SHILO BROOKS: Welcome back to the Free Mind Podcast, where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends. I'm Shiloh Brookes from the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I'm joined today by Alex Priou, Teaching Assistant Professor at CU's Herbst Program for Engineering, Ethics, and Society. Alex is author of "Becoming Socrates: Political Philosophy in Plato's Parmenides," as well as many articles on Plato and pre-Socratic philosophy and poetry. He's also host of The New Thinkery podcast, which focuses on great works of political philosophy in history. Our conversation today, explores the work of the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, paying particular attention to his great book, the "Republic". We discuss why Plato wrote dialogues instead of treatises, how Platonic dialogue should be read, and why the "Republic" still resonates with students over 2,000 years after it was written. Alex Priou, welcome to the Free Mind Podcast, my friend.
ALEX PRIOU: Thank you for having me, I'm honored, especially for the first episode you're having me on.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I've wanted to have you on for a long time, it's also, I should say, a special pleasure to have somebody from the Herbst Program in Engineering, Ethics, and Society at CU on. That's a program where I started my career at CU and I love that program. It's a gym of higher education, so it's good to have you on. You're a guy who writes and thinks a lot about Plato, and we've had a series of podcasts on the Free Mind about some great authors. We've talked about Jane Austin, and Tocqueville, and Nietzsche, and Heidegger, and Frederick Douglas. And I mean, what am I doing having not had Plato on yet? I mean, he should have been the first, so I'm embarrassed, but I've got you on.
ALEX PRIOU: Yeah.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, yeah, I've got you on today, and so let's talk about Plato. I think what we'll do is we'll talk sort of broadly about Plato, the form of his writing and dialogues, and then turn for a little while to, I suspect, what is one of his, if not his most important books of the "Republic". So let me start with this question for you, Alex, Plato is known to have written in dialogues, can you explain to us what a dialogue is? And more importantly, why did he choose to write in dialogues instead of in treatises or some other form of writing?
ALEX PRIOU: Yeah, so I think the most obvious feature of a Platonic tile, this isn't true of all people who have written dialogues, but the most salient or obtrusive feature of Plato's dialogues is that he just never speaks. He always has a kind of philosopher-type, typically Socrates, you also have these two strangers, one from the Italian city of Aliyah, another one from Athens, but he's in Crete at the time, it's in the laws, and then you have Timaeus, who's a kind of natural scientist, but there's always a philosopher-type, and then some, one, or maybe a few non-philosopher types. And so he always has the philosopher in conversation with sub-philosophic opinions, or not fully thought out opinions, and bringing to bear his critical acumen on those ideas. In a way, if you take the alternative, which you mentioned, which is a treatise, you would then look at that and say, "Well, this is just the philosopher speaking," right? If you look at Hegel's "Phenomenology of Spirit," you'd say, "Well, this is just a philosophic exposition of an argument," but that's clearly not the case, right? Clearly, Hegel or any philosopher writing a treatise is beginning from ordinary to sophisticated opinions, depending on the work, right? And so Plato, I think, chooses to emphasize that fact above all, right? That he wants to stick the ideas, the thoughts, into their human place, into a... Specifically into a political community, and one political community above all, which is Athens. So he wants to put philosophy back in the city, back among ordinary citizens, because that's where it always departs from. You know, we think about dialogues or we think about philosophy nowadays, and it's 2,500 years later, and there's the academy and there's research, and there's journals, and books, and you're part of this, apparently, this body of work of philosophy, and you lose a sense for how it's responding to real human problems. Plato never wants you to forget that.
SHILO BROOKS: All right, so if we pick up a Platonic dialogue, for those of you who have not picked up a Platonic dialogue in 20, 30 years, what you'll see is the name of a character, Socrates, and a colon, and then Socrates talks, and then the name of another character, and then that other character talks. And so, what are the peculiar and unique features of the fact that you get these conversations between people as opposed to a kind of straight through reading of a thing? And what I'm thinking about here is that it seems, the dialogue seems to put an additional, and if not additional, then an unique burden on the reader that non-dialogues don't. So can you talk a little bit about reading Plato, given that when you read it, well, it's kind of like you're reading a play, although there's not as much just stage direction like when you're reading Shakespeare, how should you go about reading this thing and understanding it, given its odd literary form?
ALEX PRIOU: Well, you have to begin like you would in a play and try to figure out what's going on, right? You open up "Macbeth" and you hear there's this... First there are these witches, but then you hear there's this battle, Macbeth is just acting nobly, and you're just sort of like, "Wow, Macbeth is wonderful. He saved Duncan's kingship from these rebellious thanes." But then you start teasing it out and you start realizing there's all this political machinations going on behind the scenes, right? Similarly in Plato, you'll have just an ordinary conversation, but there'll be these subtle indications that, well, first, this is related to political events that one might read about in the Greek historians, in Thucydides in particular, or you might find out that Socrates is, at the end of this dialogue, he goes off to get his indictment, like in the "Theaetetus" right? And so, this is just a return to the earlier point, there is always this situatedness. So on the one hand, you're given an argument, right? The dialogues do treat philosophical topics in a very philosophic manner. You know, careful argumentation, exploration of the various features of it, it gets very technical at times on the one hand. On the other hand, the dialogic form, the fact that there are these characters, constantly forces you to situate that argument within the context of a conversation, whatever's just happening on the ground, within the history, the political history of Athens, and therefore, to see how arguments are conditioned in this way, conditioned by circumstances, they're not simply given an abstraction.
