Monday, June 25, 2007

Philosopher Kings and Boy Kings

In a godawfully titled article, Salon covers Plato today, or at least speculates about what ideas of Plato's have been inherited by neoconservatism. The article starts by pointing us in the direction of The Republic, that favorite read of authoritarians of all ages, who seem to miss the irony, or even worse, misread it completely. The Salon author gives us this to start with:

''Twenty-four hundred years ago, Plato wrote a book called "The Republic," in which the famed teacher Socrates and his pupils discuss the ingredients of an ideal government. They decide that there is a higher realm than mere physical reality, that it is the duty of a small cadre of enlightened, elite citizens called "guardians" to become philosopher-kings and that only these rulers can grasp what is truly real and Good.''

Okay, well thanks for that. But, really, I know that cultural literacy isn't what it used to be; however, shouldn't educated people already know The Republic?

At any rate, Simon Blackburn has written a book on The Republic and aptly explains how many people have misread it. He claims that Karl Popper was too hard on Plato and perhaps there is something to that. Popper makes Plato out to be a theorist of totalitarianism and an authoritarian creep who didn't really understand what Socrates was doing. To be honest, it's hard to read Plato without thinking Popper was on to something- Plato seems to be working at complete odds with Socrates at times. Socrates is also funny in a way that Plato is incapable of being. I think that Plato's ideal man is educated, while Socrates' ideal man is educable, and in the gulf between the two concepts lies the difference between the two men. Of course, it's also hard to tell just what Plato is doing, since a number of different ideas come across in the dialogues. Maybe Popper was too hard on Plato and maybe he was judging him by his epigones.

Next they discuss Leo Strauss, who is supposedly quite popular with ''neocons''- God knows why. One of my mentors used to spend summers in Germany conversing with Strauss, and has described him, quite rightly I think, as someone who thought that everything that happened after classical Greece was a mistake. More to the point, Strauss is tendentious, boring, and downright silly at times. His work is like the Da Vinci Code for aspiring Albert Speer types. All reading into classical texts and trying to fob it off as close reading of the texts themselves. It's classical scholarship meets conspiracy theory- for the sorts of people who root for the conspiracy.

As for the ''intellectual roots of neoconservatism'', searching for such things seems like trying to save the ship after it's already sunk. Bill Kristol has claimed that neoconservatism descended from Hume, Locke, and Adam Smith and has then proceeded to largely misread Hume, Locke, and Adam Smith. Clearly these are people who are as dangerous with philosophy as they are with governance. One day we will have to explain why anyone ever took them seriously. And probably the answer is that, yes, cultural literacy really is so lousy in this country that you can fob off a pedant like Leo Strauss as having uncovered ''the eternal truths of Plato'' and get away with it. And then tell yourself it was a 'noble lie'.

But, by all means, read The Republic- just enjoy it as an intellectual exercise and not as the sacred wisdom of the ages or some such shit- likely the opposite of what Socrates would have wanted anyway.

No comments: