Gadamer on Art’s Emergence, Motion, and Non-Utility (and a Creative “Riff” or Two on Plato and Aristotle)

Malevich "Bureau and Room"In this post I continue my reflections on Gadamer’s analysis of the artwork and its presentations by way of a brief sketch of Gadamer’s relevant work on Plato and Aristotle. If Plato is read as devaluing or demoting art due to its status as third-removed from the truth and a mere copy of the original Idea, then of course Gadamer rejects this view and has no interest in this characterization of mimesis. (In fact, Gadamer argues that Plato himself rejected this view and that his position is articulated in his later dialogues, especially in the Philebus.)[1] For my purposes, I will focus on Gadamer’s creative appropriations of the Platonic-Aristotelian linking of beauty, goodness, and truth in his reflections on art.[2]

In the Philebus, Plato introduces a third category of being, which he calls, “coming into being” (genesis eis ousian; 26d8). This category opposes a dualistic view of reality in which the world of Ideas is separate from the world of appearances. Along similar lines and again in order to stress the unity of being and becoming, Plato speaks of “being that has been” (gegenêmenê ousia; 27b8). With this new category Plato shows how not only in our lived experience but also in the very structure of the world, “we encounter the mixed, and within it we must seek and find the ‘exact.’”[3] Here the “exact” or in Plato’s words, “the exact itself,” is not the “pure” exactness of mathematics but rather the “appropriate” (metrion) discussed in the Statesman, where two arts of measure are introduced and distinguished.[4] Gadamer, in fact, sees the “appropriate” or the “fitting”—the, so to speak, “im-pure” exactness—as an anticipation of Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean. Both types of measure are crucially important; however, we must discern and respect their difference and resist any push to make mathematical exactness the ultimate measure and model of all knowing and truth. In short, on Gadamer’s reading, if initially Plato advocated dualism, he has himself subverted such a view. In the Philebus, becoming is a coming into being and being comes forth from becoming. Plato and Aristotle have much more in common than Philosophy 101 might lead us to believe.

In fact, Gadamer sees Aristotle’s introduction of the concept of energeia as a mere “step beyond” Plato’s development of this third category of “coming into being.”[5] As Gadamer explains, Aristotle’s understanding and unique employment of energeia is complex and includes the ideas of actuality, reality, and activity. Moreover, energeia shares close conceptual resemblances with Aristotle’s notion of entelecheia (entelechy). The common idea of both terms is that they indicate the unfolding action, not the finished action (ergon). Of course, the activity of energeia and entelecheia involves an unfolding, internal telic movement. Yet Aristotle’s notion of energeia—such as the “pure energeia” of being aware, seeing, and thinking—also designate a movement with no goal outside or beyond the activity itself.[6] Thus, Gadamer suggests that these a-telic activities are characterized by a temporal structural of “tarrying.” That is, the activity of considering or having considering something does not designate a this-after-that sequence but speaks of lingering over something—a being absorbed or immersed in something until it manifests or shows itself. Similarly, with the artwork, as we tarry with it, “it” emerges. This is how we experience art’s truth; we allow ourselves to be absorbed by it, and as we wait and linger, it comes forth and addresses us. As Gadamer explains:

To tarry is not to lose time. Being in the mode of tarrying is like an intensive back-and-forth conversation that is not cut off but lasts until it is ended. The whole of it is a conversation in which for a time one is completely “absorbed in conversation,” and this means one “is completely there in it.”[7]

Given art’s non-practical focus and lack of use-orientation, Gadamer claims that art finds kinship with the ancient notion of theoria.[8] Here Gadamer’s creative appropriations of ancient Greek philosophical concepts are deployed not in order to mute the voice of the other, but rather they enable us to better understand and appreciate a modern conception of art for art’s sake. That is, as we come to understand what Aristotle meant by theoria, techne, physis, and energeia, we have a better grasp of modern art’s claims regarding its absoluteness and non-utility. Rather than associate the making of craftsmanship, whose products serve purposes of utility, with the making of artworks, Gadamer highlights the affinities between art and nature. For example, a work of art, like a flower that comes to bloom, has a developmental history and a process-oriented temporal structure that makes possible its manifestations of sameness in difference. In addition, art like physis shows its life through being in motion; art lives through enactment (Vollzug). Lastly, although in our exploitation of nature via technology, we have by and large lost the sense of wonder at nature’s beauty and its emerging and simply “being-there,” yet even so nature still has the power to surprise and overwhelm us. The same is true of art—even avant-garde art.


