Plato’s Republic in the Recent Debate

Francesco Fronterotta. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 48, Issue 2. April 2010.

Plato’s republic continues to arouse intense controversy among commentators, both for its ethical and political project and for its psychological, epistemological, and ontological implications for the knowledge of philosophers, who, says Plato, should be set as guides for such a project. Considering just a few examples from recent years, we might recall that a new critical edition of the dialogue has been published that contains significant innovations both in the text and in the attribution of lines to speakers. Moreover, this new edition has been accompanied by a volume of philological commentary edited by the same author. Numerous translations in the main modern languages have also been published with a more or less detailed apparatus of notes. An equally significant quantity of works of commentary, individual or miscellaneous, of extremely varied origin and composition has appeared, from the monumental work coordinated by M. Vegetti (1998-2007), to the volumes of O. Höffe (1997), E. N. Ostenfeld (1998), S. Sayers (1999), R. Gutiérrez (2003), B. Mitchell and J. R. Lucas (2003), S. Rosen (2005), M. Dixsaut (2005a-b), G. Santas (2006), and G. R. F. Ferrari (2007). Just this brief indication of the mass of philological, historical, and philosophical studies suggests the constant-and constantly renewed-appeal of a dialogue that is rightly considered as one of the most influential and representative of Plato’s thought.

This is not, of course, the appropriate context to suggest an interpretation of the Republic; more modestly, I simply wish to indicate some of the main lines of discussion that the recent critical literature has followed in order to bring out some of the problems raised by a reading of the work. A preliminary difficulty that should be faced in some way concerns the object of the dialogue: if Diogenes Laertius had no doubt in classifying the Republic as one of Plato’s political dialogues (Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 3.50-51), it is fairly easy to see that the work’s characteristic interweaving of themes can only be dissolved into clearly defined sections at the price of rather forced schematizations. In the face of such a complex articulation of the theme, one inevitably wonders where the essentially “political” nucleus of the dialogue is to be found, unless, of course, one wants to locate it in the interaction of the characters, in their different dialectical roles, or in the continuity of the sequence of arguments they expound. These problems have been given fresh attention, mainly by those scholars who refer to the “dialogical approach” (on which see below), but in my view such an approach would be an obvious diminutio. In any case, as Vegetti has observed, one can identify some fairly clear lines of thought in Plato’s conception of politics: from the definition of the status of the government of the city, and the requirements for being admitted to it, to its aims and the tools of consensus to maintain it, and also to the city’s corresponding social, economic, and institutional structure, with the examination of the class relations to which it gives rise and the various possible concrete situations in which the city is historically placed (in peace or war, establishing trading relations with other cities or not, and so on). The usual starting point for this investigation is the recognition that the existing city is “sick” (VIII, 544c), which leads to the study of the causes and course of this illness, with the goal of curing it and establishing an institutional model that is immune to the disease. The city’s main symptom is the lasting conflict, not unique to Plato’s Athens, between its distinct social components, the …, which produces a sort of permanent civil war within the individual cities or between the different cities in the Greek world. In this context, it is clearly the Athenian democratic system that is on trial, with Plato regarding it as inescapably exposed to demagogic decline coinciding with the subjection of the ends of government to the irrational forces of the masses, and thus in radical contradiction with the Platonic principle of pursuing individual or collective good on the basis of knowledge.

It is not difficult to recall the main elements of the “cure” that Plato suggests for treating the city’s “sickness”: it is a matter of establishing an organic distribution of functions and duties based on the nature and ability of each individual and each social group, resulting in an efficient and harmonious balance. In Plato’s view, the necessary condition for this organic system is for government to have a limited number of “wise men”—the philosophers, who perform their guiding function by virtue of the rational faculty and competence that prevail in them. Plato associates this ruling group with another more numerous one, made up of “warriors” rigorously subordinated to the “wise men,” whose orders they must carry out. By virtue of their “aggressive” character, the “warriors” function as a security apparatus, controlling and safeguarding public order and guaranteeing the preservation of the whole. A third and last social group, the most numerous, performs productive and commercial functions, indispensable for the well-being of the city and necessarily subjected to the control and discipline of the superior groups in order to contain the individualistic element connected with the production, accumulation, and exchange of wealth, which might otherwise subvert the balance of the whole and damage the good order of the city. Various theoretical and practical consequences for political and institutional engineering derive from this rigid hierarchical division. To guarantee the general aim pursued by the action of the governors and the exclusive application of rational criteria in the exercise of this action, Plato prescribes the elimination of any possible source of individual interest or inclination in the education and daily life of the members of this group. The collectivization of wealth and affections and the severest genetic and pedagogical selection of the philosophers aim precisely at preserving the necessary conditions for access to power and its exercise. Despite the complexity of these political structures and precepts, Plato is sharply aware of the inevitability of the degeneration of any institutional form, which, however close to the model just described, is exposed to the unstable nature of human affairs and history or, more generally, to the characteristic ontological deficiency of the sensible world, which is irreparably bound to becoming rather than the eternal stability of the ideal, intelligible model.

Given these problems, it is easy to see that the choice of topics in the recent critical debate on the Republic discussed here must be selective. That said, one can distinguish an ethical-political ambit, a psychological ambit, and an ontoepistemological ambit—a distinction that is partly founded on the consideration that Plato’s politics is based on a psychological doctrine that presupposes, in turn, an ethics built on a metaphysics of values. According to this metaphysics, values exist as universal and unchangeable paradigms of individual human conduct, to which we must therefore turn constantly by using the rational faculty that is placed at the summit of the capacities of the human soul. This view of the rational faculty raises the further problem of the logical and epistemological means of access to knowledge of these realities.

