Tag Archives: Plato

Plato and Thucydides on changes in the meanings of words


He wrote of ungovernable passions.

In Book VIII of the Republic, Socrates decries what he regards as the corruption of speech in democracy. The democratic individual has no compunctions about altering the meaning of basic human qualities. He dismisses “reverence” as “foolishness,” despises “moderation” as “cowardice,” and calls “insolence” “good breeding.” (560c-e). He exalts “anarchy” as “freedom,” “extravagance” as “magnificence,” and “shamelessness” as “courage.” Is this a case of the individual wishing to cast his vices as virtues, or is it a reflection of the slippery nature of linguistic signs, according to the doctrine whereby meaning is socially constructed, and for that reason elusive and unstable?

This passage brings to mind the famous lines from the History of Thucydides, where he describes how the contagion of civil strife debased and corrupted the civic life of the polis:

“So revolutions broke out in city after city, and in places where the revolutions occurred late the knowledge of what had happened in previously in other places caused still new extravagances of revolutionary zeal, expressed by an elaboration on the methods of seizing power and by unheard-of atrocities in revenge. To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefit of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime” (242-243).

Acts of brutal violence, including those that claimed innocent lives, became regarded as expressions of courage, while anyone who counseled restraint was denounced as a coward. The passage is preceded by a hair-raising account of a massacre on the island of Corcyra, in which the democratic faction, emboldened by the imminent arrival of their allies from Athens, turned on the members of the oligarchic faction, who had sought sanctuary in the temple of Hera. Cut off from any possibility of escape, many of the suppliants committed suicide or killed each other to be avoided being slaughtered by their fellow citizens. Some were dragged out of the temples and butchered over the altars, their killers possessed by a cruelty and brutality that violated the most sacred of bonds and shattered elementary human restraints, as even fathers turned against their own sons and slew them. But Thucydides notes that not everyone who took part in the bloodbath was driven by political motives: debtors liquidated their debts by assassinating their creditors and those with vendettas took advantage of the lawlessness to kill the objects of their personal hatred.

Thucydides concludes that there was as “general deterioration of character throughout the Greek world,” as the “simple way of looking at things, which is so much the mark of a noble nature, was regarded as a ridiculous quality and soon ceased to exist” (244). One could regard the readiness to think and expect the worst of others, and even to take pre-emptive action against them, as the logical consequence of civil war breaking out within the city-state. “Society had become divided into two ideologically hostile camps, and each side viewed the other with suspicion.” Yet, for Plato, the shift in the meanings of qualities and attributes indicates that there is a psychic dimension behind this corruption. The decline of what Thucydides calls the “ancient simplicity,” in which human beings are capable of calling virtue virtue, instead of trying to pass off a negative quality as a positive one, is from this standpoint the result of a shift in values and outlook as much as it is the response of individuals to external events taking place in the polis.

The democratic soul in the Republic is defined by the refusal to draw any distinction between necessary and unnecessary desires. In a sort of anticipation of modern relativism, Socrates claims that democratic man is open to all experiences and desires, but is dogmatic on one score, which is that all yearnings and aspirations are to be considered equal to each other in value, and thus that none can be valued above another. The belief that one should honor all desires on an equal basis follows from the denial that there is any kind of hierarchy of values toward which one should orient one’s life or according to which a people should organize the terms of their communal existence. We thus encounter an aporia in which all values are equally correct, except for the belief that one value is superior to another.

The belief in the equality of all desires does not emerge in the dialogue as a concession to human fallibility, nor is it an expression of humility, epistemological or otherwise, as borne out by the inescapably hostile and antagonistic attitude of democratic man toward the idea that some desires are superior to others. Relativism then and now masquerades as a kind of truthful individualism, a sober recognition of the limits of human capacities and a hard-headed skepticism toward the delusions into which so many fall. But the sliding of moderation into cowardice, courage into shamelessness, and other terms into their opposites reveals that the belief that all desires should be honored equally is a mechanism for trying to place oneself beyond the judgment of others. What the equality of all desires, coupled with the readiness to manipulate language so that vice becomes virtue and defect becomes merit, aims at is to make the individual immune to criticism and reproach. It appears that one cannot make all desires equal without converting vanity into an entitlement.

