Plato’s Republic is a seminal treatise in Western political philosophy and thought. It hits on ideas that we’re still grappling with in our own time, including the nature of justice and what the ideal political system looks like. But my guest today argues that The Republic also has a lot to say about manliness, character development, and education in our current climate of safe spaces and trigger warnings.
His name is Jacob Howland. He’s a professor of philosophy at the University of Tulsa and the author of the recent book Glaucon’s Fate: History, Myth, and Character in Plato’s Republic. We begin our conversation with an outline of Plato’s Republic and how it combines literature and philosophy. Jacob then makes the case that in The Republic, Socrates was attempting to save the soul of Plato’s politically ambitious brother, Glaucon, and why he thinks Socrates failed. Along the way we discuss what Socrates’ attempt to save Glaucon can teach us about andreia or manliness and what it means to seek the Good in life. We end our conversation discussing the way The Republic teaches us of the need to possess not only physical courage, but the courage to think for oneself and stand up for one’s beliefs — a courage that is tested in a time like our own, where it can feel difficult to ask hard questions and wrestle with thorny issues.
- What made Plato stand out among other Greek philosophers?
- What makes Plato’s works so readable
- A primer on Plato’s aims and philosophy
- The general outline of The Republic
- The connections between Plato and pop culture (like Tolkien and The Matrix)
- Why Plato created imaginary cities to use for thought experiments
- Why Glaucon, Plato’s brother, plays a starring role in The Republic
- Socrates idea of manliness, and how it differed from the classic Greek ideal
- The subtle way Socrates gets his point across
- What ancient philosophys say about masculinity in our modern world
- The importance of being playful
- Is it harder to ask hard questions in our modern world?
- What it means to be a fully flourishing human being
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Howland’s The Republic: The Odyssey of Philosophy
- The Republic
- The Symposium
- A Primer on Plato
- The Spartan Regime
- The Allegory of the Cave
- What the Ancient Greeks and Romans Thought About Manliness
- Plato’s Idea of Greek Manliness
- Hector and Achilles: Two Paths to Manliness
- Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics
- AoM series The Spartan Way
- The Iliad
- Courage vs Boldness
- The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper
- Ring of Gyges
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Plato’s Republic is a seminal treatise in Western political philosophy and thought. It hits on ideas we’re still grappling with in our own time, including the nature of justice and what the ideal political system looks like. My guest today argues that the Republic also has a lot to say about manliness, character development, and education in our current climate of safe spaces and trigger warnings. His name is Jacob Howland. He’s a professor of philosophy at the University of Tulsa and the author of the recent book, Glaucon’s Fate: History, Myth, and Character in Plato’s Republic. We begin our conversation with an outline of Plato’s Republic and how it combines literature and philosophy.
Jacob then makes the case that in the Republic, Socrates was attempting to save the soul of Plato’s politically ambitious brother, Glaucon, and why he thinks Socrates failed. Along the way, we discuss what Socrates’ attempt to save Glaucon can teach us about Andrea, or manliness, and what it means to seek the good in life. We end our conversation discussing the way the Republic teaches us the need to possess not only physical courage but the courage to think for oneself and stand up for one’s beliefs, courage that is tested in a time like our own, where it can feel difficult to ask hard questions and wrestle with thorny issues. After the show’s over, check out the show notes aom.is/republic. All right, Jacob Howland, welcome to the show.
Jacob Howland: Oh, it’s great to be here Brett. It’s an honor and a pleasure to be talking with you today.
Brett McKay: Well, thanks for having you. We’re actually at your office at the University of Tulsa. This is not very often I get to do interviews live with a guest. Usually it’s remote, so this is going to be a lot of fun. You are a professor, and you’ve become an expert on Plato, and you’ve spent a lot of your career writing and thinking about Plato. How did that happen? Did you read the Republic in college, and you were just hooked since then?
Jacob Howland: Yeah. Well, when I was a freshman … Actually, at first, I thought I was going to be a Physics major. Then, that kind of didn’t pan out. Then I thought I was going to be an English major, and in my Spring of the Freshman year I wandered into a philosophy course taught by a guy named David Lachterman. Lachterman was the most brilliant, still is, that I’ve ever known, and he had an incredible passion for philosophy. It was an Intro to Philosophy course. You kind of get seduced by these really good teachers, and I thought “Well, if this guy’s this bright, and he thinks this subject is this important, I need to take more of it.” Then in my Junior year I took a seminar in Ancient Philosophy with him. Studying the Greeks is really exciting because the world was new and fresh to them. They’re the ones who came up with words like philosophy, love of wisdom, politics, athletics, agony, which is the word “Agon”, it means competition, right?
And that’s what an athlete feels when he’s contesting for a victory. So it’s exciting to study the Greeks to begin with, but then we studied Plato, and I remember reading Plato’s Symposium, which is a dialogue about beauty. In the Symposium the character of Socrates talks about being taught the mysteries of beauty and ascending a ladder, a divine ladder of ascent towards “The Beautiful”, with a capital B. I was entranced by the mystery of philosophy. I thought there was something deep there that I wanted to find out more about. Some deep meaning that I was convinced Plato alone could reveal. So, that’s how I got started with Plato.
Brett McKay: So it’s been like that. So how long has that been?
Jacob Howland: Well, that was a long time ago. It’s impolite to ask somebody my age about how long it’s been, but that seminar was in 1978. So that’s already 40 years now, yeah.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about Plato. I know a lot of our listeners have read Plato’s Republic. Either they did it in college in some sort of Gen-Ed Philosophy course they had to take, or they just did it for pleasure. But there’s some people who don’t know a lot about Plato. Talk about … There’s a lot of Greek philosophers of this time, the Axial Age. What made Plato unique as a philosopher compared to Xenophon, or Aristotle, and all these other guys?
Jacob Howland: Yeah. So, Xenophon, who you just mentioned, was one of two very important students of the philosopher Socrates, Plato being the other. Plato’s student was Aristotle, but it all started with Socrates, who was a very charismatic personality. I’ll be talking more about him later in this podcast. Plato is unique for a number of reasons. First of all he wrote dialogues, what are usually called Platonic Dialogues. 35 of them. We have all 35 dialogues that were attributed to Plato in the ancient world, plus a number that were attributed to him but are probably not by Plato. These dialogues are an entire fictional world of the sort that only really the greatest writers like Homer, or Shakespeare might produce. I mention Shakespeare because in terms of literary genre, the dialogues are closest to Greek drama. You had these Athenian dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, who wrote tragedies and comedies, and weird little dramas called Satyr plays.
The Platonic Dialogues are dramas in which we don’t see the sorts of things we get in Greek drama where people are killed, there’s fighting, and war and so forth, but what we see is people arguing. Having philosophical discussions and doing all the sorts of things that people do in discussion. Telling jokes, making little speeches, maybe getting angry, telling stories. In these dramas, Socrates, Plato’s teacher, is the protagonist. He appears in almost every single Platonic Dialogues. This is really unique in philosophy. That what we have is a kind of story making, not philosophy, but the philosopher the center of attention. So we get to see Socrates as a whole human being, and we get to see him interacting in the historical circumstances of his age with other Athenians. One feature of Socrates that I want to mention, I’ll talk about this more later too, but he is a kind of new hero.
