Plato and G.W. Bush: the Idea of the Good Individual

“I would rather be wrong with Plato than right with such men as these.”
Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes I, 17

The modern idea that the universe is relational was anticipated by Plato’s insight that all disclosure of being is dialogical. For Plato, the interconnected matrix of ideas derives its significance from something more fundamental, namely the pre-theoretical realm of interpersonal, goal-oriented action (ergon). At this level of disclosure, reasoning is by way of analogy, and analogia - “proportionality” - essentially involves the acceptance of irreducible difference, or otherness (to heteron). This Platonic openness to heterogeneity is why ethical questioning in dialogues such as Philebus leads to the insight that the best life for humans is a mixed life of dialogical reciprocity. Throughout the Platonic corpus, the interconnectedness or analogicity of human existence constitutes a dialogical morality informed by the principle of justice: similar cases ought always to be treated in similar ways. Thus if it is wrong for the Persians to use military force to control Athens, then it is wrong for the Athenians to use military force to control Persia.

If education, or paideia, is the overarching theme of Plato’s epistles and dialogues - from the very earliest to the latest works - it is crucial to realize that education for Plato involves both more and less than is included in our idea of education. As already indicated, Platonic humanism - as embodied in his figure of Socrates - exposes the hubris of forcing an individual to conform. Plato’s works are informed by the notion that philosophical questioning discloses truth beyond consensus if the goal of dialogue is dialogical reciprocity and openness to heterogeneity. This is why learning and insight cannot be reduced to any set of unambiguous, epistemologically foundational rational principles (archai). Similarly, paideia cannot be reduced to any skill (techne) or set of skills. Plato’s figures of the philosopher – throughout the Platonic corpus - show repeatedly and in a variety of ways that learning is not techne or know-how.

The title Plato gave to what may be his greatest work was Politeia (not “Republic”), and politeia means “citizenship.” In this dialogue (usually referred to nowadays by the misleading title of Republic), Socrates distinguishes between any art and the wage-earning skills associated with that art. These remarks make it clear that for Plato, vocational education or professional training as such is not education at all. In short, the culture of the mind must be informed not by the profit motive, but by desire for the whole truth in all its complexity. Thus if one cares for justice, both inquiry and action must be informed by Socratic questioning – even, or perhaps especially, of one’s own motives - and by Socratic humility as openness to the moral alternative, the more reasonable interpretation.

For Plato dialogue is rationality as mutual accountability, and this proves to be incompatible with logistike as the calculation of self-interest. Although the profit motive is one of the primary marks of the sophist, Socrates – by his way of living and dying - shows how the orientation toward the good exceeds worldly calculations of self-interest. Socrates’ critique of plutocracy in Republic applies not only to the Athenian empire, but to any regime in which the guardians of the polis are corrupted by greed. Plato’s Republic indicates that such a polity is doomed, for the culture is in decline, and on the road to tyranny, the worst of all possible forms of government.

The critical reader will find no cynical rhetoric in the Platonic corpus; there is no talk of exporting Athenian demokratia to other peoples while the ideals of intelligible coexistence are violated by political proceedings back home in the polis. The effort to achieve an empire – even an allegedly “democratic” one - is correlated in the Platonic dialogues with the degeneration of culture.

Socrates shows how the culture of self-interest leads to the mere semblance of intelligible coexistence. But in all such societies there is - underlying the deceptive rhetoric of “democracy” – an irrational and unjustifiable desire for luxuries and privileges. Such unaccountability leads to expansion, causes war, produces technical and military specialization, and finally corrupts and degenerates both public and private life. Socrates points out that of all possible forms of government, it is only in a plutocracy – the rule by the wealthy – that one encounters the “ultimate evil” of utter poverty and homelessness. Whenever culture is injected with the venomous desire for money, the community is filled with fat, lazy drones as well as starving beggars (Rep. 555e). Such uneducated citizens are not citizens at all, and the resultant abuses of democracy - the failures to instantiate the ideals of intelligible coexistence - pave the way for tyranny and constant war (567a). Plato urges that only the formation of philosophical statesmen and the proper education of the citizenry can save such a nation from collapse.

Thus it is not simply a democratic republic that Socrates criticizes, but rather democracy’s potential for abuse by ambitious types and demagogues. Widespread ignorance allows the flourishing of ignoble but powerful individuals and their yes-men, those highly-paid, cynical teachers of rhetoric, who were the forebears of our modern sophists. Unless citizens are properly educated, the rhetoric of democracy provides a cloak of invisibility for violations of the social covenant. Plato’s life-work was to improve governments by forming philosophical leaders: both his Academy and his writings were efforts to oppose the culturopolitical production of dangerous forms of ignorance. But significantly, this Platonic emphasis on education is informed by Socratic intellectual modesty, as the acknowledgment of the limits of intelligibility.

