Tag Archives: Plato

On a Conversation between Socrates and Meno in the Dialogue “Meno”

Meno is divided into 3 parts:

Part I 70 a – 81c is a conversation between Meno and Socrates as to whether or not virtue can be taught which cannot be done unless it is known what virtue is.

Part II 81c – 86c Socrates tries to convince Meno that Meno’s servant can recollect – i.e. bring to mind something that he already knows – the relation between a given square and one twice its area.

Part III 86c – 100c  (where the discussion concludes) where Socrates claims that “the truth about reality is always in our soul”

What follows discusses only Part II in which Socrates asks the boy to construct a square twice the area of a given square. Socrates presupposes that the boy already knows what a square looks like (“what it is” in everyday language), knows (accepts) that the four sides of the square are equal and that two are parallel to the base, two to the vertical.

The boy is presumed to “see” (“accept”) that within the original square there are four equal squares. When asked to describe a square twice the area of the given square he suggests that the solution would be to double the length of the sides of the given square. Socrates brings him to discover that, were that done, the resultant square would be four times the area of the given square rather than twice its area. He eventually gets the boy to discover that that diagonal of the given square is the length of the sides of the square twice the area of the given square.

Socrates knows the answer to the question; the boy does not. Socrates brings him to discover the answer by asking questions which the boy is able to answer. Evidently the questions to be of any value in this context must lead to answers that will bring the questioner to the solution. Socrates asks the questions but it is worth remarking that the questions become questions for the boy only when he takes them to be questions that he considers worth asking and is willing to try to answer .

There remains an unnoticed feature of the discussion between the boy and Socrates. The boy is led to discover how to construct a square twice the area of the given square. Obviously it is possible to construct a square twice the area of the constructed square and another twice its area and so ad infinitum. Evidently, there are squares squares three times the area, half the area, a fifth the area of the original and so on …

There is an infinity of squares. What makes each one a square is its form. Its matter the possibility of being one of infinitely many.

The boy saw what Socrates had drawn in the sand and took it to be – understood it to be;  – a square. He already knew “what a square was” in that he knew that it was a four sided figure with equal and parallel sides – two horizontal and two vertical. He also took implicitly for granted  that there were infinitely many squares equal to the given square and also infinitely many squares twice the area of the original. What remained unique is the form which can be understood but cannot be seen.

Young children can easily see that one square is bigger than another and  may be told that the bigger  of the two is described as being twice the size of the first and so has a rough idea of “twice the size” –    something like “quite a lot bigger” – and as we grow up our everyday understanding of “twice the size” (or, “twice as big”) becomes more delicate and more exact when we learn measurement but  we continue to use “about twice as big”or “ about twice the size” in everyday conversation as we should not see – or claim – that something was “seventeen times the size”.

The boy in Meno learns that the diagonal of a square is the length of  the  sides of a square twice the area of the original square. He does not, and cannot, literally “see” that it is. In Meno Plato does not say the discovery is the discovery of a feature in the form or nature of the square; nor does he  advert to the fact that the new square is half the size of a square based on its own diagonal. He does not say that the boy has discovered a feature or element in form of the square, nor that there is an infinite number of squares each one based on the diagonal of the preceding square.

However, this much is clear. The boy sees a shape in the sand; he “sees it as” (Wittgenstein) a square; as what is called “a square”. In the dialogue, he is said to know the basic features of a square. He does not know how to discover  or construct a square double the area of this square. But he accepts that there is such a square. Implicitly he accepts – as, crucially, does the reader – that there is no largest square.

It is a fundamental and inescapable feature of a square that there is a larger square; in the dialogue the question is how to discover a square twice the area of the given square but it is also true that there is a square three, four, five …..&c. times its area. Thus, the question of the size of the largest square does not properly arise because there is no largest square. Equally, there is no smallest square.

The nature of a square can be known but cannot be seen.

Similarly, the shapes 1,2,3 can be seen. Children who have been taught that they represent numbers and have learnt how to deal with numbers see that sequence of shapes as the second, third and fourth number in the infinite sequence 0,1,2,3,…&c. (Children often mistakenly take the sequence to represent the first,second and third number.) There is a property of the sequence 1,2,3 that is shared by no other sequence of three consecutive numbers in the infinitely many sets of three consecutive numbers -.e.g. 2,3,4; 3,4,5; 4,5,6…1001,1002,1003; 1001,1002,1003  ….. Why that assertion is true cannot be seen but can be understood.

1,2,3 is unique because all three numbers in that sequence are prime including 2 which is the only even prime number. The sequence 11, 12, 13 contains two prime numbers (11, 13) but, as is true of every sequence,  contains at least one even number, and no even number other than 2 is prime because every even number is divisible by 2.

Someone who can see a square, sees a diagram that represents a square, and is told the opposite sides of the drawn square are to be taken to be parallel and equal –  it is worth remarking here that that diagrams in Euclid represent lines, squares, rectangles, ….but that a Euclidean point or line (and other figures) as defined cannot be seen. In Book I, 1. A point is that which has no parts, or which has no magnitude. 2. A line is length without breadth.

In Meno the boy sees a figure that he has learnt is called “a square”. When a “diagonal” is added he sees it. When he is told that the diagonal is the length of the lines in a square twice the area he may believe that to be the case but he does not yet know. When he discovers that to be so he sees no more than before;  but understands and knows.  What he understands is the form of a square. His movement from seeing to questioning, to  understanding and knowing is, perhaps, not unlike that of those in the cave in the Republic.

Politics as Soul Therapy

Daily, social-security-releated problems such as robberies, thefts, legitimate defenses or not, terrorist attacks, collapsing viaducts, etc. are said to have to be dealt with. We also  hear regular discussions about disorganization in hospitals (with episodes of malpractice) or in schools, immigration or the perception of “the other”, the one different from us, inconvenience in commuting and so on. Now, as any ordinary newscast is used to do, we introduce the political side by saying: “and now let’s move to politics”, as if politics was something completely different from what was said before. Different from environmental pollution, unemployment, lack of work or problems at work: different from the most delicate existential and ethical issues on the meaning of life and its end.

Nevertheless, as it often happens, it is precisely in the meaning of the term that the original and most authentically positive dimension is found: the term “Politics” comes from the Greek “Pólis”, “city”. Therefore, it implicitly alludes to “the government, the care, the caring and the preoccupation with the issues of the city” and by extension, to “the care, organization, and government of all areas and territorial bodies of coexistence (that includes localities, urban areas, cities, provinces, regions, nations, supranational realities)”.

For this reason, politics must be re-discovered in its original light, as a cure, here on earth, capable of restoring dignity, brightness and positivity to a dimension that too often is confused with its shadow: corruption, occult embezzlement, intrigue, profiteering and, or, with the support of political power: strategies – more or less legitimate – for the employment of top government bodies positions and public administration, exclusively motivated by party affiliation or with the party to which they belong as the sole reference factor, sometimes disregarding completely any meritocratic, competitive or individual ethical criterion; alliances between parties for the constitution of a parliament majority, the birth and disintegration of coalitions, the adoption or the derailing of legislative measures: the so-called ‘partitocracy’ (or party politics) and the connected phenomenon of partitocratic subdivision.

But politics isn’t necessarily power for power’s sake; not only this, indeed.

Politics is feminine, it is Soul, care, sensitivity, respect for plurality – of the different traditions, the different belonging, the individual stories – the plurality that the word “Politics” has in its root Poly (from the Greek Polius, “many”); it is rooted in many words, such as “polyfunctional”, “polycentric”, “polycultural”, always as an indication of plurality, diversity (of quality, not quantity) of what follows.

Politics as a cure for Anima Mundi, caring and concerning for the world in which we live, the local events as well as the national and international, inspired by the ancient idea of “Soul of the world” that connects everything.

In order to understand politics as the caring of the Anima Mundi[1] we are also solicited by the work of James Hillman, who in his “Politics of Beauty”[2] expresses himself as follows:


Where we are less able, what make us suffer more and in which we anesthetize ourselves, what we remove most – with earplugs, bolts, alcohol, electronics, hi-fi, coffee and shopping – is the world out there: Polis. We remove the psyche from the polis and we are unconscious to it: it’s the polis of the unconscious.

We have become hyper-conscious patients and analysts, very aware individuals, very subtly interiorized and very unconscious citizens… The world does not ask us to be believed in itself; the world just asks that we become aware of it, that we appreciate it and that we have attention and care for it.