He’s a sort of new protagonist. The Greek dramas and Homer, they might have somebody like Achilles, or Heracles, and these men were great because they were courageous and they were victorious in battle and so forth. Socrates is a philosophical warrior of sorts, and what makes him heroic is his integrity. I think that he shows us Socrates because Socrates was a rare human being who lived up to his best understanding of things. He didn’t just talk the talk, which would be philosophy, he walked the walk. He spoke about justice and courage, virtue, and making your soul as good as possible; and he lived that life. That’s what Plato wants to present to us. So, very different from say a philosophical Treatise like Aristotle, or Kant, who basically engages in the analysis of phenomena, but doesn’t give us a drama.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s what I’ve … I love reading Plato. I’m drawn to Aristotelian virtue ethics, but reading Aristotle is a slog, because those are basically his lecture notes. It’s like “If then, then this”, and “La, la”. It’s just like “Ugh”. But Plato, it’s like “Wow. You could just read this for pleasure”, ’cause like you said, it’s like literature, it’s like you’re reading a novel, a drama. It’s fantastic.
Jacob Howland: That’s right, and let me put in a word for Aristotle. Aristotle’s the kind of virtue and happiness. His demonstration that these things are essentially coincident, that to be the best human being and live the best life, and realize your human potential in the most excellent way possible. That’s what the Greek work Virtue, “Arete” means is coincident with happiness. That is the root to a deeply meaningful and flourishing life, but that comes out of Plato, because Plato shows us that in the character of Socrates. Socrates is the man who values justice and goodness, and virtue above all else; and could even be said to have been happy. Even though he’s executed by the Athenians on the charge of impiety and corrupting the young. So Aristotle grows out of Plato. Plato makes Aristotle possible.
Brett McKay: I think you mentioned this a bit, but what was Plato’s big goal as a philosopher? What was he trying to accomplish?
Jacob Howland: Wow, that’s a great-
Brett McKay: That’s an entire course right there.
Jacob Howland: No, that’s a great question. So I’m gonna speak to what I see as the center of the target with respect to what Plato’s trying to do. To do that I want to give a little bit of a historical background. Plato was born maybe around 428 B.C. The Peloponnesian War, which had essentially been started by Pericles who was practicing a kind of politics of Imperialistic expansion, had begun in 431. The war lasted 27 years. It’s called the Peloponnesian War because the opponents of the Athenians living in the southern region of Greek called the Peloponnesus, and their leader was the city of Sparta. This was a long, protracted, bloody war that the Athenians finally, against all odds, managed to lose. They had the best military equipment. They had the best navy in the world. They had a tremendous amount of wealth. But they bungled it and they lost.
So, fast forward to 404 B.C., the Spartans have the city of Athens surrounded, they’re starved into submission, and they capitulate. Immediately thereafter, the Spartans install a puppet government of Athenian aristocrats, really Oligarchs, who then establish a regime, it lasts only eight or nine months, that was known as the Regime of the 30 Tyrants. This regime proceeds to execute 1500 of their fellow Athenians. They purged the city, they are attacking their political opponents. A number of their political opponents, the Democratic party goes into exile. They return, a huge civil war ensues. The Democrats regain power, and then they put Socrates on trial. They’re trying to settle old scores, and they want to connect Socrates with certain members of the 30 Tyrants; and I’ll talk about those connections a little bit down the line as well.
So, he’s executed. He is tried for impiety and corrupting the young, he’s executed. So here’s Plato. Plato is Socrates friend. He is his student, Socrates is his mentor. I’ve often put myself in the position of Plato, “What would I do if I saw my city collapse through foolish policies and engage in a long war, and it finally ends up with a bloody civil war and the death of my mentor?” I probably would just go off and weep or something, but Plato wrote 35 dialogues. He responds by memorializing Socrates, and in effect producing this curriculum, this educational materials, these dialogues that are designed to try to save Athens, and maybe to save the world from the sorts of mistakes the Athenians made.
Now, what does that salvation involve? I’ll just say two things. One is Plato looks at the causes of the war, and the causes were really the sort of uncontrolled passions for power and greed and wealth that caused the Athenians to get into the trouble that they immersed themselves in. Thucydides, the historian, wrote A History of the Peloponnesian War, and in this history he used the word “Eros”. Eros is a word that’s the source of our word “Erotic”. It specifically refers to sexual passion, but it more generally refers a very strong desire. In Thucydides there’s about six places the word Eros shows up, and it’s always a dirty word. Because they Athenians, for example, had an Eros for going to Sicily, the Sicilian expedition, and trying to conquer Sicily and then conquer Carthage; and perhaps attack the Persians and so forth.
Plato realizes it’s not passion, it’s not strong desire that’s the problem, it’s the object of our desires. He teaches that the object of human desire should be what he calls the “Good”. The Good, if you will, is Plato’s version of god. It’s the transcendent source of meaning goodness in the world. Coordinate with that, he believes that the soul that approaches the Good through philosophy will be the most integrated, wholesome, whole, human soul, human being. So he wants to present us of an idea of what it means to be a person of integrity, and to be that kind of person, as exemplified by Socrates, we have to come into the presence of the highest transcendent reality. He wants to remind human beings that the world is a big place, and that there’s something above man; and to relate to that transcendent reality is to be fulfilled and be virtuous and live a good human life. Long answer.
Brett McKay: Well yeah, that’s a big goal. It’s a hefty goal.
Jacob Howland: It’s a huge goal.
Brett McKay: All right. So, he’s written a lot of dialogue, but his seminal work is the Republic, where he really grapples with this issue. For those who aren’t familiar with the Republic, or maybe just for a refresher, what’s the general outline?
Jacob Howland: Well, the Republic is set during the Peloponnesian War, and basically it tells a story. Socrates goes down the seaport of Athens called the Piraeus with Plato’s brother Glaucon. A really unusual thing about the Republic is that Plato had two brothers, an older brother named Glaucon and his oldest brother named Adeimantus, and they play a very big role in this dialogue. They go down, it’s a religious festival, Socrates and Glaucon go down following this religious procession, and they’re getting ready to go back to Athens and they run into Adeimantus, a guy named Polemarchus, a bunch of other younger men who say “Stick around the Piraeus! As part of this festival we’re going to have an all night party. They’ll be a torch race on horseback, they’ll be drinking and so forth. Well, Socrates being Socrates gets them involved in a discussion instead.
Instead, they spend all night talking about the best life and whether the best life is a life of tyranny, right? Tyrannical power, so you can get anything you want, kill anyone you want, become wealthy, right? No limits on your desires, or is it the life of philosophy and justice? Plato had a couple of … Well, we can talk about some of the thought experiments. Do you want me to say a bit about that?
Brett McKay: Yeah. There’s a lot of popular thought experiments that people might even know about, but didn’t know it comes from the Republic.
Jacob Howland: Sure. So I’ll say a couple things about that. At one point, Glaucon, who is Socrates main conversation partner, or Interlocutor in the Republic, says “Look, I want to tell a little story. It’s a thought experiment.” The thought experiment is designed to show that even people who are thought to be just, or think they’re just, are really at bottom unjust, and here’s the experiment. What if he had a ring that made you invisible. How would you behave? This is the story of Gyges’ Ring, the name for the guy who finds the ring, and he tells a little story about a shepard, a nobody, a barbarian shepard in Lydia who finds a ring that makes him invisible; and what does he do? Well, he sneaks into the palace, he murders the king, he seduces the queen, and he becomes the ruler of this barbarian kingdom; and he uses the ring opportunely to appear to be just while actually being unjust. So he kills his political opponents and so on.
