Published in Fides Quaerens Intellectum, II (Spring 2003), 269-84. Originally, this was a lecture presented at Southwest State Texas University, San Marcos, Texas, 2002.
James V. Schall, S. J.
Department of Government
Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200
“PLATO’S CHARM”: ON THE “AUDIENCE” OF POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
“Since my subject concerns man in general, I will attempt to speak in terms that suit all nations, or rather, forgetting times and places in order to think only of the men to whom I am speaking, I will imagine that I am in the Lyceum in Athens, receiving the lessons of my masters, having men like Plato and Xenocrates for my judges, and the human race for my audience.”
– Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men, Introduction.
“The whole universe is one principality and one kingdom, and must therefore be governed by one ruler. Aristotle’s conclusion is that there is one ruler of the whole universe, the first mover, and one first intelligible object, and one first good....”
– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, #2663, Final Paragraph.
“His (Farabi’s) flagrant deviation from the letter of Plato’s teaching, or his refusal to succumb to Plato’s charm, proves sufficiently that he rejected the belief in a happiness different from the happiness of this life, or the belief in another life.”
– Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, 1952.1
People, places, and things, each in a different way, can enchant us, fascinate us, yes, charm us. Each of these latter words – enchant, fascinate, charm – somehow has to do with the mystery of being itself, of why there is something, not nothing. Why can things from outside of ourselves surprise us? Why do we not already know everything? We can be taken out of ourselves almost before we know it by some person or some place or site we encounter. We experience our very insufficiency as a wonder. What kind of beings are we that such striking things can happen to us, even in our every day lives, even in the most ordinary of places?
Is this, perhaps, why our tales begin with “once upon a time?” And is it not true that our stories, even our fairy stories, are designed to evoke wonder in our souls? This is how Tolkien put it in his famous essay, “On Fairy-Stories”: “But if a waking writer tells you that his tale is only a thing imagined in his sleep, he cheats the primal desire at the heart of Faërie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.”2 Of a primal desire of our hearts, we do not want to be cheated. We do not want to be told that something is “only imagined in our sleep.” “Imagined wonder” is related to reality and arises out of it. Indeed, it is perhaps the very best way to recognize that reality’s wonder is itself stranger than any other reality that we can imagine. This too is a mystery to us.
I have an Australian friend, Tracey Rowland, who was once in England for studies or travel, I forget which. While she was there, she visited the famous old Jesuit college at Stoneyhurst. By coincidence, we recently had a young Polish Jesuit in our community who had actually taught at this same Stoneyhurst College for two years. As he talked of the place one day, I suddenly recalled that Tracey had mentioned how stuck she was by the school on first seeing it..
When later by E-mail across the world, I told her about the Polish Jesuit’s stay there, she wrote back the following recollection. “Stoneyhurst is one of my favorite places on the whole planet,” she exclaimed.
It has been one of the great treasures of the Church in England.... It is absolutely hidden in the middle of a wood. The first time I went there I was only 20. It was during my first trip overseas. (With an Australian lady she knew), we spent half a day driving around Lancastershire villages in search of this illusive school. When we finally found it, my reaction was something akin to that of the Apostles at the Transfiguration! It was a kind of monument to Recusant England.
I cite this vivid passage about coming on an historic small college in the woods of Lancastershire simply to make us aware of our curious capacity to be astonished and surprised at something that exists outside of ourselves.
We thus recognize, in spite of the epistemological skepticism of much modern philosophy, that something lovely and profound can exist outside of us, something with which we have no relationship until we encounter it, and even then, mostly, what we have is the mere fact of the beholding, of the knowing. Moreover, if we are lucky and do not let ourselves or our science get in the way of our seeing, we might, some day, just come across what is, what stands outside of nothingness, if, indeed, on that day, we are ready to see it. Simply because we have our eyes open does not necessarily mean that we “see” what is there, though that is a first step. The fact is, I suspect, that every day we pass by things that would astonish us, if we only saw them for what they really are. Everyday we pass by someone we would like to know, not that we can “know” everyone in this life. If I might put it this way, following my Australian friend’s point, though it helps to know her phrase’s literary source, we do not need the Transfiguration to be ourselves “transfigured,” to be struck by the things that are. Yet, the fact that others are astonished by things that they did not anticipate, be they apostles or friends, can serve to alert us to pay attention, to turn our gaze on what is there.
