Plato and Movement Conservatives: A Match Made in Form

republicI just read Plato’s Republic for the first time and it just zipped by – 400 pgs in 2 days. Maybe because it was a good translation or maybe because most of the ideas supporting Plato’s “ideal state” turned out to be so childish that I didn’t have to spend much time thinking about them. I covered most of them in junior high, at which time I located and identified the serious flaws in concepts like domination by the state, forced unity, a single definition of Good, and a concept of Truth that didn’t actually include any.

The Republic suffers from all of these and a good deal more, and I suppose his critics (starting with Aristotle) have probably done a much better job than I could delineating and then deconstructing them. The truth is that I found the book mildly amusing (except for Book 7, Chap 2, which introduces a couple of concepts that were to be the basis of philosophical thinking for the next 2500 yrs) in the same way one might chuckle at a memory of the paper he wrote in 9th grade Social Studies supporting Barry Goldwater for President because “maybe an atomic war is just what we need to clean the slate and start fresh.” That’s how you think when you’re 14.

Life, of course, not to mention politics, are a little more complicated than that and even Plato recognized it when he insisted at the end of the book that he never expected to see his Republic in the real world. Still, that he thought a state run by a complicated procedure that married uncomfortable opposites – the “ideal” Republic is part autocratic/militarist dictatorship, part democratic free-for-all, and part elitist aristocracy run by “philosopher kings” who turn out to be characterized by dispositions and beliefs exactly similar to, well, Plato’s – would actually work if someone would just give it a chance is so adorably clueless that I had a pleasant few hours imagining the horrible results of philosopher-rule.

Plato, a student of his, uses Socrates (who was dead when The Republic was written) as the long-winded fictional designer of his fictional ideal and I had to wonder if Socrates was actually anything like Plato’s portrayal of him. Plato’s Socrates is weak on logic with a tendency toward tricks and manipulations which his listeners appear too blind to notice. His syllogisms are loaded with fallacies and unwarranted assumptions which his students never seem to question. He usually begins with a comparison so obvious that of course everyone agrees with it, and then builds onto it analogies and comparisons that even in his own time would have been considered outlandish. For instance:

“In boxing and other kinds of fighting, skill in attack goes with skill in defense, does it not?”

“Of course.”

“So, too, the ability to save from disease implies the ability to produce it undetected [no it doesn’t, especially not in Plato’s time]…”

“I certainly think so.”

“So a man who’s good at keeping a thing will be good at stealing it?”

“I suppose so.”

“So if the just man is good at keeping money safe he will be good at stealing it, too?”

“That is at any rate the conclusion the argument leads to.”

“So the just man turns out to be a kind of thief…”

And so on. There are enough logical holes on most pages that if they were actual holes, the paper would disintegrate. I  began to wonder if Plato was a teacher’s nightmare: the student who just didn’t get it but nevertheless became the guy who explained the teaching to everybody else. Could Socrates really have been this dumb? this totally unaware of glaring inconsistencies,  assertions without proof and assumptions based on no evidence?

And then that last phrase rang a bell. I’d heard them – hell, written them – before. About the modern conservative GOP. In fact, the more I thought about it the more familiar it all sounded: easy answers; policies based on word manipulation, sourceless assertions, and simplistic assumptions without proof; a division of the world into bi-polar, Good/Evil extremes with no recognition that there may be a BIG middle ground – Friend/Enemy, War/Peace, Elite/Common.

It was the last that made the final connection. Plato, like all aristocrats, is highly skeptical of democratic forms because, really, the “mob” doesn’t know anything and is easily led by anyone who will play to its meanest instincts and desires. Plato, like all aristocrats, is convinced that an Ideal State must be governed by superior prople trained to govern, that left to the common people, they will elect/choose leaders who will pander to them and stir them up against the rich. Sound familiar?

But unlike, say, Cicero, Plato is almost as terrified of aristocratic rule as of any rule by non-aristocrats. Unlike Cicero, who thought only the rich should govern, Plato saw quite clearly that government by the rich would soon devolve into oligarchy, a state which –

– elevates the profit motive to the throne and lets it govern like an oriental despot…[w]hile reason and ambition squat in servitude at its feet, reason forbidden to make any calculation or enquiry except how to make more money, ambition forbidden to admire or value anything but wealth and the wealthy, or to compete for anything but cash or cash-value.

So the identification isn’t perfect. Still, the similarities are often striking. Plato’s naive belief in simple answers – if families will distract our philosopher rulers, eliminate them – would resonate with the kind of people for whom “Nuke em!” is the answer to every foreign relations problem. They would also recognize his distrust and total misunderstanding of the arts. He condemns fiction, poetry, music and painting because they’re shadows of a reality rather than being real themselves. Conservatives distrust any art that doesn’t glorify war or making money. Which more or less leaves them with John Wayne’s WW II movies, 300, and 24. (It is perhaps not a co-incidence that Plato’s favorite “art” was mathematics.)

But it’s Plato’s childish belief in a linear, bi-cameral SuperReality where the correlation is the closest. Like conservatives, Plato believed that something could be or not be and that there was nothing in between. A man who was a shoemaker shouldn’t try raising sheep. A doctor should never write poetry as it would clearly be something he wasn’t equipped to understand. (Tell that to William Carlos Williams.) No matter what the subject, Plato’s belief allowed only a black-to-white spectrum, no colours, no shades, no middle ground or mixed shades. One either was or was not. He broke that rule only once, characteristically when he had Socrates build and educate his philosopher-kings first to war and then to Ultimate Beauty. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him, as it doesn’t to conservatives, that war is the antithesis of Beauty, Ultimate or otherwise.

