Tragedy and Plato’s Republic

April 29, 2011

I recently found an article that provided a tragic interpretation of Plato’s Republic which, given the material we covered earlier in the semester, seemed an appropriate vein of discussion. John D. Harman’s article “The Unhappy Philosopher: Plato’s Republic as Tragedy” highlights the philosopher’s obligations to two worlds, the perceived world (as in the Cave) and the real world (outside of the Cave) to interpret it in a tragic sense. The philosopher, of course, knows the Forms, and because of that it is most just for him to be a ruler of the “perceived” world.  Harman argues that the nature of the philosopher necessitates him to do the just thing and re-enter the Cave, but in doing so he must move away from the Forms themselves and by the very definition of the Forms, he fails to implement them ideally, which creates the philosopher’s tragedy (590-1).

In class we defined tragedy as a genre in which the protagonist (who has a heroic trait) struggles with forces beyond his control and is inevitable defeated by them. In order to be tragic Plato’s philosopher must be struggling with forces beyond his control (fate) and be defeated or fail, inevitably. The tragic conflict occurs because of the philosopher’s need to go back to the Cave and attempts to guide and rule the people. The philosopher’s very nature must turn him on this course, as this action is intended to be just and represent the Forms in the perceived world (Harman, 590).

The philosopher is ideal for governing the kallipolis because of his superior knowledge of the Forms. As a ruler, he must represent and use the Forms to guide the perceived world. Though the attempt to represent and utilize the Forms in the kallipolis is inevitably flawed it can be viewed as the philosopher’s heroic trait. A true philosopher knows that it is most just for him to rule because of his knowledge of the Forms, which must be the guiding principles and values of the kallipolis. By following his knowledge of justice and the Forms, he must rule.

It is unsurprising that this fails in the perceived world. Since the Forms are nothing that we can actually perceive with our senses (that limitation being a key aspect of the perceived world) it is impossible that the philosophers could purely implement the Forms in the perceived world. Harman explains:

While the realm of eternal ideas can be apprehended and appreciated through reason, such action as reason entails can only be undertaken              in the imperfect realm of appearance. Because action can only proceed in this latter world it can never coincide with the perfect pattern set              for it in the philosopher’s vision of the Idea of the Good (590).

The philosopher must attempt to represent the Forms in his actions in the perceived world.  But the Forms are not action, not visual, and can’t be perfectly portrayed, because of their nature, in a world of perception (or appearance, to use Harman’s language). The crucial differences between these two worlds create the “fate” aspect of this tragedy. Their differences by definition make the philosopher’s attempt to rule and coincide with the Forms an inevitable failure. His philosophic nature necessitates him to do the just thing and rule the people in the perceived world, but by doing so he is moving away from the Forms themselves. Harman references the Noble Lie and the lies that Plato instates in the kallipolis as evidence of this (582-3). Clearly, the Forms are in the intentions behind these actions, but not purely represented. The philosopher who has knowledge of the Forms is compelled to rule and guide, but because of the nature of the Forms and the limitations of the perceived world he is destined to fail.

All of the elements of tragedy from this interpretation are present. The implication of the argument is that it is impossible to create a perfectly just city because of the failure of the philosophers to use the Forms in the perceived world. The tragic failure is due to the incompatibility between the perceived world and real world. The Forms themselves lose their perfection when applied the perceived world, which would mean they lose their functionality and don’t exist in the world where they are implemented. It seems questionable at the very least to use such ideals in a political system. The ideal form of justice will never be a reality in the perceived world. The failure of these lofty ideals is significant. Since the Forms are not functional and can’t be correctly applied to the perceived world, the philosopher is only imitating and acting on what he thinks he knows of the truth, but not actually representing it. The philosopher, in this sense, is more of a poet than a philosopher, and Socrates establishes him as the ruler. Rather than setting up an ideal just city, there is a set of problems and imperfections that arise from the idea of establishing a world of perfect forms incompatible with the perceived world. The establishment of the Forms seems to justify the rule of the philosopher-kings, but the establishing perfect ideals do not translate into an ideally just system. Since the Forms are not ever going to be able to be functional in a world against their own nature, the more important element of their establishment might be that they justify the philosopher-kings actions. Justice, in the kallipolis, is never ideally just, but perhaps closer to Thrasymachus’ estimation of justice. The philosophers have the advantage of ruling by claiming they have genuine knowledge, and supposedly having this genuine knowledge justifies their rule. But if their ability to represent the genuine knowledge in the perceived realm is a failure, then they have no justification for rule.  Thus, by viewing the tragic conflict between the two worlds, the failings of Socrates’ ideal city and Forms are exposed.