Hillman emphasizes the importance of dealing with things concerning the external world with a psychological perspective, attention to detail and individuality; but not only  must we address to the so-called “inner world”, with its symbolic, semiotic and metaphorical language, as psychoanalysis has done too often in its history, a little bit guiltily since its birth[3], but rather turning with the prerogatives of this perspective to the exterior world, “real”, out there, the polis, the environment and the problems of coexistence.

And since this is the real field of politics, only by dealing with this can the citizens become more conscious; through it, the individual expresses himself and becomes a total being and the world becomes better.

A “psychoanalysis of the polis” seems to suggest Hillman (from these considerations came the idea and foundation of our Institute of Psychoanalysis of Politics, the first of its kind), where it is no longer just the individual and his inner world to be protagonists of the setting, but where “the world out there”, with its frantic and stressful rhythms, its ecological disasters (e.g. the invasion of microplastics in the seas and oceans, the persistence of an energy supply of activities still too much based on highly polluting fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, the main causes of global warming) and an urban environment made of artificial and polluting materials (concrete, asphalt, plastics, aluminum, efficient, functional and economical[4] as much as you want, but also very harmful for our physical and psychological health; materials that have deeply cut the healthy and vital relationship with the natural world made of wood, grass, green, trees, which in addition to casting us shadows, remove carbon dioxide to give us oxygen) becomes the protagonist of our experience.

The cornerstone of a pre-Socratic “Anima Mundi” idea returns.


The most important thing is that depression is a collective endemic disease and we feel it and think it’s just inside our brain. “In… my family, in my marriage, in my work, in my economy”… We have brought all this into a “me”. Instead, if there is an Anima Mundi, if there is a Soul of the World – and we are part of the Soul of the World – then what happens in the external Soul also happens to me and so I feel the extinction of the plants, animals, cultures, languages, customs, crafts, stories… They’re all disappearing. Of course, my soul necessarily feels a sensation of loss, of loneliness, of isolation, of mourning and nostalgia, and sadness too: it is the reflection in me of a matter of fact. And if I do not feel depressed, then I’m crazy! This is the real disease! I would be completely excluded from the reality of what is happening in the world, the ecological destruction.[5]


This is the reason why politics, also inspired by the fundamental Jungian conception of “collective unconscious” – the interview in which Jung himself declares that the “collective unconscious” is the idea that he considers perhaps most fruitful and that he feels most fond of -, can be seen as the alchemical art of healing, mixing, synthesizing the different principles (“Principia” as Paracelsus would say), Various ἀρχή, who find themselves acting, not infrequently in conflict and in reciprocal countertendency, in interior and individual life as well as in the events and situations of collective life. The motions, the mechanisms and the motives of the Soul and of physics are one, to know them as phenomena or noumena, interior or exterior, comes instead from different disciplinary perspectives, but they remain one thing only: knowledge of the Soul, Aletheia, Epistrophé.

Precisely for this reason and to realize this curative dimension of politics it becomes necessary also to know the mechanisms (and related failures) that regulate their life, to get an idea of what are the main “political psychopathologies” and possibly be able to identify some solution to answer therapeutically.

The first pathology probably resides in the disaffection with politics, in the emotional distance that is perceived with increasing evidence with respect to this dimension, seen more and more as “dirty”, the “psychic shadow” place of systematic deception and lying, where to become cleverer, even in defiance of every more ethically respectable rule of cohabitation, has become positive – to such perverse consequences led the “bad politics”! After all, the “good politics” was and still is paid at a high price, even with life itself, by those who become its interpreters.

This purulent rupture between subjectivity and politics, the art of dealing with the polis and the world, has produced the symptoms of electoral abstention – the percentage of citizens who vote and / or who trust in a party (emblematic, among many others, was the case of the latest regional elections in Emilia Romagna, where the percentage of voters was only 37.5% against the previous rounds that had seen a percentage of 70% and above; practically the last time voted half of those who usually went to the polls!).

This decline is not an isolated and occasional fruit, but has been repeated at all local and national administrative consultations in recent years; there is a progressive mistrust associated and coming from politics, a dimension of speaking without maintaining, of unreliability, irresponsibility, disloyalty – a progressive and very marked distancing of citizens from participatory processes, which is by no means casual; but strongly desired by the political class (leaders of parties, parliamentarians, regional and municipal councilors) who certainly do not want to question themselves in their role of representation and therefore do not intend to hazard a consultation of direct democracy (i.e. Referendum and Deliberative Assemblies, municipal or local, open to resident citizens and therefore not only consultative as the institute of the “debàt publique”), even with respect to the problems that affect citizens more directly and sentimentally, and that could be denied here, as well as in the positions taken, even in their role as protagonists in the press and mass media.

He who works in professional politics (in which, with the connected limit of two mandates, we would have nothing to object) does not want to lose the role and sinecures connected, it is understandable, but in doing so produces the negative, perverse, highly harmful symptoms mentioned above: the disaffection, the electoral absenteeism, the drastic decline in participation not only in decision-making processes, but also in active political life (in parties, movements, associations)… it is now understood that in these contexts those who make the voice bigger and bigger, he who has more ability to resist and be arrogant, aggressive and generally get also away with it… politics now is no longer, assuming it has ever been, a dimension for kind and sensitive souls.

The political framework, practically everywhere (even if in Italy we seem more apparent, but perhaps it is only because we live here), is based on a permanent conflict, “us or them”, where we are the citizens, spotless workers, honest and strenuous, but defeated (even to survive or live in dignity and they, “politicians or public administrators”, dishonest, shady, climbed to the bench with methods at least impervious, corrupt, “shadow incarnate”, object of every abject consideration already firstly, condemned even before any investigation as enriched unworthily and unfairly, economically as well as in the position and in social facilities, precisely by virtue of their status as politicians, elected to institutional positions).

This extremely purulent skirmish between “us and them”, between “beautiful and kind souls”, but impotent and “dirty souls, dirty, dishonest, liar and corrupt, hellish”, but powerful, is the cause of the most serious damage and poison in the social fabric, in the social cohesion and social coexistence: what is the polis if not a special and larger condominium?

The same duel, the harsh dyad, which is found in the permanent and vivid opposition between “Left” and “Right”, the two parts of the whole (psychologically the self = single part, party, against the Self = All, Self = State) that are in permanent conflict and skirmish, but that feed upon, or are the fruits of, a vision of politics as war, Polemos; actually, while psychiatry speaks of “bipolar disorder” as a disease to be treated, the politics of the second republic (second, not by chance, remember that the words “duality” and “duel” concearn and are directly derived from “Two”, the number of the conflict – in its positive meaning the Two translates into comparison, dialectics, ambivalence)  had even found in the so-called “bipolarism” or “bipolar system” (in the permanent and ideological opposition “right-of-cetre against center”, ample coalitions, containing anything and everything, and for this reason also a low coefficient of governability) the balm of good politics, that politics antithetical to consociationalism, to which in fact the first decades of republican life, especially since the eighties,  got us used to.

This permanent opposition becomes in political jargon that “crystallized opposition” to which we are now perniciously accustomed and that we mean, mistakenly, as a natural game, according to which, even if today we all see the sky clear, there will always be the part that plays the role of opposition that wants to differentiate forcefully – with a press note, through the spokesman on duty -, perhaps to say “if it’s clear, in two hours it will rain and it is the fault of the government”, or and even more, up to avoiding the obvious: “the sky is not clear”… so far we as know, the perceptual alteration capacity of a conflicting psyche arrives.

If a “situational opposition” is a right, prerogative and guarantee of democratic freedom and expression, the “permanent or crystallized opposition” is a pathology, the pathology of a war policy, inspired by the conflict, the sentence of the general and Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausevitz, according to whom war is nothing more than the continuation of political work by other means – and also vice versa, we are saying here – the symptom and product of the manichaean conflict between Good and Evil: perhaps an inevitable conflict in certain moments of life, but still a primordial conflict between the opposites.

The political vision as alchemy referred to above, aims to reconcile opposites in a framework that is not harmonic, certainly less based on the only taste of war and the acrimonious and permanent confrontation, dual, whose mechanism of “pendulum functionality”, years of center-left government, which are followed literally by years of center-right government, is sincerely banal and decidedly strenuous.