So this is a very interesting challenge because Glaucon says “Anybody, even those who we think are just, are who think themselves just, if they had the ring they would behave unjustly, and that proves that at bottom we’re all unjust.” Another famous, not exactly a thought experiment, but it’s an image in the Republic, is called the Cave Image. I think it’s a very powerful image. So Socrates says “Here’s an image of what it would mean to be educated.” He says “Our initial condition is we’re born into a cave. We don’t know it, but we’re prisoners chained up in a dark cave, and we’re shown images cast on the back wall of the cave which are really shadows produced by puppets held in front of a fire way above and behind us. We don’t even know it’s there.” So it’s something like watching a movie, right?
The prisoners in the cave think that these shadows of artificial objects are what is real. If you think about what they’re watching it’s a story. Socrates say’s they’re men and animals and tools, and the cave is an image of culture. Every culture, if you like, is a cave, and people are born into it and they’re taught “These are the realities, and this is, for example, what it is to be manly. This is what it is to be successful. This is who are gods are.” And philosophy is getting out of the cave, into the sunlit uplands of truth and being. Where incidentally, one encounters the highest principle of reality, according to Socrates, the Good. Which Socrates presents in an image as the sun, the source of light in life. So education is getting out of the particular cave of our culture and seeing things from the perspective of reality itself, the real world, and liberating ourselves from the prejudices and the short-sided understanding of things in our culture.
In particular the game that goes on in the cave, ’cause in every cultural cave there’s a quest for power, and a quest to try to be the person who manipulates the images; and the people who are involved in that are often unawares that there’s anything outside of the cave. Those are two very interesting images.
Brett McKay: They are, and those, they creep up in pop culture today. So Gyges’ Ring, the Lord of the Rings, that’s-
Jacob Howland: Absolutely. Tolkien picks up on this. In fact, we can go back to Richard Wagner who wrote operas as part of what he called the Ring Cycle. It’s the same idea, and then Tolkien picks up on this. The cave image, incidentally, we see that, for example, in the Matrix.
Brett McKay: That’s what I was thinking’.
Jacob Howland: Yeah. So the Matrix, I tell my students “Watch the Matrix. You only need to watch the first one.” By the third one I was rooting for the machines, but if you haven’t seen the Matrix, we live in a world of illusion. That’s essentially the cave, and some people get out of that world of illusion and encounter reality. But there is one major difference I have to say about the Matrix. For Plato, and this by the way is why the Christians and in general mostly the Jew and the Muslims, they loved Plato because he emphasized the Good; and this notion of a transcendent source of being and life. The fundamental idea there is that the created world is good. The world is good, and that happiness and fulfillment comes through contact with reality in all of its concreteness and in all of its vibrant life.
The Matrix, it’s sort of a more modern view of reality, or even post-modern. The only thing reality has to recommend then in that film is that it’s real. It’s not particularly good, ’cause once you get out of that illusion you realize you’re actually slaves, and the people who’ve gotten out of the Matrix are on some spaceship. It probably smells horrible. It’s colorless environment, the food is some nasty gruel, but it’s real. It’s real, and that alone … Human beings want to have contact with reality. That’s a platonic principle. That’s what fulfills us.
Brett McKay: Maybe the Matrix is a Nietzschean version of Platonism?
Jacob Howland: I think that’s right, yeah. The Matrix is a kind of stripped down view. In that film there’s no god, there’s no fundamental principle of nature and the goodness of nature, but it’s still real. I think that the filmmakers, Plato, and philosophers in general, agree that the human mind and the human soul needs to be coordinated with reality. Nietzsche, by the way, who was famously Nihilistic and taught that god is dead and so forth, in the preface to Beyond Good and Evil he describes philosophers as “We who’s task is wakefulness itself.” So the idea of waking up from a dream, a world of illusion, coming out of the cave, that’s essential to philosophy; even if you’re Nietzsche.
Brett McKay: But another big part of the Republic is this thought experiment, a big one, is creating these cities in speech. So, Socrates, with his interlocutors, decides to create these imaginary cities. Why did he do that? What was he trying to do by creating these imaginary cities?
Jacob Howland: Yeah. So again, I mentioned that the issue in the Republic was whether the life justice and virtue is preferable to the life of tyranny. Socrates is asked at one point to prove that it’s better to be just than unjust. So he says “The soul is a very hard thing to see.” He sort of says “It’s a very small thing. In fact, it’s invisible”, right? “So how do we get to know someone’s soul or character?” Well, you can’t look directly, I can’t look directly into you, Brett, and see what sort of person you are, but I can see what you do, I can see what you say, I can see how you behave. But Socrates says “The city is the soul writ large, and if we look at a city …”, which is an entire political community, “… we could get a better idea of what justice is. So the city is an image of the soul.”
But in fact, Socrates then starts laying out these cities, and each city teaches us something about a whole way of life. By the way, the word “Republic” in Greek is Politeia, and that word means regime. For the Greeks a regime was an entire way of life. So we get a sequence of cities. The very first city is designed to appeal to Glaucon and Socrates’ other interlocutors and kind of test them, and see whether they respond to this vision of what it would be to have a healthy community. The first city, Socrates describes as true and healthy, and it’s a group of very moderate human beings who have little technological development, they have a lot of leisure. They have a lot of leisure because they don’t need to work too hard. They don’t have very expansive needs. Life is spent basically in community with one another, and enjoying simple pleasure and simple food.
While Glaucon looks at the city and he says “They don’t have any luxuries! They don’t have painting! They don’t have philosophy! This is fit for pigs!” So Socrates says “Oh, I see. You want a city where we let our desires grow and we can fill ourselves with luxuries.” That city turns into what he calls the Fever City. Then Socrates very wisely says “This city’s sick. Okay? That first city was True and Healthy, but let’s purge this city.” Then he introduces another one that looks a lot like Sparta. A much more sort of Spartan city, right? A kind of enforced moderation, manliness. A regiment of physical exercise and spiritual toughening, and that looks pretty good; and Glaucon’s interested in that. But then his friend Polemarchus says “Wait a second. Socrates mentioned something about women and children.” And they’re young men so they want to know more about that. So then Socrates says “Well, okay. I’ll tell you about that.”
The city then turns into what will become at the end of its development the city of philosopher kings in the Republic. That’s called the Kallipolis. I think it’s a somewhat ironic name, it means “The noble and beautiful city”. Each one of these cities is a sort of way of seeing whether Glaucon can be attuned to the way of life that Socrates describes. Finally, that last city, the city of philosopher kings, is one that Glaucon finds extremely attractive. I think it’s got a Pedagogical function because Socrates wants to see whether he can get Glaucon interested in philosophy. So the description of the cities is a way of getting issues of justice on the table, and a way of attracting Glaucon to what Socrates has to say to him. So I need to talk a little bit about Glaucon as well, but we can go back, yes.
Brett McKay: So why did Plato pick his brother to be this main interlocutor with Socrates, what did he represent, and why wasn’t, in the Republic, why wasn’t Glaucon initially interested in philosophy, and he found these other things interesting?
