399 B.C.: Shortly after the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, fought between Athens and Sparta because the latter refuses to accept a burgeoning Athenian imperialism, the philosopher Socrates is charged with impiety and corrupting the city’s youth. The Athenian leadership, who are in no mood for Socrates’ habit of imploding their pretensions to knowledge and authority, secure a guilty verdict and execute Socrates, who refuses to back down, even in the face of death.
Around twenty years later, Socrates’ pupil and friend Plato writes what is today his most famous dialogue, the Republic. Having seen Athenian democracy fall apart in the wake of Athens’ war of aggression and the rise of the Thirty Tyrants, Plato asks: How did this all happen? Is it possible to prevent its recurrence? If so, how? What is to be done?
19 B.C.: The Roman poet Virgil completes his epic poem, The Aeneid, commissioned by Augustus Caesar to provide a mythical history and ethical-political vision for the people of a newly born, fragile Roman Empire. In it, the reader learns that Rome is the direct descendant of Troy, which was flattened by the Greeks about a millennium before in the legendary Trojan War. The hero, Aeneas, flees Troy and embarks on an uncertain journey to find a new home for the Trojan people. Among the poem’s most striking images is that of Aeneas struggling through the ruination, carrying his father Anchises on his back, accompanied by his own son Ascanius, desperately making for a ship, the ocean, and the future. As it turns out, Aeneas and his people eventually find Latium, the land that, a thousand years later, will give rise to the Roman Republic and then the Roman Empire.
Both of these works, the Republic and the Aeneid, are born of collapse. The first is written by one who witnessed it firsthand; the second, by one who ties it to the eventual rebirth of social and political order.
All roads lead to … ?
I’ve been thinking a lot about Plato over the last year or so. The Republic has long been understood as a treatise on implementing the perfectly ordered society, a handbook for totalitarians—but in fact, I don’t think it’s that at all. There’s no doubt that a vision of the ideal polis or state is presented in the dialogue: the notion of the Philosopher King is familiar to most of people who’ve heard or Plato (or of a certain pop band that … but I digress). Readers will discover, however, that this vision is riddled with paradoxes and impasses—the Greek word is aporia—all of which are gathered up in the figure of the Philosopher King himself (or herself: Plato, scandalously for his time, suggested that women are no less fit for political leadership than men).
The problem is that, while the philosopher cares only for truth, the ideal state requires that the populace be made obedient by means of a number of lies. A philosopher, Socrates says, would never accept this, so he or she would have to be forced to lead by the leadership of the military auxiliary. The Republic shows that it’s impossible to rule as a philosopher or to philosophize as a ruler; in fact, this insight is foreshadowed before it’s realized, when Plato has Socrates declare that “until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils … nor, I think, will the human race” (Republic V, 473 c-e). Either truth destroys authority or vice versa. Since it’s impossible for a philosopher to rule or for a ruler to be adequately wise, the Philosopher King will be replaced by the military auxiliary which, as a class, is concerned not with truth or wisdom but with honour.
We therefore find in the Republic a theory of history characterized by a series of political destabilizations and transitions, descending from timarchy, in which the military rules, to tyranny, in which the polis has become so fractured that it is vulnerable to the rule of the worst: the tyrant, who is concerned only with self-fulfillment through power and control; who bends truth to his or her will.
The Republic is not a guide to creating the perfect world. It’s an urgent question: what is to be done? Plato complicates any possible response, however. He has Socrates claim that this historical process is cyclical, and that there is reason to hope, but in the dialogue we’re left at the bottom of the descent, without much to help us back up. Instead, the Republic ends with a perplexing, mythical account of death and reincarnation, memory and forgetting, which is supposed to tell us how we acquire the only knowledge adequate to even begin dreaming the ideal state: knowledge of the Good. This comes after Socrates has spent considerable energy persuading his conversational partners that the intoxicating, misleading imagery of poetry and art can’t be trusted. And Plato delivers that to us in a dramatic, literary form, not a philosophical treatise. Aporia is a wonderful word, and it whispers through the Republic from one end to the other.
What is to be done?
What I take from all this is that while we can to some extent map the decline, the rebirth or reinvention is something of a dice-throw. When everything falls apart, when no guardrails remain, all we have left is the possibility of a time to come. But while the Republic fractures every possible vision of that time, I wonder whether we have to forsake every image when we strike out for it. As I was thinking about this problem a few days ago, I was struck by the image of Aeneas, escaping with his father and his son. There’s a statue of it above a residence door at the school where I live and teach.
Sometimes we tell our students here that we’re basically asking one question, one which was actually a popular greeting during Socrates’ day: “Where have you come from, and where are you going?” In one sense, we take it to mean: “How did our present come to be what it is, and what might it be tomorrow?” But it also makes me think of Aeneas taking flight, holding onto the past and the future, love and hope. In times of great uncertainty and fear—and it seems to be at least a very popular hypothesis right now that we’re in one of those times—I think that we return to this moment embodied by Aeneas.
There is as much wisdom in pain as there is in pleasure: both belong among the factors that contribute to the preservation of the species. If pain did not, it would have perished long ago; that it hurts is no argument against it, but its essence. In pain I hear the captain’s command: ‘Take in the sails!’ The bold, seafaring ‘man’ must have mastered the art of doing a thousand things with his sails, otherwise he would be done for in no time, and the ocean would swallow him. We must learn to live with diminished energies, too: As soon as pain gives its safety signal the time has come to diminish them; some great danger or other, a storm is approaching, and we are well advised to ‘inflate’ ourselves as little as possible. (§318)
When I see Aeneas carrying the past and the future out of the wreckage, I think of Nietzsche’s remark about “taking in the sails”: we’re at sea, and our direction is in doubt. It’s time to get back to basics. Likewise, I think Plato probably felt similarly when he tried to understand what had happened in Athens: its institutions had fallen apart, the polis was broken, and the love of justice sent packing. The only thing left was to depart holding on to love—for Plato, the love of Socrates and the virtues he exemplified simply by living—and to the hope of a time to come.
The hope at stake here certainly isn’t Barack Obama’s “Hope”; it’s not the hope advertised through commercialized campaign platforms and promised by electoral hopefuls, a hope that was exhausted in Plato’s time, to be sure. It’s more like a hope against all that: a hope even against “hope”.
When a storm approaches and everything around us seems to tremble and become unreal, we return to this point at which Plato stood, as Aeneas does in Virgil’s poem: carrying the past and the future, our parents and our children, unsure of all vision, hoping against hope for a time to come. Simply put, it’s the dice-throw of love in collapse.