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)


Two Archetypes

Portrait caricatureI’m a transvestite–I think. I like to wear pants. When I was in grad school I even used to wear ties. No one else did, not even the professors, let alone the male grad students. Just me. I liked them. They seemed like me. I like spare, streamlined clothing. I like utilitarian things: pants and shirts and serviceable shoes. I’m not entirely lacking style. I’ve been told, actually, that I have good taste. It’s rather masculine taste though. I don’t like ruffles, don’t like frills, don’t like high heels, don’t paint my nails. I don’t “do” my hair. I can’t be bothered. I just wash it, you know, and let it dry naturally.

My, shall we say “masculine” aesthetic is not something I’d given much thought to until the last couple of years. Several times, in my adult life, I’ve caught a glimpse of myself reflected in a store window and been shocked by the image that confronted me. Why that’s me, I’ve thought to myself, that small woman is me. This will sound strange, but I was surprised to see that I was a small woman. I realized then that I actually had some kind of mental image of myself as a medium-sized man. I’m not seriously mentally ill or anything. I know I’m a woman. I’m not shocked when I look at myself in the mirror in the morning. I do sometimes wear dresses and I always wear makeup, though not very much because, like my hair, I can’t be bothered to spend too much time on it. Still, I rise in the morning and perform the ablutions appropriate to a person of my sex. But then I forget. I get caught up in the things that must be done in the day, and in thought. I forget what I look like. It’s then, I think, that I must unconsciously slip into the masculine image that I have of myself. It fits my job, I guess. There aren’t too many women in philosophy and there are few female academics in any discipline who have what my dean once described as my “pit bull” quality.

It’s how I was brought up, I think. My father is actually a terrible sexist. The thing is, he didn’t have any sons. If he’d had even one son, he’d have raised his daughters differently. He didn’t have any sons though, so he raised us, at least to some extent, the way he’d have raised sons if he’d had them and me more even than my two sisters because I am more similar in temperament to my father than they are. Yes, I was sort of the de facto son. My husband is always remarking that I am “the man” and he is “the woman” in our relationship, not in the sense of the Nicolsons, but in the sense of character traits that are usually thought of as gender specific, things such as my not liking to ask for directions or being generally uncommunicative as opposed to his insisting on asking for directions and talking often about his feelings. He has more friends than I do too. It’s not that I don’t have friends. I’m fortunate to have many good friends. I don’t feel any compulsion to see them all the time though unlike my husband who begins to muse audibly about whether he might have offended a particular friend if a week goes by without his hearing from him or her. That’s another thing, he has more female friends, good friends, than I do. I have some of course, but according to one, not enough. “You need more women friends,” she said. I hadn’t thought about it until then, but most of my friends are actually men.

As I explained, however, I’m no Vita Sackville-West. I’ve never been sexually attracted to women. I’ve always liked men. Still, I realized recently that from the time I was very young, if I were attracted to a boy, and then later a man, I would fantasize about impressing him with how strong and tough I was. Many of my romantic fantasies involved rescue, which, I suppose, is not that unusual for a woman, except that I was always the one doing the rescuing. Yes, I was always rescuing the man I loved from some deadly peril through my extraordinary courage and cunning. I know that sounds strange, but there it is. I’ve been fortunate too, despite my bizarrely masculine character traits, to have had several deeply satisfying romantic relationship with fairly typically masculine men (in which company I would include my former-football-captain husband, despite his frequent protestations that he is “the woman” in our relationship).

I’m small and delicate looking. I’m sure it never occurred to any of the men I’ve been involved with that I had such a masculine self-conception. Though my husband thinks I frighten people whom I argue with and will issue subtle cues if he senses the dinner conversation going in the direction of a confrontation.

I’m not telling you all these things about myself out of some sort of confessional impulse. I’ve something larger in mind. Ever since I figured out why I was always so shocked to be unexpectedly confronted with the fact that I was a woman, which is to say, ever since realized that I actually had somewhere in the depths of my psyche, an image of myself as a man, I’ve been intrigued by this fact about myself. I’ve tried to figure out how it came about, whether it was nature or nurture, marveled that it clearly had no relation whatever to my sexuality. I identify with what Jung called “the animus” the masculine half of human nature that everyone has. Everyone, according to Jung, has a masculine side and a feminine side (though I doubt he would like the term “side”) that he refers to as “the animus” and “anima” respectively.

