Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Ancient Philosophy Society, Second Post: Rethinking Plato's "Republic"

I would not like my readers to think that I have said all I intend to concerning the Ancient Philosophy Society. Rather, I will be bouncing back and forth between discussions of the APS and the Heidegger Circle. What I will do in this post is discuss two papers I deeply enjoyed dealing with Plato's Republic. They both appeared on Friday in the session "Plato's Reframing of Ownership and the Common Root of Tyranny and Philosophy".

Sara Brill "Plato's Critical Theory"

Brill's paper, which I thought was brilliant and have been thinking about ever since, consisted of an attempt to read Plato's Republic highlighting its resonances with contemporary critical theory, especially feminist critical theory. In the course of this reading Brill hoped to focus on the interdependence of the city and philosophy and to interpret the Republic as a consideration of the necessary conditions in the polis for philosophical thought. As usual, I can't hope to deal with the full subtlety and breadth of Brill's paper so I will offer at best a few key points from her work.

The "critical" aspect of the Republic as presented by Brill consists of the dialogue's nature as a play and proliferation of images and, as such, a presentation of different ways of seeing aiming at an ability to see differently. This, in turn, provides the ground for an understanding of the city as a collection of psychic effects mediated through signifying systems. Seeing this fact us to understand phusis as a structure, or grammar, of differences expressed in these imagistic signifying systems which also constitute the play of desire. Plato's interest in the education of desire, then, reveals phusis and desire as already "infused with techne". This allows us, in line with contemporary feminist critical theory, to understand sexual difference as historically and politically contingent and thus both open to political alteration and an important topic for the formation of a healthy city.

The Republic reveals that certain formations of sexual difference are the foundations of cities, both just and unjust, as revealed in the role played by family life in the discussion of the degeneration of regimes. The interplay between these regimes depends on both contingent conceptions of property and collective fantasies about sexual difference. In particular, increased familial estrangement, for example in the estrangement of the wife and husband that least to the timocratic character or the unbridled multiplication of desire that represents tyranny in terms of both cannibalism and incest, is correlated with the increase in private ownership. We see here the interconnection of conceptions of ownership and various formulations of sexual difference which means that any economic critique will have to deal with sexual critique and vice versa. As Brill points out, the irony is that the private family is destroyed by the tyrant for the sake of the fulfillment of private desire while the private family is destroyed in Kallipolis for the sake of civic unity.     

Andrew German "Tyrant and Philosopher: Two Fundamental Lives in Plato"

German's paper was fascinating and, honestly, a lot of fun in a slightly dark comedic way. The paper focuses on the way in which philosophy and tyranny, as forms of health and sickness, turn into one another throughout Plato's work with a disturbing ease. The obvious example is Alcibiades, who is both Socrates' greatest failure and, German argues, strikingly close in character to Socrates. This point is extended in a troubling way when German points out that what we see in the most intimate moments between Socrates and Alcibiades is Socrates encouraging Alcibiades' tyrannical desires. The main problem, then, seems to be the similarity in the nature of desire in the life of the tyrant and the philosopher.

If we focus on the degeneration of regimes or the Myth of Er we see that there are really only two fundamental types of human lives. Allow me to offer a bit of German's justification of this claim. German interpreted the degeneration of regimes in terms of the nature of desire and its relation to limit. Each of the ways of life, and the political rule they beget, other than that of the philosopher or the tyrant is characterized by the choice of an object of desire which represents the limit of that desire, objects like money or honor etc. What the philosopher and the tyrant share, according to German, is the unlimitedness of their desire. The tyrant opts for desire unrestrained and unlimitedly explores and pursues any and all possible objects of fulfillment. The philosopher, similarly, is unwilling to have desire limited to an specific object but seeks rather the whole Good and nothing else besides. Both tyrant and philosopher, then, represent an unlimited desire for the absolute.

We can make this a bit more clear by focusing on German's point, drawn from the myth of Er, that limitation is ultimately inadequate to save one from the life of a tyrant. To be brief, the Myth of Er represents a complex reincarnation system whereby the souls of the dead are organized in the afterlife and offered the choice of new lives based on the life they have lived previously on earth. This seems to be a self enclosed cyclical system except for the fact that those who practiced tyranny on earth are flayed in view of the other souls and then cast permanently down into Tartarus. Tyrants are, as German points out, "a leak in the system" of reincarnation. The striking, and surprisingly dark, moment in the Myth is not this one, however. Rather it is the moment when those who have lived a naturally virtuous, and thus restrained and limited, life on earth get to select their reincarnation first and opt immediately for tyranny. In other words, worldly goodness makes one more likely to become a tyrant. Limited desire, then, is insufficient to avoid tyranny, even if only seen on this larger scale. We see the same point when we realize that any of the limited desires in the various types of regimes, say timocracy, still lead eventually to tyranny. It is only the philosopher, then, who knows in the afterlife not to choose the life of the tyrant as the best life to lead. When we compound this with the realization that those who lived worse lives than that of the philosopher or the naturally virtuous will choose lives better than those they lived previously we get a system in which, life after life, a person potentially makes their way towards the life of natural virtue from which, having passed away, they will select the life of a tyrant. Then, when they find themselves back in the afterlife, they will be cast from the system by the slight "leak" whereby tyrants are sent forever to Tartarus. In other words, since the number of souls is finite, ultimately one becomes a philosopher or ends up cast from the system into Tartarus. The only real choice, finally, is that between the life of the tyrant and that of the philosopher and each, as German suggests, arises from the same root: the unlimited nature of desire. The final troubling question, then, is how one becomes a philosopher. Socrates seems to fail (at least) as often as he succeeds with his students and the failure in the Myth of natural goodness makes clear that nature alone can not make us philosophers. Is this a question of moral luck? Can an Alcibiades be saved?       

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