Monday, February 4, 2013

Social & Political Philosophy: Plato & Aristotle, Class & Caste

Plato (427-347 BCE) & The Republic

Plato was long assumed to be a student of Socrates simply because Plato writes as much in many of his dialogues.  As Socrates is about to die, Plato has Socrates ask where the young Plato is, to which another student replies that Plato was sick and thus could not be there at the time.  Scholars now are critical of this, and think that Plato had a habit of writing himself and his family into Socrates’ circle in his dialogues.  Because they are our best sources on Socrates, it is difficult to tell whether or not Plato’s older cousin Critias or Plato himself were actual students of Socrates or whether they were simply influenced by this figure who became quite famous following his trial and death.

Plato’s actual name was Aristocles, but according to the story his wrestling instructor named him Platon or “Broad” because he had a wide figure.  This may be merely a story, because Plato was known to have a wide “breadth” of knowledge covering all subjects of ancient thought.  Plato’s father died when he was young, and his step-father became the Athenian ambassador to the Persian royal court (remember that Persia was a great source of ancient world cosmology at the time).

Long after his attempts to become an established playwright, after his dialogues about Socrates had gathered some fame, Plato founded his Academy in 385 BCE, an open area near a tree grove where he, his students and other lecturers would teach and debate matters of philosophy and cosmology.  Academy in fact means “porch”, an open area in front of a building, a fact it took scholars long to understand for they believed that the Academy must have been a building itself.  Scholars made a similar error looking for the famed Library of Alexandria (an Egyptian center of ancient world knowledge), when in fact the Library was a shelf that ran along a hall that connected two buildings.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates debates with others on justice and the Good.  Socrates debunks several common views, then constructs an ideal model of the city.  The well ordered city is compared to the well ordered soul (3 layers in their places).  Thus, the Good is proper order of the elements (perfectly in accord with ancient cosmology).  The Timaeus, which is supposed to be the discussion the day after the Republic, has a student of Socrates named Timaeus lecture on the cosmos, showing Plato’s particular views on cosmology.  Just as the individual is a microcosm to the city, the city is a microcosm to the cosmos, and again the elements must be separated and put in their places.  The cosmos is ordered in its unfolding, producing the ideal order of the soul and the city.  One should order the self and order the city the way the cosmos are ordered.  Both are supposed to have been written about 360 BCE.

As the Republic opens, Socrates talks to several “interlocutors” and argues against their concepts of justice at a social gathering (read: wine party).  Polemarchus argues that justice is paying debts, helping friends and harming enemies.  Socrates argues that in some situations, helping friends and harming enemies are wrong.  Thrasymachus argues that justice is ‘the good of the stronger’.  Glaucon similarly argues that without threat of punishment, no one would do good.  Socrates argues that the strong will corrupt themselves if they only act for their own interests and not for the good of the whole.  Remember the politics of the time- Many tyrants came and fell, one by one.

Socrates is challenged to give a positive account of justice, not just defeat opponents.  Socrates argues that first they must construct the ideal or just city, and this will show how the ideal or just individual should be.  Essentially, the just city is a caste system, with a three-fold division.  This division corresponds to the physical human being and the cosmic being.

Head is fire/reason/rulers,
Heart/chest is air/spirit/police,
Hands/Stomach is earth/desire/workers.

The individual, city and cosmos form a continuum, a set of Russian dolls.  Notice that authority and the good come from above, evil to be ordered from below.

Socrates argues (in reading) that each person is best suited to one thing, and should be assigned this one job.  He argues that we will lie to the people and tell them a Phoenician story, which is that the classes are based on metals.  The police and philosophers are made of silver and gold, so they are suited to be put above the others.(Why lie?  Because the common will not understand philosophy, Plato’s system…this corresponds to the cave, where most will never leave, and need puppets to see anything).

All is sacrificed for the common good:  no private property or partners or children, for any of the three classes.  Socrates argues that the ruler who grabs for themselves will not be happy, filled with “horrid pains and pangs”, and will physically and mentally fall apart.  This tyrant will never “taste true freedom or friendship”.  Because this is not the order of the cosmos, it will not stick and will fall apart.