Another way to think about this is that philosophy wants to give a sort of demonstration from first principles. Here's the truth, this fundamental truth, and let's derive all of our conclusions from that. And sometimes, it looks that's what you're getting in Plato, but then you have to always think about that that deduction is arrived at through a kind of process emerging out of these ordinary concerns, and you have to ask whether the results are adequate to the original concerns, whether the arguments that get you there are actually adequate. And so, you're constantly being forced to think about the characters, their ulterior motives, whether Socrates even wants to be there to talk to this person. If he does want to be there, what keeps him there? What made him want to have this conversation? I could go on and on, but there is this tendency when you're reading it, to just try to figure out the argument, then you've got Plato's views. Plato doesn't allow you to do that, or if he allows you to do that, he makes it very clear, "You're understanding just a part of my work," right? You're gonna just lose the core of it. A good example, my friend, Travis Mulroy did a dissertation on Plato in his major, and he points out that everybody looks at this dialogue as Plato's discussion of beauty, but the first half of it is a discussion of law. So what do you do with that fact? If you take out that argument, not only are you ignoring all the dramatic cues that's surrounded and couch the argument, you're ignoring half of the book, right? That clearly, that's not an adequate interpretation.
SHILO BROOKS: So I wanna go back to something you just said, because you said, if you're reading the dialogue in a certain way and thinking that you're getting Plato's views, it's much more complex than that. You know, getting Plato's views is not... I assume you would say Plato's views are not identical to the views that Socrates expresses when he's engaging with his interlocutor, for example. Now, this is different from... If I'm reading John Stewart Mill "On Liberty," I'm fairly certain I'm getting John Stewart Mill's views in "On Liberty, you know, more or less. And so can you talk about the way in which you're supposed to pursue or understand, or how do you locate or find Plato's views given the fact that his views aren't identical to Socrates', because Socrates speaks ironically, they're not identical to those that Socrates is in conversation with. It's very hard to say in the same way, "Here's what John Stewart Mill says," it's hard to say, "Here's what Plato says about X." Yet, I hear people say that all the time, what Plato thinks and says. So, how do we get from this conversation that's dramatic in character, that on the page looks like it's a script for an actor, for a play, how do we get from there to Plato's views? How do we even begin to make sense of or discover what those are?
ALEX PRIOU: Yeah, so... Yeah, so there's, what does Plato think? And then there's a tendency to say, "Well, Plato thinks what Socrates says." Now, one of the difficulties is is that I don't even think Socrates thinks what he says is simply true. In fact, he gives indications all the time that what he's saying is inadequate, it's just an image, etc, etc. So, I mean, a good example of this is in the "Republic," starting around 506, when they start going into the grand, scientific, theoretical core, Socrates calls it all an image, then he gives us account of the divided line, which is a level of things to be known, the highest being the essences of things, the lowest being just images. So the whole account he's giving is the lowest sort of thing, right? He doesn't actually get at the truth. So for all these reasons, you wanna be careful about even saying that Socrates believes what he says, let alone that what Plato believes is what Socrates says. So one way to think about this is to take, for example, the "Theaetetus", Plato's dialogue on the question of knowledge, Socrates there, presents himself as a midwife, and he presents himself as a midwife only in the "Theaetetus", and he does it only after Theatetus refuses to answer. So there's every indication that this idea of philosophy as midwifery, right? Trying to deliver out of a youth's pregnant soul, a beautiful bouncing baby truth that's now finally all yours. This notion is highly circumscribed to Theatetus. In fact, Theatetus needs the promise of a genuine birth because he's so recalcitrant to actually getting into deep philosophic waters and never getting out, right? He's not comfortable with that. Now, that's when Plato, I think, begins to speak, when you start seeing this about Theatetus, because what you see is that Plato's showing you something about Theatetus' commitment to the notion that science has to be demonstrative, or to state it otherwise, philosophy is only knowledge if it's demonstrative knowledge, right?
Again, knowledge proceeding from first principles. If it isn't, if it's a kind of knowledge of basic questions, which are known by running into walls, and falling into pits, and feeling like you can't get out, if that constitutes a kind of knowing, then Theatetus is going to necessarily distort what science is, what philosophy is, and what Socrates is. And Socrates is forced, compelled, by these circumstances to distort who he is in order to bring Theatetus somewhat out of his shell, and he succeeds. You know, by the end of the dialogue, Theatetus, though he hasn't gotten a positive result, seems content with the progress he's made. Progress, not in finding out what knowledge is, but in realizing certain possibilities that are attractive, but somehow deficient. One of them seeming very much like a geometrically rigorous proof, right? So, I think there, you start to see Plato, when you start seeing the souls of the interlocutors, what their commitments are, how it backs them into certain corners, and the problems it leads them into, and the problems it obfuscates from them. And every character I think, has a different approach or a different set of commitments.
