Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Love of the Good as the Cure for Spiritedness in Plato's Republic

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Love of the Good as the Cure for Spiritedness in Plato's Republic

Article excerpt

A standard objection to Platonism is that its teaching about the good denigrates particular goods. So, for instance, Martha Nussbaum argues that Plato's notion of the good devalues human goods. (1) In a similar vein Nietzsche and some of his followers argue that the Platonic focus on a transcendent good beyond self-interest sows the seeds of a self-denying nihilism. (2) The Platonic teaching is said to have tremendous practical implications, and so a similar note is sounded among political theorists. For example, insofar as Plato is understood as urging us to transcend human goods, he is interpreted as having one of three relationships to politics. He is sometimes interpreted as an idealist out of touch with realities of political life. (3) Or he is presented as a Platonic guardian seeking to impose his will on benighted fellow citizens who fall short of his perspective. (4) Or, he is thought of as giving an exoteric teaching that protects political life from the acidic effects of his perspective while providing an esoteric teaching that points to the superiority of that perspective. (5)

By contrast, I will argue that for Plato, love of the good is not the root of such problems but rather is their cure. Disordered relationships to evanescent goods are caused not by a devotion to the good but rather by pleonexia, a clinging possessiveness arising in the spirited part of the soul that issues in projects of power and self-protection. His response to this possessiveness is not to denigrate particular goods but to urge his readers love them in a particular way: in and through their participation in the good. In the Republic, Plato responds to pleoneccia first by presenting a teaching about the soul that diagnoses the problem. Specifically, the psychic root of pleonexia lies in the way thumos tends to overreact to threats to the evanescent, vulnerable goods on which we depend for life and flourishing. The construction of the City in Speech seeks to transform and reorient thumos by inviting the soul to love the good through imaginative engagement with a series of symbolic, ascetic reforms. The overarching movement of the Republic is from a dramatic description of a soul locked within the perspective of pleonexia to a teaching that the good is the key that unlocks a more flourishing relationship to human goods. This transformative movement entails a decentering of the soul away from a claim that the self-assertive accumulation of powers is at the center of a successful life, to a recentering sense that the open soul is centered outside of itself--ecstatically in the good. This movement culminates in a more flourishing relationship with the very goods that Plato is held to denigrate.

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Pleonexia as an Evasion of the Good. Pleonexia means "having more" and connotes overreaching or possessive grasping for external goods. "Greed," "selfishness," or even "acquisitiveness" do not quite capture its full meaning. (6) Throughout his corpus Plato claims that pleonexia is at the heart of a conception of life that seeks to accumulate powers that seem to protect fragile goods and extend the range of action for ambitious people. (7) So for him, the seeming attractiveness of pleonexia lies in its promise that if one possesses omnidirectional power, one can protect and advance the goods on which our lives and flourishing depend.

These themes are presented in Republic, book 1, through Socrates' encounter with Thrasymachus, whose soul is locked into pleonexia. Up to this point, the conversation had focused on the meaning of a virtue, justice (dikaiosune). Thrasymachus moves the discussion away from virtue to a claim about a state of affairs; he says that "the just (dike) is the interest of the stronger." (8) In this he claims that political order is a matter of the powerful using techniques of manipulation to impose a legal and institutional fiat. (9) The powerful structure their society in a way that allows them to advance their interests whenever and however they wish--through taxation, distribution of resources, criminal law, foreign policy, or whatever. …

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