As a therapy to all this we propose to look at the Swiss political system, where the harmful mechanism of “crystallized opposition” does not exist, and it’s replaced by a special and higher level of political awareness, the result of centuries of direct democracy (i.e. Landsgemeinden, Referendum and popular petitions, all institutes that in Switzerland were born many centuries ago) that among other things has been able to produce the so-called “magic formula”, thanks to which for decades Switzerland has made the stability of government a characterizing element like in no other country (the Helvetic Confederation was also left unscathed by the two war conflicts world), where the parties of at least  a minimal representative parliamentary force, right and left, sit together around the same table of government, are in the same executive (not only together in parliament, that is, as it is conceived here by us) and where they dispute on individuals measures to be taken, but, precisely because of greater psychophysical proximity, standing next to the seats of government, much less harsh than commonplace among us.

The proximity in this sense is certainly a factor that reduces political tension; here instead it is often shaken by malevolent factors of personal confrontation between the leaders of the various political forces.

Also for this reason we propose to establish the new figure of the “Street Mayor”, equally as the first political-administrative reference for citizens – it would be up to that Mayor, with his/her office of collaborators, to interface with the departments and departments of the municipal administration, regional, national or otherwise, through its help and support; it is the office of the “mayor of the street” that then gives welcome and receives the new residents, who communicates the works needed to keep the road surfaces, sidewalks, the activation and maintenance of the underground services, the periodic cleaning of the roads (and any other communication necessary to the good management of street cohabitation); it is always this office that helps foreign citizens and the elderly in all the bureaucratic practices (definitively replacing the “Public Relations Offices”) and it would always be this office that becomes an essential point of reference for safety by setting up a voluntary service permanent, 24 hours a day (such as the voluntary service of public assistance, for example) of surveillance and vigilance of one’s own road that supports in a capillary, concrete and widespread way the task entrusted to the police.

Street therefore, the first reality just above the condominium and before the district and the district; these last realities perceptively already less identifiable by the citizens (perhaps Siena apart and as an exception, with its historical and always active “districts”); the street-path, as a basic administrative unit, much less large than the city, the provinces, the regions, the nations and the supranational realities like the European Union, which due to their large size are a sure factor of disaffection and detachment from politics.

The individual in these gigantic dimensions gets lost, becomes debased, is frustrated by the sense of loss of all decision-making power; he/she feels like a grain of sand on a beach, he/she feels he/she does not count for anything. Which, added to the feeling of the postal package serving the needs of the bureaucracy – and not vice versa, as it should be -, makes an explosive mixture of frustration, detachment, resentment, disaffection towards all political actors and towards politics itself, with consequent, very dangerous symptoms of non-participation, electoral abstention and populist indifference.

The psychopathologies of a harbinger  of “Gigantism” and “Titanism”, and not just the result of modern living stressed (stress has to do with the same etymology of the words  “stretch”, “fatigue”) and with anxiety, are curable, find therapies and remedy in the “small is beautiful”: the small size returns the politics to the beauty of attention to details, that Soul which being in the details makes beautiful, hospitable, functional and well-livable a place, a town, a city.

Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, was literally in love with the stones of the streets of central Florence, as many are the sanpietrini of Rome and many others of the labyrinthine alleys of our small villages, of that architecture inspired by the beauty and the sacred of the our villages, the beautiful little villages of central Italy, with their intimate rhythms, the true soul of my country and the authentic cornestone of Italy.

These elements make the “Soul of Places”[6], a harmonious union with the Genius Loci and able, in a well-administered locality, to give us Salus.

Huge realities such as hypermarkets, the United States of America, China, Russia, the European Union that in a period of evident gigantism did not want to lag behind – we prefer, as we have said and written elsewhere, the structure of “European Confederation”[7], certainly more responsive to combining the autonomy and the sovereignty of the single European nations, each with a history often stretching back centuries, with the strength of a center of supranational coordination (perhaps on precise and circumscribed areas and subjects and for example not on the quotas imposed to each State in the production in agriculture and in the agri-food sector, and only for the fact that what we eat and drink more tends to rely on a zero km supply chain, the better it is for health, otherwise for goods and services not perishable and in virtue of their exclusive quality, even if they are free, reciprocal, even if regulated, their exchange and their production) – are the fruits and symptoms of this historical period of gigantism.

But in the eschatology of the Greek myth of which Hesiod speaks, the giants and titans in the end are defeated, defeated by the anthromorphous Deities led by Zeus.

The small and medium wins and will win; there are also famous episodes of sinking of giants’ gigantic ships – the most recent, the Concordia, on the Island of Giglio -: among all those of the two ships called “Titanic” (usually we remember only one, but two ships with this name were touched by the same fate). The arrogance of the titanic, after the initial boldness, or precisely for this, sooner or later sinks and finds its Nemesis.

To replace the gigantic of the politics of big numbers (Macro): impersonal, collective, herd instinct, distant, frustrating, irritating, harbinger of depression and a sense of impotence, a policy that is administered by many finally trained (id est politically educated), periodically renewed in their offices, street by street, always in contact and communicative and operative exchange: this is the commitment that awaits us.

Naturally without renouncing that globality of the movements, of the business, of the world as we know it and perceive it, but positively compensating this perception of globality (gigantic) with an administration of small realities, attentive to small things.

These things, these remedies, these therapies and even before this attitude of taking care the world, with its wonders and its resources, are doing politics in the noblest and most elevated sense, which is an improvement, a response akin to the “soul making” that Hillman told us about.

Here, together with the first and most important solution, that of a “guaranteed work” by law (such as that of free health care and accessible in emergency for all, as also provided by our constitution and now acquired in our culture; “guaranteed work” must become too a universal, acquired right which, among other things, would fully and finally achieve Article 1 of the Italian Constitution), reside fundamental ingredients of involvement and participation capable of effectively counteracting those symptoms of “depersonalization”, “anesthetization”, “annihilation” caused by the nefarious politics, all inspired and aimed at Gigantism, the gigantic, the macro. We said of a “guaranteed job”, offered as a social deal (if you did not find a job, the State will provide one to you among the services that the administration needs) and paid naturally only in a basic (eg. € 500 for ten, twelve, hours of weekly work, a sort of universal civil service that for young people, among other things, should be mandatory). Having more will always be possible, in a direct and proportional relationship to one’s “professional individuation” and work and social skills.

This fact, together with the gradual disappearance of cash, to the creation of the figure of the “financial tutor” (among the Municipalities or Banks, quite another thing, much more meritorious, noble and more difficult than the operation of “private bankers” who manage the assets already in place) that helps entrepreneurs, professionals and individuals to recover, in a guaranteed way, from situations of financial difficulty, together with the abolition of rejection in the various grades of school in the age of obligation (replaced by the stay at school in the months of June and July for the recovery in the subjects in which the preparation is considered insufficient by the teachers) – the fundamental and irreplaceable psychological point remains that one of the 1970s must always go to class (except in exceptional cases, such as, for example, anticipating by a year the beginning of the elementary school cycle) with those of the ‘70s, with his peers, without suffering in childhood or adolescence the trauma of rejection!

The rejection trauma should be reserved for the higher grades of the training path, such as the University.

These concrete solutions, based on the analysis of the political pathologies that we have reported above, return to the Politics the capital “P”, the nobility of the healing dimension for the Soul and for the bodies, the Lucidity and Luminosity of the Divine which is realized here in this precious and sacred scenario that is our Earth.



[1] Institute for Psychoanalysis of Politics [it] www.confederati.org

[2] James Hillman, “Politica della bellezza”, ed. Moretti e Vitali, Bergamo.

[3] James Hillman, Michael Ventura, “We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – And the World’s Getting Worse”, 1992.

[4] It is now widely demonstrated and not only in that ecopsychological key to which we refer in the text, that an economy dissociated from ecological knowledge – and after all the two words “eco-nomy” and “eco-logy”, lett. “The administration (nomìa, from the Greek Nomos = Administer) of the environment (eco)” and “eco-logy, “the study (logìa) of the environment (eco)”, do not coincidentally have the same root – is harmful and in the devastating medium and long term. Here we see as the highest Politics, far-sighted, not short-sighted or idiotic (the Greeks identified with a word that translated brings the English “idiot” precisely those who cannot see beyond the immediate), makes a positive difference in the care health and well-being (even economic in the long run) of populations, places, cities

[5] James Hillman, interview with Silvia Ronchey.

[6] James Hillman, Carlo Truppi, “L’anima dei luoghi”, ed. Rizzoli.

