City of God is more than Platonic, but it is Platonic, and it is more than Platonic because it is Platonic..
The Fall evidently took place in a situation in which there was perfect conformity between man and nature. The best regime, in other words, existed in the beginning, not at the end of time, a sentiment we also find among the Roman philosophers. God was not accused of not having provided a sufficiency of material goods. Rebellion was not rooted in scarcity. This to us unexpected situation indicated that revolt against God or against the order of the world is not rooted primarily in some dire deprivation, clear injustice, or sexual disorder. We might likewise point out, in this context, that when Socrates does get around to discuss the decline of regimes in Book Eight of The Republic, we are given no real reason why anyone in the best regime might find anything to complain of. We are simply told that "all things change." The Genesis account merely adds to this Platonic principle the one thing in creation that can change for no apparent reason, the human power of choice itself.
We likewise wonder what Adam and Even had to murmur about in these conditions of abundance. In Eden, things go along, as it were, swimmingly. Creation as such, including the creation of man, is good. The Genesis account seems rather to indicate that the ensuing disorder was rooted in the human will, not in things. The human will (the angelic will is in the same condition), as a constitutive part of man, is itself good, is itself will, is what it is. It is free. Its presence in creation necessarily implied that something could go wrong, because it also implied that something could go right. It implied that what is, existence, needed to be itself affirmed as good on the part of the finite creature. Creation at its highest reaches was, for this reason, a risk. Things did not necessarily go right. Adam and Eve attest to this variable condition from the beginning. The risk, the possibility that things could go wrong, is itself a good.
The First Parents were commanded, in an amazingly insightful imagery, not to eat of fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Evidently, the fruit of this particular tree, so to speak, was not itself poisonous to them. No one is tempted to eat rotten apples. The first pair were not being forbidden for their physical health, as it were. The point was not, analogously, that God said to Adam, "Oh, by the way, watch out for the rattlesnakes." What this prohibition in the light of the name of the Tree seems to mean is that man can claim, over against God, to be himself the source of the distinction between good and evil, a divine prerogative. The Tempter told them in fact that they would be "like gods". This information seemed to be a real temptation, not just for Adam and Eve. In classical philosophy, this distinction between good and evil is also recognized to exist. The subject matter of ethics, as Aristotle often remarked, is those things which deserve praise or blame. The most basic human distinction is that which entails good and evil human actions. And these actions reveal the soul that puts them into reality. This distinction between good and evil actions is discoverable by reason, but not made by it. In revelation, the distinction between good and evil is not made by the first pair. They learn of it after the manner of a command, but a command that they still must choose to obey and understand. Adam and Eve display some of the wilfulness of an Alcibiades, though it seems to take expulsion from the Garden for them fully to understand what they had been forbidden to do. In this sense, it might be implied that there can be genuine philosophy in obedience, that obedience and reason are not simply contradictory. There is no reason to suppose that either Adam or Eve was stupid. It is not the simple who are tempted to pride, to the claim that what is good and what evil are the results of our own determining. There is reason to suppose that the first pair, like Alcibiades, chose to close their ears lest they would have to change their ways.
Moreover, the consequences, not causes, of the Fall are described as related to external disorders in work, in childbearing, and later writers added a disorder in rule; that is, coercive government was not from the beginning. The body was not the cause of evil but it was involved in its consequences. Evil, in its intelligibility, was the result of precisely this claim of autonomy, the claim to locate the distinction between good and evil in the human soul, in its power to make and choose. It was located in the spiritual, not material, side of the rational being. Subsequent gnosticism has its roots in the denial of this location of evil in the will. If we take a look at these consequences of The Fall, it seems evident that, in this system, no amount of rearranging property, family, or polis will ever result in a perfect rule, in the best regime. Why? Because the roots of disorder are not exterior to man himself. The being of the exterior order is itself open to man's own actions that proceed from his reason and will. Thus, in the best regime we can expect to have disorder, and we can, in the worst regime, expect that real good might (or might not) appear. The reason for this possibility is that the human will remains external to the regime's order and to its instruments of law and coercion as well as external to the structure of family and property. Nazareth can happen even in the Roman Empire. Both human and divine will stand outside the laws of social and natural science, without denying the reality of secondary causes and an order of nature.
