The War Lover:
A Study of Plato's Republic

477 pages,
ISBN: 0802005861

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Equal Time for Anger
by Paul Cantor

It is not easy to write a book on Plato's Republic that is both good and original. Over the centuries, the Republic has become one of the most commented upon of philosophic classics, and has attracted the interpretive efforts of some of the keenest of philosophic minds. The book is of such scope and complexity that drawing together the threads of its widely branching arguments becomes a challenging task. The achievement in The War Lover is thus remarkable. In what is obviously the fruit of years of patient and careful study of Plato's dialogue, Leon Craig, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta, has produced one of the best book-length studies of the Republic, as well as one that sets forth a distinctive and controversial interpretation.
Fortunately Craig writes in such a way that one does not have to be an expert to follow his argument or profit from his discussion. His prose is clear and straightforward, avoiding jargon and all forms of academic pretension; indeed, he often writes with a verve and a directness that is all too seldom seen in academic books these days. While he is obviously concerned with Plato's work, he is more fundamentally concerned with the issues the Greek philosopher raises. Since those issues are so wide-ranging, The War Lover should be of interest to the general reader, and not just to the Plato specialist. At a very few points, chiefly toward the end, the going in The War Lover gets a little tough, but Craig would be untrue to the genuine complexity of such issues as the Divided Line if he tried to make his analysis of them too easy.
Craig illuminates many issues of central importance in the study of Plato, but I will concentrate on the one that gives his book not only its title but also its distinct interpretive slant. Why indeed such a bellicose title for a book about the sweet science of philosophy? His answer would be that in the view of the Republic, philosophy may not be so sweet or gentle after all, or at least not simply gentle. Noting the way Plato pairs Socrates with warlike young men in the Republic, he investigates the question of whether a link exists between the warrior's nature and the philosopher's:
"Simple fidelity to the dialogue obliges one to consider whether the search for truth . . . does not require the same toughness and tenacity, the same alertness and quickness of response, the steady courage, strength, and stamina for the most strenuous labours, the same absence of sentimentality, the greatness of spirit, indeed all the distinguishing qualities and powers of the `warlike man', most especially his drive to be victorious."
He thus calls into question our intuitive sense of the philosopher as a pure man of peace. Certainly the portrait Plato has Alcibiades give in the Symposium of Socrates on the battlefield is not that of a man who can be pushed around.
Craig accordingly focuses on the analysis Socrates develops in the Republic of the aggressive side of human nature, the part of the soul Plato calls thumos. Many today might regard an investigation of Plato's tripartite division of the soul as a purely antiquarian enterprise, telling us at most something about what the ancient Greeks believed, but nothing at all about the truth of the matter. It is one of the virtues of Craig's book that he is open to the possibility that Plato may have had a more profound view of the soul than his modern counterparts. And indeed the map of the soul set forth in the Republic contrasts sharply with most modern accounts. Modern models of the soul tend to be bipolar, opposing reason against desire, as if all the irrational or passionate elements in the soul took the form of appetites that reason must try to control on its own. But the view Socrates presents in the Republic introduces a third term, dividing up the irrational elements in the soul into two broad categories and in effect introducing a force that can mediate between reason and desire.
The force that Plato opposes to desire (eros) is something he calls thumos, a word perhaps best translated as "spirit" or "spiritedness". It is hard to find a single term in English to designate what Plato means by thumos, but what he is describing is familiar to all of us. Thumos takes such forms as pride, indignation, competitiveness, ambition, and aggressiveness. Perhaps its fundamental manifestation is anger. Anger is an irrational force in the soul but it is not a form of desire. We may get angry when our desires are thwarted but anger itself is not an appetite. Anger is a good example of how complex human emotions are, and how they can occupy a strange middle ground between the rational and the irrational. We get angry when our desires are thwarted but anger is usually accompanied by the thought that our desires have been unjustly thwarted. That is, emotional though anger may be, it is not purely an emotion but is usually accompanied by an idea, some conviction about our rights, our privileges, or our status. In general, thumos is the element in our souls that makes us concerned with our rights, with what we regard as our own; the element that leads us to defend ourselves, our families, and our property; the element that will just as soon make us go on the attack for the sake of honour and glory. Perhaps the most characteristic gesture of thumos is to draw a line and challenge someone to step across it.
In Greek literature, the classic portrait of a man of thumos is Achilles, which helps explain why Plato is so concerned with Homer in the Republic. Achilles' indignation over what he regards as a slight to his honour by Agamemnon triggers the action of the Iliad. The Iliad is the prototype of the martial epic in the way it portrays the tragic tension between the thumotic hero and the community that tries to contain his spirit. The warrior is the thumotic man par excellence, and indeed the great hope of all communities is to turn spiritedness into public-spiritedness, to channel that potentially divisive and destructive force, with its concern for private honour, into a public good. Thumos is what makes human beings courageous; they will even risk their lives for the sake of glory, and the trick for communities is to link courage up with patriotism so that men will fight for their homelands and not just for themselves. The Iliad is the first in a long line of epics that show just how difficult and problematic this task is.