SHILO BROOKS: Right, and this again, I mean, this is similar to the way one would read Shakespeare or something of that nature. Let's talk a little bit about, before we get into the specifics on a particular Platonic dialogue like the "Republic", let's kind of talk about Plato's corpus, 'cause we've talked about the fact that, okay, he writes in these dialogues, he doesn't speak directly himself, it's hard to determine what Plato says, you've gotta kind of bring the characters in conversation with one another, unpack their souls, try to get a sense for what their hopes are, their longings are, that's when you start to see Plato. But the other thing that's sort of mystifying about Plato, and you see a lot of ink spill in the scholarship on this, is that Plato wrote a whole bunch of dialogues about a whole bunch of different things, and it's not clear, the order in which these things should be read, you know, he doesn't number them, and so there's a lot of debate about the date of composition and, you know, this is the early Plato, and he was young here, but then he changed his mind here at the late Plato. But there's other ways to order the Platonic dialogues too, in terms of the order in which they should be read, so I'm curious to get your take. What order should the dialogues be read in? And does the date of composition matter? Or is there another kind of way of ordering them that you can share with us?
ALEX PRIOU: Well, the order in which you should read the dialogue should begin with the dialogue whose question is most urgent to you. I personally believe that Plato wrote his dialogues in such a way as to give them reputations, right? The "Republic" is about Plato's ideal state. If you want to live in a beautiful community, this is the perfect community, this is the one to read. You read it, it speaks to you, and then it subverts your desires. It shows you, through the figure of Glaucon in particular, what's wrong there. Or if you're kind of suspicious of Socrates, you think he's kind of worthless and you don't really wanna spend your time on it, well, there's a very short dialogue called the "Clitophon", it's four pages and it features a character just like you, who sloppily and lazily gives Socrates short shrift. And you can do this with the "Symposium", wow, all the leading lights of Athens, and they give these beautiful speeches about love, and what do you see along the way? It slowly brings you into Socratic dialectic and it subverts that longing for this sort of beautiful fame that motivates that desire, so that's one way to approach it. Now, the question you raise, which is the order of composition question, is an interesting one that speaks to... Well, it speaks to a lot of things, first and foremost, the flat footedness of 19th century German classicists when trying to understand Plato's dialogues, 'cause they just try to order it by composition. But the ordering it by composition relies on saying, well, this conversation is very simple, it must be an earlier work, and this conversation is very sophisticated. It also seems to have, you know, to undermine certain teachings of other dialogues. Okay, so that's a plausible way to approach it, right? But the difficulty here is that Plato will take an early dialogue, say his "Euthyphro", and he'll situate it between what's considered to be a kind of middle dialogue, his "Theatetus", and two late dialogues, the "Sophist" and "Statesmen." And then after the "Statesmen"... You know, I don't know, it's weeks or months later, you get another early dialogue, "The Apology of Socrates," right? Followed by an early dialogue, the "Crito", followed by the "Death of Socrates," the "Phaedo", which is a middle dialogue.
So what you start to realize is that if you order it by date of composition or perceived date of composition, you can actually get you yourself a way of what is manifestly Plato's ordering, which is a dramatic ordering. Sometimes he puts dialogues very much close to one another within days or hours of one another, and indicates, I think, thereby, that this is the order in which you ought to read them. That said, I don't think every dialogue can be stuck into a life of Socrates, it's obviously the predominant theme, certain dialogues are, I think, impossible to date, the "Philebus", for example. And so, you can get... I think, go too far in that direction. There's also interesting other ways to pair them, "Protagoras" and "Symposium" both feature six of the same characters are named, right? And they both open up with an exchange of an equal number of exchanges, I think it's 17 exchanges. Or the "Symposium" and the "Phaedo", one's about love, one's about death. The "Symposium" takes place all night, the "Phaedo" takes place all day. In the "Symposium", love is the path, and reproduction is the path to immortality, in the "Phaedo", no, it's not. It's actually through trying to prepare yourself for death and abstracting and suppressing the body as much as you can, from your thinking. So there's a lot of different arrangements one can make between one dialogue and the other. The predominant one is to read them as giving you a kind of life of Socrates, that's obviously first and foremost in Plato's mind.
SHILO BROOKS: And that's what you mean when you say dramatic order? That the drama follows. Yeah, yeah, that makes sense to me. I mean, given that you're saying, well, that the proper order of the dialogues, and I like very much what you said at the beginning, which is just read the one whose theme appeals the most to you first of all. I mean, if you're interested in justice, you know, read the "Republic", if you're interested in love, read the "Symposium". But given that you're saying that the dramatic ordering, which is in a way, or could be at least, argued to be a more fruitful way of reading than the date of composition, that dramatic ordering revolves around, or is centered on the life of Socrates, let's talk about the life of Socrates in Plato's dialogues. Who is this Socrates? What is his relationship to Plato? Why doesn't Plato speak in his own name? Why does he speak in the name of this man, Socrates? Why is the life of Socrates so important to him?
ALEX PRIOU: Yeah, so the legend has it, it's probably apocryphal, is that Plato was a tragedian, and he met Socrates, and he burned his tragedies, and he ended up writing these philosophic dialogues. One thing that's remarkable about Plato is that all of his dialogues take place in the past. According to what we have of what we surmised to be Plato's dates, Socrates died when he was around 20. So, you know, long before he's really achieved full maturity, all these events have transpired. And so, Plato shows you, I think, with the benefit of time on his side, and reflection, how Socrates inquiries are responding to the events of the day, much as any intellectual or any academic tries to respond with reason discourse to current events, Socrates is doing that on the highest level. So for example, Thucydides tells us that just before the Sicilian Expedition, this grand venture Athens took up to invade Sicily and take Syracuse, Thucydides tells us the Athenians were filled with eros with love. Around those dates, you get the dialogue on love, "Symposium", and other dialogues concerning beauty, the "Hippias Major" and "Minor", and also the "Phaedrus". So you see Socrates in taking up inquiries into the beautiful and into eros, in accordance with the passions that are being awoken.