[7] On the idea of “European Confederation” instead of “European Union” cfr. Daniele Cardelli www.confederati.org

On the Range or Scope of [Moral] Action


St Thomas Aquinas (ST IaIIæ.1.3 & ad 3) distinguishes deliberate from non-deliberate actions. Non-deliberate – to take his examples – are such automatic or semi-automatic gestures as the stroking of the beard or involuntary movements of hands or feet. We can add the involuntary and non-conscious dilation of one’s pupils in response to increased interest, the spontaneous effort to regain one’s balance or one’s instantaneous response to another’s stumble. Suchlike actions as do not “proceed from reasonable deliberation which is properly the principle of human action” he calls “acts of a man” because they occur in humans but are not chosen (note that it is possible by training to override some spontaneous responses as, for instance, trainee circus clowns train themselves to override their spontaneous effort to regain their balance.) The acts that proceed from reasonable deliberation and decision he calls “human acts.” We deliberate and decide in order to attain an end or goal. There are practical questions as to how an envisaged end is to be achieved but whether or not to choose the means, that is, the set actions judged likely to achieve the envisaged end, is not itself a practical question. Theft or embezzlement are well known means of attaining the envisaged end of gaining money; whether or not to employ them is a moral not a practical question. Whether or not, given the available technical and physical resources, one can build a bridge across a gorge is a practical question; if one cannot build the bridge the question as to whether or not to build one does not arise; if one can build the bridge that question may arise and is within the moral realm..

What I suggest here is that only and all human acts so defined constitute the moral realm. Correspondingly, the range or scope of [moral] action is the range or scope of deliberate action. A deliberate action is chosen. Some choices are, for various reasons, considerably more important than others – most will agree that the decision whether or not to get married is more important than whether or not or where to go on holiday – but no choice is outside the moral realm, and no choice, as Aristotle already made clear, is made in the abstract. All actual choices are made in the prevailing circumstances as they are understood by the person choosing. There are no abstract and no non-moral choices.


We are born unable to speak; we are potential but not yet actual speakers. We are infants – etymologically non-speakers. To become actual speakers we need to learn from those who can already speak. We learn our language from others – and notice that in learning our mother-tongue, we learn not only that particular language but also language; language exists only as particular languages just as birds exist only as particular species of bird. Puffins and geese are birds; but no bird is not a type or species of bird.

The twentieth century French linguist, Jean Gagnepain, in a lecture that I heard in Rennes thirty-six years ago, remarked that we learn our morals as we learn our language. As we learn our language from others, so we learn from others the moral views, the ethical code, prevailing in our community. And as we learn the prevailing code we also learn to become actually moral beings. We learn not only a particular code (a particular language) but also morality (language). We learn our morals while we learn our language and like the way we learn our language.

As we learn to speak we learn that speech can be correct or incorrect and we are coercively persuaded to speak correctly, and dissuaded from speaking incorrectly. “Correct” and “incorrect” are defined by what our teachers think. The child, however, does not know that. The child simply accepts what is taught. Think of these verbs in modern English: to sing, to bring, to fling. In the first person singular in the present tense, they are similar: I sing, I bring, I fling. In the simple or uncomposed past they not: I sang, I brought, I flung. Why those differences have emerged is a question within historical linguistics and young speakers incline to impose on their language a non-existent regularity and often say, for example, I bring, I brang, I have brung. They are taught that those regularities are mistakes but not why they are, and the young speakers are required to adopt the prevailing usage in their community. The present task is not to discuss the many and enjoyable vagaries of the very many ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’ forms and changes in modern English, but to illustrate that in learning language, the infant learns what is correct and what is incorrect, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, what is good and what is bad. What is good is what he ought to say and do; what is bad is what ought not say or do. (Notice that to speak is to do something.) He is taught that he ought to do what he is told to do, and to refrain from doing what he is told not to do; he is told that what is to be said is “cow” and “bovine”, “pig” and “porcine”, “bird” and “avian”, “horse” and “equine” but “elephant” and “elephantine”…and the answer to the question as to why that is so is commonly simply “that is what is said” as the rules of etiquette, what Hobbes called small morals, state “what is done”. The child is an hierarchical animal and, as other hierarchical animals, accepts the authority of those who impose it upon him. (In adulthood we remain to a greater or lesser extent hierarchical animals.)

Underlying the command to do or not do, is the assumption that the child is able to do or not do what he is told. It is useless to tell someone that he ought to do or not do something that quite literally he cannot do or avoid doing. It is useless to tell someone who has been pushed out a window not to fall, or who cannot read to tell what it says is in the paper. We do not deliberate, as Aristotle already noticed, about what we think cannot be otherwise.

As the child learns to speak he also learns, through word and gesture, a large set of actions that, like speech, are distinguished into correct and incorrect; he learns the moral code of his community. He learns through persuasion and coercion so that it is easy, perhaps even inevitable, for him to learn to think of the code both as what is to be obeyed and as what defines morality. As the child grows he learns not only the code itself but also how the code is thought of. For many centuries in European culture important rules of the prevailing code were given in the Ten Commandments which, in turn, were thought of as given to Moses by God who was accepted as authorized to impose them. In the early Hebrew tradition the Law was given by God but freely and explicitly accepted by the people: “So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. The people all answered as one: ‘everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.” (The Second Book of Moses or Exodus 19:7-8) As Christianity developed in Europe from its Hebrew roots the image of Law as covenant faded and the rhetoric of command, already prominent in the Torah, perhaps particularly in the Third Book of Mosts or Leviticus, became more prominent, and the idea of morality as obedience became widespread.

The Decalogue is in two parts; the first part sets out the rules governing how the people should be with their God; the second part sets out how they should deal with one another. Reflection on the second part reveals the rules to be very ordinary rules upon the reasonably common observance of which the enduring peace of the everyday life of a community depends. Considered in that way, they are functional. But, because they were thought to be imposed by God, the rhetoric of command tended to predominate and the rules began to be thought of by some – William of Occam being the prime and influential example – to be good because commanded. So, in the Occamian tradition, the rule that one should not bear false witness against one’s neighbour is thought to be good because God had so commanded, whereas for St Thomas’ , as later for Thomas Hobbes, not to bear false witness was intrinsically good, that is, intrinsic to the character or nature of the activity, and could be discovered to be good. It was, St Thomas thought, commanded by God in the Decalogue to teach us that it was good lest we corruptly overlook or repudiate it. (The question as to whether an action was good because commanded or commanded because good was not new but, as was well known, had been raised in Plato’s Eutyphro; it is Occam’s answer and its influence that is important as it is one of the roots of modern positivism where the ruler, “that great Leviathan, that Mortall God” takes the place of the immortal God.)


The child who learns the moral code of his community learns that what is commanded is good but why it is thought good is not often concentrated upon and two associated ideas begin to dominate. The first is the idea of moral action as obedience to authority. The second is the idea that the the range or scope of moral action is defined by what is commanded.

As we develop into adulthood we learn more or less clearly three unsettling truths. The first is that we cannot in the end always be compelled to obey; we cannot, for example, be compelled to believe what we hold to be false, although we may be more or less successfully coerced into pretending to believe. Coercive power is great but limited. The second truth is that we begin, or may begin, to question the goodness of at least some features of the prevailing ethical code. The third and incomparably the most important is that we discover that, in the detailed circumstances of our lives, we must ask– that is, we cannot but ask– what we ought to do, and decide whether or not to do what we think we ought to do, and that while we may choose in the light of the prevailing rules but even if they have contributed greatly to our personal moral context or background they do not determine our answer, for the good is always concrete and particular; it is what is to be done now in these circumstances. We ask what we ought to do and we decide, or fail to decide, to do it. We do not choose to be, we already are, moral beings.

One who reflects on those unsettling truths may, again more or less clearly, begin to grasp, in practice more than in theory, that the range or scope of [moral] action is not defined by a code, however good, but by the question: what in the present circumstances ought I now to do? That shift in attitude is a shift to an autonomous morality that does not necessarily, indeed does not usually, and perhaps cannot utterly, repudiate the prevailing code in all respects; it is a personal and responsible attitude to it. Morality is no longer obedience to another.

Whenever I do something, I bring into the world a situation that would not otherwise have existed. The question as to what I ought to do now may, therefore, be recast: what situation ought to be brought about in the present circumstances and what contribution ought I make to bringing it about? The situation that I judge that I ought to contribute to bringing about is what St Thomas, in the question referred to, calls “the [envisaged] end”. I act in order to bring about a situation which is the “end” of my decision. Whenever I judge that I ought to bring about a situation, I give myself a moral rule; whenever I decide and act in accord with my judgment, I obey the rule that I have given myself.