The corruption of language returns us to a definition of justice enunciated at the opening of the dialogue by Polemarchus, who calls justice “doing good to one’s friends and doing harm to one’s enemies” (332d). The perversion of words into their opposites not only flatters the democratic individual by placing him beyond criticism, but they also enable him to define social reality in self-serving and instrumental ways. Thus, when one’s friends act impulsively, it is “courage,” but when your enemies do the exact same thing, it is “shamelessness.” But the violence that is done to language is a shadow of the actual violence being committed by factions against each other. The willingness to use language in a self-serving way amounts to a declaration of war, but one could also say that it impairs the ability to wage war, because by means of it the individual gives himself permission to see the world as he wants to see it, not as it actually is. Indeed, to persist in calling a courageous enemy “cowardly” is to underestimate him and thus to invite disaster. Tragic realism would compel us to be as honest as possible in how we regard our enemies, and make us realize that it is necessary to acknowledge the virtues of the enemy if one is to improve one’s chances of victory or achieving a satisfactory peace.

The disintegration of the Greek world took place in large measure because men were “swept away into an internecine struggle by their ungovernable passions” (245). The “ungovernable passions” are the straightest path toward the war of all against all.

Works cited:

Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner. New York: Penguin, 1988.


The Republic Revolutions: Passion and Innovation in Plato’s City in Speech

Is the process of political decay irreversible, making it impossible to go back to a more just or simpler form of political order? Does corruption run in one direction only – its levels increasing over time, until there comes a tyrant or empire that deprives the people of their most potent excesses, along with their liberties? Or stated from an opposed, though no less desperate standpoint, do we have no choice but to believe, to hope against hope, that modern democracy possesses self-renewing powers? Must we live in the expectation of miracles, that deliverance will arrive in the form of some force or event that would enable us to undertake the arduous and transformative work of creating a new kind of society?

The irreversibility of corruption could be taken as the lesson of Plato’s Republic, much which of course occupies itself with the foundation and characteristics of the just city: its myth of origin, its division of labor, and the form of education intended for its ruling elite. But in the eighth book, Socrates leads his interlocutors through a process of decline in which the city invented by Socrates and his friends is replaced by a series of inferior regimes, culminating in the emergence of the worst political form, tyranny. It is a startling series of reflections, in which the philosophic construction of the just city is subjected to the forces of time and passion.

Socrates calls the first, and for him the most just, form of government, aristocracy or monarchy, although merit, and not birth, is supposed to be the most significant factor in the composition of the ruling elite. As often goes unmentioned in the routine denunciations of Plato as an apologist for modern totalitarianism, the citizens of the just polis are told that not all children born to parents who are members of the ruling elite will be worthy of following in their footsteps and must become reconciled to an occupation among the lower ranks of society, just as the children of the lower ranks will sometimes exhibit talents and abilities that will allow them to rise into the elite class of the guardians (423c-d).

But this arrangement cannot last forever. The guardians will make mistakes in timing the births of their children, causing offspring of lesser ability and intelligence to be born. The scientific validity and questionable ethics of eugenics aside, Socrates’ point contains the troubling insight that the lowering of standards, especially in matters of the spirit, results in a narrowed and constrained view of reality. What results from the decline of intelligence and capacity is the unsettling of the political hierarchy – the guardians are no longer so self-evidently outstanding in their talents and virtues, whereas the number of the ambitious and restless increases in the lower ranks. Division is introduced into the city, with the guardians and the auxiliaries (foot soldiers) defending the traditional virtues while the men of bronze and iron, the tradesmen, laborers, and craftsmen, pull the community in the direction of commerce and the accumulation of wealth. In the ensuing conflict, the members of the ruling elite win out over those who demand that economic productivity should translate into political influence.

In maintaining their power, however, the ruling elite is forced to introduce several crucial innovations, such as private property and slavery. Whereas in the past, the guardians, whose souls are said to be of gold, and the auxiliaries, who are of silver, regarded the people of bronze and iron as friends and free men, now reduce them to servitude as punishment for their rebellion. Whereas the guardians formerly held all things in common and lived in barracks, being forbidden from possessing any kind of wealth, they now become owners of property expropriated from those they were charged to protect.