I smoked a pipe briefly in college and my male friends thought that was cool. I had a masculine nickname too. “Max,” they called me. One of my friends had decided the name “Marilyn” didn’t fit me and that I therefore needed a nickname. She hit on “Max” because my last name was “Piety” and Max Carter, the college chaplain, was the most pious man anyone knew. So there I was, a pipe-smoking girl named Max who went about in what was generally androgynous attire. And yet I was popular with the young men at my college.

I doubt very much though that a purse-carrying lipstick-wearing young man with a moniker of, say, Debbie, would have enjoyed a similar degree of popularity with the opposite sex. I suppose I’ve been aware of this sort of inequity for a long time without really having very strong feelings about it. I guess it seemed natural to me, somehow, that women were allowed a wider berth in terms of what was considered an appropriate expression of their gender than were men. It’s only recently that I have begun to feel this disparity is tragically unfair.

It started, I think, the evening I told my husband about my strange experience of being surprised when I caught an unexpected glimpse of myself in a window or a mirror and saw that I was small woman rather than a medium-sized man. “I have a friend,” he said slowly, “who is a transvestite.” This friend, he explained, did not actually go out dressed up as a woman. He just went around his apartment sometimes in women’s clothes. They’d been friends for years, my husband continued, before his friend had actually “confessed” his predilection for women’s clothes. He was ashamed of it, fearful that people would condemn him. There were only a few people who knew this fact about him, people he was very close to, people he knew well enough to feel confident they wouldn’t condemn him. I could tell my husband was sad, that he felt bad for his friend, bad that his friend was ashamed of something that was so harmless, so innocent, something that a woman, that his wife, could do with impunity was something that he lived in constant fear might be discovered.

That’s when I started to think how tragic is the disparity in the flexibility, or whatever you want to call it, of gender roles. Women can play at being men all they want, but men are made to feel ashamed if they even fantasize about playing at being women, let alone–God forbid–actually try it.

Where do our archetypes of the masculine and the feminine come from? Who dictates them? There was a time when men wore laces and velvets, gaudy jewelry and even makeup. When did that become shameful and why? I wondered briefly whether we really needed these archetypes. Couldn’t we just speak of “character traits,” I asked myself, without having to assign them a gender? Don’t the categories of “masculine” and “feminine” represent a false dichotomy? Can’t everything just be “human” I mused?

But the longer I tried to entertain such a possibility the harder it became to form any firm conception of it. Maybe we need these two most basic of archetypes. We are a classifying species, after all. Gender it seems is itself an archetype and one that I’m beginning to suspect we can’t do without. I’m okay with that, my concern is that there are many men who are perhaps not okay with it because the archetype of masculinity is so much narrower than that of femininity, so while a woman can wear pants in public, a man cannot do the same with a dress. I think that’s wrong. Not only is it horribly unfair, its destructive.

Susan Faludi explains in her book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, that while there have been steady gains in women’s rights over the years, studies show that most Americans, men and women, still expect men to be the main bread winners. Women’s freedoms are increasing, yet men are apparently still expected by nearly everyone to exceed women’s accomplishments both personally and professionally. Faludi postulates very persuasively that this inequity is one of the main causes of continuing sexism. I mean, how fair is that? Men and women are increasingly placed in competition with one another. Men enter this competition, however, in metaphorical straightjackets and yet are still expected by nearly everyone to win and condemned as “un-masculine,” or as “failures” (which in our culture are roughly synonymous) if they don’t. The mind boggles at the amount of resentment that would naturally be created by that kind of inequity.

Maybe we need gender archetypes, but if we do, then I think we also need to allow everyone an equal degree of experimentation with them and maybe that means the archetypes themselves are due for some adjustments. Maybe its time we brought the laces and velvets back into the masculine archetype. Plato talks in book V of the Republic about how the differences between men and women are really what philosophers refer to as “accidental” rather than “essential.” Some women are more “spirited” than some men. Some men are more “appetitive” than some women. The only thing that is important according to Plato is that individuals are assigned to positions or tasks that are appropriate to their individual personalities. I like that. It seems just.