The situation that I conclude ought to be brought about is what I have judged to be good. But my judgment as to what is good is not merely fallible, as are all human judgements; it may well be corrupt. Moral judgment is neither more nor less certain than factual judgment but corruption is more likely as I may allow my own perceived benefit trump others’ entitlements. Nor does my moral judgement that I to do X determine that I shall choose to do X.


I end with two illustrations. The first is imaginary: I find myself in a situation in which there exists both the relevance and possibility of bearing false witness against my neighbour. I may be tempted to do so because it seems to me to be to my immediate benefit. I know that if I am successful I shall bring about a situation in which those concerned will believe the world to be other than it is. That is precisely what I intend; it is my envisaged end. Because to bear false witness is disapproved of, I can hardly avoid wondering if that is a situation that I ought to bring about but when it becomes habitual for me to lie whenever it is in my interest to do so that question fades. There is no axiom that I cannot repudiate even if sometimes, by avoiding squarely to face the question, I repudiate it only in corrupted practice. How I answer that question in the immediate and concrete circumstances, and how I habitually answer it, contributes to my developing construction of myself. How I habitually answer the question shows the kind of person that I have made myself. It becomes as it were the fragile existential moral context and axiom which is myself within which and from which I move. There exists a rule that, as St Paul wrote in Romans (13:8-10) sums up the entire Law: love your neighbour as yourself: Kærleikurinn gjörir ekki náunganum mein. Þess vegna er kærleikurinn fylling lögmálsins. (? ????? ?? ??????? ????? ??? ?????????. ??????? ??? ????? ? ?????. Love does no harm to another, therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.) But why one judges and decides to treat one’s neighbour as oneself derives not from some unavoidable axiom but from an attitude, a feeling, a way of being with others. Morality is not like a geometry where from an initial set of axioms one tries to discover the nature of an implied imagined world. A person’s fragile moral axiom is how he or she has chosen and chooses to be. Love may well do no harm to another and so fulfill the law – in Roman law (Institutes I.1.3 from Ulpian recalling Cicero) the second of the three traditional principles of justice is alterum non lædere (do not harm another). But why choose it as one’s originating moral attitude, as one’s way of being with others? The basic moral principle is not a rule however good; it is the human person him or herself who cannot avoid moral questions. The basic principle is oneself and we are present to ourselves as beings who must choose. To recall Pascal of whom Giorgio Baruchello writes in his paper at this seminar: what Pascal called the heart, the person as he or she now concretely is, is the source of choice.

The second illustration is existential; it is the situation in which we all now find ourselves. I presume that we have come here to honour and to thank Mikael as I now have the opportunity to do for over twenty years of generous friendship. there may well be other reasons that I do not know. What I do know is that each of us has some reason or reasons for being here rather than elsewhere; I do know – on the presumption that no-one has been physically coerced – that each of us has, for whatever reason, chosen to be here. The judgment that each of us individually made that it was good for him or her to come rather than to stay away is a moral judgment. The decision to act on that judgment is a [moral] choice.

The scope or range of [moral] action is, then, the scope or range of the moral questions: what ought I to do now? what kind of person ought I to be? What kind of person do I choose to be? What will I do now? My specific choices are limited to what is now possible for me; those human acts for which I can now be responsible. The range of morality is the range of responsibility.

From Pericles to Plato – from democratic political praxis to totalitarian political philosophy


  1. From democratic praxis to totalitarian political philosophy

It is my thesis that political philosophy has its historical origin in democratic praxis and government in the democratic city-state Athens and that it is taken over by sceptics and anti-democratic critics like Plato. The consequence is a break between democratic praxis and antidemocratic political philosophy that has lasted until our day where the global dominance of democracy is taken to force a reconsideration of the inner relation between democracy and political philosophy (Roberts 1994: 6 ff.; Castoriadis 1997: 227).

In the following I want to consider this thesis. I will first consider Plato’s political philosophy as it has been formulated in his Republic from around 380 and second I will consider Pericles’ funeral oration from 430 as an example of the existence of a democratic political philosophical alternative that was grounded in the democratic praxis of Athens.

  1. The origin of political philosophy in the democratic city-state Athens

Democracy is a form of government that was invented and developed in the Greek city states, first and foremost in Athens. Democracy is first named around 472 in Aeschylus’ The Suppliants (Aeschylus 1970: 102, line 604). The word ‘democracy’ consists etymologically of the word demos, which means the broad population or the people, and kratos, which means power (Aeschylus 1980: 490 – 492; Ehrenberg 1965: 266, 270 – 272). The two words together form the word democracy, which can be translated as the exercise of power in the polis, the city, by the people (Larsen 1990: 15 ff.).

It is significant from a historical perspective that democratic governments have many different forms from antiquity to our times and the historian therefore has a tendency to emphasize these differences instead of the similarities (Vidal-Naquet 1990: 121 ff.; Hansen 2005: 41 ff.; Hansen 2010: 15 ff.).

From another perspective, the different forms of democratic government all share a concern about what should be understood by democracy and whether the given form of government is a real democracy. This discussion raises the question of the validity or the legitimacy of the concrete instantiation of democratic government. This perspective or discussion was conceptualized as philosophy or more specific political philosophy. It is in the Greek democratic city-state that political philosophy has its origin and became determinant for how we discuss modern democracy as well.

From a historical perspective, political philosophy can at best be regarded as a form of ideology (Hansen 2005: 46 ff.; Hansen 2010: 39) because the historian does not accept a political philosophical concept of truth, whatever it might consist in. The historian thus has a tendency to bypass the fact that democracy can only persist by being permanently determined as valid or legitimate. Political philosophy has a definite practical significance in its function of raising the discussion about what ought to be regarded as the right, or, at least from a pragmatic perspective, the best, government and what could be the basis of such a government. This discussion was already raised in the democratic city-state Athens and it continues to our day.

  1. Plato’s political philosophy and the contempt for democracy in the political philosophical tradition

Plato is regarded as one of the founders of political philosophy and many will even say that he is the real founder in so far as Plato’s work is so monumental and forms a beginning where even Aristotle is a scholar of Plato. It is not at least Plato’s Republic that has had a definitive significance as one of the fundamental works in the political philosophical tradition.

Plato’s Republic has been read in many ways but one common distinctive feature in the many readings is that Plato regards philosophy as a special way of thinking that is connected with a special insight that the political leader in the aristocratic republic should have. It is only by this insight that the leader is able to lead in a way that is superior to the leadership that is dominated by desire, which was the case in timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny – the forms of government that Plato brings on concept, describes and criticizes in the Republic (Plato 1970: 545c ff.).

In this perspective, philosophy is elevated over the concrete political fight in the city-state. Philosophy has a special insight which can classify different forms of politics and government in a hierarchical organized history of decline where democracy is surpassed only by tyranny as the worst form of government (Plato 1970: 564a).

This understanding of democracy has not been seriously problematised in the later history of philosophy until recent time. Certainly, Aristotle has formulated a different schema where he poses a contrast between three good forms of government and three bad forms of government: kingdom versus tyranny, aristocracy versus oligarchy, republic (politeia) versus democracy (Aristotle 1977: 1279b 6 ff.). Aristotle regarded also democracy as a deviation or a form of decline.

When we are looking at the later history of philosophy, we find only very few who are emphasizing democratic government like Locke, Rousseau, Madison and Jefferson. But many others like Hobbes, Kant and Hegel did not prefer the democratic form of government. Here one might also mention Karl Marx; although he was one of the significant theorists and leaders in the socialist movement, he did not emphasize democracy. In so far as society was a class society, he could not believe that democracy had an essential role to play.

John Stuart Mill is one of the first who in Considerations on Representative Government from 1861 emphasizes representative democracy as the best form of government for big modern states, where it is not possible to meet in a popular assembly as in the ancient democratic city-states (Mill 1991: 55 – 80). For Mill, the difference between direct and representative democracy is a merely practical matter and has no principled significance (Mill 1991: 80).

It is first in the beginning of the 20th century that political philosophers and sociologist more generally begin to emphasize a form of government with certain advantages (Durkheim, Weber, Schumpeter) or even as a good form of government (Dewey), and it is first after the Second World War that we find serious discussions dominated by the perspective of democracy as the best form of government (Popper, Rawls, Habermas and many others). This corresponds to Mogens Herman Hansen’s periodisation when he emphasizes that democracy first became a positive concept after 1850 and finally became the dominant positive concept of government in the 20th century (Hansen 2005: 47).