Another example is in the wake of the plague that struck Athens early in the Peloponnesian War, the attempted beautification of Athens by Pericles praising the regime, was no longer believable and Athens fell into a kind of moral cynicism, and in the wake of this, Socrates investigated questions of justice in the "Republic" and the "Gorgias", and there you get the two most cynical, apparently cynical characters, Thrasymachus and Callicles, and I can go on and on, but what I think Plato's trying to show you is how, during this exceptionally interesting time, post Greco-Persian War in Athens, leading into the Peloponnesian War when Socrates was in his, I guess, in his thirties, Socrates engaged in certain inquiries that were very much these new questions, or really fascinating political and moral questions, opened up by the events of his time, showing you again, idealized... Precisely, because it's in the past, he can work it out all the more carefully than he could do it live, in the present, but working out how Socrates' life was spent in taking up these massive new questions opened up by Athens' particular situation. And so, for that reason, I think Plato makes the life of Socrates this sort of predominant focus. Again, this isn't always the case, the glaring exception to this is Plato's biggest work, the "Laws", which, you know, is over in Crete, and there's an Athenian who sounds a lot like Socrates, but it's a kind of inquiry that never would've occurred in Athens, right? An inquiry into divine laws. Athens had, I think, by that point, sort of given up on that, or if it ever came up, it was always as a kind of in a reactionary way, it wasn't this deep conviction anymore. And so, yeah, that's basically what I think is going on.
SHILO BROOKS: One thing I think we should clear up for our listeners is this, that we've said on the one hand, Plato is a dramatic writer with characters, on the other hand, we've said Socrates is a real person, and so my question is, people will look at Platonic dialogues and they will say again, a certain sort of person or a certain sort of historian, will say Plato's dialogues are a source for the things that Socrates said, that these are somehow recordings of the conversations or something of that nature. Whereas, you know, you brought up a man like Thucydides, we could talk about Xenophon perhaps later, they wrote speeches and their works of the "Great Statesmen", it's clear that, especially for Xenophon, when he fictionalize the speeches of "Great Statesmen", he's just making them up, he's just... In order to teach, he puts the words in the mouth of a person who might have been real, about who Xenophon is, Cyrus in particular, you know, lived long before him, and so Xenophon is writing a beautiful speech to teach the reader something. So my question for you is something like, Plato as a historical source for Socrates, because we seem to be sort of trying to have it both ways, Plato uses Socrates as a character, on the other hand, Plato was viewing very close to the events of Socrates' life, and we should map on things that we read in "Thucydides" to the things that we see in the dialogue. So can you talk a little bit about the historical Socrates and the degree to which Plato's interested in representing him accurately, versus the degree to which Plato is merely using Socrates as a kind of pedagogical tool?
ALEX PRIOU: Yeah, one of these is another apocryphal remark about Plato that Socrates picked up, I think it was the "Lysis", and said, "Who's this man Plato, and why does he write these lies about me now?" I don't think that actually happened, but it speaks to the degree to which the Ancients were skeptical about a very historical reading. Now, those who like to order the dialogues by order perceived or hypothesized order of composition will say, "Well, the early dialogues is when Plato was in his Socratic period." And these are maybe not literal transcriptions, but they are more or less accurate to the way Socrates actually lived his life. One thing I didn't mention before, but I should mention is that in the early dialogues, Socrates always has his dumbest interlocutors, sometimes almost unfathomably stupid and unreflective, these people. So that might be an indication of why they're written that simplistically. The fact of the matter is is that we don't know about the historical Socrates all that much. The first thing written on Socrates is Aristophanes' play, "The Clouds", and there you get a kind of natural scientist Socrates, quasi natural scientist, he's also interested obliquely, I think, in human questions. You then have the works of, the Socratic works of Xenophon, right? And then you have Plato's dialogues, and Plato tells us in his second letter, that there is no writing or teaching of Plato's, all you have is a Socrates made young and beautiful, or new and beautiful. What this means is very difficult, but to use more contemporary language, it's a kind of idealized Socrates, a super-Socrates perfected. You don't get anything like a Platonic dialogue in real life. You'll get Platonic moments, these beautifully elegant... I once presented a paper on the "Clitophon", and this guy came and he was like, "Oh, I love the 'Clitophon', that's why I came to your paper." And then I and some of the other people in the room indicated that... And he says, "You should teach the 'Clitophon' instead of the 'Republic'." And a few of the people, we pointed out, "Well, that's not really what I was arguing, I was arguing that that view is Clitophon's failure." This guy got so frustrated, he just got up and left after 15 minutes, completely, like Clitophon, who after four pages, is just done with Socrates, right? Complete short shrift, lack of attention to the argument, so that was a beautiful Platonic moment. But nobody, you never get that in real life, a full-on Platonic conversation. These are beautifully, perfectly written works, right? With subtle illusions across the whole work, between this work and other dialogues, right? He's really masterfully crafted them. The way that Leah Strauss put it, is that the difference between real life and a Platonic dialogue is that in a Platonic dialogue, nothing occurs by chance, right? Everything is there purposively, it all fits into this one hole, and within this larger hole of work, and to make sense of it, you have to make sense of all these details. Life is never that beautiful and interesting in the same way.