Plato's Republic
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Plato's Republic

A Dialogue in Sixteen Chapters

Alain Badiou, Susan Spitzer

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eBook - ePub

Plato's Republic

A Dialogue in Sixteen Chapters

Alain Badiou, Susan Spitzer

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About This Book

Plato's Republic is one of the best-known and most widely-discussed texts in the history of philosophy. But how might we get to the heart of this work today, 2,500 years after its original composition? Alain Badiou breathes life into Plato's landmark text and revives its universality. Rather than producing yet another critical commentary, he has instead worked closely on the original Greek and, through spectacular changes, adapted it to our times. In this innovative reimagining of Plato's work, Badiou has removed all references specific to ancient Greek society—from lengthy exchanges about moral courage in archaic poetry to political considerations mainly of interest to the aristocratic elite—and has expanded the range of cultural references. Here, philosophy is firing on all cylinders: Socrates and his companions are joined by Beckett, Pessoa, Freud, and Hegel, among others. Together these thinkers demonstrate that true philosophy endures, ready to absorb new horizons without changing its essence.

Moreover, Badiou—who is also a dramatist—has transformed the Socratic dialogue into a genuine oratorial contest. In his version of the Republic, the interlocutors do much more than simply agree with Socrates. They argue, stand up to him, put him on the spot, and show thought in motion. In this work of dramatic scholarship and philosophy, we encounter a modern version of Plato's text that is alive, stimulating, and directly relevant to our own world.

