Ascending and Descending
As promised, my ancient political theory class is now up and running on Tumblr. I’ll be doing some writing through the class blog, but — much more importantly — all of my students are creating their own blogs, which they’ll be filling over the next fifteen weeks with weighty philosophical observations about justice, heroism, and living choice-worthy lives.
Here’s my first post over at the class blog:
Plato’s Republic is most famously understood, and most commonly discussed, as a dialogue about the problem of justice. But it’s also a play within a play … and both of those plays make prominent use of the theme of ascent and descent to make a point about justice and the most choice-worthy life.
Tomorrow — on the first substantive day of POLS 383 — we’ll discuss the most famous of those ascents and descents, as students will have read The Allegory of the Cave, from the beginning of Book VII.
After carefully explaining the allegory so that his young interlocutors understand who’s in the cave, who’s able to leave the cave, and what the stakes are for returning to the cave, Socrates tells Glaucon:
“Then our job as founders…is to compel the best natures to go to the study which we were saying before is the greatest, to see the good and to go up that ascent; and, when they have gone up and seen sufficiently, not to permit them what is now permitted.”
“To remain there…and not be willing to go down again among those prisoners or share their labors and honors, whether they be slighter or more serious” (519c).
The Allegory of the Cave raises a whole host of interesting questions, but one to consider is why the founders of Socrates’ ideal city in speech must compel those with the best natures to descend again into the cave to free the prisoners who languish there.
If they truly have the best natures, wouldn’t they descend of their own accord (even if the task is difficult and dangerous)? Is there anything choice-worthy or heroic about the life of someone who must be compelled to assist those who are in captivity?