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, and you know, it was once told to me, with respect to the question of the historic Socrates and the beautification of Plato's dialogues, that as a new reader, as a young reader, I should completely forget, or I should set aside all questions about the historical Socrates. They're functionally irrelevant for the moment, as a new reader, for your learning about Plato. You just take what he gives you, and see his Socrates, and see what his Socrates says, and don't worry about whether Socrates was really there and really doing this and all that sort of thing. Just take what he gives you. He tells you he dies, he gives you his conversations, he tells you there's a great turn in his life, take that and make what you can with it, and just don't worry about it for the next two decades, you know, kind of a thing. Let's transition now, we've had this sort of broader conversation about Plato as writer, the character of the dialogue as such, let's talk about a specific text for a minute. Let's talk about a book that I know that in your classes you'll spend... I mean, you'll spend a whole semester on the book, and that is Plato's "Republic". Arguably, next to the "Symposium", his most frequently-read, well-known book. You'll see the "Republic" or the "Symposium" read in American high schools even still today, which is astonishing and good, but let's talk about the "Republic", why do you think that the "Republic" is still today, so important, so urgent for us, and why do its lessons endure over all these years? What is it about that book that's magical?
ALEX PRIOU: Well, I think... I mean, I teach my freshman seminar just on the "Republic", but we open with selections from "Thucydides", and it takes place sometime after the plague, like I said, it was a very cynical time. It became clear that the empire was not held, the Athens empire, was not held because it was just or because it was some sort of testament to the greatness of the Athenians. The Athenians were not that great, they were all self-serving, they realized, as the plague came in and they were robbing one another and committing all these impieties, as it became evident to that, a new kind of cynicism arose, and this leads to Thucydides' description of the Corcyrean Revolution, which he says took place in all of Greece. And what ends up happening is a complete moral revaluation, people start to think that partisan hard-lining is what it means to be courageous, right? That being moderate and just is being a fool, right? This should all sound very familiar, I mean, this is what we're dealing with today. And Socrates, in the midst of this time, was approached by a young man named Glaucon, and was asked, this is in book two of the "Republic", essentially, to save him from Athens. He says, "Look, I care about justice, but I don't hear anybody come to his defense, not even remotely adequately.
All I hear are people like Thrasymachus, these cynical rhetoricians, and the people whose views that he echoes back to them. All I hear are these cynical claims that injustice is good, justice is bad, right? That the life of the tyrant is the happiest of all. Persuade me that I shouldn't do that. Show me that justice passes this test," right? And so the "Republic" speaks, I think, to a kind of risk of cynicism or nihilism that's very much present today, it's been present, I think, in the West for a while, but especially since, in the last decade or so, has become very, very predominant. And when I teach the "Republic" like that and I emphasize that part, students, I think, immediately respond with a sense of, "Yeah, this is our politics." "Yeah, there are people like Thrasymachus." "Yeah, I do feel this overwhelming urge to be just, and yet, really, I wonder why don't I just go get mine? Why don't I get my slice of the pie? Screw over other people. That's what everybody's doing anyways." And there's this kind of psychic conflict or psychic crisis that young people, and I think a lot of adults, find themselves in. And so the "Republic" takes up these desires and speaks to them in the most thorough going fashion of any book that I'm aware of, at least, and for that reason, I think it's absolutely urgent. Now, students might respond that way at the beginning, 12 weeks later, 250 pages later, and they're hearing about kicking out everybody from the city who's over 10 and they're like, "Where the hell am I? What does this have to do with anything?" And so it's incumbent upon us, I think, as teachers, to try to connect that somehow, to reality. But for those general reasons, I think it's maybe among the most relevant books one can read today, maybe second to "Thucydides", but perhaps more so than "Thucydides", it's relevant.
SHILO BROOKS: Yeah, yeah. Well, let's... I'm gonna ask you to do injustice to the "Republic" now, which is hard because it's a book about justice, but I'm gonna ask you to do injustice to it. So for everybody who doesn't know, the "Republic" is a long, long book, 10 books, is that right? It's 10 books. And so, if we could just give... I mean, because you're saying this is a really important book, even for today, especially if you are an observer of politics today, the "Republic" lives and endures. Can we just give a kind of overview of the "Republic"? There are certain high points of the book, I think there are certain parts of the book that anybody who's read it once, even if it's been 20 years, if I say "Letter of Love", or if I say "City in Speech," people are gonna kind of perk up say, "Oh yeah, I remember that!" You know, various myths and these sorts of things. So can you give an overview of kind of the general argument, the structure of the "Republican", it's 10 books, again, knowing that we cannot do justice to this, we can't... I mean, that would take, you know, a semester or two or three semesters, can you just kind of remind people of what that the book's content is and why some of that stuff is so important, and so fun for you to teach?
