31 March 2005

Ultimate PUR Post

A joke once told to me by David Konstan:

One professor says to another, "Have your read such-and-such book?" The other professor replies, "Read it? I haven't even taught it!"
I wasn't planning to read PUR in the short term. I didn't have to review it; it wasn't on my reading list. And I didn't even need to teach it. Chris Bobonich's theory about the development of Plato's political thought, from the Republic to the Laws, was brought to my attention by a lecture of J-F Pradeau in the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy. Pradeau gave a lecture arguing that Plato's conception of law, and of the role of law in political society, was the same in the Republic, Statesman, and Laws. The lecture was well-crafted and well-enough argued. But to me it seemed to have no teeth. I wanted to hear Pradeau arguing against someone or something--which, some readers helpfully suggested, is not consistent with French ideas of tact.

I confess that I do not share the French approach to things. I favor rather something more like the medieval disputation, where philosophical questions were approached almost as a sport, with competing teams, or even Socrates' anticipation of Sir Karl, that you understand a view best by trying to refute it.

So I constructed an imaginary debate between Pradeau and Bobonich on the Laws and, specifically, on the nature of the preludes in the Laws. This went on for a couple of weeks. It was enjoyable because it was a chance to look in detail at passages from the Laws, especially Plato's use of the medical analogy.

When, at the end of this imaginary debate, I decided the issue in favor of Pradeau, I began to wonder... how much of the thesis of Plato's Utopia Recast would be affected by that decision. And I resolved that now rather than later would be the time to consider this, since I had already made a start on studying the book.

So I continued to examine the book, beginning from where I had started. I tried to refute Bobonich's view that there was a radical change between the Phaedo/Republic and the Laws on the possibilities for virtue and happiness of non-philosophers. This required a somewhat careful examination of some passages from the Phaedo, and less so of the Republic (because Bobonich's view of the Republic hinges on his reading of the Phaedo). When this was finished, it seemed to me that I could indeed draw the two parts of Plato's thought close together, so that there was no reason to suppose any radical change.

To some extent, for me, this settled my mind about the book, and the examination of further questions in the past couple of days has seemed less pressing. My interest in the book--other than as a purely professional matter--hinges on whether I regard it as a guide to Plato's thought, because I regard Plato as likely to be a good guide to philosophical truth. If a book gets Plato wrong in serious and important ways (if it is 'radically misleading', as Rowe puts it), then my own inclination--although I admit this is a personal idiosyncracy--would be to regard the book as an inefficient way of learning about Plato. I want a book on Plato to help me achieve insight into his thought quickly, reliably, and well.

But I acknowledge that my view is idiosyncratic and perhaps not widely shared. Perhaps the more common approach is that of Christopher Rowe, who in a review can describe a book such as PUR as "radically misleading", and be almost harsh in criticizing its hermeneutic and method, and yet still, as on the dustjacket, recommend it as "one of the best things that I have read on Plato for a very long time".

Perhaps it is. For my part, I move on.


Anonymous said...

As we turn to other matters, I wonder if anyone who has been following this discussion has any final thoughts on how Plato can allow that those who lack (moral) wisdom may nevertheless be virtuous or at least “participate” in virtue. I wish we’d been able to delve a little more deeply here because this is obviously not a question merely of scholarly interest. Those of us who are parents of younger children, or teach younger children, may not avoid reflecting on the problem. Moral and eudaemonic pessimism are not options we are eager to embrace.
I have already put on the table the only idea I have about how is it possible for Plato to allow courage & temperance & justice to those who lack moral wisdom. Non-philosophers who are brought up correctly and educated and trained to virtuous conduct appear to act virtuously based on the beliefs and habits they have acquired. They have at least reliable true belief about how they should behave. Their moral beliefs are of course not completely reliable, especially in exceptional circumstances, given that they lack wisdom. But even in exceptional circumstances, aren’t they able to continue to behave virtuously so long as they defer (justly) to the authority & wisdom of the philosophers? They remain courageous and temperate under the civic guidance of wise rulers even in circumstances where, acting autonomously, they would possibly make bad choices.
So, is there something defective about the courage or temperance of people whose virtue depends being educated and guided by philosophers in a just state? Isn’t the common purpose of the Republic’s Ideal State and the more practicable Magnesian state to instill such virtues?

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