Published Humanitas, Volume XXII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2009
H. A. Prichard changed the course of Plato’s Anglophone reception in his 1928 lecture “Duty and Interest” with the claim that Socrates’ defense of justice in the Republic is based entirely on self-interest as opposed to disinterested moral obligation. Following this lead, M. B. Foster identified the just guardian’s return to the Cave as the sole exception to Prichard’s claim, thereby attributing two distinct errors to Plato: the original mistake of defending justice only in relation to consequences accruing to the agent’s own advantage, and then failing to see that a just guardian’s unselfish return was inconsistent with this utilitarian project. J. D. Mabbott attempted to absolve Plato by arguing that the return to the Cave was only inconsistent with Foster’s utilitarian approach. But W. H. Adkins strengthened Foster’s second claim by denying that a guardian would return to the Cave, while David Sachs, building on Prichard, sparked a new round of debate by denying that Plato’s self-interested just man would actually be just in any commonly accepted sense of that term. In addition to debating about Sachs, many have attempted to save Plato’s consistency by showing why it is in the guardian’s self-interest to go back down into the Cave. Bearing witness to the enduring influence of Sachs, whom he rejects, and Foster, whom he echoes, Terry Penner has recently argued that since the defense of justice in the Republic is purely egoistic; any suggestion that the guardians will voluntarily sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of others by returning to the Cave reflects “a certain unresolved tension” in Plato’s thought.
Against Penner, I claim that this “unresolved tension” is deliberate on Plato’s part and that it reflects an essential feature of Platonic pedagogy, aptly described by Cicero as Socrates’ multiplex ratio disputandi (“multilayered method of disputation”). This article therefore constitutes prolegomena to an altruistic reading of the Republic in which (1) a philosopher’s disinterested decision to return to the Cave will be presented as the paradigm of just action thereby revealing the altruistic essence of justice that Plato is persuading or rather provoking his philosophic reader to imitate but (2) that a voluntary return to the Cave cannot and was not intended to be justified in relation to the internal definition of justice presented in Book IV. The need for prolegomena to such a reading arises from the fact that I must first set forth the pedagogical basis for my claim that, while the text’s surface deliberately encourages an egoistic account of justice such as Penner’s, Plato qua teacher intended to reveal the altruistic paradigm of justice to those who could “read between the lines.” This manner of speaking calls attention to the influence of Leo Strauss, who made a distinction between exoteric surface and esoteric essence in his 1941 “Persecution and the Art of Writing.” Despite the fact that Leo Strauss’s own reading of Plato’s Republic is anything but altruistic, the contrast he identified is, in a modified or pedagogical form, crucial for explaining the gap that I am claiming Plato deliberately created between a self-interested account of justice in Book IV and Glaucon’s accurate statement in Book VII that the guardians will sacrifice self-interest because the obligation to return to the Cave involves “imposing just commands on men who are just” (521e1; Paul Shorey translation).
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