[1] See, for example, Hans-Georg Gadamer Dialogue and Dialectic. Eight Hermeneutical Studies on Plato, trans. P. Christopher Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980,) esp. chapter 6, “Plato’s Unwritten Dialectic.”

[2] For a friendly yet critical engagement with Gadamer’s position, see Michael Kelly, “A Critique of Gadamer’s Aesthetics,” in Gadamer’s Repercussions. Reconsidering Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. Bruce Krajewski (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 103­–120. On the one hand, Kelly agrees with “Gadamer’s critique of any philosophy of art that considers art to be a lie,” on the other, he rejects the notion that art makes truth claims (ibid.,103). Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Artwork in Word and Image: ‘So True, So Full of Being!’” in The Gadamer Reader. A Bouquet of the Later Writings, trans. and ed. Richard E. Palmer, 192–224 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 209.

[3] Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Artwork in Word and Image: ‘So True, So Full of Being!’” in The Gadamer Reader. A Bouquet of the Later Writings, trans. and ed. Richard E. Palmer, 192–224 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 209.

[4] See, for example, Plato, Statesman, 284e ff.

[5] Gadamer, “The Artwork in Word and Image,” 210.

[6] Ibid., 213.

[7] Ibid., 211.

[8] As Gadamer explains, theoria was linked with divine activity and thus involves participation in the highest activity and reality. He also notes that the term originally meant to “participate in a festive act. Thus, it is not merely being a spectator. Rather, it means ‘to be fully there’” (ibid., 213).

T.S. Eliot and Plato on Love, Longing, Exile, and Edenic Echoes

Expulsion from ParadiseReading Plato’s dialogue the Symposium in conjunction with T.S. Eliot’s poem Four Quartets is a rather fruitful exercise. In the Symposium, often considered Plato’s premier dialogue about Love, we find a group of males assembled for a night of festivities, which includes offering their respective panegyrics to Love. One alleged female voice, however, is permitted a hearing at this overwhelmingly male-populated gathering, namely, Diotima, the philosopher-priest. Yet one could argue that this female voice doesn’t actually represent full female subjectivity, but rather is ventriloquized and functions as Socrates’ mouthpiece, or keeping with the Dionysian themes animating the drama, Socrates’ mask—and a mask-wearer extraordinaire! Of the speeches prior to “Diotima’s,” I find Aristophanes’s account the most captivating. His discourse contains a myth about human origins in a primordial past when all was well or at least significantly better than our present fractured, fragmented, and estranged human existence. As Aristophanes explains, there were originally three kinds of human beings—male/male, female/female, and female/male. These originary pairs are described as spherical in shape, possessing four arms, four legs, and two sets of genitalia. More importantly, each partner was in perfect relational unity with his or her, so to speak, soul mate. However, for some inexplicable reason these original humans became proud and plotted to usurp the gods. The gods—rather nasty and needy beings, whose status and identity required sacrifices and continual worship—opted to punish rather than obliterate them. After some deliberation, it was decided that Zeus would cut them in half, thus producing their current embodied state, their experience of love now as shadowy incompleteness, discontented lack, and painful longing—an ever-present chronic desire for an intimacy and wholeness that was and is no more.

