NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
British philosopher Simon Blackburn probably captured the feelings shared by a lot of readers who struggled through Plato's "Republic," when he admitted: I've never found Plato to be a particularly congenial author. And former students will be pleased to hear that part of Blackburn's problem is that he finds it so hard to figure out what Plato really means. Nevertheless, the book unquestionably belongs on anybody's list of books that changed the world.
As part of the series from Atlantic Monthly books, Simon Blackburn has written a biography of Plato's "Republic," gently reminding those of us who have forgotten why it was and remains so important.
Later in the program, Neil Gaiman on the new movie "Stardust" and the transition of his magical fairy tale from the novel to the big screen.
But first, Plato's "Republic." If you have questions about Plato's views on government and morality of the book, had an influence on your life, or if you've always wondered what the myth of the cave was all about, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, email@example.com. And we have a Socratic dialogue under way on our blog. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Simon Blackburn is a professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge. I should correct that. Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge in England. He joins us from the studios of member station WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And it's nice to have you with us today.
Professor SIMON BLACKBURN (Author, "Plato's Republic: A Biography;" Professor of Philosophy, University of Cambridge): Thank you very much, Neal.
CONAN: And if we fear that…
Prof. BLACKBURN: Nice to be here.
CONAN: Oh, thank you. And if we fear that Plato's "Republic" is a dusty tome of obscure arguments, we learn in your biography of the book that it has been used to justify social Darwinism, laissez faire capitalism, the tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin, and the invasion of Iraq. Actually, you argue that it's been misused in those contexts, but nevertheless, relevance to the modern day doesn't seem to be an issue here.
Prof. BLACKBURN: No, it's not an issue here. It's a timeless book, deservedly, because Plato is speaking to problems human beings are always going to face, problems of how to live their lives. As Socrates said - says what is at stake is far from insignificant. It is how one should live one's life. And that's a perennial problem, if any problem is.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And indeed, Socrates is the main character in "Republic."
Prof. BLACKBURN: That's exactly right. Socrates, of course, we're all familiar with the bearded figure, usually with his finger pointing to the sky, his hand in the air, looking heroic, as he was about to die. But the Socrates in the "Republic" is very much alive and he's very full of himself, some might say. He's rather dogmatic and doctrinaire compared to the Socrates in other dialogues.
CONAN: And well, all of those appearances by Socrates, well, we have Plato to thank for them all.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Yes. We do.
Prof. BLACKBURN: There's very little known about Socrates apart from Plato's account.
CONAN: And indirectly - we only have a word of that - thanks to the Arabs who kept records of Plato's books about him.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Yes, indeed. That's right. The transmission of Greek philosophy to the West did come via Byzantium and then via the Arab world, exactly.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Now, Plato was a student of Socrates, along with another fellow who came to some renown and indeed, to some degree, his great rival in terms of influential philosophy.
Prof. BLACKBURN: You mean Aristotle?
CONAN: That's what I was thinking of.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Yeah. Yes. Aristotle is more of a pupil of Plato's than Socrates', but Aristotle's little bit younger. But certainly, there's the Socratic influence there. And, of course, Aristotle himself descends from some of the doctrines of the "Republic" and of the later Plato, especially.
In effect, there's two kinds of Socrates. There's a Socrates of the earlier dialogues, who's always questioning…
Prof. BLACKBURN: …never coming to conclusions, just forcing your nose into the problems. And then, the Socrates of the "Republic" onwards, who's much more doctrinaire. And Aristotle disliked some of the doctrines, so at this point you get a sort of rift between the Platonic tradition and the Aristotelian tradition, which then continued throughout Western Europe.
CONAN: Hmm. And, of course, you said Socrates is very much alive - he was dead by the time Plato wrote these books. And you suggest that in fact from time to time, either Plato or Socrates himself, indeed, were a little bit fluid about what their positions actually were.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Yes. Plato, of course - the dialogues are called that because they are hard dialogues. There are different voices in them. And it's one of the perpetual exercises for commentators to try and figure out which voice is Plato's own voice, what's he trying to get us to believe.
Myself, I think, that's a fairly fruitless business. I think he's presenting a drama. He's presenting a play, if you like, in which there are just different voices. So it's silly, for example, to try and say which character in "Hamlet" does Shakespeare represent, or that may be just as silly to say which character in the dialogues does Plato himself are representing, which doctrine does he believe.
Prof. BLACKBURN: What's so fascinating for philosophy is the play of the voices, the different things that get said, and really, the question of whether Plato believed what this one or that one, is much less important.
CONAN: Yet, nevertheless, you have described this as a dangerous book. What did you mean by that?