Plato’s Statesman, like his Theaetetus, Sophist, and Parmenides, reevaluates the notion of intelligibility itself through inquiry into human interinvolvements in goal-oriented disclosive activities. The Eleatic Stranger - like Plato’s Socrates and his figure of Parmenides - uses analogy, irony, reduction to absurdity, and myth in order to evoke the organic interrelatedness of all being. Disclosure of this ontological “interweaving” highlights the inadequacies of any nondialogical approach to politics. At Statesman 294b, the Stranger indicates why existing law must be continuously reevaluated, to ensure that law remains open to the moral alternative:

That law could never accurately embrace what is best and most just for all at the same time, and so prescribe what is best. For the dissimilarities between human beings and their actions, and the fact that practically nothing in human affairs ever remains stable, prevent any sort of expertise whatsoever from making any simple decision in any sphere that covers all cases and will last for all time.

These considerations show why no ideology or political strategy can supplant the critical engagement that is philosophical citizenship. What does such Socratic self-examination and social critique have to do with the idea of the good individual? The Stranger’s exposure of the inadequacies of political ideologies and self-interested strategies leads to the insight that in the psyche of the philosophical statesman, the desire for truth and goodness lies deeper than desire for recognition or power. The limits of logistike as calculation of personal advantage are apprehended only insofar as hubris is overcome; this overcoming of arrogance involves the identification of individual self-interest with the wholeness of the good in its transcendence.

Plato’s dialogical morality is agathocentric; the good – to agathon – is that by which we recognize what human needs truly are. Socrates teaches that individuals should not pursue their self-interest in a way that ignores the good of humanity. One might add that humanity should not pursue its good in a way that ignores the good of gaia, the earth on which we depend. Platonism implies that the ecological crisis is not the result of a conflict between human needs and nature, but of an inadequate understanding of what human beings really need. If all good things come to an end, this is not so of the good itself, which otherwise could not serve as measure of the finite. This is why Socrates insists that the question of justice is resolved only insofar as we remember the good which is otherwise than being (Rep. 509b).

This transcendence of the good shows itself in the fact that even if the laws do reflect the nation's conception of justice, nonetheless both this broad consensus and the laws derived from it are in some ways unjust, and in need of revision. Existing laws must be subjected to critique, and if unjust, defied. The movement from Socratic refutations to defiance is critique in the name of justice, even if justice as a higher law proves as difficult of actualization as the good itself. Recognition of the transcendence of the good leads us to subject our own deepest motivations to constant critique; to agathon calls us to overcome our own injustice and be better.

Thus the Platonic emphasis on dialogical openness to the other is anything but a call for pure spontaneity as chaotic or uninformed free choice. Platonic eleutheria is the freedom to orient one’s disclosive actions toward an alternative and viable - but as yet unrealized - possibility for the enhancement of intelligible coexistence. Plato urges us to be more excellent than we are now, and not to diminish our arete by developing unhealthy (nondialogical) habits. The measure of the health of polis and psyche is dialogical reciprocity as openness to the moral alternative.

In such ways, the opposition between self-interest and the interest of the group is itself transformed by striving toward the good. We do not recognize the ways we miss the mark; we are blind to our own hamartia. Moreover, to the extent that we fail to realize how our own actions affect others, we are other to ourselves: we cannot know our own actions to be good because we never understand the whole significance of our own action. Only logos, as the spirit of mediation between unknowable singularities, develops such understanding; consequently, dialogue with the other is essential to moral excellence.

If our ideal is dialogical morality as charitable coexistence, then the rules that inform our decisions and actions will be those that hold open the possibility of alternative interpretations. And if even one individual remains loyal to this ethics of alterity - to the extent of moderating her own decisions and behavior accordingly - then all others who interact with her are forced to moderate their behavior as well. The interconnectedness of all existence is the ontological basis for dialogical morality, and the dictates of this ethics of reciprocity are intuited through the negative inner voice of the Socratic daimon. But whenever one habitually ignores the prohibitive voice of conscience, psyche and behavior are deformed, and this corruption is metastasized throughout all one’s interactions with others.

Nowhere in the Platonic dialogues is there any Machiavellian subordination of means to ends. Socrates’ central analogies of the good in Republic indicate why each and every violation of the social covenant is wrong. Violations of the principle of reciprocity indicate a diseased and tyrannical psyche: only openness to the moral alternative informs the psyche with Socratic strength as ethical responsiveness to that which is foreign, utterly strange, or divine. And significantly, that which proves to be most otherwise is - for conceptualization - the good in itself, even though desire for the good occasions all disclosure and informs our every action, decision, and thought.

