Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

PLATO: The Republic

We live in a country built along these lines: “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union…” This is the beginning sentence in our Constitution. It forms the backbone of our society. But we weren’t the first people to think about creating a perfect society. And we probably won’t be the last. Long after we’re gone people will still be trying to make their lives better by improving their form of government. How should we live? That’s the question that faces each new generation. Plato’s Republic is one of the earliest recorded attempts to put together a “just” society and tell us what it would take to achieve it. Socrates is the architect of this new society and he begins by explaining that a city, as I believe, comes into being because each of us isn’t self-sufficient but is in need of much. Lots of philosophers agree with Socrates’ diagnosis of the problem. It’s the solution that we’re still trying to figure out. Living around lots of other people can be a real hassle sometimes. But living outside of human society would be a disaster for most of us. In an earlier reading Thomas Hobbes says living outside a human community would be short, nasty and brutish. Socrates agrees. We live much better by cooperating with other people and living together in an established community. Living in towns and cities makes it much easier to provide for our basic needs. We can buy the basic things we need, like food and shoes and homes. If we stopped there we shouldn’t have too many problems. But we don’t stop there. Soon we want exotic food and fancy shoes and bigger homes. Then we need new cars and flat-screen TVs and access to the Internet. We also start needing musicians and actors and dancers to keep us entertained. Then we eat too much and exercise too little and have to have doctors to take care of us when we get sick. That’s the problem. Socrates says that if people only work enough to provide for their bare necessities “they will live out their lives in peace with health, as is likely, and at last, dying as old men, they will hand down other similar lives to their offspring.” This is old school philosophy. Glaucon speaks for most of the modern world when he replies “If this were a city for pigs, Socrates, that would be enough… but men who aren’t living wretched lives want to sit in chairs and eat from tables and they want to eat other things besides figs and berries and acorns.” So who’s right? Do we want to be healthy or do we want to have fun? The problem is, how do we keep people from fussing and fighting when too many people want the same things? What if there aren’t enough flat-screen TVs to go around? Who gets the new flat-screens and who has to make do with what they’ve got? We already know what the problem is; not enough to go around. It’s the solution part that we’ve been trying to figure out. Socrates thinks the best solution is to let people follow their natural inclinations. He’s got a simple idea of justice …the money-making, military and ruling classes doing what’s appropriate, each of them minding its own business in a city, that would be justice. You say most people just want their flat-screen TVs and they’ll be satisfied? Fine. Let them work for flat-screen TVs. Other people want travel and adventure and a strenuous physical life? Let them have it. A few people want to spend more time studying and thinking and planning for the future? Well, then let them study and think. Here’s the catch: once you decide what you want from life, stick with it. Don’t go mucking around in other people’s business. Why should you care if a few nerds are off somewhere studying and thinking as long as you’ve got a flat-screen TV? Or someone else may say: let folks stick to making money if that’s what they want. I’d rather be out here humping up this mountain and training for combat. Socrates thinks if everyone sticks to what they’re good at then we all benefit: Meddling among the classes, of which there are three, and exchange with one another is the greatest harm for the city and would most correctly be called extreme evil-doing. This doesn’t sound American. That isn’t what the founding fathers had in mind when they wanted to create a more perfect Union.


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