Ethics and Politics: The Dialogue, the City, and the Utopia of the Philosophers’ Government

The background to the twentieth-century debate on the ethics and political philosophy of the Republic is still represented by Karl Popper’s violent accusations against Plato in The Open Society and its Enemies (Popper 1944). As is well known, for Popper, Plato claimed to identify the “laws of history” that predetermine the course of human affairs and, in particular, the condition of man and his function in the city and the state. At the same time, consequentially, Plato also constructed in the Republic a socio-institutional scheme founded on a series of a priori principles that are aimed at achieving collective happiness at the expense of any form of individualism, freedom, or individual inclination. Plato’s was thus a “totalitarian utopia,” with the utopian character depending precisely on reference to a set of inspiring eternal and immutable principles “set in heaven” that are to be reproduced in political and institutional action. Achieving this project entails bending any subjective tendency of the individual citizens to the superior need of setting up a perfect society, sacrificing interests and options of the parts in the name of the supreme value of the well-being and efficiency of the whole.

Popper’s impassioned tirade has aroused all sorts of reactions, most of them dominated by the usually quite explicit intention to defend Plato from the accusations made against him. However, such reactions often end up implicitly trying to defend Plato from himself, without a careful historical and philosophical examination of the exegetical premises of Popper’s reconstruction. Plato’s extraneousness from the liberal or democratic ethical and political tradition, denounced by Popper, might indicate not a limitation or fault on Plato’s part, but rather a myopic interpretative premise, which fails to take into account different moments in the history of thought, almost assuming modern liberalism as the entrenched, definitive doctrine against which we can measure and judge the thinkers of the past. Clearly, faced with the undeniable fact that Plato was not a liberal and a democrat, defensive strategies of this kind, which are still noticeable in recent studies, run the risk of weakening his political reflections and removing their sting, neutralizing them in every respect, simply to avoid making him an enemy of freedom and democracy, a totalitarian thinker, and a direct precursor of twentieth-century dictatorships.

Attempts to mitigate Plato’s hostility towards democracy have employed a composite strategy, set out in particular by Griswold 1995, Monoson 2000 (in relation to the Republic), and Bobonich 2002 (with particular reference to the Laws). On the one hand, this turns attention to the figure of Socrates, seen as the representative and spokesman of an essentially individualistic and libertarian political line, and as a figure to whom Plato gives extraordinary importance in his dialogues, particularly in the Republic. As he cannot simply be contrasted with a totalitarian Plato, Socrates must necessarily bring onstage at least one of the author’s political tendencies. To sustain a thesis of this kind, however, we need to apply in a particularly radical way the so-called “dialogical approach,” to the point of claiming that the figures in Plato’s dialogues defend positions that, theoretically, cannot be directly ascribed to Plato, and thus denying that the totalitarian theories in the Republic are “authentically” Platonic. This would also entail recognizing that Plato himself is not really defending the …, but considers it a completely unattainable and a pure utopia. The purported proof of this is the indication in Book V, later developed in Books VI and VII, that the philosopher-kings have power by virtue of their full knowledge. This would contradict his usual conception of philosophers in the other dialogues, where they are seen as, at most, “seekers” after knowledge, but not … in the true sense. This means that, according to Griswold 1995 (171), for example, the imposing political construction of the Republic aims only at bringing out how even an ideal and theoretically perfect, and therefore utopian, model manifests fairly serious limitations and defects. This would make it advisable to turn to the Stateman and the Laws, where there is a search for a more modest political system based on specific individual aptitudes and on their harmonious collaboration in an institutional context that would tend to revalue democracy. In turn, the political system would be recovered (to a certain extent) in the form of a “mixed” system, even in the Laws

A similar strategy-at least as regards the thesis that we need not consider the claims for the … and the political project of the Republic as authentically Platonic-was chosen by two famous twentieth-century philosophers: Hans-Georg Gadamer and Leo Strauss. As is well known, Gadamer (cf. in particular Gadamer 1934 and 1983) insisted on the exclusively utopian character of Plato’s political construction, with Plato presenting himself basically as a Socratic, more interested in the needs of a method of seeking the truth than in defining a dogmatic perspective. In the Republic (but also up to the Laws), Plato was depicting an imaginary city, built as a fantastic and pleasant escape in the mind-and certainly not in concrete actuality and history-the discussion of which is essentially reduced to a purely abstract and competitive intellectual game. This reading systematically minimizes Plato’s strong references to how his political project might be implemented, and of course all the historical and biographical references that witness his specific interest in and commitment to the political events of his day.

The exegetical strategy of Strauss 1964 (50-138) is only slightly more aware of the need for a more judicious and plausible examination of Plato’s narrative style. The reason why we should not take the political thought in the Republic literally, says Strauss, has nothing to do with the utopian features of the project described there, but with Plato’s characteristic mode of “dissimulation,” designed to avoid the risks of upsetting prevailing morals and the communis opinio of his contemporaries, and of running into conflict with or punishment from the authorities. It was a matter not just of using prudent reticence to hide his real ideas, but rather of proposing a very precise project while dissimulating its content through a complex dialogical scheme that leaves the project’s outlines readily identifiable by those readers who are able to get beyond the literal immediacy of what Plato writes and to grasp the esoteric references that he outlines in the elaborate exchanges of dialogue between the characters. This is the original nucleus of (one of the different versions of) the so-called “dialogical approach,” which starts from the recognition that Plato never expresses himself directly in his works. Even if he were to make use of some characters as his spokesmen, there would remain a more or less deep asymmetry or dyscrasia between author and actor in the dialogue, especially in the case of Socrates, who is the unrivalled protagonist of most of the dialogues, and whose role as Plato’s spokesman must in any case come to terms with the wellknown ironic bent that is traditionally associated with his name. This combination of spokesman and other speakers involves stratifying distinct points of view and levels of communication in the dialogues, and it is precisely by deciphering this mechanism that we can appreciate the authentic, esoteric content of Plato’s thought. In the specific case of the Republic, it should be read, says Strauss, in tandem with Aristophanes’ comedies, and this brings out the exclusively ironic and dissimulatory features of Plato’s design. The fundamentally communist design of the Republic, which excises any individual aspiration and dimension, deliberately and ironically disregards the impulses belonging to the body and the specific differences between individual citizens and genders, makes it manifestly unnatural and ideal, and so utopian-hence emphasizing the impossibility of its being concretely achieved. The very philosophers that should govern it seem extraneous to the …, from which they happily withdraw, as we see in Book VII, in favour of the contemplation of ideas. Impossible and even undesirable, the ideal city of the Republic has the sole end of revealing the limitations of any political project, which, in Strauss’s view, should refrain from invading the space proper to philosophy and theology.

