While plowing through the third year plan of The Great Conversation, I have found momentary breaks to pursue unrelated reading. Recently this has led me to renew an interest in science fiction and specifically Robert Heinlein as I picked up a copy of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Toward the beginning of the novel, Professor de la Paz asks the computer programmer protagonist what his political philosophy is. When the protagonist hints that he has no set political philosophy, the professor states, “Sometimes a man doesn’t have it defined but, under Socratic inquiry, knows where he stands and why.” The professor begins a series of questions starting with “Under what circumstances may the State justly place its welfare above that of a citizen?” and before long, he has identified the views and beliefs of the protagonist. In the following scene, a young woman approaches the professor with a clear articulation of her own political philosophy, only to find it fall apart under the same methodology of questioning. This anecdote serves to illustrate a key point in Socratic inquiry: the method exists to enlighten those feigning ignorance and to debase those flaunting knowledge.
Having just finished Plato’s The Statesman, I am struggling to figure out which camp I fall into. On one hand, my understanding of the state ruler’s role has been enlightened, while on the other hand I am completely confused. The dialogue has answered several questions while simultaneously provoking more. Perhaps this is exactly where Plato’s Socrates would want me. The unfortunate thing about this dialogue, however, is Socrates’ absence—after opening the dialogue and turning the reigns over to the Stranger and a Young Socrates, he disappears for the remainder of the talk. The result is a stylistically bare discussion void of Socrates’ wit and charm. The Stranger, taking Socrates’ place, is dry and methodical, while constantly apologizing for the “tediousness” of the talk.
The bulk of the discussion is spent understanding the role of the statesman, and the Stranger unleashes a string of metaphors to illustrate key points. Toward the end of the dialogue he justifies the use of metaphor in stating, “We take a thing and compare it with another distinct instance of the same thing, of which we have a right conception, and out of the comparison there arises one true notion, which includes both of them.” Through the metaphor and even myth detours, the Stranger arrives at a discussion of three primary governmental types: rule by one, rule by a few, and rule by many. Each of these is broken into two smaller categories (a formula used time and time again by the Stranger as he finds a virtue in breaking things into two equal categories over and over) with rule by one becoming monarchy and tyranny, rule by a few becoming aristocracy and oligarchy, and rule by many being democracy ruled by law and democracy ruled without law. The Stranger then seeks to determine which of the six comes closest to the elusive seventh, and perfect form of government—government by the “one true shepherd.”
Using the previously established points about statesman, the Stranger suggests that rule by one is both the best and worst form of government: “Then monarchy, when bound by good prescriptions or laws, is the best of all the six, and when lawless is the most bitter and oppressive to the subject.” The other two primary forms of government fall into sequential order with rule by a few being intermediate and rule by many being “weak and unable to do either any great good or any great evil.” The reason for the weakness of democracy lies in the divisions and numbers of the offices. This weakness, however, carries with it an inherent strength. While democracy does not have the potential for greatness seen in rule by one, it does not have the potential for great evil also found in rule by one. The Stranger explains: “And this [rule by many] therefore is the worst of all lawful governments, and the best of all lawless ones.” In this reasoning, democracy is seen as a more conservative bet with rule by one being the risky investment. Perhaps this is a good principle to remember in this time of political divisiveness—the inherent nature of democracy has a safeguard which keeps it from succumbing to the whims of one individual and oppressing its citizens. While it is difficult to hope for greatness from a nation ruled by many, it is a safer bet when considering the paucity of people who fulfill the requirements of a noble statesman.
Nonetheless, the dialogue leaves me with more questions than answers. While the Stranger argues that the noble statesman has a “direct intertexture of the brave and temperate natures” he does not go into depth about how this noble statesman is created. Are the virtues required to justly run a state taught, and if so, of what does the teaching consist? How can a state ensure that its ruler is one both temperate and courageous? Can a noble statesman be corrupted by the power of the state? What role do the people of the state have toward the creation of the statesman? While I desire answers to these questions, I must remind myself that if the Stranger were present, it would not be answers I received but more questions. Perhaps this serves as a reminder that with these questions, like all questions within Socratic inquiries, the answers are not as important as the journey.