  1. Democracy as the new hermeneutical perspective

Just after the Second World War, Karl Popper was one of the first who pointed at this in The Open Society and its Enemies where he claims that the fundamental problem in western political philosophy is that the totalitarian way of thinking has had primacy over the idea of the open democratic society (Popper 1962 a; 1962 b). From this perspective, Plato derailed the political philosophical discussion that was taking place in the democratic city-state of Athens, an event of great significance for the development of the main topics in the political philosophical tradition.

This derailment raises the question what we in modern democratic society should understand by political philosophy and especially how we should understand Plato’s Republic, which is where political philosophy, first off all, is grounded.

One possibility could be in a banal way to pass over Plato and maybe even a large part of the political philosophical tradition. This is also what is partly done in political science, where political philosophy does not play any significant role for empirical research in so far as facts are taken to be more relevant than broader hermeneutical justifications. However, there can be good reasons to hold on to political philosophy because political life in a democratic society constantly raises value-oriented political-philosophical problems that ought to be taken up as a challenge for empirical political science. Here it becomes evident that political philosophy has its origin in the democratic city-state and especially Athens and that we in a conceptual, theoretical and substantial sense are totally dependent on the formation and discussion of political-philosophical concepts in the schools of ancient Athens (Ober 1994: 154 ff.). From a democratic perspective, there are so many similarities that it is possible to speak about a unity between the ancient Greek and the modern political-philosophical discussion (Kagan 1990: 5 ff.; Ober 1994: 171; Ober & Hedrick 1996: 3 ff.; Wallace 1996: 105 ff.).

The consequence is that we have to find a strategy that gives us the possibility of maintaining democracy as our hermeneutical perspective which can be applied in the interpretation of Plato’s Republic as well.

This should not be understood to say that Plato’s critique of democracy should not be essential. On the contrary, Plato’s critique of democracy suggests fundamental and unavoidable political-philosophical problems in the democratic form of governance, and these should be discussed. The problem in Plato’s critique is that democracy as mentioned is situated in a totalitarian perspective of declining forms of government, where aristocracy, timocracy and oligarchy are regarded as better forms of government than democracy. We must not forget that timocracy translated to modern language is a form of totalitarian military dictatorship and oligarchy a government of the few wealthy people. From a democratic perspective, such forms of government were as unacceptable in Plato’s time as they are today.

The problem is that Plato’s political-philosophical hermeneutic perspective is grounded in an ideal of a city-state, politeia. As a counterpoint, it is necessary to create another hermeneutical perspective while Plato’s Republic is at the same time acknowledged as an essential work for the discussion of the political-philosophical problems in the antique democratic city-state and the modern democracy as well.

In other words, it is not possible to follow Plato in all his construction of the political-philosophical architecture such as it is to be found in the Republic, where he moves from the primitive city-state to the constitution of the ideal city-state, aristocracy, which forms the point of departure for the critique of the other forms of government in decline. There is an inner logic in this construction, one that cannot simply be reconstructed as an opening to a political philosophical dialogue about democracy. Plato’s Republic stands as a political philosophical monument; it is a fort that can only be hermeneutically conquered through a new reading strategy where we do not follow Plato’s construction but on the contrary try to deconstruct Plato’s politeia. There is with other words a need for a deconstruction of all Plato’s enormous construction of politeia with the aim to get in contact with the fundamental problematic in Plato’s philosophy that is relevant for the discussion of antique and modern democracy.

  1. Plato’s way from democratic politics to political philosophy

As an introduction to this deconstruction, it is essential to remark on the dialogical form of the Republic. The dialogical form is the political form of democracy and therefore the reader gets the immediate impression that the Republic must be related to democracy. This impression becomes strengthened because Plato lets Socrates be the proper narrator in the Republic. We know very little about the historical Socrates, but the few sources we have tell us that Socrates was one of the many that walked around at the Athenian agora and discussed the political problems in the city state (Larsen 1990: 35 ff.). Socrates is described as the person who poses questions rather than giving answers. In this way Socrates took part in the public political discussion in the democratic city-state. It is this political discussion that Plato gives a philosophical form. This can be seen as a formative transformation of Socrates’s lively critical outspoken questioning in the political discussion in the agora in Athens to a positive written formulation of a political philosophy in dialogical form in the Republic (Larsen 1990: 53 ff.).

When we start to read the Republic, we immediately become uncertain about what we are dealing with. The reader is presented with a discussing and lecturing Socrates in dialogue with Adeimantus, Glaucon, Cephalus, Polemarchus, Thrasymachus and several other persons. But who is the discussant Socrates and where is Plato in the dialogue? Is it the historical Socrates who speaks in the dialogues or is Socrates a marionette or spokesman for Plato? Plato does not give any explanation in the Republic or in his other dialogues (Roberts 1994: 72 ff.).

However, in Plato’s letters we can get an impression of the historical content of the formative transformation of Socrates’ living political discussion in the agora to the positive philosophical written discourse in Plato’s dialogues. It is here, especially in Plato’s Seventh Letter to Dion’s relatives and friends that is of interest (Platon 1991c: 323d – 352b). Dion (409 – 354) belonged to the dominant old family in Syracuse on Sicily who Plato visited in 389 – 388, 366 – 365 and 361 – 360. Dion was father-in-law and brother-in-law to Dionysius the Younger who governed in Syracuse 367 – 355 and 346 – 344 and who Plato tried without success to educate to be the philosopher king he had described in the Republic.

The authenticity of the letter has been discussed but it is a widely held among classical philologist that nothing speaks against the authenticity of the source and that it can therefore be used as a historical source (Raven 1965: 25 f.; Gadamer 1985: 249; Larsen 1990: 54; Castoriadis 2002: 121).

At the beginning of the Seventh Letter, Plato presents his understanding of the transformation from politics to philosophy (Platon 1991c: 324b – 326b; Gadamer 1985: 249 ff.). It is essential to make this transformation clear because the key to Plato’s political philosophy should be found here (Ober 1998: 162 ff.). According to the letter, as young man Plato defined the aim of his life as a participation in the public affairs of the city-state, fulfilling the ideal of the son of a citizen with high status. This life perspective collapsed for Plato because of the political events in Athens which he interpreted through the life and death of Socrates.

What characterizes Socrates according to Plato is his righteousness. It is this righteousness that first brought Socrates into conflict with the thirty oligarch’s tyranny in the year 404 – 403 and, later on, with the democrats who ultimately charged him by the people’s court and finally executed him in 399. Plato interprets these events to mean that those at the head of affairs were no longer guided by traditional morals and that the written laws and traditions had lost their significance. In this way, the Seventh Letter expresses a deep political existential crisis in Plato’s life where Plato’s fundamental understanding of life in the city-state collapses.

This is the reason Plato decides to reconstruct the city state in an ideal philosophical form, which he calls ‘the right philosophy’. Plato will with the right philosophy give an account of what is just, both in the city-state and for the single citizen. What follows is that it must be the people who have this insight in the right that should govern the city-state or eventually that it should be the people that govern the city-state who should acquire this insight.

The interesting thing here is that there is no positive mediation between the collapse of Plato’s existential understanding of the city-state and the formulation of the positive political philosophy. Plato identifies all this political-existential collapse figuratively with the judgment and the execution of Socrates who becomes the form through which the new political philosophy can be formulated in the written dialogue. Herewith Plato gets the possibility to formulate his political philosophy in the dialogical form of the democratic city-state at the same time as the content of this philosophy is a trenchant critique of democracy as a form of governance. Plato’s anti-democratic political philosophy is veiled as democratic through the formal form of dialogue that only could and only can take place in a democratic state. Plato’s political philosophy thus gets its place in the democratic city-state just as its content is turned against the democratic city-state’s inherent philosophical problems and institutional arrangements (Monoson 1994: 185 ff.).

In the dialogue Gorgias, Socrates discusses with Gorgias, Polus and Callicles. Socrates starts with a critique of Athen’s great politicians, first of all Pericles (Platon 1991a: 515b ff.). Socrates’s main question is whether the great politicians have had the good as ground for their politics and whether they on this ground have had as the only aim to make the Athenians as good as possible: Have the Athenians really been ameliorated by Pericles? Have the Athenians not, on the contrary, been brought into depravation such as it has been told that Pericles made the Athenians lazy, cowardly, chatty, and money-grubbing, because he instituted payment for holding a public office? (Platon 1991a: 515e).