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REDUCING THE SOPHIST TO SILENCE1 (336b–357a)
A heavy silence had greeted Socrates’ question. So Thrasymachus felt that his time to speak had come. Many times over the course of the discussion he’d been tormented by a burning desire to take part in it. But the people sitting around him had kept him from doing so because they wanted to follow the progression of the argument. This time, however, taking advantage of the confusion that had followed the return (oddly abrupt, it’s true) to the original form of the question, Thrasymachus finally broke out of the silence they’d imposed on him and, flexing all his muscles, crouching like a wild beast about to bare its huge claws, he advanced on Socrates as if to tear him apart and devour him alive. Socrates and Polemarchus recoiled in terror. Once he’d reached the middle of the room, the monster glowered at the whole audience and began speaking in a voice to which the room’s high ceiling, the French windows, the darkness that had fallen over the sailboats, indeed the whole world, seemed to lend a thunderous power:
–What pathetic hogwash Socrates has been subjecting us to for hours now! What’s with all your kowtowing to each other and taking turns bombarding us with your stupid nonsense? If you2 really want to know what justice is, Socrates, stop asking pointless questions and rubbing your hands in glee when you’ve refuted something one of your flustered sidekicks has managed to stammer out. Asking questions is easy, answering them less so. So tell us once and for all how you define justice. And don’t come telling us that justice is anything but justice, that it’s duty, expediency, advantage, profit, interest, and so on. Tell us precisely and clearly what you have to say. Because I won’t be like all the bit players in your three-ring circus, I won’t put up with all your hot air.
At these words, Socrates, feigning – or really feeling? – panicky astonishment, stared for a moment at Thrasymachus, the way you do when, on a snowy evening, you encounter a wolf who might lock his cruel eyes on you first, in which case you’ll be struck dumb, or so the old country women say. Then he went on in a somewhat tremulous voice:
–Fortunately I saw you first tonight, you ferocious rhetorician! Otherwise I really might have lost my voice! But I still think I’ll try to placate the wolf who pounced on our conversation as on a little lamb trembling in fear… Dear Thrasymachus! Don’t be angry with us! If Polemarchus and I were completely wrong in the way we went about considering the problem, you know very well that it wasn’t on purpose. Suppose we were searching for gold, like in a Western, with big cowboy hats on our heads and all that sort of thing. Can you really think that, with our feet in the water and our pans in our hands, we’d bother deferring to each other and saying “After you, pardner” and run the risk of not finding anything at all? Yet here we are searching for justice, which is a lot more important than some heap of gold nuggets, and you’d think us capable of playing nice with each other all the time instead of devoting the utmost seriousness to bringing its Idea to light. No way! That’s simply not possible. The best hypothesis is that we’re just plain incapable of finding what we’re looking for. And in that case let me say to you and to all the clever people of your sort: instead of giving us a hard time, show us a little mercy.
After hearing this speech Thrasymachus let out a sardonic laugh that gave the whole audience the creeps.
–I was right, for Pete’s sake! That’s the famous Socratic irony3 all right! I knew it, I told everyone around me: Socrates will never agree to answer. He’ll be as ironic as can be and do anything he can to avoid having to answer a precise question. By Heracles! I told you so!
–That’s because you’re so clever, Socrates said. You set up your calculations with the utmost care. If you ask someone how to get the number twelve in a math problem, knowing you, you’ll add: “Whatever you do, my friend, don’t come telling me it’s six times two, or four times three, or twenty-four divided by two, let alone that it’s eleven plus one, or eight plus four or, as poor Kant wrote, seven plus five.4 Spare me any such nonsense.” You, at any rate, know perfectly well that with those kinds of prohibitions no one will be able to answer your question. But the other person can still ask you a few questions. For example: “What exactly is your aim, O most subtle Thrasymachus? That I shouldn’t give you any of the answers you’ve forbidden me to give? But what if one, or even several, of them, happen to be true? What’s your hidden agenda then? That I should say something other than the truth?” How would you respond to this hypothetical interlocutor?
But Thrasymachus wasn’t fazed and said:
–That’s easy: What’s that got to do with the question of justice? As usual, you’re just switching horses as soon as you see that yours is going to lose the race.
–But there is a connection! My twelve and my justice are horses from the same stable. But, OK, let’s assume that there’s no connection. Do you imagine that if your interlocutor thinks there is one, he’ll change the answer he thinks is right simply because you’ve forbidden it?
–Oh, for crying out loud! You want to do the very same thing! You want to define justice with one of the words I forbade you to use.
–Well, no wonder if I did. I’d just have to think, after giving it serious dialectical consideration, that it’s the right word.
–All that stuff about duty, propriety, interest, advantage! That’s the kind of junk you want to use to plug the leaky bucket of your argument? Confound it! If I can show you, first of all, that there’s another answer you haven’t even thought of and, second of all, that that answer blows to bits all the stupid things you’ve been kicking around, what sentence will you impose on yourself?
–The sentence that someone who doesn’t know has to submit to: learning from someone who does know. That’s the punishment I’ll sentence myself to.
–Well, you’ll be getting off lightly, Thrasymachus said with a sneer. In addition to having to learn, you’ll have to fork over a big stack of dollars to me.
–I will when I have any, if I have any someday…
But Glaucon, a rich kid, didn’t want the confrontation that was brewing to be put off on account of money.
–You have everything you need, Socrates, he said. And you, Thrasymachus, if it’s money you’re after, go ahead and say so! We’ll all take up a collection for Socrates.
–Yeah, right! hissed Thrasymachus. So that Socrates can do his usual number on me: he never answers, the other person answers, he makes mincemeat of what the person says, he refutes him, and that’s that!
–But, my dear friend, said Socrates calmly, how can I answer, given that, in the first place, I don’t know, and, in the second place, all I ever do is say that the only thing I know is that I don’t know, and, in the third place, even assuming that I do know and that I say that I know, I would nevertheless keep quiet, since someone who’s topnotch, namely you, has forbidden me beforehand to give any of the answers I deem appropriate to the question? You’re the one who should speak, since in the first place you say you know, and in the second place you know what you say. Come on! Don’t play hard to get! If you speak, you’ll be doing me a favor, and you’ll show that you don’t look down on Glaucon’s and his friends’ desire to learn from the great Thrasymachus.