ALEX PRIOU: Yeah, well, I spent 45 hours on it in my freshman seminar, so I should be able to summarize it in five minutes. Well, the "Republic" begins with Socrates, he comes to this house of an old man named Cephalus, not an Athenian, he's been brought there by Pericles, he's an old-fashioned kinda guy from Syracuse. He's bought his weapons factory there. Cephalus gives a view too, an old-fashioned view, that justice is obeying what the gods tell you to do, specifically, pay your debts, tell the truth. Socrates shows that this is inadequate, his son, Polemarchus, also not Athenian, also very much committed to older-fashioned views, comes in and says, "Yeah, justice is paying your debts or giving to people what they're owed, and this means ultimately, helping friends and harming enemies." Socrates eventually brings Polemarchus around to this view that he actually thinks justice should always be beneficial to him to whom it is done, right? Justice means never harming anyone, ever. This is based on Polemarchus', again, very old-fashioned view that justice is virtue, that what it means to be a good person is to be a just man, right? Up till now, very un-Athenian. Thrasymachus comes in and says, "What are you talking about? This is nuts." Right? Justice is just a sham, it's what the people in power tell you have to do. They say it's just for you to do this, but it's just lining their pockets, right? It's just benefiting them. Very, very, I think, attractive view of justice. Socrates shows everybody that Thrasymachus is a, whatever the merits of his view might be, he is not a good advocate for it, it shows that he's fundamentally confused and unable to support his view, from which point you'd expect to go back to Polemarchus' question. Again, the question being, what is justice? Specifically through the lens of, what is justice that I think it's so good, right? That I think it's what it means to be a good person. Can I define it so that I understand what makes it good? They don't return to that, Glaucon comes in and says, "No, Socrates, you need to do better with Thrasymachus' argument." And he states in the most extreme terms, "Show me that the life of a tyrant is worse, not just than the just life in which you might suffer quite a bit, but even that adjusts death," right? Prove to me that the life of the martyr is in some way, more choice worthy, or the death of a martyr, I should say, is more choice worthy than the life of a tyrant. It's not surprising from this perspective that it takes Socrates nine more books to convince him of this, and that's on the last page, right? Now, he does this again, by building, you mentioned this earlier, a "City in Speech", he builds a fictitious city. And that fictitious city is meant, I think, to be a kind of reprieve from Athens, for Glaucon and his brother, Adeimantus, who gives him challenges of his own.
Specifically, it offers them a beautiful alternative to the ugliness and depravity of Athens, right? Which, you know, to which Thrasymachus speaks. Socrates, in order to lay out justice in the soul, lays out justice in the city, it's a city that is educated to moral perfection, something that appeals deeply to Glaucon's desire to live a conspicuous and interesting life, a life of moral excellence, over and against... That he'll choose for sure, over the life of a tyrant. The moral excellence requires that the city remain a certain size, it turns out this requires some weird strictures about women and children that Socrates mentions in passing. In Book 5, that gets taken up, right? So you get the moral education, which involves some unseemly things like censorship and involves a lie that's propounded about the origins of these people and the origins of this city. Then, to maintain the unity of the city, they need to have a complex eugenics program, that's laid out in Books 5, which requires this philosophic scientific education that's laid out in 6 and 7. And so, we get a kind of three book arc on moral formation and the just soul in Books 2-4, and then a three book arc on eugenics or scientific practice of politics in Books 5-7.
In the course of this, Glaucon falls in love with this city, realizes that he can't actually be a part of it. He gets, I think by the end of Book 7, he's completely like a jilted lover. There is nowhere he can turn, right? He knows this is not for him. So they turn to more realistic politics, defective regimes in Books 8 and 9, during which Glaucon sees images of defective cities and defective souls like his own, so does his brother. Finally, he comes to see, or he comes to believe that the life of the unjust man, or really of the tyrant, is actually miserable and it's miserable because of the very thing that Glaucon, I think, didn't really take into account. At the end of the day, you're not just out of fear of punishment, which is what he originally argues. You're ultimately just out of shame, right? You care about justice, you want to be just, and even if you could get away with it, even if the gods, even if other men didn't know it, you still have to sleep at night. And Cephalus, who was kept awake by his nightmares about punishment for not compensating for any unjust deeds he's done, Cephalus in a way, reappears at the end, when finally, Glaucon is brought to this position. Now, the end of the book is this strange afterlife myth which speaks to Glaucon's jilted hopes. He can't have this city in this life, Socrates cultivates in him a hope that maybe he'll have it in the next life, all he has to do is live as justly as possible in this one.
And so one, overall, I would look at the "Republic" as a cautionary tale. Read through this dramatic lens, there's kind of two sides of it. On the one hand, Socrates lays out political problems. How do we actually form people well with good literature? This is a real problem we all deal with. And then he produces perfect solutions, which are in many ways, actually unjust and they're quite ugly. Glaucon goes for it, pushes the argument further. And so, as you see the "Republic", you see the real problems of politics and you see perfect solutions that are undesirable, and so it instills a kind of moderation in your expectations, right? A judiciousness in dealing with the real problems of politics as you watch this other character who lacks that judiciousness, going to the extreme, having his heart broken by this impossible city, the city he wants but can never have, and finally, being driven into the very religious position that it seems like we had set aside long ago. In that sense, it's the greatest education you can have in the problems of politics, while also being the greatest cautionary tale about ignoring those or trying to escape them once and for all.
