What if the head is rotten and the tyrants gaining power? (Plato’s Republic I, IX, X)

What if the head is rotten and the tyrants gaining power? (Plato’s Republic I, IX, X) October 13, 2017

Our problems are not unique, but are classic. Plato starts his Republic with a city in decay: the heads of the city are impotent and dull while those most powerful wish to be tyrants.

photo-1469072966130-c7db89307f88_optGod help us.

The Republic starts with a miracle: the head of house leaves the conversation voluntarily and give Socrates the freedom to examine the assumptions of the young men. This “head”man, Cephalus, is removed without revolution. Nobody has to yell “off with his head.” As a result, piety, a virtue we need badly, is preserved yet critical dialog is also free.

Why are both necessary? Without piety, we are left pretending that we have started from scratch when we always begin with what we are taught. Many of those assumptions will not be challenged for years, if ever, they are buried so deep in our souls. This is not bad, just the way it is. We all owe our parents, our state, our religion (or philosophical community) a great deal.

The person who hacks at all these roots shows no care for his own life. He becomes free the way a rootless tree becomes free of the ground: he dies. The tyrant of Book IX is such a man. He acts as if he has roots only in himself, but this is a life. He needs the city for power, pleasure, and his pursuits so like a HarveyWeinstein, he has no trouble breaking social norms for his own needs. He uses connections to family, culture, and the state that he has only for self and does not even notice he has those connections.

Normally our selfisnessnes is checked by our love for community or family. I have known very bad young adults who were ashamed to tell a mother the truth from love. There is always hope where there is a limit, some piety that checks our selfishness. The man who no longer recognizes roots, pious duties, will never feel shame, just fear of failure or losing.

Revolutionary thinking often starts off very idealistically.  We see a big problem and we wish to solve it. How does this (almost) always degenerate into ugliness? Imposing rapid change on a group, even with good intentions, requires a certainty amount of ego. Confidence and courage are virtues, but too much of a good thing becomes narcissism and rashness. The confident man has the temptation to go further than piety would allow. He cuts off more than must be removed to solve the problem, because he enjoys the power.

He never is done, the revolution becomes endless. Plato suggests democracy often ends in the rule of this kind of narcissistic, rootless man. Why? The majority discover that they can vote themselves what they need. The needs are real and so is the power. Politicians learn to pander to the populace or they reach out to the wealthy and stoke their fears of the mob.

This does not just happen in government. Imagine a leader in Hollywood who fires anyone who crosses him or gives him bad news. Think of the power over your career such a studio head might have and how he might use this power. Money flows to him and he uses it to buy off the law. Think of our technology centers awash in power and money with  the temptations that would give someone wishing to change things.

It all might start well, a film gets made, a tech firm launched, but without great care, courage decays to moral recklessness  and confidence to gnawing narcissism that can never be satisfied. Like the old fairy tale, getting the first wish leads to bigger demands until a man wishes to be a god.

God help us.

Yet we must change, because God has built seasons to everything, even our lives. Tolkien’s elves were wrong to hold back in time in Lothlorien. If revolutions become dissipated, then reactionaries grow desiccated. Why? You can cut out the wrinkles, but the soul still grows tired of trying to hold back change.

What do we need? We need old leaders who will step down voluntarily. (That’s coming sooner than I would like for me!) Younger activists need to find the Socrates types, the older men full of wisdom, but who embrace needed change. They are not yelling “get off my grass” or smoking grass with the revolutionaries. They are men of their time who will save what can be saved without trying to prop up what must go. A Socrates will challenge all assumptions, including those of the new men.

Socrates saves the young men in Republic from the temptations of erotica, mental laziness, and tyranny. They help him not to give up on the discussion and to have new ideas. Finally, I hope at least one of the young men, the one with bright eyes, shares a story of what could be, a life of millienial happiness.

They do not say “farewell,” but Socrates and his companions hope to fare well.**

May such be said for us all.


*Based on a discussion at the college program of The Saint Constantine School.

** The literally have “welfare” . . . The best kind.

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