These critical questions go to the root of the Athenian democracy because payment for public offices was a necessary precondition to ensure that all citizens, not at least citizens with limited means, could participate in the political institutions of the city-state (Euben 1994: 202 ff.). The oligarchs regarded this arrangement as the final decline of the city-state that the citizens should be paid for participating in the political life (Dodds 1959: 357).

In contradiction to this arrangement, Socrates poses himself – as Plato’s spokesman – as the only Athenian who tries to preserve true statesmanship (t? a?th?s politik? tekhn?), and the only one who transforms it in practical politics by always taking the best (to beltiston) into consideration and never merely pleasantness (to h?diston) (Platon 1991a: 521d).

Herewith, the contradiction is brought to its extreme between on the one hand the leading Athenian democrats with Pericles in front and on the other hand Plato with Socrates as spokesman. Socrates is according to Plato the only representative for the true statesmanship which is a profession (tekhn?), namely, political philosophy as a tekhn? building on insight into the good (Platon 1991a: 521d). In this way, Socrates becomes the only one who puts political philosophical tekhn? into practical politics, the philosophy Plato in the Seventh Letter named ‘the right philosophy’. This is the fundamental contradiction that is developed in the entire Republic.

  1. Republic – From totalitarian political philosophy to antidemocratic political ideology

At first it is not useful to go into details to determine whether Plato is right in his critique of democracy. The problem lies in the general construction of political philosophy. Under cover of democratically formed dialogue, Plato, with Socrates as his spokesman, constructs the ideal city-state in a long monologue. It is hierarchically constructed with three classes, namely, the leaders with insight, the soldiers with courage and the artisans with sober-mindedness where the right order between classes is determined as justice (Platon 1991b: 432b – 435d). The leaders of the city-state should keep desire under control. This should be done by living promiscuously instead of having a wife and children in one family, by not having any property and by being maintained by the third class or estate (Platon 1991b: 450b – 461d). The coming leaders, finally, should be educated through a long philosophical education which should give them an insight in justice (dikaiosyn?) and virtue or the ability to exercise the good government (Platon 1991b: 444d). The ideal city-state is called a kingdom when it has a single leader, and an aristocracy, which means the government of the best, when it is governed by the few (Platon 1991b: 445d).

This ideal, however, appears to be a perverted ideal model of a city-state which in modern language is governed by something like a combination of consistent rationalized technocracy and a military dictatorship. Plato uses the so-called aristocratic form of government as a platform for criticizing the four known forms of government: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. It stated in advance that aristocracy is not only a good but also the only and incomparable best form of government, which stands in contradiction to all the other forms of government. If the aristocracy is the right form of government, all the other forms of government must be wrong.

Unfortunately, it is not so easy to reject Plato’s critique of the different forms of government. Plato presents a sharp and precise critique of the four mentioned forms of government, not at least of democracy where the problem of freedom is discussed. Since all forms of government are exposed to a sharp critique, it becomes difficult for the democratic-minded reader to reject the critique as irrelevant. The reader can even come to the conclusion that the Republic is a magnificent philosophical work, which is of course the dominant opinion in the history of philosophy.

However, the problem in Plato’s critique is that, if we accept the critique, it follows that we should also accept the premise of the critique. We must then abandon dialogue because the selected leaders have raised themselves, through their insight, above the dialogue with the many who, according to Plato’s allegory of the cave, have not understood anything (Platon 1991b: 514 ff.).

If the reader does not accept the ideal aristocratic state at the outset, he can assume the political realistic perspective and move further on in the historically well known forms for government. Here we meet, first, timocracy, which is signified as the second best form of government after the kingdom or aristocracy. In modern English usage, this could be determined as a form of military dictatorship while it in the ancient context is most similar to the form of government in the city-state Sparta, what Plato also explicit mentions (Platon 1991b: 544c).

For the democratic minded reader this form of government is not acceptable. He can therefore choose to go on in Plato’s hierarchy of governments to the oligarchy where the few have government by means of their fortune. This model is neither acceptable.

This brings us to democracy where the problem, according to Plato, is that all on equal footing are obsessed with unrestrained freedom and no one has the necessary philosophical qualifications to relate to it. What Plato does not mention is that it is only in the democratic city-state that there is developed a genuine political philosophy through the open and public discussion in the city-state and that all this political-philosophical discussion focuses on the concept of freedom and what follows of it (Hansen 1996: 91 ff.). Plato’s political philosophy is in itself a testimony to open discussion in the democratic city-state. It is not developed in the city-state Sparta he praises but in Athens whose democracy he criticizes (Popper 1962a: 198 – 201).

Plato has a point in his critique of the handling of freedom in the democratic city state. It was a problem how freedom should be handled in the same way as it is a problem in a modern democracy. The excessive desire for freedom leads according to Plato to the dissolution of any authority (Jones 1957: 44 ff.). The examples Plato emphasizes are so ironic and living that they could have been examples taken out of our own time such as the dissolution of the authority in the relation between children and their parents, between teacher and pupil, etc. (Platon 1991b: 562e – 563e). In this connection Plato has also some grotesque and humorous descriptions when he makes ironic remarks about freedom that gains ground overall, even among domestic animals where horses and donkeys have been so conscious of freedom and self-confident that they push against everyone who is standing in their way (Platon 1991b: 563c). In the middle of the irony and the grotesque, Plato asserts that freedom in the democratic city-state only deserves critique.

  1. Popper: How can we organize the political institutions so that bad or incompetent leaders can be prevented from doing too much damage?

On this background, it could be a temptation to recognize Plato’s critique but in that case there is only the possibility in Plato’s universe to move upwards in the hierarchy of forms of government to an oligarchy, a timocracy or an aristocracy. But neither of these forms of government is acceptable and we therefore lack a passage from Plato’s critique to an open discussion of how the problems Plato has pointed at should be understood in a democratic philosophical perspective and how they eventually could be handled in praxis. The reader is enclosed in Plato’s hierarchy where there is no way up the ladder because the one form of government is worse than the other and where there is also no way down, where one man’s tyranny is the only possibility. In short, there is from a democratic perspective no possibility to maneuver in the political philosophical universe of hierarchical forms of government. The reader is enclosed in this philosophical construct which thereafter, as mentioned, is presented as an open philosophical universe which is supported by the Socratic and the democratic deliberation, two sides of the same coin.

On this background, it will be right to characterize Plato’s political philosophy such as it has been presented in the Republic as a totalitarian political philosophy which from a democratic perspective is pointing toward some political philosophical choices where neither of them is acceptable because neither of them satisfy the fundamental democratic oriented demand to every form of government that it as a reflexive relation should be open for discussion.

That is not all that can be said, however. Plato is not only a political philosopher in Athens. He is also exactly what he characterize Socrates as, namely, a statesman or a politician, and he may have considered himself to be that outstanding statesman who had the insight everybody else lacked. This is Popper’s opinion: “Plato speaks here of himself” (Popper 1962a: 154). If this is the case, either Plato becomes at best a philosopher king in his political-philosophical hierarchy or, at worst, a philosophically seductive tyrant.

Popper’s fundamental critique of Plato in The Open Society and its Enemies is that Plato presents a closed universe where the essential thing is who with more or less insight should govern such as it is represented in Plato’s hierarchy of forms of government (Popper 1962a: 121). In contrast Popper claims with a reference to Stuart Mill’s mentioned Considerations on Representative Government that the essential question is not “who should govern” but that political leaders in all forms of political regimes, included democracy, potentially are dangerous and that the right question on that background is: “How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage” (Popper 1962a: 121). It is in extension of this question that Popper points at democracy, not because democracy in its positive determined sense should be the good form of government but on the contrary because democracy does not have this positive determination and therefore permanently has to be determined or legitimized and therefore contains the potential for a permanent critique of any political leader or any form of government.

It is therefore not that case that Popper rejects Plato’s critique of democracy’s tendency to let freedom become unrestrained. However, this was not Popper’s urgent problem when he during the Second World War was sitting as political refugee in New Zealand writing against the totalitarian Nazis and fascist regimes that dominated Europe and the rest of the world. Plato’s political philosophy is from Popper’s perspective totalitarian because it is, like in the allegory of the cave (Platon 1991b: 514a ff.), grounded on the idea that a single or some few persons should be able to reach an insight that all others are excluded from and that this insight thereupon should be able to legitimize the power that these few persons – kings, aristocrats and philosophers – without contradiction should rule over all others in the city-state.