The upshot of these changes, which are brought about for the purpose of preserving the established hierarchy, is that the ruling elite, in instituting coercion as the principal factor for maintaining order and stability, loses interest in philosophy. The rulers of the polis, Socrates tells us, have become more passionate and violent, and less complex, than they were before. But in becoming less complex, they become more divided within themselves. For without reason to moderate and channel the spirited desire for victory, the rulers become covetous of wealth, a desire of which they are at the same time ashamed and which leads them to hoard their treasures in secret. Softened by their greed and desire for luxuries, they cast off their martial natures over time and transform into oligarchs.

Plato could have had in mind the ease and readiness with which certain accomplished generals of the Spartans, notably Pausanias, victor over the Persians at Plataea, and Gylippus, who was instrumental in the destruction of the Athenian expedition to Sicily, could break their attachment to the harsh, martial virtues of their city and indulge in greed and the love of luxury after prolonged contact with a people of less austere ways, leading to execution in the case of the first and banishment in the case of the second. The transformation of the city from an aristocracy into a timocracy discloses what Platonic philosophy is meant to cultivate in its adherents: it seeks to implant in its students spiritually and politically healthy desires, in which restraints come from within oneself as the object of one’s own desire instead of being experienced as the chafing bonds imposed by an external authority. Whereas the timocrat is a warrior who secretly lusts after money, the aristocrat is not, at least in theory, inwardly torn and divided by the passions that cause him or her to feel shame.

In the account of the five regimes, it is passion that proves to be the crucial medium for making intelligible social and political transformation in the Republic. The passion for maintaining the traditional hierarchies and virtues leads the defenders of the old order to accept the innovations of private property and slavery as the necessary price for avoiding the ostensibly worse evil of a society ruled by money. But the measures adopted for the sake of preserving the old values merely stave off the inevitable, with the vital twist that the ruling military caste itself becomes as plutocratic and wealth-obsessed as the class it once purported to despise.

What is striking here is that passion does not produce direct and immediate changes to the political order, but rather that it makes its influence felt in the efforts of those under its sway to reach some accommodation with it or arrive at a compromise between it and other demands. Thus, the timocrat, whose chief qualities are arrogance and ambition, turns out to have been the frustrated and ambivalent son of the philosopher. He grew up listening to the complaints of his mother about his father’s lack of concern with status and reputation, her dissatisfaction at the fact that he gives way in conflicts with his rivals for the sake of maintaining his own inner peace. The timocrat also grew up around servants who lament how the father does not retaliate against those who slight him or undertake legal proceedings against those who fail to pay their debts. Although the youth admires his father and the life of reason, he is pulled into a more worldly direction not only by the other members of the household but also by society at large. He resolves this conflict by becoming a man concerned foremost with prestige and status, working out a compromise between reason on the one hand and passion and the appetites on the other.

The next regime is oligarchy, rule by the rich. Oligarchy results from the decay of timocracy – greed gets the better of the warrior princes, who as time passes grow less and less capable of defending their wealth. The subjects of the state grow poorer, and for the first time it becomes possible for citizens to sell off all their property and become reduced to utter destitution. Oligarchy is accordingly far less stable than timocracy. As Socrates points out, it creates two cities, one of the rich and the other of the poor, that are set against each other. The city thus grows ripe for revolution, in which the poor, emboldened by the timidity of their rulers, will rise up and drive them.

The representative individual of the oligarchy, however, is not a soldier who becomes soft and corrupted by the pursuit of prosperity. Rather, the oligarch comes to value money above all else not out of avarice, but rather out of fear. The oligarch is the son of a general or some other man of high rank who was deprived of his possessions by the deceit and false witness of his enemies. His father’s loss of status and wealth teaches him that he must defend himself against a similar fate by accumulating as much wealth as possible. Thus, this man abandons the pursuit of martial glory in favor of earning money. The oligarch is thus a miser rather than a spendthrift – for him, money is a shelter from the malign forces of fate, and not a means to gratify his appetites. The appetites are instead unleashed when the oligarchy is overthrown and the city becomes a democracy.

After Democracy, the Deluge?

Plato’s Republic would not come to mind for many as a major resource for left-wing political critique. His hostility to democracy, and his elitist insistence on the distinction between nobility and baseness, stand very much at odds with modern egalitarianism. Yet in the dialogue’s account of how one type of regime gives way to another, greed and the excessive desire for unnecessary pleasures are the primary factors in an ongoing process of spiritual disintegration that ultimately culminates in the emergence of the worst regime, tyranny. Indeed, it is hard not to think about the present political situation in the US when reading Socrates’s account of the decomposition of democracy into tyranny in Book VIII of the Republic.