The article by John D. Harman can be found online here:


Harman, John D. “The Unhappy Philosopher: Plato’s “Republic” as Tragedy.” Polity 18.4 (Summer, 1986): 577-94. Palgrave Macmillan Journals. 


Tragedy: Why do we need it?

April 28, 2011

Toward the very beginning of class, Professor Mackin had once asked the question: “What is the importance of tragedy? Why do we (or even do we) need it?” and for some reason, the question stuck with me throughout the whole semester and since then, I’ve thought and pondered about why it is that tragedy still remains and is still very much a part of our lives as well as in our literature. I found myself looking for and finding various instances that proved why “tragedy” was in fact, an important and possible necessary aspect in our lives (contrary to what we are discussing now in class with Plato’s Republic, where Socrates advocates the necessity of “censorship” in order to attempt to achieve the kallipolis- the ideal harmonious city).

In lieu of what is happening now in Japan, a thought struck me when I saw a few weeks ago on the CNN news, an interview with a caller who was amidst and currently bravely surviving the catastrophic consequential aftermath in Japan of the earthquake and tsunami. Having seen all the unfathomable destruction and loss of life and the captured moments on tape of despaired citizens (one scene was of the backside of a woman standing in front of a massive pile of debris that was the remains of what was once her home, who, speechless for words, slowly crumbled down to her knees in tears), it was expected to hear about unfortunate news and reports of what was happening in the affected areas. Surprisingly, however, the woman (who was an American teaching at a school in Japan) sounded optimistic in both her voice and manner that even the reporter pointed out her encouragingly cheerful manner/behavior. The woman even continued to mention how despite the tragedy that was happening all around them, the people surrounding her were all strong in mind, and were working to support one another through this time of crisis. After hearing and seeing this news, I realized what could be considered a possible answer to the above question- Tragedy is what provides a chance for the “protagonist” (whom has befallen to the “fate” caused by forces beyond his control) to overcome his nihilistic tendencies by accepting his “fate” and instead, trying to approach and view the situation in a probable, favorable and possibly optimistic light. Tragedy is the inevitable part of life that almost forces or allows all protagonists of humankind to grow and become stronger by overcoming the obstacles and forces “tragedy” produces. Although Japan is now currently suffering the aftermaths and ongoing crises of the tsunami, earthquake and potential nuclear threats, it is also because of this tragedy that the citizens of Japan are pulled to collectively work together to support one another (through methods like financial funding to aid rescue efforts and donations of equipments and volunteers to aid the affected) and just like with many other tragedies resulting from natural disasters or other inevitable forces, many other parts of the world are now reaching out to try and provide help to those Japanese citizens who are suffering miles away from their home country. It may suffice to say that through the inevitable hardships tragedy presents, something optimistic like “hope” results and thus further develops and strengthens (possibly to an even deeper extent that if the tragedy had not happened) the bonds between and within all members of humanity.

Popular culture also dictates a similar message in movies such as the famous “Lord of the Rings”- here in a quote from the “Two Towers”, Samwise Gamgee was trying to encourage Frodo on his difficult mission and trial as the beholder of the all-mighty “one ring”:

“Sam: ‘It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.’

Frodo: ‘What are we holding onto, Sam?’

Sam: ‘That there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.’”

