Communism: Plato’s ‘Cure for Extreme Political Ambition’

BY Paul Solman  December 19, 2012 at 11:43 AM EDT


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Paul Solman answers questions from the NewsHour audience on business and economic news here on his Making Sen$e page. Here is Thursday’s query:

Eric Forbis: In “Communism, Capitalism and the Third Thanksgiving” you state that Bob Faulkner and Mark Kleiman believe that the Republic is ‘one long reductio ad absurdum’. I’m very interested in this — can you point me to any references, articles, or books? Great article!

Paul Solman: Thanks, Eric. Sorry it’s taken nearly ’til Christmas to respond to a Thanksgiving question, but here’s Boston College political science professor Robert Faulkner, once a student of the political philosopher Leo Strauss, whom he cites at the end of his comment.

Robert Faulker:

[T]he gist of a general answer to your questioner: the Republic proposes an order that is both impossible and unjust. It is impossible for many reasons, the most obvious being that the condition for this great reforming is that all children above a certain age (ten, as I recall) must be expelled from the city, something the parents (including the armed guardians) would not allow. It’s unjust for many reasons, the most obvious being that the philosophers are to rule rather than have what is due their intelligence: leisure for inquiry.

More generally, there are signs from the start and along the way. The characters include serious young men, serious about justice, who were nonetheless, in real life, victims of very unjust men — including friends of Socrates. As to those friends, Socrates’ teaching did not take. Besides, the book shows from the start many signs of an abstraction from love and especially love of one’s own, an impossible abstraction from the self that suffuses the famous proposals for communism of property, women, and children, and for compulsion of the philosophers. And then there is the problem of succession and inheritance, symbolized in that crazy requirement of the “marital number.”

More generally, as to justice, the book’s topic on its face is whether justice is good. The new order of rule exhibits what politics would have to be in order for true justice to exist — in order that others get their due. It would have to rely on a degree of selflessness — a degree of giving others their due — that is unjust (consider philosophers and the parents) as well as based on an impossible abstraction. It would also require a degree of compulsion impossible to get: what makes the armed guardians obey the philosophers? Note that the discussion itself begins with a mix of compulsion and persuasion: the philosopher Socrates is forced in this way to go to a particular party & discussion.

While this thesis is old as the hills, Leo Strauss was its chief exponent in recent times. See his general account of “Plato,” in Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, History of Political Philosophy (3rd edition), 33-89, and his particular arguments as to the “Republic,” in The City and Man (pp. 50-137). The Republic is a cure for “extreme political ambition”; indeed, “the most magnificent cure ever devised for political ambition” (65).

– Robert Faulkner

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