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"How Difficult It Is!" | On Justice and the Earthly City
| Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 25, 2008
Plato was forty years old (388 B.C.) as he tells us in his
"Seventh Letter." The Peloponnesian War had ended in 404. The Greek colony of
Syracuse on Sicily was in the ascendancy. With Sparta, Syracuse was the victor
in the infamous war that Athens, prodded on by the charming, rather
unscrupulous Alcibiades, had launched on them.
Plato, meanwhile, had taken a trip to Syracuse at the
invitation of Dionysius the ruler or "tyrant" at the time. There he met a young
man by the name of Dion, a relative of some sort of the tyrant. Dion was
clearly a young man who wanted to improve the world, a view Plato remarked, he
held even to his unfortunate end. Dion clearly admired Plato as the philosopher
who could teach the tyrant a better way.
What was Dion's problem? Like many a young man who comes to
Washington, Dion thought that Syracuse "ought to be free and live under the
best of laws." This is why he was interested in studying with Plato. Plato
understands clearly, however, how these dangerous enthusiasms of young men come
about. He had been through the same thing himself, as he tells us in a
memorable series of dialogues. Plato sees here in this experience "instructions
for young and old alike." He admits that when he was a young man he "had the
same ambition as many others."
The account that Plato gives of the situation of his own
formation is memorable. "I thought of entering public life as soon as I became
of age." He had many connections, relatives in high places who gave him
preferred positions. At first, he had no scruple about working for them. "I
thought they were going to lead the city out of the unjust life she had been
living and establish her in the path of justice." As we read these lines that
are familiar to our souls about the supposed ease with which we can change the
world, we catch an ominous sense of irony in Plato's words.
Plato kept his eyes open. "As I watched them (the new
politicians) they showed in a short time that the preceding constitution had
been a precious thing." The revolution, the election, produced something not
better but worse. Aristotle later warned about the same thing. It often
happens. "Why?" we wonder.
Plato had an "old friend" by the name of Socrates, who was
simply "the wisest and justest man of that time." The government sought to
implicate Socrates in its own crimes. They ordered Socrates, along with four
other men, to go over to the Island of Salamis and pick up a certain Leon. They
were to bring him back for execution. Leon was an officer in the Peloponnesian
war who was accused of failure to bury the bodies of sailors lost in battle at
sea. Socrates thought it was unjust to try ten admirals collectively since it
was contrary to Athenian law not to try them individually. So he refused to go
along. He would have been killed at that time had not the government again
Plato, at the time of Socrates' encounter with the law, is
in his twenties, not too much older than college students. Plato confesses that
"When I saw all this and other like things..., I was appalled and drew back from
that reign of injustice." Socrates' example never left him even though he
still is apparently tempted by the Sicilian invitation to try to found a good
and perfect city, as was Dion, who probably got the idea from him.
When the next new government came in, Plato, still young
though more sober, again "felt the desire, though this time less strongly, to
take part in public and political affairs." Alas, many "deplorable things"
occurred after the second revolution. Certain men again bring up the case of
Socrates. They make a "most shameless accusation, and one which he, of all men,
least deserved." He was accused of "impiety." The jury of citizens convicted
him. They put him to death. They put to death a man who refused to take part in
civil injustice as if to say that there is no final justice in any existing
city, even Athens.
Plato now, at forty, looking back on these scenes, is
poignant, perhaps prophetic about the nature of this world. "The more I
reflected upon what was happening, upon what kinds of men were active in
politics, and upon the state of our laws and customs, and the older I grew, the
more I realized how difficult it is to
manage a city's affairs rightly." Einstein, I believe, said it was far more
difficult than anything in science.
In the end, Plato suspected that it would never be
otherwise. If there were a just city, it could only be "in speech," as he put
it in the Republic. And if it is not
consciously there, no one is safe in his own soul. This putting it there is
what education is about. We do not like to hear these things, I suppose, but
they are in our tradition.
Some philosophers even say that this very desire to have the
perfect city is the cause of all political evils that do happen in the world.
It says in Scripture that "we have here no lasting city." Plato suspected this
latter also, even though many want to accuse him of being the origin of all
utopianism. "How difficult it is to manage a city's affairs rightly."
Originally published in The
Hoya, Georgetown University, January
18, 2008. Reprinted by kind permission of the author.
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007).
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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