September 14--Plato I
William R. Long
On September 9 we concluded our discussion of the Case of the Speluncean Explorers. Most interesting for our discussion, for several minutes, was the appeal to the "plain meaning" of the text, articulated by Justice Keen, and its contrast with the greater judicial freedom of Justice Foster. The notion of reading a statute for its "plain meaning" is enormously popular in judicial circles today: it not only gives the judge a sense of what she/he must do, but it tends to circumscribe their authority. I think that most judges would say they are "plain meaning" judges. Yet, we talked about how "plain meaning" is not a "pure" philosophy, dropping down from heaven as it were. It was motivated here by Justice Keen's recitation of history and the role that he felt judicial activism played in past civic conflict. Note, however, that when one appeals to history, one leaves oneself open for other interpretations. The case would have been 'better,' I think, had another Justice also read history, only differently.
Plain meaning doesn't need to be contrasted with "fair," but I raised that question in discussion because it might be so characterized, and a good argument can be made that one who "just reads the text" has either abandoned or minimized the commitment to fairness. In addition, the plain meaning tends to ignore the huge influence of one's values and past in making every kind of decision. Again, plain meaning itself may not be clear: does that mean that one just says, "give me the words," or does one say, "give me the legislative history," or "give me other things," too? Again, one should look at how exponents of "plain meaning" actually interpret texts. You will be surprised at how conveniently plain meaning is dropped when it doesn't seem to comport with the person's overall judicial philosophy. Finally, what do you do if you are a plain meaning person and the text just isn't plain, or you have two clauses, like the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, that seem to run counter to each other? You need a larger judicial philosophy to help you decide.
In any case, I am certainly not against plain meaning. I have spent my life mastering and memorizing texts. Yet, it just ain't so simple....
On to Plato
Space does not permit a full exposition of all the themes I think are important to understand from Plato. I will probably mention the following, and you should have some acquaintance with each.
I. Plato's Biography. I will attempt to place Plato in his Fifth Century B.C. context. Most significant for understanding him, I think, is that he was brought up at a time of war (Pelopponesian War), he was from a very wealthy family and had relatives who were active in the attempted return to oligarchy after 404 B.C., and that his honored teacher was killed by the democratic forces in Athens in 399 B.C.
II. Philosophical and Other Influences on Plato. As with most topics in life, this consideration could go on forever, but the "standard" treatments of Plato emphasize the inheritance from both Parmenides and Heraclitus, the influence of the Pythagoreans when he visited Sicily after Socrates' death, and the growing importance of rhetoric on public debate in Athens. In addition, it has been pointed out that the growth of Greek philosophy, from "myth" to "reason," [both of these are overstated] leaves its traces in Plato, as he seems to have a "love/hate" relationship with the poets, and often will refer to myths to bring home a truth. Thus, it is a mistake to characterize his work as "pure philosophy" if by that one means solely an exposition of topics of epistemology or the problem of evil or the forms, or something like that.
III. The REPUBLIC and the Dialogue Form
Plato bequeathes to us the dialogue form. Its technical name is elenchus and was supposed to be the method that his teacher, Socrates, used in philosophical exploration. The earlier dialogues are replete with conversation, but the REPUBLIC is the first of his "middle dialogues," in which conversation is quite real during Book I but is gradually abandoned as the book wears on. The interlocutors are reduced to "yes men" by the middle of Book II. Some suggest that Plato has abandoned the form because it is inadequate for his message. It may just be a style that he used as a young author (while still in his 40s); he then moves more to monologue.
Note the style of argumentation in the dialogue. Socrates will ask a question, probe the meaning of a definition and often use illustrations from various crafts or "techniques" to subject a person's argument to scrutiny. I think that one issue I have with Platonic argument (or Socratic argument) is that it may not be as convincing intellectually to people today as it seemed to be at one time. It is often rather difficult to follow, too.
IV. The REPUBLIC, Book I
First, you should know that the pagination is called "Stephanus pagination," named after the Renaissance printer who first came out with a printed edition of Plato's works. It is probably one of Plato's best known works and is his exposition of the nature of justice. Justice has to be found, for Plato (as for Aristotle) in the context of a city (the "polis") and so in the REPUBLIC Plato will explore the theme of justice in the context of building a "beautiful city"--the "kallipolis." The general flow of Book I is as follows:
A. Opening Conversation--coming back from sacrifice. 327a-328c.
B. Conversation with Cephalus--328c-331d. Discussion of old age, of the persistence of desires, reflections on life, and a first attempt to define justice. What is the definition he gives? What is Socrates' criticism?
C. Conversation with Polemarchus-- 331d-336 b. A second definition of justice, derived initially from Simonides, a poet. You should be able to define the "Socratic method" from the way that Socrates interrogates Polemarchus here. How does he go from the definition of justice as giving a person his or her "due" to doing good to your friends and harm to enemies?
D. Conversation with Thrasymachus--336b-end of Book I. The description of Thrasymachus is priceless. He will have a perspective that is, I think, the most compelling argument against what Plato is trying to argue (that justice is a good thing and that should be pursued for its own sake; that the city is best ruled by people who love and are trained in justice-seeking), and he argues that justice is simply the advantage of the stronger. This is very challenging to Plato/Socrates, and Socrates tries five arguments to show that this thesis is incorrect, though he feels after it is all over (beginning of Book II) that he hasn't argued very well. You should know the general flow of Thrasymachus' argument and the discussion with Socrates.
See you in class.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long