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Topic #D35

Plato, Republic 473c-509c


26 November 2001
Scribe: David Dagenais


These minutes were spoken on 28 November; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes




         Professor Hutchinson began Monday’s lecture by calling attention to the etymological root of the word “text” in Latin.  The fact that it is found in words such as textile is because, in Latin, the word “text” has the original meaning of something that is woven together.  Like a woven fabric, when a text is woven differently it produces different things.  This becomes apparent when one examines the works of two of the most sophisticated writers, Plato and Boethius (whom we shall be studying next term).  In his Republic, Plato makes intertextual allusions, presupposing that his audience has knowledge of his other works.  True, Beatrix Potter makes intertextual references in her children’s book, Peter Rabbit, but in Plato’s case, the threads left hanging in his other works are the most pregnant to deliver brain children; his rich intertextuality, therefore, is not an accident. 


In this dialogue, we see Plato putting things into a new kind of structure.  Professor Hutchinson then quoted sections 473c-e:


Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils, Glaucon, nor, I think, will the human race.  And, until this happens, the constitution we’ve been describing in theory will never be born to the fullest extent possible or see the light of the sun.  It’s because I saw how very paradoxical this statement would be that I hesitated to make it for so long, for it’s hard to face up to the fact that there can be no happiness, either public or private, in any other city.  (Republic, 473c-e)


The idea, however, that merely signing over society to a philosopher king is the answer to everything is preposterous.  Nevertheless, Plato envisioned an intellectual institution with the express view to put students in political power.  Plato’s Academy can be seen as a training ground for philosophical politicians.  Most of the students, however, in the Academy were foreigners.  He is being very explicit and open concerning the kind of student he wants at the Academy.  And indeed some students who arrived at the Academy were already brilliant.  For example, Aristotle, the son of a doctor, left for the Academy at 17 years of age; he left, no doubt, after having read some of Plato’s works. 


This passage is the literary equivalent to the “info-mercial”.  It is a fictional documentary.  It serves to motivate, to lay out Plato’s ideas, and to advertise his school.  The etymology of the word philosophy in Greek is “love for wisdom”.  Professor Hutchinson then quoted sections 474d to 475a:


But it isn’t appropriate for an erotically inclined man to forget that all boys in the bloom of youth pique the interest of a lover of boys and arouse him and that all seem worthy of his care and pleasure.  Or isn’t that the way you people behave to fine and beautiful boys?  You praise a snub-nosed one as cute, a hook-nosed one you say is regal, one in between is well proportioned, dark ones look manly, and pale ones are children of the gods.  And as for a honey-colored boy, do you think that this very term is anything but the euphemistic coinage of a lover who found it easy to tolerate shallowness, provided it was accompanied by the bloom of youth?  In a word, you find all kinds of terms and excuses so as not to reject anyone whose flower is in bloom. (Republic, 474d-475a)


This passage seems more appropriate as a symposium’s drinking songs.  Whereas Plato provides a homosexual version of this comparison, Lucretius offers a heterosexual one.  Lucretius also famously described the power of lust to blind the lover to the faults of his beloved. 


Professor Hutchinson then quoted section 476c, saying that this is Plato’s version of Parmenidean epistemology.  It is a basic and intelligent review of Parmenidean principles; furthermore, it is a clear paraphrase of Parmenides’ idea of knowledge.  Parmenides holds that permanent reality is a presupposition of the possibility of knowledge and Plato signs on to this fully.  Erotic love is a yearning for the timelessness of the Beautiful; Socrates discusses this in the Symposium. 


The meaning of life and of erotic desire, therefore, is a yearning for significance.  People who question the mundanity of day-to-day life feel (wrongly) that only what is timeless has significance.  The thing that does not pass away is the only thing of significance.  If this natural line of discourse is pursued further, we find the idea that eternity is synonymous with importance.  The logic of erotic desire is made clear in light of this yearning for significance.  Professor Hutchinson commented that Plato’s notion that the catalyst of erotic desire is a desire for eternity seems stretched.  It is better to think of erotic desire in terms of significance rather than of eternity. 


Professor Hutchinson then commented that Glaucon’s part in the dialogue is wooden.  The dialogue, however, is written to carry forward the discussion; not to impede it like in the Gorgias and the Protagoras.  The dialogue, therefore, loses its power to persuade since the conversation becomes wooden.  Professor Hutchinson was reminded of a National Lampoon comic strip which he read in high school that poked fun at the sometimes-wooden quality of Plato’s dialogues; it satirized the scene where Socrates expounds his allegory of the cave.  Plato had to sacrifice artistic creativity and verisimilitude in order to cover a range of philosophical ideas.  One student asked why Plato even bothered to have the character of Glaucon answer Socrates.  Professor Hutchinson explained that this was a genre issue.  But since Plato’s work, the Laws, does not include Socrates, there is no need for Socratic dialogue.  This part of the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon has not convinced many students. 


