How does Plato’s philosophy hold together, and is it still something we can make use of in the modern age? Our recent explorations of Plato’s Timaeus and Phaedo showed us how humanity is supposed to fit into the cosmos, but the details seemed hopelessly archaic: The Theory of Forms is problematic, and there don’t seem any convincing, well-grounded reasons to believe in Plato’s optimally harmonious world. But if Plato’s purpose was ethical, then Socrates’ mythical stories might be more about putting us in the right frame of mind to live in a just and healthy fashion.
Jonathan Lear applies his psychoanalytic training to help modernize Plato, and we read three of his essays: “Inside and Outside the Republic,” “Eros and Unknowing: The Psychoanalytic Significance of Plato’s Symposium,” and “An Interpretation of Transference,” which starts off by comparing Socrates’ questioning with psychotherapy.
The connecting thread between these essays (which are chapters 10, 7, and 4 of Open Minded respectively; we also read the introductory first chapter, “The King and I”) is the connection between the individual human mind and the world that we collectively create, and it’s very useful to connect Lear’s analysis to our social construction episodes (starting with ep. 227). Plato’s Republic stresses the importance of proper upbringing of citizens, because this is how we’re constructed as social animals, how we internalize our culture (see also our recent Dewey on education episode). This internalization continues throughout our lives in various ways. What’s trickier to describe is externalization, where through our habits, our artworks, our speech we contribute back to the culture’s ongoing evolution. According to Plato, the character of a state emerges from the character of its citizens and vice versa.
Lear defends the Republic against charges that the relation between psyche and polis (i.e. mind and society) is merely an analogy, and a question-begging one at that. Bernard Williams described this analogy as papering over the fundamentally oppressive character of Plato’s ideal state. An individual person is one according to Plato where the rational part of the soul (the logos) is firmly in charge of the appetitive (eros) and honor-seeking (thymos) parts. These parts are necessary to motivate us to eat, reproduce, and fight in defense of family and state, but they shouldn’t be making any of our decisions. Plato describes this result as a harmonious soul, a just soul, since it’s reason that understands justice and will put these capacities to their best use.
But famously, if you analogize this to people and say that some people are fundamentally appetitive and so properly should be doing menial work, and some others are fundamentally thymotic and so should be the guardians, then these groups both get ruled by the wise philosopher-king class, and really, none of us today wants that kind of world.
Williams argued that in order for the lower classes to understand that they need to obey, they’d actually have to be reasonable enough. But does that mean that our “gut” (the seat of eros in the Timaeus) needs to also have a reasoning part? This is one of the many ways that the analogy falls apart. Another example: Plato criticized the democratic state as too diverse to have direction; it’s always pulling this way and that in conflict with itself. Plato also described the state as determined by the character of its members, so that should mean that the individual citizens are also “too diverse,” but this really makes no sense, as diversity is a matter of different citizens having different characters, not a matter of each citizen having different characters.
Lear’s essay on the Republic responds by saying that the relationship between soul and society is not analogical but this literal, causal, metabolic process of internalization and externalization that I’ve described. One misleading factor is that we only notice that the parts of the soul are different when they’re in conflict, but of course they’re not usually in conflict at all; most of us are not at constant war with ourselves. As Socrates describes in the Phaedo, the truly temperate person is not someone who has these strong urges that they’re constantly having to tamp down, but someone who’s been habituated to not have these urges at all. So the eros-dominated person in society is not one who is ceaselessly seeking to satisfy their pleasure, but one who has been educated to only have essential desires, not frivolous or excessive ones, and who uses rationality to maximize pleasure by being able to put off some pleasures in service of greater pleasure overall. Such a person does use rationality, then, despite still being dominated overall by personal desire, and can rationally acknowledge that it’s those who are wise at ruling who should actually rule.
For Lear, the way we can tell if a personal way of balancing yourself makes sense is whether it can be externalized to a coherent society. Plato’s analysis of the democratic citizen is that they don’t have a strong will, that they are pulled hither and thither by any influence that comes along. That really is a self-conflicted individual, and when externalized to a society, we get the whimsical democracy that Plato warned us against. A tyrannical individual soul is one who is really a servant of their own desires, and when this is externalized, you get a society with a tyrant at the top, i.e. this tyrannical soul, and everyone else oppressed into serving those desires. It’s only the just, well-balanced soul, at peace with itself that can be externalized into a just society according to Plato.
Lear compares the three parts of the soul for Plato to Freud’s three parts of the psyche and correlates the development of those three parts for Freud from a more primitive picture of conscious vs. unconscious to the development from Socrates’ view where there’s just a person and their mutually contradictory beliefs (or more broadly, the mind’s rationality against the unreason of the body) to Plato’s view of parts of the soul that help to explain some of our conflicts.
