As a PhD student at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, I have to take a comprehensive exam on normative issues. The first books on the reading list are selections from the classics, which I studied at St. John’s – Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau. While most of the moral and political philosophy we are required to read is “modern” (i.e. written in the last two centuries and thus not of interest to Johnnies) I am thrilled to be spending time with some old friends.
Beastly to the Books
When I studied The Republic at St. John’s College there was a guy in the class who always sought to tear down the books – trying to pick them apart and expose them as unserious. This was not the St. John’s way, and I feuded a bit with him. I took to calling him Thrasymachus after a character in The Republic who assails Socrates “like a wild beast” insisting that injustice is the true justice in book 1. (Things really get rolling in book 2 when Glaucon makes the same argument more calmly asking in effect if justice is a virtue or is it just fear of getting caught and that the truly great men are those who don’t get caught. The question of how to instill a love for justice is fundamental to all societies and at the core of this most profound book.)
I regret deeply that my in-class frustration with Thrasymachus led to a frayed relationship out of class. I should have taken to heart the words of a wiser classmate who observed that Thrasymachus was so passionate because he wanted so deeply to understand truth and justice. If you are out there and recognize yourself and happen to stumble on this shoot me a note. Mea culpa.
A Kiss is but a Kiss
Socrates explains that in his perfect city (which is a thought experiment not a political action plan) after the army wins a battle the returning soldiers will be free to kiss anyone in the city.
Thrasymachus (in our class not in the book) saw a loose thread to pull on and observed, “Is that a euphemism or what?”
There were times when I deftly responded to this sort of statement. This was not one of them, because almost everyone in class sort of agreed that this was the case and none of us had any particular thoughts on dealing with it. What I wished I had said was this:
Your interpretation is the obvious one and I don’t have a response, only this thought. If someone says aloud “World War II” a pair of images leap into my mind: the marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima and the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square on V-J day. That makes me think something else is going on here. I don’t know what, but I give Plato the benefit of the doubt – he doesn’t deal in cheap euphemisms.
As Time Goes By
Now, years later, I think I have some idea what Plato was talking about – maybe. Since studying Middle Eastern politics I have become interested in the overwhelming importance of clans in the region’s societies. One feature of many clan societies (and particularly those of the Middle East) are the restrictions on the movements and behavior of women. Clans are based on patrilineal heritage and any question that a man’s male ancestor is in doubt can undermine the web of loyalties underpinning this system – the family honor. Hence, the requirements that women always be in the company of male relatives in public.
Ancient Greece also had some elements of this system, laws varied by the movement of women was frequently restricted. In his proposal, perhaps Socrates was attempting to reinforce loyalty to the polis as opposed to clan-lineage loyalties and build the ethos of the polis as a voluntary community.
As it happens, this explanation (which seems plausible but requires more research) would not have flown in seminar. At St. John’s we tried to focus exclusively on the books themselves and not their historical context.