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Stanley Rosen, Plato’s Republic: A Study : Yale University Press, 2005. 432 pp. $20.00. ISBN-10: 0300126921; ISBN-13: 978-0300126921 (Book Review)

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Stanley Rosen, Plato’s Republic: A Study : Yale University Press, 2005. 432 pp. $20.00. ISBN-10: 0300126921; ISBN-13: 978-0300126921 (Book Review)
  BOOK REVIEW Stanley Rosen,  Plato ’   s Republic: A Study  Yale University Press, 2005. 432 pp. $20.00.ISBN-10: 0300126921; ISBN-13: 978-0300126921 Jacob Howland # Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2009 What is the essential teaching of Plato ’ s  Republic ? This isthe question Stanley Rosen sets out to answer in his new book. His study of Plato ’ s masterwork has many virtues. It is strikingly srcinal, yet it incorporates the best insights of the past century ’ s leading schools of interpretation. It examines every part of the text, often in minute detail, yet at its heart is a subtle and coherent argument about the philosophical paradox Plato is trying to illuminate in thisdialogue. My remarks will attempt to convey the gist of thisunifying argument.As is well known, Karl Popper asserted in his book   TheOpen Society and its Enemies  (1943) that Plato advocatesin the  Republic  a dangerous kind of political extremismcharacterized by a totalitarian conception of justice. Inresponse to this influential interpretation, Leo Strauss andmany of his students have argued that Plato ’ s teaching wasessentially the opposite of what Popper understood it to be.The Straussians maintain that the  Republic  is best under-stood as a satire on  “ the impossibility of extreme efforts toinstitute perfect justice, ”  and thus  “ a philosophical repudi-ation of philosophical tyranny ”  (5). On the Straussianreading, the  Republic  is fully compatible with what Rosencalls the Aristotelian  “ solution ”  to the political problem: therepudiation of the direct, radical intervention of philosophyinto politics in the name of   “ a moderate aristocraticallyinclined democracy ”—  in other words, the rule of non- philosophical gentlemen (5).For many years, Rosen endorsed the Straussian readingof the  Republic , but in his new book he rethinks his former view and renounces a key part of it. The main purpose of the  Republic  is not, as the Straussians argue,  “ to show thedangers entailed by an excessive pursuit of justice ”  (81  –  82). The basic problem with this claim, according to Rosen,is that Socrates consistently  “  professes admiration for hisrevolutionary political proposals ”  (4). The Straussians must maintain that Socrates is being ironic, or, more bluntly, that he is lying, but one can find no good reason for him to doso  —  especially since, as Rosen observes, a direct statement of the Aristotelian solution would doubtless have beenwidely accepted by his Greek readers (5). In this respect,Popper is right: Socrates ’  explicit approval of the regime heis constructing must be taken seriously. But this doesn ’ t mean what Popper thinks it means. Against both Popper and the Straussians, Rosen proposes that we miss the main point of the dialogue if we focus primarily on its politicalteaching. For the  Republic  is really about the nature of the philosopher, and its main purpose is  “ to show theimpossibility of the full satisfaction of philosophical eros ” (82).Let us try to unpack this claim. Rosen argues that whereas Aristotle ’ s  Politics  is  “ a guide to the practicalstatesman, ”  Plato ’ s  Republic  is intended to spell out the political implications of philosophical wisdom (143). Bynature, Rosen maintains, philosophers want to suppressfalsehood. The hatred of falsehood is the flip side of thelove of truth. Rosen leaves open the question  “ whether thedesire to suppress ignorance and injustice through wisdomand justice is itself an expression of philosophical eros or spiritedness ” ; in any case,  “ the two cannot be radicallyseparated ”  (229). The philosopher qua philosopher isattracted to political power as the necessary means to thesuppression of falsehood. (This incidentally confirmsPolemarchus ’ s definition of justice as helping friends andharming enemies.) The philosopher  ’ s attraction to power  SocDOI 10.1007/s12115-008-9182-5J. Howland ( * )Department of Philosophy and Religion, University of Tulsa,800 South Tucker Drive,Tulsa, OK 