Lear’s essay on The Symposium adds to this picture by meditating on eros and its role in supposedly connecting us to the divine. While in The Republic, eros is just the desiring part of the soul, in Socrates’ speech in Symposium, eros is the messenger to the divine; it can self-transcend as our merely animal lust points the way to appreciating beauty not just embodied in an individual but the Form of Beauty itself. As Lear tells it, this picture is undermined in the dialogue when Alcibiades, presented as the incarnation of beauty (i.e. he was super hot), stumbles drunkenly into the party and praises Socrates even as he says that he’s unable to commit to following Socrates’ teachings.
This according to Lear is not just the comedy it reads as, but is also tragedy: Eros tries to catch the divine but is continually unable to do so, much like the half-beings Aristophanes–in his speech earlier in the dialogue–describes as constantly searching for their other half, so sex is an attempt to biologically merge that is inevitably unsuccessful.
In The Timaeus, the emphasis was the harmony of the universe, but Plato (through the character of Timaeus) admitted that yes, of course there is suffering, and plenty of opportunities for things to go out of balance. These are just inevitable byproducts of being embodied in the first place, and the only escape from them is (per The Phaedo) to live and then die as a philosopher. But what if instead of evaluating the plausibility of Plato’s grand visions of the universe and the afterlife, we diagnose them? One process of externalization is putting forward explanations for things, and the primary form for this is not scientific theory but storytelling: We paint the world to make it a sensible place to live in. So the attempt to depict the world as ultimately harmonious and these problems we run into as just blips in an optimal grand scheme is an attempt to live with and grapple with suffering.
What Lear argues against in Open Minded is not that such externalization is bad. It can’t be; it’s a fundamental way we move in the world. However, when it becomes dogma, when it is no longer useful for the situations we have to cope with, when it causes conflict with other people, then to be open minded is to be able to put such externalizations aside to make way for new ones. In his introductory chapter he anticipates the objections of hard-nosed analytic philosophers to anything Freudian, or Lacanian, or having to do with any of the other parts of philosophy that many find suspect, to be “not real philosophy.” We can’t let the desire for rigor, for high academic standards, rule out in advance whole theoretical frameworks like psychoanalysis, Marxism, or post-structuralism that many have found very useful. We can’t make excuses for being ignorant of these thinkers. Lear specifically criticizes Karl Popper’s approach whereby you simply ask “is the theory falsifiable given appropriate evidence?” and then dismiss these tools as unscientific and hence useless. Lear’s thinking provides a model that involves both analytic philosophy and more “literary” thinking that reinterprets both Plato and Freud to try to make them more palatable and useful to us now.
In the case of The Symposium, Lear’s essay focuses on a comment right toward the end that a great playwright should be able to write both comedy and tragedy. Lear interprets this as an invitation to read Plato’s dialogue itself as both comic and tragic alternately, and so emphasizes as I’ve said both the explicit, harmonious view of eros connecting us to the divine and the implicit discord between eros (desire) and leading a good life, which is stated explicitly in The Republic. I think this is supposed to tell us something about how we run aground against our own externalizations, which is a common theme throughout these essays.
The essay on transference describes how this commonly discussed phenomenon in therapy whereby a patient transfers emotions felt for parents or others onto the analyst is a type of externalization. We normally see the patient’s attitude here as simply mistaken, but because externalization is literally how we build the social world, it’s not just a matter of confusing true with false but part of the dynamics of creating what truth is, and the relation between the image of the world, including society, that each of erects (our private “idiopolis”) and the shared social vision that constitutes society is complex.
To engage in transference (in other essays, Lear uses the term “phantasy” to capture similar phenomena) is to put forth a social proposition, which in the case with the analyst is “we are lovers” or “we are enemies” (or both). The proper response for the analyst is of course to deny both of these and to instead help the patient understand the social move being made.
Socrates, according to Lear, did not understand transference. Socrates’ method of questioning is supposed to help people, and it’s part of Socratic doctrine that people don’t like being hurt and know and appreciate when they’re being helped. Yet the Athenian people that Socrates were trying to help felt attacked, and they transferred that rage (which should have been directed against their own inconsistency and other flaws) back at Socrates himself, putting him to death.
Alcibiades in The Symposium accuses Socrates of being his tormentor: His lover who frustrates him, who he can’t look away from but also can’t follow the way they both would like. Socrates should have in this case been a good therapist and understood that this was all Alcibiades’ problem, and worked to help him, but instead he plays along with the farce and (according to Lear) ultimately doesn’t care about the plight of people who can’t put their rationality in charge of their behavior and follow him along the philosophers’ path. This is tragic, according to Lear; Alcibiades famously betrayed Athens.
In both of these cases, by Lear’s diagnosis the Athenian experiment in democracy failed because of its inability to appreciate and follow Socrates’ advice, the implication being that we are always in danger of failing in our social goals because of a lack of understanding of ourselves and how we work together, and so this is what Lear hopes to help remedy in giving us the analyses that he does through his essays, just as he tries to help his psychoanalytic patients individually and directly.
Image by Genevieve Arnold. Audio editing by Tyler Hislop (and Mark).