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Alfred North Whitehead is famous for his remark that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
This is in many ways true, and Plato appears not only in high-falutin’ salon discussions but in popular culture from Moby Dick, to Orson Welles’ narration of the parable of the Cave:
This is warranted, because Plato has shaped the political convictions of powerful statesmen for good and for ill, which in turn has influenced the lives of millions of subjects.
In my Bachelor’s-level course on Plato, one of the most interesting discussions was around whether the revelation of truth, and the recipes for conforming ourselves to the truth in Plato’s dialogue was predicated on force or violence. One teaching assistant believed it was, and some renowned thinkers agree: Karl Popper counts Plato among the chief “enemies of the open society”.
A fair answer to the question of the totalitarian bent on Plato would take a good deal of thoroughness and detail, but a shorthand prescription would be this: Plato’s dialogues, including the Republic are too important not to be read, but should be approached with questions in mind.
For example, is Plato pointing to ways we can improve our own lives freely, or how others can improve our lives for us, whether we want it, or not? Or, does the answer to that question depend on the version of Plato before us?
Those are some great points about Plato.Your comment about Popper on Plato and the open society raises some very interesting issues in particular revolving around the relationship between Greek political thought(in the literal sense of polis centered) and modern liberalism.
I imagine the allusion is to some of the decidedly illiberal particulars of Plato’s vision of the Kallipollis – the ideal city. Poetry is censored to remove ostensibly corrupting passages, art and music deemed corrupting is banned, the guardian class raises their children in common and may not own property and so forth.
Two issues arise in my mind –
1) is Plato’s description of the Ideal Polis meant as a literal blueprint or model for a real society? Or is it an allegory? Socrates in Book II of The Republic describes turning to the model of the city to illuminate the problem of justice in the individual. Later we learn that the Guardian class represents the rational element of the soul, the auxiliaries the “spirited” part, and the lower classes the appetites. Thus one COULD argue that it the perfection and care of the soul that is Plato’s main purpose and the Kallipolis is a symbol of the soul in harmony with itself. There are however counterarguments to an allegorical reading.
2) More broadly however it is indubitably true that the Greeks in general were not classical liberals and in this respect Plato was not exceptional. Aristotle for instance started not with the individual man and his rights and freedoms, but with the fact that man is the most social creature gifted with language for communicating with his fellows and interdependent with them to supply his needs. The life outside the Polis as a solitary individual he compares to the beastly life of the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey. And he repeats over and over that the end of the Polis is not simply the preservation of life and property(though this is necessary) but fostering the GOOD life. In short the Greek view was that the cultivation of the moral and intellectual virtues is a social and political and not a merely individual concern.
If we want to simplify we can say that for modern liberalism freedom is the highest value around whose protection political society is organized, whereas for the Greeks virtue was the highest value and the very justification of politics.
Whatever one thinks of the Greek perspective (and we are certainly now very far distant from it), it certainly raises I think important questions for us in our time. Leo Strauss for instance wanted to bring back many of the insights of the ancients on the grounds of concern for what he saw as the value neutrality of modern political thought. So for instance in the context of the Weimar Republic where he had lived the freedom of speech of moral citizens and that of the Nazis were both admitted on the same level, as if the liberal state was expected to be neutral between them. In short he questioned whether liberalism BY ITSELF was sufficiently strong to resist the often violent nihilistic and relativistic currents of the times. He turned to the classics not to simplistically apply something like Plato’s Republic as a blue print for a modern political constitution, but in search of a more robust conception of the Good that could provide the Western liberal democracies(with whom he was broadly sympathetic) with a stiffer back.
Even if we ultimately reject the Greek conception of politics in part or whole, engagement with the classic texts will invariably raise challenging questions and make us think through our own foundational political commitments more carefully.