In Laws - Plato’s last great, unfinished dialogue - he upholds the dialogical morality of his earlier works by affirming that one ought to treat others as one would like to be treated. But if intentional violations of justice as dialogical reciprocity are always wrong, in every case, then the virtuous defiance of an unjust law must be informed by the recognition that this particular law implies a violation of justice as higher law. This Platonic insight is not refuted by the sophistical objection that we cannot define the term “justice” in itself – or absolutely. In fact, Plato’s figures of the philosopher demonstrate this repeatedly: no singular term signifies anything whatsoever when considered entirely according to itself (kath’ hauto). Far from refuting the Platonic notion of truth as analogicity, this insight actually supports it, for it is precisely because no term signifies anything in itself that all signification is dialogically reciprocal. Logos is proportionality, and all calculations - even the most cynical or self-interested - implicitly involve the ontologically-prior level of dialogical interweaving, or interinvolvement.

Rightness (dikaiosune) is defined conceptually by interrelations of ideas. But even before the articulation of a priori conceptual relations, we know that certain kinds of actions are wrong, if there are no other, overriding considerations. For example, preconceptual interactions with others facilitate the nonhypothetical insights that it is wrong to lie and right to keep a promise. Thus it is no objection to the Platonic notion of dialogical morality to argue that we cannot deduce with certainty how to behave when duties conflict. Dialogical reciprocity facilitates the insight that a proposed action is wrong, without constituting a comprehensive ethical “theory” or irrefutable, systematic plan for action. The Socratic daimon warns when an action is selfish or ignoble, but the divine voice never provides a set of unchallenged rules for action or judgment. For Plato, rightness and goodness are always already intelligible to us; they are not disclosed in themselves – separately - but within our interpersonal experiences. Our very existence is dialogical sharing, or participation, and participatory being is disclosed through analogical reasoning as contrasts of this possibility for coexistence over against that possibility for coexistence. There is no significance at all apart from such comparison, contrast, and reevaluation. Thus it is never the case that we have absolutely no notion whatsoever of the rightness or goodness of some possible action or decision: human beings are essentially characterized by the recognition of badness and the desire for the good. If we are to remain human, we must remain capable of recognizing when we are behaving selfishly or unjustly.

But because the good, like justice, proves to be transcendent, the inadequacies of definitions that Socrates evokes are reductios. The aporia (conceptual impasse) that Socrates reveals is overcome by remembering the goal-oriented nature of intelligible coexistence as being toward the good. Skepticism and political cynicism are in this way supplemented and reformed by the transcendent dimension of the good. The analogies of the good show that reality is interpersonal in this sense: “transcendence” names the moment of insight when the egoistic self and the biases of its worldview are seen through. This moment is the apprehension of the other.

Plato articulates an axiological ontology of nature and human nature, in which the transcendence of the good is not simply the name for an indefinitely repeatable sign function. Learning involves ongoing conversion of psyche; this implies the reevaluation of meanings and critique of the shared practices from which consensus is derived. Logical identity is derivative, and human existence as being toward the good gives logos its contexts of significance. But the good is not merely the name for the teleology of knowing; rather, the transcendence of the good primarily refers to the teleology of human existence. Paradigms of practice and consensus are ossified out of interactions between citizens striving to actualize the good.

Socrates is the archetypical philosopher because he shows that self-examination and overcoming hubris do not result from private meditation or any form of nondialogical activity. Dialogical morality leads to more adequate modes of human existence; revision of belief follows this prior transformation in moral interrelatedness. We imitate the archetypical philosopher not in individual moments of contemplation, but in our descents to our fellow prisoners in the cave of socio-political existence. The imitation of Socrates is finding one’s way to oneself through others.

In the just polis, moral reciprocity would function as a social covenant governed by philosophy, or dialogue with the other. Philosophy as dialogical morality is informed by its goal, transcendence, and this distinguishes philosophy from sophistry. Socrates teaches how self-interested competition generates injustice that parades as justice. Only if individuals engage in dialogue as self-critique can transcendence overcome hubris. Transcendence is the insight that develops human being; this is the goal of philosophical dialogue. But community is only possible insofar as human beings learn from one another how to overcome ethical blindness.

Learning is only possible on the basis of such humility: Socrates’ refutations show that knowing is founded in being, and that human existence is constituted through dialogical reciprocity. The just polis would be governed by philosophical openness to the other; this reciprocity is the basis of the social covenant. Since dialogue with the other is transcendence of ego, Socratic courage is not simply resoluteness in the face of death: death may be a greater blessing than life in an unjust society. Nor is Socrates’ courage exemplified primarily in his leaving the cave, but rather in his reentering it, for the critique of ideology is not an end in itself; its goal is the transformation of human being. We imitate the archetypical philosopher not only in our purely individual moments of transcendence, but especially in our repeated descents to our fellow prisoners. In fact, later dialogues such as Statesman and Philebus indicate that individual moments of insight do not occur except in and through the dialogical reciprocity that informs and constitutes psyche.

