Plato and Eros: Should a Philosopher Rule the City?

Increasingly, I think that a good way to read the Republic is to see it as highlighting the failure of mathematics/calculation to control human eros (e.g. the failure of the marriage number/lottery), as eros is constitutive of what it is to be human.  Here eros is understood in a broad sense as desire or longing for something.  For example, the philosopher is a lover of wisdom.  In that sense, s/he is erotic.Plato in Athens

In book VII of the Republic, Socrates describes life immersed in the visible realm as a life of slavery.  For example, the people who are in bonds in the cave are lovers of sights and sound.  So we have a critique of lovers of sights and sounds, and the implication that freedom comes in the study of essences.  Hence, only the philosopher is truly “free.”  The philosopher, because he knows “true” reality, the essences, must then go back into the cave (the polis) and rule.  However, there are a number of tensions with this account.  Does knowing the essences of x make you better at doing x? Or is it that knowing the particular x makes you better at doing x?  For example, someone could have an excellent grasp of the essence of music theory, yet be tone deaf and completely unable to make music.   Glaucon, whose shortcomings we often highlight, actually seems to have an insight on this point.  In other words, Glaucon’s attempts to bring Socrates down to the visible world seems reasonable because he sees correctly that Socrates is setting up an educational system that produces people who are not comfortable in the cave or the city; they don’t like it; they want to be contemplating the essences.  Some scholars attempt to resolve this tension by appealing to the ancients’ communal sense over against a more modern, individualistic leaning, which makes what “I” want more important than the needs of the city.  However, that doesn’t seem to solve the issue, because I’m suggesting that it would not be better for the city for the philosopher to rule, as knowing x does not necessarily make one better at doing x.

Plato’s Socrates is of course incredibly subtle and often leads us in one direction simply to show us that that particular path is a dead end.  Perhaps that is what he is doing here.  For example, Socrates is aware that the philosophers who have come out of the cave and glimpsed the light of the Sun (the Form of the Good) will not want to go back down (just as Socrates didn’t want to go down to the Piraeus at the beginning of book I).  At 520d Socrates intimates that a democracy would not be the best regime because the leaders all want to rule and are power-grabbers. Later in the Republic in his discussion of the different regimes, he shows how each character type is conflicted and deficient in his erotic attachments (e.g., oligarch is a money-lover).  Since the philosopher is also erotic-a lover of wisdom (Cephalus’ being the foil, as his lack of eros disqualifies him as a potential philosopher), to rule would cause him to live in a disordered state, as he would have to (at least part of the time) turn away from his love of contemplation.  In other words, the philosopher would be conflicted.  This confliction is not exactly parallel with the internal tension experienced by the oligarch or timocrat; yet, it is a genuine tension because he is pulled away from what he loves and does best and is forced to engage in something for which he has no erotic attraction.

Though Plato’s Socrates makes several critical statements concerning the democratic regime, it just might be the case that he is actually ambivalent to democracies.  For example at 557, he states, “It [the democratic regime] is probably the fairest, the most beautiful of all regimes.”  Then at 557d, he says, “It is probably necessary for the man who wishes to organize a city, as we were just doing, to go to a city under a democracy.”  Here in effect Socrates is saying, if we want to do what we are doing right now (i.e. engaging in philosophy), then maybe we have live in a democratic regime.  Consider the “clues” that we’ve been given that his might be the case.  A basic feature of democracy is the protection of privacy.  With regard to our present concern this means there is no compulsion or obligation to be political.  This is the opposite of what we find in the parable of the cave, where the philosopher is forced to return to the cave; hence, he is forced to be political.  We see this mimicked at the very beginning of the Republic when Socrates is “forced” metaphorically to stay in the Piraeus.  Thus, in contrast to Socrates’ supposed perfectly just city, in a democracy, because privacy is assured, a person could pursue philosophy, as there is no compulsion to be political.  If, as I believe it is, the city in thought is a failure, a purposed reductio ad absurdum, and eros is constitutive of humans and cannot be controlled by mathematics (which has a kind of necessity to it), then a democracy is in fact the best (although imperfect human-all-too-human) regime for the politician and the philosopher.  Why?  It allows the eros of the politician to be satisfied because s/he is doing what s/he is best suited to do.  The same thing goes for the philosopher.  Whether this works out for the artisans (and for their ultimate good) is another question, which will have to wait for another time.

7 thoughts on “Plato and Eros: Should a Philosopher Rule the City?”

  1. This is a super post in that it teases and suggests, inviting further thought/s. (Appropriate for a post that features eros?!) Three quick responses:

    First, knowing/doing become one, according to “Socrates” if that which is known is truly The Good. Is your analysis, thus, not a question about the nature of The Good and your conclusion a suggestion that The Good remains perpetually elusive?

    Second, is it possible for the “politician” in a so-called representative democracy to be anything other than an electoral utilitarian?

    Third, see my May 12 post (on “No more ambiguity” for a way out of the annoying s/he syndrome.

  2. Hi Jim,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m swamped at the moment with grading, but regarding your first point, I had not formulated it precisely that way, but what you say makes a good deal of sense. I’d have try to think it through with other Platonic dialogues as well (Symposium, Phaedo, Phaedrus etc.). Regarding the second question, I’d like to hear your answer.

    With all good wishes,

  3. Well done as usual.

    Any way you slice it, Apollo-Dionysus (FN) etc., you end up with the resolution being immanent, with whatever transcendence there is the result of the capacity of persons to integrate and control the disparate elements in the spectrum that is us. More and more Assagioli’s psyshosynthesis presents a clear answer to these “binary” dilemmas by positing a higher-self. Remove the new age gloss and you have something worth considering.

  4. Hi Jim,

    Here are a few thrown together thoughts related to your comment about the Good. When Glaucon presses Socrates to tell him precisely what the Good is, Socrates refuses; yet, he is willing to describe “a child of the good” (506e). So Socrates gives an indirect description of the Good by way of the analogy of the sun (the Form of the Good is related to the intelligible as the sun is related to the visible). In addition, the Good provides the Truth, which is analogous to light, and truth is required for the intelligible things to be grasped. At 508e Socrates says that the Form of the Good is the cause of knowledge and truth, and it is also the cause of being. Yet, as you suggest, the Form of the Good is elusive; it is beyond being (it isn’t a being among beings). We don’t have direct access to it, but I don’t think this means that we have no awareness at all of it. Analogous to the way that we can’t look directly into the sun but are aware of its presence through its effects (warmth, light, etc.), so too even though we can’t grasp the Good directly, we are nonetheless aware of its presence. Because the Good is beyond being and the cause of all beings, we cannot define it. In the end, I find Plato’s Good very attractive except for that one glaring flaw, viz. it is impersonal.

    I’m sure these are not new thoughts to you, but I thought I’d throw them out there anyway.

    Best wishes,

  5. Thanks to you for the careful and thoughtful response to my first comment.

    All you say is what I had in mind when I made the point about knowing/doing. I agree with you about the “impersonality” of The Good, but “Socrates” would not find that an imperfection and hence the charge of “atheism” and misleading the youth of Athens; on to the hemlock.

    The issues you raise about knowing The Good (The Sun) analogously through it impact on us apply to all encounters with the “Other Than.” Remove the analogous nature of the encounter and the Other Than no longer is “Other Than.” The elusive nature of it entails analogous expression. This leads me to appreciate Heschel’s language about “enchantment.” This pertains to a personal “Other Than” also, don’t you think? second point: a quick response to your question:
    No, if such a politican wishes to be “in power” in any meaningful sense. I could write more, but this comment is already too long!

    Blessings, Jim

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