In Popper’s perspective, Plato’s political philosophy can only be characterized as totalitarian whose significance in all its greatness is being worthy of critique because it is inevitable and therefore only can be bypassed with critique. In that sense Plato’s Republic can open an interesting discussion about the democratic city-state and of our modern democracy and in that sense can Plato’s political philosophy still have an inestimable significance for its critiques. Plato’s philosophy is unavoidable; it stimulates political-philosophical discussion to this day. In this connection it is, as a hermeneutical opening to Plato’s political philosophy, worth remembering that Plato not only was a philosopher, he was also a politician and political ideologue – a strong antidemocratic political ideologue in the democratic city-state Athens.

  1. Sophism and tragedy – The sophist’s political philosophy and the tragedy at the theatre as critical reflexive institutions in the antique democracy in Athens

Herewith has the question been raised: what is the alternative to Plato? From a hermeneutical perspective, it is not enough to exercise critique of the antecedent philosophers. The philosophers must first of all be seen in their own time and in their own social and cultural context. Here it is interesting that there is an alternative to Plato, namely the democratic city-state itself with its many cultural and philosophical expressions. In the Republic, Plato turned against all that which we in the light of history see as the great and sublime in the golden age of Athens which is connected to democracy. It lasted with short interruptions from its introduction with Cleisthenes in 507 until 322 where it was turned down by the Macedonians. It is in this relatively short period that democracy becomes developed as a form of government and that there is created the political, military, artistic, architectonic and philosophical institutions that in their unity form the democratic city-state. The summary of this form of government is that it is open. Herewith is meant that the last determinations of the city-state concerning government and social life always is standing to discussion.

It is in this context that philosophy arises as a big living discussion of the fundamental problems in Athens. It is here first of all the sophists that start the philosophical discussions in their teaching of the sons and young men in the Athenian upper class. Some of the sophists are known such as Protagoras (490 – 420), Gorgias (485 – 380), Prodicus (470 – 400) and Hippias (480 – 410), also because they are mentioned in Plato’s dialogues, but there has been ´many others. The sophist have through Plato got a bad reputation as seducers, deniers of truth and strategic rhetoricians and this reputation has been passed on through all the history of philosophy because there as mentioned was no understanding of the fundamental background of philosophy in democracy. From a cultural sociological perspective, Socrates and Plato belong to the same typology as the sophist. They are, from a sociological perspective, only different forms of philosophical schools responding in different ways on the open democratic form of government. When Plato claims that philosophy is something totally different compared to sophism, this can only be understood as a part of his anti-democratic rhetoric where he will repress that it is precisely in the democratic city-state that a living philosophical discussion is taking place.

The other big institution is the theatre, which challenges and emphasizes the reflexivity of life and politics in the democratic city-state. Here we have the three great dramatist Aeschylus (525 – 456), Sophocles (495 – 406) and Euripides (485 – 406) who created the Greek tragedy. It is first of all through the tragedy that substantial individual and common conflicts and dilemmas have been brought to reflection in the broad population in the democratic city-state. But in the Republic, Euripides and the other tragedians are related to tyranny and democracy and they should be forbidden to enter city-states with higher-ranking constitutions such as oligarchy, timocracy and aristocracy. In the Republic it is even said that the poets pass from town to town, letting eminent actors with winning and euphonious voices present their plays for the mob and that they in this way mislead the city-states step by step toward tyranny and democracy (Platon 1991b: 568a-d).

  1. Pericles’ funeral oration – the democratic alternative to the totalitarian political philosophy

Plato’s main adversary is Pericles (495 – 429), who is the great leader of democracy in Athens and who Plato see as the person before all others who has contributed to the decline of Athens such as Plato had experienced it (Rhodes 2010: 59 ff.).

Pericles’s speech in the popular assembly has never been published but Thucydides has a reproduction of the famous funeral oration for the fallen in the first year of The Peloponnesian War 431 – 404 (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXIV, 1 – XLVII, 1). In Pericles funeral oration, we find a positive and idealized reproduction of democracy in Athens which in any sense constitute a counterpoint not only in relation to Plato’s critique of democracy but also in relation to all Plato’s political philosophy such as it is presented in the Republic (Loraux 1981: 183 ff.). It is the dominating opinion among philologists that Thucydides’s reception of the funeral oration in all essentiality can be led back to Pericles and therefore can be used as a historical source (Sicking 1995: 404 – 425; Bosworth 2000: 1-16).

In Pericles’s edition of democracy, it is freedom which is presented before all other things as the foundation of the democratic city-state – just as Plato also is pointing at and criticizes in the Republic. Pericles makes a clear distinction between private and public life (Thunderbird 1967: Livre II, XXXVII, 1). The individual citizen should as a private person follow the city-states laws, but apart from that, the city-state should be governed by tolerance and every person should have the right to live in a way which he finds appropriate for himself. In contrast, public life is about doing the good for the benefit of the city-state (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXVII, 2).

In the democratic city-state, pleasure and joy is according to Pericles high evaluated. There are festive competitions in the city, beauty and pleasure has significance in the public and the private life, and there is a rich business with other states that gives access to all the worlds’ commodities (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXVIII).

In military practice, the democratic city-state is according to Pericles an open city where all can see what happens and where nothing is hidden for enemies because military strength not only builds on preparation and strategies but also on individual strength and the ability to exercise judgment in the situation (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXIX, 1). This personal ability is according to Pericles related to the education with a free training where the personality is educated to easily act on his own judgment in the concrete situation, contrary to the Spartan who is only able to make war with military discipline and who has no personal courage (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXIX, 2).

The citizen who does not take part in the public life of the city-state is according to Pericles useless. The public discussion takes place in the city-state in which all problems can be deliberated in common before action (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXX, 3). In this way the Athenians are, according to Pericles, able with greater boldness to make a plan, because the largest inner strength is to be found by those who recognize both the horrifying and the pleasant and on that background does not fall back before the danger. In this context the Athenians should not according to Pericles be afraid of helping others instead of awaiting help from others (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXX, 4).

Pericles presentation of the democratic city-state has a philosophical ground. Pericles says that “we are cultivating the beautiful in simplicity without resorting to the bombastic” (philokaloum?n te gar met’euteleias) (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXX, 1). Herewith is meant that the beautiful is subordinated an aesthetic judgment which the Athenians are able to pronounce (Kakridis 1961: 47 ff.; Castoriadis 1997: 287 f.; Castoriadis 2008: 163 ff.). In the same way Pericles presents also a moral criteria for practice which is expressed as follows: “we take the philosophical deliberation serious without losing the determination (philosophoumen aneu malakias)” (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXX, 1). This means that the Athenians are able to integrate the philosophical perspective, deliberation, and to let this deliberation be the ground for a decision and the following action (Kakridis 1961: 47 ff.; Castoriadis 1997: 287 f.; Castoriadis 2008: 163 ff.). This aesthetic, moral and practical deliberation gives the Athenians the possibility to take care of both their private affairs in the house (oikos) and the public affairs in the city-state (polis) with insight (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXX, 2).

Pericles’s conclusion is, that “Athens is a mentor for the rest of Hellas” and Athens is the city where each single citizen autonomously in one person can unite the most forms of practice with a versatile happiness in life’s beauty (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXXI, 1).

It should be clear that Pericles’s funeral oration expresses many essential features of the democratic city-state. It applies both to the private freedom to live and act as desired and to the public freedom to deliberate together with citizens about the common affairs, commonly to establish the laws for the city and participate in the united warfare. This should all be done by developing the practical, the aesthetic and the moral sense, that is the philosophy which according to Pericles is included in every life situation.

Pericles’s funeral oration should have been kept around 430 and Plato’s Republic should have been written around 380. Historically, Pericles’ funeral speech is prior to Plato’s Republic, but it is also in a philosophical sense prior in the way that it is Pericles and in a broader sense the democratic city-state Athens that poses the agenda that Plato criticize fifty years later. According to Karl Popper, Plato’s critique of democracy is both an expression of a totalitarian political program and a totalitarian political philosophy (Popper 1962a: 86 ff.). Today, it should no longer be possible to maintain Plato’s hermeneutical political-philosophical perspective on democracy in Athens. The hermeneutic perspective should be turned around. It is Pericles and the democracy in Athens that are prior to the totalitarian critique of democracy. However, this is not the end of the reading of Plato. In fact, it has only just begun – and it should continue as a further deconstruction of Plato’s totalitarian political philosophy and practice – and in a further perspective it should continue in a deconstructive reading of all forms of totalitarian political philosophy.


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