SHILO BROOKS: Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm. Yeah, yeah, that's an astonishing and terrific overview. One can tell that you spent a lot of time with the book and that you explain it to first-time readers by profession.
ALEX PRIOU: Thank you.
SHILO BROOKS: But let me ask you, I mean, are there particular scenes in the book that you find students are attracted to, or that they dwell on? I'm thinking of, you know, I've taught the "Republic" not nearly as many times as you, but the students always latch on at the philosopher king, that king should be in there, they're just fixated on the philosopher king, that there should be at king as a philosopher, or we get to certain myths in the book and they really do want to spend a lot of time on that. So are there places in Plato's... Or in the dialogue where Plato's craftsmanship as a kind of maker of myths really brings your students in, even today? I'm just curious what students respond to in the "Republic", in 2022?
ALEX PRIOU: Well, there's what students respond to and then there's what I force them to think about.
SHILO BROOKS: Sure, yeah.
ALEX PRIOU: And specifically, I spent quite a bit of time, 'cause these are kind of scattered throughout the work. I spent quite a bit of time on his critique of democracy. Specifically, I think there's one passage in particular that I think describes the average student's disposition. This is in 561c, I'm just gonna read this, "And he describes the soul of an individual who lives in a democracy and who loves the law of equality, who therefore honors all of his desires on an equal basis." He says, "He also lives along day-by-day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time, drinking and listening to the flute." So that's, you know, having, what is it? A Redbull and vodka and going to the club.
SHILO BROOKS: Right.
ALEX PRIOU: And another, downing water and reducing. So that's going to the rec center and lifting instead of going to class. "Now, practicing gymnastic and again, idling and neglecting everything. And sometimes, spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy. Often, he engages in politics, and jumping up says and does whatever chance is to come to him. And if he admires any soldiers, he turns in that direction, and if it's money makers, in that one, and there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but calling this life sweet, free, and blessed, he follows it throughout." To which Glaucon responds, "You have described exactly the life of a man attached to the law of equality." I find this passage just utterly powerful as a description of my students. And so, I always read it to them and I sort of spell it out. And then I point a big, school, mommish finger in their faces and I say, "You lack order and necessity to your life, right?" I mean, how many... I don't wanna... I don't think any students will listen to this who this actually applies, but... And if they do, they'll quickly go to binging and purging, but... You see this, right? There's a kind of... They float through a very ordered and necessary curriculum, you have to take prerequisites, and go to class at this time, and you have to fulfill these assignments, they go through it in the most cavalier way, right? They don't have that desire that imposes order and necessity, and therefore, when the order and necessity comes from without, it just seems foreign, right? And so, they flip from one thing to another.
Growing up in a democracy means that a wide array of lives are honored as equally valid, as perfectly acceptable, and therefore, a wide array of desires are equally valid, and you shouldn't have to prefer one or the other. And the problem with that is that that's obviously at odds with what we do in our education, which is we want people to focus, specialize to some extent, and really structure their education so that they learn and they become a contributing member of society and hopefully, a good citizen as well, right? Somebody who has an ability or a skill that only comes from taking a desire, putting it above other ones, and then structuring your life around that so that you can actually attain what that desire aims at. Democracies don't prepare their citizens for this, even though it needs citizens who are so disciplined. So passages like that, there's a lot of them in the "Republic", it's notorious for its criticisms of democracy. But it really, I think, helps students focus a little bit on how well a book that's 2,500 years old can see into their souls, right? Can see exactly what they're doing and why they're doing it, how their behavior is dependent on the regime in which they grow up, and what they need to do to actually live well over and against the sort of ill-effects of their regime. And so, those passages in particular, I find just absolutely striking. Now, the odd thing about this is I'll focus on a passage and you always see a couple students like, scrolling on their phones or on other computers, like smiling at their screens, obviously they're looking at some meme page or something like that, those students are lost, but, you know, it doesn't matter how school mommish my finger wagging gets, it'll never work, right? But for those who are half awake, I think it does speak to something.
SHILO BROOKS: Right, right. You know, let me ask you... You know, you talk about the... You know, you read this passage on democracy and there are certain students to whom the book really appeals and they sort of can maybe see themselves in it, and others to whom it may not. I have always struggled with Plato for the following reason, that there's a certain fantastical or religious element to his writing which, as a young man, really turned me off. And I was very political in nature and I suspect that's, in a way, the kind of person Plato wanted to talk with, but nonetheless, when reading Herodotus or Thucydides, or Xenophon's non-Socratic writings, I was infinitely more immersed and interested, and wanted to learn from those writers much more than Plato, because there was just this fantasy movie, at least when I was a young man, fantasy movie element of Plato that made me not want to take this very serious man, seriously, whereas I could go over to Xenophon and read the "Anabasis" or the "Education of Cyrus", read about war, learn about justice through those means, and then in fact, want to read the Socratic writings because I had come to admire Xenophon so much because he had dealt with this very pressing question for me, in matters of war, and peace, and politics, and justice, in a way that was accessible, or at least more to my taste. And so, I'm curious about this back worldliness of Plato, people who have listened to this podcast know that I've studied Nietzsche some, and of course you have too, and Nietzsche famously calls Plato boring and talks about Thucydides as somebody who... Thucydides and Machiavelli as people of necessity and realism. And before I'd even read that in Nietzsche, that was already sort of in my heart. And so, I'm curious about this, why does Plato do that with this way of writing? And I suspect it's a defect in me that these others called out more to me than he does, but what do you make of that in Plato? And why does he go that route when many of his contemporaries sort of stray far from that?
