Title: "A Little Platonic Heresy for the Eighties", Teaching Philosophy, 8/1, 1985, 33-40.
Author: Debra Nails
Date: January 2002
Reviewer: John Sellars
 For new students, the choice of translation of Plato's Republic may have a significant impact upon the way in which they approach the text. More significant, however, are the assumptions prevalent in the secondary literature and, in particular, the '"truism" that Plato was a totalitarian'. Here the most influence work has been Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies.
In order to examine this assumption, this paper will focus upon the structure of Plato's account of the ideal State.  An appropriate Platonic passage is quoted (Republic 434b-c) and the translations of some key terms are compared with those in other translations.  Comparison is also made with Popper's choice of terminology. His choice of terms such as 'noblemen', 'caste state', and 'feudal simplicity' have created an implicitly medieval view of Plato's political system and this view has become commonplace. It is possible to temper this medieval view and two comparative diagrams illustrate this [on 36-37]. For instance, 'philosopher-king' in the first diagram is replaced by the gender neutral 'philosopher-ruler' in the second diagram.  However, both views 'average into an unacceptably un-equalitarian Plato'.
Plato was not a totalitarian. At the very least, it is possible to offer a plausible non-totalitarian reading of the Republic. This is outlined in a third diagram [on 38]. Insofar as each of the three groups of citizens in the ideal State are equally essential, in this diagram they are arranged horizontally rather than vertically.  A new translation of the opening passage is offered: 'artisan' is replaced by 'engineer'; 'soldiers' by 'civil defense force'; 'counsellors' by 'civil servants'.
 Another important issue in Platonic interpretation is which part of his system one takes to be fundamental. For example, is his epistemology built upon his more primary metaphysics? Or is it based upon his psychology? The author follows the second approach.  Plato's political philosophy is 'little more than an ad hoc appendix to his philosophy', dependent upon his psychology and epistemology, and fleshed out with some contemporary political observations. Moreover, it conflicts with his philosophy of education, which gives everybody the opportunity to select their own vocation. Insofar as the central role of the 'philosopher-ruler' is to educate, this position should be conceived along the lines of a 'minister of education'. These individuals would live not so much like medieval tyrants but more like monastic religious teachers that survive in a handful of schools today. Socrates would work as a civil servant, encouraging open discussion in the marketplace.
The principal point of interest relevant to teaching practice here is the claim that the precise choice of terms used to introduce a text may colour a student's entire subsequent engagement with that text. If Plato's 'guardians' were never called 'philosopher-kings' and only 'ministers of education', fewer students would conceive the political philosophy outlined in the Republic as totalitarian. Perhaps. But surely one of the tasks for the teacher of philosophy is to encourage their students to see through superficial terminological choices between, say, 'artisan' or 'civil engineer' and to grapple with the underlying concepts at work.
The author's own terminological choices are, in many ways, more anachronistic than the 'medieval' interpretation that she wants to avoid. When teaching a classical text like the Republic in a department of philosophy the focus should, of course, be on its philosophical content. But does that mean that any attempt at historical sensitivity should be ignored? The author's use of 'minister of education' is particularly worrying, reminded me (at least) of George Orwell's 1984. Her attempt to reject Popper's 'totalitarian' reading has perhaps created an equally frightening incarnation.
The final comments, concerning Socrates, are particularly odd. They appear to suggest that Plato expected - even wanted - figures like Socrates in the marketplace of his ideal State. I take it that this is the last thing that he would have wanted. This attempt to reconcile the Socrates of the Apology with Plato's own political thoughts in the Republic appears to be seriously misguided. No doubt Plato would have valued Socrates' activities in fifth century Athens, but that was because it was, for Plato, a society rotten to the core. No such gadflies would be needed in a perfect society.
The purpose of this article appears to be to try to make Plato more acceptable to a modern audience by way of a handful of carefully chosen changes in translation. Perhaps a more philosophical approach would be to examine the quality of the arguments by which Plato attempts to establish his, sometimes unsettling, conclusions. That those conclusions are sometimes unsettling should not be seen as a problem; on the contrary they encourage us to think about precisely how those conclusions were reached. If the author wants her philosophy students to admire Plato then perhaps she should focus her attentions on why he is a philosopher rather than why he may not be a liberal democrat.
If the author really wants her students to read Plato without unhelpful modern colourings created by translation choices then perhaps she should take the bold step of introducing the dozen of so relevant Greek words to her students. This would surely be preferable to the creation of yet another equally misleading set of translations.
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