Reading Plato in the Age of the Oligarchs

Sachs' Republic coverPlato has a bad reputation in many circles because his most famous work, the Republic, appears to defend all sorts of ideas that are unpalatable to most contemporary readers, ideas such as that people need to be protected from the truth, that large-scale censorship and even the deliberate dissemination of false and misleading information by governments is defensible as a means of ensuring order in a society. I believe, however, as I have argued elsewhere, that such a view of Plato is mistaken.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the positive value of a liberal arts education. I couldn’t agree more. There is much we could learn, for example, from Plato’s Republic. Despite the fact that it disparages what it calls “democracy,” the democracy it describes is not one that I believe would be recognizable as such to any Enlightenment thinker. More importantly for the purposes of the present reflections, the Republic takes nearly as dim a view of societies that value money above everything else. Such societies are generally referred to as “plutocracies,” which literally means “government by the wealthy.” Interestingly, however, Plato calls them “oligarchies” which means “government by the few,” because he believes that societies that value money above everything else will inevitably end up concentrating the wealth in the hands of a very small number of people.

I love teaching the Republic for many reasons. It is a beautiful and deeply moving book. One of the things that makes it such a joy to teach, though, is how it engages students. The city on which the book focuses is what Socrates calls an aristocracy, or “government by the best individuals.” Even this city, he acknowledges, however, in Book VIII, will inevitably succumb to a process of dissolution into a series of increasingly degenerate states, first to a timocracy, or “government in which love of honor is the ruling principle,” then to an oligarchy, which values money above everything else, from there to a democracy, which according to Socrates, values nothing at all except freedom from restraint, and finally, to a tyranny.

Students need no coaching in where to place the U.S. on this sad trajectory of political decline. They zero in on oligarchy every time, despite the fact that most of them have been raised to think of the U.S. as a democracy. Young people are a lot smarter than we tend to give them credit for being and they have little tolerance for people who value money above everything else.

I made an important discovery recently that relates to this issue, thanks to one of my students. It concerns a problem in several translations of the Republic, including Allan Bloom’s, which is considered by many scholars to be the best.

There is a personality type, asserts Socrates, that corresponds to each type of political regime. The oligarchical personality type, that is, the personality type that values money above everything else, appears to be just. He isn’t really just, though, according to Socrates. He simply needs to maintain a reputation for being just for the purposes of contractual relations, but he does this, Socrates explains, by

forcibly holding down bad desires, which are there, with some decent part of himself. He holds them down not by persuading them that they had “better not” nor by taming them with argument, but by necessity and fear. (554c7-d).

One of my students remarked that it was strange Socrates would say that the oligarchical man holds down his bad desires with some “decent” part of himself, but that despite that, he wasn’t really just, but only appeared to be just. The student wanted to know what the Greek term was that was translated as “decent.”

I looked it up. The Greek expression Plato uses in the passage where Socrates talks about how the the oligarchical man holds down his bad desires “with some decent part of himself” is ἐπιεικεῖ τινὶ έαυτοῦ. The relevant term is ἐπιεικεῖ. It means “fitting,” “meet,” or “suitable” according to Liddell-Scott, the standard dictionary for translating ancient Greek into contemporary English. It’s related to ὲπιείκεια, which means “reasonableness,” “fairness,” or “equity.”

My student was right, though, to point out that there was a problem with describing the part of the oligarchical man that holds down his bad desires as “decent.” Neither Bloom’s “decent part of himself” nor Shorey’s “better element in himself” coheres well with the point Socrates is making in the passage because the oligarchical man isn’t trying to be good. He isn’t genuinely virtuous, but only appears to be virtuous. He holds down his evil desires, according to Socrates, out of “fear,” not because he wants to be good, but because he is afraid that by giving in to those desires, he’ll get a bad reputation and no one will want to do business with him.

It isn’t any “decent” part, or “better element,” of the oligarchical man through which he restrains his evil desires. He has a desire to seem (δοκέω) just, not to be just. The desire to seem just isn’t actually a good desire. That is, it doesn’t have any positive moral worth, hence the reference to his “other evil desires” (my emphasis). Bloom omits the “other” (ἄλλας) when he refers to the oligarchical man’s holding down his “bad desires” (κακὰς ἐπιθυμίας). This omission encourages the view that there is something morally praiseworthy in the oligarchical man that is responsible for his good reputation. There isn’t.

Paul Shorey’s Loeb Classical Library version of the Republic translates this passage as “he, by some better element in himself forcibly keeps down other evil desires dwelling within.” It looks like Shorey was aware, however, that it isn’t actually anything morally positive, or “decent,” in the oligarchical man that holds down his “bad desires,” because he has a note in which he writes that “ἐπιεικεῖ is here used generally, and not in its special sense of ‘sweet reasonableness’.”

It appears ἐπιεικεῖ is being used here in the purely prudential sense of “fitting.” That is, the oligarchical man holds down some bad, or evil, desires in order more effectively to serve his evil desire to seem just. What holds down those other “evil desires” is whatever it is in him that is, in fact, capable of doing this. It isn’t some morally praiseworthy part of himself. So why have so many scholars chosen to translate it with English terms that have positive moral or ethical connotations? Such translations actually make the passage harder to understand.

The new Loeb Classical Library version of the Republic by Chris Emlyn-Jones and William Preddy has the oligarchical man using “some element of fairness within himself” to restrain his “other wrong desires.” That’s perhaps no worse than Shorey’s translation. Unfortunately, unlike Shorey, they fail to alert the reader to what is problematic in translating ἐπιεικεῖ with a morally positive expression such as “element of fairness,” so in that sense, the new Loeb Republic is a step backward.

Benjamin Jowett’s translation “has enforced virtue,” where Bloom has “decent part of himself” and that is actually better than either Bloom’s or either of the Loeb translations. The best translation of this passage, however, that I have found is, I believe, Joe Sachs’. Sachs has “quasi-decent constraint over himself” for ἐπιεικεῖ τινὶ έαυτοῦ. The qualification “quasi” is important because it makes clear, as none of the other translations does, that the constraint the oligarchical man exercises over himself only seems to be “decent.”

I haven’t used Sachs translation before, but I am going to consider using it the next time I teach the Republic. It may not be uniformly better than other translations, but it definitely seems deserving of a closer look.

It’s tempting to think that works that have already been translated many times probably don’t need to be translated anew. In fact, however, no translation is ever perfect. Language changes over time, and that translators have their own particular biases. It is therefore a good idea to re-translate important works at regular intervals, just to make sure that the language of the translation is keeping up with contemporary usage and that any bias that may have influenced earlier translations is corrected for.

Clearly Plato’s Republic deserves to be repeatedly re-translated. There is a great deal of wisdom in it, including insight into the moral bankruptcy, on both an individual and a collective level, of valuing money above everything else.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2018 issue of Counterpunch)