what I’m up to: reading The Republic again

How time slips away. When I launched this website 2 years ago, I intended to post often; indeed I intended it to be a kind of online record of the thoughts that right now I still keep mostly in word-processing documents on my PC. But I haven’t evolved that far yet. I still feel that my thoughts are in many ways not ready for prime time.

Still, with so many days creeping by between posts, I want to write something. I know some of you check in regularly to see whether I’ve posted anything, and I actually prefer not to disappoint.

One thing I can mention is that I have a sideline nonfiction project that I’m tentatively calling Green and Free. It’s intended to be a work of environmental philosophy. I’ve decided to do it because I have a strong interest in the environment, but it seems that the environmental movement as a whole, if there is anything that corresponds to that blanket term, does not have a consistent philosophy, and I suspect that this fact is what makes progress difficult in improving our relationship with the environment. My proposed title points to what I think may be the root problem for achieving the improvement of environmental deterioration: that we believe that acting in ways that are not environmentally harmful will cost us at least some of our personal freedom. It’s possible that this is true, but it’s also possible that it’s not, or so it seems to me.

This focus has given me new path in my self-directed liberal education. Now my plan is to read my way through the Great Books, starting with the works of political philosophy. Right now I’m reading Plato’s Republic. I remember reading it in 1980 or 1981, while I was a janitor at Vancouver General Hospital. I’d sit at a table in the Heather Pavilion cafeteria after lunch reading my Penguin paperback. I remember being pleased with how readable it was, but although I was able to follow the argument well enough, I don’t think I got much out of it. It’s not enough just to read such a book; you have to study it.

All my reading now is studying—or more like studying. I read a little each afternoon, highlighter in hand, and in the morning type what I’ve highlighted into Word documents. This is still busy-work and not really study, but it is a step closer to it. I try to let the ideas work on me.

I’ve just been reading the section in which Socrates is trying to discern the structure of the soul. He comes up with three distinct agencies within the soul: reason, the desire nature, and what he calls the spirited nature—that in us which stands up for ourselves and shows courage. He has an ingenious argument for showing that there are in fact different agencies within us. For temptation reveals this: we really want another cookie, but we deny ourselves in order to limit our caloric intake. The desire is real, and so is that which overrules the desire. According to Socrates, this points to actual different parts within the soul.

This notion made me think of Freud, and his analysis of the psyche into the three agencies of ego, superego, and id. These too are apparently separate actors within the individual mind. I don’t know to what extent Freud was influenced by Socrates and Plato, but to me it seems a clear descendant of the same idea. (Freud is later on in the Great Books series, indeed he is the last author in the set.)

Socrates is further arguing that the different parts of the soul are closely analogous to the different parts of a state, by which he means the main classes of a society, which also have their different functions within the state. This isomorphism between individual and state seems to be one of the main themes of The Republic. For Socrates, getting the state to function properly is closely analogous to getting the individual to function properly. That proper functioning, which is the harmonious cooperation of the different agencies, seems to be what Socrates means by justice, the search for which is the launching-point of the dialogue as a whole.

So there you have it: a bit of what I’m up to.

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