Monday, June 25, 2007

Step away from the Cave please...

Salon has an interesting book review about a new book about Plato's Republic. The author, a British philosphy professor, offers this insight into how this book has been misused in recent years:
Another reading of him, which is I think even worse, is due to the American political theorist Leo Strauss, who saw him as in some sense endorsing the idea that it's a dog-eat-dog world. This was kind of a covert message, Strauss thought, of [Plato's] text. Strauss thought that this covert message or esoteric message was supposed to be perceived only by a number of people of special illumination, amongst which he included himself, of course. And that was the ideology that eventually became American neoconservatism, the view that the servants of the state are entitled to do anything -- to lie, to manipulate, to foment war, to destabilize neighboring states, to disguise their actions under a hypocritical cloak of goodness. So it's an extreme example of realpolitik, which I think is just a 180 degree misreading of what Plato is about. But it just shows that you can put down the clearest words on the page and it will be read saying the opposite.

I think that [Strauss's reading] is very perverse.

It's not just perverse, it's antithetical to the democratic values of the American republic.

Plato was certainly an elitist, and no fan of the sort of democracy practiced by the Athenians at the time, one assumes because it was responsible for the execution of his beloved teacher, Socrates. But the application of Plato's argument (Socrates is assumed to be speaking for Plato in the Republic) in the Republic by the NeoConservatives truly deserves some greater scrutiny in relation to how they view our Constitutional Republic. As the books author points out in the Salon Q&A, The "ideal State" described in the Republic is really just an extended metaphor that Socrates/Plato uses to argue for the validity of living a just and virtuous life as Plato saw it. After thousands of years of Western Philosophy, here we are grappling in the dirt about the ideas of Plato and his Theory of Forms.

I doubt many who consider themselves NeoConservatives walk around plotting to implement the ideas in the Republic, but they do seem to embrace an idealism that goes out of it's way to ignore, reject, or shout down anything that might challenge their conception of what is the "good", and that their might be limits to what they should do to bring that good about. And that is Platonic in a real sense, insofar as they are the ones who get to leave the cave and decide what is the higher reality. I would argue it's useful to view NeoConservatism in this way because it strips it of its faux pragmatism and concern for the public and put's it in the realm of all the other utopians with visons of arrogant grandeur.

One of the ironies here is that Socrates, Plato's teacher,and the argumentive, unemployed nitpicker that he was, would never have been invited to one of those fancy AEI NeoCon symposiums on National Security, but would been "escorted" from the building for asking the obvious moral questions the Neoconservatives don't seem very concerned about.

I wonder if perhaps the Republic should have been on that list of the 10 most Harmful books that Human Events Online compiled a few years back? They limited it to the 19th and 20th centuries, but considering all the damage fairly or unfairly attributed to the Republic, maybe it deserveas an honorable mention?

No comments: