More Thoughts on the Republic

 

 

 

What is justice?  I want to say that, for Plato, we can simplify the answer to a kind of equation: "justice = reason + will + desire," except with the immediate caution that we should not misunderstand this as simple addition in the mathematical sense - so, for instance, to borrow a mathematical term here, we could say that the relation between, for instance, reason and will in this formula is non-commutative.  That means you can't rearrange the terms of the formula and expect the result to be equivalent.  So for example, although it's true for Plato that "justice = reason + will + desire," it is not true that "justice = will + reason + desire," and it is not true that "justice = desire + will + reason."  That is to say, for Plato, "justice = reason + will + desire in that order."  Or, to be more precise, for Plato, in order for justice to exist, what matters is that the three elements that make it up - reason, will, and desire - are in harmony with each other - and, according to Plato, this harmony can only exist when reason governs will and will governs desire.  When these elements are rearranged, either in the individual or in the entire polity, the result is not justice but something else: plutocracy, democracy, tyranny, and so on.

This leads to some fairly obvious questions.  One question is: are the elements of justice naturally in order?  That's a very interesting question.  Hang on to it, and keep it in the back of your mind.  We're not at the point that we can answer it yet, and it depends on what we mean by "nature."

For now, we can point this much out: reason seems to be a kind of will.  It is one form of will, among many others.  It is the will-to-truth.  And, in turn, will seems to be a kind of desire.  It is one form of desire among many others.  

Or we could put it this way: the form of the good is the highest form, the form of forms.  All forms are forms to the extent that they participate in the form of the good.  There are many forms, that are all, in some sense, derivative of the good: beauty, piety, love, and so on.  Among these many forms are desire, will, reason, and justice.  We can understand them this way:

Desire is a form.  That is to say, it participates in good.  To desire something implies that, at least in some way, one feels that it might be good.  But desire is the wildest form, the most chaotic form, the most unruly form - if you'll permit me a conceit, I'll say that it is the most formless form.  What desire feels to be good may not be good in truth.  Therefore desire is the lowest form, the form that it at once closest and most distant from the good.  (Desire is the-good-in-confusion.  And confusion can be very good: Socrates seeks to bring us into that divine madness known as aporeia.)  Desire is the good in its rawest form, the prima materia of the good, the form of infinite plasticity and infinite possibility: it is actually nothing, but can potentially be everything.

Will is a desire, but what sets it apart from other desires is that it is more determinate, more focused, more clear.  Will is desire-becoming-form.  If desire is clay, will is the sculptor, driving his hand into the clay, to give it shape.  But ultimately will is blind.  It is a force that drives forward, without anything to slow it down or change its direction - and it derives its energy from desire itself.  We can think of it this way: in the chaotic struggle of desire against desire, one desire will become predominant, and will subjugate the other desires, and we call this subjugating desire "will".  But there is no guarantee that this will will be just.

Reason is a will: it is the will to truth.  Just as will rises up in the struggle of desire against desire, reason rises up in the struggle of will against will.  The will that is in conformity with the truth has this advantage against the wills toward false opinion, delusion, foolishness, and madness.  But this is no guarantee that reason will triumph.

Another obvious question: if the elements of justice get out of order, how can we get them back into order?  Frustratingly, Plato offers us absolutely no answer to this question.  He tells us that the just city, the titular "republic," which he also calls "aristocracy," (but not in the sense of feudal aristocracy) is very stable and can last for a thousand years.  But eventually it may decay into something else, namely timocracy - the rule of honor (this is a bit more like what we think of as a feudal aristocracy).  And that, in turn, decays into plutocracy, the rule of money.  And this inevitably will collapse into democracy, which will, in turn, very quickly turn into a tyranny.  But he never tells us how to go back, to restore the republic.

There's something very despairing about this.  Philosophers have wondered for thousands of years how to restore the republic.  Political leaders such as Julius Caesar have promised to restore the republic, and perhaps even someone like Julius Caesar actually believed that he was trying to restore the republic.  But the more their supporters counted on these leaders to restore the republic, the more distant the republic seemed.

 


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