The title of this essay, “‘Plato’s Charm’: On the ‘Audience’ of Political Philosophy,” contains some five different, but related elements. The discussion, in general, concerns “political philosophy,” itself a rather exalted way to begin our inquire into reality. This phrase already implies a distinction between, first, “what is philosophical” and, secondly, “what is political.” Thirdly, the noble name of Plato appears in the title. Plato is the Greek author of The Republic and The Laws, as well as the four dialogues on the death of Socrates, with many other dialogues, most of which have to do, in one way or another, with this most famous trial and death – why did it happen? Did it have to happen? Who is responsible for it?
Plato, furthermore, must be considered the immediate source or beginning of what we know both of philosophy and of politics, of the life of the mind and the life of the city. It is Plato who asks about the best city in speech, after the actual city, Athens, his city, kills Socrates, the philosopher. “Must it always be so with politicians and philosophers?” he wondered. We still wonder about this same point. This wonder is the beginning of specifically “political philosophy,” the question of why the best existing city killed the best man, the philosopher? The death of Christ brings up essentially the same issue.
Plato, fourthly, recalled, in Book X of The Republic, not just philosophy and politics, but also “the ancient conflict between philosophy and poetry,” a conflict caused, largely, by the attraction of poetry and how it portrayed, especially in Homer, the scandalous lives of the gods of the city. We need to relate the life of the philosopher, the life of the city, and the life of the poet, yea, the life of the merchant and the life of the soldier. Plato acknowledged the “charm” of Homer, the poet who educated Greece. He felt the “pull” of Homer’s words. He knew that such poetry could, if not reduced to order, undermine both actual cities and the city he was building in speech. The work of Plato, his philosophy, is designed to counter the disorder of the poets and through them, the disorder in the city.
But since not everyone was a philosopher. Plato also had to be a poet. His very writings are not merely philosophy. They are also poetry. In the Gorgias, the philosopher, Socrates, proves also to be the best politician. In The Apology, one of his accusers was a poet, the other was a craftsman, another a lawyer/orator. These were men of affairs in the city. Socrates himself was once a soldier. And as a philosopher, he could find no other city but his own in which he could follow his vocation, which was to be a philosopher, to examine lives to see if they were worth living.
Finally, there is the word “audience.” All the works of Plato, all the philosophy, all the politics, all the poetry in the world will mean nothing if there is no audience for them, if no one “listens” to what is being said, what is being sung. The very word “audience,” from the Latin word, audire, “to hear,” implies a relationship between to be and to be heard, almost as if to say that the “being” of something is not complete until it is both articulated into a word and actually heard by someone else. Indeed, being, “wording,” and hearing are not complete until, seen as one, they are also praised for what they are, for what is. Nothing is really complete unless it is appreciated. A rational being is not complete until it knows that what is not itself is, none the less, worthy of existing, both in itself outside of our minds and intentionally within our minds. We are the audience not merely of things that exist, but of ideas and understandings that explain the things that are. We are those who hear and who, on hearing, understand.
And when those we would hear are dead or at a distance, we are those who read, a silent way of listening to what someone tells us. Leo Strauss remarked that we are lucky if we are alive during the time when one or two of the greatest minds who ever existed are alive.3 We encounter such minds in what they write, in their books. W. N. P. Barbellion remarked, metaphorically, of “the desire every book (on library shelves) has to be taken down and read, to live, to come into being in somebody’s mind.”4 Because we only live in our time does not mean that we cannot live in another time. We need not be over-awed by post-moderns who would deny us the text in the name of a faulty epistemology that does not allow us outside of our own minds. We know that we know.