Strauss’s interpretation has been questioned more or less critically, particularly by many recent Anglo-American scholars. Some have reflected on the relation between ironic or “dissimulatory” writing and the utopian character of the dialogue. Some have stressed, above all, the elements (already indicated by Strauss) that evince the need for an esoteric understanding of the dialogue, showing how the repression of …, explicitly sanctioned by legislation, is incompatible with the natural human condition and with the psychological investment necessary to achieve this political project. And some have exploited and radicalized Strauss’s conclusion about the hegemony of philosophy (but not theology!) over politics, claiming the superiority of the former over the latter in the Republic, with a similar and parallel superiority, at the level of the soul, of the rational and cognitive function over the others and over the equilibrium of the whole.

A more mature and elaborate stance is the one taken recently in Rosen 2005. Partly distancing himself from his previous interpretation (defended in Rosen 1990), Rosen recognizes the seriousness of the Republic both as theory and project, but fixes some insuperable limitations to it. Any form of political thought that has the aim of social change and the installation of a new system is exposed to the risk, or rather the need, of degeneration. Philosophy itself, when it takes on the task of exercising power and governing the state, can only decline towards tyranny, almost overturning its theoretical and ideal premises.

As we can see, at the center of these complex, and sometimes rather contorted, exegetical efforts, there is, with all its different nuances and points of view, the question of the so-called Platonic “utopia” as an extreme form of defense, or escape route, from Popper’s accusations of political totalitarianism. But whether we evoke a “fantastic” utopia or a “dissimulated” utopia, it seems impossible to ignore the numerous references in the Republic to the essential problem of whether the model that is gradually described can actually be achieved (for example, see 450d, 458a-b, 499c). Precisely by virtue of the difference between the ideal model “in heaven,” eternal and perfect, and the sensible world of becoming and history, the possible conditions for achieving it are arduous and difficult to put into effect (for example, see 499d, 502c, 504d). The utopian character of the project of the Republic lies, then, in the gap that inevitably exists between the perfection of the model, which in itself is objectively achievable, and the conditions for its implementation, which clash with the equally inevitable imperfection of its achievement. But the limitations of Plato’s project stem not from the nature of his model, whose ideal perfection is its main strength and attraction, giving it its paradigmatic value, but rather from the practical and concrete dimension in which it must be achieved. Here there is a philosophical gesture not unlike that of the cosmological myth in the Timaeus, in which a divine demiurge, aiming to construct a perfect reproduction of the equally perfect ideal models, produces the imperfect sensible world as “the best possible”-”beautiful,” but “less beautiful” than its ideal model because of the limitations and imperfection of the concrete material the demiurge has available to work with (cf. Timaeus 29e-30b). To this extent, and within these limits, we can certainly identify a utopian tension in Plato’s political thought: precisely that irrepressible tension determined by the unbridgeable distance between the model and its concrete achievement, and at the same time by the irrepressible attraction that the former exercises on the latter, as many have recently underlined. In the gap thus created between the model and its concrete achievement, there is a space for elaborating a genuinely normative theory, with the indication of a series of necessary requisites for its implementation that are difficult but not theoretically impossible to apply. Government by philosophers, or the conversion of governors to philosophy, is from this point of view the fundamental prescription that, along with rigid social control, can direct the constitution of the “city on earth” to imitate the “city in heaven.”

Popper’s polemical cage is essentially accepted by some of his critics, even though their exegesis of Plato’s political thought is outside its terms of reference. This cage was built to restrict Plato’s Republic to an exclusive comparison with modern liberal and democratic thought and its wholly twentieth-century contrast with contemporary totalitarian doctrines. However, the most recent interpretations, which have so far been described in broad terms and are now fairly widespread, particularly among scholars on the Continent, restore a Plato who is extraneous to both liberalism and totalitarianism, since he cannot even be assimilated to them in principle. This is a Plato through whom we can go back to thinking about the general terms of political planning, its regulatory, juridical, and institutional requisites, and the conditions for its concrete implementation in human society and history.

Ethics and Psychology: The Soul, the Individual, and the City

There is, however, yet another strategy that has been much applied in the recent literature to defend the Republic from Popper’s accusations. It is worth noting it at this point, as it provides a natural transition to some aspects of the ethical and psychological thought in the dialogue. However paradoxical it may seem, this strategy consists in considering Plato the politician as an essentially unpolitical thinker who subordinated, or perhaps pushed back, any political consideration to the ethical and psychological ambit. The most authoritative source for this interpretation is Eric Vögelin (1966), who does not deny the eminently political intention and interest of the Republic, but regards the dialogue as a substantial failure of political commitment by the philosopher in the city (which is, in turn, reflected in the effective failure of the many “political” attempts Plato made in his lifetime). This failure leads to a sort of transfiguration of the political commitment into an ethical, if not religious, impulse to bring the perfect city down to the plane of the individual soul, like a sort of interior city prefiguring Augustine’s civitas dei.

