lots of name dropping and quoting others' opinions of republic--i wanted more from the author himself and more from the republic--more direct analysis by the author. he admits several times that he does not like plato and seems to think himself above the subject matter. it is good to hear from a doubting thomas, but i think he enjoyed complaining about the republic and plato more than providing a critique.
Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, calls Plato's Republic "the greatest and most fertile single book of the Western philosophical canon." Plato has strongly influenced modern philosophers such as Kant, Schopenhauer, Bergson, and Wittgenstein, and his influence on the development of Christianity has been immeasurable. Nevertheless, Blackburn has strong objections to Plato.
The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, "The safest general characteristic of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. This famous quotation contains an element of truth.
In reply to Whitehead, however, Blackburn replies: "Whitehead's famous remark is wrong as it stands. Much of the European tradition in philosophy contains vehement rejections of Plato, rather than footnotes to him. We can scarcely hold that the great materialist and scientific philosophers, from Bacon and Hobbes through Locke, to Hume and Nietzsche simply write footnotes to the Plato they regarded as the fountain of error."
Plato's Republic: A Biography does not consist of the text of Plato's seminal work, but rather is a critique of Plato and his philosophy. On the penultimate page of the book, Blackburn grudgingly admits an admiration for Plato's dogged pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, and truth: "I find I am less unconvinced than I had been eight books previously" (a reference to the ten "books" of Republic). He especially approves of Plato's persistent inquiry into the question, "How are we to live our lives?"
The burden of Blackburn's critique, however, is negative than positive. His intellectual affinity is with the assessment advanced by Nietzsche, the great anti-Platonist, that Plato's philosophy marked a fatal turn that has corrupted clear thinking for millennia.
Blackburn writes: "In Raphael's famous painting in the Vatican, known as The School of Athens, Plato and Aristotle together hold centre stage, but while Aristotle points to the earth, Plato points upwards to the Heavens. The poet Coleridge made the same contrast, saying that everyone was born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian."
Blackburn sides with the this-worldly Aristotle contra the otherworldly Plato: "[This book] is written, as is perhaps already apparent, by a natural sceptic. My temperament is irreligious and empiricist, down with Aristotle and the reality-based community, rather than up with Platonism in the heavens."
Francis Bacon regarded Plato as having "contaminated and corrupted" any chance of Greek natural science by an admixture of speculation and theology. And Lord Macaulay wrote: "This celebrated philosophy ended in nothing but disputation. It was neither a vineyard nor an olive-ground, but an intricate wood of briars and thistles, from which those who lost themselves in it brought back many scratches and no food."
In Plato's philosophical system, as in its "vulgarization in Christianity" (Blackburn's phrase), the mundane world in which we live is disparaged as being merely a shadow, or imperfect image, of the "real" world, which he called the realm of Forms or Ideas. Later neo-Platonists viewed existence in the same two-tiered fashion. Immanuel Kant spoke of the noumenon (or thing-in-itself) and phenomena; Arthur Schopenhauer spoke of the world as "will" (the blind, irrational, malignant essence of the universe) and "representation" (a reproduction, such as when an artist reproduces an image of some particular object).
Nietzsche rejected Plato's so-called "real world" and Kant's so-called " thing-in-itself," and denied the existence of "will" (in Schopenhauer's meaning of the term). He asserted that there is no "real world" (some supernatural, super-sensible, or idealistic realm); there is only the actual world in which we live. Expressed otherwise, there is no absolute, eternal, unchanging realm of "being"(no "Absolute Spirit," as in Hegel); there is only an eternal "becoming" (the ceaseless evolution of the universe).
So what? What does all this have to do with the price of tea in China? What relevance, if any, does a study of Plato's philosophy have to do with our contemporary world?
The crucial point is that our thoughts influence our actions. Our weltanschauung affects our ethics and politics. If people are wrong in their creed, their conduct will be compromised. Political blunders often spring from misguided metaphysics.
Writing as a advocate of political liberalism and "republicanism" (in the non-partisan sense of the world), Blackburn looks askance at the neoconservative regime in Washington--which he describes as the cynical and ideologically driven realpolitik of George W. Bush's White House--a regime which contemptuously pooh-poohs the "reality-based community" (the community which believes that "solutions emerge from the judicious study of discernible reality").
Blackburn sees Plato, "the patron saint of ascent away from the reality-based community," as the seminal inspiration for reactionary conservatism, authoritarianism, and, in its final form, totalitarian dictatorship, such as under Hitler and Stalin.
Nor does Blackburn, writing as a secular humanist, have any love lost for Christianity, whose "cloud cuckoo-land metaphysics" brand it basically as an otherworldly religion. Blackburn implies that Christianity, because of its emphasis on the immortality of the soul and eternal bliss is the "real world" of a heavenly realm, owes more to Greek philosophy and in particular to Platonism (compare Nietzsche's aphorism, "Christianity is Platonism for the people"--a watered-down, simplified version for hoi polloi) than it does to the Judaic Old Testament, with its passion for social justice.
In Blackburn's assessment, therefore, Plato is the secret source for the disparagement of the empirical world, the world of the senses, and is the hidden inspiration for a reactionary realpolitik that seeks to impose its theological, political, social, and economic system on the rest of humankind. Blackburn points out that this is as true of the Islamic tradition, much influenced by Plato, as it is true of the Bush administration.
Plato wrote Republic about 375 B.C., a time of political turmoil when the old securities were threatened. Apparently fearing disorder more than the potential dangers of too much order, Plato concocted an "ideal society" that was a rigidly stratified caste system, with its tripartite division: the educated intelligentsia (guardians), the "spirited" auxiliaries (the military), and the artisans (the common workers). At the apex of this elitist system is the "philosopher-king," someone suspiciously like Plato himself, who knows all and sees all.
True, Plato apparently meant his vision of an ideal republic to be a paradigm of the best possible system of government, according to which his "faith-based initiative" would be a template against which to judge and correct inferior systems. Trouble is, the template itself may be defective; his project for a stable and secure government may sacrifice the freedom of its citizens. Plato's brave new world can easily degenerate into an Orwellian 1984.
A highly provocative and controversial work, Plato's Republic: A Biography will be hated by Plato's admirers but loved by his detractors. It is an eye-opening work with particular relevance and importance for our post-9/11 world.