(This is a 4000 word exam paper I wrote a couple of weeks ago.)
A common view is that we should take Plato’s ideas as very serious theoretical arguments, to be held up to scientific standards, and, when found wanting, excused on the ground of being ancient and charming. With this strategy of interpretation, most of Plato’s work has to be rejected. The only idea to withstand at least the bulk of such scrutiny, and which for that reason is framed as the great theoretical achievement entitling Plato to his traditionally very high position in the hall of philosophical fame, is his so-called Theory of Forms. This kind of interpretation was introduced as early as with Aristotle, who saw in elenchus something like a rudimentary scientific method, aiming narrowly at logical definitions. The modern heir is the tradition of linguistic philosophy, where prominent philosophers such as Frege and Russell self-identified as “platonists”, referring by that term to a philosophical realism of universals and abstract objects. But this tradition has long since outgrown the connection to its inspirational root, and is generally no longer invested in the issue of how we should interpret Plato.
In this essay, I’ll propose a “fictionalist” strategy of interpretation to challenge the one sketched above, which I’ll call “theoreticalist”. The term fictionalism is primarily meant to suggest that the best measure against which to judge Plato’s work is something else than truth (at least in the conventional sense). My ambition is to persuade the reader that this is a much more profound perspective than one might at first suspect.
I do not pretend to do theoreticalism justice. In fact, I am using it as a straw man position, to lever against in launching the fictionalist interpretation. The point of this essay is not to compare and evaluate the possible ways to interpret Plato, merely to propose and elaborate the fictionalist one.
The original intentions of the historical Plato is not the issue at stake here; for the purposes of this essay, the measure of an interpretation’s merit is simply how much it allows us to take out of Plato’s work – the width and depth opened to us by it. The interpretation is thus given a long leash: It shouldn’t stray too far off course, transforming Plato into something else entirely, but, on the other hand, there is no aspiration to actually capture the real Plato.
I will start out by reminding the reader of how Plato makes Socrates go about presenting his conception of the tripartite soul, as a representative example of Plato’s constructive thought. Then, I’ll point out the difficulties a theoreticalist interpretation of it faces, and go on to introduce the alternative, fictionalist approach, not just to the tripartite soul, but to Plato in general.
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I think Plato’s idea of a tripartite soul (the three parts being reason, spirit and appetite), should be supplemented with inspiration as a fourth part.
If this soul where to be “writ large” by being remapped to a fictional city state, inspiration wouldn’t be mortal citizens like the other parts of the soul, they’d be more like gods or muses that only come to visit the city from time to time. The rest of the citizenry are unable to predict when they come or understand why exactly, but — at least in a city governed by inspiration, a “musocracy” — they’re always prepared to be summoned to celestial speeches or be drafted to holy wars or work projects. A city of this kind would have to have two modes, depending on whether the angelic muses are present or absent. When present, all forces volunteer to work together in the service of inspiration. This mode is easy, because true inspiration is a powerful motivator, and things tend work themselves out without the need of a formal constitution. But when they leave, disorder has to be kept at bay by some means or others, and considering the situation, religious practices seem like the obvious solution. This, then, is the lifeblood of the second mode. The rational class function as priests, reminding the populace of the absent rulers, holding back the forces of disorder by reflecting the inspiration from the muses, like the moon holds back the darkness of night by reflecting the light of the sun. At first, a constitution such as this — founded not on inspiration itself, but on preparation for and anticipation of it — is certainly unstable. But trust build up step by step every time the promises of the priests are confirmed by the muses actually revisiting. And so over time, the priests are able to subdue the appetitive majority, by referring them to the higher and superior pleasures to be found in inspiration (in particular on the side of production, but also on that of consumption).
The main concern for the city besides maintaining order, is to make sure the muses are attracted to visit more often, and stay for longer at a time. All kinds of ritualized habits and mythical frameworks can be tried out to find out what works by way of experiment, but some basics are practically guaranteed to be a necessary part of every city’s life: Crops must be harvested, streets must be cleaned, buildings maintained and so on, because heavenly visitors are of course reluctant to descend into a city that is filthy or crumbling, or whose citizens are sluggish or unhealthy. Also, hard priestly work is required: Scribes should be ready at all times to write down what the muses say and do in case of a suprise visit, so that nothing important is forgotten. Their claims, artifacts and gestures should be memorized, studied and interpreted, to get the most out of every drop of inspiration. Priests should lead the populace in daily practices of meditation and reflection, to make the city fertile ground for seeds of inspiration.
The heart and central tenet of the popular religion is its concept of the city’s purpose, and that is, in short, “doing the good work”, i.e. the command of the muses. This is what’s meaningful. And living meaningfully, in turn, makes the life of all in the city better: more pleasurable for the appetitive class, more honorable for the spirited class and truly good for the priests. Merely consuming the tasteful or inspirational is good as well, but not intrinsically meaningful. At best, it amplifies meaning from other sources; it is not itself an original source. It is like having clever friends, which, unless you have common interests, is meaningless, in the sense of being only superficially and transiently pleasant. The only activity that is intrinsically meaningful is inspired production. And it doesn’t have to be anything grandiose or important, it just has to originate from the muses. The city that follows their plans and builds according to their designs is a city in the light of heaven. Even in the face of ridicule or discredit from neighboring cities. The approval of mortals means litte compared to that of gods and muses.