Recent studies link this interpretation with scholars such as J. Annas and G. R. F. Ferrari, who follow a still clearer line by which the Republic shows no shift of thought from the political to the ethical (and religious) ambit, but is from the start structured as a psychological and ethical dialogue, the investigations and prescriptions of which essentially concern the individual soul, only accidentally examined in its “macro-version” of the city, and the combination of values and rules that constitute Plato’s vision of how to conduct a happy and just life. Annas’s approach in particular is fairly extraordinary, in both its radical nature and its scant attention to the text and its history. She dismisses as simply not serious, as evidently (sic!) ridiculous, the dialogue’s strictly political arguments, from the three “waves” of Book V down to the diagnosis of the degeneration of political systems in Book VIII. Their grotesque extremism places the theories of the city of the Republic outside any political reflection worthy of the name. Once the political “theme” has been eliminated without too many historical or textual scruples, there remains the investigation, begun in Book I, of justice, which only in Book II is shifted from the individual ambit to the level of the city. This investigation aims to define the terms of an ethic of the just, which will establish the conditions of virtue and happiness, and will allow the soul to reproduce on the individual psychological plane the balance and perfection of an ideal model that is only for rhetorical purposes outlined in the “magnified” form of the ….

For his part, Ferrari is more willing to admit the presence of a genuine political interest in the Republic. However, he thinks there is no direct relation between the political thought about the city and the reconstruction of individual psychology designed to found an ethic. Apart from the philosophers’ and tyrants’ kingdoms, which are both presented as exceptional conditions, there can be at most an analogy between the city and the soul, or between political theory and psychology. The central problem of the soul, by virtue of this analogy, is illustrated and illuminated by the political examination, which has only an exemplary and paradigmatic value. On this point, then, Ferrari takes up Strauss’s theory on the superiority over political thought of philosophy, which is here tied to a psychological ethic rather than theology.

From Ferrari’s interpretation in particular, it is easy to see how an ethic without politics necessarily leads to psychology and to the crucial question in the Republic of how the soul and its functional structure are constituted. There is some agreement on how Plato conceives the tripartite soul, particularly in the distinction of its three different functions (rational, spirited, and appetitive) and their correspondence, on the psycho-social plane, to the three social groups making up the … (philosophers, warriors, and producers). However, if and how this conception develops in the dialogues remains a fairly open question. In Book IV, the tripartite soul is introduced as an analogy useful for thinking further about the nature of justice in the context of the social relations inside the city. However, a doctrine of tripartition seems to be missing from the previous dialogues, and, apart from the myth of the Phaedrus (246a), it is not used by Plato in the “genetic” contexts that offer a description of the constitution of the soul, how it enters and leaves the body, and its immortal destiny. In the Republic too (X, 611b-c), it is claimed that the “mutilation” of the soul, or its partition, depends on the fact that it is joined to the body and subject to bodily phenomena (…), as in itself it is a pure reality (…). It would be otherwise difficult to regard as immortal what is composed of and assembled from various parts (…). In effect, the soul is like the sea-god Glaucus, whose true nature, which is pure and simple, cannot be seen, as it has been covered and thickened by strata of encrustations of salt, “shells, seaweed, and stones,” which corrode and disfigure its form. This image of the soul, which is more bipartite than tripartite, seems to imply a simpler and more fundamental doctrine than the previous one, which can be related to the distinction between a rational and immortal principle and an irrational and mortal functional sphere, a doctrine that seems in turn fairly widespread in other dialogues (from the Phaedo to the Statesman and the Timaeus). Consequently, there is no agreement as to whether we have two different doctrines that contradict each other, or if they can be related to two aspects of a single doctrine that are distinguished, possibly for strategic reasons of exposition. However the difficulty is solved, the doctrine of a functional tripartition of the soul in Book IV of the Republic introduces a sort of isomorphism that in some ways reduces the opposition of the soul to the body and prefigures a conception of the living being as an “integrated organism” of soul and body, in which the body is assumed to be a potential ally of the soul, a framework that forecasts the psycho-physiological developments of the Timaeus and Aristotle’s psychology.

The picture is further complicated by the great final myth in the dialogue (614b), which tells the story of Er, whom the gods allowed to learn of the destiny of the soul after death so that he might then describe it to men. Clearly, the fact that Er preserves a memory of his passing, of his mortal life before his body’s death, and then of part of the soul’s immortal life after the death of the body, is explicitly explained by the mythological-religious need for Er to return to the “same” mortal life before the death of his body, possessing all his memories, both immortal (so that, remembering what happens to the soul after the death of the body, he can tell it to other men) and mortal (so that, remembering his previous mortal life, he can return to it, recognizing himself as Er, with his stock of experience and knowledge, and not as some other man). But this clearly introduces a difficulty: is it the whole of the soul that is immortal or is it only its rational and immortal part or function? If, on the basis of the dialogues, Plato’s position seems to be the latter, it is also true that, on the basis of Er’s story, souls after the death of the body are led to a choice of their future in the subsequent reincarnation that is based on the memory of their previous mortal life, which seems to suppose that they also take with them to the hereafter all the experiences, memories, and teachings taken from the mortal life and so connected with the inferior and irrational parts of the soul (619c-620d). Although various hypotheses have been formulated to mitigate this (apparent?) contradiction, the problem remains open in recent studies.