Jacob Howland: Yeah. So we know about Glaucon, who was a historical character of course, one of Plato’s brothers. Initially the earliest report of who Glaucon was comes from Xenophon. Xenophon was, again, another student of Socrates. In Xenophon’s memorabilia, his recollections of Socrates, he tells a little story, and the story is this. Glaucon, before he was even 20 years old, before he was even a citizen of the Athenians, would go to the assembly and get up on the platform and harangue the Athenians he was so ambitious for power, and his relatives would pull him off of the platform because he was making a fool of himself. They couldn’t get him under control. So Xenophon says “For the sake of Plato,” who by the way, at that time was probably like 12 or 13, he was just a boy, “For the sake of Plato”, whom Socrates already knew, he went to talk to Glaucon.
What he said to Glaucon is “Well, you want to be a powerful man among the Athenians.” “Yes, I do.” “Well, that’s wonderful. What do you know about economics? What do you know about military manners?” And he shows him that he doesn’t really know anything. So that’s our first introduction to Glaucon, and Glaucon is particularly interested in impressing his relatives. He has two relatives in particular, one is named Critias and one is named Charmides. These are names of notorious Athenians, because they were two men who were the leaders of the 30 Tyrants, the Oligarchy that took over Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War and executed all these fellow Athenian citizens. So Socrates is interested in Glaucon because he wants to save Glaucon from the fate of pursuing power and glory, and pursuing tyranny. Again, in the Republic Glaucon is the spokesman for tyranny.
He’s the guy who says people underneath are unjust. He’s attracted to power and rule. It’s clear that Socrates has a close relationship with Glaucon. He’s with him at the beginning of the dialogue, and he speaks directly to him repeatedly in the Myth of Er at the end of the dialogue. So, there’s a special issue there. Socrates wants to save Glaucon’s soul from a life of politics and injustice and turn him towards philosophy.
Brett McKay: But also, Glaucon, as you allude in the book, sort of represents an ideal of manliness that was prominent in Ancient Greek at the time. So to be a man, and to have Andrea, you need to have ambition for power, seek glory, seek honor. So tell us more about Ancient Greek manliness and how Glaucon embodied that.
Jacob Howland: Right. So ever since the time of Homer, I guess you could say that all young Greek males wanted to be Achilles. Achilles is the most famous Greek warrior, and cannot be defeated in battle. Of course, he does ultimately die because he’s shot by an arrow in his heel, that’s a whole nother story. Not one, by the way, that’s told in Homer. So the paradigm for manliness was heroic manliness. Deeds of valor and glory on the battlefield. The word Andrea means courage. What’s interesting is that … Well, let me say a little bit more about that ideal. I think it’s reasonable to think of the Greeks as part of a sort of Mediterranean culture of manliness. I would actually refer to the Sicilians here. If anyone knows the story of the Godfather, okay? In the beginning of the Republic, Polemarchus, who is one of Socrates’ interlocutors, says “Justice is harming enemies and helping friends”, and the harming enemies part, Socrates argues against.
Think about what it would mean to be a Godfather. This sort of Mediterranean Sicilian idea of manliness, which is very much like the Greek idea. You don’t let people hurt you, you hurt them. Revenge is a big thing, okay? So this is the sort of standard heroic ideal of manliness. What’s interesting about Socrates is that he represents a very different ideal. Socrates is himself, and we know this is historically true, he was a distinguished warrior. Socrates was a poor man, but somehow he acquired the money to buy the shield, greaves, spear, and sword that would allow him to be a Hoplite Warrior. Hoplite Warriors were sort of the main warriors in Ancient Greece. He distinguished himself on the field of battle. There’s a dialogue called the Charmides in which Socrates returns from a very bloody battle in which he saved Alcibiades, another famous Greek warrior, and then turned down … We know this from the Symposium, he turned down the awards.
He said “Alcibiades should get the awards”. So young men like Glaucon, and Alcibiades and others, were attracted to Socrates in the first instance because he was a famous warrior. He actually spent years on campaign. There’s a wonderful article called “Socrates as Hoplite” published in the journal Ancient Philosophy that details this. So he had those ingredients, but Socrates idea of manliness was very different from the classical Greek ideal because the fact is Greek manliness, which is the word for courage, was actually routed in cowardice. This is sort of the dirty little secret. If we look at Homer, Hector, the great Trojan warrior is facing Achilles outside the walls of Troy. His mother and father, the king and queen of Troy, have said “Come inside the wall, Achilles will kill you!” And Hector doesn’t do it because he doesn’t want to be called a coward.
Jacob Howland: Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics that the citizen-soldiers in Greece were motivated by the fear of shame. This is, for example, a major principle in Sparta. Sparta was extremely hard on those who in any way were thought to be cowards. So the fear of disrepute is what drove Ancient Greek courage. Here comes Socrates. Socrates has a different idea of manliness. His idea is the courage to do what is right and just, no matter what people think of you, and this comes to a head in the case of the trial of Socrates. He’s tried for impiety and corrupting the young. It is said by his accusers that his philosophizing harms his fellow Athenians, and he says “No. I am all about going around the city of Athens and telling you to care for your souls, to be the best human beings possible. I will not stop philosophizing.” And he’s tried and executed on a capital crime.
What kind of courage does it take to stick to your convictions in that way and not to be afraid of disrepute? Not to be afraid of being executed, because you’re doing something that to the best of your knowledge is just and right? That’s a new idea of heroism. We don’t see that in the Ancient Greek heroes like Achilles.
Brett McKay: What I think was interesting too, you talk about in the book, is that this ancient idea of Greek manliness, while it could spur individuals to strive for greatness, Arete, but in the end, all that striving … It would eventually destroy the city, the city state.
Jacob Howland: That’s right.
Brett McKay: That’s sort of the point of the Iliad, right?
Jacob Howland: That’s right.
Brett McKay: Achilles’ quest for glory, and he felt he was being disrespected, he withheld his fighting ability, and the Greeks got slaughtered. So Homer was like “Don’t do that. That’s an example of what happens when you let glory and honor become your main purpose in life.”
Jacob Howland: That’s exactly right. I think the Iliad, really, is a fantastic story and has this really critical edge. Some might read the Iliad and say “Look, it’s celebrating these heroic warriors”, but the deeper darker side is what does the longing for glory, and the fear of disrepute do to you?” So the Iliad begins with a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon who’s the chief general of the Greek forces. Achilles feels disrespected, and because his pride his wounded he withdraws from battle. The real tragedy of that is not only are the Greeks being slaughtered because they’ve lost their greatest warrior, Achilles best friend, Patroclus, goes into battle and is killed. Achilles loses his friend because of his own withdrawal from battle, and because he’s not there to protect him. Once that happens he realizes “You know what? All this glory stuff, it’s nothing compared to my love of the man who died, my best friend.” Then Achilles goes and he slaughters Hector, and it’s not even a quest for glory any more, it’s pure revenge.
“I’m going to kill the man that took the life of my friend.” He learns too late what’s valuable in life. And Plato wants to teach us what’s valuable. Virtue, friendship, which is extremely important. Aristotle teaches that friendship is a virtue and involves virtue. It’s an arena for showing that you’re a good human being, helping your friends. Harming your enemies and getting revenge is not part of the philosophical life.