In Book 5 of the Republic, Socrates distinguishes between the faculty of knowledge and that of opinion.  Whereas Plato’s idea of knowledge is Parmenidean, his view of opinion is that it is a cognitive state which changes and mutates.  According to Plato, well-established laws of physics belong to the faculty of opinion since the physical world is always in flux.  The only areas of study that can claim to be branches of knowledge, however, are geometry, astronomy, and harmonics.  These areas of study were traditionally held in high esteem by the Pythagoreans, and Plato was also familiar with these branches of knowledge, sine he was in touch with musical theorists and serious mathematicians.  Plato evidently agreed that philosophers had to familiarize themselves with these traditional branches of Pythagorean knowledge. 


Professor Hutchinson then summarized sections 485a-e which offer a more elaborate sketch of the ideal student of philosophy:


Then, as we said at the beginning of this discussion, it is necessary to understand the nature of philosophers first, for I think that, if we can reach adequate agreement about that, we’ll also agree that the same people can have both qualities and that no one but they should be leaders in cities. 

How so?

Let’s agree that philosophic natures always love the sort of learning that makes clear to them some feature of the being that always is and does not wander around between coming to be and decaying. 

And further, let’s agree that, like the honor-lovers and erotically inclined men we described before, they love all such learning and are not willing to give up any part of it, whether large or small, more valuable or less so.

That’s right.

Consider next whether the people we’re describing must also have this in their nature.


They must be without falsehood – they must refuse to accept what is false, hate it, and have a love for the truth.

That’s a reasonable addition, at any rate.

It’s not only reasonable, it’s entirely necessary, for it’s necessary for a man who is erotically inclined by nature to love everything akin to or belonging to the boys he loves.

That’s right.

And could you find anything that belongs more to wisdom than truth does?

Of course not.

Then is it possible for the same nature to be a philosopher – a lover of wisdom – and a lover of falsehood? 

Not at all.

Then someone who loves learning must above all strive for every kind of truth from childhood on.


Now, we surely know that, when someone’s desires incline strongly for one thing, they are thereby weakened for others, just like a stream that has been partly diverted into another channel.

Of course.

Then, when someone’s desires flow towards learning and everything of that sort, he’d be concerned, I suppose, with the pleasures of the soul itself by itself, and he’d abandon those pleasures of the soul itself by itself, and he’d abandon those pleasures that come through the body – if indeed he is a true philosopher and not merely a counterfeit one.

That’s completely necessary.

Then surely such a person is moderate and not at all a money-lover.  It’s appropriate for others to take seriously the things for which money and large expenditures are needed, but not for him.  (Republic, 485a-e) 


Such a student must love all kinds of knowledge, he must not love money, he must be open and without falsehood, he should possess self-control, he must not be petty, his soul must be reaching out to “grasp to the divine and human nature as a whole”, he must not be frightened of death, he must be able to learn slowly and quickly, and he must have grace. 


In sections 487b-d Adeimantus brings up a common problem with philosophy:


And Adeimantus replied: No one would be able to contradict the things you’ve said, Socrates, but on each occasion that you say them, your hearers are affected in some such way as this.  They think that, because they’re inexperienced in asking and answering questions, they’re led astray a little bit by the argument at every question and that, when these little bits are added together at the end of the discussion, great is their fall, as the opposite of what they said at the outset comes to light.  Just as inexperienced checkers players are trapped by the experts in the end and can’t make a move, so they too are trapped in the end and have nothing to say in this different kind of checkers, which is played not with disks but with words.  Yet the truth isn’t affected by this outcome.  I say this with a view to the present case, for someone might well say now that he’s unable to oppose you as you ask each of your questions, yet he sees that of all those who take up philosophy – not those who merely dabble in it while still young in order to complete their upbringing and then drop it, but those who continue in it for a longer time – the greatest number become cranks, not to say completely vicious, while those who seem completely decent are rendered useless to the city because of the studies you recommend.  (Republic, 487b-d)


Adeimantus voices something which everyone has experienced or felt concerning philosophers.  His reply parallels Callicles’ objection.  Adeimantus argues that the majority of philosophers become cranks.  Furthermore, the greatest philosophers in the end are useless to the city.  People think that a sure-fire way to becoming a weirdo is to study philosophy.  Professor Hutchinson then quoted Socrates’ answer to Adeimantus in sections 488a-489a which presents an extremely influential image:


Imagine, then, that something like the following happens on a ship or on many ships.  The shipowner is bigger and stronger than everyone else on board, but he’s hard of hearing, a bit short-sighted, and his knowledge of seafaring is equally deficient.  The sailors are quarreling with one another about steering the ship, each of them thinking that he should be the captain, even though he’s never learned the art of navigation, cannot point to even anyone who taught it to him, or to a time when he learned it.  Indeed, they claim that it isn’t teachable and are ready to cut to pieces anyone who says that it is.  They’re always crowding around the shipowner, begging him and doing everything possible to get him to turn the rudder over to them.  And sometimes, if they don’t succeed in persuading him, they execute the ones who do succeed or throw them overboard, and then, having stupefied their noble shipowner with drugs, wine, or in some other way, they rule the ship, using up what’s in it and sailing in the way that people like that are prone to do.  Moreover, they call the person who is clever at persuading or forcing the shipowner to let them rule a ‘navigator’, a ‘captain’, and ‘one who knows ships’, and dismiss anyone else as useless.  They don’t understand that a true captain must pay attention to the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds, and all that pertains to his craft, if he’s really to be the ruler of a ship.  And they don’t believe there is any craft that would enable him to determine how he should steer the ship, whether the others want him to or not, or any possibility of mastering this alleged craft or of practicing it at the same time as the craft of navigation.  Don’t you think that the true captain will be called a real stargazer, a babbler, and a good-for-nothing by those who sail in ships governed in that way, in which such things happen?

I certainly do.

I don’t think that you need to examine the simile in detail to see that the ships resemble cities and their attitude to the true philosophers, but you already understand what I mean.  (Republic, 488a-489a) 


Socrates likens society to a ship.  We are cast adrift in this boat and a committee system is elected instead of a captain to navigate the ship.  This image possesses a deep Socratic and Platonic root.  The person who knows how to orient himself in that world is the stargazer.  A true leader, therefore, needs the knowledge of philosophers.  Insight is taken from knowledge existing above in the heavens.  Aristotle, in his Invitation to Philosophy, also takes up this image of the sailor. 


Professor Hutchinson then quoted sections 496a-e:


What about when men who are unworthy of education approach philosophy and consort with her unworthily?  What kinds of thoughts and opinions are we to say they beget?  Won’t they truly be what are properly called sophisms, things that have nothing genuine about them or worthy of being called true wisdom?

That’s absolutely right.

Then there remains, Adeimantus, only a very small group who consort with philosophy in a way that’s worthy of her: A noble and well brought-up character, for example, kept down by exile, who remains with philosophy according to his nature because there is no one to corrupt him, or a great soul living in a small city, who disdains the city’s affairs and looks beyond them. (Republic, 496a-e) 


Professor Hutchinson commented that Boethius reiterates the image of Philosophy as a beautiful woman.  This is a stronger version of the apology for the private life than we found in the Apology.  Plato’s seventh letter (on page 1646 of our book), which seems to have been truly written by Plato, similarly explores the idea of educating for politics in a hopeless world. 


Professor Hutchinson then examined the comparison, which Plato makes between the sun and the idea of the Good in sections 508a-509a:


 Then it isn’t an insignificant kind of link that connects the sense of sight and the power to be seen – it is a more valuable link than any other linked things have got, if indeed light is something valuable.

And, of course, it’s very valuable.

Which of the gods in heaven would you name as the cause and controller of this, the one whose light causes our sight to see in the best way and the visible things to be seen?

The same one you and others would name.  Obviously, the answer to your question is the sun.

And isn’t sight by nature related to that god in this way?

Which way?

Sight isn’t the sun, neither sight itself nor that in which it comes to be, namely, the eye.

No, it certainly isn’t.

But I think that it is the most sunlike of the senses.

Very much so.

And it receives from the power it has, just like an influx from an overflowing treasury.


The sun is not sight, but isn’t it the cause of sight itself and seen by it?

That’s right.

Let’s say then, that this is what I called the offspring of the good, which the good begot as its analogue.  What the good itself is in the intelligible realm, in relation to understanding and intelligible things, the sun is in the visible realm, in relation to sight and visible things. (Republic, 508a-c)


The sun is the most accessible of Parmenidean metaphors.  It makes intelligible objects that are ‘intellectible’.  The idea of the Good must be something like light since something is at the source.  If it were not for the Good, it could not be understood.  In this part of the Republic, therefore, Plato brings into play strands of the Parmenidean tradition and of the Pythagorean tradition at the same time he ties up loose ends from previous works.