What I find incredibly interesting about this ancient Greek account of humanity’s “fall” and its explanation of our present restless condition is how well it resonates with T.S. Eliot’s Christian account presented in his poem, Four Quartets.[1] Listen to Eliot’s hauntingly beautiful word imagery in part I of the first movement of the poem, “Burnt Norton.” Having introduced his first major theme, “time,” or better our problem living with and in time and the dismal thought that our past might be unredeemable, a mere series of pointless and disconnected sequential events—a view, which of course, Eliot does not share—he urges us to confront our telos. That is, we ought not think of our telos as some far-off future event, but as an ever-present reality shaping our lives now.

Just as we find time and memory closely linked in St. Augustine’s Confessions, so too in Eliot’s account.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know.

Somehow we are drawn in by echoes sounding, presumably, in our memory. But echoes of what? Footfalls, that is, paths not taken, doors not opened. Thus, the echoes seem to be sounds ringing through our head of things lost, more specifically potential opportunities lost because we either choose not to pursue them. Perhaps we failed to act when we should have, or perhaps the opportunities were lost simply by virtue of our having chosen an alternative path. But what does the rose-garden symbolize? The Garden of Eden, childhood innocence, lost love? And why do my words echo in your mind? In God’s mind? A lover’s mind? Whatever the case, these faint sounds are infused with a hint of melancholy—surely the tonal center is minor, not major.

But Eliot continues, giving more content to these barely audible sounds. Now he introduces us to “other echoes,” which are, I assume, different echoes from those described above. Of these, Eliot writes,

Other echoes

Inhabit the garden.

Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,

Round the corner. Through the first gate,

Into our first world, shall we follow

The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.

Here the “other echoes” recall a garden, which now more explicitly gestures toward the Garden of Eden, “our first world.” But this is precisely the place where, according to the Genesis account, we cannot go, as a sword marks our expulsion and bars our re-entry. When these particular echoes are heard, we come to recognize our exiled state. Stated slightly differently, our Edenic yearnings confirm our exilic state. For us as banished peregrinators, this “unheard music,” to which the bird summoning us somehow is somehow aware, falls upon tone-challenged ears. Or so it seems most of the time. Yet, when those tragic, heart-rending moments in life unhinge us, such times create the conditions for intense and rigorously focused soul-reflections. At such moments our sense of hearing, like a brief but all-too-needed extended interlude from the deafening daily grind, is attuned or re-tuned or a bit of both. Changing metaphors, we glimpse a vision of what we were originally created for and of what we could have been. In this vision we see pools “filled with water out of sunlight, and the lotos rose,” reposing quietly atop the water whose “surface glittered out of heart of light.” In the water, we see a reflection of them—but of whom we ask? Adam and Eve in their pristine state? Humanity as it once was? Suddenly, the vision ends. Our cataract sight returns, and “and the pool was empty.” Why, we ask?

Go, go, said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.

Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

As Howard observes in his excellent little book, Dove Descending, Eliot is not calling us to live in some illusionary nostalgia. Eliot is far too much of a realist for that. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. That is, like the authors of Scripture recounting what happens to prophets who experience theophanies—i.e., they tend rather quickly to fall prostrate—Eliot understands how fragile we truly are, how quickly we become undone when confronted with Reality. We can’t bear it. Thus, it is a good thing—even an act of divine mercy—that these soul-awakening encounters with Reality are meted out over time, and if the poet isn’t a liar, are somehow purposed with our telos in view—a telos that Eliot this early in the poem happily leaves ambiguous.


[1] My reflections in this post were inspired and shaped through my reading of Thomas Howard’s book, Dove Descending: A Journey Into T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2006

*The icon is entitled, The Lord Confronts the Disobedience of Adam & Eve; “The Expulsion from Paradise,” Nave Mosaics from Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily. Mid 12th Century.