Brett McKay: But the way Socrates does it, it’s very subtle, ’cause he could’ve just been like bludgeon them, ham-fisted, like “You just need to be a good guy”, but he doesn’t do that.
Jacob Howland: Yes. Right.
Brett McKay: So how does Socrates make philosophy appear manly to Glaucon? ‘Cause that’s what he’s trying to do, right?
Jacob Howland: Yeah. This is right. The way I read the Republic is that he is trying to bring Glaucon permanently into his orbit. He wants Glaucon to become a student of philosophy and to spend his life philosophizing. In the Republic, by the way, Socrates says that philosophy is a lifelong quest. Philosophy, as he says famously in the Apology, is the examined life, and Socrates says “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being”. So we know that Glaucon has spent time with Socrates, but Socrates feels he’s not really permanently attached to him. Really, the tragedy of the Republic in a way is that Glaucon is caught between Socrates, whom he admires and respects as a warrior, as a man of intellect, and Glaucon is schooled in Mathematics, he’s poetically gifted, he’s an educated guy on the one hand; and the pull of his relatives, Critias and Charmides, whom I said earlier we see as early as the story Xenophon tells about him before he’s 20, he wants to impress.
He’s very drawn toward the political life that’s represented by Plato’s relatives Critias and Charmides. So Socrates wants to pull him aways from those seductions, which are really a sort of life in the cave, and bring him into philosophy. How does he do that? Well, he presents this city called Kallipolis which the greatest warriors are gonna achieve the greatest honor. He describes an army, training of warriors both male and female, who will protect the city, who will maintain civic order, and then the best of those warriors, who are also the best in study and in learning, and Glaucon is, again, very bright and intelligent, will be promoted to the level of philosopher kings. I should say we know that Glaucon is manly, because early in the Republic Socrates quotes a poem made by Glaucon’s unnamed lover who, weirdly enough, some have attributed that poem to Critias, saying that Glaucon was a very bold and courageous warrior.
So, I think he tries to layout this city of philosopher kings as a way of hooking Glaucon. Here’s a regime you could imagine yourself in, and if you’re great in battle you’ll get all these honors and power and so forth, and if even if you’re the best of the best you could become a philosopher king. So the idea would then be that if Glaucon gets interested in this regime, which he is, very interested, he might hang around with Socrates and pursue philosophy. I think that’s the gamble that Socrates is taking. So yeah, he tries to hook him with this idea of what could be in-store for a guy like Glaucon.
Brett McKay: So he’s using that passion for glory and honor, sort of nudging him in a different direction towards something more positive?
Jacob Howland: Right. Right.
Brett McKay: In addition to that you also talk about how Socrates makes all these references to the Greek epics. Like the Iliad and the Odyssey, where subtly saying, looking to these guys and saying “You can do that, but also be like a philosopher.” Like Odysseus, or like Iliad, or like Achilles. Have the courage of Achilles, but towards philosophy.
Jacob Howland: Right, exactly. This latest book is called Glaucon’s Fate: History, Myth, and Character in Plato’s Republic, but my first book, which Brett has already read, you already read-
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s good.
Jacob Howland: … is called the Republic: The Odyssey of Philosophy, and that book read Plato’s Republic as a kind of philosophical Odyssey. In fact, in other dialogues as well, philosophy is presented as a kind of Odyssey and quest. So what’s the Odyssey? Well you know, Odysseus leaves home, has all these adventures, finally returns home, and in the Republic it’s presented as a kind of journey. Socrates and Glaucon at one point, they’re said to be sort of at sea, and they have to jump into the sea and swim. One can find specific parallels, that I won’t go into to, to Homer’s Odyssey, but the idea is that it’s an intellectual Odyssey and a spiritual Odyssey, right? You could also think of coming out of the cave as a kind of Odyssey of the soul. So there’s clearly something about manliness, or courage, that is reflected in the use of a character like Odysseus. By the way, in the Apology, Socrates compares himself to Achilles. He compares himself to Heracles, whom we know is Hercules, who went around the world killing monsters and sort of saving civilization.
Then the question becomes “Well, what exactly is the role of courage in philosophy?” Again, I think manliness, Andrea, courage, plays a central role because at the end of the day I think what Plato wanted to show us in Socrates is what it means to be a person of integrity. We might say a self, and active, reflective, responsible individual. Not to be swept up in the passions of your community like Athens and the Peloponnesian War. Not to be swept up in whatever values you’re particular cave of culture might be promoting, but to be your own person. To be reflective, to be deliberate, to understand what is right and good, and to do it. By the way, Socrates was famously a man of integrity. Kierkegaard, the 19th century Christian philosopher who loved Socrates, and model himself on, he thought of himself as a Christian Socrates, actually suggests in his journals and notebooks that Socrates is the only person outside of Christianity who is without sin.
What he means by that is he says “He walks the walk, and he talks the talk”. There’s no gap between his knowledge of what is right and good in his action, and this is, that requires manliness. That requires courage. Because to be a good person at all times is difficult because we are surrounded by many mediocre individuals and some bad ones. The just man in unjust times will not be lauded, and not be approved. So you’ve got to have the courage of your convictions, but your conviction also have to be right and good. That’s what philosophy is about, is understanding how to live. Then the deep secret is that’s the source of happiness. That’s what makes a human life deeply fulfilling and meaningful, is having the courage to be the best individual you can be, regardless of whether people look at you as eccentric, or weird, or strange, or they’re hostile to you as they were to Socrates.
Brett McKay: Okay. So, lets kind of recap here what we’ve talked about so far, and then get into whether Socrates was successful with Glaucon. So Glaucon had this idea of Greek manliness where it was meant to be you sought glory, power, and you wanted to be in the public arena; and you showed courage that way on the battlefield, etc. Socrates was coming along and saying “Well, no. That can lead to disaster both for the individual and for the city-state.” So he came of this new Socratic manhood where you had Andrea, or courage, but for the philosophical life.
Jacob Howland: That’s right.
Brett McKay: So then Socrates creates this perfect city that was sort of appealing to Glaucon’s love of glory and power, but then nudging him slightly towards the philosophical life. Did it work? Did that city-state that Socrates created, did it help Glaucon go over to the world of philosophy?
Jacob Howland: Well, that’s a good question. I need to say something more about this city, because I have a somewhat individual take on this city called Kallipolis, the noble and beautiful city. Let me say this, the logician and philosopher scientist, the British thinker Karl Popper wrote a book during the second world war called the Open Society, and It’s Enemies, and it was an attack on Totalitarianism. In this book Popper argues that the regime of philosopher kings in Plato’s Republic is a Totalitarian regime. That’s the one called Kallipolis. I have to say I agree with Karl Popper. Let me tell you, first of all, this is a very strange thing, because Socrates presents it, he expresses admiration for this regime, which-
Brett McKay: Yeah, you read it and it sounds terrible, ’cause you have no privacy, you don’t have your own family. You don’t even know if your kids are your kids.
Jacob Howland: That’s right.
Brett McKay: It’s terrible.
