A review of Plato’s Political Philosophy, by Mark Blitz
Mark Blitz offers us a sweeping view of Plato's Political Philosophy—a "generalizing approach," as he says, that can "bring together Plato's separate conversations." Those who have taken such an approach in the past have typically tried to trace the development of Plato's thought from an early Socratic stage to a middle period, in which Plato advances his own views through his character Socrates, and on to a later stage, when he tends to use other spokesmen such as the Athenian Stranger in the Laws, or the Eleatic Stranger in the Statesman, to present his mature thought. This account of Plato's development has been largely discredited, and more recent scholarship has focused on individual dialogues, exploring their philosophic themes through their dramatic action, such as a dialogue's setting, the character of its interlocutors, and the flow of its conversation. Although such analyses often provide a philosophic depth, their focus on only a part of the Platonic corpus means that any general conclusions about Plato's thought remain provisional until we understand it as a whole. However stimulating it may be to follow a particular conversation, even one led by Socrates, a reader might well react as did Thrasymachus to Socratic questioning about justice: tell us what Socrates really thinks. Blitz endorses the assumptions of the recent scholarship, and is sensitive to the dramatic action and individual integrity of each dialogue, while still providing an account of "Plato's Political Philosophy." It is an ambitious undertaking, and to his credit he provides no simple answers. By directing us to Plato's political thought as a whole, he makes an important and welcome contribution.
Blitz, who is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, organizes his book into three parts, each focusing on a theme central to Plato's political philosophy: politics and virtue; politics and philosophy; and politics and knowledge. Each part, in turn, contains three chapters; in each part, the first chapter involves general discussions of the theme, the second offers more detailed analyses of relevant dialogues, and the third discusses one of Plato's three political dialogues: in part one, the Laws; part two, the Republic; and part three, the Statesman. While each part of the book moves from a more general discussion of themes to commentary on a particular dialogue, by the end of the book we have moved to a more comprehensive view of Plato's political thought as a whole, from the particular virtues, to their relation to philosophy, and then to philosophy's relation to knowledge. The dialogues on virtue that Blitz treats early in part one do not merely lead to a discussion of "virtue and politics" in the Laws, but also prepare for Blitz's later turn to beauty and nobility in his exposition of philosophy, inasmuch as "the phenomenon of beauty is a central link between intellectual and ethical excellence." So too the final dialogue Blitz discusses in part one before turning to theLaws is the Protagoras, whose theme of virtue, its whole and parts, involves knowledge, the focus of the last part of his book. Blitz's movement to the particular dialogues, the parts of Plato's corpus, is at the same time movement to the whole. His book is beautifully organized, and he succeeds in moving "along Plato's spiraling paths."
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The question of the whole and its parts is pivotal for Plato's political thought as well as for the organization of this book. Blitz argues that for Plato there are three criteria for knowledge: precision, clarity, and adequacy or sufficiency. The first two involve seeing something in its distinctness, in its standing out from other things, and thus with nothing extraneous (precision) and nothing blocking its sight (clarity). Adequacy involves seeing "enough of [something] so that nothing relevant is left out," with "enough" ranging from "adequate to the full range of wholes, parts, genera, species, and classes to which the thing is connected." Adequate, in other words, may not be adequate, even though we may have good reason to stop before we see the full range of our objects. The "full sufficiency" of our knowledge requires seeing our objects less clearly and precisely, for their shapes or forms lose their distinctness as we broaden our vision to their connections to the whole and its parts. When we grasp "nothing but the truth" about something we fall short of "the whole truth." Thus the "plain truth" of beauty even "to the mind's eye" "involves appearance, complexity, and distortion." "The total disjunction between the true and false is false." By understanding the problem of knowledge, Socrates understands why philosophy cannot achieve wisdom about the whole. As Blitz says, "searching for knowledge is not equivalent to having it."
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The philosopher seeks to know "the ideas," such as the idea of beauty, "an incorruptibly independent form that attracts our intellectual desire and is the ground for everything that participates in it." But, as Blitz explains, the ideas "cannot be themselves fully by being themselves alone," for they are "also good, beautiful, unchanging, separable, countable, and so on." How they fit together, in their unity and distinctness, is "difficult to grasp precisely," as Blitz says with some understatement. The possibility of their fitting together is "easier to discern in the images of the whole—the city and the soul—than among the ideas themselves." But even in political life, the "perfect correspondence of whole and part is impossible." We see this in the Laws when the law must take precedence over individuals' desires to dispose of their property as they wish. And Socrates tries to solve the problem in the Republic "by making all goods politically common goods," but Plato "teach[es] us that he cannot fully succeed."