A second series of reflections is perhaps pertinent to coming to terms with Book Five of The Republic. It can be suggested, without irony, that even when Plato is wrong, which is rarer than we had first thought when we began to study him, he is very close to being right. The famous proposal for communality of wives, children, and property is one of these places where Plato has hit a mark so close to the truth and yet one which, if taken literally, is so very dangerous, that we must continue to marvel at him. Our age, indeed, might well be called the age of taking Book Five of The Republic literally, wherein the proposed absolute equality of men and women, with the eugenic engineering this proposal "in speech" entails, is working its way out in practice by people who have not restrained their enthusiasm for changing human nature by themselves. The separation of marriage and children is in law and practice nearing completion. The position paper for the Cairo Population Conference took precisely this position of talking about children and sex with no relation to family. The only sexual activity that interests the modern state, however, is that which results in children. Children begotten can efficiently be eliminated through abortion. When they succeed in being born, the conditions of their lives fall under the surveillance of the state. The state becomes the prime substitute parent and more and more the immediate parent though its control of subsidies, day-care centers, control of education, particularly sex education, at all levels. The description of the lives of women, children, and property in The Republic is in many ways what we have or are seeking to bring into being after our own fashion. Sexual activity that does not result in children, however, has no political, moral, or biological purpose other than a kind of useless pleasure, something allowed or provided in order to keep the populace quiet.
Often the slightest adjustment of Plato's position, as I indicated, makes his point luminous. The Church, for example, has proposed that for a certain type of its internal "guardians", three vows are to be provided -- poverty, chastity, and obedience. If we compare these vows to Plato's proposals for the communality of wives, children, and property, we will be struck that the same issue is addressed in both proposals, namely, what is the condition of life of those who devote themselves fully to the common good. By removing wives, children, and property as concerns of these guardians, which are instruments of divine not human law, if the monks might be called that, the very point that Plato was seeking to establish is met in another way that does not entail the harsh consequences, if actually tried, of Plato's proposals. On the other hand, for those who do not follow this giving up of wives, children, and property, the marital centrality of eros and the family, with its necessary property, the Aristotelian solution, is restored as another proper way of living for other sorts of guardians, indeed for all. Thus, Plato's finger is very close to the heart of any matter.
Moreover, if Bruell is right, Plato is not even wrong in the first place about his best regime since his purpose was to warn us not to attempt establish it except in speech. Modern times have suffered under the scourge of philosopher-politicians seeking to remedy all evils by rearranging property, family, or government, only to end up creating even more awesome tyrannies. Plato has described this tyrannical process and how it can come about through democracy rather accurately. In Bruell's view this understanding of the possibility of horrendous tyranny is precisely what the reading of Plato teaches us to expect will come about. If we do not read Plato with care and attention, then, we will miss this irony in his proposals and mistakenly attempt what should be left only in speech.
Plato's extreme proposals, thus, can be saved in one of three ways: 1) We can take the Straussian view that the communality of wives, children, and property is not intended to be put into effect as it is too contrary to human nature. 2) We can take the monastic view that, in agreement with Plato, there is a conflict between some vocations and family life but that there is a dignified and sacrificial way to achieve Plato's ends without his means. Or 3) we examine the chaotic results of modern times that have left eros without discipline or morality and tried to deal only with the empirical and chaotic consequences. The theoretic result in all three instances is the same. Plato realized that the conditions of begetting were central to political philosophy.
If we look at the condition of Plato's guardians, then, we will see that Plato is especially concerned with their education, with what might corrupt them. We were first to look at where disorder came into the polis. It did not come through economics, or politics, but through the literary or poetic education of the guardians, of those who were potential philosophers and politicians. Thus, if we are to find just where disorder comes into the polity we build in speech, it comes in through the education of the guardians, especially through an examination of Homer and his accounts of the gods and the heroes as the poetic and primary source of the tales and models of how to live. As we look at the initial city that is constructed in speech, we notice the principle of specialization. We see that we need ultimately specialists of the whole. These are the philosophic guardians.