Jacob Howland: Right. So, there are a lot of interesting levels here, but let me say a little bit about the origin of this. As I said, Glaucon tells this myth of Gyges’ Ring, the ring of invisibility, and there is a deep problem here. I believe that this myth actually is a response to something that his relative, his older cousin Critias, who was the leader of the 30 Tyrants, wrote in a play. It’s called the Sisyphus Fragment, and in this little story about Sisyphus, Critias tells the following story that looks a lot like the story Glaucon tells before he tells his ring myth. That is this, people were lawless and unjust until laws were made, but then people figured out that you could commit injustice in secret. Critias says, and by the way, Critias was a radical thinker, that’s when human beings invented the gods, and said that the gods know everything we do, even secret injustice.
And the Sisyphus myth ends with Critias saying “And that’s how human beings put an end to injustice, because they got people to believe in these all-seeing gods; and by the way, Zeus and Homer for example, is said to wander the cities and observe the unjust deeds of human beings.” Well, if Glaucon is right about the ring myth, what needs to be said here, by the way, is that the guy who discovers the ring, an ancestor of a fellow named Gyges, isn’t afraid of the gods. He doesn’t believe in them. He goes under the ground and he steals a ring from a corpse, which is a very impious thing to do. Grave robbery was a very serious sin, if you will. So what that story is pointing to is that those people who don’t actually believe in an all-knowing god will continue to be unjust and commit injustice in secret. The only way to stop that kind of injustice is therefore to design a city in which everyone is spied on at all times, and that is what happens in the city of philosopher kings called Kallipolis.
Anyone can go into anyone’s room at any time. All the poetry is censored. Poets produce state-mandated content. There’s no privacy. So on one level what this city is, is a regime that is designed to root out injustice everywhere, and it does so by essentially engaging in a kind of Totalitarian monitoring of all the citizens. It’s a very ugly regime. That’s not my only criticism of the regime. Then we have this question, what’s going on with this story? Now, on the one hand I’ve suggested that it’s designed to attract Glaucon because it’s a city in which Glaucon feels he could be at home. He could be a bigshot. He would be a big warrior, and he could even be a philosopher king. It’s also a city, and here’s where things get really complicated, that looks a lot like the regime of the 30 Tyrants that was established by Glaucon’s relative Critias.
So there’s a lot to untangle here. Why would Socrates present this city? Well, on one level he’s trying to attract Glaucon to a life of philosophy because it’s a regime in which Glaucon believes he could be a philosopher king, but on another level, and the Republic has many levels, it is a demonstration of what would be needed if you absolutely wanted to root out injustice everywhere; and what would be needed is an unjust regime. That’s the problem. And Karl Popper is right, actually, that one can see in that city of the Republic a kind of prototype of later Totalitarian regimes; and in fact, later Totalitarian regimes have modeled themselves on that regime in the Republic. The Khmer Rouge, and the regime of Revolutionary Iran set up by the Ayatollah Khomeini. Believe it or now, Khomeini had studied Plato’s Republic. If you look at the structure of that regime there’s a council of guardians, and he regards himself as a kind of philosopher king, a sort of religious philosopher king.
So, the history of the Republic, the effect of the Republic on human history has not been great, but I actually regard all of this as a kind of misreading of what’s happening. But it raises big questions. Which is, what responsibility did Socrates have for Glaucon’s fate? Did he tell this story because he knew that Glaucon was already familiar with that kind of regime having spent time with his relative Critias? On the other hand, did Critias get his ideas for the sort of tyrannical regime he sets up from this Kallipolis in the Republic? These are big questions.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I thought it was interesting too, you make this really great point that in Kallipolis there’s the … So, you’re sort of sorted out. You were either Bronze, Silver, Gold, right? And then depending on where you were you’ll get put into the school for guardians, right? You’re gonna be trained in philosophy, but a state-mandated philosophy. Then if you’re good enough, then you’ll be moved over to the philosopher king and be trained for that. It looks like Socrates is like “Hey, this is a way where you can do philosophy, but it isn’t philosophy.” ‘Cause you’re told the answers, and you just sort of spit out the answer over and over. So it’s not really philosophy.
Jacob Howland: Yeah, that’s right. It’s absolutely fascinating because in the Republic, when Socrates introduces the philosopher it’s quite remarkable, because Socrates says at one point “You know, the ills of human life will not be solved, and the ills of communities, war and discord, and so forth, will not be overcome unless philosophers rule. And Glaucon says “Hey, what are you talking about? Many people will be angry with you when you say that.” And Socrates says “Well, maybe you don’t know what a philosopher is.” Then he lays out what a philosopher is, and in this part of the dialogue I think we hear Socrates’ genuine voice. He doesn’t talk about the mind or intellect, he says “The philosopher is somebody who is supremely erotic, super passionate, but not about glory, not about honor, not about sex, not about material rewards, about wisdom. The philosopher loves wisdom, and his desire is to come into the presence of the truth.”
By the way, this platonic idea, very attractive to religious thinkers because what is happiness from a religious perspective? Being in the presence of god, right? The exile from Eden is a curse because you’re no longer in the presence of god. So, in any case, what happens as he then lays out the regime is that erotic philosopher kind of disappears and is replaced by a dogmatic philosopher, and essentially the state has sort of one version of philosophy; and there’s a long training in metaphysics and in analytical thinking and so forth; and there’s no debate. We don’t have Socratic dialogue. If you ask “Would Socrates be happy in this regime?” If Socrates lived in this regime he would be asking questions as he always does. He would be questioning the philosopher kings. They would not take kindly to it, because they are part of a school of philosophy.
So it is a kind of calcified version of philosophy in the Kallipolis, and what’s interesting is in book seven of the Republic Socrates lays out the whole curriculum for the philosopher kings, the word Eros never shows up. It’s not erotic. It’s compared to gymnastic, which means exercise in Greek. It’s a grind. It’s very strange.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it made me think when I was reading that part in the Republic, and also in your book, it made me think of just how school is for a lot of young people today, right? You don’t go because of the level of learning, you just go ’cause “There’s these hoops I got to jump through in order to get the degree so I can get the nice job that will pay for whatever”. That idea that Socrates is putting out there for the education of a philosopher king, it reminded me of that for some reason.
Jacob Howland: Yeah. I think that’s right, and I think you’re pointing to a very serious problem, because I guess I would say that what we see in the Republic, what substitutes for philosophy, is something more like ideology. That is to say if we go back and look at the Totalitarian character of the regime, one of the reasons that they’re spying on everyone is they don’t want challenges to their authority, and it’s a very kind of abstract thinking. Socrates, to sort of go back to why Plato wrote dialogues, they’re very concrete, every discussion in a platonic dialogue starts out in an ordinary human context, and returns to that context. There’s a dialogue called the Laches, for example, where the issue is courage. The question of what courage is comes up because a couple of men are asking Socrates whether their sons should study a certain technique of fighting in armor, and that quickly leads into the discussion of what is courage.
The philosophical regime in the Republic is characterized by very abstract thought. It’s not connected with the concrete character of everyday life. I think our education today is often imposed from above in very abstract categories. It doesn’t appeal to the concrete desires of existing human beings, and doesn’t really nurture their longing to explore and discover. Doesn’t stimulate their passion. So there is a sense in which they kinds of mistakes that we see being played out in the Republic, of abstract thinking, and a kind of one-size-fits-all implementation from above, state-mandated content and so forth, are being repeated today. I don’t know if that’s very clear, but that’s my sense.