Just like how Frodo strives to fulfill his inevitable fate as the anointed beholder of the “one ring” whom was destined to destroy the source of all evil in order to save mankind and restore peace within the world, we all individually are fated to accomplish a role in life that is unique to us as an individual (although it may not be as severe nor as extreme a role that Frodo had played in the movie; there is also the fact that we presently may not be aware of what our destined fates might be). As the protagonist of the story, Frodo is fated to carry the burdening task of journeying to Mordor in order to rightfully destroy the evil source of power that many forces strived to attain for their own selfish desires for power- although he at first denies the responsibility, Frodo eventually comes to realize that he can not run from the fate that only he can accomplish, and thus resorts himself to accepting the task and the responsibilities that came with such a task. Frodo in many ways is similar to our beings when we go through our daily lives- we struggle with accepting our fates, and though eventually we may accept what our destined fates, we still at times experience doubt and insecurity- yet it is “hope” (as portrayed by an archetypical character like Sam wise Gamgee) that allows us to push forward and is what keeps us motivated to achieve our fate in life, no matter what the consequences may be.

Without tragedy to provide examples of life at its (occasional) lowest moments, it would be difficult for people to fully appreciate the meaning of life, and what it means to “be alive” in and to fully “experience” this world. As it is mentioned in the Bible, it is necessary to be aware of the opposites, in order fully appreciate the potential of both opposing factors and to also comprehend and achieve the balance which results from knowing each end of the scale: “…where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.”[1] As a human being, we are only as good as the sum of our parts, so in order to try to achieve our full potential, it is necessary to have an awareness for that which is not only “good” or sensibly “right” and “non-painful”, but also “”bad”, “unfortunate” or even “unfavorable” so that we may better comprehend, develop and achieve a greater knowledge that may lead to a balanced understanding as to what is or to what goes on in a “life/lifetime”.

Tragedy is an essential component (in both our life and literature) that provides the opportunity for one to expand one’s perspectives on life, and also allows one to “test” oneself in order to see how much one is able to successfully achieve, or to be able to recognize the limit one is capable of achieving. In the process of realizing what consequential actions tragedy provides, one also is able to gain knowledge of the “opposites” and thus is able to further understand the depth of, and possibly further develop an appreciation for, what each opposing factor represents and provides to one’s life. Though the consequences of tragedy are not always pleasant (such as the ill-fated Oedipus who unconsciously fulfilled his own unfortunate fate and consequentially took out his own eyes as punishment), it also serves as a reminder to us on how it is essential that we still maintain hope, and that no matter what obstacles life may throw in our path, we must learn how to withstand, if not then at least how to deal with, the consequences so that the experience will in the end, be something that contributes to our development as our individual self as a human being amongst the happenings of this unpredictable earthly world.

[1] Prayer for Peace- St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)

Fate vs. Destiny

April 27, 2011

When I was first introduced to what “tragedy” is in class, it was hard for me (at first) to comprehend why it was defined as such, where the “protagonist is fated to be confronted by various forces beyond his control and is ultimately outdone by them”. I realized later that the reason why I had such a difficult time fully understanding the definition was possibly because of the notion I grew up with, from watching movies and TV shows and innocently digesting whatever “morals” it was trying to put forth, of how a protagonist is capable of changing their “destiny” as long as they put forth the right actions.  After referring to sources available via Google[1], I learned that in “common” conversation, the two subjects are thought to be essentially the same and is often treated as so, but since they study of the two subjects is known to be quite esoteric, if one was capable of studying and scrutinizing the difference between the two in greater detail (and I’m not sure that I can myself be able to fully differentiate the two because of my lack of philosophical knowledge), the main difference may be that “fate” deals with a sense with uncontrollable and unforeseen forces due to “preordained course of your life that will occur because of or in spite of your actions”, while “destiny” provides the protagonist a chance to be involved in a “set of predetermined events within your life that [they can] take an active course in shaping”. To put in a broader sense, fate is destiny. As described by wikipedia, “Fate is used with regard to the finality of events as they have worked themselves out; and that same sense of finality, projected into the future to become the inevitability of events as they will work themselves out, is Destiny”. Therefore, fate is related to the unalterable events of the past, while destiny is related to the accumulation of these past events that project to create an almost certain future (that also still allows for possible changes to occur).This is evident even within our common conversation: “His calling is to become a lawyer” but as to whether or not he will actually become a lawyer still remains to be seen (depending on his actions). One other interesting fact is in how the word “fate” is derived from the word “fatality” or “fatalism”, which implies a sense of lack of choice, and the sense of inevitable “death”. Therefore, as we established earlier in the blog, fate is an outcome that results (and inevitably undoes the protagonist) from unseen and uncontrollable forces- interestingly enough, fate is also referred/represented to as gods in classical and European mythology; three goddesses dispensing fate, the “Fates” determined the events of the world through the mystic spinning of threads that represented individual human destinies (one goddess spun the thread of your life, the other measured its length, and the third would cut it when you were to die)- while destiny involves a willful participation in achieving an outcome that was directly related to oneself. Although one may not be able to fully be “in control” of the event in one’s life, destiny can still imply how one can still take part in the events, even if it is to only to start to get the ball rolling inexorably forward on the predetermined course of one’s life.

