I am completing a course in the Institute for Continuing Education at Young Harris College. Professor Eric Dickman entitled the course, “Reading Plato’s The Republic for Well-Being.” This is an intentional strategy designed to get us to read Plato as a guide to living fully human lives. Beyond an ideal blueprint for political regimes and personal psychology, The Republic is metaphor for living well. It is an invitation to wake up. Wake up to being and life, wake up to what really IS. Plato’s protagonist Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Plato thus is calling us to become philosophers who can look beyond images and appearances in order to understand Being, what IS. (God was introduced to the ancient Hebrews as I AM who I AM/will BE.)
Plato is calling us to live just lives. Thus ends the book:
“And thus, Glaucon, a tale was saved and not lost [The tale of Er.]; and it could save us, if we were persuaded by it, and we shall make a good crossing of the river of Lethe and not defile our soul. But if we are persuaded by me, holding that soul is immortal and capable of bearing all evils and all goods, we shall always keep to the upper road and practice justice with prudence in every way so that we shall be friends to ourselves and the gods, both while we remain here and when we reap the rewards for it like the victors who go about gathering in the prizes. And so here and in the thousand year journey that we have described we shall fare well.” (Plato. The Republic of Plato: Second Edition (p. 303). Basic Books. Kindle Edition, emphasis added.)
Understanding Being and leading just lives become even more important in a world where decisions are based all too often opinions and sound bites which are often far afield from the truth that can be derived from dialogue. Plato was wary of democracy because he thought that democracy gone awry had the potential to morph into demagoguery and tyranny. Socrates’ myth of Er in the final section of the book makes the fate of the tyrant something to be feared. When they die, just people take the right gate and enjoy 1000 years of blissful life while unjust people suffer 1000 years of punishment. At the end of 1000 years, both the just and unjust emerge and make choices; however, the tyrant never emerges for the realm of the demons. Our ultimate choice is between becoming just philosophers or unjust tyrants. In the Republic, education is essential so that youth can be prepared to become philosophers who will leading just and examined lives.
The analogy of the Cave is central to Plato’s thought. Chained into position and unable to see what IS, the people in the cave see just a procession of images fleeting across the cave wall. If some like Socrates liberates them and leads them out of the cave into the light, they will be able to see what is. They will become philosopher-kings who must then go back into the cave to liberate others. (My wife and I bought “Plato’s Cave Fire and Rescue Team” shirts. The back reads, “We will lead you into the light!”)
I think it can be argued that our democracy has degenerated into oligarchy (rule by the rich and powerful) and possibly into tyranny where demagogues and tyrants of every species want nothing more than to keep us in the darkness of the cave. Witness the current trends to defund public education to the point of drastically restricting its ability to prepare future philosopher kings/queens. Our leaders feed us steady reels of half-truths and sound bites reflected as images on the cave walls. Life in the cave is one long-term reality show.
Partisan politicians twist facts to support their party lines. They hoodwink us with the old Roman strategy of bread and circuses—they feed us stale bread (but only some of us) and provide vacuous entertainment that has nothing to do with what IS, let alone the truth. Our body politic devolves into “us and them” and the battle royal is on. In the words of Professor David Roochnik, individuals in a democracy eventually become obsessed with their freedoms and the leaders “must flatter, rather than educate, the citizens.” Thus “the demagogue, the supreme flatterer emerges” and “eventually gets control of the entire city.” (Notes, Plato’s Republic audio course, The Great Courses, 61.)
Some people are wringing their hands over the phenomenal rise of Donald Trump who has demonstrated time after time that he is very skilled in demagoguery. He crafts half-truths which appeal to those who have been relegated to the fringes by the Wall Street banksters who brought them and us to economic disaster. As the income gap widens, he tells the have-nots that he will deliver them. Trump promises better times for those with stagnant wages or the unemployed whose jobs have gone overseas. He will protect Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. He appeals to xenophobic fear of strangers by promising to build walls to keep out all the Mexican “Illegals” (His term, not mine. I much prefer “undocumented.”) and to shut down immigration of Muslims and the terroristic threat they pose. He has treats women with disdain. Trump brings hope to those who think they are losing their white American privilege. He has torn to shreds one after another those Republicans who dared disagree with and oppose his “reality show.” Now he is full steam ahead to derail “Crooked Hillary.” He will, like all true demagogues (they love to start external wars), carpet bomb ISIS, a foreign power, into oblivion. He fails to refute endorsements from racists and puts the Star of David beside Hillary and the money behind her in a tweet. He concocts “myths” about Muslins in New Jersey rejoicing over 9/11 and people praying for the shooter of the police officers in Dallas. Unlike any modern major party candidate, he refuses to release his tax returns leaving open questions about his net worth and whether he even pays taxes.
Jason Stanley of Yale University analyzed the current situation:
In Book VIII of “The Republic,” Plato . . . worries that a “towering despot” will inevitably rise in any democracy to exploit its freedoms and seize power by fomenting fear of some group and representing himself as the protector of the people against that fear. It is for this reason that Plato declares democracy the most likely system to end in tyranny. Plato’s prediction is most dramatically exhibited by Weimar Germany. But more mundane recent examples of his description of democracy’s breakdown and descent into tyranny exist to varying degrees in the cases of Hungary and Russia. The fragmentation of equal respect is a clear alarm for the United States. We must heed it by categorically rejecting politicians who seek to gain office by exploiting the mistaken belief that democratic values are weaknesses. (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/12/democracy-and-the-demagogue/?_r=0)
All the while, the people who are befuddled by Trump, writhe in heavy chains in the dark cave. The usual rational arguments do nothing to change the support among his ardent followers. They feel left out and they are rightfully angry—fair game for any demagogue. He has promised to make their lives better and there is little rational people can do to convert them.
If the Republic is to survive and thrive, it is time to leave the cave and to enter into dialogue across all barriers. Plato chose the dialogue form for The Republic because he knew how difficult it is to counter powerful orators and reality-show hosts.
Thomas Merton, 20th century monk, wrote:
Perhaps in the end the first real step toward peace would be a realistic acceptance of the fact that our political ideals are perhaps to a great extent illusions and fictions to which we cling out of motives that are not always perfectly honest: that because of this we prevent ourselves from seeing any good or any practicability in the political ideals of our enemies— which may, of course, be in many ways even more illusory and dishonest than our own. We will never get anywhere unless we can accept the fact that politics is an inextricable tangle of good and evil motives in which, perhaps, the evil predominate but where one must continue to hope doggedly in what little good can still be found. (Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation (p. 118). New Directions. Kindle Edition, emphases added).
Merton understood that dialogue is absolutely essential. In his essay, “Blessed Are the Meek,” Merton outlines key principles for coming out of the cave and moving toward the light:
- Nonviolence must be aimed above all at the transformation of the present state of the world, and it must therefore be free from all occult, unconscious connivance with an unjust use of power.
- Perhaps the most insidious temptation to be avoided is one which is characteristic of the power structure itself: this fetishism of immediate visible results.
- Instead of trying to use the adversary as leverage for one’s own effort to realize an ideal, nonviolence seeks only to enter into a dialogue with them in order to attain, together with them, the common good of everyone.
- To fight for truth by dishonest, violent, inhuman, or unreasonable means would simply betray the truth one is trying to vindicate. The absolute refusal of evil or suspect means is a necessary element in the witness of nonviolence.
- A test of our sincerity in the practice of nonviolence is this: are we willing to learn something from the adversary? If a new truth is made known to us by them or through them, will we accept it? Are we willing to admit that they are not totally inhumane, wrong, unreasonable, cruel, etc.? (http://forusa.org/blogs/for/blessed-are-meek/6732, emphasis added.)
If we enter into dialogue with those whose politics differ from our own, we may bridge the gap between us and them. We may learn from them and they may learn from us. In the end, we together will be creating a just society where none are marginalized and all have what they need.
Pope Francis, during his visit to America, singled out four Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. Merton and Day, American Catholic peace and justice advocates, provide us further guidance as we face troublesome political times and try to restore our well-being and the well-being of the Republic:
So instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed— but hate these things in yourself, not in another. (Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 125, New Directions. Kindle Edition.)
The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us? (Day Dorothy. Loaves and Fishes, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/d/dorothyday316242.html)
Long live the Republic!