From Round to Square (and back)

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Flowers Bloom (7c)—Bloom's Republic II

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Flowers Bloom."
One year ago on Round and Square (10 May 2011)—Around the World in Eighty Days
[a] Learnin' RF
I am supposed to give a series of lectures this week on Allan Bloom, the obscure University of Chicago professor who wrote a blockbuster bestseller on education precisely twenty-five years ago. At this time in 1987, The Closing of the American Mind was climbing the New York Times bestseller list. I am going to try a new approach. Instead of posting what I have written (I do a lot of that here on Round and Square already), I am going to post some of what I have been reading in preparation for the lectures. Consider this week's posts—which will appear under various topics on Round and Square, ranging from "Beginnings" and "Flowers Bloom" to "Displays of Authenticity" and "Endings"—as lecture preparation. 

And, just for the record, regular readers probably already know that I will post the actual lectures not long after they have been given. This week's posts focus on the preparation process, and tackling Allan Bloom's arguments should get your blood pumping. Today's text comes from the preface to the second edition of his incomparable translation of Plato's Republic. It is a "do-over" that builds upon Bloom's spectacular success with The Closing of the American Mind. It is also a "do-over" in another respect. Bloom makes the argument—a specific argument—for looking again at Plato and his Republic.
Shakespeare   Republic1   Republic2   Emile   Emile1   Emile2   Emile3   Emile 4   Emile5
 ***  ***
[b] Bumper Acropolis RF
I have put this particular text from Allan Bloom under the topic "Just Do It Over." It is the preface to the second edition of Plato's Republic (a do-over of sorts in its own right). More significantly, though, it is a plea for another look at one of the key texts of Western civilization. He wrote this preface four years after The Closing of the American Mind swept the bookstores. Both Bloom and his publishers were clearly interested in extending the moment, as it were, and those years in the late-1980s and early-1990s were packed with prints and reprints of Bloom's work. We'll get to all of them this week on Round and Square as we consider Bloom World.

The plan has been to go "in order," so we have looked at Shakespeare's Politics (1964) and the first edition of Plato's Republic (1968). We are skipping ahead to 1991 today precisely so that we can juxtapose the prefaces. We'll go back to the 1970s tomorrow, but today's text is a perfect lead-in to my position on Bloom. I may have disagreed with the bulk of his argument about Western canons and intellectual fodder, but his translation of the Republic and the Emile (which we will consider tomorrow) is a gift to learning that makes him—to my mind—a truly significant figure in the world of letters. I will have much more to say about these matters in the coming days.

Plato's Republic—Preface to the Second Edition
Allan Bloom (1991)
[c] Moon Unit RF
When I teach the Republic now, the reactions to it are more urgent and more intense than they were a quarter century ago when I was working on this translation and this interpretation. The Republic is, of course, a permanent book, one of the small number of books that engage the interest and sympathy of thoughtful persons wherever books are esteemed and read in freedom. No other philosophic book so powerfully expresses the human longing for justice while satisfying the intellect's demands for clarity. The problems of justice as presented by Plato arouse more interest, excitement, and disagreement at some points than at others. When non-philosophers begin their acquaintance with philosophers, they frequently say, "This is nonsense." But sometimes they say, "This is outrageous nonsense," and at such moments their passions really become involved with the philosophers, frequently culminating in hatred or in love. Right now Plato is both attractive and repulsive to the young.

[d] 道 RF
This is most obvious when they reach the section of the Republic where Socrates legislates about music. Between the late-1940s and the mid-1960s there was a lull in music's power over the soul, between the declining magnetism of high romanticism and the surge of rock, and music was not much of a practical or theoretical problem for students. They took note of the fact that Socrates is for censorship—a no-no, of course—and went on, not talking much account of what in particular is being censored. If forced to think about it, they tended to be surprised that music above all should be the theme of censorship when that seemed to  be the likely candidates were science, politics, and sex. But now that musical frenzy has resumed its natural place, Socrates is seen to be both pertinent and dangerous. Discussion is real and intense, for Socrates understands the charms—erotic, military, political, and religious—of music, which he takes to be the most authentic primitive expressions of the soul's hopes and terrors. But, precisely because music is central to the should and the musicians are such virtuosos at plucking its chords, Socrates argues that it is imperative to think about how the development of the passions affects the whole of life and how musical pleasures may conflict with duties or other, less immediate pleasures. This is intolerable, and many students feel that the whole Socratic understanding is subversive of their establishment. As I said, the Republic is perennial; it always returns with the change of human seasons.

