Sunday, June 14, 2009

HEA: Plato is a fascist


Schumpeter (1954: 55-56) -

"...Plato's influence is obvious in many communist schemes of later ages, there is little point in labeling him a communist or socialist or a forerunner of later communists or socialists. Creations of such force and splendor [The Republic] defy classification and must be understood in their uniqueness, if at all. The same objection precludes attempts to claim him as a fascist. But if we do insist on forcing him into a strait jacket of our own making, the fascist strait jacket seems to fit somewhat better than the communist one: Plato's 'constitution' does not exclude private property except on the highest level of the purest ideal; at the same time it enforces a strict regulation of individual life, including limitation of individual wealth and severe restrictions upon freedom of speech; it is essentially 'corporative'; and it recognizes the necessity of a classe dirigente - features that go far toward defining fascism."

Do some masterpieces defy classification? Moreover is this irrelevant because the nature and manner by which humans perceive the world necessarily involves classification, multiple classifications, and classifications which may overlap and not be mutually exclusive. In other words - we do it anyway. Case in point.

What do you think of the features by which Schumpeter characterizes fascism? The list is missing the obvious role of a strong state military, but the point about the relatively greater amount of allowable private property is well noted. What about the dangers of the "philosopher kings" ideal leading to fascist dictator in practice?

BTW - Schumpeter thinks that Aristotle's "criticism of Plato....is strikingly unfair and, moreover, misconceives completely the nature and meaning of Plato's creation" (1954: 59). Despite the fact that "the arguments he [Aristotle] adduced for private property and the family and against communism were all the more successful..." (1954: 59).

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geoffrey said...

I've been nudged toward this post and invited to leave a comment, which I will happily do.

I will begin with giving some background on my position. I am strongly influenced (and that may be understatement) by my undergraduate Greek professor, James Arieti, who holds a peculiar position on the dialogues. He argues that they were written as dialogues--that is, drama--for a reason, to see the unfolding of a conversation and an argument. It's hard for us to say what the underlying reason for doing it this way is (perhaps advertisements for Plato's academy, perhaps entertainment, perhaps guides and illustrations in rhetoric and argument, and there are more options on top of these), but the choice of dramatic dialogue over systemic treatise is an important one.

In light of that, it's really hard for us to point to one character and say, "That's what Plato thinks," even if that character is Socrates. Therefore, I agree mostly with Schumpeter on a number of his points. First, I don't think it's possible to nail Plato down on what he thought. We can analyze the arguments his mouthpieces, but we can't--and this is due mostly to lost context--get beyond that.

Further, I don't know what purpose being able to nail Plato down as X or Y political philosophy gets us. All that would seem to be is a gigantic argument from authority, and as Boethius tells us, we shouldn't use arguments from authority.

What does remain is to take the arguments as they're made in different places on their own terms and go forward. Yes, Republic has overtones reminiscent of communism, but does this make Plato a communist? Reading The Laws, Plato definitely seems more fascist, in the way Schumpeter uses it and along contemporary definitions as well.

To answer the two questions Emily posed, classification is inevitable, and it is difficult to get the full meaning of a work whose context is lost. My favorite example of this is to consider what humans 500 years from now may think of Dana Carvey's imitation of Ross Perot on Saturday Night Live in the 1990s. Supposing they [future people] could access it as we do (that is, they can view the film, not just read a transcript or hear audio only--never forget that reading the dialogues in your easy chair is not the same as a staged performance, or even having it read aloud to you), would they get the nuance we understand from a guy with a strange voice and exaggerated ears saying "Can I finish?" over and over and over again?

I make this point because judging a whole work, especially one as expansive as Republic and classifying it, say as "communist literature" seems to miss the point, especially on Plato's own terms. Remember, of course, that amid arguments over private property, censorship, and selective breeding, there is one of--if not the--first accounts in Western literature of the division of labor being the bedrock for society. The question of how that account, the arguments and "refutations" offered against it, and what follows that exchange is what everyone, regardless of what century in which they read it, can get out of Republic. To me, that is the legacy of Plato's dialogues, that people 2500 years later can still see themselves on both sides of unresolved issues (just what IS justice anyway?) and can listen to the arguments and discussion.

It is difficulty--if not impossible--to say definitively whether Republic is a work of communist or fascist literature, or whether Plato was an ur-communist, crypto-fascist, anarcho-syndicalist, or proto-liberarian. Further, not only is it difficulty, is it likely irrelevant.

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