Initially, in Book Four, we are surprised to note that these guardians were given families and houses. However, such was the concern of Socrates, these houses were just the opposite of what we might expect for political leaders. No one in his right mind would want to live in them. Every city, Socrates knew, was divided by how it dealt with wealth and honors. Greed and envy were the two most common and most corrupting vices. The parsimonious conditions granted to the guardians were in the name of the happiness of the whole, not the happiness of each individual guardian. The guardians were supposed to be those who identified their own personal happiness with the happiness of the whole. This sacrificial aspect of their vocation explained Socrates' reluctance to give them the normal mansions and adulation that we have come to expect in ordinary regimes. Socrates wanted to keep his guardians safe from their own passions and temptations caused by wealth and honors. At first he did this by giving them Spartan living conditions and a modest, but very cautious, appreciation of their own worth. They were to know how easily human beings were corrupted. They were given examples to be followed in the revised poems of virtue and honor both among gods and men..
This proposal to establish the intellectual guardians in a Spartan existence, except for a discussion of the decline of regimes, would seem to have ended The Republic after Book Four. At that point, we have now found a proper definition of justice, that is, each doing his proper task. We have located in the false tales of the poets, especially Homer, wherein disorder comes into the city and into our own souls. We have identified the source of disorder in greed and envy. We have disciplined the guardians externally and internally against them. But at the beginning of Book Five, Adeimantus and Polemarchus whisper something. Something still upsets them. Socrates wants to know what bothers them. They recall Socrates' earlier remark that "friends have all things in common", a famous if enigmatic phrase that makes us realize that we have not really had a proper discussion of families, of wives and children and property.
It is at this point that Socrates becomes cautious about further discussion of the matter, so delicate it is. But Polemarchus, Adeimantus, Glaucon, even Thrasymachus get into the discussion as they realize they have not heard, as we said, the arrangements about "the begetting of children ... and of the whole community of women and children..." (449). "We think it makes a big difference, or rather, the whole difference, in a regime's being right or not right." The peculiar structure of The Republic is designed to force attention to this volatile topic. This topic is the one that must be handled most cautiously. Socrates' arrangements recall Aristophanes' The Parliament of Women. This is the parody of Socrates' proposals. So Socrates must be careful not to leave himself open to ridicule. But at the same time, he is serious about the family arrangements. Why is he so serious? Is it because of something deeper than the question of begetting itself?
Socrates' proposals, it is often said, simply eliminate normal eros from The Republic, at least in the city in speech for the guardians. Eros is replaced with a clear, even cold reason that cannot be corrupted even by eros. Eros appears to have an intrinsic selfishness about it. This view makes us wonder just what in eros is corrupting since we also know about The Symposium.6 The question is, again, why is Socrates so concerned with this elimination? We need to recall that Socrates himself had a wife and three children. Except for her appearance in the Phaedo, Xanthippe, Socrates' wife, does not much appear in the dialogues. We have no dialogue called Xanthippe. Are we to assume that he never discussed the highest things with Xanthippe? But, as I just mentioned, we do have The Symposium in which Socrates is taught the secrets of love by Diotima, the lady from Mantinea, who is said to be "a woman wise in this (love) and in many other kinds of knowledge" (201).. It is his conversation with Diotima that adds begetting to the speeches on love that we had heard up until the time of her appearance. Agathon had praised beauty for its attractiveness, for its uncanny ability to call us out of ourselves.
What true lovers seek, however, is the possession of the good. They are not just seeking their other halves as Aristophanes held in his speech. Love wants both union and otherness. Diotima says to Socrates that she "will teach" him about love (206). "All men are bringing to the birth in their bodies and in their souls," she explains to Socrates. The analogy of physical and spiritual begetting is central to her discourse. Furthermore, both forms of begetting constitute a continuum. Physical begetting itself is seeking something beyond itself. Even what is begotten, the child, points to the fact that eros is not for itself alone. Even when the lovers are most closed in on themselves, they are pointing back to the world and to how the world came to contain these relationships that pointed beyond themselves.
Thus, Diotima explains to Socrates, that "there is a certain age at which human nature is desirous of procreation -- procreation which must be in beauty and not in deformity; and this procreation is the union of man and woman, and is a divine thing; for conception and generation are an immortal principle in the mortal creature..." (206). Eros that begets is itself a divine thing. We are startled to see that it is "an immortal principle in the mortal creature". This teaching would mean that we are not dealing with fleeting things. What seems most fleeting, the pleasure itself, because of its presence "in the union of man and woman", in the mortal creatures, is itself symbolic of immortality. Begetting itself is a sign of immortality even on its physical side.
