The astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus studied Plato’s writings in the original Greek, and found in him a kindred spirit. In his main work, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, Copernicus draws on what the philologist František Novotný describes as Plato’s ‘metaphysical heliocentric argument from the Republic’ — his characterization of the sun as the god and ruler of the visible sphere and image of the Good, the unifying source and highest principle of reality. In defense of his most famous assertion, In medio vero omnium residet Sol (‘But in the middle of everything sits the Sun’), Copernicus writes reverently of the architectural splendor of the cosmos:
‘For who in this most beautiful of temples would have placed this lamp in any other or better place than one, from which it might illuminate the whole at once? Some indeed have not improperly called the Sun the lantern of the world, its soul, or its ruler. Trismegistus calls it “the visible god” and Sophocles’ Electra terms it “all-seeing.” And thus the sun resting as upon a royal throne rules the circling family of stars.’
A perfect counterpoint to Copernicus’s almost mystical awe before the grandeur of the universe can be found in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others. Like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We, which was denied publication by the censors of the Soviet Union, The Lives of Others repeatedly evokes the philosophic and scientific totalitarianism of Callipolis, the Beautiful City of Plato’s Republic, in telling the story of the repression of writers and artists in communist East Germany. The film includes a Platonic joke about Erich Honecker, East Germany’s head of state and Party General Secretary:
‘Honecker comes to his office early in the morning and opens the window. He sees the sun and says: “Good morning, dear sun.” The sun replies: “Good morning, dear Erich.” Honecker works and goes at noon to the window and says: “Good day, dear sun.” The sun replies: “Good day, dear Erich.” In the evening Erich closes up and goes once more to the window and says “Good evening, dear sun.” The sun does not respond. Honecker again says: “Good evening, dear sun. What’s the matter with you?” The sun answers: “Lick my ass, I’m in the West now.”’
In his ideological conceit, the leader of the DDR supposes that the sun revolves around him and his political work. Copernicus delights in the heliocentric universe, whereas Honecker tries to lord it over the very source of light and life on earth, as though the constructions of dialectical materialism could subdue the Good itself. And in a way, he succeeds: the joke’s dark humor is that he intimidates even the most regal of celestial bodies.
While Henckel von Donnersmarck reflects the fundamental tension between the Republic’s teaching on the Good and the tyranny of Callipolis, the logician Karl Popper is uncompromising in his criticism of Plato. Popper’s book The Open Society and its Enemies, conceived on the day in March of 1938 when he learned of Nazi Germany’s Anschluss with Austria, traces the origins of totalitarianism directly to the Republic. Students of Plato behind the Iron Curtain — where The Open Society was known, but banned — quickly reached a similar conclusion, and later totalitarian regimes have looked to the dialogue as a model.
Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, led by a Marxist who was radicalized while studying in Paris, appear to have followed almost to the letter Socrates’s advice to purify the old regime and initiate the new one by sending everyone over the age of ten to the country. The medieval Shiite philosopher Al-Farabi argued for an Islamic version of Callipolis, ruled by a philosophical prophet and lawgiver. A millennium later, Ayatollah Khomeini looked to the Republic in founding his revolutionary theocracy, in which power is concentrated in a Supreme Leader and a Council of Guardians.
How has the Republic managed to inspire tyrannical hubris as well as reflective openness, thumotic pusillanimity as well as erotic expansiveness? (For Plato, the philosopher is distinguished by erōs or love of wisdom; thumos or “spirit” is the part of the soul that loves victory and flares with anger at insult and injustice.)
Is the Republic primarily a work of philosophical inquiry or ideological dogmatism? Are its political proposals serious or ironic? Does it celebrate or condemn what Nietzsche’s Zarathustra teaches is ‘the coldest of all cold monsters’ — the State that sees all with a gaze’, as Yeats writes, ‘blank and pitiless as the sun’? It is unsurprising that these questions remain unresolved, for the intellectual energy and dramatic tension of Plato’s most famous dialogue spring from its fundamental ambiguity.
In the Myth of Er with which the Republic concludes, Socrates teaches that philosophy is the indispensable source of virtue and happiness, while injustice and misery are the predictable consequences of an unexamined life. Nor is moral luck — the good fortune to live in a well-ordered regime, where decency becomes second nature — an adequate substitute for thoughtfulness: Er observes a soul that had in its former life participated in virtue only ‘by habit, without philosophy’ pitifully lamenting its hasty choice to be reincarnated as a tyrant.
Er’s story supports an erotic reading of the Republic as a quest for individual salvation through philosophy. Why, then, does Socrates insist on the supreme excellence of Callipolis, whose rulers alone are allowed to pursue, not philosophy as such, but only a part of it — a formal and systematic metaphysics? Worse, doesn’t he do injustice to his companions in recommending a regime that exercises almost total control over the behavior of its citizens?
These questions are of more than theoretical interest to Plato, and not just because they concern the moral and intellectual character of the teacher he immortalizes in his dialogues. The Republic is historically as well as philosophically significant. It tells the story of Socrates’s attempt to keep Plato’s brother Glaucon from the path of tyranny — a path on which Plato himself began to embark when, in the immediate aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, his influential relatives championed a kind of ideological absolutism that promised to promote the cause of justice in Athens.
When I wrote my first book on the Republic more than 20 years ago, I took it for granted that Socrates succeeded in convincing Glaucon of the superiority of the life of philosophy and justice. At some point in teaching and thinking about the dialogue, however, I began to try to justify what I has previously assumed, and instead found myself stirring up doubts.
I now strongly suspect something that would have shocked my earlier self, and will doubtless shock many of my readers: that Glaucon did choose tyranny over philosophy. I cannot say whether my argument for this hypothesis — which the historian Mark Munn seems to have been the first to propose — will persuade skeptical students of Plato. But I am convinced that it is a case well worth making. For it opens up unsuspected depths of meaning in the Republic, and sheds fresh light on a neglected but crucial dimension of the Platonic dialogues: Socrates’s rivalry with Critias, the cousin of Plato’s mother Perictone.
Jacob Howland is a professor of philosophy at the University of Tulsa. This excerpt is taken from his new book, Glaucon’s Fate: History, Myth and Character in Plato’s ‘Republic’ (Paul Dry Books).