26 July 2017

Realism and the pelvic issues, part 6: justice, work and bodies

Again, I’ve been thinking about the Republic a lot recently. There’s a great deal in that enduring classic of political philosophy, which needs desperately to be explored, particularly in this day and age. But I’m thinking about the implications of Plato’s thoughts in the Republic on the subject of labour.

It’s an important topic, because in the city-in-speech which Plato unfolds in the conversation, work is seen to form the basis of his understanding of justice. Socrates is given four different definitions of justice by four of his interlocutors – Cephalus (upholding law), Polemarchus (helping friends and hurting enemies), Thrasymachus (the interests of the powerful) and Glaucon (a utilitarian fiction); the last of whom launches an all-out attack on the very concept of justice itself as being incompatible with the happiness of powerful and self-willed men. Socrates subsequently defends the principle of justice as a good by questioning Glaucon and Adeimantus and asking them to construct an ideal city. In the first unfolding of social life in Plato’s ‘city of utmost necessity’, as Socrates terms the first city which Adeimantus ‘builds’ in speech, different men work at different occupations, each one at that to which he is best suited and each for the benefit of all the others – one a farmer, one a carpenter, one a weaver, one a shoemaker and so on.

Even though Glaucon interjects here and forces them to leave the ‘city of utmost necessity’ to explore more complex forms of social organisation, the basic point is made: justice has something to do with work, a factor which all of the definitions given to Socrates by his upper-class interlocutors at first were missing. Exploring further the occupations of the men in the more complex city Glaucon creates – merchants, then soldiers, then rulers – Socrates gets Glaucon and Adeimantus to admit that each class has its own prevailing virtue which is inherent to the work that they do. In other words: justice is what happens when each citizen works at what he does best, in coöperation with the other members of the city.

This is why it’s unfair to Plato to think of him as a pie-in-the-sky, airy-færie idealist, particularly as juxtaposed with Aristotle. It was Plato, rather than Aristotle, who first connected justice as having to do with physical work of the sort practised by farmers and craftsmen – thus justice (dikaiosunē), much like the sōphrosunē to which it is so similar, is a virtue accessible to human beings of any class within the city. A radical assertion, particularly given the conceptions of justice to which it is opposed (particularly those which see justice as the exclusive property of legislators, noblemen and the powerful)!

One has to see some irony in this, though – particularly given Allan Bloom’s assertion, in his interpretive essay, that much of the Republic is a comic riposte to Aristophanes’ portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds. The repeated assertions of common property and total equality between the sexes (even to the point of abolishing marriage, parenthood and private life among the guardian class) are not, in this reading, to be taken fully at face value; nor are the authoritarian proscriptions on poetic expression, or the basis of public education on the ‘fine lie’. (The antinomy between the philosophical and the political disciplines is here introduced: the philosopher in his concern with ultimate truth is at irreconcilable odds with the politician who is concerned primarily with conditional and rhetorical truths, or truths of convenience.) At the same time, one gets the impression that a serious point is being made beneath the irony and barbs at Aristophanes’ expense.

Plato is the first Western thinker to posit, even if his tongue is lodged in his cheek, that men and women have equal interest in work, and thus equal capacity for justice by his own definition. Even as Plato’s Socrates acknowledges that women have less upper body strength than men, and that there is a division of sexual functions (men beget; women bear), he still asserts that men and women are equal in their capacity to be educated (including – taking the argument to its logical conclusion – education in strategy and war; 451d-452b). Bloom comments on this section that it represents the height of Plato’s downplaying of sexuate embodiment as normatively-binding – and that Plato’s Socrates follows this androgynous ideal up with the comical image of old, wrinkled men and women wrestling shamelessly together in the palæstra alongside the younger ones (452b-c). Socrates satirises his own principle to his interlocutors as soon as he puts it forward. Even as Plato posits that ‘forgetting the body’ (to use Bloom’s phrase) may be necessary to achieve a perfectly-just city, in his metaphysical realism he forces us to acknowledge that sexuate embodiment is not something that can be negotiated or wished away. It cannot be! Only a working body, a physical (and therefore sexuate) body, is a body capable of becoming just. Only a human being who already participates in all of the links of the chain of being can find the liberation promised at the heights of the conversation in the Republic. As Bloom puts it: ‘Socrates forgets the body in order to make clear its importance.’ So much for that Gnostic genderless (or 58-gendered) utopia.

Even so, in context, the point of Plato’s exercise in ‘forgetting the body’ only to present it to us again, is to show that women as well as men are capable of receiving the sort of education needed to become the city’s guardians – that they too are capable of (temporarily) ‘forgetting the body’. True, women – as wives and mothers – are used later by Socrates as examples to demonstrate the degeneration of régimes as well as of individual souls. This is for Glaucon’s benefit, who is secretly a lover of erōs in its wild Dionysian aspect, and thus also potentially drawn toward tyranny. But Plato would not have us forget these ‘waves’ of questioning Socrates weathered to get us to that point: to show that women, in their full embodiment, are capable of receiving the sort of education needed to work and participate in the politics of the just and ideal city – and thus also, presumably, capable of becoming philosophers. (Consider the role of Diotima in the Symposium!)

Speaking as a Christian now, it’s tempting to view Plato’s virtue-ethical radicalism as something of a foreshadowing of the free obedience and perfection-in-virtue of the Theotokos, or the women disciples of Christ who were more advanced in faith and hope than the male apostles themselves. But that is to engage in a kind of theological conceit that removes me slightly from the realism I’m attempting to demonstrate here, and I ought to stop myself before I shade over into Berdyaevian meanderings.

To conclude: a working body is inescapably a sexed body. Divorcing the body, its work and its participation in public life, from the reality of its physical sex is therefore inevitably also a form of alienation; it is a form of (as the good Platonist John Milbank would say) corporate-driven biopolitical tyranny. We find ourselves demanding a divorce from the constraints of biology in the name of political freedom; but that political demand alone doesn’t get us closer to truth, let alone liberation. Instead, the act of multiplying an endless array of customisable ‘identities’ that have nothing to do with physical sex but that instead treat the body as a product to be improved upon, enslaves us to a new kind of consumerism. We can ‘forget the body’ for a time, for the purposes of ‘remembering’ the higher things that are explored in the allegory of the cave – and indeed, that’s something of a necessity. But to permanently ‘forget the body’ in bad faith is to destroy the grounds for that philosophical inquiry in the first place, and yield to certain forms of social totalitarianism, certain lies that are not, in the end, ennobling.

No comments:

Post a Comment