Logic, Epistemology, and Ontology: The Knowledge of Philosophers

In this way we are brought back from the debate on the status of the soul to examine its distinct functions, the highest of which, the cognitive one, determines the substantial difference that Books V-VII establish between philosophers, who have the task of governing the city, and ordinary men, the “non-philosophers,” who have only apparent knowledge based on opinions. This result is reached mainly via (1) a complex epistemological-political argument, in the last ten pages of Book V and the opening of Book VI, that distinguishes, by virtue of their knowledge and degree of access to the truth, the philosophers who are destined to govern the … from their imitators; (2) a schematic, not to say terse, illustration, in the course of a few pages of Book VI, of the function of the idea of Good, which guides the knowledge of philosophers, and which that knowledge naturally seeks out; and (3) an elaborate epistemological construction, with the famous image of the “line,” in the last six pages of Book VI, and the equally famous exposition of the cave, which leads to the description of the … of philosophers, with particular attention to dialectical training, and so to the method and science of what truly is, in the whole of Book VII.

The Knowledge of Philosophers: Being and Non-being

For an examination of the first stage of argument, we can start from Socrates’ claim (476e-479e) that someone who knows must know something that is (…), because it is impossible to know what is not (…). By extension, this firm principle is established: what absolutely is is absolutely knowable (…); what is absolutely not, by contrast, is absolutely unknowable (…). Again, for something that is and is not at the same time, lying between pure being and absolute non-being (…), there is a form of knowledge lying between real knowledge-science-and ignorance (…), namely opinion (…). Socrates also specifies the nature of the objects of the three different kinds of knowledge. What really is remains always unvariable, constant, and immobile in its condition. These are the ideas or forms, being in and for themselves, such as the Beautiful, the Just, and so on. What is not at all, by contrast, reduces to pure nothing, simple privation of being, of which we cannot say anything. Lastly, the obscure object of opinion, placed between being and non-being, is identified with the infinite multiplicity of sensible things that appear at the same time just and unjust, pious and impious, large and small, light and heavy, beautiful and ugly, and for this reason are distinguished from what is, and yet do not coincide with what is not, but represent “something” that, at least in part, is. That is why the opinion of those who do not admit the reality of ideas or forms, but only the appearance of sensible things, i.e., non-philosophers, changes like the object of their opinion, and why they cannot truly know it. Meanwhile, those who turn to ideas or forms, i.e., philosophers, reach true and immutable knowledge of true and immutable objects. This interpretation of the passage, which can be taken to be the traditional or “standard” one and which I have defended elsewhere in more detail, recognizes a sense that is at least partly existential in the verb ‘to be’ as it is used here, and, consequently, a hierarchy of three “existential” or, more simply, distinct “object” levels: what is, what is not, and what is and is not at the same time, as a dimension lying between the first two levels. Now, if we recognize the fact that what is not, in that it is conceived as what does not exist at all, or as pure nothing, really is not-and so does not constitute an autonomous “existential” and still less “object” level of which we can opine or think anything-this hierarchy ends up distinguishing just two degrees of existence and two groups of objects that belong to both degrees of existence and so are and exist in two different ways.

Apart from the task of defining these two modes of existence, to which I shall return later, the argument’s main aim is to complete this ontology with an epistemology that corresponds to it effectively as a pendant. An ontology that is at least partly “existentialist” (only in the sense that it envisages in some way the existence of …) corresponds to a fundamentally realist epistemology. Distinct objects belonging to different degrees of existence require different forms of cognition, following a rigid scheme that prescribes the correspondence of science with what is, and of opinion, which is changing and so sometimes true (like science) and sometimes false, with what both is and is not (and of ignorance, as total lack of knowledge or opinion, with non-being, total absence of being).

This interpretation has been questioned by G. Fine in an influential article, the theses of which have often been taken up since. In short, Fine does not think that this passage from the Republic suggests a realist epistemology structured on the distinction between different forms of knowledge (science and opinion) on the basis of the assumption of distinct objects situated on distinct levels of existence (that of being and that of the … between being and non-being). Instead, Plato’s basis for distinguishing science and opinion does not rest on objects, but is propositional, as what we know are not strictly speaking objects existing outside ourselves, but propositions that we formulate about determined objects. Fine thus claims that the meaning and value of the verb ‘to be’, which governs this passage and is at the heart of its argument, is not in the least existential, but exclusively veritative. The two crucial claims in the passage, “what absolutely is is absolutely knowable” and “what is absolutely not is absolutely unknowable,” should therefore be radically translated, in the framework of a propositional epistemology, as follows: “what is absolutely true is absolutely knowable” and “what is absolutely not true (or what is absolutely false) is absolutely unknowable.”

A premise of this kind has some serious consequences. In the first place, the distinction between science and opinion is no longer founded on an ontological difference between the objects of science and of opinion, but exclusively on the opposition between true and false propositions. The distinction thus consists simply in the fact that, while scientific propositions are only true, doxastic propositions can be true or false-but not true or false at the same time, or both true and false or lying between true and false, but each of them, exclusively, either true or false. Similarly, for Fine, there is no sense in setting a gradation or hierarchy between determined objects in relation to their being or their existence, as an object can be or not be, but cannot be “more” or “less” than another, or be and not be in a dimension lying between being and non-being. Science and opinion, in short, should be conceived as propositional ambits that allow respectively only true propositions and both true and false propositions, producing in this way a scientific ambit that is, so to speak, pure and homogeneous, and a doxastic ambit that is mixed and “hybrid.” What is really important here, though, is that when opinion is true it is shown to be identical with science in the way it is constituted, and equivalent to it both in value and practical usefulness, and, more importantly, in structure and nature. In the second place, if no difference is made between objects of science and objects of opinion, but only between true propositions and false propositions, then, from the ontological point of view, there would be no sense in admitting separate degrees of reality and existence or, if we prefer to put it like this, two distinct worlds of being and becoming, of intelligible ideas and sensible things.

