18 January 2010

The location of power as the difference between Greek and modern philosophy [part one]


The forgoing was written as a submission for a graduate philosophy conference on the nature of power. It is not exactly the sort of topic I would have taken up of my own accord, which is why I hope you will pardon if it is constantly bending away from its apparent topic towards something else.

The difference between the philosophy of the Greeks and the philosophy of the moderns comes into sharp relief when we consider the question of the location of power. Where is power located—does power stem from a thing’s origin, as a river does from a spring, or does power lie in the end, bringing objects to itself by a sort of gravity? There are many sorts of power in this world, but the ultimate kind of power envisioned by both Greek and modern philosophy is the power by which things are determined to be the things that they are. This force, designated as essence, is the power by which a thing exists precisely insofar as it is what it is in its formal aspect. The power of essence is absolute power.

For the Greeks, essence lies in advance of that which it essentially determines. One of the most dramatically interesting examples of this fact is found in the philosophical allegory Republic, by Plato. In the dialogue, Socrates suddenly (and entirely unintentionally) finds himself caught up in a dialectical defense of justice. The decision of Plato to compose his ultimate philosophical work on the topic of justice is not an irrelevant detail—unless the nature and necessity of justice is demonstrated, then there is no difference between philosophy and sophistry. The only difference between the dialectic of Socrates and that of the sophists is that Socrates always insists on the truth, which is very often an inconvenient and at times a dangerous endeavor. The dialogue is in no way a political work in the modern sense of the word; Aristotle’s Politics is the first great work of Western political philosophy. Rather, the dialogue seeks to establish the possibility of philosophizing at all, a possibility which rests in the justifying philosophy, rendering it right in light of that to which it owes its essential ground.

These preliminary remarks upon the nature of Republic, insufficient as they are, must suffice to set the stage for our exposition. The ferocious energy of his interlocutors pushes Socrates quickly into an all-out defense of the reality of justice. Socrates proposes to do this by “watch[ing] a city coming into being in speech,” since such an endeavor would allow him to “see its justice coming into being, and its injustice” (Republic 369a, p.45). Socrates begins at the beginning; something he had been trying to do throughout the dialogue. After all, he initially found himself involved in the discussion of whether or not justice was better than injustice, a discussion which he admits was itself unjust, since he did “not know what the just is” (354c, p.34). The expectation that one should establish the nature of justice prior to deciding upon its qualities is itself a precursor to the location of essence at the origin of a thing instead of at its end. He is drawn back into argument by Glaucon, who puts into action the injustice of the sophists by refusing to allow Socrates to examine the essence of justice, instead launching immediately into a memorable attack on the desirability of justice. The fact that Glaucon ignores Socrates’ warning that discourse on justice is impossible except in light of a discourse on the essence of justice is no accident. He becomes in the dialogue an allegory for the sophists, who are themselves (beyond their own historical context) archetypes of unjust men, using their thinking to bypass the beginning in light of some more or less desirable end.

As Socrates begins the unveiling of what he proposes as the ideal city, his simple vision is sidetracked by Glaucon, and Socrates is forced to take a far more difficult and complicated path to demonstrate the necessity of holding to the origin. After Socrates presents a rustic paradise, which Glaucon sees as a “city of sows,” Glaucon attempts to correct Socrates by pointing out that the city Socrates had proposed differed from Athens and similar “modern” Greek cities (372d, p.49). This exchange is notable for two reasons. First of all, it completely refutes the literalist readings that have doomed interpretations of Republic by thinkers as original as Aristotle and as recent as Karl Popper. Socrates clearly states that the simple city he had described moments earlier is, in his mind, “the true city… a healthy city, as it were” (372e, p.49). What he goes on to describe is not his ideal city, but, as he says clearly, “a feverish city” (372, p.49). The entire convoluted narrative that follows, with its rejection of poetry, its caste of guardians, and its noble lie, has departed from the straight path of the ideal city in speech and instead becomes a journey into the unspoken presuppositions of Socrates’ interlocutors. This leads us to the second reason why this exchange it notable for our purposes—Glaucon had not stopped to consider the possibility that we would have to look beyond our limited historical situation to locate the source of justice, and that perhaps justice itself would consist in nothing more complicated than this very retrospective glance. They had, after all, started off in search of the just city; Socrates had imagined a sort of pastoral paradise that would form the prototype of later cities, while Glaucon assumes that not at the beginning but in media res would one find justice.

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