Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Platonic Parable

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Platonic Parable

Article excerpt

A PLATONIC PARABLE

AT the beginning of Plato's Republic, Thrasymachus, one of Socrates' questioners, flies into a towering rage. Socrates, he says, is making fools of them all as usual. He is pretending to be a simpleton, saying nothing clear, letting others do the talking for him, taking pleasure in seeing them get mixed up in their own contradictions.

The irony of Socrates, and through him the irony of Plao whose mouthpiece he is, is not gratuitous. He wants to destablize certainties before pursuing the only inquiry that matters: what is justice? Thrasymachus's answer is clear. It is the established sovereign power that decides what is justice. Thrasymachus decides to stick to the reality of things. What interests Socrates is not the real but the true. And to explore the true he proposes the path of utopia.

Let us observe, says Socrates, through the word, the logos-he insists on this verbal dimension--a city that is in the process of being constituted. Why a city? Because a city is bigger than an individual and thus easier to observe. By seeing how men will live in it, we shall perhaps have occasion to see justice and injustice constitute themselves there at the same time.

This city does not exist, it is a fiction. But it is not entirely a lie since it is subjected to the moral equipment that is love of truth. By pushing it to its conclusion is there not a chance of coming close to reply?

Let's act as if ti were a myth, says Socrates, even though we know that it isn't one. There's no pretence in this fiction. Nor any nostalgia: the verbs are not in the past tense. With its future indicative, utopia offers itself as a pure project, we don't even need to dream about its execution. It is not the exposition of an ideological programme! Utopia does not present already acquired ideas of which one can be sure. "I don't know," Socrates says. "I don't know yet. We must continue. We must go where the logos takes us as the wind blows a boat." Utopia is like a slow voyage which takes its time.

And yet what difficulties, what risks! announces Socrates to those of his listeners who wish to accompany him on this fititious adventure. …

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