Atomized No More: Plato’s Republic and Rediscovering Community

We are just roommates at this point, you and I and everyone around us in the Lonely West. Millions and millions of us live and move and have our being around each other, but that’s about it. We share little more than physical proximity. And even those grudging interactions are ebbing away as we DoorDash our food, Amazon our niceties, and livestream our holy Masses from the convenience of the couch.

The fundamental telos of Apocatastasis Institute is rediscovering community, and I’m thinking a lot about community these days and about social reform and I’ve written a lot about that. So here I am writing this and I’m doing it in an unusual location today. It’s not the typical room people find me in or the car they might see me typing away in. I’m in the skeleton of Big Al’s Toy Box, a hot rod engine factory late of Kent, Connecticut. Were you here you would see a poster for that business right behind me. Indeed I am sitting in Al’s old chair, Lord ‘ave mercy on him.

Yes, I’m thinking about the community that once was here and the business that once was here, and why those things fell apart, and how we use and overuse the word community. Like love and family and friendship, the word community has suffered all sorts of violence. We are increasingly coming to the realization that we’re all just roommates, that we don’t have anything in common. We don’t seem to have a country nor a culture anymore; we certainly don’t have an ethnos. Why that is is a discussion for another day. What is appropriate to ask is what is community and what holds a society together?

Plato was living and writing at a time like ours in some ways, and he’s writing at a time which in its own way is similar to ours. Plato was living at a time at a time increase where the Greek democracy – and it was a literal democracy in the sense of one man, one vote, at least for those men who owned property and could get to the town hall – became long in the tooth. You know, when your ruling class is killing Socrates it’s probably not a good sign of the competence of your leaders. Sure, don’t aldermen have a bad habit of exiling their most talented, and killing them when they can? I think of, yes, of Socrates in the time of Plato, and I think of Jesus run out of of Jerusalem and strung up on that cross, and I think of Mohammed run out of Mecca and Dante from Florence. A prophet is not known in his own land.

So here we have Plato’s home of Athens, and he’s looking around seeing incompetence in the leadership of this democracy. Soon enough Athens is going to be attacked and they’re going to have famines and coups and all sorts of things. Great Tribulation is coming and Plato knows it, but it’s still a ways off for your Joe Blow Greek.

We will revisit the exceptional aspects of Greek philosophy and Greek thinking down the line. Here, however, we can make note of something in that neighborhood, and that is the idea of “the individual” that’s going to be very necessary to understand the whole Greek way of looking at the world and how different that is from the rest of the world. We will revisit this importance anon. Just keep in mind that we’re seeing in Ancient Greece, an area of the world the size of New Jersey, a little pipsqueak piece of land, people who have a way of looking at life that’s going to influence the remainder of Western history, right until this very essay. To them belongs the idea of the individual, and that other aspect of Greek thinking, differentiation. We should also define “Socratic dialogue.” This is simply what we see in a lot of Plato’s writings and other philosophers of teaching with questions and teaching with conversation. In the case of The Republic using different characters to represent different problems.

When we begin The Republic, after now having lain out the situation in Athens, Plato settles upon the idea that to have a functioning republic, to have a functioning community, to use the modern lingo, you need “justice.” Thus begins a Socratic dialogue as to what justice means and as we see in other places such as The Phaedo and The Symposium. He uses the Socratic dialogue partially for comical reasons. Plato uses the other interlocutors of his books to kind of slap down their arguments. So, you know, if you were to put a Socratic dialogue in present times we would see prominent political figures or cultural figures or so-called celebrities often disagreeing with whomever Plato puts up as his hero, and we would see him slapping down their arguments. So, yes, there’s a comical aspect to this, or at least a humorous aspect to Plato.

