Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Tom West on Rorty

According to Tom, THE difference between Rorty and Plato (and the American Founders) is that Richard didn’t think we could escape from "cave" (convention, our opinions) to the light of the "sun" (or the truth about nature). For Rorty, we’re stuck in the cave and it’s pointless cruelty to try to get out.

But is that quite right? According to Socrates in the REPUBLIC, the philosopher-king completely escapes from the cave into the sun. But the philosopher-king is an idealization or purification human or flawed, mortal experience created by Socrates to convince a potential tyrant of the utter superiority of the philosophical to the tyrannical life. The so-called philosopher-king is actually presented as a wise man who knows what gives being its beingness and so has wholly transcended the limits of images and imagination or language. Socrates actually locates himself in the cave (he says the prisoners are "like us"). For Socrates the point of life might be the attempt, never wholly successful, to escape from the realm opinion into the realm of knowledge and nothing but. The wise philosopher-king is an impossible ideal, an exaggeration of what we can know and do--just as the cave is an exaggeration of the closure of real human cities or countries to the truth.

For Rorty, the inability of contingent mortals to complete any project of turning opinion into knowledge, as well as the acknowledged inability of the philosophers really to persuade most people that they, because of their wisdom, have what it takes to rule justly, means that the democracy described in the REPUBLIC--as the least cruel or most diverse regime--is the best regime. So Rorty. the philosopher, thought he was compelled to engage in a sort of an ironic betrayal of the ideals of the philosophy and truth for the sake of justice; people will be happier if they believe there’s no point in trying to become wise and if they’re free to call true what opinions they find comfortable.

The problem remains, of course, that such a democracy can’t protect itself from tyrants and psychopaths (like our dead friend Tony Soprano). And there’s also the problem of human nobility and excellence, but they’re a problem when philosophers become kings too. Finally, there’s the problem that extreme democracy is a denial of what really know about ourselves. As Socrates explains, in a democracy old people will be compelled to use all means available to look and act young (so they don’t depress people with thoughts of death). And even more amazingly: Teachers will fawn over and be evaluated by students.

Discussions - 2 Comments

This is one of the most simplistic accounts of Plato I've ever read. It reminds me of the left-wing readings of Strauss or Bloom, where they want to wallpaper over the real the real West, with its real people, and replace them with left-wing Jacobin abstractions. But then again I've heard from many competent classicists that both Strauss and Bloom's reading knowledge of Greek was about equal to an undergraduate classics major's, and not a very talented one at that. Neither of them, I've been told, could even begin to understand the complexities, say, in Smyth's Greek Grammar. I take it you don't know Greek, eh? loquerisne graece? legisne linguam graecam? etiam latine? Straussici sunt barbari qui viros occidentales pugnant. credo te illis sequi. Si "ipse dixit," id verum sit, tamquam barbari dicunt.

Does Real Conservative have a point or does he just wish to come here for the purpose of name-calling? I'll grant you that it is done (partly) in Latin and it is done with talent but, unless I have missed something, there's no there there. Where's the argument Real Conservative? What can you offer us regarding Plato and Mr. Rorty? And I will expect an exegesis in Greek (with authoritative translations, of course) now that you have thrown down the gauntlet.

For my part, I think you raise a good point, Peter, about the philosopher-king being an ideal beyond actual attainment. But isn't this rather like Lincoln's statement about the Declaration: "They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, every where."

In other words, it needn't be--as Rorty suggests--that because we cannot fully know (or achieve) we should not fully seek to know (or to achieve). It does not follow that our inability to know or master the truth means that the truth is not out there or that we should give up and exist as if it weren't there. It's been many years since I've read Rorty in graduate school and I have not really felt compelled to go back to him since, so I cannot recall whether it is his argument that this kind of striving leads to the tyranny and injustice he despises. Is that roughly it? Is it your it is your counter argument, then, that this lack of striving, in truth (ha!), leads to tyranny. Is that roughly what you're saying or am I all wet? If it is, then why does Rorty say we should avoid tyranny? How does he know that it is bad? It's just the contingency under which he lives?

As for the difference between you, West and Rorty, are you suggesting:

1.) that West's view is that philosophy and knowledge are possible and attainable--so we should continue to pursue them.

2.)that your view is that philosophy and knowledge might not be fully possible but we should continue with it anyway because it's sort of possible?


3.) that Rorty's view is that because neither philosophy or knowledge are fully possible we should remove the temptation toward them and stop deluding ourselves?

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