Glaucon and the others all chimed in and begged Thrasymachus to give in. It was plain that he wanted to, certain as he was of the applause that his devastating answer to the question of the day – “What is justice?” – would earn him. But for a moment longer he pretended to go on arguing that Socrates should be the one to answer. At last he gave up, remarking:
–This is the classic example of Socrates’ “wisdom”: he announces he has nothing to teach anyone, but when it comes to stealing other people’s ideas, he’s only too willing, and never says thank you!
–When you say I learn from others, Socrates shot back, you’re perfectly right. But when you claim I never thank them, you’re wrong. Naturally I don’t pay for the lessons, because I don’t have any dollars or euros or drachmas or yen. On the other hand, I’m very generous with praise. What’s more, you’ll soon find out how fervently I admire someone who speaks well – in fact, just as soon as you’ve answered my question, an answer that I have a hunch will surprise us all.
Thrasymachus then came forward, stood up very straight, and closed his eyes like the Pythia at Delphi, meditating. On the shade-filled patio the silence was deafening.
–Listen, listen very carefully. I say that justice is not and cannot be anything but the interest of the stronger.
He then fixed his withering gaze on Socrates. But the silence persisted, since Socrates, short and potbellied, his eyes big and round and his arms dangling at his sides, looked like a disappointed dog being offered a slice of pumpkin.
Thrasymachus was annoyed.
–So where’s all this famous praise of yours? he said. You’re as quiet as a mouse. You’re such a sore loser, totally incapable of congratulating your opponent on his win. And you call yourself the wisest of men! Bravo!
–Forgive me, but first I have to be sure I understand you. Let’s see. You say: “Justice is the interest of the stronger.” What exactly does that statement mean? Take a bicycle racer, for example. Let’s say he’s the stronger party when it comes to biking up mountains. Let’s say it’s in his interest to dope himself by shooting EPO in his behind, so as to race even faster and to shatter all the records. You can’t really mean, can you, that justice for us would be to inject ourselves relentlessly in the backside, since that’s what’s in the interest of the stronger?
–Oh, you’re downright despicable, Socrates! You purposely misinterpret my words and plaster them onto some disgusting anecdote just to make me look like a fool.
–Not at all. I just think you need to clarify your splendid maxim. It’s as hard and black as coal…
–Coal? What on earth are you talking about?
–… as the coal that diamonds are mined from. Let your maxim simmer a bit for us in the broth of its context, as our modern orators would say.
–All right, I see what you mean. You know that the constitutions of different countries can be monarchical, aristocratic, or democratic. Furthermore, in every country the government has a monopoly on force, specifically armed force. It can then be observed that every government makes laws favoring its own interest: democrats make democratic laws, aristocrats aristocratic laws, and so on. In short, governments, which have force at their command, declare whatever’s in their own interest to be lawful and just. If a citizen disobeys, they punish him insofar as he has broken the law and acted unjustly. So that, dear friend, is what I say is invariably justice in every country: the interest of the government in power. And since that government has a monopoly on force, the conclusion that anyone who reasons correctly will draw from this is that justice is always and everywhere the same, namely what’s in the interest of the stronger.
And, so saying, Thrasymachus cast a triumphant glance over the audience.
Socrates’ face lit up:
Now I understand what you meant!
But just as quickly it darkened:
–Unfortunately, I’m not at all sure that it’s true. Right off the bat, someone hearing you might say (and here Socrates impersonated a comic actor speaking with a nasal intonation): “Very odd! Very odd! And to be precise: very odd!5 Thrasymachus strictly forbade Socrates to say that justice is interest. But a couple of minutes later, what does he himself loudly proclaim? That justice is interest.” Naturally I’d object to this guy with the stuffed nose: “Careful, sir, careful! He said interest, sure, but of the stronger.”
–An insignificant detail! snorted Thrasymachus.
–Whether it’s important or not isn’t clear yet. But what is absolutely clear is that we need to examine whether it’s really the truth that’s coming out of your mouth, as naked and pure as a cherub.
–Would you get a load of this Socrates! said a jubilant Thrasymachus, turning to face the audience. He thinks I cough up angels!
–Let’s put off examining your sputum till later. I’ll grant you that what’s just is in the interest of a Subject. Whether we should add “the stronger Subject” I’m not so sure, but we need to take a close look at that.
–Go ahead and look, Socrates, examine, consider, weigh, and quibble to your heart’s content. We know what you’re like!
–I thought I understood that, as far as you’re concerned, it is just to obey the rulers of the state. Furthermore, you’d agree, I assume, that these rulers aren’t infallible but do in fact make mistakes.
–Of course!
–Consequently, when they go about enacting laws, sometimes they get it right and sometimes they get it all wrong, don’t they?
–You’d have to look long and hard to find a comment as banal and utterly uninteresting as that one.
–No doubt, no doubt… But if we follow your argument, we’ll have to say that, for a ruler, to enact proper laws is to serve his own interest and to enact improper ones is to go against it. Right?
–That’s self-evident.
–And to have to do what the rulers have decided, is that just, in your opinion?
–You sound like a broken record! Yes, yes, yes!
–So, if we adopt your definition of justice, we can conclude that it is just not only to do what’s in the interest of the stronger, but also – and here’s what’s amazing – the opposite: what goes against the interest of the stronger.
–What on earth are you talking about?! cried Thrasymachus.
–The necessary implications of your definition. Let’s slow down a bit. We’d agreed on one point, which you even considered a trivial one: when the rulers order their subjects to do this or that, even though it sometimes happens that these rulers are mistaken about what their own real interest is, it’s still always just for the subjects to do exactly what the rulers order them to do. Yes or no?
–How many times do I have to tell you?! What a drag this is! Yes and yes.
–You therefore agreed that it’s just to go against the interest of the rulers, hence of the stronger, when these rulers unintentionally order things to be done that are bad for them, since it’s just – you said this over and over – to do everything decreed by said rulers. It follows inexorably from this that it’s just to do the exact opposite of what you say, since, in the case that concerns us here, to do what goes against the interest of the stronger is what the stronger orders the weaker to do.
The excitement this speech stirred up in the audience was enormous. Polemarchus awoke with a start, the pale Cleitophon turned red, Glaucon jumped up and down, and Amantha tugged nervously at her left ear. It was Polemarchus who took the plunge.
–I think Thrasymachus might as well close up shop and go home!
he exclaimed.
–Yeah, sure, muttered Cleitophon, who had become as pale as a ghost again. Whatever Polemarchus says, Thrasymachus has got to do.
–But it was Thrasymachus himself who...

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