Bachelor of Arts
Harlan Garnett Wilson
This paper has two purposes. The first is to develop a theory about what approach to the ideas of the past in general, and Plato in particular, will help us the most in learning how to act in politics. I hope to do this by examining and evaluating the ways in which the 20th Century analysts have looked at Plato. The second purpose is to provide an example of the type of analysis I believe to be most useful. I hope to apply my approach not to Plato, but to those who have analyzed Plato, in an effort to make the most use of these writers’ ideas. Chapter One is a general overview of the analysts I will be discussing; Chapters Two, Three, and Four deal with what it means to approach Plato in a particular way; Chapter Five provides a discussion of what approach to Plato is likely to be the most useful; Chapter Six is a brief conclusion.
My analysis rests on two important initial assumptions. The first is that political action is based on political ideas – that individuals makes choices in politics based on the theoretical values they hold. The second assumption is that the goal of understanding our values- the principles on which we act- is best served when we challenge them with as many different views about politics as possible. I will be suggesting that it is not the nature of the view of politics an author has, but rather an author’s failure to be cognizant of the limitations of his/her viewpoint that makes an approach to political thought less than useful.
This last point needs some clarification. I believe that the attempt to view the past inevitably involves a tradeoff between presenting a thinker’s ideas “faithfully” in the way he/she had intended them to be presented, and viewing a thinker’s ideas in the way we would like to. As J. G. A. Pocock suggests, the attempt to study the past is an act of translation, and I believe that something is always lost in translation. Much as we might like to have Plato’s opinions on modern questions, Plato never addressed the problems of industrialized mass society, or, for that matter, the threat of totalitarian regimes to individual liberty. To apply Plato to our modern world can only be accomplished if we extrapolate from what he said, and we must realize that we do this at the cost of fidelity to Plato’s intentions. Yet, an analysis which seeks to avoid extrapolating from Plato’s ideas is done at the cost of limiting the extent to which Plato’s ideas can be applied to our own problems.
Hirsch, Merril, ""The Evil that Men do Lives After Them" (Sometimes): A Study of Twentieth Century Analysis of Plato's Political Theory" (1979). Honors Papers. 717.