This is a follow-up on my previous post on Plato’s Republic and his proposal to redefine the family. I’ve already argued my view that this is an ironic proposal rather than a straightforward proposal. In reflecting on this, though, I thought about the influence of families on American politics. Consider this — our Constitution is designed to make political office as free of ancestral or titled constraints as possible. The idea behind this, even if it has not been consistently carried out, is that the people most suitable to govern will be placed in positions to govern. However, even with this structure in place, in periods of American history, a few families have exercised enormous influence. This is not a conspiracy theory, but a statement of fact on the undeniable influence of families in government, even in a republic which has been designed to remove barriers of ancestry.
Think of the following. Since 1988, the office of President of the United States has been occupied by three families: Bush, Clinton, and Obama. According to current wisdom, the front runners for the presidential nomination for 2016 for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, are Hilary Clinton and Jeb Bush, making it likely that we will have another President from either the Bush or the Clinton families. However, this is nothing new.
If we look further back at American history, other families have been elected to high office and exercised extraordinary influence. The Kennedys the Roosevelts, the Tafts (with William Howard as President, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Robert Taft as Senate Majority Leader), the Gores (Albert Gore Sr. as longtime Tennessee senator and Al Gore as Senator and Vice -President), and John and John Quincy Adams who both occupied the White House. More obscurely, both John Marshall Harlan and John Marshall Harlan II served on the US Supreme Court.
I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. In the providence of God, families will arise who have unique abilities, opportunities, and resources. Families will arise who have a heritage of relationships, connections, and experience in governing will be entrusted with the task of governing. The difficulty here is not with this process, but with the corruptibility of the persons holding high office, and the temptation to enrich their personal circumstances through governing.
Plato attempts to insulate the philosopher-king from corruptibility, yet seems to believe in corruptibility of human nature and illustrates this reality in Book VIII of the Republic, when he writes of the inevitable degeneration of good government.
Does the historical pre-eminence of a few families exercising enormous power and influence detract from the Constitutional design protecting individual liberties? Does this reality hinder what would be the best possible government that America would be able to have? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
I’m continuing to think about Plato’s Republic and how I’m coming to believe that there is a good deal of irony behind Plato’s “political prescription.” Yesterday, I posted on communal marriage in the Republic and how it casts a shadow of a doubt on any rigid interpretation concerning whether Plato writing exclusively about what is best for the individual human soul, or the community. This got me thinking about a couple of issues.
First, Plato may have viewed communal marriage as the lesser of two evils between not having a mate for live vs. the fierce jealousies and political rivalries that marriage was inevitably a part of in his day. I can almost see him thinking out loud with his friends over a glass of wine, “what’s a little casual sex compared to the destruction that Oath of Tyndarus and the Trojan War brought about?”
However, I think that line of thought ultimately fails for a number of reasons:
I don’t think Plato thought that people would be reading his works 2400 years into the future from when he wrote them. In other words, he didn’t write the Republic to us or for us.
I’m more of an interested reader than an expert on this, but the more I think about it, the more inconceivable it is to completely remove the family from any kind of government, anywhere, anytime, in the centuries before Christ. Again, I’m no expert on classical Greek social structures, but if they were anything like their Roman counterparts, the paterfamilias was the chief social unit. These were essentially extended families led by a patriarch. For the upper classes, these units were the building blocks of society and the units who kept society stable. This resulted in each city-state having an oligarchy who maintained power and influence.
Essentially, the change that Athenian democracy made was that it expanded the oligarchy. There was nothing like universal male suffrage extended to the citizens of Athens. Plato’s “democracy” was nothing like the democracy that we know today.
Also, the proposed government of the Republic lacked the tools for social control that later revolutionary governments would have. In the 400’s BC, there was no means of constant state surveillance such as what we find in George Orwell’s 1984. And there is no thought of pacifying the proletariat with medication or meaningless activities like we find in Brave New World. Apart from constant state surveillance, mass communication of propaganda, and the possibilities for social control that technology brings, it doesn’t seem that Plato’s Republic is feasible.
Finally, Plato leaves many essentials for human flourishing out of the Republic. In place of faith, he proposes a religion subservient to the needs of the state. He redefines marriage and family, which have traditionally been the social units of human flourishing. Then, there is the whole question of being an individual within a community. Both individuality and community are essential for the good life. Yet, Plato subsumes each individual as merely a part of the community, while 21st century urban society tends to make individuality the ultimate priority to the exclusion of the flourishing of the community.
I think what Plato wants to do is to engage us in these questions rather than providing answers for us. I’m not sure he really tells us what he thinks, but instead, intends to provoke us so that we will think about what is necessary for the good life. If you have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear from you!
“We learn how to do things by doing the things we are learning how to do” (Aristotle. Ethics ii.1).
Next week, I will start teaching Plato’s Republic to high school sophomores in my Western Thought classes. This is the eighth year I’ve taught the book. It’s a great gig, one that I truly love. One would think that after teaching Plato for seven years, that it would be possible to “have it down”. However, I don’t think there is any text I feel more inadequate to teach, other than possibly Paradise Lost.
To start with, if I were inventing our curriculum, I probably wouldn’t start with the Republic as one’s maiden voyage into Plato. The Last Days of Socrates volume, which includes the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo (I think), would be a gentler introduction. The advantage the Republic has is that it is a fairly comprehensive overview of Plato’s thought in a single volume.