Prof. BLACKBURN: Well, he's playing with ideas. And as another great philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, later said, you know, philosophy is an explosion waiting to happen. Ideas are dangerous things. For example, Plato presents ideas, which could easily be taken to justify certain kinds of totalitarian state. The collective is more important than the individual in "Republic."
And that's a dangerous idea. An idea, which, you know, in the view of some philosophers - notably Sir Karl Popper writing at the time of Hitler and Stalin - in his view, that was an idea that justified - lent credence to -totalitarian forms of government. So there's a dangerous idea for you.
CONAN: We're talking with philosopher Simon Blackburn about his new biography of Plato's "Republic," which he wrote despite the fact, you mentioned you had some reluctance, including the fact that you are neither a classicist in the study of - student of ancient literature nor a historian.
Prof. BLACKBURN: That's right. Yes, I'm neither of those things. I'm free of what Bertrand Russell called the evil of specialization, which meant that if you're qualified to comment on Plato, it's only because you spent all your youth reading Greek as opposed to doing the things that Plato would have found important.
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Prof. BLACKBURN: So I can claim that, at least.
CONAN: And it gains a special - extra sense. Of course, specialization is one of the things that Socrates talks quite a bit about in "Republic," the idea that everybody should stay in their place.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Yes, he does. And I'm afraid I'm trespassing against that, at least in the eyes of some of my colleagues.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers on the line. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Why don't we start with Jeff(ph). And Jeff is with us from Cincinnati.
JEFF (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me on.
JEFF: Professor, I just wanted to say that I echo your sentiments about Plato's continuing influence even thousands of years later. I was a philosophy major as an undergrad and I did a number of seminars on Plato. I'm still doing it now actually in grad school, so…
Prof. BLACKBURN: All right.
JEFF: The comment that I - I would - I think that his influence extends even beyond the "Republic" today. I know that that's probably the most famous work by him. But even some of his philosophy of language, like the "Theaetetus," if you go back to…
Prof. BLACKBURN: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
JEFF: …if you go back to Bill Clinton's what's-the-definition-of-is, you know, I couldn't help look at that and think Plato and - as perverse as that may sound. So I just wanted to echo your sentiments and I fully agree with you. And I think that some of the more contemporary philosophers that say, it's all been done or correct and that Plato really did touch on most of the themes that we're still talking about today. So, thank you.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Well, thank you very much. I think that's right. You know, I start the book with a famous quotation from Alfred North Whitehead, who says that the history of western philosophy is by and large just a sequence of footnotes to Plato. And that's a lot of people's view of it. Myself, I'm a little bit ambivalent about it because I do think - I don't go as far as Popper who I just mentioned.
Prof. BLACKBURN: But I do think in some respects, Plato misled people or misleads people. But by gosh, he's always got a good idea at the bottom of it, and it may be our fault if we're misled rather than Plato's. Maybe we're just not reading him properly.
CONAN: In fact, you write that you started rereading Plato as you were approached with this idea, which you weren't too thrilled about, initially, and really got excited about reading him again.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Yes, exactly. Yes. Perhaps, it's an old man's project to read Plato. We shouldn't really let young people like Greg(ph) at it. It, I found it much more interesting second or third time around than I did when I was younger. When I was younger, I was rather put off by this kind of lawyerlike figure of Socrates, who sort of traps his Heros and ties them in knots and leaves them bumbling, and it all seemed to be a bit unfair and rather sort of contrived to me. But now, I see it's a dramatic way of getting at things which Plato found really important and which are really important.
CONAN: Yet, I have to mention that your book is peppered with phrases - after considerable dry dueling over this point, which leads nowhere, Socrates finally says…
Prof. BLACKBURN: Yes. Well, that's what I can do is and - irreverent nonspecialist, which the specialist - they can't do. They got to find nuggets of gold in every sentence. I can afford - so I don't understand what's going on here.
CONAN: Jeffrey, are you still with us?
JEFFREY: Yeah, I am.
CONAN: I was wondering, when you get your specialized degree in philosophy, what are you going to do with it?
JEFFREY: Well, I might teach and there's always law, so there's a little bit of both. I'm still trying to decide that.
CONAN: Aha. Okay. Good luck to you.
JEFFREY: Thank you.
CONAN: All right. Bye bye.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Thank you, Jeff.
CONAN: Is that what the students of Plato do when they're finished their studies - they go into the law?