74104-3189, USAe-mail: jacob-howland@utulsa.edu  for the sake of the truth is an expression of what Rosenrefers to as philosophical  “ virility. ”  Philosophical virility isnoble in that it serves justice, and it is necessary because justice depends on force. As Rosen writes,  “ man is theanimal who conceives of justice, but disregards it whenever he can ”  (50). In a word, Plato teaches that man is sick. The  Republic  spells out what it would take, if not to cure him,then at least to render his sickness asymptomatic. And what it would take is a philosophical tyranny.We must proceed carefully here. Rosen is obviously not repudiating all aspects of the Straussian reading. In particular, the  Republic  unquestionably call attention tothe unfortunate fact that a philosophical tyranny wouldtransform human beings into brutes or monsters, and in thissense end up killing the patient whose disease it was meant to cure. I will return to this crucial point momentarily. But  by assimilating Plato to Aristotle, the Straussians obscurethe radicalism or of Plato ’ s teaching about the nature andresponsibilities of the philosopher   —  a teaching, Rosenwrites, that is  “ much closer to... the modern progressivespirit than is that of Aristotle, the true conservative. ”  Plato ’ sradical or modern spirit is visible in the  Republic ’ sinsistence that   “  justice must be pursued by doctrinalconstruction ”  (9); put succinctly,  “ sound practice dependsupon salutary theory ”  (96). Plato thus  “ invents political philosophy ”  (5), or, more precisely, inaugurates the Westerntradition of philosophical constructivism in politics. I notein passing that this tradition was developed by the medievalIslamic philosophers Averroes and Al-Farabi, who, likeStrauss, blur the distinction between Plato and Aristotle, but, unlike Strauss, are clearly  “ moderns ”  in the sense that they endorse a version of Platonic philosophical virility in politics. Rosen furthermore makes it clear that Plato ’ sradical  “  philosophical madness ”  (142) is an expression of his philosophical nobility. This point is essential for understanding Rosen ’ s own Platonism.  “ The greater nobil-ity of modernity, ”  he states in  The Ancients and the Moderns: Rethinking Modernity  (New Haven and London:1989),  “ is not the consequence of modern arguments, but rather of the genuine philosophical nobility of the ancients,as manifested in the revolution instigated by Socrates ” (p. 19).Rosen claims that philosophers are by nature attracted to political power as the necessary means to the suppression of falsehood, yet Aristotle, who expresses what Rosenelsewhere refers to as  “ the classical understanding of nobleresignation, ”  is nonetheless a philosopher. (See  Metaphys-ics in Ordinary Language  [New Haven and London: 1999], p. 238. In this context, Rosen claims that the  “ modernrevolutionary enterprise... [is] more noble than the classicalunderstanding. ” )This simple observation brings us to the paradox Platoilluminates in the  Republic . On one hand, the  Republic  isPlato ’ s account of his struggle against decadence, includinghis own decadence as well as that of non-philosophers. Onthe other, Rosen states that the  Republic  is also a  “ catharsisof the philosophical compulsion to rule ”  (9), and if thiscompulsion must itself be purged, it would seem to be aform of decadence no less than an antidote to it.Let us consider each of these hands in turn. Rosen notesin connection with Plato ’ s struggle against decadence that  poetry is a part of the philosophical nature that issuppressed in the just city. The poets are philosophical inthe sense that they  “ express in beautiful speeches thedeepest levels of the human soul and the most subtlenuances of human behavior  ”  (356). They are, however, politically dangerous  “  because they expose the evil andshamelessness of the soul as well as its goodness andnobility ”  (118). In other words,  “  poets do not seek tochange human behavior  ” ;  “  poetry celebrates the diversity of the human soul but philosophy inculcates the correct  principles of the best life ”  (30, 354). Plato ’ s injusticetoward poetry (cf. 369) is a consequence of the harsh self-discipline required to cure our human sickness, and isconnected with his injustice toward philosophy itself. Thisis not simply because, in purging poetry, he  “  purge[s] thenatural philosophical interest in the diversity of the humansoul ”  (354). More to the point, philosophy rules the city, but is at the same time subject to a  “ severe and unspokenrestriction ” : because serious philosophical disagreementswould destroy the unanimity of the rulers,  “ all the philosophers must be  ‘ Socratics ’”  (81). But this means that  philosophy is necessarily replaced in the just city bydogma;  “ in order for philosophy to rule, it must transformitself into ideology ”  (285). Indeed: as soon as philosophyintervenes radically into politics  —  as it does when Platowrites the  Republic  —  it begins to deteriorate into ideology. “ For what is ideology, ”  Rosen asks,  “  but the extreme politicization of philosophy? ”  (229).The suppression of philosophical eros in the just city isinseparable from the suppression of eros in its moreordinary manifestations. Philosophy must transform itself into ideology if it is to treat the sickness of the  “ feverish ” city  —  a sickness that is not present in the first city, whichGlaucon calls a  “ city of pigs ”  and which Socrates refers toas the  “ true ”  city (372d-e). According to Rosen, the truth of the city of pigs  “ lies in the representation of the limits that would have to be set upon human nature in order tomaintain a happiness undisturbed by desire ”  (81).  “ In order to be at peace, ”  in other words,  “ humans must cease to befully human ”—  so much so that they are forbidden in the just city even to mourn the dead, a prohibition that Rosenfinds particularly unnatural (81, 97).In sum, Plato teaches in the  Republic  that   “ every attempt to enact the truth in human affairs without compromiseleads to a reversal of that truth ”  (6). And this is a lesson that  Soc  Aristotle, unlike Nietzsche, learned well. One might arguethat Aristotle could not have formulated the alternative of  philosophical self-moderation had he not had the benefit of Plato ’ s extreme thought-experiment. Be that as it may, it iscrucial to observe that the Aristotelian  “ solution ”  is in itsown way no less flawed than the Platonic one, for it necessarily involves what Rosen describes as  “ a retreat  backward into one degree or another of decadence ”  (6).This paradox stands at the very heart of the human predicament.These reflections bring us to the question of Rosen ’ srelationship to Strauss, a question invited by the book  ’ sepigram, which reads  “ To the genuine Leo Strauss. ”  Cicerofamously remarked that it was Socrates who  “ call[ed] philosophy down from the heavens and set her in the citiesof men ”  ( Tusc. Disp.  5.4.10  –  11). In comparison withSocrates, Plato might seem to have been retreating fromthe direct involvement of philosophy in politics when hechose to write dialogues rather than to philosophize in themarketplace. But Rosen makes it clear that Plato is the realrevolutionary. Plato  “ differs sharply from his teacher andcontradicts by example the political reticence expressed bySocrates, ”  in that he  “ dares to interfere with the contempo-rary political situation through the power and artistry of speech ”  (242). By  “ exposing the views of the few to themany, ”  he  “ takes the first step on the road that leads finallyto the repudiation of Platonism and the rule of poets andthose whom Plato would have regarded as sophists ”  (5  –  6).The real peculiarity of Rosen ’ s book lies in the fact that it takes a step back toward Platonism, yet does so by meansof nothing less than a purge or catharsis of certain elementsof his former Straussianism. To repeat, Rosen partscompany with Strauss in emphasizing philosophical virility,and, more specifically, in frankly elucidating the politicalimplications of philosophical wisdom. If I understandRosen correctly, these dimensions of his reading of the  Republic  are part and parcel of his considered response torelativism  —  the peculiar decadence of the late modern and post-modern era that Strauss did as much as anyone tocombat.As we have seen, however, Strauss ’ s endorsement of Aristotelian resignation effectively conceals the Platonicalternative of philosophical constructivism in politics. In allfairness, Strauss ’ s unwillingness to acknowledge Platonic philosophical virility  —  even as an antidote to relativism  —  may be justified on the ground that he experiencedfirsthand the ultimate consequences of the degeneration of  political philosophy into ideology, and in particular into agruesome form