Inasmuch as Plato understands political society as an image of the whole, and regards its conflicts as reflecting the theoretical difficulties that animate philosophy, his political thought leads in the direction of liberalizing and rationalizing politics. We find in the Laws, for example, preludes that explain the laws to those who must obey them, an elevation of the status of women, and "as much rationality as seems possible" in the criminal code. Although we find more virtue, ritual, and piety in Plato's thought than most of us would prefer, Blitz acknowledges, it is a mistake to see "tyranny" in Plato. Politics "is oriented to piety, and Plato then tries to orient piety and ritual to virtue, or to the divine naturally understood." It is also possible, although Blitz does not go this far, that the difficulty of fitting together virtue and its parts, and of seeing at the same time both precisely and sufficiently, leaves room as well for the divine, supernaturally understood. Blitz observes that Socrates "seeks the ‘super' natural in things." Blitz also connects prayer along with love, desire, and wish with Socratic eros. Wonder, he argues, has a range of meanings in Plato. It spurs questioning and philosophy when we encounter "the surprising, inexplicable, or unaccountable" in our familiar worlds. In wonder we also encounter what draws us in, our recognition "is uplifted by excellence or beauty," and we experience love and self-forgetting. It may be as difficult to separate philosophy and faith in our experience of wonder as to unite part and whole, precision and sufficiency.
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Plato's Political Philosophy culminates in Blitz's commentary on the Statesman. Though the author's analysis of the dialogue is compelling, he fails to explain sufficiently how the Statesman fits into the Platonic corpus, or how it exemplifies the rich concept of philosophy he has developed throughout his book. It is clear from his commentary on the Laws how that dialogue leads up to the questions of virtue, education, and philosophy that animate Socrates' philosophizing, and therefore that the Athenian Stranger can be considered a Socratic, or at least a pre-Socratic. But how does theStatesman, and its philosophic interlocutor the Eleatic Stranger fit? Blitz shows how the Stranger's approach falls short of elements he has identified as central to philosophy. His dialectic, for example, separates not better from worse but like from like. His classifications seem to ignore honor and rank, whereas Socrates "sometimes seems to treat members of a class as if they belong to it unequally." And so the erotic movement of the soul is "hardly visible in the Statesman," and wonder even "less visible." Politically, the statesman's rule tries to control willfulness by reason, whether through his direct rule or through unbending laws in his absence. To be sure, he tries to inculcate virtue, but that virtue "remains close to herd and economic matters." Thus while we might see "rationalizing" and "liberalizing" tendencies here, they seem quite different from what Blitz attributes to the Laws. One can also detect "modern" strands in Blitz's description of theStatesman. On the basis of his own analysis, it is difficult to accept his summary conclusion that in spite of their differences the Laws, the Republic, and the Statesman are closer to one another than to modern notions of politics. And when Blitz attempts to "save" the Eleatic Stranger as a teacher by pointing out that he, although not his city, educates his young interlocutor, we remember that his education in dialectics occludes the erotic longing characteristic of philosophy. It is therefore unclear to me what Blitz thinks we learn from the Statesman, or why he thinks Plato wrote it. What does the dialogue show us that "we still can know even if we have not fully uncovered the whole"?
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Catherine H. Zuckert's recent work on Plato's Philosophers (2009), to which Blitz refers us for useful discussion of these matters, offers an explanation why Plato wrote such an "un-Socratic" work as the Statesman. Zuckert argues that Plato uses his philosophic interlocutors to offer fundamental alternatives and to demonstrate that no one conclusive account of the whole is possible. Indeed, Zuckert's work supports Blitz's inasmuch as she shows how the Platonic corpus itself illustrates the imperfect correspondence between whole and part that Blitz finds in Plato's political thought.
Perhaps my disappointment in Blitz's conclusion that "we may treat the Eleatic Stranger and Socrates as fundamentally the same, as well as different from each other," has more to do with my desire for answers, for an account of how Plato's dialogues fit together, even if that fit is in the service of questioning any perfect fit between part and whole. Blitz by his statement asks a version of this very question: how can two such different philosophers both occupy the same class? That the Statesman does not seem to belong to the Platonic corpus that Blitz discloses may be Plato's way of keeping the questions alive, of showing as Zuckert argues that Plato's recourse to several different philosophic interlocutors indicates that there can be for Plato no single authoritative account of the whole. Perhaps there is no satisfying Thrasymachus.