The Ring of Gyges and Whiteness or Making Invisibility Rings Visible

In Plato’s famous work, The Republic, Glaucon, Socrates’ spirited, energetic, philosophically erotic dialogue partner, challenges Socrates to give an adequate definition of justice and to convince him as to why a just life is superior to an unjust life. As part of Glaucon’s argumentative strategy, he offers a thought experiment, the story of the Ring of Gyges (359d-360d), in which the unjust life is presented as the best life. Socrates’ job is then, on the one hand, to show how Glaucon’s account is flawed, and on the other hand, to answer the questions mentioned above (e.g. “what is justice?” and “why is justice superior to injustice?”). The view of justice presented in the Ring of Gyges myth does not represent Glaucon’s own position; rather, he articulates the sophist Thrasymachus’s position, which in some closely related variation is also shared by the “many” (i.e. the hoi polloi) yet is amended in order to make it as persuasive as possible. As the story goes, Gyges, a lowly shepherd finds a magical ring that makes him invisible. He uses it to engage in acts that would normally be socially unacceptable and, in some cases, quite illegal but which allow him to act on whatever desire he may have and to “get away with it” (e.g. he sleeps with the queen; he kills the king and takes over his kingdom). So the lowly shepherd becomes in effect a despotic tyrant.

So what is Glaucon’s point? His point is the following: if any of us possessed such a ring, we’d do the same thing.  Why? Because, so the story goes, we really want to perform unjust acts, and if we could do them and not be punished for them via the law etc., then we most certainly would. Stated otherwise, if you could engage in unjust acts to fulfill your desires and you could do so with absolutely no negative consequences, what reason would you have for engaging in just acts?

Although there are several dialogical directions one might take in discussing Glaucon’s myth, I want to engage in a similar thought experiment, altering Glaucon’s storyline in order to address contemporary concerns of justice in my own socio-political context, the U. S. A.  What if, instead of the lowly shepherd, Gyges, sporting the treasured ring of invisibility, an entire group of individuals are clad with invisibility rings, affording them privileges and freedoms denied to other groups in their society. Let’s assume (for the sake of the story) that the ring-wearing people have no idea that they possess these magical rings. They enter department stores and are not followed by security guards. They are not frisked or interrogated regularly in public spaces by the police as are their ring-less counterparts. When their crimes rates are the same as the non-ringed people, they are significantly less likely to spend time in prison. When they decide to move into a particular neighborhood or housing community, they do not worry as to whether their “kind” will be seen as a threat or as a “sign” that the neighborhood is in decline. Then let’s suppose that one day, the gods decide to reveal to one of the ring-bearers—a man named Edward—the magical properties of his ring. Thus, Edward’s ring is removed, and he is treated like the other ring-less people. In order to process his newly found knowledge, Edward decides to talk an evening walk. A young ring-clad female sees him walking toward her. Edward notices that she seems nervous, as she began looking around to see if there were any other ring clad people nearby. Then suddenly she crosses to the other side of the street. “Is she afraid of me?” Edward wondered. Acting as if he were still a ringed-one, he decides to cross the street in order to explain to the woman that he had been made aware of the invisibility powers of his ring—powers which grant his people unjust social, cultural, and economic privileges—and he was now trying to figure out what, if anything, he could do to make these truths known and to effect change more broadly—i.e., institutionally, legally, socio-politically, etc. However, Edward never had the chance to discuss these issues with the young woman. She panicked, began to scream, and ran to the nearest house. The owner of the house, George, had been watching the scene unfold through his living room window. George didn’t like ring-less people, and he was quite vocal in his community about his views. “These people are lazy. They don’t work, they do drugs, and they live off the welfare system—and hard-working people like me have to pay for their hospital bills when they overdose.” When George saw Edward crossing the street and moving toward the young woman, he ran to his bedroom to get his handgun. There’s no need to spell out the details of this story’s ending; it is all-too-familiar these days. Suffice it to say, Edward died that night from a gunshot wound to the chest.