Prof. BLACKBURN: Well, I suspect a lot of them do. Of course, there's an irony there because a lot of Socrates' anger is directed against people he call the Sophists and these were, in a sense, professional law teachers. They were people who taught their students how to get the - get their way, how to present a case in the assembly, and these cases would be legal as well as political cases. And Plato - Socrates had a tremendous disdain for that. He thought that it was like a self-help manual. It's some kind of cheat. And you - the really the only way to learn to present a case is to learn to think. And thinking has to be done by dialectic, by argument, by the kind of drama that he takes you through.
You can't just go into a bookshop, pick up, you know, 100 ways to have a conversation and learn it. You're going to do it.
CONAN: Yeah, he says just do it - reading is a very poor substitute for actually doing these arguments.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Exactly, yes, which I think is a very valuable educational lesson. It's one of the lessons we can profit from from the "Republic."
CONAN: Simon Blackburn's new book is "Plato's Republic: A Biography." We're going to continue talking about it and take more of your calls. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Email is email@example.com.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
It's probably been a while since you read "Plato's Republic," if you read it at all. But the work has had such influence on people's ideas over the millennia that it's earned its place in the series, Books That Changed The World. Simon Blackburn has a new biography of "Plato's Republic." He read it so you don't have to.
You can read his take on the book in an excerpt at npr.org/talk. Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge in England. If you have questions for him about "Plato's Republic" or if the book had an impact on your life. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And it's interesting, Simon Blackburn, you said that you're writing a biography of a book and not of a man. Yet, is it important that Plato himself was the child of the Athenian aristocracy?
Prof. BLACKBURN: Yes. I think one has to know, you know, certain amount - well, if anything is known about the life of authors. But I also think it's a mistake just to see reading a book as an attempt to get in touch with what the author really, you know, has as his message? Again, the example - Shakespeare is wonderful because he's so multi-faceted. And, you know, you can appreciate Hamlet without knowing very much about who Shakespeare was. It's just there in front of you. And as I say, it's still less about what Shakespeare's beliefs were or the message he's trying to get across. That's just the wrong way to set about the thing.
Plato was a grumpy, old man in some ways. I do believe that. I think he's quite hilarious when he talks about democracy, for example. He's got, I think, really does have a contempt for the demos, the mob, the people, the rabble. And he thinks it's very dangerous when they get in control.
But it's not unintelligent. It's not just a kind aristocratic dislike of the vulgar. It's a real fear that the processes of, as it were, communication get muddied, get taken over of the people fall prey to what he called oligarchs, we might call rabble-rousers or plutocracy.
So as we see in our own democracy, you know, the people who control the press are the people with money. And the people who control the press, control the ballot. So, you know, there were great dangers in keeping a democracy pure and sensible. And Plato had seen the Athenian democracy go through the most dreadful, turbulent times. They've murdered Socrates. They'd fallen prey to the kind of - to various conspiracies and tyrannies. It was all very, very unstable.
CONAN: Yeah. The democracy was entering what? About a 1,000-year period of disfavor.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Well, exactly. And Plato, I think, can't be blamed for thinking there was no solution to it. What he hadn't foreseen was the possibility of democracies reigning themselves in by constitutional means. The Athenian democracy was very much a referendum every day as it were. And a policy that's passed one day could lead to its proponents being executed the next day. And that kind of instability and fickleness in the democracy really alarmed Plato.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line now. This is Everett(ph), Everett with us from Turlock in California.
EVERETT (Caller): Hello?
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air.
EVERETT: Hi. Professor Blackburn, thanks for taking my call.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Thank you, Everett.
EVERETT: Other than the myth of the metals, probably my favorite quote from "Plato's Republic" is: in a city of good men, men would fight not to lead. And my question is - I mean, I know you're coming from the philosophical standpoint, but as a political scientist, my question is do you think that society - not just in the United States but as a global society - have we made any kind of progress since Socrates' time because it seems that today, men and women are both fighting to lead rather than not to lead.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Good. Yes. I mean, not only do the good men not fight to lead. It's a bit of a mystery how, in the "Republic," you get a good man to pay any attention to politics at all because he's gone off and contemplated the good. And this is - this kind of life of contemplation and understanding. Plato elevates completely above anything to do with the role work of human passions and the undignified work of human envy and jealousy and greed and so on. So getting the guardians - this is the good men who deserve to govern - to actually want to govern is a famous sort of crux in interpreting the book. Why on Earth would they want to, given that they're supported, they have their place in society? And you can't imagine them wanting to rub their nose in the dirt of actual day-to-day politics.
CONAN: Yeah, I wondered - if this quote, this famous quote that Everett cited for us…
Prof. BLACKBURN: Yeah.
CONAN: …that attitude, did not that affect people like George Washington, who said, look, I'm not going to run for president of the United States unless I'm basically asked to run? I'm certainly not going to force myself on this young Republic as its leader after I …
Prof. BLACKBURN: Right.
