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PLATO'S POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

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By Mark Blitz

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The Montréal Review, June 2011

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"An extraordinarily fresh, rich, and thought-provoking introduction to Plato's political philosophy. Blitz takes a synoptic approach, combining in-depth textual analysis of particular dialogues with illuminating thematic discussions. The result is an extremely helpful, general-but-precise analysis of virtually all of the Platonic dialogues."

-Peter J. Ahrensdorf, Davidson College

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My book, Plato's Political Philosophy, examines the central phenomena of political life by clarifying Plato's understanding of them. Plato's understanding is especially useful because he offers the first articulation of the core elements of human thought and action. I treat his work as if his arguments could be true, not as if they are historical artifacts.

The book's procedure is to combine careful studies of particular dialogues with a comprehensive discussion of Plato's political thought. One advantage of my generalizing approach is to bring together Plato's separate conversations. What are the connections among his several discussions of courage? How do they modify his several discussions of moderation? One disadvantage of my approach could be to lose the drama of distinct conversations. I try to recapture this drama by summarizing and commenting on several dialogues in the course of the book. When I examine courage, for example, I analyze Plato's view by discussing the dialogue in which it is the chief subject (the Laches), but then connect this discussion to Plato's other discussions of courage in, among others, the Republic and Protagoras.

My approach to each dialogue is to take seriously both its substantive arguments and its dramatic details. The dramatic aspects of a dialogue clarify the subject by teaching something that the formal argument may not. The Laches is oriented to its interlocutors and, especially, to its title character. We do not see what courage is simply and purely. The Laches puts courage in a wide context by showing its different effects in different situations. Some of courage's full power is therefore revealed in ways that the formal discussion does not bring obviously to light. The formal discussion, however, enables us to see beyond the limits of particular interlocutors.

The book has nine chapters, divided into three parts. I begin by addressing the immediate impetus for Socrates' conversations, and the usual arguments, evidence, and knowledge on which he relies. Socrates' conversations arise from fathers' concerns about sons, young men's political ambitions, compulsion, hopes for love, and pleasure in discussion. They remind us of men's basic goals and motives and of our wish for knowledge about them. Knowledge is not an abstract or academic phenomenon but belongs to the everyday world. I therefore discuss Socrates' use of the arts as his ordinary examples of knowledge, and the standards of clarity, sufficiency, precision, and non-contradiction that he and his interlocutors employ.

I then turn to Socrates' principle explorations of virtue--of wisdom, piety, courage, moderation, justice, and their unity--because Socrates often makes clear that his interlocutors' goals depend on, or should be transformed into, virtues of character. "Virtue," remains the most compelling guideline for happiness. I continue to develop throughout the book my view of Plato's judgments about the virtues' specific qualities and possible unity.

Plato's political intention to protect and advance virtue is elaborated most fully in the Laws, which I analyze in my third chapter, after a general discussion of the contrast and continuities between ancient and modern politics and freedom. I also explore his analysis in the Laws of the standpoint of piety and ritual, and the restrictions that popular consent places on political excellence and good legislation.

It is not possible to understand Plato without considering the phenomena from which philosophy begins directly. Plato clarifies several of the most important among them without devoting dialogues to them. I therefore turn in chapter 4 (which begins the second part) to nature, wonder, perplexity, and laughter. These phenomena help make visible the nature of philosophy's questioning and attraction, the object of its search, and the links among its subjects and ordinary experience.

I then turn in chapters 5 and 6 to phenomena that are connected to but are not themselves virtues. I consider first nobility or beauty, primarily by analyzing the Greater Hippias. My discussion of the Republic centers on attempting to clarify how Plato understands the good, and its connection to justice and politics. It considers as well Plato's portrait of philosophy and how it both intensifies and articulates virtue. Plato understands the philosophical and political lives to be united in their wish to grasp what is good, but he also sees their tension because of the difference between philosophy's intellectual radicalism and the opinion and ritual on which political life rests. I also develop a discussion of Plato's understanding of the variety of regimes, the first detailed articulation of this central political phenomenon, and one that is unsurpassed in its cogency.

In chapter 7, which begins the third part, I consider in greater detail important phenomena that I begin to explore in the Republic: the nature of the connection between soul and body, the soul's parts and powers, and the human good's orientation to pleasure and intelligence. Plato's discussion of pleasure, especially in the Philebus, shows both its significance and its subordination to the mind. The importance of mind, in turn, compels a more complete analysis of the elements and possibility of opinion, image, and knowledge, vital in Plato's discussion in the Republic, and the subjects of Socrates' and the Stranger's discussions in the Theatetus, the Sophist, and the Statesman. The Statesman also continues Plato's political analysis by showing how a political end can function as a measure or standard, and by examining a variety of ways in which classes, such as the virtues, can combine with each other while remaining what they are.

Plato's dialogues often seem inconclusive because of his continuing attempt to understand. This inconclusiveness, however, does not obviate the acuity of his basic articulation. I attempt to show that what is clear in Plato is the centrality of political virtue and philosophy, and the links and tensions between them. The political virtues of soul and city are the heart of practical excellence. They are the soul's natural orders as we deal with and enjoy the pleasures, honors, beauties, and fears of life. Nonetheless, they are imperfect, because reason cannot satisfy itself politically. None of the usual goods allows reason to be fully itself or fully excellent. The goods for which we usually wish, however, and the powers we use more or less virtuously to secure them are, despite this, versions of what the intellectual life seeks, and its action in seeking it. The philosophic life extends and enlarges but does not exclude these excellences.

I argue throughout the book that the kinds of connections and differences that exist among these powers and goods are among Plato's central subjects. So, too, are the nature of the beautiful completion of things we produce, and how what guides us can be a standard or measure. No other thinker uncovers and then probes with such precision and intensity the question of whole and part, or one and many. Such examination also clarifies the motions of the soul and mind that are open to these unities. Plato discovers reason's power to discriminate and combine, and its connection to the true extent and meaning of erotic and spirited passions. He elaborates in their full range the goals, forms, and motions that direct and limit our affairs. He uncovers the world beyond the world.

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Mark Blitz is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy and director of the Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom at Claremont McKenna College. He is the coeditor, along with William Kristol, of Educating the Prince and the author of Duty Bound: Responsibility and American Public Life and Heidegger's "Being and Time" and the Possibility of Political Philosophy.

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