In her book, Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege, philosopher Shannon Sullivan builds upon insights from W. E. B. Du Bois and John Dewey concerning conscious and unconscious habits and applies these to race and white privilege. Sullivan understands “habit” as “an organism’s subconscious predisposition to transact with its physical, social, political, and natural worlds in particular ways. Habit is equivalent to neither routine nor a ‘bad habit,’ as the term is often used. Habits instead are that which constitute the self” (23).  Habits can be formed consciously or unconsciously, and quite often they are formed unconsciously. Our habits constitute our “style” understood phenomenologically (see Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception); they are “manners of being and acting that constitute an organism’s ongoing character” (ibid.). Although habits stabilize and have a “steadiness” and regularity about them, they needn’t be understood as necessarily fixed or unalterable.  Moreover, habits affect both our mental and our physical being. We see instances of physical habit in the way that women in a sexist society carry their bodies—notice the difference in how women pose for pictures versus how men pose. Similarly with respect to race, we find both conscious and unconscious mental and physical habits, which can either limit or make possible one’s ability to act. As Sullivan explains,

“to be a white person means that one tends to assume that all cultural and social spaces are potentially available for one to inhabit. The habit of ontological expansiveness enables white people to maximize the extent of the world in which they transact. But as an instance of white solipsism, it also severely limits their ability to treat others in respectful ways. Instead of acknowledging others’ particular interests, needs, and projects, white people who are ontologically expansive tend to recognize only their own, and their expansiveness is at the same time a limitation” (25).

People are often asked to “own” their actions and to “break” their habits. So how might one work toward owning his or her white privilege? Of course the answer will differ from person to person, context to context, and so forth. Likewise, habits of this sort are not simply individual habits but are also social and require large-scale socio-political structural changes. However, in agreement with Sullivan, I believe that human agents can act to re-shape their “style,” re-constitute themselves, and strive “to transform their habits of white privilege to ones of resistance” (197). Thus, with Sullivan, I am committed to an ongoing self-interrogation, considering how I might “go ring-less” in my various spheres of influence.

Gadamer on Plato’s Idea of the Good and Aristotle’s theos

As is well-known, Plato in the Republic describes the Good Itself or the Idea of the Good as “beyond all being” (epekeina tés ousias; 509b).  Hans-Georg Gadamer, who has published widely on Plato, offers a reading of Plato that brings him much closer to Aristotle than is commonly presented in the literature.  For example, Gadamer argues that Plato’s Idea of the Good and Aristotle’s theos are different ways of talking about the same reality.  Wachterhauser unpacks Gadamer’s claim as follows,Hans-Georg Gadamer

When Plato refers to the Good as what is common in all things, he suggests that the Good is the principle of Being of all things, although it itself is not a being.  Similarly, Aristotle’s God, as the highest being, becomes the one principle uniting all beings as the one principle to which Being must be referred if we are ultimately to understand how all beings ‘move’ for the sake of a telos which is not synonymous with their mere existence.  Thus we can only speak of their being in light of this telos, which in turn can only be comprehended in light of the highest being, of the unmoved mover.  Thus all Being is spoken of analogously in that Being is predicated of things ‘to one end’ or what Aristotle called ‘pros hen’ predication.  All beings have this one being in common in that what they are can only be comprehended in analogy with the highest being.  The relative perfection of each thing is a matter of degree of approximation to the highest being (Beyond Being:  Gadamer’s Post-Platonic Hermeneutical Ontology, 89-90).

The common ground that Gadamer believes obtains between Plato and Aristotle allows him to “stress the importance of motion and change for comprehending reality” (Beyond Being, 90).  As Wachterhauser explains, Gadamer interprets Plato as presenting in mythical form what Aristotle articulated in his act/potency distinction in which things unfold teleologically over time.

