Soul of the Republic
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."
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."
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.
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.
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?
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?"
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."
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
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."
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."
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.
in the Translations
Soul of the Republic
with a Satirist
Genius of the Everyday