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Echoes of Plato today
By Harry Eyres
Published: March 14 2009 01:10 | Last updated: March 14 2009 01:10
I have just been giving a talk about Plato at the Aldeburgh Literary Festival – or rather engaging in a Platonic dialogue with Irene Noel-Baker, the only translator I know who has ever dared to render the great poet-banisher into verse. This has meant going back to one
of those texts that repay endless rereading; I always expect to be surprised by The Republic (despite, or because of, being the author of a small book on the subject), but this time I am amazed by its relevance to our particular dark and uncertain time, as if it had been
written not in 380BC but the day before yesterday.
The bit that grabs me is the section on democracy in the entertaining description of a downward, vicious spiral of corrupt societies. I suppose everyone knows that Plato had a low opinion of democracy. But usually this is the cue for thoughtful consideration to be replaced by
righteous indignation. How could anyone prefer the cruel, militaristic, apartheid and philistine regime of ancient Sparta to the rich democracy of Athens, celebrated in the noble words of Pericles’ funeral oration and adorned with works of art and architecture (the Parthenon, the statues, the black figure vases) that still draw the crowds?
But if you go back to the words themselves, written with a playfulness and grace that have eluded most readers and nearly all translators, you find much food for thought, or arguments that should not be dismissed out of hand.
First of all, Socrates, the main speaker in The Republic, does not deny the attractions of democracy. If constitutions were goods on sale in a shop, everyone would choose democracy – it is like a coat of many colours compared to a suit of sombre grey. “There is liberty, and lots
of freedom of speech, and the individual is free to do as she or he likes.”
This sounds pretty good. But might excessive liberty end up enslaving us, both our minds and our societies, rather than setting us free?
To explain how this could happen, Socrates starts with finance.
Democracy evolves from oligarchy, the system in which wealth is what counts. “The [oligarchic] Rulers, who are in power because they have amassed so much wealth, do not want to prohibit by law the extravagance of the young, and stop them from wasting their money and ruining themselves. Their intention is to make loans to such imprudent people or by buying up their property to hope to increase their own wealth and influence ... The moneymakers continue to inject the toxic sting of their loans wherever they can, and to ask for high rates of interest, with the result that the city becomes full of lazy drones and paupers.” Has any better diagnosis of the origins of the credit crunch been written recently?
Democracy fosters all sorts of unnecessary desires and appetites. We end up getting addicted to these desires and appetites, and so, as Plato says, “the likely outcome of excessive freedom is only slavery in the individual and in the society”.
Then, even more ominously: “Probably then tyranny develops out of no other constitution than democracy – from the very heights of liberty, I take it, to extreme and savage servitude.” Words that could have been inscribed on the grave of the Weimar Republic. Democracy is “a
wonderfully pleasant way of carrying on in the short term”, as Socrates puts it. But chronic short-termism could be its fatal flaw.
Politicians have to pander to electors; weak government is the result, in which tough decisions are endlessly put off. Plato would have been darkly amused by our attempts to deal with climate change, as short-term decisions to build runways trump long-term attempts to curb emissions, or carbon trading schemes turn into perverse incentives to pollute.
But it is not only as a stern critic of democracy that we want to celebrate Plato. Somehow, The Republic is always turned into a gloomy tract or something like a government white paper. One aspect that gets left out is love. No doubt Plato speaks about love with still greater freedom, playfulness and humour in The Symposium and in Phaedrus. But there is still a lot of love in The Republic.
Socrates famously concluded that there will only be justice in the city when philosophers rule, or “when those now called kings and potentates be imbued with a sufficient measure of hilosophy”. But what does he mean by a philosopher? A philosopher is first of all a kind of lover, someone who loves wisdom, that is to say a joyful, insatiable polymath, not a dry and dusty specialist.
Love is what sets the whole thing going – the passionate and excited love of inquiry that prolongs a short walk down to Piraeus into one of the great thought-adventures in human history. I happen to disagree with Plato on democracy – not that his criticisms are without weight, but that they are outweighed by the criticisms to be levelled against the other systems he apparently preferred.
But returning to this most thought-provoking of all books written in the West is always a tonic and refreshment to the mind – like going back to the music of JS Bach. As Emerson said: “He points and quibbles; and by and by comes a sentence that moves the sea and land.”