Plato’s Republic has been cemented as one of the great works of Western political philosophy. Despite the suspicion with which its totalitarian messages were held after WWII, in recent years its influence on political and social thinkers in the present is undeniable even if unacknowledged. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum is suspicious of the extent to which the Republic presents a blueprint for methods of social control that restrict personal freedom and choice. This does not prevent her from laying down a series of illustrated examples and arguments that make a case for the relevance of the text to the present moment. First, her illustrated examples demonstrate how leaders and political thinkers are influenced by Plato even if they disagree with him. In fact this might be the biggest dialectic contribution of Plato to the democratic tradition, “for he challenges it to know, and to justify, itself” (page 13). Second, the crux of her argument holds that the Republic “is not just a work of political philosophy, but at the same time a profound analysis of the human being and human desire” (page 11). Plato was among the first, if not the first major philosopher to connect desires and their deformation to the workings of cultural and political institutions: an analysis akin to the debunking of social constructions in the present day. Even if our democratic sensibilities cannot tolerate his seemingly totalitarian prescriptions, his indictments very much hold water. It is with the second strand of Nussbaum’s argument that I wish to engage in what follows, in order to discern weather Plato’s contemplation about desire holistically grasps our present political situation.
The Platonic assault on democracy stems from the reasoning that “democratic choice breeds license and corruption in the soul” (page 11). According to Nussbaum, following Plato, the central problem of politics then is the corrupt character of desires that can be deformed in a democratic polity because “democracy treats all desires on a footing of equality” (page 14). The main argument that needs to be salvaged from the Platonic repertoire is the deformation of desires that when expressed in majority come to be defined as virtues. We must remember that “some desires, deformed by anger and fear and group hatred, are so pernicious that we should discriminate against them” (page 13). A certain amount of constraint is necessary for a healthy society, even when holding liberty as a virtue in itself. Nussbaum suggests that Plato’s appeal and relevance to the present moment lies in the connections he makes between desires and political institutions. She holds viz-a-viz Plato that people do not always desire what is best for them, but are influenced by bodily appetites and cultural norms. Here, I believe her argument is not as refined as it could and falls prey to a fallacious trap that Plato often steps in, the conflation between the structural and the individual.
Plato draws parallels, often in an allegoric manner, between the ordering of the individual body, soul and that of the city-state. Individual choices then are imperative to good functioning at every level. This argument leads Nussbaum to take on her stance in regards to the deformation of desire and to state that “social policy must be built on authentic, not inauthentic preferences of individuals” (page 26). I believe that this stance does not fit well with the claim that Plato’s enduring lesson is that of connecting desire to institutional design. At the present moment, when institutions based on impersonal functioning are more established than ever, we cannot neglect the capturing of desires at the top. The conflict that arises in her paper is that at times she attributes the deformation of desire to institutional norms and design, while at other points she makes it to be a mere matter of deformed evaluations.
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