The apprehension of the other develops out of and transforms the pursuit of self-interest. Kosmos names the constituted orderings of ergon (deed) and logos that arise and inform human habits of prudence. Since these habits of thinking and action blind us to otherness, philosophy as dialogical morality involves the ongoing effort to transform world-order. Critique disrupts humanly-constituted orderings and allows transcendence; this overcoming of ego and inadequate world-order initiates the anamnesis (recollection) that is Platonic truth. Whenever new orderings become ossified by the forgetful pursuit of self-interest, these will need to be disrupted by Socratic reevaluation.

The individual as such is only defined by means of the public dimension of shared practices and logos; it is only out of interpersonal acts of being toward the good that such shared definitions are constituted. It is precisely these shared definitions that must be subjected to repeated critique: the transcendent is continually made immanent, and the immanent is continually overcome. Learning is this process of critique and paradigm-shift: insight depends upon this reevaluation of values. Consequently, although being toward the good involves both irreducible individuality and transcendent universality, it is nonetheless also true that both the individual as such and the totality of interrelations elude the categories of explanation.

The unspeakable horrors of war are disruptions of world-order that reveal appearances - especially those generated by powerful institutions - to be illusions. The disclosure of one’s own vulnerability brings fear, fear that the very order of kosmos might collapse in flames and smoke. To counter the unthinking rigidity of such a fearful existence, Socrates teaches that we cannot sustain society unless we remember that which only seems to be opposed to self-interested calculation: namely, the analogical intercontextuality of all truth, and our profound interconnection with each other and with all being.

To actualize one’s potential as an individual involves throwing into question one’s own desires and cherished privileges. This is why Plato’s figures of the philosopher teach that there is no ideology that may be finally justified and secured. The later dialogues in particular show that no term, no relation of ideas, and no science of being signifies anything whatsoever when considered in itself, apart (choris) from its context. If this is so, then insofar as the polis enforces conformity, it falls short of community as dialogical morality, for the philosopher seeks that which the consensus ignores; namely the otherness of the other.

Because Plato’s dialogical morality is essentially informed by that which is otherwise than presence; Socrates’ proximity to the good itself is indicated by his interest in that which is foreign, incalculable, and enigmatic. Thus dialogical morality as community involves charity. The just polis must be governed by something more than simply the entailments of the preservation of privilege. The social covenant, according to Socrates, is oriented to the development of psuche, and this development is incompatible with the desire for luxuries that leads to constant war. Consequently, philosophical statesmanship requires the overcoming of the egoistic selves we become through the self-interested strife over advantages and privileges.

Plato’s Politeia - his inquiry into citizenship and constitutionality – shows that rationality essentially involves mutual accountability. Socrates’ critique of the rule by the wealthy, and of the tyranny that devolves from the ignoring of accountability in political procedures, indicates why even a plausible semblance of justice is incompatible with the goals of any empire. The example of Socrates as the philosophical statesman teaches us why no polity based on politeia may be globalized: for in an empire, mutual accountability is diminished to the point that public affairs are conducted not by rational debate and decision-making, but by collusion and deceit motivated by self-interest. Based on Platonic considerations of the requirements for philosophical citizenship, one might even infer that the exercise of power without accountability – for example, through the political exploitation of covert agencies - leads inevitably to a situation in which the very mercenaries and terrorists trained and equipped by such agencies eventually target their former masters.

In contrast with more familiar, recent discourse about “freedom,” Plato’s dialogues indicate how creative individuality and social responsibility may be unified if the stand we take involves self-sacrifice for the truth, and the desire for the good all humans share. This comprehensive and dialogical orientation explains both the defiance of Socrates in the Apology and his exhortation to obedience in the Crito. Socrates’ disobedience, like that of Martin Luther King jr., was civil to the point of martyrdom. In accepting an unjust execution instead of escaping, Socrates affirms both individuality and social concern in the name of a higher justice. Socrates is Plato’s example of philosophical statesmanship because he refuses to meet injustice with injustice.

Plato’s figure of Socrates reminds us that the unexamined life is blindness to one’s own hamartia. Dialogical morality is actualized only insofar as one treats others as one would be treated. Plato calls us to imitate he who understands the depth of his own immorality and ignorance: the humility of Socrates is more than a posture; modesty is his very being. This Socratic archetype is instantiated through an interpersonal quest, informed by the desire for justice as reciprocity. This is not the fearful cunning that strives only to preserve the system of privileges as it now is: the Socratic desire for justice is oriented toward what community ought to be, what human interactions can be when we overcome fear and question the ideologies that separate us. Socrates’ excellence was manifested in his defiance of the injustice of his own polis, and Plato’s artistry made him immortal in order to lead citizens of the future toward this higher conception of truth and justice.

Kelsey Wood