Having established justice in his vision as being the mortar for a good polis, Plato then uses these other speakers to lay out his mind. Plato uses these people he disagrees with in the same way Thomas Aquinas will do well over 1500 years later. That is to put the opposing argument first, hopefully steelmanning it, and then shoot it down. So Plato has one of his speakers say what is justice, what is this mortar of society, and the first character will say that justice is paying your debts. Yes, one of the character says that and Plato says, “No, no, that can’t be true because of X Y and Z.” And the second one will say that helping your friends and harming your enemies is justice because of so-and-such, and Plato will say, “No, that can’t be justice because what if you’re mistaken and you think someone who is your enemy is your friend?” There is too much gray area here. Finally that last guy will say that justice is the stronger helping the weaker, and that is what gets us to what in fact is justice.

It’s important to understand the way Plato’s using “justice” is not like the three bits above. He’s using that word in the same sense we would use the word “virtue” or “morality,” so keep that in mind. For Plato virtue is the key to understanding his take on society and the problems of Athens and how to fix them. Potentially any human society with virtue will be functional. Remember, those morals are three, not the traditional four that we tend to have. Those four are prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance. For Plato he’s just going to have the three, and these are wisdom, courage, and temperance. I’d like to revisit that before we get into Plato’s conception of a functioning republic, his idea of needing classes of people that have these virtues.

Now, if justice is the key to understanding Plato’s look on an healthy society, then we need to understand Greek philosophy and what it is about the Greek worldview which makes it so influential in subsequent Western history. The key to understanding this significance is that making distinctions is Philosophy 101. This is what put Greek thinking into a league of its own. Making distinctions comes from the Greeks, and this is what makes them different. What makes a cup a cup; what makes a car a car; what makes a bird a bird. There are many versions of these things, but what do they all have in common that makes them them? If you read Plato, and certainly Aristotle, they really obsess about what makes a thing a thing. This is going to be very important when we get to the Allegory Of The Cave which is famous from this book.

The Allegory is probably the most famous nugget of Plato’s that comes from The Republic. It’s probably the one idea of his that if you were to go out on the street that you would hear associated with Plato more than anything else. We all came across it in high school. We certainly all teach it in high school, those of us who never left high school in certain ways. This idea of what makes a thing a thing, this is going to plug in very shortly.

Before I get ahead of myself let’s recap. Plato says in The Republic that justice is having these internal virtues, or characteristics of the soul. For our purposes they are three, not the traditional four. For our man these are wisdom, courage, and temperance. Wisdom, courage, and temperance they are, and these are traditionally called the “pagan virtues” because you don’t need the Christian concept of Revelation which give you faith, hope, and love. Obviously these will go on and later history, especially with Aristotle, but for right now this is what we have.

So for Plato making distinctions, as he does, he sees also in the individual that that’s what makes his definition of justice different than the other three. Justice, meaning virtue, must reside within the individual; then it is to be mirrored to those he interacts with, and there is your society. If you look at the actual text of The Republic, the first three lame definitions of justice, they all have to do with these social arrangements. They are all external social arrangements, that are strong people in the society helping the weak, or owing debts – not just monetary debts, but owing debts of various sorts, you know – to another person, and justice is paying your debt, and finally giving to your friends and enemies what they deserve.

Plato says the weaknesses of these three definitions are because they don’t start with the individual. We also understand this as being a key to Greek philosophy, the individual. This will, of course, go on to be quite influential on Christian statecraft and philosophy later on. This idea is powerful, that justice flows from the internal life of man, flows out into the neighborhood he inhabits, and lifts the aggregate society. In a few weeks we’re going to have a conference at Apocatastasis Institute on the Memorial of St. Joseph The Worker, all day we will be hearing from teachers going on about society and economics and so forth, and for all their worldviews what they’ll be saying is fundamentally Platonic.

There is a mirroring here. There is a mirroring in Plato of the internal world to the external. The Ancient, like the Medieval mind, in that it is symphonic. Platonic thinking is symphonic. Everything works in harmony. This is very different from the modern mind where everything is isolated. There is this complete isolation of society. Fast-forward Modernity until today, and we see that all of life has been broken into these wretched rectangles, these cell phones. All of Western history has led to some dude with his face in the phone, but that’s a very modern type of isolation. For Plato, as for the Medieval, as much as the individual plays a prominent role, the individual never existed apart from society. It is only in Modernity, only since the Enlightenment, that you have this idea of the atomized autonomous individual, the individual that exists in this abstract world where he has no bonds to family, no bonds to anything unless he wishes to enter into a contract. (Whence you have your Social Contract Theory and your John Locke.)

What we need to know is that Plato understands the individual, and that justice (i.e. virtue) must come from the individual, and this is the source of a healthy polis. However, the individual is part of an organism. There is a reflection here. There’s a reflection here, and this is a great setup to the final point of these introductory considerations of The Republic.

We’re looking now at the Allegory Of The Cave, and the reflection I have is that the justice of the individual is seen first of all in the physical body of the individual. As we’re on the cusp of the Allegory, Plato sees everything almost like in a science experiment. Actually, here let’s make it easier. He sees it like a bottle of salad dressing. You have things separate out. The hard things go to the bottom, the light to the top. Whatever, the chopped up crud goes to the bottom, and the balsamic goes in the middle, and then your oil goes to the top; you have to shake it around to get your dressing.

So for reality, says Plato. At the highest part of existence is the Logos. This will become extremely important in Christian philosophy. Plato sees this as giving rise to the World Of Forms, the world of perfection from which everything is a reflection. Everything else kind of trickles down like a bottle of salad dressing to the heaviest most base, most materialistic aspects. Plato sees this in the body of the individual. The highest faculty of man is his reason, so that is highest physically in his body (i.e., his head). His source of reason is the closest, even if only by a few feet, to the skyly World Of Forms. You have for Plato your wisdom in your noggin’ – wisdom which is not just simply data, that’s another Modern distortion, but I’ll behave myself. Then after that you have courage; you have the heart and you have the lungs and the shoulders. Your courage is in your chest. Then you have the digestive and sexual organs, and they are the most base. They’re necessary, but they are those functions which are closest to the animal and vegetable kingdoms. Yes, the human being is like this little salad dressing bottle with the highest elements to the lowest.

Well, Plato then says obviously that’s all of reality. He says, you see, that this hierarchy of justice exists in bodies of men as well. I don’t mean individual physical bodies of men here, I mean groups of individuals. Right, you have the individual person with this hierarchy, Plato says, but you also see the same thing in society, the same division that you see certain people are broken up by these three virtues of wisdom, courage, and temperance. You’re going to see certain types or classes of people that will emulate these same things.

Those who emulate wisdom are, for Plato, a very few number of rulers on this earth who have ever really tried to embrace that challenge. Marcus Aurelius might be one of the more famous ones; maybe St Louis IX could be another example; King David another. But in general few are those rulers who care about wisdom. Then you have the soldiers, those who emulate courage. The most base are the farmers and artisans. They are the most base, not because they’re bad but because there are the most of them, and because their concerns are the most animalistic. These ones have temperance.

These three classes of virtue must live in harmony if the republic is to be functioning properly. If any of you are like me you have different body parts that get inflamed from time to time. Maybe it’s your wrist or your knee that’s off, like I had very recently. When one part of the body isn’t a functioning or is demanding more attention than the rest it’s amazing how it saps your attention. I seem to be prone to this sort of inflammation. Over the winter I had this shoulder thing, and of all the things which go heywire on may, it was by far though most painful of these periodic annoyances that I have and, boy, like I say, when one part of the the body – and getting back to Plato, the body politic – is out of whack, it really does get your attention. It throws off the whole thing. Justice is having the three virtues in harmony, and when this exists in society, when each class carries out its own function, then harmony results. Before we finally get to the Allegory Of The Cave we will remember that one of the things which annoyed Plato in his day was that amateurs as he calls them, or as they’re translated into English, were getting involved with statecraft.

Plato very much had an almost 19th Century British idea of everyone – here’s an old fashioned phrase – minding their station. People should not get out of their lane, to use a later simile. Plato says the Philosopher-Kings need to govern. They are governors; they will not make good farmers. Farmers will not make good soldiers. The same goes with the other combinations. Keep to your lane, Plato says. Don’t have pretensions. This is a major area in these days of Liberalism where the present system diverges from Plato’s Republic. We have this idea that the individual can be anything in society, a governor, a soldier, an artisan.

The final thing I want to talk about is the Allegory Of The Cave. This is the most famous part of The Republic. Think about the parables of Jesus, these are teaching stories. Well there’s an allegory in our text called the Allegory Of The Sun, where the sun symbolizes goodness. The sun is Logos, the sun is Ultimate Reality. Very briefly the whole idea of the World Of Forms is where justice comes from, and where you get this this hierarchy of peoples as the salad dressing described above, of reality where things are separated by their their nobility and virtue. Plato says that this Bic is a pen and this dip pen is also a pen, and so is this gel pen; their designs are different, and yet we recognize them all as pens. There are a thousand different pens yet there is something they all have in common. What fascinated Plato is what makes these three things pens. I’m sitting on a swivel chair as I write this, and there’s a hammock over there, and there’s a beanbag in the corner, and upstairs there is a bar stool. In the World Of Forms, Plato says, there must be an ultimate pen of which all other pens are more or less poor reflections; there must be an ultimate chair from which all other seats are shadows.

So that’s the “sun” in the Allegory Of The Sun, it’s the Logos in the World Of Forms; it’s the ultimate woman, the ultimate man, the ultimate computer, the ultimate love, the ultimate hate, and so on. Everything else is just a reflection of this Logos, like waves rippling away from a thrown stone.

In the Allegory Of The Cave Plato tells us this very weird story where he says there is this underground cave. In it we see men who have been chained from birth to this wall. From their earliest years, from the breast and from the knee, they have been chained looking at a wall, looking at shadows of birds and pots and trees. The light comes from behind them and strange priests project the shadows which these poor bastards have to look at. They believe the shadows are reality; it’s all they know. They’ve never actually seen real birds and pots and trees. They see the shadow of the tree and they believe that is the thing itself. And in this story Plato says that one happy day someone comes into the cave and kills off those dudes in the robes making shadows, and he frees these slaves who have been brought up from the breast to see shadows as reality. He says, you know, “Come, follow me guys!” like in The Goonies or something, “Come, follow me!” He leads them up over the dead bodies of these guys with the sticks, and up and over and out of the cave they go. Finally the freed slaves see real birdies flying through the real sky, and real trees, actual trees with leaves and bark and such. But Plato says that people who have been so formed to see shadows as reality will kill their liberator. They will kill him up there and they will run back into the cave and they will find new people to hold up their placards and to keep the illusion going. It is much more comfortable back in the cave; it bewildered them to see the real things they only knew as shadows. They were being lied to. To see the real thing scared them, and so they ran back into their cave, back into their shadows.

At this point Plato invites us to ask that question in The Republic which is most difficult of all. Is justice and virtue and this way of seeing society available to everyone, or are there some people – and this is a hard question to ask, maybe the Ancients were more honest than we, or maybe more realistic than we; perhaps we are too idealistic – are there people who can’t handle reality? Are there people who need to be looking at the cave wall?

Plato is going to say absolutely yes, most people cannot handle virtue; most people cannot handle democracy. The vast majority of people are going to be slaves chained to the wall happily looking at the shadows. They’re not competent enough to grasp systems of government and worldview. This is a difficult question.

By the way, Plato’s not blowing the whistle telling us about this system of control. I hear this often enough from people, they mention that Plato’s alerting us, his readers, on the occult workings of the bad guys. No such thing! Plato says, “Get real, most people are fit to be slaves; they do not have the virtues necessary for the republic.” And guess what, besides idealistic Apocatastasis Institute, where are people deeply reading The Republic today? Places like Yale and Georgetown and Fordham and Chicago University, all the schools that produce the management class, all those places that spit out our philosopher-kings. Basically they agree with Plato. We can ask whether we agree with Plato. Is he being realistic or is he being cruel?

