There be dragons!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On Plato

A recent exchange with a student on Plato.

Hi Mr. Rex!

I hope everything is going well for you!

I just had a quick question that I thought you might be able to help me out with. In 611c of

the Republic and in the surrounding area, Socrates is speaking of how factious things made

up of parts ultimately corrupt and only unities and harmonies are eternal. If this is the case,

then in 611c when he mentions justice and injustice he uses the plural- implying that justice

is factious. If this is the case, doesn't this imply that Platonic thought viewed justice as

conventional and volatile? This seems to contradict the entire message of the Republic, but

as it comes at the end and it seems very deliberately placed, I can't quite pass it off. Can you

make anything of it?


Dear N.O.,

Thanks for the email. You caught me on an exhausting afternoon with an open house looming before my eyes so I wasn't able to answer toot sweet.

About the Republic 611c line. I hadn't given it much thought actually. In all likelihood, there is little chance that a single word would throw into confusion the entire bulk of the text. Still, it is not beyond Plato's ironic dexterity with language to do exactly that; to say, "well, in the end, maybe it's all balderdash." What is Socrates really talking about, after all? It is only nominally Justice, just as it is only nominally about philosophy or a city. The city works to talk about justice which serves to talk about the examined life which serves to talk about ... what? A vision Plato had? An ineffable beauty within but not of the world? In which case, all metaphors break down. The city metaphor only goes so far before it gives way to the cave metaphor which only goes so far before giving way to Er and so on. If the term of Justice has served its purpose, Socrates/Plato no longer wants us to dwell on it; this is god and not god - or, "look pilgrim and then pass on" as Virgil says to Dante. All metaphors, even the words and concepts of abstract thought, move us toward a deeply silent and personal contemplation of what really IS; being qua being. Thus, if Plato were to throw into confusion the definition of justice he so carefully has crafted to this point I would not be surprised. Is his message, then, that of the Eleusinian mysteries that we ought not to cling too readily to any one thing? All things change? All things are mutable? The only constant in life is change. Why should we be surprised by fortune's inconstancy, advises Boethius, when change is her nature? Plato wants us to be able to say, this is Justice, yet more to the point he wants his readers to find humility and thus wisdom (philoSOPHIA, after all). Such humility only comes by accepting that we are not gods and change happens; a good bumper sticker, or phylactery, or mantra. The trick isn't so much to claim that we know what these shadows are b/c we see them more often than others, nor to gain prizes b/c we actually are better at naming them, but b/c we accept that we are not gods to see them and pass out of the cave into the light. This is justice, but justice even is not the point. I know what justice is, but it isn't "my justice" nor do I claim divinity b/c I know what justice is; rather divinity is granted me b/c I know that I do not know.

I'll look further into this when I have breathing room. For now, have to help a student with an essay then go down to play practice.

Gnothi seauton.

A. Rex

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