The downfall of democracy is to be found in the strife and turmoil that arises from the following factors: (1) a thoroughgoing relativism, in which all aspirations and ways of life are considered equally valid; (2) the desire for freedom from any and all restrictions; (3) the prevalence of lives given over to unnecessary desires and pleasures. Although democracy receives the ambiguous praise of being the “fairest of the regimes,” meaning it is the most pleasing in a superficial sense, Socrates makes clear that the permissiveness of the regime, its refusal to consider some ways of life superior than others, undermines respect for the law and progressively weakens the government. This line of critique might have sounded deeply conformist and authoritarian during the 1960s, but in the present, when the fiercest attacks on government come from the political Right, it sounds a sobering note on behalf of the necessity of limits on human behavior, especially unrestrained consumerism, and on the need for citizens to overcome their self-centeredness and attend to the common good.

Excessive freedom coupled with weak government leads to the coming of tyranny: “the greatest and most savage slavery” springs forth from “the extreme of freedom” (564a). The failure to cultivate order in the soul, and the erosion of public forms of authority, leads to endemic strife. Tyranny then emerges as a solution to this impasse, in which the structures of authority that make possible peaceful resolution of differences have dissolved. When conflicts become irresolvable, the only method for dealing with them is to smother them.

One could add that a society dominated by sensual pleasures and useless desires tends to provoke a mounting sense of revulsion among its people, not least among those who partake of such enjoyments (for example, some of the 9-11 hijackers were spotted in strip clubs not long before the attacks). The idea of excessive freedom resulting in tyranny is usually associated with the passage from the Weimar Republic to Nazi Germany, a linkage that has typically been made by the Right. Indeed, Shadia Drury asserts that the neoconservative disciples of Leo Strauss view US politics largely through the lens of Weimar: the alliance between the lofty theorists of esotericism and the anti-intellectual religious Right is aimed at preventing a recurrence of the nihilism that paved the way for the rise of Hitler. But it is interesting to note that George Soros, in a book attempting to account for the factors behind the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004, invokes the Weimar thesis for left liberal purposes. Clearly, any account of contemporary US politics will not get very far unless it examines, with honesty and dispassion, the force of such emotions as revulsion, self-disgust, and moral recrimination in American society.

The question remains as to how we in the US have arrived at such a predicament, and why large-scale policies to benefit the whole of society are so difficult to implement in the present. Why are there such formidable obstacles arrayed against a politics that seeks to serve the common good? In The Revolt of the Elites, Christopher Lasch notes that liberal democracy has lived off the “borrowed capital of moral and religious traditions” that predate the rise of liberalism [1]. One might say that Weimar Germany ate through this capital rather rapidly. Although these traditions are not expressed exclusively in political terms, nevertheless they have exerted a vital influence in shaping the conceptions that people have of what is good and what ought to be common. It is our lot, on the other hand, to live in a more advanced phase of relativism, when the reservoir of these moral and religious traditions has largely dried up. The relativism that Socrates attributes to democracy has only become fully manifest in the US with the rise of postmodern individualism, whereby the libertarian spirit of the Sixties was found to be quite compatible with emergent forms of consumer capitalism. During the Great Depression, by contrast, such relativism was not a determining factor of political life.

Of course, the US was a far more racist society at that time, and more stratified by religion and ethnicity, with a narrow Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite on top. But another significant difference between then and now, in my view, is that during the 1930s, there was wide agreement among people of various backgrounds about what constituted the morally good life. If one were to have asked a black sharecropper in the South, a white ethnic factory worker, and a wealthy East Coast WASP about their conceptions of the moral life, one would have received answers that would have been more or less similar. Nowadays, it is taken for granted that there is a diversity of views regarding the good – ethics has become indistinguishable from a consumer choice.

Perhaps then the major constraining factor of political life is not racial and ethnic pluralism, but rather moral pluralism, in which disagreement or indifference to the question of what constitutes the good life exacerbates distrust and antagonism, and thereby discourages large-scale efforts to bring material improvement to the lives of one’s fellow citizens. Moral pluralism instead leads to a politics of depriving the other of his or her enjoyment, to put in Zizek’s terms. Jealousy of the other’s pleasures become a dominant factor of political life, and the major question then becomes that of the extent to which one is willing to hurt oneself in order to take from those one dislikes those things which they enjoy. There is a contradiction in the fact that moral pluralism constitutes a dominant ideology, but I’ll say more about this in a future post.

