Friday, March 11, 2011

(Mis)Reading Plato

As I continue to work my way through Plato’s “Laws,” my appreciation grows for just how easy it is to cherry-pick his texts for specific agendas.  I cited this last Sunday in addressing how neoconservatives felt they could appropriate what Plato had to say about “quality of values” in terms of their own values.  It was with such appropriation in mind that I read the following passage:

Then I say that it is clearly an imperative duty for a society,  which is minded to survive and enjoy all the felicity men may, to award its marks of honor and dishonor in the right way.  And the right way is to put the good qualities of the soul in the first and most honorable rank—its temperance always presupposed as a sine qua non—advantages and good qualities of body in the second, and in the third, goods of estate, wealth, as we call them.

It strikes me that this is a text that can only be read in terms of the sort of “distribution of weight” I have invoked in my (apparently controversial) efforts to explain the nature of rhythm.  My own reading puts the weight on the ordering of priorities, with the punch line that there are “qualities” of both “soul” and “body” that are more important than “wealth.”  On the other hand there is what we might call the “fundamentalist” reading, which throws all of the weight on the commitment to that “right way” in the first sentence.  It strikes me that such absolutism is the major source of appeal to the neoconservatives, perhaps even to the point that they can then inflate the significance of wealth for its agency in furthering those qualities of soul and body.

The thing is that, if we read beyond this dialog into, for example, some of the letters, we discover that Plato will occasionally own up to not being right about everything.  Thus, were he to be asked where he would prefer to place the primary weight in this passage, his answer might depend on his personal context.  Since “Laws” is a relatively late text, one can assume that he had taken at least a few shares of hard knocks when faced with the problems of putting theory into practice;  and one result of that unpleasant experience might be to back down from too strong a belief in an absolute “right way.”  In other words, if forced to choose, Plato would probably feel more strongly about wealth not being the highest priority than he would about absolute values.  However, since it is almost impossible to argue with fundamentalists over such subtle matters as plausible reasoning, making such a case would never be anything other than purely academic!

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