On Interpreting Plato: Popper versus Strauss, Bloom, & a note on Machiavelli

The last point I made in yesterday’s review of Skin in the Game was about Taleb’s take on Plato, or rather on what he calls “Platonicity.”

I made the point that my own position is one of “philosophical idealism” and “political realism” and of recognising them as distinct modes of engaging with life according to the principal:

Orpheus in sylvis, inter delphinas Arion.

Virgil. Eclogue. viii. 56, cited by Bacon, Advancement of Learning, II: 18: 5

Orpheus in the Forest, among the Dolphins Arion

It is the political realism of Taleb that I find attractive and I am not hostile to his referring to the tendency of relying overmuch on impostures of “Platonic models” to navigate – or impose oneself upon – the political world as “Platonicity.”

If I want to consider the most prudent course of action in the contingent world of affairs, by which I mean, action that benefits me materially or socially, or that is least likely to do me harm, I would refer myself to Machiavelli and his followers rather than to Plato. This is known as swimming with Arion among the dolphins.

If, on the other hand, I wish to speculate upon the nature of being, what it is to exist, what, if anything remains through, or beyond, the flux of this life, the non-contingent, or on the inner life, the life of the soul, I would refer myself to Plato and his followers rather than to Machiavelli. This is known as singing Orphic hymns in the forest.

Machiavelli’s Reticence

After all, Machiavelli is notoriously reticent in his political works about metaphysics or theology; referencing Moses for his earthly achievements, for example, he comments that he we can hardly say much about Moses, since he merely carried out divine commandments:

E, benché di Moisè non si debba ragionare, sendo suto uno mero esecutore delle cose che gli erano ordinate da Dio…

Il Principe VI:3

It might be objected that Machiavelli’s reticence is evidence of atheism, and that he does not speak of another order of existence because he does not believe it exists, thereby rendering Machiavellian realism a kind of universal mode applicable to all of life since the material realm is all that exists.

However, aside from the question of whether it was actually possible to be an “atheist” in the modern sense in Machiavelli’s time (for such anachronistic readings of 16th century writers see this article in the New York Review of Books), there is plenty of evidence in Machiavelli’s other works that he remained in some essential sense a Catholic although a critic of the papacy and an advocate in a “virile” form of the faith, as delineated here in a review of Machiavelli’s God by Maurizio Viroli.

Does that imply that Machiavelli was seeking another form of universally applicable mode of being, albeit a more theistic one, in which, as with Moses, the tough political actions (ahem, slaying of an infinite number of envious opponents [Discourses III: 30: 1]) is divinely sanctioned, thereby demolishing the wall of partition between the political and the metaphysical modes?

Perhaps it does, but I would suggest that it points to an attempt to create or at least to posit a higher-order unity, and that when considering lower-order matters of phronesis – practical wisdom or prudence – platonic algorithmic approaches, utopia-building, procrustean principles-based morality-mongering are set aside in favour of a more pragmatic consequential ethics which harnesses Machiavellian animo to an heuristic pursuit of a specific end.

Anyway, I have ordered a copy of Viroli’s book so I shall wait and see what he has to say about it, if anything.

Popper’s Literalism: Plato’s Blueprint

In The Open Society and Its Enemies volume 1, Popper offers a literal reading of Plato, which means that the ideal city that Socrates describes is actually Plato’s “blueprint” of what a perfect city should be like. Popper accuses him of wanting to impose a totalitarian state upon us in the name of the perfect society.

Now to the extent that a literal reading of The Republic is probably the most common reading, we owe a debt of gratitude to Popper for laying out how odious it would be actually to have to live in such a society, something that needs to be stated again and again today.

The Straussian Turn: Plato Rejects Utopia

However, I don’t think a “straight” literal reading of The Republic with Socrates serving as Plato’s mouthpiece is a satisfactory interpretation. I am more sympathetic to Strauss’s views, firstly, that,

The Republic does not bring to light the best possible regime but rather the nature of political things—the nature of the city

Leo Strauss, History of Political Philosophy, p. 68

Allan Bloom, a student of Strauss, in his Interpretive Essay, which appends his excellent translation of The Republic, argues that,

Socrates constructs his utopia to point up the dangers of what we would call utopianism; as such it is the greatest critique of political idealism ever written.

Allan Bloom, The Republic of Plato, p. 410

This is intriguing because if it is the case that Plato, the father of European philosophical idealism, was attacking political idealism ironically, through the mouth of Socrates, then we have an example right at the foundations of our culture, of a rejection of the tyrannical insistence upon universal solutions to our specific problems.

Philosophers should not become rulers, and rulers should avoid all non-stoical and non-sceptical forms of philosophy in relation to their practical exercise of power. (Stoicism and Scepticism are themselves instrumental practices, closer to phronesis than to pure philosophy and therefore may be admitted into the city to preserve its health.) It is the ruler’s job to “maintain the state” ensuring sufficient stability for speculative philosophy to flourish no matter what tumults the demos may throw up.

Objection: I am reading through a rejection of the “Straussian” interpretation of Plato by George Klosko, courtesy of Jstor.org.

Klosko, George. “THE ‘STRAUSSIAN’ INTERPRETATION OF PLATO’S “REPUBLIC”.” History of Political Thought 7, no. 2 (1986): 275-93. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26213276.