We can approach this same point from another angle. It is still related to Plato’s “charm,” to the concern with how the conversations he records have been greeted by later writers. Nietzsche rightly talks of “the charm of the Platonic mode of thinking.”5 Thus, the question can be asked, “why did Machiavelli, the first of the specifically modern political philosophers, himself not become a politician instead of being content to be a man who, while occupying minor diplomatic posts, wrote books in his study?” Let me explain why this is a problem, even for us today. We must be alert to subtle inconsistencies in authors, for they can teach us much. The man who poses the most extreme and immoral political action as what most concerns us is, first, a man of the book, not a politician. How so?
The books that Machiavelli wrote are very readable. This infectious style suggests that he wanted them to be read, even by non-specialists. His books are filled with amusing and graphic examples. They reek of gossip and juicy scandal among the mighty, ecclesiastical and otherwise. We easily recall his stories and their ironic points. The horror and shock of the things that he advocates as examples of the princely art are often assuaged or mitigated by the charm and elegance with which he describes them. He makes wickedness almost pleasant to contemplate. We are carried away in its sweep.
Machiavelli tells us that his little hand-book, The Prince, is, on the surface, a gift of what is best in him to his ruler, Lorenzo the Magnificent. Having dutifully read ancient authors and watched shrewd modern politicians, Machiavelli wished to inform his Prince about “how to rule,” as if such a potentate did not already know, which he certainly did. This curious fact of teaching the Prince what he already knew causes us to wonder if Machiavelli was really writing for the Prince at all. And if not to him, to whom? Indeed, as I like to say, everything in Machiavelli, even the most heinous crimes, is already found in Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, except for one thing. These latter do not deny, as does Machiavelli, the great Socratic principle that “it is never right to do wrong.”
Why, then, did Machiavelli not become a politician? If his theory is what he says it is, it is a compendium for sure-fire political success. Political success is the highest glory in his own scheme of things; he has “lowered his sights” from those proposed by the classical writers. His soul is not bothered by the transcendent. So, why write a book and not take up arms? All armed prophets, he tells us, “succeed,” whereas all unarmed prophets “fail.” But what is Machiavelli himself other than an unarmed prophet? Did he therefore fail?
Who were the unarmed prophets? He mentions the Florentine monk, Savanarola, who is burned at the stake by the city when his revolt failed. But tacitly, the most important unarmed prophets are really Socrates and Christ, neither of whom, contrary to Machiavelli’s own example, wrote books. In his famous chapter 15 of The Prince, Machiavelli tells us to reject the “fantastic kingdoms” of the philosophers as illusions – the reference to Plato cannot be missed. We should rather replace what men “ought to do” by what “they do ‘do,’” which is not always edifying. Christ and Socrates, however, are rather more successful than Machiavelli officially admits. We find out what they did in books collected by others, by Plato, by John and Matthew. Each of these “prophets,” to use his term, tell us, to repeat, that “it is never right to do wrong,” something we read in both The Apology and the Crito, as well as in the Gospels. But Machiavelli wants to free his prince from this seemingly small restriction. The Prince may find it necessary or helpful to do evil to stay in power and thus to be “successful.”. Therefore he wants the “liberty” to do so. The Machiavellian Prince includes evil means, as well, sometimes, as virtue, in his arsenal of political weapons.
How does one go about accomplishing this task of staying in power? It is evidently not sufficient to be a politician trained in the good habits of the classics and Christianity. King St. Louis of France is not Machiavelli’s ideal, though Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, generally considered the worst pope, is much admired. Exclusive reliance on virtuous habits, in Machiavelli’s view, will only restrict and limit the politician’s range of action. One must also be a philosopher, indeed, a “new” philosopher, in the Novus Ordo Saeculorum, who compels us, either by logic or by charm, to agree with him. If it took Socrates and Christ many centuries to form the minds and souls of barbarians to live in humility and meekness, then it will take much time for this new doctrine of soul-formation which Machiavelli proposes to turn individuals around so that they are comfortable with the new morality, this “new order,” this “new mode,” of doing things in which the classical order is overturned.
Even though he implied the opposite, Machiavelli was not initially concerned with a handbook for “princes.” His was rather a manual for “potential philosophers,” as I call them, for those whose souls had yet to be hardened against the charms of Plato and Christ. Until this was done, the world which Machiavelli foresaw could never be secure. Machiavelli’s book was not published in his lifetime. But a book passes over the limits of our personal mortality. It can be read any time and any place, by anyone. Indeed, as we have seen, it “desires to be taken down and read.” The deepest things, both for better or for worse, first take place in our very souls before they become visible in the world. Machiavelli’s book sought, and still seeks, souls as they are being formed, lest, by classical philosophy and revelation, they be hardened against the idea that the Prince may do what he wants to stay in power. We should neither underestimate the attraction of the good, nor the fascination of shrewdly presented arguments for our doing what is evil. Both can move us, if we let them.
In his discussion of the medieval Muslim philosopher al-Farabi’s commentary on Plato, Leo Strauss observes that, almost as an act of deliberate will, al-Farabi “refused” to succumb to Plato’s “charm,” almost as if, which is no doubt true, one must take a positive act against it to reject it. It is important to note that someone who is rash enough to “succumb” to Plato’s charm, would maintain that happiness, ultimately, is “different” from what is best to be hoped for in this life. Indeed, he would accept, with Plato, that there would in fact be “another life.” Evidently, Farabi secretly did not hold the basic beliefs of Islam about another life and the immortality of the soul, Greek ideas, even, in their philosophic expression, for Christians and Jews. Strauss, no doubt, himself found it difficult to believe that anyone could, or should, resist Plato’s “charm.”
Plato’s “charm” is, in fact, a tacit alternative to the “charm” of Homer. Plato’s charm is in the very structure and fascination of The Republic. Plato is full of concern that the attraction of Homer, his description of dissolute gods and heros, will corrupt the youth, the potential philosophers. Consequently, “as much as he loved Homer,” he would not appear in the curriculum of his Academy. Moderns, of course, are scandalized that anything could be excluded from the curriculum, except perhaps what is claimed to be true. Plato, however, was very wise. He knew the power of words, rhythm, song, music, dancing. He was willing to grant that potential judges, for instance, needed to know something of crime and evil, but this knowledge should not come from actually performing or doing criminal things. Where else could they learn them except from literature? Indeed, often we see the important issues of life, crimes and virtues alike, better in literature than we do in our actual lives. As Thomas Mallon put it, “most books are not valuable ‘properties’; they’re voices, laying perpetual claim to their author’s existence.”6 The purpose of our education can, in one sense, be described as a short cut to understanding life through reading and, through that, to the truth of things.
Let me, in this regard, cite the conclusion to C. S. Lewis’s book, An Experiment in Criticism, in which he tells us, making the same point in another way, that even good individual lives, however varied in experience they might be, are too narrow and limited without the benefit of knowing the lives, deeds, and words of others. This knowledge we primarily acquire through literature and drama, through reading and seeing and hearing. “Literary experience heals the wounds, without undermining the privilege, of individuality,” Lewis explained..
There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself, and am never more myself than when I do.7
In this passage, Lewis used the expression “the privilege of individuality.” We are each distinct persons of the same rational nature. But Lewis said of this individuality, that specifically refers to our particular uniqueness as Mary and Socrates, that it is “wounded.”
What is the nature of this “wound?” we might ask. It is a curious word that goes back to something in St. Thomas. The “wound” is common to all individual experience in reality. We have directly only that which we ourselves have directly known. The fact that we lack a direct awareness of that which happens in others is described as a “wound,” almost as if something is “cut off” from our very being, and yet, what is cut off is not properly ours. Or is it?
This is the problem of our finiteness. Why is it all right that we exist but encounter so little of all of the reality that is? Of this situation, the French philosopher, Yves Simon brilliantly writes Knowing is the creature’s best chance to overcome the law of nonbeing, the wretchedness inflicted upon it by the real diversity of ‘that which is’ and ‘to be.’ A thing which is not God cannot be except by being deprived of indefinitely many forms and perfections. To this situation, knowledge, according to St. Thomas’s words, is a remedy, inasmuch as every knowing subject is able to have, over and above its own form, the forms of other things.8
What remedies the “wound” or “wretchedness” of our individual nature, the fact that we are only what we are, is knowledge, by which, in Aristotle’s famous phrase, we are capax omnium. It is, in other words, all right that we are not gods, yet in what is not ourselves, we rejoice both in itself and because we can know it. In this sense, we are, in some sense, the audience of all that is not ourselves. We are listeners of the sounds of being.
What do I mean by the “audience” of specifically political philosophy? The word “audience” means those who hear. Aristotle said that man is an animal who speaks. Presumably, the best way to accomplish things in the political order is by speech, that is, by persuasion. Persuasion is to be contrasted with coercion, itself intended, in Aristotle’s view, to be a kind of last resort persuasion to do what needs to be done. We can say that coercion, at its best, is failed persuasion; that is, it seeks to do by force what was not done by free acceptance of reason. There is a difference between failing to persuade someone who accepts the validity of the alternative argument rather than one’s own and “making” him do the act by force, an act that in fact ought to be done. We tend to look upon coercion in too negative a manner.
Punishment need not be considered in a wholly negative fashion. Indeed, Plato argued that the worst thing we could do to someone who deserved to be punished was precisely not to punish him. This lack of proper punishment would leave him in his crime or sin which ultimately, as such, would deserve a much more severe divine punishment. The notion of “voluntarily accepting or wanting punishment” sounds perhaps strange to us, though its Christian overtones with regard to vicarious suffering should give us insight. Yet, if we in fact do something seriously wrong, the only way that we have of restoring the order we disturbed is through repentance and acceptance of punishment as a sign that we in fact recognize the objective order that we violated in our crime or sin. It is preferable that we live virtuously, obviously. But never to acknowledge what we do wrong, never to be punished or accept punishment, implies that we have not changed what is interior to us whereby we acknowledge the right order of things according to which we ought to live.
Machiavelli’s audience, as I suggested, was not first the Prince. His real audience was the potential philosopher. The potential philosopher is the young man or woman who is being drawn to that framework of life and principle that will be the light in which they decide all their practical actions, that for which they will live, the topic of the first book of Aristotle’s Ethics.. Once we settle into them, we seldom change our first principles. What are first principles? These are the implicit declarations of mind according to which we decided to do what we do. We are responsible for out own first principles. We do not necessarily make them to be what they are, but we do direct out mind to the ones according to which we will choose to act and to defend our acts once we have acted.
We probably have heard the expression “an audience of one.” In an old Peanuts sequence, Lucy affirms to a bored Linus, “I can’t help thinking that this would be a better world if everyone would listen to me.” Meantime, Lucy and Charlie continue this theme while gazing over a brick wall in their back yard. She continues, modestly, “if I were in charge of the world, I’d change everything.” Charlie looks at her with some perplexity. “That would’s be easy,” he tells her, “where would you start?” Lucy has no problem with that unconsciously loaded question. She turns firmly to a dazed Charlie, telling him firmly, “I’d start with you.”9 Lurking in this Peanuts’ sequence is the classic Platonic theme that the condition of our polity is a reflection of our own souls and their condition. The place to begin is with “you” and, obviously, “me.”
