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Page-turners
>> The Soul of the Republic

The makeshift seminar table is already ringed and double-ringed with students when Jonathan Lear enters the Foster Hall classroom for the first session of a two-quarter sequence on Plato's Republic. "I have incompatible desires," he worries aloud. "One of them is that I want to have a seminar on the Republic, and this is not a seminar; on the other hand, I don't want to disappoint anyone who wants to read Plato."

Temporarily delaying the decision on who can stay and who must go, Lear, the John U. Nef distinguished service professor in the Committee on Social Thought, philosophy, and the College, begins what he promises will be his only lecture. The rest of the course will be devoted to a close reading of the text in English translation, two books per week. "Today I will tell you what I think the Republic is all about," he says, removing his suit jacket and hanging it neatly in the corner, "and if that's all you want, you can leave when I'm done."

Too many readers, he continues, have "a Grand Tour experience" of "one of the fundamental texts of Western civilization." The quick read leaves them remembering years later that "there was something in it about a cave." Although it is "extraordinarily difficult to figure out what this book is about," that kind of Grand Tour approach to the Republic doesn't give the reader "much time to stop and get puzzled." This class, he hopes, will have the time.

A psychoanalyst as well as a philosopher, Lear argues that while the Republic "tends to get treated as a work of political philosophy," it is really about "looking into the nature of the human soul, the psyche." Challenged to prove that justice is a condition of the human soul that leads to happiness and the best life, Socrates "turns to politics" because the city is the soul writ large.

It can be difficult to see a book whose Latin title, Res publica, means "public affairs" as being fundamentally about the human soul, Lear acknowledges: "My translation would be to call it Constitution, which is, I think, the better translation of the Greek word politeia." Such a translation, he says, gets at Plato's "essential" question, What makes it possible for something-whether a political state or the human soul-to be both unity and differentiated?

"This is my reading," Lear pauses to caution. "I am going to try to persuade you of it, but I'm also delighted if you try to persuade me that it's not true and persuade me to believe in your reading."
The Romans, he goes on, "were politically minded and looking for the political lessons to be learned" from the text. Thus, they were "pulled toward translating it as the Republic." Did their bias, he wonders, "unconsciously point other readers toward a Roman reading of the book? How much power does a title have on a reading?"

He detours briefly, to list the translations the class will read. They'll start with Grube (Hackett, 1992), "which keeps a very close eye on the Greek and tries for a literal translation." Then, as soon as it comes off the press, students will add to their reading a new translation from Cambridge University Press that, says Lear, "introduces a new ideal."

Holding aloft galley proofs, Lear reads from the editor's notes. The new version's goal? To make the Republic-written as dialogues-"sound like conversation." Existing translations, Lear says, often emerge as "something no English-speaking person would ever say," but the Cambridge translation by Tom Griffith "has an eye for Greek and an ear for spoken English. If the title had been translated as Constitution, I would be in reader's heaven."

Returning to his insistence on the text's psychological underpinnings, Lear admits that in Greek, politeia is specifically political in its definition, but argues that such "reasoning doesn't take seriously enough what a radical thinker Plato is. For him, the standard meaning of words is just the starting point of thought-it's not the finishing point."

Taking another tack, Lear demonstrates some "traps" inherent in a purely political reading of the Republic, rather than one focused on the psyche. "If you think of the Republic as political philosophy," he says, "there is a question, What are we constructing this beautiful city for? It all depends on the cosmic emergence of a philosopher king…. And even so, it would inevitably fall apart."

The lack of a political answer, he concludes, "sets one up for profound pessimism about political life." On the other hand, if Plato's true topic is the human soul, "profound pessimism is the only route to genuine hope. It's an existential possibility. We have to have the realization that it's actually possible to have hope. It exists as a possibility: there is something fundamentally good about the human condition. Just to be a city-to be a soul-is to be oriented toward the good," Lear offers, "and thus to avoid despair." -M.R.Y.


Found in the Translations

The Soul of the Republic

Travels with a Satirist

Ocean Reveries

The Genius of the Everyday

 


  FEBRUARY 2001

  > > Volume 93, Number 3


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