This interpretation has been subjected to some sharp examination, above all in its conclusions, by F. Gonzalez and, later, by L. Gerson, whose arguments I shall briefly summarize. In the first place, one challenge to Fine is that this passage cannot easily provide a foothold for the propositional, and not object-based, epistemology she suggests, as, in effect, the text does not only suggest that knowledge is directed to what is (and so to an … of which we need to know if it alludes to the existence of something, a property of something or the truth of a proposition), but first, foremost, and more precisely to a … (476e7-9). A … is hard to assimilate to a proposition, but can be more plausibly reduced to an object. Along the same lines, what Socrates is questioning in his comparison of philosophers and doxophilists is the admission (or exclusion) that the “Beautiful” exists in itself as well as in many beautiful things (the … against the … at 476c-d). It certainly is not a question of admitting (or excluding) propositions about the beautiful in itself or about many beautiful things. Pursuing this line, Fine’s reading cannot even give an account of the status of opinion, that form of knowledge … between science and ignorance. Indeed, if opinion consists in an ambit that includes true propositions and false propositions, it would mean that the former were the absolute equivalent of scientific propositions and coincided fully with them, while the latter collapsed into the absence of knowledge, and so into ignorance. This leads to the extreme consequence of Fine’s veritative hypothesis, by which the affirmation that it is impossible to opine what is not (478b6-9) would also mean affirming that it is impossible to opine the false, with the insurmountable paradox that all opinions would be necessarily true. And yet, if all opinions were true, the whole sphere of opinion would consist only of true propositions and would no longer be distinguishable from science. No distinction could thus be established between science and opinion, any more than it could between philosophers devoted to science and doxophilist lovers of opinion, contrary to the explicit aim of the passage examined.

A more recent proposal, which partly accommodates these objections, has been formulated by F. Ferrari, who also excludes the possibility of giving the verb ‘to be’ the existential sense admitted by the traditional interpretation. Ferrari is in favor of a predicative value, by which “the ‘is’ constitutes the incomplete copula of a proposition of the type ‘X is F ‘. The copulative use can also be connected to a veritative sense that can be expressed in a judgment like ‘X is a true F ‘, where it is clear that the reference is to a first-level veritative context, in which being true is a property that pertains to an object.” According to Ferrari, before explaining that “those who know, know something that is …,” Socrates asks for and obtains Glaucon’s assent that “those who know, know something […] and not nothing […]” (476e7-477a1). In Ferrari’s view, this initial ti, contrasted with nothing (…) and preceding the indication of the kind of being that is bestowed on it immediately after, guarantees the existential and objective dimension of the object of knowledge (the assurance that it is a “something” and not nothing). Consequently, the existential dimension has no need of being repeated by the ‘is’ that is immediately added to it. The ‘is’ of the existing … should have another sense, then, that in these conditions is likely to be predicative: what can be known is a ti (already given as existing), of which Socrates says that it is with a predicative sense, i.e., that it has a certain property. In formal terms, we would have that the knowable object consists in an “X “that is, for example, F (a true F or only F ). Even in the framework of his predicative/veritative hypothesis, Ferrari, unlike Fine, does not deny a dimension that is, to a certain extent, existential, or rather object-based, in Plato’s epistemology in this passage of the Republic. Nevertheless, he holds that it is not sufficient to guarantee either the distinction of different forms of knowledge with a different degree of truth, or the fundamental difference between truth and opinion. The predicative sense of ‘to be’, however, would achieve precisely this aim, supplying an adequate criterion for making these distinctions, as the ‘is’ in this context means “is (only or a true) F,” while the ‘is not’ means “is not (only or a true) F (but also non-F ).” It follows that what is absolutely knowable is what is absolutely F, or what is exclusively F (in that it is only F and nothing else) and absolutely F (in that it is fully F without residues).

It seems fairly clear how Ferrari manages to keep his interpretation distinct from Fine’s, which denied the possibility of opinion and science being different as regards their objects, in that he allows that opinion and science are distinguished objectively, by reason of a characteristic of their objects. This characteristic is not the existence of these objects, i.e. the fact that they exist in different degrees and levels (like intelligible ideas and sensible things), but their unity and simplicity, i.e., the fact that only the objects of science are exclusively what they are, without residues or traces of plurality.

It is worth asking, however, what the consequences of this reading are. First of all, for Ferrari, from the epistemological point of view, there is no possibility of identifying the “units of meaning” in which the knowable objects consist with intelligible ideas, nor, on the other hand, of identifying the “multiplicities of meaning” in which the opinable objects consist with sensible things. This means that, while “what is,” the knowable, corresponds in this passage to what is one and simple in its determination (and not to ideas), “what is and is not” (what is opinable) corresponds to what is multiple and plural in its determinations (and not to sensible things). If this is true, we can legitimately admit that, in principle, there is knowledge or science both of ideas and of sensible things, as long as they are “one” and simple in relation to their determinations, as well as opinion of ideas and of sensible things, if and when they appear as multiple and plural in relation to their determinations. And we must infer that the science of the “units of meaning” (sensible or ideal) and the opinion of “multiplicities of meaning” (sensible or ideal) postulated by Ferrari do not produce in any way two separate domains of objects, the sensible and the intelligible, but simply two semantic-epistemological ambits of “univocity” and “plurivocity,” with the advantage of escaping in this way the many contradictions that Ferrari finds in the so-called “two worlds” theory.

