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Reflections on Stanley’s How Propaganda Works: Pt. 1, Plato

I’ve had Jason Stanley’s book How Propaganda Works (Princeton 2015) sitting on my desk for a couple months and finally, this week, I read through most of it.  I think it’s an important book for a number of reasons, particularly because I think it addresses and attempts to remedy some of the issues and concerns about how analytic philosophers do political philosophy that have kept many continental philosophers from thinking that this work was worth engaging.  But it’s also interesting to me because I’ve been blogging a bit about the difficulties of changing people’s minds, a difficulty that I think Plato addresses in his dialogues.

In the Introduction, “The Problem of Propaganda,” Stanley maintains that (1) Plato is seeking to describe the ideal polity, which is an aristocracy of philosophers, (2) Plato is a fierce critic of democracy, and (3) Plato is concerned with how political systems will work in light of “actual social and psychological facts about humans” (9).  I want to suggest in what follows that while in the course of the dialogue Socrates says things that seem to lead to 1 and 2, it is not clear that either Socrates or Plato is propagating those views.  (I agree with (3) and I’ll discuss that in the next post.)  I maintain that Plato writes a dialogue full of unsupported and problematic claims that lead to a certain account of what political life would be like on the basis of those unsupported and problematic claims in order to prompt considered thinking in Socrates’ interlocutors and in Plato’s readers.  I believe that Plato thinks this willingness to challenge our most settled beliefs is central to avoiding the pitfalls of democracy which arise in the first book of his Republic – I think the efforts Plato depicts of Socrates to prompt thinking in reflection in political life in a number of different contexts is further evidence for this view.

In Republic I, Socrates considers the views that justice is a matter of repaying debts, that justice is a convention whereby those in power establish the law to serve their own advantage, and lastly, and I think relatedly, that injustice is what is most advantageous–justice is for suckers.  Patrick Murphy argues that Plato’s Republic is set in a time of emerging commerce where money has become the measure of all things.  This view of human relationships has led, as David Graeber discusses, to the notion that all human interactions are a matter of holding credit or debt.  I would argue that the reason then that Cephalus describes justice in terms of giving what is owed is because the general sentiment, shared by Thrasymachus, Glaucon and Adiemantus (as seen in the beginning of Republic II) is that injustice is getting more than you are owed.  So justice becomes  giving what is owed in a way that is derived from that more fundamental understanding of injustice.  In “Plato’s Reply to Lysias: Republic I and II and Against Erastosthenes,” Jacob Howland argues that Socrates’ argument that justice can do no harm is a reply to Lysias’ speech calling for revenge against those members of the Thirty Tyrants responsible for killing Cephalus’ family, including Polemarchus.

With that background in mind, I argue that in Republic II and following, Socrates presents an image of a city based on unsupported assumptions (efficiency is best, each of us has a separate nature that determines what we should d0) that capture Glaucon and Adiemantus’ desire for power.  Their ready assent in the dialogue could be taken as evidence that Socrates is serving up what they already want in order to show us, the reader, what the problems with such a position would be.  The problems are manifold.  Not just the comedy of the community of children and wives which would be necessary for this to work, but that the philosopher, to be recognized as ruler amongst those who are not rulers, would need to be able to convince the ruled that they should accept the philosopher.  Either the philosopher would have to appeal to their desires or some reason would have to be cultivated in those ruled to assent to being ruled, to recognizing that this rule would be best.  In fact, the ruled, in order to have justice (doing their task) would also need wisdom (knowledge of what is best in so far as that means doing their task and allowing the philosopher to rule).

Thus, while Socrates does argue that the problem with democracy is that it encourages freedom to do whatever one wants and equality between those who are not equally capable, the dialogue as a whole seems to suggest that freedom that would not become tyrannical (the tyrant thinks he is most free but that freedom becomes the antithesis of freedom) requires all of those engaged in political life to develop the capacity to turn their souls toward what matters so that they might each make judgments about how best to live.

Stanley quotes Terence Irwin who argues that Plato “assumes that democratic participation in government has only instrumental value, determined by its efficiency in promoting interests that are quite distinct from it.”  It’s true that Socrates says things that lead to that view in the dialogue, but I don’t think it is Socrates’ or Plato’s last word on democracy within the dialogue.  This could be a danger of democracy if everyone is not motivated to turn toward what is best.  Irwin goes on to say that we value control at the expense of efficiency.  I think Plato is also questioning whether efficiency is best–efficiency is what Glaucon and Adiemantus, the sympathizers with Sparta, want, but not necessarily what Socrates wants.  Socrates, as ever, wants to motivate his interlocutors to think, to stop not thinking and to start thinking.  The acceptance of a view without reflection on it is what enables democracy to serve ends other than itself and to become tyranny.

On this account, no community would work as a community if those ruled don’t in some sense have the knowledge to recognize the rulers as those who should rule.  Otherwise, the philosopher would have to rule with force.  The critiques of the tyrant and ruling by force suggest that this is not a viable solution.  Some Plato scholars argue that the Republic is more about an argument for a well-ordered soul than the city so we can’t conclude Plato’s political views from the dialogue.  This might be the case.  But I think the unsupported arguments for efficiency and proper natures (which Stanley rightly criticizes) and the apparently contradictory arguments actually point to a more fundamental point: the city will only work if everyone involved, from the ruler to the lowest ruled, is engaged in a philosophical life whereby they are reflecting on what is best for themselves and the community.

I don’t mean to pick on Stanley’s claims about Plato, which are a minor point in the introduction, merely to disagree or to say that I know better, which I don’t think would be helpful for further fostering discussions about propaganda and ideology in both contemporary states that claim to be democratic and in philosophy.  I’m addressing this point because I think the differences between ways of reading Plato that prompt questions and ways of reading Plato that assign a certain view to Plato are similar to ways that communities can be self-reflective and take themselves as questions or can become dogmatic, propagandistic and democratic-in-word-only.

If my reading of Plato has any traction I think it shows that Plato can be a partner in the effort to resist propaganda-driven political life.  Like Stanley, Plato’s Socrates invites his interlocutors–particularly Glaucon and Adiemantus in the Republic–to consider how their accounts arise from their political and social positions.  Moreover, Plato writes in such a way that makes it impossible to close off debate about Plato’s view, and he writes about a character, Socrates, who, I argue wishes to prolong debate over the most essential things, except perhaps that debate over the most essential things should be prolonged (even up until the moment he dies when he leaves his interlocutors and the rest of us scratching our heads over what he means by sacrificing a cock to Aesclepius). Plato seems intent on writing and Socrates intent on engaging others in a way that prompts questions for us about how to live, questions whose answers within the context of the dialogue lead to further questions instead of settled answers.  I take Platonic dialogues as occasions for cultivating habits of continued reflection on those things to which we find ourselves most committed.  I thus take Platonic dialogues as a remedy to propagandistic social and political life.



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