Diotima had already explained that "the happy are made happy by the acquisition of good things. Nor is there any reason to ask why man desires happiness" (205). Begetting in the body and begetting in the soul are aspects of the same eros. Both seek immortality. We do not need to ask why we seek happiness in all of our actions, especially these that relate to begetting. We do not ourselves make the good things we receive that make us happy. Diotima tells Socrates that love is not just love of the beautiful, which, to recall Agathon's view, has a kind of sterility of it. Beauty must be seen as good, as desirable, as something that moves. "To the mortal creature, generation is a sort of eternity and immortality ... and ... if love is of the everlasting possession of the good, all men will necessarily desire immortality together with the good. Wherefore love is of immortality" (206-07). And this love is a sacrificial love, as the case of Alcestis showed. She alone was willing to die for her husband. But Diotima explains that the cases of begetting or of searching for the beautiful even in poems and laws and other places are the "lesser mysteries of love, into which even you, Socrates, may enter" (210). Diotima has some doubt whether Socrates himself can attain the highest reaches of love.
But Diotima, as if at least to give Socrates a chance to know what she is talking about, proceeds to explain the way to Socrates. This is the great ascent from a particular beautiful thing to beauty itself.
The true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows wet the essence of beauty is (211).
Again we are not wrong to catch here similar words of Augustine echoing in our hearts, of his last conversation with Monica before she died in Ostia. Neither are we wrong to see Plato's ascent grounded in an initial reality, in an initial particular thing, in a concrete beautiful thing.
Darrell Dobbs, in his analysis, has understood that Socrates' proposals about the communality of wives, children, and property in the city in speech refer to our capacity to choose the best regime in our souls. The city in speech, in essence, is a kind of "therapy for comprehending constitutional polity as a whole."7 Dobbs does not think that Socrates is merely proposing a kind of metaphysical reality check by turning our attention to what is. Metaphysics, Dobbs seems to imply, is not enough. We also have to attend to our ideals for these, perhaps even more than a failure to turn to reality itself, can prevent us from really devoting our attention to what is. This is what the reading of The Republic requires us to do, to examine our souls at the most fundamental of levels. We are indeed to join Socrates "in making a model city." However, "Socrates' political proposals are not meant, then, as a blueprint for public policy; nor is it their principal intention to critique or to parody political idealism."8 This position thus rejects both the notion that Plato was trying to establish an actual constitution and the Straussian view that it was intended to ward off this utopian program.
What then was Plato trying to suggest? He was trying to counteract those desires and distractions that might arise from the body taken as a purely private self-interested affair. The noble lie was a medicinal exercise to help us see ourselves clearly, objectively. "Socratic communism addresses certain tendencies toward self-indulgent individualism which are rooted in the separation of one's own body. The inappropriateness of private possessions of lands, houses, and money by civic guardians is indicated first of all."9 It is clear that this sort of prohibition does not apply to everyone in the polity we build in speech, only to the guardians. Hence we have the curiosity that while the farmers and craftsmen lead normal family lives, the guardians, because they are so much more close to the spirit and therefore more in danger of being more subtly corrupted, need to have these things, as sources of potential temptation, removed from them. These criteria are, we might observe, essentially the same reasons for monastic or clerical vows whose purpose is to enable the monk not to be distracted from the one thing that is necessary and important. The careful attention to the least deviation from the good is something a Plato and a Benedict have in common.
In a remarkably subtle analysis, Dobbs notes what he calls Socrates assault on "erotic idiosyncrasy." This assault is described precisely as the rejection of that notion of the body and pleasure that were seen in Callicles and Alcibiades, in the theory of tyranny which Socrates had explained in The Republic. The counter assault of Socrates, though this is veiled, is a theory of friendship -- "friends have all things in common" (449). Friendship properly looks to the good of the other, not the self, even though it involves the self. Even though each individual is complete and independent as a human being, still this very being is, even on its physical side, not ordained primarily or only to itself. "The intelligibility of the human body itself depends upon an appreciation of its connubial significance in procreation." The body is not just a machine or a bundle of responses. The body "which bears unimpeachable evidence of the complimentarity of male and female, is only mistakenly regarded as a private affair." 10
These same issues have been argued in a similar and brilliant fashion by Denis de Rougemont in his famous Love in the Western World. Here too eros in isolation is seen as in a dangerous pole between a kind of transcendent death wish and its proper resolution or its reality in marriage.11 The response to the dangers of eros is not the death wish of a Tristan and Iseult, a wish parallel in its own order to the search for the perfect regime. "But the troth of marriage is ... a pledge given for this world," de Rougemont wrote.
