My first introduction to political philosophy in graduate school was a course on Plato's Gorgias. Like many others, I experienced the profound effect of Joseph Cropsey's instruction, an effect somewhat like what Meno experienced when he encountered Socrates—an inability to answer even apparently simple questions, an effect that he attributed to Socrates' wizardry. As students, we entered a world of immense beauty and awe, where questions touching the essence of human life—of knowledge and virtue, of individual excellence and common good, of philosophy and politics—were directly before us. We were filled with a desire to engage in a life-long task of exploring the possible answers, their implications and ramifications, even if we could never come to any final resolution.
The attraction of Socrates' siren charms was not that of a youthful idealism, which provided as Socrates did for Glaucon a vision of perfection, a world in which there was no conflict, for example, between the just and the good. To the contrary, it was the vision of such conflicts, essential in nature and inescapable in human life, that philosophy revealed. If the philosophic effect of this vision was endless toil, the political effect was serene resignation.
My first book, Socrates and the Political Community: An Ancient Debate, explores Plato's defense of this philosophic life represented by Socrates, against the common sense complaint of Aristophanes. Socratic philosophy, the poet thought, draws its adherents away from families and political communities, and the deeds of ordinary life in which they can find happiness. Although Plato replied to Aristophanes by showing how Socrates addressed concerns of politics and justice, he too acknowledged the conflict between philosophy and politics, and the irreconcilable differences between philosophers and the rest of humanity.
It is this debate between Aristophanes and Plato that led me to