Text cited:

1. Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), p. 86.

Finding the Navi in Plato’s Republic

Like the creation of the cosmos in the Book of Genesis, the creation of the just city in Plato’s Republic takes place twice. In the first version of the city, undertaken as an attempt to determine the meaning of justice, Socrates describes a modest and frugal society, in which the citizens lead simple lives focused on securing the necessities for life. Their diet consists of austere fare – bread, figs, olives, onions, greens, wine, but no meat – and they pass their evening hours singing hymns of praise to the gods. They are careful to limit the number of children they bear, being on guard against overpopulation, which necessarily gives rise to poverty and war. They eschew all luxuries, including furniture. Socrates notes that their life of honest labor will enable them to enjoy health, to live out their lives in peace, and pass along their self-sufficient ways to their descendents (372d).

This city and its way of life fit the image of the type of human community exalted by present-day environmentalists, a sort of sustainable utopia where the foremost concern is not overstraining the resources at one’s disposal. But Socrates’ principal interlocutor, Glaucon, finds this depiction of the moderate and modest community revolting, disparaging it as a “city of pigs” (372d). Where are the couches and tables, he asks, or the relishes and desserts? Stanley Rosen suggests that the reason for Glaucon’s strident interruption might lie in his hunger, in that he has his mind set on the feast promised by Polemarchus at the beginning of the dialogue (Rosen, 75). But Glaucon, the brother of Plato who is generally associated with the idea of spiritedness, being a warrior who thirsts for glory and victory on the battlefield, can be said to force the conversation toward the direction of cities as they really exist, rather than indulge in idle philosophic speculation. Socrates consents, and sets aside this vision of the just city as a frugal and moderate collective. Instead, they will speak instead of a city in which “relishes, perfumes, incense, and cakes” are not only plentiful but available in a wide variety.

Interestingly, the first profession to be welcomed into this new, “feverish” city, the first profession emphatically not related to providing for the necessities of life, is that of the prostitute (373a). After the city is opened to the courtesans, trailing in their wake are poets, actors, dancers, craftsmen, makers of perfume, servants, teachers, wet nurses, beauticians, barbers, and cooks. Socrates then observes that such an expansion of the city will compel it to seize territory from its neighbors, in order to grow enough food for its inhabitants. The need for increased farmland entails the mobilization of an army, which in turn raises the specter of further wars of expansion to satisfy the growing demands of the city. Thus, the city, Socrates implies, becomes locked into a certain fate, a future about which he expresses grave reservations. For in contrast to the reigning conventional wisdom of contemporary liberalism, in which commerce and the attendant multiplication of desires are held to promote peace, Socrates identifies the transition from an economy of restraint to one of unlimited abundance as the “origin of war,” as well as the factor that “most of all produces evils both private and public” (373e).

The image of a sustainable society, in which human beings spontaneously respect limits and seek only to fulfill necessary desires, exerts, not surprisingly, an especially powerful allure in the age of climate change and resource depletion. Indeed, the Navi in James Cameron’s Avatar appeal to these yearnings, as they have absolutely no desire for anything that the Earthling corporation can offer them in exchange for moving to another part of the planet. Rosen, however, questions whether Socrates actually prefers the healthy city to its feverish successor, since the former’s emphasis on necessity would create an unpromising climate for philosophy. Indeed, the true city can be said to be less real than its “unhealthy” counterpart, since it aims at creating a “happiness that is undisturbed by desire, in particular, erotic desire” (Rosen, 81). The problem of the injunction to respect limits lies in how human beings usually arrive at this respect: through trial and error. To put it somewhat tautologically, necessity is that which we encounter against our will.

Though Rosen considers the “healthy” city to be “subnatural” and “subpolitical,” since its inhabitants live at what he considers an impossible level of simplicity, nevertheless, the distinction between necessary and unnecessary desires remains a vital one in the dialogue, reappearing in the discussion of the democratic soul in Book VIII. It is the reign of useless desires that, according to Socrates, tips democracy over into tyranny. The political consequences of pursuing the necessary desires, on the other hand, remain enticingly ambiguous.

Text cited:

Stanley Rosen, Plato’s Republic: A Study (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).