Rousseau, in the passage we cited in the beginning, spoke of having the “human race as his audience.” In gathering such an audience, he referred us to the Lyceum, which was actually the school of Aristotle, not Plato, as Rousseau had it. But Xenocrates did accompany Aristotle to Assos in Asia Minor after Aristotle left Athens, lest Athens, as he is said to have put it, “commit the same crime twice.” But Rousseau did suggest that we listen there to Plato and Xenocrates of Calcedon, who was the third director of Plato’s Academy. The “listening” to Plato, Aristotle, and Xenocrates in the Lyceum or the Academy means, in principle, that we are attending to philosophy, to what the human mind can know by its own powers, no matter where it is found. Greek philosophy addresses man as such, not merely Greeks. Philosophy, to be philosophy, has a universal claim.
The audience of precisely political philosophy, I would say, is primarily composed of those who can and do prevent us from listening to philosophy and that revelation directed to its premises. That is to say, it is directed to the politicians whose force and therefore whose unrestricted liberties can seek to prevent us from hearing the truth about what is. Political philosophy is not all of philosophy. But in practical sense, it makes philosophy possible, not in the sense that it can substitute for it, but in the sense that it can, indirectly, allow it to happen.
Philosophy itself has to happen in souls that want to know the truth of what is. With no desire to know and to know carefully, there can be no philosophy. And while there are greater and lesser philosophers, as John Paul II remarked in Fides et Ratio, at bottom, everyone is a philosopher and in some sense is intended to be so (#30, 64). That is, philosophy is one of those things that are worth doing, even worth doing “badly,” as Chesterton put it, because it is not something we ourselves want to miss accomplishing in our own souls.
We are each given a mind in order to use it, not use it arbitrarily, not haphazardly, but still to use it after the manner of knowing the truth of things. Aristotle had remarked that ordinary people can often see in reality what is the best thing to be done because each of our minds in fact is a genuine power directed to real being. What prevents us from knowing the truth is, generally, not its obscurity but our own awareness that if we know the truth, we will have to change our ways of living (see St. Thomas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics, #1529). The audience of political philosophy are those who have been able to free themselves from their own biases and disorders so that they can know what is beyond politics. Aristotle too has warned us that there is a temptation within politics itself to make itself the most important science so that it determines all reality (1141a20-22). We can only resist this unsettling temptation if we are intellectually prepared to place political things in their relative order compared to the other things that are.
But we should not underestimate the fact that the politician can himself presume to make his methods and work to be itself a substitute for philosophy, the elevation of moral or practical philosophy to metaphysics, to an explanation of all that is. Plato’s “charm” consists in the fact that Plato draws us into his intellectual project so that we produce in our own souls an understanding not only of political things but of the things that are simply for their own sakes, that are simply good. In this sense, we all must be grateful to Lucy Brown who, put in charge of the world, would “change everything.” When she was asked where she would start, she replied, “I would begin with you.” If I may, following Rousseau at the Lyceum where he had “the whole human race as his audience,” I would conclude by reminding ourselves that the whole human race does not exist as some kind of abstract collectivity, but as a membership of “you’s” and “me’s.”
“The whole universe is one principality and one kingdom,” as St. Thomas said, in which we do seek to know “the one first intelligible object.” This seeking is what stands behind all we do for we are, at the same time, being charmed and being drawn not to ourselves but to what is. We seek the realization of our “wonder.” Our polity is not itself the ultimate good as particularly modern political systems often claimed. But the audience of political philosophy is the one that, having arrived at such freedom that politics can give us in this world, the freedom of virtue, allows us the vital activity of spending our lives in seeking and knowing the truth, seeking and knowing not primarily because it is useful, but because it is that for which, ultimately, we are made. In the city in speech, we are all “unarmed prophets.” By “reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.” We all must find our own Stoneyhurst, a place which, on seeing it for the first time, and in its own way, strikes us as the Apostles were struck at the Transfiguration. Let us, in the end, unlike F~r~bi, not refuse to “succumb” to Plato’s “charm.”