First up on my Education (re)reading list is the Republic. Almost done. Before we get to all the bad ideas, a few general observations:
- I never know when Socrates is being serious. My guess is almost never. He is clearly laying it all on the line in the Gorgias, which is why that’s my favorite dialogue; he equally clearly messing with people in the Meno and the Ion – his interlocutors in both cases are so far out of their depth trying to go at it with Socrates that messing with them is about all he can do. Sure, sure, he has points to make about not falling for the conventional and thinking for one’s self and all that, but he’s messing with them all the same – the ideas expressed are not to be taken entirely seriously.
- So, in the Republic – what, if anything, that Socrates says should we take seriously? I reminded my kids, who read or are about to read the Republic for school, that Socrates was at the time talking outside the city walls of an Athens that had recently fallen under the heel of Sparta, and that his ideal city is pretty much an idealized Sparta. So, is the Republic a social commentary of some sort, a protest in the form of damning with overly-effusive praise the hick conquerors of the proud Athenians? I’ve never figured out what, exactly, the Republic is supposed to be.
- It is important, perhaps, to note that Plato, in his Academy, was explicitly trying to train up political leaders, in the sense of leaders of the polis. Since the kind of true education as understood by the Greeks was a form of friendship, the number of men Plato could educate at any one time was limited. Thus, filtering out the few gold-souled men was a priority. He achieved this partly by means of mathematics: he found that people who had both the talent and the drive to really get math (and, for the Greeks, math was almost entirely a branch of logic) were also suited to be leaders (I wish we could get Bernie to think about this…). Could it also be that the Dialogues could also serve this purpose? People who focused on the subject matter on the surface and missed any deeper implications – iron or silver souled? Not suitable for leadership? In other words, the layers and contradictions are there for a particular purpose? (a)
- On a more mundane and petty note:
Joseph: But, Socrates, clearly the shepherd does not raise the sheep for the good of the sheep, but rather for the good of those who would eat the sheep.
Socrates: But is not preparing the sheep for eating the art of the cook, and not of the shepherd?
J: Not at all, or, at least, not entirely, as I can illustrate if you’ll allow me.
S: Go on.
J: Thank you. Suppose there were an herb the eating of which was very healthful for the sheep, but that tended to make the meat of such sheep inedible. By your argument, the shepherd, with the interest of the sheep in mind, would nonetheless allow his sheep to eat this herb so that the sheep would lead long, healthy lives – especially since no one would be eager to kill them for the table. I say no shepherd would do this, because his real interest is in producing healthy sheep *for eating*, not healthy sheep in and for themselves.
J: And as to this whole ‘everybody is best when he sticks to one thing only’ that needs a whole lot more discussion before I’m buying it. You yourself, O Socrates, have been a stone mason, a soldier, a husband, a father, and a philosopher. All men, I would say, must serve many roles to be truly men. While I’m sure Xanthippe has an interesting opinion on you as a husband and father, I’m not sure her complaints could properly be excused as just a result of you being forced to do more than one thing. In fact, this whole ‘wives and children held in common’ bit you’ve bee on about seems like a marital spat disguised as philosophy.
J: Throw in the ‘naked gymnastics for women’ bit, and we’ve got a hen-pecked husband fantasy Bingo! on our hands.
S: It would be better for the state…
a. This means I’m accusing myself of being unfit for leadership, since I can’t figure it out. Like I needed a test to point that out?