In fact, this seems to be the crucial aspect: is the distinction of two ambits of existence, or two degrees of reality, really as problematic for Plato as many contemporary commentators fear? Annas’s words offer a fairly clear view of the question: “the notion of degrees of existence does not make sense”; it is a “very silly argument” that would have the impossible consequence of objects existing only partially, which seems to Annas not so much contradictory as manifestly crazy. Without pretending to solve this difficulty completely, one might suggest, however, that the notion of degrees of existence only implies a distinction between a state or degree of unstable and changing being, which coincides with becoming, and which is said to lie between being and non-being, and a state or degree of eternal and permanent being, which coincides with being in the full sense. In this sense, as well-defined ambits with characteristic degrees of “stability-instability” and/ or “immutability-mutability,” to which stable and permanent objects (intelligible ideas) or unstable and changing objects (sensible things) belong respectively, the “two worlds” yield, perhaps unproblematically, two alternative spheres of predication and truth: these two ambits of objects, whose ontological, epistemological, and logical conditions are different and alternative, are exclusively associated with opinion and science, in accordance with the traditional interpretation.

The Line and the Cave

These different exegetical positions are immediately reflected in the final section of Book VI in the famous image of the divided line, preceded by Socrates’ complex reference to the place and causal function of the idea of Good, which I consider later. There is no need to discuss the relevant passage in detail (509d-511e), and the focus here is on the most controversial aspects in the current debate. Much has been written, first of all, on how the line is constructed and depicted, and on the view, on which there is a fair amount of agreement, that it brings out an elaborate onto-epistemological scheme, expounded differently in the later pages on the cave. The two unequal sections of the line, corresponding to the sensible and the intelligible, each of which is divided into two smaller sections, produce four distinct kinds of objects and the same number of forms of knowledge. From low to high: the images, shadows, and reflections of sensible objects that are picked out by … and the sensible, natural, and artificial objects themselves that are perceived by …. These are followed by a first set of intellectual objects, exemplified by geometrical figures or numbers, which require the method proper to geometry that proceeds by hypothesis (…). This method does not ascend towards the anhypothetical principle (…) to show the truth of the hypotheses formulated, but assumes these hypotheses as true and descends analytically to the conclusion of reasoning. This kind of knowledge, …, although it belongs to the intelligible kind devoted to investigating realities that are in themselves, makes use of sensible images and cannot transcend its hypotheses to reach the unconditional principle of any hypothesis. In the fourth and last section of the line is a second set of intellectual objects that requires the dialectical method (…), which treats the hypotheses that were formulated in the previous section not as first principles, but as starting points for ascending to the anhypothetical principle of everything, and, after gaining direct knowledge of it, descending from it to the conclusion, without using any sensible instrument, but only ideas in and for themselves. This form of knowledge is called …, which indicates incontrovertibly its exclusively intellectual character.

The main problems in the recent debate are as controversial as they are philosophically fascinating, and include the distinction between the kinds of dianoetic thought characteristic of the method of geometry, on the one hand, and that which is characteristic of the noetic thought of dialecticians, on the other. In particular, there is much discussion about whether, in speaking of … or …, Plato is referring to a form of intuitive and immediate thought and, if this is the case, what its epistemic nature could be. Commentators have various positions on this point. (1) Some admit in general the presence in Plato of an immediate or intuitive form of knowledge, which is, for this reason, infallible. (2) Others either firmly deny this form of knowledge, opting for a discursive or propositional form of knowledge, but allowing it features of infallibility, or deny it in general but admit it (2a) in exceptional cases, for example in the Republic or in Letter VII, (2b) in only a particular form (radically irrational and mystic, and so actually unusuable for ordinary knowledge and judgment), or (2c) in conditions wholly outside the normal (for example, only for a disembodied soul), thus determining a substantially skeptical outcome for Plato’s epistemology, or at least one that is never definitive. Finally, (3) some recognize that Plato has admitted the likelihood of, and even the need for, an immediate noetic act, but regard it, however Plato understood it, as an extra-logical moment that is actually incompatible with a modern conception of rationality and science. Faced with such a variety of exegetical options, one need only observe that in general most of the commentators who deny any form of intuitive knowledge in Plato (2), or who admit it only in extraordinary conditions (2a, 2b, 2c), sometimes seem implicitly or explicitly conditioned by a philosophical prejudice that is as reasonable and legitimate philosophically as it is unjustified and anachronistic for a historical interpretation of Plato. It consists in regarding it as difficult, if not impossible, to admit an epistemic insight that is sudden and unpredictable, and so understood as properly non-rational-a position that is particularly, though not only, widespread in the Anglo-American debate on so-called “knowledge by acquaintance.” Most of those who hesitate to recognize, or completely deny, the intuitive character of noetic thought tend as a result to claim that the dianoetic-discursive character of dialectic and the whole cognitive process should be founded on the possibility of tracing a “map” (by definition) of intelligible objects and their relations, so that the possibility of all discourse or knowledge in the rational sphere would depend on the …, in the demonstrative form of the … (or …) or the nominal form of the …, without having to appeal to embarrassing irrational claims (like noetic intuition) in the construction of knowledge and dialectic.

By contrast, what those who defend the intuitive or immediate character of noetic knowledge and dialectic, and also its rational nature, regard as unfounded, and in any case anachronistic in interpreting Plato, is the thesis that subsumes the opposition between “demonstrable” and “undemonstrable” to that between a discursive and a non-discursive sphere, and then to the wider and more general opposition between rationality and mysticism, so that everything that does not fall within the ambit of discursive demonstration appears non-rational and so irreparably mystical, precisely because it is not demonstrable and immediately expressible. It seems possible, however, to claim that what Plato calls … is something very different, although it is intuitive or, at least, immediate and non-discursive, and that it refers to the indispensable need to establish the absolute and immediate truth of discursive rationality, which does not seem able to justify itself. No ontological “map” is possible if we base ourselves exclusively on examining the relations among ideas, which in turn rest on the (propositional) definition of each individual idea, so that, if we do not have immediate knowledge of the individual idea, it will never be possible to define them all per differentiam. We could define ‘A’ in relation to ‘B’, ‘B’ in relation to ‘C’, and so on, but knowledge of the last term in the chain, on which the degree of truth in the knowledge of the whole chain rests, will always be problematic. Either it will be an item of knowledge, which is this time intuitive, immediate, and definitive, or it must in turn rest on the first term examined, thus giving rise to an inexhaustible vicious circle.

The Idea of the Good

Since antiquity, the question of the idea of the Good has been complex, and inevitably I can do no more than trace an extremely selective outline of it. I refer only to the following two problems: the ontological status of the idea of the Good, which is said to be the “cause of knowledge and truth, but still seems different and more beautiful than knowledge and truth” and so “is beyond being in dignity and power” (…); and the question of its causal function, by which it “gives truth to the things known and the power of knowing them to the knower” (…), so that “from it come being and the essence to things that are” (…) (VI, 508d-509c).

As regards the first problem, many commentators defend a longstanding interpretation by which the Good coincides with the origin and cause of other ideas and all things, in the manner of a principle that is (1) ontological or (2) meta-ontological, conferring on ideas their being and truth. In the case of (1), the Good would be an idea, the apex of the intelligible and superior to other ideas, but still part of the ambit of being, while in the second case (2), it would be a principle preceding being and truth, and so different from the ideas of which it is the origin.

There is no unanimity among interpreters concerning this interpretation, however, and many other scholars are not willing to attribute the idea of the Good a position of such ontological pre-eminence, preferring a reading that is both teleological and axiological of the status of the Good within the intelligible world. In this case, the idea of the Good is conceived both as the ultimate end of action and knowledge, and also as the origin and the “standard unit” of the perfect order, and so of the “good” disposition, of other ideas, and all things. Such a sharp exegetical contrast has naturally created a series of more cautious and nuanced interpretations among commentators, from those who judge the problem of the Good in this section of the Republic to be pretty well insoluble, also pointing out its uniqueness in Plato’s corpus, to those who have claimed that the Good as evoked here is not an intelligible idea in the true sense, but the “notion” or “set of notions” that constitute the supreme knowledge (…) associated with the condition of the philosophers destined to govern the city.

To escape this complex interpretative web on the status of the Good, there has been a recent attempt to focus instead on the nature of its causal action, asking the following question: if we follow the model of causality that Plato normally seems to attribute to intelligible ideas (which, by virtue of their …, confer their properties to the sensible things that partake of them and in which they are therefore “present”), how do we explain that the Good confers “truth and being” on other ideas without coinciding either with the one or the other (508d)? To answer this question, the hypothesis has been proposed that the section of the Republic concerning the Good is the only one in which we can find a different model of causality, which Plato applies only to the case of the Good. Like fire, for example, which is what is hottest and can transmit heat to other things, without coinciding either with heat or with what is hot, the Good, understood as what is and is true at the highest level, transmits truth and being to other ideas without itself coinciding with either truth or being. This would be a model of causality based on the heterogeneousness of a cause and its effects, and reserved for explaining the completely exceptional condition and function that belong exclusively to this supreme idea. Even if not explicitly admitted, it seems inevitable that, if the Good is the cause of truth and being, without being identified with them, then we must conclude that the Good (the cause) and truth and being (the effects) are genuinely heterogeneous.

Now, what can be pointed out is that this model of heterogeneous causality that Plato applies uniquely to the case of the idea of the Good seems to come close to Plotinus’s so-called theory of “two acts,” by which he explains the generation of every reality, starting from the reality that precedes it in the order of being. In this framework, Plotinus establishes a model of causality (whether “transmissional” or emanative, but in any case generative) that is based on a principle of a cause and its effects as heterogeneous. One passage in Plotinus is particularly relevant, as it contains a clear reinterpretation of the crucial point of the discussion in the Republic about the causality of the idea of the Good. It is Enneads VI 9 (9), 6, 54-55, where Plotinus declares, with reference to the One, that …. Now, as Szlezák has pointed out, Plotinus is certainly referring here to Republic VI, 508e5-6, when, in the context of the analogy between the causality of the sun and of the Good, Plato claims that …, establishing a principle of causality that seems to entail both heterogeneousness (…) and the superiority in homogeneousness (…) of the cause (which is the sun in the sensible world and the Good in the intelligible world) over its effects (…). For his part, Plotinus isolates and radicalizes the first aspect, reaching the axiom that the cause (which for him is the One) cannot be reduced to the caused (which corresponds here to the Intellect and everything that proceeds from the One), as it is no way identical with it. I believe we can also add that … in Plato’s phrase cited above should be understood as epexegetical, to be translated as: “the cause is something different, that is still more beautiful, than these (i.e., its effects).” The (epexegetical) … would not then add any further qualification to the relation between cause and effects (leading one to say that the cause is both different and more beautiful than its effects), but would delimit, or rather explain, this relation: the cause is different from the effects to the extent that it is more beautiful than them. In other words, the only difference between cause and effect in the causal relation is one of degree, but not of substance or essential nature. In this passage from Book VI of the Republic, then, with reference to the idea of the Good and its relations with other ideas, cause and effect would be perfectly homogeneous, while it is Plotinus who needs, particularly as regards postulating the first principle as being above being, to identify an assumption here that emphasizes the heterogeneousness of a cause and its effects.

If that is how things stand, then the exegetical difficulty of the causal action of Plato’s idea of the Good remains intact and the critical debate about it wide open.