Saturday, January 28, 2012

Made of Paper: The Republic

The one piece of required reading that impressed me most in my first year of college was The Republic of Plato. Part of the appeal of the book was probably its literary quality. It is a masterpiece of the art of the dialogue, a dramatization of ideas. I wonder how much irony Plato intended in his work, since he was a literary artist who argued for the banishment of poet and playwrights and a writer who, through the mouth of the Socrates character, voiced mistrust for the written word. Maybe Plato’s dialogues were thought experiments through fiction, a bit like Dostoyevsky’s novels centuries later, more than they were attempts at a philosophical system.
The Republic might have begun my turn toward social thought. Socrates begins the dialogue with the question of “what is just?’ It all starts with morality, then, with what should guide human behavior.  Through the leading questions he asks his pupils and fellow thinkers, he comes to the view that for justice or good to have any real meaning, it must be transcendent, it must refer to the same quality at all times and in all situations and therefore must be outside of times and situations. This line of thought leads to the famous Platonic concept of forms, abstractions that exist in a realm of their own. In order to identify this transcendent quality, he posits that the good within an individual must be the same as the good among individuals. If we can describe the ideally ordered polity, we can use this description to understand the proper order in the lives of individuals, the good that should guide people’s lives.
Plato’s perfect directed society, with its guardians, soldiers and producers, today seems a model of totalitarianism. Max Beerbohm wrote about Plato’s republic and all the utopia’s that had followed it: “Oh, is this utopia? Well,/ I beg your pardon, I thought it was hell.”  Of course, we don’t know if Plato actually meant anyone to adopt this as a plan, and it may have been just a thought experiment. But I think it is a point of departure for social theory because it asks provocative questions about what is a good society, even if we decide to reject the perspective behind those questions. Beyond that, though, I think that a version of Platonic totalitarianism underlies the main currents of modern social science, so that a critique of Plato is a good place to begin a critique of the contemporary social sciences.

The tri-partite image of society is older than Plato and continued to dominate Western social paradigms long after his era. Influenced by sociologist Emile Durkheim, the scholar of comparative religions Georges Dumézil argued, in L’idéologie Tripartie des Indo-Européens (1958), that the tripartition of Indo-European society into priests or rulers, warriors, and laborers or artisans, shaped the development of Indo-European religious and social forms. That three-part division can be seen in the earliest caste system of India (brahmanas, ksatriyas, and vaisyas); and in the early Roman system of flamines, milites, and quirites. During the European Middle Ages, this tripartition endured as three orders of medieval society (the oratores, bellatores, and laborares, or people who pray, people who fight, and people who work).
The big difference between Plato’s ideal society and the earlier and later social images was that Plato’s was not a description of how things are, but a conscious plan for how things ought to be. Plato provided us with one of the first efforts at social planning, the design of human and moral order by an expert or philosopher. This took the philosopher outside of involvement in time and history and made the planner the sole subject acting upon human relations as objects inside of time and history.
The rise of the scientific world view in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, although ostensibly Aristotelian, owed a great deal to the Platonic distinction between the thinker’s participation in the undetermined realm of the eternal and the existence of the object of thought in the realm of the secular, historical, and contingent. This can be seen, for example, in Cartesian dualism, in which the objective, material world occupies an ever-increasing area of existence, while thought and agency retreat into a shrinking territory tenuously linked to the material through the pineal gland.
The development of the social sciences, mostly in the nineteenth century, by applying the scientific world view to human relations returned in many ways to The Republic. In the program of Auguste Comte, usually credited with the coining of the word “sociology,” Platonic guardians would take the form of an elite priesthood of social scientists who would seek and maintain the best social order. Modern scientific rationalism differed from the Platonic variety in the former’s empiricism, in its emphasis on a posteriori rather than purely a priori reasoning. But modern social science, especially in its applied versions, has followed the Platonic approach of distinguishing between the experts and planners, who are transcendent subjects, and the social order as an object of design.  Plato’s republic was clearly totalitarian. But it also seems to me that all efforts at the conscious direction of human relations by experts are essentially dehumanizing and totalitarian.

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