Plato’s Myth of the Metals and Parallels with Racism in the Ante-Bellum South (and Beyond)

GoldAs Socrates unfolds his city-in-thought, the so-called perfectly just city of the Republic, he speaks of the need for the rulers to promulgate the notorious “noble lie” (414c).[1] The noble lie consists in two parts.  First, the citizens are told that their true parent is the earth, that is, the city or polis (414d).  This part of the noble lie is designed to promote a kind of sold-out commitment to the polis-a loyalty willing to forsake even the closest (traditional) familial ties.  When this aspect of the noble lie is embraced, the citizens view each other as brothers and sisters who are all connected to a common parent, the polis (“Father/Motherland” themes come to mind).  Second, the citizens are presented with the “myth of metals.”  According to this myth, each citizen is born with one of three kinds of soul:  gold, silver or bronze.  As you might expect, the citizen’s worth and function in the city is determined by what kind of soul s/he possesses.   The myth of metals is created to promote strict class separation and is an attempt to eliminate factionalism.  The gold-souled people are best-suited to rule, the silver-souled people (the warrior class) assist the rulers in their plans for the city, and the bronze-souled people are simply to obey.  In addition, the classes must never intermarry, as those who “by nature” are superior cannot be tainted by a lower class.  For the good of the polis, the bronze-souled people must come to recognize their natural inferiority to the silver and gold-souled classes and be willing to obey and carry out their orders-after all, they are intellectually inferior to gold-souled rulers and cannot properly direct their own lives without the guidance of their natural superiors.

Of course Plato is not giving us a blueprint for an actual city (contra Popper); however, Socrates’ “building plans” strike a similar chord with modern racist projects.  (There are, no doubt, significant differences between the two projects; I’m not claiming that a one-to-one correspondence exists.  Nonetheless, the commonalities are worth pondering).   Drawing from the insights of historian Kenneth Stampp, Floyd W. Hayes III describes the ways in which slave-owners in the American ant-bellum south attempted to “create a good slave.”[2] The following are five common strategies employed by slave-owners in the process of making and managing a slave class.

First, those who managed the slaves had to maintain strict discipline.  One slave-owner said, “Unconditional submission is the only footing upon which slavery should be placed.”  Another said, “the slave must know that his master is to govern absolutely and he is to obey implicitly, that he is never, for a moment, to exercise either his will or judgment in opposition to a positive order” [Stampp, The Peculiar Institution:  Slavery and the Ante-Bellum South, p. 145].  Second, slave-owners thought that they had to implant in the slave a consciousness of personal inferiority.  They deliberately extended this sense of personal inferiority to the slave’s past.  Slave-owners believed that in order to control black people, the slaves “had to feel that African ancestry tainted them, that their color was a badge of degradation” [to use Socrates’ language, they needed to feel that they were mere “bronze” souls] (ibid.).  The third step in the training process was to awe the slaves with a sense of the slave-owner’s enormous power.  It was essential, various slave-owners declared, “to make them stand in fear” (p. 146) [following the Republic, to show them the force of the warrior class/silver-souls if they decide to overstep class boundaries].  The fourth aspect was the attempt to “persuade the bondsman to take an interest in the master’s enterprise and to accept his standards of ‘good conduct'” (p. 147) [you must believe our “noble lie” and embrace the solidarity and customs of the city-after all, it’s for the good of the city, which is our Mother].  Thus the slave-owner sought to train slaves to accept unquestionably his criteria of what was good and true and beautiful.  The final step, according to Stampp’s documents was “to impress Negroes with their helplessness:  to create in them a habit of perfect dependence upon their masters (ibid.)”[3]


[1] On my interpretation, the city-in-thought is not a kind of blueprint for an actual city.  Rather, by showing the impossibility of such a (totalitarian, calculation-oriented) city, Plato highlights the theme of eros (broadly construed as “love”, “desire”, “longing,” etc.) as that which constitutes human existence and which cannot be controlled or managed by mathematics, calculated reason, eugenics etc.  In other words, all humans are lovers of something and these various loves, desires and longings are what drive us and direct our lives, actions and decisions.

[2] Hayes, Floyd W. III.  “Fanon, Oppression, and Resentment  The Black Experience in the United States,”  in Fanon:  A Critical Reader.  Gordon, Lewis R., Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean, and White, Renee T. eds., (Cambridge:  Blackwell, 1996), p. 16.

[3] Hayes, p. 16.

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.