Today perhaps our clearest access to the phenomenon of thumos is in the world of athletics. Watching a boxer get up from the canvas to snatch victory from defeat, or a wrestler struggling to pin his opponent, or a swimmer straining to touch out a competitor in the next lane, we are witnessing thumos in action. It is no accident that our word "athletics" is derived from Greek, and that many of the forms of competitive sport were developed by the ancient Greeks, perhaps the most thumotic people who ever lived. Many factors in Greek culture, including the Homeric epics, worked to celebrate and encourage thumos, while many of the forces that work to inhibit or restrain it in our culture were absent back then. Centuries of Christianity have cast a pall over thumos, damning pride, for example, as the deadliest of sins. Christianity tends to view the whole thumotic complex of pride, ambition, and aggressiveness negatively, as a purely destructive force, responsible in fact for all the evil in the world. By contrast, Christianity celebrates the very unthumotic gesture of turning the other cheek.
The legacy of Christianity may help explain why our language has readily adopted the term eros from ancient Greek to designate desire, but has never picked up the term thumos. It is as if in a largely Christian culture it would be better if what Plato called thumos did not even have a name. As a result, we find strangely Christianized survivals of Plato's division of the soul in our culture. Take, for example, the division of psychic forces Freud experimented with in his later works, particularly Beyond the Pleasure Principle. There he posits two fundamental drives, which he calls eros and thanatos, a life-wish and a death-wish. The resemblance to Plato here is not accidental. In fact, Freud's thanatos is Plato's thumos reinterpreted in Christian terms, with the aggressiveness that the ancient Greeks celebrated now viewed as merely destructive. Freud takes one possible result of thumotic aggressiveness-the death of one of the combatants-and reinterprets it as its sole goal; thus thumos becomes thanatos. Freud's account of thanatos even resembles Plato's account of thumos; for Freud thanatos is an impulse to achieve and maintain a state of stasis, much as thumos in Plato's terms tries to stake out and defend boundaries. In essence Freud and Plato are talking about the same phenomenon; it is just that they evaluate it differently.
I bring up Freud as a reminder that Plato's understanding of the soul somehow still survives in our culture, in however sedimented, transformed, occulted, and hence initially unrecognizable a form. We should not be patronizing about what may seem to be Plato's quaint efforts to diagram the human soul, when the supposedly great sages of our own age have come up with equally schematic views, which may in fact be less true to the reality of the phenomena they claim to represent. Again, the great merit of Craig's book is that he maintains an open mind about Plato's understanding of the soul, neither accepting it on the authority of the great philosopher's name nor rejecting it on the historicist ground that an ancient Greek could not possibly have had a sounder grasp of human phenomena than we moderns do. In fact, as our argument has suggested, on historical (as opposed to historicist) grounds there is reason to believe that Plato had a superior understanding of thumos because, living as he did before the coming of Christianity, he had a chance to observe the phenomenon in a purer form, before Christian doctrine distorted, or at least altered, the interpretation and evaluation of pride, ambition, and aggressiveness.
The Republic is thus extremely valuable for helping us get back to a pre-Christian understanding of spiritedness, back to the age of innocence of thumos, as it were. But the fact that Plato does not view thumos as sinful does not mean that he views it as harmless. On the contrary, as Craig shows, the whole of the Republic can be viewed as investigating the problematic of spiritedness, especially as it bears on the question of philosophic education. Thumos initially appears in the Republic not as the ally of the philosopher but as its enemy. The pride of the spirited man can easily take the form of stubbornness, and make him resist adamantly any effort on the part of the philosopher to challenge his way of life. In making this point, Craig does a superb job of analysing the dramatic action of the Republic and in particular of giving us a sense of Socrates' two principal interlocutors, Glaucon and Adeimantus, as fully rounded dramatic characters and not just foils for the philosopher.
Plato presents these two interlocutors, and especially Glaucon, as the kind of spirited young men Socrates was attracted to, and whom he hoped to win away from their devotion to Athens over to a life of philosophy (it is worth recalling that Glaucon and Adeimantus were Plato's brothers). The problem for Socrates is that it is precisely their spiritedness that attaches them to the city. Their pride and ambition make them obsessed with being honoured in the eyes of their fellow Athenians and hence they strive to distinguish themselves in the areas of life conventionally regarded in the city as glorious, such as athletic competition and warfare. Moreover, spirited young men are disposed to have contempt for philosophers, who are not honoured by the city and even appear to be disreputable characters, engaged in unmanly pursuits that take the form of "all talk and no action". Under these circumstances, how is the philosopher to gain a foothold among the spirited young men of the city?