Inspired by an unreason 'mystical' (if you like) and, if not hostile, at least indifferent to happiness and the vital instinct, fidelity in marriage requires a re-entry into the real world, whereas courtesy meant only an escape from it. In marriage the loving husband or wife vows fidelity first of all to the other at the same time as to his or her true self. And whereas Tristan showed himself constant to a steadfast refusal, in a desire to exclude and deny creation in its diversity and to prevent the world from encroaching upon spirit, the fidelity of the married couple is acceptance of one's fellow-creature, a willingness to take the other as he or she is in his or her intimate particularity.12
These remarks of de Rougemont react precisely to the the logic that sees no form or nature in material things, including human things. Presumably, this position conceives eros to be something so pure and so exalted that it cannot exist in and through the order of being. Death was the only alternative to the fear of mixing it up with normal things. This form of eros corresponds to the purity demanded of the intellectual guardians in the Fifth Book of The Republic.
In Dobbs position, the objective of Socratic communism for the guardians is "to counter this mistaken tendency" towards an eros that is independent of a concrete object and "to illuminate the connubial (and thus the civic and even cosmic) significance of the body."13 This is a position very similar to ideas that John Paul II has been making for some time about the spousal relation of Christ and the the Church, of cosmos to God, of marriage to eros.14 Leon Kass has also from another angle sought to restore the thinking about the body and its functions to a more natural and harmonious function.15 Socrates' perception of the unexpected dangers latent in marriage and pleasure and therefore his proposals about the communality of wives, children, and property as remedies are designed not to eliminate marriage itself, but to isolate just what it is that can cause the deviation in the souls of the guardians from the good. Dobbs' statement of the issue is to the point:
Socrates' assault on this form of (erotic) individualism thus aims to orient his interlocutors toward the wholeness of the connubial partnership and any other partnerships, such as the political community, to which the connubial partnership belongs. As long as the connubial significance of the human body is neglected, the dialectical examination of questions such as whether the just or the unjust are happier will only endanger the excellence of the human soul.16
The later Christian response to Plato, namely, the legitimacy both of guardians who do not have wives, children and property and a guardian who does have a faithful and fruitful marriage, is itself an effort to take into account both sides of Plato's concern about the sources of disorder in the souls of those most ordered to the highest good, to family, polity, cosmos, and God. The asceticism of the sacrament and the vow were designed to take account of precisely this "erotic ideosyncracy" without denying the ever present possibility of sin or disorder precisely arising out of free will, even in the various guardians.
The point of Dobbs' analysis of Plato's city in speech is, as he said, therapeutic. That is, he wishes to foster the sort of general overall view of man and the cosmos needed "to the deliberate and reasoned adoption of a polity in one's soul." Before we decide how we should live, that is, the structure of our own soul "writ-small", we need to grasp the true reaches of selfishness and to realize its consequences in our own understanding of human life. Is this city in speech in the manner presented here the best regime? Dobbs responds to this famous question in this judicious manner, "If the function of the political community is to assist persons in achieving virtue, then it seems that it could count as such -- though it never did see the light of day."17 Thought, or the city of speech, in other words, is itself a reality and has its effect on the world through its illumination of our perceptions of ourselves, of the city, of the cosmos.
Whether this city actually exists then is irrelevant once its real purpose is seen. This purpose is to face that potential disorder of every soul that comes both from a misunderstanding of the body and of its relation to the city and the cosmos. What The Republic teaches is the order of soul. It does this through a philosophical exercise, a necessary exercise for all those whose souls would be ordered, that is, through the reading of Plato himself, a reading that can take place in any society that leaves men free enough to encounter him. Whether Plato's responses can be considered definitive can itself be wondered at. What is curious is that Plato, when carefully read, does abidingly bring to mind responses to transcendent questions that are found in revelation. This odd coherence does not necessarily imply a revelation to Plato as some philosophers have cautiously posited.18 But it does create a remarkable correspondence between two spheres too absolutely separated in modern thought.