Socrates argues (and the interlocutors naively agree as simple yes men) that if they separate out the police and educate them as best as can be, and then take the philosophers out of the police and educate them as best as can be, no injustice will be possible.  There is the simple belief that the order itself will generate justice throughout the whole.  The police and philosophers will thus never be greedy or unjust to the people below.  Plato elsewhere argues that this is how the Egyptians in Thebes did it: elevating priests as a class- he also says to imitate Sparta as well separating out the warriors.

Plato also suggests banning all art (music, poetry and theatre) that is counterproductive, which pretty much means everything that isn’t impressing the highest good and order.  The youth are to be taught that they must improve themselves for the good of the state, and that the gods never to injustice or desire.

The Allegory/Analogy/Story of the Cave describes the masses and the assent of the philosopher/king beyond opinion of the earthly realm to knowledge of the heavenly and eternal realm, showing why the philosopher alone should have authority.  Everyone is chained in a cave, watching shadows of puppets/models carried before a fire at the mouth of the cave.  The people think that the shadows are reality, the real things.  The one who escapes first sees that the shadows are shadows of puppets, and sees the fire that casts the shadows.  Coming out of the cave and past the small fire, the seeker is at first blinded by the sunlight.  The seeker first sees real things outside of the cave, and realizes that the puppet/models were just copies of the real things.  Then the seeker can get adjusted and see that the sun is the cause of all these things, and that the world of the cave is a poor copy of the world outside the cave.  This is the realization of the forms and then the all/light/reason/consciousness that produces the forms which are copied in the cave below.   This is opinion to belief (cave) to knowledge to reason (outside).  Notice that the city is a device for creating philosophers who comprehend the true forms of things for the benefit of all below, and that the body is similarly a device for creating thought in the head for the benefit of the body below.

As a final thought, note that Plato’s republic is nothing like what we consider a republic to be today.  People rise based on intelligence and merit, not by voting.  Plato was quite opposed to having the people aka “the mob” elect leaders based on popularity.  Like Confucius, Plato believed that a system of dictatorship downwards based on merit and achievement was best.


Aristotle (384-322 BCE) & The Politics

Plato’s student and the tutor of Alexander the Great and Ptolemy, Aristotle is one of the most famous and influential of Greek philosophers. He was primarily interested in biology and speciation, but his works on the soul (mind, self), Logic, Ethics and politics became more important than his works on the animal kingdom. He was a central influence on the origins of Christianity, Islamic thought and European thought in the middle ages. While he is sometimes called the first scientist and the first logician, his views on these subjects expanded ancient world cosmology and were not the birth of these subjects. Aristotle has been claimed by the West as a founder, but the Islamic world also considers him one of their own and he is depicted in different ways depending on who does the illustrating (see the beautiful Islamic image in the Wikipedia article that portrays him as a very dark skinned holy sage for an interesting counter to Renaissance paintings).

Aristotle’s conception of virtue and human purpose is entirely in line with ancient world cosmology. He believes that everything has a single purpose for which it is intended. It is as if the cosmos, Being itself, is a big mind that creates things for particular uses, and individual beings thrive if they are serving their purposes (ergon in the Greek, or “work”, “job”). We are reasonable to the degree that we see the purposes of things, serve our own natural purpose and use things in accord with their natural purposes. This is known as the teleological view, as the study of purpose is called teleology. Notice that teleology is very big with more traditional people today (including evangelical Christians) but modern Philosophy and Science have broken from this view and find it quite antiquated.

For Aristotle, having oneself in the proper stack and order is being in accord with one’s nature, and this means putting theory and soul/intellect on top and putting each lower element of our minds and bodies in the service of the highest part of the mind, the intellect, which corresponds to the highest good of the cosmos itself. Just as the intellect should be pursued because it is the best and highest part, the good itself should be pursued simply in itself and for no other purpose.  Aristotle does believe that the human individual will naturally flourish and be happy if they are stacked up right and in accord with the human purpose of intellectual activity, but this is secondary and the byproduct of serving ones purpose.

Similarly, in matters of politics, Aristotle believes that the city is not primarily a living arrangement but rather for producing the elite and the virtuous. Thus, the city is not for making people happy but having each individual do their natural job. Just like his teacher Plato argues in his Republic, Aristotle argues that each person must have one thing they do best and it is therefore best for them to do that thing and that one thing only. Unfortunately, both Plato and Aristotle argued that slaves and peasants are meant to serve the aristocracy and women are clearly meant to serve men (Mill will strongly criticize these views, one of the first and few outspoken critics of the subjugation of slaves and women).

Aristotle argues that the ruler/ruled pairing is natural to society and best for preservation.  He identifies the ruler with the head and male, and the ruled with the body and female.  He says that the subjugation of the woman and slave is in everyone’s best and natural interests.  Because a thing is best if it serves one purpose, its natural purpose, there are some who naturally should rule and others who naturally should be ruled.  The man rules the wife and children, and the king rules the country.  When he says that non-Greeks are natural slaves, keep in mind he had the future Europeans to the North and West in mind far more than the Persians and Egyptians, who he openly admired.  He also says that we imagine the gods to have a king and live in similar ways to human beings.  Note that he is not arguing that the gods are imaginary (Aristotle was a polytheist) but he is critical, as were many of the great Greek philosophers) of the gods having human form or human passions.  Later in this section he says that gods are by nature entirely self-sufficient as they are immortal and do not need to eat.

He says that several people (in ruler/ruled pairings) make up the village, and several villages make up the state.  This allows people to do far more than survive.  It allows people to live the good life and maximize the following of their natural purposes.  They can be self-sufficient as a whole.  He famously says, “man is by nature a political animal”.  This does not mean that people collect into villages and cities to be happy, but rather that they collect because it is natural and best for them to do so to be what they are.  Happiness is not the purpose of human life for Aristotle.  Rather, truth (figuring out the way things are) is the purpose of human life and the city as a whole.

Aristotle believes that humans alone have speech and therefore are the only animal that can know truth and justice.  Elsewhere he argues that this is because humans (more specifically, the males of the superior peoples) have the highest level of mind/soul and other animals (including women and slaves) do not  possess this potential/faculty.  The human alone can see that the whole is more than the part, and so the city matters more than the village, the village matters more than the family, and the family matters more than the individual.

In book 2, Aristotle says we must examine the constitutions of many sorts of states to see which one is the most just.  Note that when Aristotle says “constitution” he is not referring to a document but to the structure or form of the state.  The name of the American document follows this language, but we think of a document today when we hear the word, unlike Aristotle who did not live in a time when societies were based on rule by document.  British Conservatives like Burke argued that America would fail if it did not have a king because a state could not be ruled by a piece of paper.

Aristotle criticizes his teacher Plato for arguing that property and family should be held in common.  As the translator correctly points out, Plato only suggests this for the guardians and philosophers, not necessarily for the common people (though he does not proscribe it for them either).  He argues that people should not share property or family in common.  Very similar to the Confucians such as Mencius arguing against the Moists and universal love, Aristotle argues that if we shared everything and everyone in common people would not care about anything in particular and this would lead to the ruin of the state, and that we see people naturally caring about their own family and possessions than they do about things shared in common.  This is odd, because he is also arguing that the state is superior to the village etc. precisely because it is the whole and the common.

For property, Aristotle believes that generosity and sharing should be voluntary and not forced.  This means that Plato is wrong to suggest the guardians share everything by law.  He argues that the present way of practice, holding property and family privately, is natural and beneficial compared to Plato’s radical and revolutionary suggestions in the republic.  Note that Plato is very similar to communism in this regard as we will see with the Communist Manifesto, and Aristotle’s objections are very similar to objections to Communism today.  Aristotle argues that there must be a balance of plurality and unity such that unity does not eradicate plurality.