2nd Brave New World Comment

April 27, 2011

I am glad that Kyle just recently posted something about Brave New World. I actually just started reading this book for the first time this past weekend (simply because it has been recommended to me numerous times) and I was also shocked to see so many parallels to Plato’s Republic.

One of the biggest similarities that I found was actually in the Preface that Aldous Huxley wrote himself. Huxley discusses the practical ways in which a society similar to the one that he writes about could come into existence. Here are the things he says are need for this type of society, “First, a greatly improved technique of suggestion – through infant conditioning and later, with the aid of drugs, such as scopolamine” (Huxley 12). This is similar to what Kyle references below about the ideas Plato had about conditioning children at a young age.

Huxley also states “Second, a fully developed science of human differences, enabling government managers to assign any given individual to his or her proper place in the social and economic hierarchy. (Round pegs in square holes tend to have dangerous thoughts about the social system and to infect others with their discontents)” (12). This statement seems to align itself exactly with Plato’s concept of justice: everyone remains in their proper place. That idea remains present throughout the rest of the novel with everyone in the society being conditioned (or brainwashed) to believe that their place in society is the “best” place. I believe that Huxley is also referencing the ways that people in this society will be molded as they grow up and are taught.

As I continue reading this book, it became very clear to me that both Plato and Huxley’s societies are almost identical except for a few very fundamental differences. The first is technology. Plato obviously did not have the same idea of what was possible scientifically as Huxley did (and even Huxley would probably have changed certain things based on the technology we have today). As a result, the idea of “conditioning” children is different. Plato simply asserts that children should only be exposed to very specific ideas and stories whereas Huxley institutes an entire system of brainwashing, involving playing repeated phrases while the children sleep. Also, Huxley begins adapting the children for their specific classes before they are even born via different chemicals and environments. You could almost consider every human in Brave New World to be a “test-tube baby”.

I believe that another fundamental difference between the two societies is the ways in which the authors view them. Plato asserts that the Republic would be an ideal society and something that we should strive for while Huxley has the opposite idea. After reading the preface and some of Huxley’s other comments it is clear that Huxley believes that a society like this is inevitable but it is something that we should avoid at all costs. In fact, the plot of the actual novel centers around a character who is aware of all of the flaws in the society he lives in and attempts to escape it as best he can.

It leaves me to wonder whether or not Huxley truly analyzed Plato’s Utopia and discovered some of the flaws with the concept. Although, in Brave New World, you could argue that the society is essentially functioning in the way that Plato intended it because each person is set in their place and the society fulfills Plato’s definition of justice. I think that it would be very worthwhile for anyone who reads Plato’s Republic to also read Brave New World because it offers two very distinct perspectives about a very radical society.

Neo-Romanticism Comic and Plato’s Opinion of Art in the Perfect City

April 26, 2011

This comic pokes fun at Neo-Romanticism, which is used to make melodies more folk like, and like the comic says give it a “subtle hint of modal spice”. I was reminded of the part of the Republic where Socrates bans certain forms of art in order to create the perfect city. Neo-Romanticism is simple and doesn’t explore dissonances, making it a close candidate for Socrates’ perfect city. I thought it was a funny comic that also related well to the perfect city, with no spice. The city built on a triad.