I’m feeling somewhat stumped because my views about the Republic have changed over the years. For the first few years I taught the book, I assumed the view that Plato was writing a utopian political piece. As I’ve delved into Plato over the years, this seems less possible, unless Plato is being ironic. What appears to be more likely is that Plato is writing about “the republic of the soul,” as someone has put it. He teaches the importance of cultivating virtues of the mind, heart, and will, as we might say. He shows us the possibility and importance of self government, and that a just society will be composed of men and women who govern themselves virtuously.
What I’m not sure about is how his digression about communal marriage and child-rearing fit into this interpretation. The maxim that “it takes a village to raise a child” seems to come into play here. The role of the community in cultivating virtue is undeniable. Perhaps Plato’s “communal marriage” is strategy to attempt to skirt the role of marriage in political alliance-building and power-seeking that has been a part of politics since time immemorial. Thus, applied to the moral government of the individual, this would encourage playing down the passions rather than taking the bacchanalian nuptial festivals that the Republic describes at face value.
I’m still thinking this through, so if there are any Plato students out there that have come to a satisfactory solution, I’d love for you to chime in!
Writing and sharing my writing has troubled me in the past because it seemed so self-serving. In the midst of working to develop a more God-centered, others-seeking ethic, I couldn’t see where writing (at least to share with other readers) quite fit in. But rather than a self-serving, self-seeking, me-centered activity that may potentially lead to more self-serving, self-seeking, me-centered opportunities, i’m beginning to see how this activity fits in to an other-seeking ethic.
True confession — I often find the voices inside my head more interesting than the thoughts of the people around me. So often, I prefer to retreat into my interior world than to “be present” and actively listen and interact with others. In doing so, I’m doing them a disservice. I’d like to get some of these voices out of my head, and if for no other reason, to be truly present with I’m interacting with the people and love the people better who surround me rather than retreating into this interior world.
One of the pivotal changes in my recognition of needing to grow up took place in the unlikliest of settings. In the Fall of 2010, my wife and I went to visit our oldest son for Parents’ Weekend at The King’s College in New York City. I attended a lecture given by Dr. Anthony Bradley. The big idea of this lecture was that our assumptions about the nature of humanity every aspect of our worldview. In other words, “bad anthropology yields disastrous results.”
The portion that was really eye-opening for me was when he introduced a book by Thomas Sowell called A Conflict of Visions. Dr. Sowell describes “visions” as basic beliefs. They are paradigms, ways of seeing, overall “grids” in the way that we perceive data and events , perhaps even below the conscious level.
Dr. Sowell noticed that people whom we might call “liberals” and “conservatives” tend to talk past one another. He attributes this to “a conflict of visions.” The two fundamental visions that Dr. Sowell expounds upon are the “tragic,” or “constrained” vision, and the “unconstrained” vision.
The main factor that drives the tragic vision is the recognition of human limitations. One could describe these limitations as limitations of ability and limitations of morality. It is the recognition that humanity is not omnipotent nor omniscient nor omnicompetent. While this does not rule out advances in innovation, discovery, technology, and civilization, it does recognize that there are some things that will not be able to be done. Ever try running a one minute mile? Eliminating poverty? Making wars to cease? It is the assumption that all of the scenarios are complex problems, so much so that we may not even be able to identify all of the variables inherent in them, much less solve them. The recognition of having limits of morality assumes that human beings are fundamentally selfish organisms. We do not naturally incline toward virtue. It is a Hobbesian view of man in the state of nature, of which he said, “life is nasty brutish, and short.”
Now, this may sound like a morbid understanding of human nature. However, for me, it was positively liberating. While my outlook on life was previously anchored in the tragic vision, I previously did not see the implications of this. Because of this, I was always looking for “the perfect solution for every problem.” I was striving for the “perfect career fit.” This discovery also freed me from the tyranny of perfectionism and made me a better evaluator of changes that I contemplate, both in my personal life and in my vocation The tragic vision insists that there are no “perfect solutions” and “perfect fits” from East of Eden to the New Jerusalem. All “solutions” and “fixes” involve trade-offs and unintended consequences. This is not to say that one ought not to take risks. But it is to focus attention on the processes inherent in living, and to put our trust in wise processes rather than ephemeral products.
One of my resolutions when I began this blog — and that I’ve carried out religiously, meaning with the frequency of Christmas and Easter, is to round out my education. As a teacher and a manager of an educational program that would be classified in the “educational reform” genre, it has dawned on me recently that to speak of “reform” properly, there must be a “form” to “return to”. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to figure this out. So, what is the “form” that we are supposed to be returning to?
The “form” that previous generations have followed is a classical education. However, we have had many important thinkers arise since the Classical period. It seems to me that something along the lines of a Great Books education would incorporate both the insights of those from the classical period and later thinkers. It would also shield one from provincialism, as a number of the Great Books writers were Christian, but others, such as Nietschze attacked the Christian faith.
I have resolved to acquire this education myself. However, there is a newly minted Great Books Ph.D. via distance from Faulkner University that looks intriguing. I’m checking it out now and am deliberating whether to forsake DIYU for some more disciplined instruction. Any comments?