Objections and Responses
Several objections may be raised against Arendt’s reading of the Republic and her subsequent claims regarding Plato’s project in the work. I will attempt to respond to four objections that seem to be the strongest challenges to Arendt’s claims. First, Arendt’s reading of the Republic has been criticized for straining the text to accommodate her uncritical glorification of the Greek polis and consequently exaggerating Plato’s opposition to it (Hull, Margaret Betz, The Hidden Philosophy of Hannah Arendt, New York: Routledge Curzon, 2002, 33.) However, this criticism fails to appreciate the hermeneutical approach that Arendt takes with respect to the Western tradition. Arendt seeks to mine Greek philosophy for its fundamental insights and foibles. Her project is critical not revisionist.
Secondly, it could be argued that Arendt’s claim that Plato sought to save philosophy from the hostility of the polis by the enthroning the philosopher as king fails to recognize that Plato explicitly dismisses the actualization of the ideal city in favor of the ideal soul in Book IX (Bloom, The Republic of Plato, 591c-592b.) Indeed, if Plato wanted to save philosophers by installing them as rulers it seems odd that he would eliminate the conditions for the possibility of their rule. Dana Villa has recognized this same weakness in Arendt’s claim (Villa, Politics, Philosophy and Terror, 198.) However, whether Plato’s project is statecraft or soul craft in his assertion of the rule of philosophers, Arendt’s claims about Plato’s motive remain unaffected. Whether the philosopher is the ruler of the inward city of his soul where he “adjusts the body’s harmony for the sake of the accord in the soul (Bloom, The Republic of Plato, 591d)”or whether he adjudicates justice for the sake of accord in the city, he remains king and consequently free. Either way Plato is offering a defense for the philosopher against the hostility of the city. For as Epictetus knew, “no man is free who is not master of himself (Epictetus, “The Golden Sayings of Epictetus“, trans. Hastings Crossley in The Harvard Classics, vol. 2, New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909, Saying X, 183)” and the person who is free is safe from every tyranny.
Thirdly, it could be argued that Arendt’s claim that Plato sought to save philosophy from the hostility of the polis by establishing what she calls a “tyranny of reason” fails to recognize that the philosophers resist being installed as rulers and must be compelled (Ibid., 520a-b.) Additionally, Plato’s moratorium against dialectic until a philosopher becomes fifty seems equally incompatible with Arendt’s claim that Plato is trying to establish a “tyranny of reason (Ibid. 540a.)” If the salvation of the philosopher rests upon his knowledge of the forms (Bloom, The Republic of Plato 478a.) and the path to this knowledge is dialectic (Ibid., 534b-c.) it seems odd that Plato would deny it to the best in the city until their fifty. It seems even stranger that Plato would depict the philosopher as needing to be compelled to cooperate in his own salvation (Bloom, The Republic of Plato, 539e.) But as C.D.C Reeve has pointed out, the philosopher king in training spends 15 years engaged in “polis management” before they have “the knowledge of the good” and therefore “the aim of dialectical-thought is to discover the model or blueprint of the city (Reeve, C.D.C., Philosopher-Kings: The Argument of Plato’s Republic (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988), 83.)” In the first account of the city in speech the philosopher comes about through his own education and therefore must be compelled to rule; however, in the second city in speech, the philosopher spends 15 years being educated and gaining experience in “polis management” and therefore rules out of necessity, though he still does not desire rule. In the first instance the philosopher is compelled by the force of others, in the second instance he is compelled by his own sense of obligation. When Arendt claims that Plato asserted the rule of philosophers to save philosophy from the hostility of the polis, she is not suggesting that the philosopher will want to rule, only that it is necessary for him to rule if the quiet and peaceful conditions necessary for the philosophical life are to be established and maintained.
Finally, it could be argued that Arendt’s recovery of Socratic doxa is a misreading of the Socratic tradition and that truth, not dokei moi¸ was the aim of Socrates’ maieutic practice. Indeed, Socrates in the Theaetetus says that the goal of his “art of midwifery” is “to determine whether the young mind is being delivered of a phantom, that is, an error, or a fertile truth (Plato, “Theaetetus,” in Plato: Complete Works,150b.)” While Socrates admits that he is “barren of wisdom” he does not deny that truth exists, nor does he conflate knowledge and opinion. However, this does not compromise Arendt’s claim. Socrates was indeed leading his interlocutors to truth; but, as Dana Villa has noted, “the other side of Socrates maieutic activity… was making citizens aware of what they shared – the world of their particular city or culture, the thing which formed the basis of their individual doxa (Villa, Politics, Philosophy and Terror, 208.)” This unifying element of Socrates maieutic activity was what held the most promise for Arendt.
In this article, I have attempted to defend Arendt’s revenge on Plato’s revenge that sought to dethrone the philosopher by reintegrating thought and action through the recovery of the Socratic notion of doxa . I have situated Arendt’s claim that Plato sought to save philosophy from the hostility of the polis by establishing a “tyranny of reason” through the instrumentalization of the Forms and the enthronement of the philosopher as king within her overall reading of the Republic and against the backdrop of the conflict between philosophy and politics. Additionally, I have highlighted Arendt’s emphasis on human plurality as a thematic guide for understanding her reading of the Republic and suggested that her recovery of the Socratic notion of doxa is one of her most important contributions to resolving the conflict between philosophy and politics. While I have not claimed in this essay that Arendt’s claims are demonstratively proven, or that her reading of the Republic is superior to other readings, I have argued that they are persuasive on two fronts: (1) her reading is critical, coherent and capable of accommodating the wider Platonic corpus without doing unnecessary violence to the text, and (2) it offers fruitful insights into the conflict between philosophy and politics as it has developed historically in the Western tradition and offers possibilities for bridging the chasm between them. On the basis of these conclusions, I regard Arendt’s reading of the Republic as philosophically persuasive and politically hopeful.