Similarities between the Republic and Huxley’s Brave New World

April 25, 2011

A few people in class have mentioned some books that seem to be heavily influenced by Plato’s Republic, but I don’t believe anyone has mentioned Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  Huxley’s book is a depiction of a utopian (or, more accurately, dystopian) society in the year 632 A.F. (632 years after the death of Henry Ford).  Many aspects of the way Huxley’s dystopian society functions are strongly reminiscent of how Plato designs the society in the Republic.

One feature that both societies share is the abolishment of the family.  The same reason for this is given in both books: devotion to familial bonds must remain subservient to devotion to the state in order to prevent conflicting interests (such as the conflicting interests which were the source of the drama in Antigone).

Another idea from the Republic that appears in Brave New World is the division of the population into different classes.  In Plato this takes the form of the three classes that are identified in the Myth of the Metals; Huxley divides his population into five classes.  Both divisions, however, are based on the idea that different people are suited to different professions, with those of a more intellectual nature being the rulers.

In both societies, all the classes are needed to allow the society to function in the best way.  In Huxley’s book, several maxims are repeated over and over again to the citizens; one of these is: “Every one works for every one else. We can’t do without any one. Even Epsilons are useful. We couldn’t do without Epsilons.”  (Epsilons are the lowest class in Huxley’s dystopia.)

The upper classes in both societies have no qualms about lying to those in the lower class (for the lower classes own good, of course).  In the Republic this takes the form of the Myth of the Metals and the rigged lottery that determines the mating process.  In Huxley, it is only the upper classes who have access to knowledge such as that contained in Shakespeare or the Bible, books that are banned for everyone except those at the top of society’s ladder.

An interesting parallel between both books in regard to the upper classes is the idea that those in the upper classes do not necessarily have a happier life than those in the lower classes.  This is the charge proposed by Adeimantus in book IV of the Republic, and Plato responds by saying that while it may very well be true, it is not an issue as the setup proposed by Plato will lead to the greatest overall happiness.  In Brave New World, the only people who are unsatisfied with their life are the main characters, who are members of the highest class.  The rulers in this society state explicitly that those who are “under the water line” (in the lower classes) are happier than “those above it.”

A final parallel between the two is the use of cultural conditioning while the citizens are young.  Plato stresses the need to tell the right kind of stories to children.  In particular, children must not be told stories in which the gods do not perform anything other than wholly good deeds, and heroes do not fear death as these types of stories would encourage the wrong kind of behavior.  The cultural conditioning in Brave New World takes the form of hypnopaedia, which is Huxley’s term for a process in which a recorded phrase is repeated insistently while the listener is asleep.  The phrases that are played are carefully written to encourage behavior that the rulers find to be appropriate for citizens.

While Huxley’s version of the ‘utopian’ society ultimately seems much more sinister, when one compares the two proposed societies one can see that they really are not that different: both share the basic premise that the more intelligent people rule the rest for the benefit of the people as a whole.

Relating The Republic to Real Life Societies

April 24, 2011

While much of Socrates proposed Republic seems ideal but implausible, many societies throughout the years have implemented different ideas that are presented. When one looks at the communist societies of the USSR and the People’s Republic of China, you can see how they use ways of selection of citizens for certain positions. One excellent example is how they would select children from birth who would be the countries athletes and compete in the Olympic games. These kids are trained in different aspects of physical training in order to become the best they can be and be an asset to their country. In a similar way, there were some children born that would be chosen to be leaders and be members of the party. This would be a very select few and would probably be determine by small factors like how healthy or strong the newly born baby looked or if someone foresaw leadership in their future. I do not believe that it had anything to do with the factors that Socrates proposes regarding the theory of the forms and I do not believe the people in charge of making decisions where children would be placed thought that any one person would be associated with any type of metal. I would just like to propose that perhaps these leaders probably had read The Republic and derived some inspiration from that.