CONAN: …emerged as the military hero.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Yes. Well, I think a lot of military men have been all too keen to retire. They don't necessarily want to. They don't aspire to be the guy in the driving seat. And when you think about it, being the guy in the driving seat is a pretty unpleasant job. So, you know, Plato, again, saw a real problem. How do you get the best people, people who understand things, to be interested in the dirty work of government?
CONAN: Everett, thanks for the call.
EVERETT: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can talk now to - this is Gail(ph). Gail's with us from Indianapolis.
GAIL (Caller): Hello?
Prof. BLACKBURN: Hello.
GAIL: I had been a college teacher in the past and I just wanted to comment briefly that when the students started - we would read this book in its entirety, the Allan Bloom translation, and they would always groan and kind of not all look forward to it, until we really got into it. And I think one of the things that caught their fancy was the fact that Socrates spends, you know, part of the reason the dialogue form is so effective is he's trying to bring along the young people and he's focused upon the development of the young. And Glaucon's you know, kind of transformation through the action…
CONAN: Glaucon is one of the other characters in the book. But go ahead.
GAIL: Yes. It caught their fancy in a way that I thought kind of relieved it from their original lack of enthusiasm. Because I have not - I would not do selections. We had to read that entire book. I always felt very strongly about it. And the other thing that I appreciate - the professor's comment that I would just want to echo is, of course, the ancient understanding of the role of the individual is so different from, you know, the present disposition.
I'm looking back, saying, you know, what does this book mean for the individual because, of course, they didn't understand the role of the individual the way we do after the Enlightenment. And that would turn their heads around to, you know, the fact that they were completely different considerations as to the role of other person in the polis.
And not that they can't be used to give us wisdom today, but that one has to be very careful to put it in context, and the people I was dealing with were, you know, young enough that they really had to bend their minds back. And I really think the dialogue's form is superior because they could watch a young person, you know, being part of the dialogue but also observing the effect on others. And it was just - it really is a stroke of genius, to use that form. So that was really all I wanted to say and thank you for such an interesting topic.
CONAN: Okay, Gail. Thanks very much for the call.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Thank you, Gail.
GAIL: Thank you.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Yes. I mean, I do think the dialogue form is absolutely wonderful. It's the nearest - by reading, you can get to the experience of, you know, sitting at Socrates' feet. If Plato'd just written a tract about politics or a tract about moral philosophy, it wouldn't have nearly the life in it that the "Republic" has.
CONAN: And her talk about how it's aimed at young people - one of the things you say is so engaging about this book. Yes, there are a lot of disturbing things about banning the poets from the state and all that sort of thing. Nevertheless, he says, he always emphasizes education over law.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Yes. Absolutely. And I think that's an extremely important lesson. The remedy for a diseased body politic that is going off the rails, is not law in Plato. It can't be law. It's got to be education. It's got to be the way you bring on the minds of the succeeding generations. And I think that's a great thing. And I think the, you know, the banishment to the artist - we think, oh my God, you know, the liberal censorship, it has so many bad connotations for us, the suppression, as Gail said, of the individual.
For Plato, you know - in the book, I say, well, suppose it wasn't the banishment of the artist but the banishment of the entertainment executives. And then, you think of the kind of thing we probably feed our children by way of an endless diet of violence, of lies, of worship of heroism, of sports and force in human affairs. And then, we turn around with surprise that things go wrong. Well, for Plato, that wouldn't be a surprise at all because the seeds of things going wrong are there in the education. And - okay, his solution may be a bit Draconian to actually banish certain kinds of entertainment. But the fact that there's a problem there seems to me, you know, again, something he's unerring about. He knows where the problems lie in human life.
CONAN: An e-mail from David in Redwood City, California. I was wondering if you could comment on deception in the "Republic." For example, Plato posits the concept of a noble lie in order to enforce his ideal of government. Also, how does Plato reconcile his condemnation of poets and fiction in a work of fiction?
Prof. BLACKBURN: Yes. Well, I just said a little bit about the latter, yes.
CONAN: The - yes.
Prof. BLACKBURN: The latter, the condemnation of the poets. Yes, it is slightly frightening. I think when you read it - just to continue with that one for a moment, I'll come back to the former one, the lie - when you read about the banishment of the poets, one of the things that's very interesting here is, again, something that I have - I think, we have with us. Plato has a kind of principle of purity. He thinks that if you rub your nose in mud, some of it is going to stick.
And so the good people - the guardians, the people who are worthy of the highest education, these guys are going to really have a fairly monocultural diet of the good. They're not going to the - as it were be taught, all about jealousy and envy and malice and greed and all those bad things. And it's - that's slightly surprising to us. We don't, as it were, believe in that purity in quite the way that Plato obviously did. You mustn't contaminate yourself seemed to be part of the thought.
