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Plato's Political Philosophy: Prudence in the 'Republic' and the 'Laws.'

We know from various accounts that Plato was considered by the founding fathers as a poor guide in practical affairs. He was considered a radical, a constructor of imaginary utopias--an idealist in the most pejorative sense. It is on this very score, the charge of dangerous idealism, that the author endeavors to defend Plato in this book.

Planinc argues that for Plato neither theoretical wisdom (sophia) nor practical wisdom (phronesis) can be properly understood without reference to nous. Both of them are related by virtue of the noesis (intellection) they have in common. Without noesis the former is indistinguishable from sophistry, and the latter is reduced to simple cleverness. To say, therefore, that Plato was an ideologue who was willing to proceed in the political realm with blueprint in hand is, to Planinc, profoundly to misunderstand Plato, whose prudential teaching counseled that such a procedure would issue in the destruction of both politics and philosophy. Plato's modern critics, however, point to the striking absence of concern for individual choice among the citizens of his perfect political order. Plato's critics go on to say that the taking of the unchanging archetype Ideas as a point of departure in political philosophy obscures the understanding of the natural internal liberty of contrariety that is at the heart of self-government. Platonic political philosophy thus leads, they say, to authoritarian or totalitarian social engineering, or at any rate to a closed political society that scorns consent, possibility, and the self-directed movement of each citizen.

I believe Planinc is correct in implying that most modern criticisms of Plato are grounded in arguments that militate against taking nature as the standard, and that put in place of natural right an ersatz prudence that amounts to that simple cleverness that Plato warns against. To the more sophisticated critics of Plato, who take Aristotelian political philosophy as a counterpoise to what they believe is a lack of prudential moderation in Plato, Planinc says that their reading is simply mistaken. Plato is not without a teaching about prudence, in which he is more at one with Aristotle than not. Aristotle's renowned criticism of extreme unity in politics is correct, but not as directed against Plato.

Readers will be gratified by the fact that philology is not overworked in this book. We are instead treated to delightful illustrations drawn from, for example, Raphael and Homer. Planinc writes that the very study and interpretation of Plato's dialogues are formative of the habitus of prudence. Some of the excitement of participating in prudential training has been communicated to Planinc's own work. This book should be in the bibliography of any future scholarship touching on the subject of prudence in Plato. Some friendly criticism might include the suggestion that Planinc's argumentation would have been even more persuasive if it called greater attention, by way of comparison, to Aristotle on prudence.

One should, in fact, present the case against the facile reading of Plato according to which he lacks any identifiable prudence. The totalitarian mentality tends to rely on the desire not to be encumbered by any norms or limits not arrived at by collective or individual will. A totalitarian attempts to remove any contradictions between the region of intellect and the concrete world by any means necessary. It is hard to know where to begin with people who see Plato in this light. On the other hand, effacing the real distinctions between the teachings of Plato and Aristotle is not justifiable either. The disagreements between Aristotle and Plato may not be comparable to those between Plato and the ideologists, but the differences seem real enough in the Politics and Metaphysics. If, as Aristotle says, law as a rule and measure of human acts must be homogeneous with what it measures, the perfect political order will not take the elimination of the qualifications of indigenousness and private property to be a characteristic of the perfectly just regime. Aristotle's criticism of Plato is that the notion of partnership in everything tending to unity is the upshot of taking universals to be somehow more real than concrete beings. Setting out in politics from an understanding of real causes in the order of causation leads Aristotle to the conclusion that a regime is meant to be heterogeneous by nature. The heterogeneity of political life does not seem for Aristotle to be accepted on the basis of a tacit compromise between wisdom and folly, but is rather accepted as the way things are. For Aristotle, an artisan or politician is in no way benefited by knowing the good itself as a logical universal predicable of many things. Does Plato's good itself contain all lesser goods actually or potentially? Can a universal of predication be said to be the real cause of the differences in things? Against Aristotle the author urges that the Stagirite's teaching absolutizes heterogeneity in a way that obscures what is right according to an unchanging order of justice. Against Plato it is said that societies everywhere will by nature be reluctant to understand a "nature" which does not take account of the way things are. Honest disputants can debate these points, and they can certainly dispute these questions without consigning Plato to the graveyard of outworn ideologues.
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Author:Motzkin, A.L.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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