Conservatives see everything in black/white terms as well. Who can forget Bush’s infamous warning to the United Nations that “whoever isn’t for us is against us”? There has always been an “our way or the highway” quality to conservative debates. Like Bush & Cheney, conservatives prefer issuing orders to negotiation (or “spineless yap yap yap” as Rush would put it) simply because they only see two alternatives, final victory and unconditional surrender. There’s never anything in the middle.

In a way, we can thank Plato for that. Plato is the one who taught the Western World to think in such simplistic, childish terms, to believe that all of existence could be squeezed into a tiny room and then bisected with a slide rule to keep it in line. Though, speaking of lines, Plato may have drawn one at Rove.


11 responses to “Plato and Movement Conservatives: A Match Made in Form

  1. You accuse conservatives of being black and white, and while I will grant you that, it places liberals as being white and black. The vocal left are no less dichotomous than the vocal right. It is only the non-vocal of both sides that are capable of seeing grey. Their ability to see the grey does not lie in their silence, but rather their silence springs from their vision that the extremes are color blind to fault.
    People of the extremes always assume that others are a fervent as they. The reality with politics is that the majority tend not towards the group they like, but rather to the group they dislike the least.
    It is not “conservatives” that see only black and white, but extremists. The true masses do see the greys, for we are in reality the grey itself. We see your black and their white (or vice versa), and we see us as being the twixt and tween.
    We see the grey for we are it. We decide, to coin a phrase, based on who has pissed us off the least.

    • the real issue that you are overlooking by replying to this is that he is speaking about conservatives as a category, a group. The consistent (and somewhat stereotypical belief) is that it is a little too obvious what “conservatives” are saying because it is “black and white”. Despite all of the manipulations and tricks, it is still a black and white truth to what their goals and intentions are. Liberals are not black and white because a liberal is a much wider range of a term. The idea is that a liberal will make their own decisions, and believe that there is more than one way to figure these out. So a liberal (at least stereotypical one) will give a conservative idea a chance, even if it is not what they believe from the start, where as a conservative(stereotypical) will not do the same for a liberal’s beliefs, it is there way or the wrong way.

  2. This is standard CW, which is always, of course, wrong. Liberals aren’t “White or black” and if you think they are and that they’re extremists, you’ve been watching too much Fox. The left is all greys, which is why nobody wants to listen to us. It’s too hard. The answers we offer aren’t dumbed down to a 2nd Grade level like conservatives’ answers, so the LCD hates us.

    The rap on the left for years has been that we’re too wishy-washy, too willing to see the other side of an argument. Now all you so-called “centrists” want to pretend that the “balance” is somewhere in the middle.

    Horseshit. We’re right and they’re wrong and recent history has proved that beyond a doubt. Yet people like you want to marginalize the Left even further by claiming it’s “extreme”? What’s “extreme”, Proxy? The notion that Gitmo ought to be closed? That we need an inexpensive govt healthcare system like the rest of the civilized world – even Mexico? That the president isn’t a king with the power to do anything he wants? I mean, what’s so damned “extreme” about any of these positions? Considering polls say anywhere from 60-80% of the public agrees with us if you take it issue by issue, I’d say the “center” has moved back to the left.

    Get over yourself and stop watching Glenn Beck et al. Really. It ain’t healthy.

  3. You have completely misunderstood the purpose of the Republic.

  4. Have I, indeed? Then enlighten me.

    • You are SUPPOSED to be thinking through all the disastrous consequences of what Socrates proposes. Cicero claimed the Republic was about the “limits of politics”, meaning it shows us how far politics can go without becoming absurd. That you see its absurdity is good, but go a step beyond.

  5. It’s very crucial for anybody who’s interested in reading Plato’s republic to keep in mind that even though the book seems like a blueprint of the “perfect state”, it’s not so at all. As everybody knows, Plato dedicated this huge dialogue as an effort to explore and try to come up with an account of Justice with capital J, and in order for him to do so, he brilliantly used the polis as an isomorphic model to articulate and grasp this “form”, namely Justice. So to read Plato’s Republic as a book in political science is to miss the point completely, even though the dialogue is full of political insights about lots of political issues including democracy that are still valid even today.

    Therefore, in my opinion reading the Republic in such a way is an amateur reading that lacks intellectual clarity and philosophical aptness.

  6. This probably isn’t the place for a discussion of this but since you were nice enough to comment I’ll take a short stab at it.


    Lovely hypothesis (I’ve heard it before). Unfortunately there’s no basis for it, there being no actual internal evidence whatever that he meant it that way while there is lots of external evidence that he meant what he said. He was an aristocrat, after all, with all the prejudices and limited vision of his class, and a great admirer of Sparta. (The similarity between the Spartan community and the “ideal” republic is neither an accident nor a misstatement.) Platonic apologists keep trying to pretend he didn’t mean what he said or meant it in a way that isn’t absurd, ridiculous, or abhorrent.

    But facts must eventually be faced and the fact is that while Plato (and Socrates) among others have to be given credit for beginning the idea that life is more than spittin’ and shittin’, we also have to admit that their original thinking was pretty simple-minded (thus its attraction for conservatives, who also aren’t what you’d call “deep thinkers”).


    Just FYI, “As everybody knows” is the construction conservatives use when they want to make assertions they can’t prove. I could just as easily say “as everybody knows, Plato brilliantly used the polis to define Justice in a way that suited his oligarchic class interests” and I’d probably be a lot closer to being right.

    Seems like you’ve read more about Plato than Plato himself but you shouldn’t take his apologists so seriously. Most of them are conservatives.

  7. at the same time i do like the book, and while i don’t agree with plato’s political beliefs, i like his philosophical theory.

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