Modernity, so to speak, has more and more argued that the disorder of soul is initially and primarily to be met by a reorganization of property, family, and polity. The soul itself is incapable of being touched by philosophic forces. Man is said to be moved only by passion and impulse. Politics is only a balance of forces. This modern view is to be seen as diametrically contrary to the classic view that was primarily and first interested in the reform of one's own soul. What this reform in the classics implied was that the understanding of the soul in its deepest meaning first required attention to those drives such as selfishness, pride, and the opposites of each of the virtues, to whatever in short, that would introduce disorder into the soul of the guardian and through this disordered soul into the family, the polity, and the world.
The therapy of Plato, in conclusion, is to enable us to examine our souls vicariously, as it were, in examining steadfastly the arguments in the various dialogues of Plato, particularly in The Republic. Plato's proposals about the life of the philosopher, the life of the politician, and family life were directed at real sources of order and disorder in the guardians. Moreover, Plato, through his attention to these sources, was himself ordained to the highest things, to that seriousness that alone is related to God, as The Laws eventually make clear (803). The things that could prevent us from these higher orientations arise in the soul as it is erotically drawn to objects that can deflect us from the good, from the beautiful. The New Testament, as if to reinforce this very point, admonishes us that the individual is not only not to perform definite actions that are disordered but not even to desire them -- the point that St. Thomas made about the limits of civil law and the scope of divine law (I-II, 91, 4).19
Political philosophy rediscovers the body through a careful examination of that very tract in classical political philosophy that seems, at first sight, most alienated from the body. It is no coincidence, therefore, that what appears in late modernity and post-modernity is not a proper appreciation of the body but precisely a denial of its intrinsic connubial orientation. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger perceptively arrived at a conclusion that is beginning to be presented in political philosophy itself:
The new esteem for woman which was the justified point of departure of modern movements ends then soon in contempt for the body. Sexuality comes no longer to be seen as an essential expression of human corporeality, but as something external, secondary and ultimately meaningless. The body no longer reaches what is essential to being human, but comes to be considered an instrument we employ.20
The body seen as a mere instrument means that man's will is not itself ordained to the reality of the body and its particular being. A kind of gnosticism takes political form to treat the body as containing in itself no principles or structures that need to be respected.
The value of these recent reflections on Plato is precisely that they allow us to repropose to ourselves in thought, in speech, the right order of human and civil things, a right order that begins by coming to terms with the extraordinary proposals of Socrates in the Fifth Book of The Republic. Socrates tells Glaucon there that "to speak knowing the truth, among prudent and dear men, about what is greatest and dear, is a thing that is safe and encouraging" (450). But if we are in doubt about where these things go, as Socrates cautiously admitted he was, the case is more perplexing. Socrates thought, however, that it was "a lesser fault to prove to be an unwilling murderer of someone than a deceiver about fine, good, and just things, in laws" (451). The uniqueness of Socrates, thus, remains, to use Alcibiades' word, "astonishing".
3Leo Strauss, "Plato", History of Political Philosophy, Edited by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 33-89; "On Plato's Republic," City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), pp. 50-137. See also James V. Schall, "A Latitude for Statesmanship? Strauss on St. Thomas," Leo Strauss: Political Philosopher and Jewish Thinker, Edited by Kenneth L Deutsch and Walter Nicgorski (Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994), pp. 211-30; "Reason, Revelation, and Politics: Catholic Reflexions on Strauss," Gregorianum, 62 (1981), #2, 349-55; #3, 467-98.
5James V. Schall, "The Christian Guardians," The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 1984), 67-82; "On the Neglect of Hell in Political Theory," ibid., pp. 83-106; "Regarding the Inattentiveness to Hell in Political Philosophy," Divus Thomas, (Piacenza), (#3-4, 1989), 273-79.
19It is worth noting that John Paul II in Crossing the Threshold of Hope has referred to the deaths of Christ and Socrates: "Christ is not simply a wise man as was Socrates, whose free acceptance of truth nevertheless has a certain similarity with the sacrifice of the Cross" (New York: Knopf, 1994), p. 42. See my discussion on the relation of the deaths of Christ and Socrates in The Politics of Heaven and Hell, ibid., pp. 21-38.