Brett McKay: No. That’s what I think. This goes to show how the Republic is still relevant today. We are still grappling with this idea of what does it mean to be a man, and does it mean that sort of Homeric manliness where it’s like bravery on the battlefield, and having a love of honor and glory? Or is it something different, and if it is something different, how do you nudge men in that way without being condescending and making it so unattractive like “I don’t want to …” So the whole “new man” thing of the 60s and 70s, Ponytail guy, that didn’t work, and we’re still grappling with that issue today.
Jacob Howland: No, I think that’s right. I think a lot of categories are confused here. As you know, Brett, there’s a lot of discussion of toxic masculinity, and obviously there are forms of masculinity. I would say that Greek heroic, traditional masculinity is toxic in the sense that it involved a competition for glory and power, and that’s very destructive of human communities; and of individuals. But I don’t want to get lost in all this discussion of toxic masculinity, the models of good masculinity. I think Socrates is trying to model that. Masculinity is … I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but this is not a bad thing, because courage is not a bad thing, and standing up for what is right and taking account, as Socrates says in the Apology, by the way, he imagines someone saying to him “Aren’t you ashamed of doing something that could result in your being executed?” And Socrates says “Not at all. The only thing you should care about is being the best human being you can. You should care about justice. You should care about your soul being in the best condition possible.”
There are a lot of forces in contemporary society that pull us in other directions that distract us, that seduce us with promises of pleasure and entertainment, and wealth and power; and turn us away from the question of being the best people we can be. Frankly, it takes courage to pursue that goal often in society, and to turn away from these seductions. I think C.S. Lewis said that every virtue at the breaking point turns into courage, right?
Brett McKay: Right.
Jacob Howland: Because you have to take a stand. One of the things that I think that Socrates stood for is cultivating the individual as an individual. Socratic education, Socrates believed that we don’t really know anything that we haven’t worked out for ourselves. Education’s not pouring water from an empty cup, from a full cup into an empty cup. We need to be active participants in our own learning. One of the great things that comes out of that is discovering who we are. Self knowledge was a big element, major element of Socratic philosophizing. So discovering who you are as an individual and what it is that makes your life fulfilling and rich, and not wavering from that, not being swept away in social currents, or fashion, and there is a kind of manliness that is required to pursue that kind of path. So I don’t think we’re doing a particularly good job of educating young men to manliness, or even defending manliness, good manliness, today.
Because we don’t educated people Socratically. I think the individual attention, and the excitement of learning are things we need to recover, because that is the route to virtue, opening the mind to the world, opening the mind to reality and showing young people the joys of learning; and letting them become confident about their beliefs and their opinions.
Brett McKay: How do we do that? Obviously Kallipolis didn’t work, where you sort of covet this curriculum. Where it’s like “Here’s what you need to learn.” How do you inculcate that love, that desire to just learn and be playful? That’s another thing about Socrates, Socrates is very playful. I feel like we’ve lost that playfulness in education, and from reading the Republic I don’t know if it’s possible to mandate that from above, right?
Jacob Howland: No, I don’t think you can. Anyone who has observed little children sees their playfulness and their curiosity. I happen to have a three and a half year old granddaughter, and she’s just incredibly curious and playful. So what happens? Kids go to school and somehow it gets knocked out of them, and I think part of this is a reflection of the kinds of tendencies we see in, for example, Kallipolis. Their centralization, right? We have these big school districts, the school districts mandate certain kinds of teaching, and mandate certain kinds of evaluation and testing and so forth. Somehow this playfulness and this curiosity is lost. The only way to really … I think Socrates is right about this. His education was one-on-one. When Socrates was talking to somebody they were the center of the world for him. He paid attention. He looked them in the eye and he asked them questions, and he put them on the spot.
Another thing here, by the way, and I think this is also relevant to the question of courage and manliness, he asked tough questions. He didn’t cut people breaks. It wasn’t particularly pleasant to talk to Socrates, because what he did is he showed you that you probably didn’t know what you were talking about, and that’s the first thing you need to do if you’re doing to learn something, is realize that you’re ignorant. Socrates was sort of the school of tough love in education. A lot of educational philosophy today is trying to find the strengths of students and not challenge them, right? So if someone is, let’s say, they learn better by listening than by reading, then we should provide them with opportunities where they get most of their content through listening. I think Socrates would say “Well, if you have difficulty learning through reading then we should make you read more.” So somehow to combine those challenges with a sense of fun.
Socrates is very funny, actually. We have to recover that, but the key here is it’s one person at a time. I’ve been teaching at the University of Tulsa for 31 years, and every day that teaching and learning occurs in my class is a good day; and it occurs one student at a time, right? I’ll have a class with a bunch of students, but it’s individual students I’m teaching, and they’re the ones who come up to me and say “That’s interesting what you said. I want to learn more about that.” One little victory at a time.
Brett McKay: As you were talking … Do you think it’s harder to ask questions and be playful with ideas in today’s world, or is it actually easier compared to Socrates’ time?
Jacob Howland: I think it’s actually harder to ask questions because we’ve been talking about shame and fear of public opinion. I said that Greek heroism was rooted in that, in that fear especially, even more than in the love of glory. Today, there are certain subjects that professors have to be fairly intrepid to even raise in class. Certain issues having to do with sexuality, or religion, or minority groups, and so forth. A lot of professors really shy away from those sorts of issues. One way to approach them, by the way, and this is why I think studying the ancients, for example, is a wonderful thing, is through reading books like the Republic. One thing about the Republic is its very interesting on the question of males and females, and roles of women and men in society and so forth. You can approach these issues if you’re talking about another text, not necessarily directly addressing questions in contemporary culture, because frankly, there’s a lot of pressure.
I think students have complained about this as well as professors, “What if I voice an opinion that people might take the wrong way? What if I say something that might offend somebody?” In fact, at our university there is an anonymous online bias reporting system, which to report bias, so you can imagine that students and professors alike are pretty cautious about asking questions and raising topics. The fact is that we need to be able to talk about everything. Philosophy shouldn’t shy away from anything. That’s the way that we’re educated. This is not a question of taking political sides. If you have a certain kind of belief, the best way to strengthen your understanding is to expose it to contrary opinions and come up with arguments against other positions. So, the sort of public pressure … and by the way, that’s multiplied by things like Facebook, Twitter, and so forth because it’s very easy for a large group of people who have the same kind of opinion to gang up and attack.
So it actually takes certain amount of courage to be a Socratic thinker in today’s world. Socrates was never afraid of saying what he thought. In fact, he thought he was obliged to say what he thought. Very few people are completely open about their views in a public context today.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Certainly that bias hotline sounds like Kallipolis, right? No privacy, just …
Jacob Howland: It’s a problem. It’s a problem, and I think that people need to learn to be tough. Plato loves to compare the body and the soul. How do you get a healthy body? Well, one thing is exercise. What is exercise? It is putting your body in a position where you are overcoming resistance. What is a healthy soul look like? A healthy mind? Putting yourself in a position where you’re overcoming resistance. That means there has to be resistance. That means there has to be ideas that are an anathema to you when you first look at them, right? Only then do you develop the kinds of intellectual virtues and strengths that can allow you to have a better understanding of your views, a better understanding of other views, and I think the promotion of honesty in public discourse is absolutely crucial, but it requires people who are prepared to engage in that kind of often rough-and-tumble debate.