As far as the lie goes, yes. I mean, that goes back to the nature of government, of course. It's very important that, you know, it's a really rare thing to be worthy of governing in Plato. It requires, for example, that you're a distinguished person at the age of 20. And you then have to study mathematics for 10 years and philosophy for another five years. And after that, you might be, you know, good enough to, as it were, have a say in how the state goes.
CONAN: Climb down from your garret at that point.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Yeah, you're supposed to like to do that. And that, as I say, is a difficult thing to understand, but that means you're in the position, he thought, to steer the ship of state - if you like the metaphor. And if it requires, you know, not telling the crew or not - or actually misleading the crew, then that's just part of the burden of being the governor, being the captain.
I think the nearest examples you might find would be with things like ships, where perhaps if you go back to the age of exploration, the captain might have to actually tell the crew he knows where they are, even when he doesn't; or he might have to tell them that, you know, land has been known here for years, although the map is an absolute blank.
And I'm afraid, you know, that's in - certainly in war, the first casualty is truth, as they say. I think in other, sort of, desperate human affairs, the first casualty is truth. And unfortunately, I think Plato actually thought of government as a pretty desperate affair. It was a miracle for things to go right. In fact, his well-ordered state - he actually says is a fiction - he doubts whether it could ever come about.
CONAN: We're talking with Simon Blackburn about "Plato's Republic: A Biography," his new book. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Nancy, Nancy with from Pocatello in Idaho.
NANCY (Caller): That's right, I am. I'm really excited about this topic that you're discussing. I teach Plato every year and find that he was timeless and talked about universal ideas that indeed are critical for our political system even today.
I'm a bit more irreverent about Plato at times, though, because as you discuss a little earlier in the program, he was very much against the Sophists, because they taught about ways to get your ideas across. And I'm a communication professor, and I believe, of course, that teaching to get your ideas across is critical for living in democracies. And if we didn't have that ability, we wouldn't have a democracy. In fact, what I end up arguing in my class is that Plato was the greatest sophist who ever lived.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Yes.
NANCY: He probably rolls over in his grave when he does that, but I argue so because he is responsible for the negative connotations of sophistry that we have in our culture, and that when we talk about mere rhetoric. And that, in fact, his point of view lived on and we carry it on and don't even know it. So I think he was an excellent communicator and certainly worthy of everyday criticism.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Thank you.
CONAN: Himself the greatest sophist?
NANCY: The greatest sophist.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Well, I actually agree with Nancy about that. I think that is exactly right. He uses all kinds of wonderful literary devices. We've already talked about his use of the dramatic form in order to, you know, if you like, get his message across. Only, as I say, it's not clear that he's got a message. What he's got is a process. He wants you to go though a process of education. He's not got a product he's trying to sell.
And I think his dissent from the Sophists came because Socrates certainly presents them as having a product they are trying to sell, as it we're bypassing the actual drawing out in education, of people's minds. Now, that made us to bring Plato, you know, selling his own school because - after all, he had a school, so he had to sell it; he - selling his own school and trying to discourage people from going to rival establishments, which calls as an exercise of rhetoric.
Prof. BLACKBURN: You're absolutely right. The old dichotomy, the dualism between rhetoric and philosophy or rhetoric and truth was already under attack by Aristotle, and I don't think it's defensible. And I agree with you. I think Plato was the greatest sophist.
CONAN: Nancy, thanks very much.
NANCY: Thank you.
CONAN: Now here's an e-mail from Roger in Paradise, California. Don't we have to give Plato's Socrates his due? For example, while the Republic is replete with the kinds of Greco misogynism one might expect for the time, the startling argument is repeatedly advanced that the philosopher king could indeed be a woman. As a result, shouldn't we credit Socrates as being among the world's first feminists?
Prof. BLACKBURN: Yes, indeed, yes. It's absolutely clear and unmistakable in the book that the guardians could equally be women. And I think one of Plato's enemies is the kind of macho element of democracy. Plato thought that democracies would elect people like Arnold Schwarzenegger or, you know, George Bush posturing at an aircraft carrier, because what he calls thumos or spirit, which is basically the mettlesome, sort of, marshal manly virtues, get elevated above the virtues he actually prizes, which are ones of understanding. And understanding is equally open to women.
CONAN: Simon Blackburn, thanks so much.
Prof. BLACKBURN: Thank you.
CONAN: Simon Blackburn's new book is "Plato's Republic: A Biography." He joined us today from the studios of our member station WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
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