Roslyn Weiss on Plato

The Republic, Plato’s dialogue on justice and on the character of the just city and the just man, was written in Athens in the 4th Century BCE. Of all his works, the Republic is perhaps the best known and the most studied, and even centuries later scholars continue to debate its meaning and lessons.

Roslyn Weiss, Clara H. Stewardson Professor of Philosophy and chair of philosophy, offers a new view on the Greek philosopher’s work. In her forthcoming book, Philosophers by Nature/Philosophers by Design:  Two Paradigms in Plato's Republic, she identifies in the Republic two paradigms of the philosopher and considers what the presence of two competing models might reveal about the intent and message of the Republic as a whole.

In the Republic, Plato finds a place for philosophers as rulers of his utopian city. Only philosophers must rule because only they understand the true and unchanging nature of justice, nobility, and goodness, having beheld with their mind’s eye the eternal and purely intelligible Forms of the Just, the Noble, and the Good. Scholars have traditionally regarded the city described in the Republic as Plato’s ideal; yet a minority of scholars has begun to suspect that the social order that Plato proposes is one of which he actually disapproves.  If this is so, however, Weiss notes, “the whole dialogue becomes a puzzle: why would Plato develop from scratch a city of which he disapproves? Why would he construct an ‘ideal’ city that is in fact far from his ideal?”

“I had always found the philosophers in the Republic to be rather distasteful. They are self-interested men (and women) who must be compelled to rule in the new republic because, left to their own devices, they would spend their time contemplating the Forms and would utterly neglect their fellow citizens.  It struck me as odd that Plato would put at the helm of an ideal city people who are unattractive in this way.”

After studying the Republic for many years and still being uncertain as to which scholarly camp makes the stronger case , Weiss noticed a shift at one point  in the dialogue in Plato’s portrayal of the philosopher. In the first portrait, philosophers are distinguished by their natural yearning to “see” the higher realm of the pure Forms; in the second, as the famous allegory of the Cave vividly shows, philosophers must be forcibly dragged from the material world of pleasure to the austere realm of the intellect. It is the latter that are then put in charge of Plato’s ideal city.

In the end, Weiss concluded, “The philosophers Plato designs to rule his republic are, in fact, unsavory in his own eyes, and one is supposed to be repelled by them. But if there is an alternative set of philosophers  in the Republic perhaps there is another city as well, and perhaps it is these of which Plato secretly approves .”

“If my readers are persuaded that the Republic does indeed contain a second paradigm for the philosopher that could start a revisiting, a rethinking, of the Republic. It would be very exciting if such a thing were to happen.”