ALEX PRIOU: Yeah, so, I mean, you raise, I think, what is like the central issue of late Modernity, which is on the one hand... So Modernity begins roughly with Chapter 15 of "The Prince", right? When Machiavelli critiques the ideal as imaginary. What are you talking about the best regime? Plato, this is nuts, right? Aristotle too, Augustine, I think he has his sites on all of these people. These are not feasible regimes at all, right? This is just made up, it'll never happen, and worse still, it's just gonna lead to any actual political actors' destruction. That critique gets picked up by Bacon, it works its way throughout the history of Modernity, but all the way to that work by Nietzsche that you're quoting, it's "Twilight of the Idols" Section 2, of "What I Owe the Ancients", right? "Twilight of the Idols", the word that Bacon uses is "idols", right? So he's picking up, I think, on that Baconian language. And it becomes clear by around Russo, but it reaches a real fever pitch with Nietzsche, that Modernity may have been correct in its critique of the Ancients, but it seems to have left human life radically unmoored. And so the question has always been, what is the superhuman standard by which human beings are to take bearings in their life? What is the standard they can appeal to to say, what I'm doing is good, the life I'm living is one well-lived, and they can have that sort of confidence or some sense of guidance, at least, right? For Plato, it was to what extent is your soul healthy and in accordance with the structure of the best city, right? If you wanna take the dogmatic reading.
Now, in light of this, a lot of thinkers starting in the 19th century, but especially in the 20th, started looking back to pre-modern thought to see whether it stood up against the early modern critique, right? As this Machiavellian critique. A famous one of those is obviously, Leo Strauss, who saw in Farabi's reading of Plato, a non-idealistic, non-dogmatic Plato, right? And so, one of the sort of principles guiding my own reading is, well, the hocus-pocus aspect, maybe this is just to bring the conversation back around again, to the beginning, but this hocus-pocus kind of strange mythmaking wishfulness of Plato, ontologically, politically, it's all so extreme. That's all part of the argument. It's not understood, if you understand it that way, in light of the action. And so, rereading the dialogues as dramas, situates these otherworldly images you get as creatures of these sub-Socratic non-philosophic types that Socrates is speaking with. I just went with Glaucon, right? Glaucon has this hope for perfect politics. Why? Because he's not asking Thrasymachus' question, I'm sorry, Polemarchus' question, what is justice that I think it's so good? Let me define it so I can see it. What makes it so good for me, right? Or why I think it's such a good thing? He's not asking that question, he's asking him to defend perfect justice. Nobody believes justice can be perfect, really. Do we know why justice is imperfect? That's another question. You get there from Polemarchus' perspective, he wants perfect justice. That longing is not gonna be satisfied, right? And it isn't satisfied. He gets the city and it turns out it's so good that he's not welcome there, right? And so, he's just left with these longings that have no realistic satisfaction in this world, so they become otherworldly.
In those ways, I think you can start looking at Plato through this lens, and realize that this early modern critique of the Ancients was maybe insufficiently sophisticated in its approach to these texts, right? That they didn't appreciate the actual subtlety, what Plato was actually up to. For that same reason, I think authors like Thucydides appealed to Nietzsche to Hobbes, to Russo. It's interesting, you know, three thinkers who are associated with three completely different movements, right? Fascism, communism, and liberalism, these are their stepchildren, we should be clear. But they all found something big. Why? Because Thucydides is factual, he sticks to the facts, he shows you how the world actually operates. Xenophon too, there's that curious fact that the thinker that Machiavelli most focuses on is Xenophon, and specifically, "The Education of Cyrus", your favorite work, right? And so, I think one of the things... I think that's an excellent reason to read these works, right? As offering an ancient perspective that I think escapes the pre-modern, early modern critique. I think Plato also escapes that critique, but he sought, I think, to address the psychological, this is to sound like Nietzsche, but the psychological decay of his Athenians with these sort of fanciful ideas, right? While all at the same time, pointing to the complex understanding of these desires so that you're cautioned against them, right? So that you see where they lead and you know that, there but for the grace of Plato go I.
SHILO BROOKS: Right. Right. Well, that's a terrific answer and our time has run short, and so one of the things I wanna do is just thank you, Alex. This has been a really terrific conversation. Let me tell folks who are out there, you can find more from Alex in his book, "Becoming Socrates", but if you're interested in hearing him engage in conversations on a range of topics in the Western tradition with both some other intellectuals, but also with some professors who are really leading lights in the field of all sorts, I mean, conversations from subjects ranging from Lincoln to Heidegger, to Plato, to, I mean, you name it, you can find Alex on his podcast, it's called The New Thinkery, and I highly recommend that. So thank you so much for this, Alex, it's been terrific.
ALEX PRIOU: Yeah, this was excellent. A lot of fun.
SHILO BROOKS: All right. Take care, everyone.
SHILO BROOKS: The "Free Mind" Podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. You can email us feedback at FreeMind@colorado.edu, or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson.