Plato's Fable: On the Mortal Condition in Shadowy Times

Plato's Fable: On the Mortal Condition in Shadowy Times

by Joshua Mitchell

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This book is an exploration of Plato's Republic that bypasses arcane scholarly debates. Plato's Fable provides refreshing insight into what, in Plato's view, is the central problem of life: the mortal propensity to adopt defective ways of answering the question of how to live well.

How, in light of these tendencies, can humankind be

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This book is an exploration of Plato's Republic that bypasses arcane scholarly debates. Plato's Fable provides refreshing insight into what, in Plato's view, is the central problem of life: the mortal propensity to adopt defective ways of answering the question of how to live well.

How, in light of these tendencies, can humankind be saved? Joshua Mitchell discusses the question in unprecedented depth by examining one of the great books of Western civilization.

He draws us beyond the ancients/moderns debate, and beyond the notion that Plato's Republic is best understood as shedding light on the promise of discursive democracy. Instead, Mitchell argues, the question that ought to preoccupy us today is neither "reason" nor "discourse," but rather "imitation." To what extent is man first and foremost an "imitative" being? This, Mitchell asserts, is the subtext of the great political and foreign policy debates of our times.

Plato's Fable is not simply a work of textual exegesis. It is an attempt to move debates within political theory beyond their current location. Mitchell recovers insights about the depth of the problem of mortal imitation from Plato's magnificent work, and seeks to explicate the meaning of Plato's central claim--that "only philosophy can save us."

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Editorial Reviews

The Philosophical Quarterly - Kenneth Royce Moore
Plato's Fable is . . . a well researched and eloquently expressed work of scholarship, and as such would be a valuable tool for any student of ancient philosophy in particular along with moral, metaphysical and political philosophy in general.
From the Publisher
"Plato's Fable is . . . a well researched and eloquently expressed work of scholarship, and as such would be a valuable tool for any student of ancient philosophy in particular along with moral, metaphysical and political philosophy in general."—Kenneth Royce Moore, The Philosophical Quarterly
The Philosophical Quarterly
Plato's Fable is . . . a well researched and eloquently expressed work of scholarship, and as such would be a valuable tool for any student of ancient philosophy in particular along with moral, metaphysical and political philosophy in general.
— Kenneth Royce Moore

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Princeton University Press
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Plato's Fable

On the Mortal Condition in Shadowy Times
By Joshua Mitchell

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12438-8

Chapter One


Unless philosophers become kings of our cities or unless those who now are kings and rulers become true philosophers, so that political power and philosophic intelligence converge ... there can be no end to troubles, my dear Glaucon, in our cities or for all mankind.

THE PREVAILING opinion about the character of reason renders this Platonic paradox quite unthinkable today. Philosophers, we learn in Plato's fable, are ruled by reason; yet in what sense could it possibly be true that reason is necessary to save us? As a fantastic artifice we may perhaps be entertained by this bald assertion, but to understand it as something more useful requires resources that we scarcely possess. Why this is so, and what those resources might be, is the question that concerns me here.

Wishing to defer for a time even more vexing problems, and in order to begin to understand just what might be at issue in the claim that reason is necessary to save us, let me offer a few thoughts about what will turn out to be a central concern of my analysis here, namely, the significance of imitation in mortal life. By way of anticipation, I suggest here that the problem ofimitation turns out to be what reason saves us from; and that we are well served by reading Plato's fable in that light.

Imitation in Mortal Life

In light of the scant attention imitation receives today, and in light of the predominant contemporary understandings of Plato's Republic, it may well be asked why imitation need be invoked at all in an exposition of this sort. Among most political scientists and many political theorists, for example, imitation is scarcely a subject of serious debate, because human beings are considered first and foremost to be rational beings, not imitative beings. Yet this prejudice is a relatively recent one, as a perusal of the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Tocqueville, to name only a few of the more prominent, attest. Reason is, of course, a central concern in all of their reflections; but whatever their conclusions may have been about it, fidelity to their subject matter as a whole entailed a consideration of the significance in imitation in mortal life as well. Today, the need for this conjoint attentiveness to reason and imitation has not been the starting point for political theorization. Indeed, the two most prominent devices in political theory during the past quarter-century-Rawls's veil of ignorance and Habermas's ideal speech situation-deliberately rule out imitation altogether, since all things inherited purportedly sully reason's acumen.

Fortunately, however, Rawls and Habermas are not our only resources. With a view to exploring the alternatives to this one-sided emphasis on reason, what I do in what follows immediately below is provide a synoptic historical overview of two contemporary tropes-namely, "socialization" and "identity politics"-that concern themselves with the theme of imitation. I should note right at the outset that my purpose in exploring these two tropes is specify how, as "ideal types," socialization underestimates the problem of imitation, and "identity politics" overestimates the problem of imitation. Said otherwise: The former is too optimistic, and the latter is too pessimistic.

To be sure, there have been attempts, especially in the last decade, to invoke "identity politics" in such a way as to suggest that the difficulties implied by its typological expression are not fatal. It is not by accident, however, that such treatments of "identity politics" achieve the purchase they do largely within the Anglo-American world, which has a long history both with pluralism and with absorbing emigrants from different nations and which, consequently, invites the conclusion that "identity politics" need not be characterized in the stark way I describe it here. This dubious conclusion has given rise to a strategy, adopted largely by the Left, of leveraging an already intact pluralism, with a view to elaborating new criteria for political inclusion, since relying explicitly on the liberal paradigm of interest alone would render "this" or "that" political "identity" invisible. Historical good fortune, however, should not be confused with theoretical clarity. That pluralism may be leveraged through the invocation of "identity politics" for the purpose extending the franchise in novel ways is a tribute not to the happy implications of "identity politics," but rather to the robustness of pluralism itself. If recent disaffection with the Democratic party platform of the 2004 election is any indicator, the attempt to leverage pluralism in this way may well have already reached its apogee; and the Left, in order to recapture its position of political prominence, may be better served, as Rorty has suggested, by returning to the category of rhetoric and thought that is native to the Anglo-American world and that underwrote the Progressive era, namely, pragmatism.

The Disappointments of Reason

Against the backdrop of what notion of reason can we understand the tropes of socialization and "identity politics"? A good place to begin is with the early progenitors of the liberal paradigm, who were usually nominally or once-removed Reformation Christians-a fact that will become relevant as our discussion proceeds. By the liberal paradigm I mean nothing more complicated here than the sort of thing elucidated by Madison, which persists under the rubric of pluralism. Most important for our purposes, reason is taken to be a faculty of preference formation, which deliberates among goods that are scalar-that are sufficiently commensurable so that by some evident or liminal calculus "this" can be preferred over "that." Politics works because these preferences, when represented in elected assemblies, with the appropriate checks and balances, can be mediated without the sometimes enduring acrimony that arises when differences of language, race, ethnicity, religion, and, more recently, sexual orientation obtrude and overshadow the scalar logic of preferences.

There has, of course, always been a measure of dissatisfaction with this pluralist model. In the last generation, this dubiety clustered in domains of research that sought to address the pressing domestic issues of the Cold War period. While the civil rights era might have been the occasion for the emergence of "identity politics," at the time the idiom of preferences and interests largely prevailed, because there was optimism that if the federal government successfully supervened over the "coarser elements [in local communities]," as Tocqueville called them, then the pluralist model would be vindicated. Had this occurred, race would not have shown itself to be an intractable problem to which the scalar logic of preference had no answer. Needless to say, the subsumption of much of the contemporary research on the politics of race within the category of "identity politics" confirms that pluralism has, on this count, largely failed.

It was, however, feminism, rather than race, that raised the first serious philosophical questions about pluralism in mainstream, secular political science. If women were not just another interest group, with differing preferences, then the justification for this would have to be that the difference between men and women was not scalar, but rather incommensurable. Women would have to be different in a way that the deliberative faculty of reason could not mediate. The use of the term "sex" seems rather out of place, I recognize, but replacing it with "gender" specifies the problem in a much less contentious way, and indeed partially masks the difference, since a difference that is merely "socialized" is one that is much more readily altered-and subsequently mediable-than one that is always-already-there, as sex is. Feminism occupies the space between the always-already-there character of sex and the always-alterable character of gender. From the former, feminism derives its leverage against pluralism; from the later, it derives its leverage within pluralism. As such, feminism is located in the boundary between pluralism and "identity politics." Because there are respects in which men and women are completely alike and respects in which they are completely different, this liminal position is inevitable. Feminism verges on "identity politics," but does not wholly arrive there. It straddles two worlds.

Hegel and the Origins of "Identity Politics"

"Identity politics" may not immediately seem to oppose Madisonian pluralism, but it bears no family resemblance to it, and that fact itself is telling. Madisonian pluralism emerges out of the Anglo-American tradition; "identity politics" is of Continental origin and can trace its proximal roots to Hegel's claim that in the course of the march of world history, Absolute Knowledge subsumes all "difference." Religiously expressed, this is a claim that God uses the oppositions between good and evil in order to redeem a fallen world, at the end of history. "Difference" and historical existence are coterminous here, though with the important addition that a promise of a final unification is held out as the substance of faith. Philosophy, however, has no place for either God's providence or for faith, since such religious notions are merely the "picture-thinking" version of what unmediated thought can know by and in itself. In Hegel's thought the insight about the relationship between historically inevitable difference and final unification that Christianity proffers is appropriated, though purportedly on the higher ground of pure philosophical thought. What Christians relegate to God, Hegel relates to Geist. At best, this is dubious theology; at worst, it is a theory of historical meaning that all but invited the response it received.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that "identity politics" is the response of the Hegelian Left to the notion that difference is subsumed by the Absolute. "Don't be a chump" may be the highest ethical imperative of rational choice theorists; "let the different remain different" is the call of those who champion "identity politics." Difference can never be subsumed; identity remains intransigently self-same.