of tyranny that was imposed with maximumspiritedness. But that was then, as they say, and this is now.While Rosen writes that   “ the implied teaching of the  Republic  is that the desirability of bringing philosophy into political life outweighs the dangers implicit in the franknessthat such an effort entails, ”  he hastens to add that   “ this is, of course, true only at certain moments and places in history ” (6). And this, he seems to suggest, is one of those times.While I will leave it to others to debate the merits of thisview, it is reasonable to maintain that we cannot meet thethreat posed by the current enemies of the West without resolving that philosophy discloses certain fundamentaltruths and that these truths are worth fighting for.I would like to draw these remarks to a close with somereflection on the relationship between Rosen ’ s new book and the debate between his two teachers, Leo Strauss andAlexandre Kojève, that was first published in the 1954edition of Strauss ’ s  On Tyranny . As is well known, Kojèveargues in his essay  “ Tyranny and Wisdom ”  that there is noessential difference between the philosopher and the tyrant.(See Leo Strauss,  On Tyranny  (New York: The Free Press,1991), pp. 156, 158.) In particular, both are motivated bythe desire for   “ recognition, ”  a desire that can be fullysatisfied only within the context of politics (and indeed,according to Kojève, only through the establishment of auniversal, homogenous state). But because ruling isincompatible with the pursuit of the quest for wisdom, the philosopher is internally divided: the  “ whole question ” concerns whether or not he  wants  to rule. (Strauss, p. 150).In response to this argument, Strauss insists that, incomparison with the philosopher, the ruler is eroticallydefective;  “ the ruler is not motivated by the true or Socraticeros because he does not know what a well-ordered soulis. ”  His eros is  “ mercenary, ” “ a shadow or imitation of truelove ” ;  “ he is concerned with human beings because he isconcerned with being recognized by them ”  (Strauss, p. 202).According to Strauss, the philosopher who exhibits thisconcern thus  “ ceases to be a philosopher  ”  and  “ turns into asophist  ”  (Strauss, p. 203).Rosen clearly agrees with Strauss about the distinctiveeros of the philosopher and the impossibility of reducingthis eros to the Hegelian quest for recognition. Yet herejects Strauss ’ s explicit contention that   “ the classicalargument derives its strength from the assumption that thewise do not desire to rule ”  (Strauss, p. 194). Rosenmaintains that the philosopher is motivated by an essen-tially  erotic  desire to unify theory and practice, an eros that manifests itself as  “ the desire to rule, or better, toencompass the whole ”  (81). Kojève is thus correct to assert that   “  philosophy is... marked by an inner disharmony between the desire to rule and the desire not to rule ” (166). According to Rosen, however, this disharmonysprings in part from the philosopher  ’ s ambivalence towardhuman life, as reflected in the  Republic ’ s simultaneousemphasis on the good life and depreciation of humanexistence, and in part from his realization that theunification of theory and practice cannot be obtained(355; cf. 97). Rosen ’ s synthesis of Kojève on the one hand Soc  and Strauss on the other is succinctly expressed in hisremark that   “ those who are not tempted by the prospect of exercising power are not genuine philosophers; but neither are those who succumb to that temptation ”  (129).As should be clear, I think that much of the pleasureafforded by Rosen ’ s book on Plato ’ s  Republic  comes fromits profound engagement with the question of what it meansto be a philosopher. Rosen ’ s book informs by showing aswell as saying; like Plato, he knows that   “ speeches arethemselves deeds ”  (242). In this connection, it is a great honor for me to conclude by publicly acknowledging that it was Stanley Rosen ’ s lectures on Plato ’ s  Republic  during theacademic year 1981  –  1982 that first taught me what it might mean to try to hold speech and deed together in a philosophical life. Jacob Howland  is McFarlin Professor of Philosophy at the Universityof Tulsa. Cambridge University Press published the paperback of hislatest book,  Kierkegaard and Socrates: A Study in Philosophy and  Faith , in 2008.Soc
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