Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The 'Republic's Third Wave and the Paradox of Political Philosophy

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The 'Republic's Third Wave and the Paradox of Political Philosophy

Article excerpt

"Unless," I said, "the philosophers rule as kings or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophize, and political power and philosophy coincide in the same place, while the many natures now making their way to either apart from the other are by necessity excluded, there is no rest from ills for the cities, my dear Glaucon, nor I think for human kind, nor will the regime we have now described in speech ever come forth from nature, insofar as possible, and see the light of the sun. This is what for so long was causing my hesitation to speak, seeing how very paradoxical it would be to say."(1)

So goes what socrates describes as the "biggest and most difficult" of the three waves of paradox set forth in book 5 of the Republic (472a4). While he does not pause to justify the latter description when he introduces the third wave, there can be little doubt that this wave is indeed both very big or important and very difficult. As for its difficulty, Socrates mentions no less than four times his hesitancy to state that philosophers must rule or rulers philosophize (472a, 473e, 499a-b, 503b). Moreover, a more subtle, yet perhaps no less telling indication of the importance of the third wave is provided by the fact that it breaks at the exact center of the text as measured by Stephanus pages--a fact that commentators on the Republic seem hardly even to have noticed.(2)

There are several reasons to believe that the centrality of the third wave may prove to be a philosophically important detail. First, the general structure of the Republic seems to place special emphasis on its central books. One scholar, Eva Brann, begins her interpretation of the Republic with the observation that this dialogue "is composed on the plan of concentric rings."(3) There are furthermore other dialogues in which Plato has evidently calculated the center of the text quite precisely, and has done so with the intention of indirectly underscoring the fundamental importance of a philosophical conception, argument, or issue. The most striking example of Plates use of this literary device is to be found in the Statesman, in which the Eleatic Stranger introduces the notion of measurement in accordance with the nonarithmetical mean--a notion that is crucial to his account of statesmanship--at the arithmetically-determined midpoint of the dialogue.(4) So too, Plato seems to call special attention to the significance of the Eleatic Stranger's philosophical "parricide" of his teacher Parmenides by placing that dramatic event at the midpoint of the Sophist.(5) While each of the passages cited above requires careful consideration in its own right,(6) these examples perhaps suffice to show that the placement of the third wave at the exact center of the Republic is unlikely to be incidental to our understanding of its significance within the dialogue as a whole.

The center of a text is an appropriate place to hide that which is especially questionable as well as to emphasize that which is especially important; in certain cases where the author does not wish to be understood by every reader, these intentions may overlap. In writing on Plato, Leo Strauss took pains to identify the central item in a list as well as the subjects treated at the center of a section or book.(7) Sometimes, he suggested, the center is to be understood as a place of honor suited to that which is most important; on other occasions, what is at the center is questionable in a way that casts doubt upon that which stands at the periphery.(8) Both of these uses, we may note, are confirmed by ancient authors.(9) Both, moreover, coincide in certain texts, especially where the author has reason to write esoterically. A notable example of this coincidence is to be found in Alfarabi's Summary of Plato's Laws, where, Strauss observes, at the "very center" of the Summary and at the beginning of the fifth chapter (which is "literally the central chapter") Alfarabi "does exactly the same thing he did at the end of the fourth chapter: he drops Plato's repeated and unambiguous reference to the gods. …

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