We should not be confused about what this intransigence means for the prospect of mediation across the boundary that separates differing identities. "Identity politics" supposes not only difference, which pluralism acknowledges, but also difference of a sort that is not mediable through the scalar calculus of preference. Said otherwise, identity is not a preference. Preferences, because scalar, can be quantified; "identity" must be qualified.

By this I do not mean that identity can be comprehended by a constellation of empirical attributes which, taken in sum and properly configured, serve as a ready indicator of "this" or "that" identity. Quantitative research has certainly sought to proceed in this manner, but this method seems rather blind to what identity involves, since those who claim to be members of an identity group purport to speak authoritatively not on the basis of a constellation of empirical attributes, but rather on the basis of a constitutive experience that outsiders cannot know. The scalar preferences acknowledged by pluralism are, in principle, capable of being deliberated over by any and all citizens. Identities, on the other hand, are confessional, monological. About identity citizens cannot really deliberate, since the locus of its authority is not the faculty of reason. Identities are their own authority and provide their own authorization. They are self-same, immune from the possibility of appropriation and, therefore, incorporation; and bequeathed by the accidents of birth or the calamity of violence.

This harsh picture will no doubt be contested. I provide it, however, with a view to the original problem for which it was an answer, viz., the subsumption of all difference, the elimination of any remainder, in the system of Hegel's thought. Comprehended politically, "identity politics" is a strategy of resistance, a manner of declaring independence from a corrosive and dehumanizing logic of history. Indeed, that was its place in the anti-Colonialist literature. That is, perhaps, its virtue. Its cost, however, is precisely the mediation of difference that the liberal paradigm purports to make possible. The very strategy of resistance that is at the heart of "identity politics" yields a stubborn intransigence whose imitation assures that patterns of human thought and action are unlikely to change-or to be overwhelmed from without. "Identity politics," in sum, overestimates the problem of imitation, and this because it is a response to the impulse toward totalization that is at the heart of Hegel's project, and not his alone.

Rousseau's Gentler Form of Imitation

You will recall that the subject before us is the proximal source of the two tropes by which imitation is understood in contemporary thinking about politics. "Identity politics" is a particularly strong version, since its claim is that differences whose warrant is the always-already-there character of identity, and which are imitated from generation to generation, are not amenable to conciliation-or usurpation-by reason and its cognates, "preference," "choice," and so on. Identity remains what it is, not because of reason, but in spite of it.

A much gentler trope through which imitation is understood is found in the idea of socialization. The idea of socialization is not to be confused with Aristotle's account of the formation of character (hexis), which presumes that man has a "nature" (phusis) that establishes the boundaries of such formation at the same time that it establishes man's end (telos)-considerations that have no unambiguous equivalents in the literature of socialization. Aristotle has no direct bearing here.

The idea of socialization, like "identity politics," emerged in opposition to another idea, the pedigree of which we scarcely remember today. Curiously enough, both ideas emerge out of the Reformation tradition, though from different wings of it. "Identity politics," I noted, emerged in opposition to Hegel's philosophical project-which Hegel himself thought was perfectly consonant with Luther's own religious reflections. The idea of socialization, however, emerged in the thought of Rousseau, which is notable, among other reasons, because of Rousseau's opposition to the conclusions of that other citizen of Geneva about whom we know, namely, Calvin.

To put the matter succinctly: Hegel's reworking of Luther's incarnational and eschatological theology, on the one hand, and Rousseau's response to Calvin's ruminations on the depravity of man, on the other, are the occasions for the emergence of "identity politics" and the idea of socialization, respectively.

Let us briefly consider the theoretical relationship between Calvin and Rousseau, with a view to illuminating the question for which socialization-rather than original sin-is the answer. In Calvin's Institutes, we find one of the clearest formulations anywhere of the contested issue on which Reformation Christianity has taken one side, and Rousseau and his heirs have taken the other. Consider the following remark, which is found in a section entitled "Original sin does not rest upon imitation":

Adam, by sinning, not only took upon himself misfortune and ruin but also plunged our nature into like destruction. This is not due to the guilt of himself alone, which would not pertain to us at all, but because he infected all his posterity with that corruption into which he had fallen.

What Calvin understands is that in order to account for sin in the world (or, if you wish, wickedness), there are really only two alternatives available: Either it is "original" or it comes by way of what he calls imitation. Either it is always-already-there in everyone by virtue of Adam standing for all or it is passed along, now here, now there, by imitation-in our contemporary idiom, by socialization.


Excerpted from Plato's Fable by Joshua Mitchell Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Jean Bethke Elshtain
Mitchell encourages us to read a very familiar text in a new light. His book is rare in that it neither places itself in a particular camp of scholarship, nor ignores the thinking of others. I know of no other book like this one.
Jean Bethke Elshtain, the University of Chicago
Patrick Deneen
This book represents a singularly original, provocative, and profound interpretation of Plato's Republic. Moreover, it poses a fundamental challenge to contemporary assumptions about the mutability of human nature. A tour de force.
Patrick Deneen, Georgetown University

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