I don’t think we do our students a service by shielding them and coddling them, and making sure that we don’t step on their toes. Because they’re not gonna learn those kinds of skills, and they’re not gonna develop the confidence in their individual selves as active reflective centers of thought and action; and that’s what it means to be a fully flourishing human being from the Socratic perspective.
Brett McKay: You need Andrea.
Jacob Howland: You need Andrea, correct.
Brett McKay: It all goes back to manliness goes back to courage. So what do you think happens to Glaucon? I know that this is maybe killing the … But do you think Socrates was successful? Did he realize “Ah, man. This little gamble I took in making this thing that appealed to Glaucon, it actually backfired”?
Jacob Howland: Yeah, right. So, first of all, in Socrates defense, let me say this. I think this was a gamble, dangling a city like Kallipolis before him. However, had Socrates not intervened with Glaucon, there’s not question that he would have joined the regime of the 30 Tyrants and participated in that tyrannical oligarchy, and engaged in many unjust deeds as a result. Why is there no question? Well, Plato leaves a letter called the Seventh Letter, and in the Seventh Letter he explains his own experience. Now, Plato was the youngest brother, Adeimantus was the oldest, Glaucon was the middle brother. Glaucon we know had already established himself as a brave warrior and a very bright young man by the time of 404. Plato would’ve been about 24 years old. Glaucon may be closer to 30. Plato writes in the Seventh Letter, “I was invited by my relatives. They took over in Athens at the end of the war.”
“They promised to restore the city to virtue and justice.” He indicates that basically he was onboard, and he began to participate. He said “But I quickly realized that the previous regime was a thing of gold compared to these guys.” And he talks about how they persecuted Socrates. They actually made a law, right? They didn’t like Socrates ’cause he asked questions. Naturally Socrates was anti-tyrannical. So they made a law Socrates can’t talk to anyone under the age of 30, and you can’t teach the art of speech and so forth. Glaucon would certainly have been invited to join this regime. Adeimantus would’ve been invited to join the regime. We know that Adeimantus didn’t. There are various clues in the Republic, but one major clue is he is present at the trial of Socrates as somebody who can vouch for Socrates.
Had he been a member of the oligarchy, the regime of the 30 Tyrants, he would not have been present at a trial under the newly restored democracy when Socrates is being tried in part because of his connections with Critias and Charmides, by the way, ’cause these are Plato’s relatives, these are people that Socrates talks to in the dialogues. Glaucon does not show up in the Apology. He disappears from the historical record. I always assumed when I wrote my first book on the Republic that at the end of the dialogue I took Glaucon at face value. He says to Socrates “I’m convinced. The life of philosophy is better than the life of tyranny.” I believe he was convinced at that time, but things change. I was reading a book years ago, I never thought about it, I thought he’s convinced. A number of years ago I picked up a wonderful book by a historian named Mark Munn called the School of History: Athens in the Age Socrates, and Munn pointed out a couple things just in passing that really got me thinking.
He said “I think Glaucon joined the 30, and I think he died in the decisive battle in which Critias and Charmides were killed by the returning Democrats. This battle took place in the Piraeus. He says “Glaucon doesn’t show up in the Apology, he disappears. More interestingly, the battle took place on the very road at pretty much the exact place where Glaucon and Socrates are stopped going back up to Athens at the beginning of the Republic. That’s the location of the battle.” And there were a couple of other things that he mentioned. I started thinking about it, and I realized that there are lots of clues in the Republic. There’s all this kind of deep, tragic, dramatic undertones associated with Glaucon. So, and I won’t go through all the clues, I won’t say anything else about that right now, but I make the case in this book that Munn is probably right.
That the suggestion is that Glaucon did join the regime of the 30, and did die fighting for them, most likely. That means Socrates failed, and that means … And this is where it really gets interesting. … that Socrates, the age’s most competent and capable spokesman for virtue and philosophy couldn’t save Plato’s beloved brother. It’s a tragedy. Why is that? Why couldn’t he save him? One of the things it points out is how very difficult it is to overcome the socially inculcated values, this idea of Greek manliness and glory and power, and ambition that Glaucon absorbed, as it were, with his mother’s milk. How do you overcome those forces and set somebody on the path to virtue and wisdom? Socrates couldn’t do it with Glaucon. He did it with Plato. He did it with Xenophon, and those are two major, major accomplishments. But as the case in many other platonic dialogues, he fails. He fails with the people he talks to.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So it’s risky. Dialogue is risky.
Jacob Howland: It is very risky.
Brett McKay: Socratic philosophy is risky.
Jacob Howland: Philosophy is very risky. But according to Socrates you know the examined life is the life to goodness and virtue and happiness, and it’s a risk we have to take. By the way, in the cave image, the prisoners, when they’re … Socrates says if somebody unchained one of these prisoners and turned them around and brought them up, the first things they realize as they go up out of the cave is “All these things I thought were real are just shadows projected on the wall by the guardians of this culture, these puppeteers.” So the first step in philosophy is calling into the question the things that you have unreflectively been taught, the things that you assumed were true. The first step in philosophy is negative, and that’s dangerous, because if you stop there you can end up being a Nihilist, right? You could say “What have I learned?” By the way, I think that’s a big problem today.
We’re in an age of deconstruction and post-modernism. As the word deconstruction suggests, we’re taking apart the views and traditions that we’ve been taught. We’re very good at that, but what do we replace it with? Someone can easily develop the cynical view that each culture, each society, maybe even in each individual has their own views, there’s no truth, there’s no outside of the cave, if you will. So that negative moment is very dangerous. Glaucon stopped too early. He should have continued with Socrates, and I’m convinced that if he had finally come into the presence of the good more closely, come into the presence of the goodness at the heart of creation, at the heart of the world, that he would’ve had the fulfillment that Socrates described in the Republic. Socrates describes that happiness at the end of the philosophical quest.
I’m convinced that Socrates had it, and it would’ve been Glaucon’s salvation. But my guess is he didn’t save him.
Brett McKay: It didn’t work. Well, Jacob, this has been a great conversation. Is there someplace people can go to learn more about the book and your work?
Jacob Howland: Sure. Well, I actually have a website, I think it’s called jacobhowland.com. I say “I think it’s called” ’cause I don’t really look at it a lot, but you can look at my book Glaucon’s Fate: History, Myth, and Character in Plato’s Republic on Amazon. There is a review coming out in the Claremont Review of Books, and there should be a review in City Journal online in a month or two. But check it out on Amazon, there are a couple reviews. You can look at it there, and I hope that interested listeners will buy the book and find out more about this sort of historical mystery.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, Jacob Howland, thanks much your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Jacob Howland: Thank you so much, Brett, I really appreciate your talking with me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Jacob Howland. He is the author of the book Glaucon’s Fate. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Make sure to check out our show notes at aom.is/republic, where you can find links to resources, we’re you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM Podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find all the podcast archives. We’ve got almost 500 episodes there, coming up on 500. Also, we have thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about personal finance, social skills, physical fitness, you name it we’ve got it. And if you haven’t done so already I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, it helps out a lot, and if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member you’d think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continuous support, and until next time this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AoM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.