Plato, Rousseau, and the politics of philosophy

A recent book by Cambridge intellectual historian Christopher Brooke traces Philosophic Pride not to its usual imagined source, a utopian faith in abstractions, but to Stoicism, which places faith in the concrete world around us. Philosophers’ inflated sense of self comes out of, well, the self, as physically instantiated in our biological constitution. Eventually, Stoicism and Christianity fuse together, producing early-modern Dutch philosopher Spinoza’s equation, Deus, sive Natura — God, or Nature. Once alienated from the world, now the gods dwell among us. This reminds me of an allegory, or conceptual story, by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato.

Plato’s more famous allegory of the cave — depicted here by Renaissance-era Dutch painter Cornelius van Haarlem, after the ‘Renaissance’ age of Machiavelli and Holbein, but before the rise of distinctively ‘modern’ thought in Hobbes and Spinoza.

Imagine a chariot, led by winged horses. The charioteer guides the horses to fly the chariot to the sky. After ascending above the clouds, the charioteer sees ‘the Forms’ — pure ideas of beauty and justice, above the merely mortal world of cars and roundabouts (OK, I might have exercised some literary liberty with that last bit). Finally, the charioteer, personified in our world by the philosopher, sees the Form of the Good, which illuminates the Forms with truth, just as the Sun shines upon the planets with light, in our universe of non-winged horses. Then, blinded by this light, the charioteer loses control of the horses, and the chariot falls to Earth. The charioteer has to tend to, feed and water the horses and their insatiable appetite, before training them and ascending once again to the heavens — before the inevitable fall.

Plato’s metaphorical separation between Earth and sky reflects his metaphysical, and metaethical, distinction between the physical world of nature and the moral world of Forms. The philosopher has to, contrary to the tenets of Stoicism, clearly distinguish ‘is’ from ‘ought’. Then, and only then, can they ascend, like the charioteer, from one to the other. The moment they lose sight of one side of the balance, they fly towards it, having grown tired of what they see and pretend to know. Boredom drives the cycle of rise and fall as much as the desire to recover what has been lost does. For behind the cool reason of Socrates is the heated passion of Homer. Plato, in insisting on the needs of the body, while also clearly distinguishing between body and soul, strikes a balance between these extremes. This balance, however, rests on bridging an imagined gap between worlds that are not, in fact, separate.

Aristotle sees through Plato’s ‘noble lie’, but fails to see the dangers of the other lie: Stoicism. The worlds of ‘is’ and ‘ought’, or physical ‘nature’ and formal ‘freedom’ (in the terms of Immanuel Kant, influenced by, but also forgetful of, all these philosophies), are not really separate. But neither are they one. Our world is ridden by division, a division which is partly imagined but significantly substantiated by the schisms of social structure. Perhaps this is why Plato thought necessary a ‘philosopher-king’ to save us from the vices of society corrupted by untempered physicality (permeated by the flow of money in the market economy). But in disrespecting the physical, Plato makes the return of repressed physicality a requirement for temporary rule by philosophers. In desiring an escape from physicality, Plato bars the doors of our physical cage. Eastern philosophy, which through Aristotle’s student Alexander the Great intermingled with Stoicism, would have seen this mistake coming. Desire, for the Buddha, involves an attempt to fill an imagined lack, and therefore creates this lack. If we want something, we lose it, because to want anything is to try to impose conceptual force on the flow of physicality. If only Plato and the Buddha had met — perhaps then philosophy and flow could be fused.

In France, Brooke finds a great deal of ‘philosophic pride’. This pride obtains political valence in Robespierre’s Jacobin coup d’état. Robespierre creates a neoclassical ‘Cult of the Supreme Being’ to replace medieval and early-modern Christianity, supported by a reign of terror and several attempts to change the currency. At the end of it all, Napoleon Bonaparte establishes himself as Europe’s new Alexander, before overstretching himself in imperial hubris. The philosopher Hegel, sometimes labelled as modernity’s Aristotle (assuming Kant stands for the Plato of Königsberg, while the new Alexander was remaking post-Roman civilisation), declared Napoleon’s conquests as signalling a new era of history, culminating the historical development that began with Socrates’ destruction of Homeric harmony in Hellas (ancient Greece).

In the eighteenth century, Rousseau proposed an alternative to Plato’s philosopher king and Aristotle’s world-conquering student: a ‘lawgiver’, much like ancient state founders Moses and Lycurgus, who took inspiration from philosophy while applying these abstract teachings to the practical realities of politics. Rousseau’s legislator used not the cool light of Kantian ‘judgment’, or indeed the warm lyrics of Homeric poetry, to accomplish this Herculean task, but rather the balance of ‘sublime reason’. This collapses the Kantian distinction between sublime poetry and incisive philosophy, and therefore the Platonic distinction between the Socratic ‘ought’ and the Homeric ‘is’ (or ‘was’). A philosophy of the future, Rousseau’s ideals fall down when he concedes too much to the real, placing all his faith on the spontaneous alignment between the special judgement of the philosopher and the ‘general will’ of the people. Rousseau draws on Aristotelian democracy to remedy the limits of Platonic rule by wisdom. But the balanced republic eludes him when he concedes to the ironic root of philosophic pride: faith that a fallen earth will see eye-to-eye with the dizzying sky of philosophy.

Seeing, or ‘thinking’, is only truly possible with philosophy — just as sensing, or ‘feeling’, is only possible through the flow of the physical world. The Aristotelian temptation to elide the two in ‘nature’ is understandable but dangerous. The temptation cannot be ignored, or indulged. It must be contained. So should the philosophic pride from whence it springs — whether in Plato, Rousseau, or the philosopher legislator of historical prophecy. Hubris is often understandable, but always condemnable. Humility is often difficult, but always laudable. Pride is tempting, but damning. And philosophy seems confusing, but is ultimately enlightening.

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