Here it is important to realize that though spiritedness may become passionate and irrational, it can at times serve as the ally of reason. For example, a man can become disgusted with himself for yielding to the temptation of desires he regards as shameful and hence beneath him. In such a case, a man's proud and spirited concern for his dignity can come to the aid of his reason in trying to control his desires. In general, as Craig shows, Socrates' pedagogy in the Republic depends on his enlisting spiritedness in the service of reason against the force of desire. According to Craig, the argument of the Republic rests on the possibility that spiritedness can be turned from being a negative and destructive force within the soul into something positive and constructive. In short, the Republic points to the possibility of the sublimation of spiritedness, and specifically to its being harnessed in the service of the philosopher's rigorous quest for truth.
In a way all Craig is asking us to do is to grant thumos the possibility we routinely grant eros, namely that it might have higher as well as lower forms. If the Republic is the Platonic dialogue that explores the connection between philosophy and thumos, then the Symposium is the one that most fully articulates the connection between philosophy and eros. We are familiar with the famous idea of the ladder of love in the Symposium, the notion that human beings can be led from their initial erotic attachments to other bodies, upward to an appreciation of souls and eventually to the apprehension of the higher spiritual truths of philosophy. In its lower forms, eros is a powerfully irrational force, very much part of our animal nature, and yet Plato has taught us how eros can be made to point beyond the body to the soul; indeed the idea of the sublimation of eros became the basis of the greatest love poetry in European literature. In its lower forms of brute aggressiveness, spiritedness can also look rather ugly, tempting us to reject it root and branch. Once again, our Christian heritage disposes us to take a more negative view of thumos than of eros. Indeed, it proved quite easy for the Church Fathers to assimilate the Platonic notion of eros to Christian ideas, whereas any notion of thumos as a positive force seems fundamentally incompatible with Christianity.
And yet that is the notion Craig develops in his discussion of the problematic of thumos in the Republic:
"These apparent contradictions . . . may dissolve, however, in light of the recognition that the spirit itself has two parts. There is a lower half, more akin to that found in animals; it is an instinctively selfish part, in which is seated a love of one's own and the familiar, and a hostility to the strange. And there is a higher, more distinctly human half, that takes pleasure from order and beauty . . . . Only this higher, more educable half of the spirit is by nature a reliable ally of reason."
Many of the most interesting passages of Craig's book are devoted to detailing the ways in which Socrates is able to bring out the higher side of the thumos of his young companions. The core of his strategy is to turn philosophic argument itself into a kind of contest, virtually an athletic competition, in which he can prove himself to be superior to any man in Athens, thus winning the respect and admiration of the spirited Glaucon and Adeimantus. In the Republic, as in most Platonic dialogues, philosophic dispute becomes a spiritualized form of combat or even warfare, as witness Socrates' crushing defeat of the rhetorician Thrasymachus in Book I. One of the advantages of Craig's approach is that it allows us to see the logic of the dramatic movement of the Republic. Socrates' view of justice is made manifest as much by what he does as what he says. The fundamental act of justice is dramatized in Plato's dialogue, as Socrates protects the nobly born youth of the city from potential corrupters like Thrasymachus and in fact tries to lead them to the higher pursuit of philosophy. As Craig argues, such acts of justice require Socrates to possess something of the soul of a great field general, able to plan and execute grand strategies and bold tactics.
It would be easy to form a one-sided impression of Craig's argument. The idea that there might be anything warlike whatsoever about the philosopher runs so counter to common notions on the subject and to the prevailing pacificism of the academic world that readers may start to imagine that Craig pictures Socrates on steroids and packing a Magnum, strutting around Athens saying: "Go ahead, make my argument." But if one follows his analysis carefully, one will see that ultimately the view of Plato he is developing is balanced and nuanced. Only because the warlike character of the Platonic philosopher has hitherto gone largely unnoticed, or at least has been considerably downplayed, does he choose to emphasize it. But he is not in favour of unbridled spiritedness and realizes full well that the true philosopher is very different from the pure warrior. Plato shows how Socrates appeals to the spiritedness of his young companions, but his aim is always to direct it to higher ends and thus ultimately to moderate it. In particular, Craig argues that the philosopher must learn to place his love of the truth above his love of his own ideas, and in that sense rise above thumos.
In the end he presents the philosopher as a uniquely complex being, with the warlike elements in his soul being balanced by an equally peaceful disposition:
"What might this mean? That the highest, most complete regimen of nurture is one which results in a soul that is aggressive in tracking down the truth of things, yet compliant in conforming with the truth it finds? . . . A soul both courageous and moderate, its vengeful pride tempered by compassion, assertive or patient as required, inclined neither to violence nor to envy, preferring persuasion to force but capable of both?"
This is a very suggestive passage, but notice how Craig presents his articulation of Plato's view of the philosopher in the form of questions, as if he realizes how complex and open to dispute are the issues he is raising here. As he makes clear in the judiciously formulated epilogue to the book, for him, toughmindedness does not preclude openmindedness. He has staked out a bold position in the interpretation of Plato, but with the hope of thereby opening up debate, not foreclosing it.

Paul Cantor is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.


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