The final point of this Allegory Of The Cave, of course, is education. Now begins in The Republic a major meditation on education. This is kind of where my thoughts are going after having encountered this text.

Our author continues his idea of stratification, now breaking up the instruction of a hypothetical philosopher-king sort. He says from childhood until puberty there should be little, if any, formal instruction; from about 17 years old to 20 the youth should solely be occupied with military training with there being no time for study. This probably hits us moderns in the mouth more than anything as that’s the age in this culture when one is supposed to get their college education. Moving on, the 20s of a budding philosopher-king will be taken up with mathematics, the early 30s with dialogue and morality, from 35 to 50 years of age the individual will be engaged in public service, finally arriving at Athen’s Supreme Council after 50 years of age. How different this is from us, where one pretty much stops formal learning once they leave college, usually not returning to such exercises until retirement age.

Note that The Republic starts a tradition in Western literature of utopian thinking. When you read of Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on the state, or books like Thomas More’s Utopia, or Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, know that this discourse on the ideal state starts with The Republic. I was thinking today of any other culture which had something similar to a book like Plato’s Republic. The closest I could come would be the Mosaic Code in Deuteronomy and Leviticus in the holy Bible. But look at Deuteronomy in Leviticus, which is Moses laying out how the Old Testament Church, Israel, should function and be governed. It’s much more primitive than how Plato is thinking.

As a good Greek he is working in total abstraction. You could theoretically, as we can see now with the Neocons, apply the principles of The Republic in Iraq and Afghanistan and Ukraine right now because theoretically these ideas ought to work anywhere. Of course this is leaving out many cultural factors which explain the unbroken losing streak of Neoconservativism. The point is the people who start those wars are hopped up on The Republic, and they’re hopped up on abstraction, and that explains a lot of things we see in the news.

So what does The Republic teach us about rediscovering community? It offers us an alternative way to structure society. We were given a passing substitute for Christian society in the Enlightenment. Okay, the individual was no longer part of the drama of salvation inaugurated and lived perfectly in Christ and entered into via the holy Sacraments and life of grace. That was switched out with the pageant of a nation; liturgical participation was swapped for dutiful citizenship. It’s a little lame, but it obviously scratched an itch for about 500 years.

That is all gone now. The archons have sold out their nations in the last fifty years. In all my historical knowledge, I cannot recall when the ruling classes of an entire swath of the world have decided on cultural suicide en masse. In place of the citizen, which at least assumed reciprocal obligations as soon as rights, the “consumer” has been posited. And what a success it has been! In a mere forty odd years deracinated Western man has tripped over himself tearing his family apart, forgetting his religion, becoming the most selfish and self-absorbed blob in human history. In putting egotistical, commercial wants as the fundamental social relationship, Western man has forgotten his ethnos, his pride, his health, his God. There are six locations in holy Connecticut where I may buy sex change chemicals for my kid when I want to get back at my ex-wife in a Bar Association divorce court; two places will go all the way and do the chop-chop. This cannot go on.

The archons will hang themselves. If people aren’t dumb enough to take the bait of carefully fostered civil strife, this order will not be around for much longer. When these bastards hang themselves and destroy their systems of oppression, there will be much work to do. On their ruins we will build the republic, and we’ll have a better go of it if we internalize Plato’s Republic of virtue, not selfish consumerism, as we do.

John Coleman co-hosts Christian History & Ideasand is the founder of Apocatastasis: An Institute for the Humanities, an alternative college and high school in New Milford, Connecticut. Apocatastasis is a school focused on studying the Western humanities in an integrated fashion, while at the same time adjusting to the changing educational field. Information about the college can be found at its website.

Featured: Plato’s Cave, engraving by Jan Saenredam, after Cornelis van Haarlem; printed 1604.