[e] Bellicosity RF
Another theme, not unrelated to music, also suddenly became current in the late 1960s and remains central to general and professional discussion of politics: community, or roots. And again the republic becomes peculiarly attractive and repulsive because no book describes community so precisely and so completely or undertakes so rigorously to turn cold politics in to family warmth. In the period just after World War II, no criticism of what Karl Popper called "the open society" was brooked. The open society was understood to be simply unproblematic, having solved the difficulties presented by older thinkers. The progress of science was understood to be strictly paralleled by that of society; individualism seemed no threat to human ties, and mass society no threat to meaningful participation. The softening in his narrow liberal position can be seen in the substitution in common discourse of the less positively charged term technology for science, the pervasive doubt about whether the mastery of nature is a very good idea, and commonly expressed sentiments of lostness and and powerlessness on the part of individual citizens.

[f] Lostness RF
In the days of thoughtless optimism, Plato was considered irrelevant and his criticism was not available to warn us of possible dangers. Now it is recognized that he had all the doubts we have today and that the founding myth of his city treats men and women as literally rooted in its soil. Everybody is sure that Plato knew something about community, but he makes today's comfortable communitarians uncomfortable by insisting that so much individuality must be sacrificed to community. Moreover, they rightly sense that Plato partly parodies the claims and the pretensions of the community. The uninvolved Socrates, distrustful of neat solutions, does not appear to be a very reliable ally of movements. Plato, criticized in the recent past for not being a good liberal, is now shunned for not being a wholehearted communitarian. He is, however, back in the game.

But, above all, the Platonic text is now gripping because of its very radical, more than up-to-date treatment of the power of the philosophic imagination, Plato treats the question as it was never again treated up to our own day—proving thereby that reason can penetrate to the essentials at any time or place. Perfect justice, Socrates argues in the dialogue, can be achieved only by suppression of the distinction between the sexes in all important matters and the admission of women on equal footing to all activities of the city, particularly the virtual suppression of the bodily differences between the sexes and all the psychic affects habitually accompanying those differences, especially shame, which effectively separates women from men...

[g] Stele will RF
For students the story of man bound in the cave and breaking the bonds, moving out and up into the light of the sun, is the most memorable from their encounter with the Republic. This is the image of every serious student's profoundest longing, the longing for liberation from convention in order to live according to nature, and one of the book's evidently permanent aspects. The story still exercises some of its old magic, but it now encounters a fresh obstacle, for the meaning of the story is that truth is substituted for myth. Today students are taught that no such substitution is possible and that there is nothing beyond myth or "narrative." The myths of the most primitive cultures are not, it is said, qualitatively different from the narratives of the most rigorous science. Men and women must bend to the power of myth rather than try to shuck it off as philosophy wrongly used to believe. Socrates, who gaily abandons the founding myth or noble lie he himself made up for the sake of the city, looks quixotic in this light. This can be disheartening to the young person who cares, but it can be a beginning of philosophy, for he is perplexed by a real difficulty in his own breast. This is another case where Platonic radicalism is particularly timely for us.

Finally, in terms of my own experience of these last twenty-five years, after the Republic I translated Rousseau's Emile, the greatest modern book on education. Rousseau was one of the great readers of Plato, and from my time on that work I gained an even greater respect for the Republic. Emile is its natural companion, and Rousseau proved his greatness by entering the lists in worthy combat with it. He shows that Plato articulated first and best all the problems, and he himself differs only with respect to some of the solutions. If one takes the two books together, one has the basic training necessary for the educational wars. And wars they are, now that doctrine tells us that these two books are cornerstones of an outlived canon. So, I conclude, the Republic is always useful to students who read it, but now more than ever.
[1] Plato, Republic [Translated with an introduction by Allan Bloom] (New York: Basic Books, 1968),vii-x.

Plato, Republic [Translated with an introduction by Allan Bloom]. New York: Basic Books, 1968.

[h] Guardian duty RF

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