Sometimes it may seem like getting too deep into the philosophical end of the classics just isn’t “practical,” since so much of it seems airy-fairy, high-falutin’, divorced from “the real world” of everyday experience. But then you read things like this, from Plato and you suddenly realize that even the philosophical material in the classics is very practical because it is rooted in the real world of every day experience:
“When offices are filled competitively, the winners take over the affairs of state so completely that they totally deny the losers and the losers’ descendants any share of power. Each side passes its time in a narrow scrutiny of the other, apprehensive lest someone with memories of past injustices should gain some office and lead a revolution. Of course, our position is that this kind of arrangement is very far from being a genuine political system; we maintain that laws which are not established for the good of the whole state are bogus laws, and when they favor particular sections of the community, their authors are not citizens but party-men; and people who say those laws have a claim to be obeyed are wasting their breath….Where the law is subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state, in my view, is not far off; but if law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men enjoy all the blessings that the gods shower on a state.” – Laws 715a-d
To be sure, questions arise from these thoughts, particularly regarding what the phrase “for the good of the whole state” means. (Won’t that be precisely one of the things that even “party men” claim lies at the root of their sectarian programs?) And does the passage really enjoin that any citizen, upon deciding that some laws promulgated by the government are “bogus laws” made by “party men” and therefore no one who doesn’t wish to has to obey them?
Still, these are very provocative words, and again they illustrate that even the more philosophical parts of the classics really ought to be carefullly studied right along with all the other supposedly “more practical” parts.
Book IX of the Iliad is a masterpiece of rhetorical theory and action. It’s too bad we today have no actual statesmen, and so few politicians who are true orators. Mostly what we have are base braggarts, like Agamemnon early in Book I: “My opponent is trying to steal my honor! Well, I’ll just make sure I steal his first; show him who’s best and strongest and rightest!”
Our public debates aren’t like the ones Achille’s friend Phoenix mentions. Our debates, that is, are not occurrences “where men acquire distinction.” Instead we have men who, in Achilles’ words, have had their wits stolen by divine power, men who “say one thing while thinking something else which stays hidden in their minds.”
In our words, Right or Left, Red or Blue, Conservative or Liberal, Capitalist or Socialist, our political debates are for the most part run by Sophists: people who use words to deceptively entrance the hearers with appearances of reality, not make the hearers healthy with reality itself.
But that just begs the question, doesn’t it? Why do we, the hearers, keep participating in this farce political cycle after political cycle? Maybe if we knew our Homer better, we would have a chance at being wiser.
Augustine cites Cicero on the destruction of the Roman Republic due to the decline of traditional morality:
…the great leaders could not have founded, or could not have so long maintained such a great state with such a vast stretch of empire, had there not been that morality in the community; nor could the morality have done so, without the leadership of such men. Thus, before our own period, the traditional moral code produced outstanding men, and these excellent men preserved the code and the practices of their forebears. Whereas our age has received the commonwealth like a magnificent picture which has almost faded away with age, and it has not only omitted to restore it with the original colours; it has not even taken the trouble to preserve what one may call the general shape and the bare outlines. For what remains of that ancient morality which, according to the poet, supported the Roman state? We see that it has passed out of use into oblivion, so that far from being cultivated, it does not even enter our minds. And what about the men? The morality has passed away through lack of the men: and we are bound to be called to account for this disaster, and even, one may say, to defend ourselves on a capital charge. For we retain the name of a commonwealth, but we have lost the reality long ago: and this was not through any misfortune, but through our own misdemeanours. – City of God II.21, trans. Henry Bettenson, citing Cicero, De Republica 5.1
Are we really sure he’s talking about Rome, here?
Many politicians are “…ambitious men, whose minds, doting on glory, which is a mere image of virtue, produce nothing that is genuine or uniform, but only, as might be expected of such a conjunction, deformed and unnatural actions…”
Such men eventually come to the following end: “when this passion is exorbitant, it is dangerous in all men, and in those who govern a commonwealth, utterly destructive. For in the possession of large power and authority, it transports men to a degree of madness; so that now they no more think what is good, glorious, but will have those actions only esteemed good that are glorious.” – (Plutarch, Life of Agis)
For the things that the mass of people say are good are not correctly so described. It is said that the the best thing is health, and the second is beauty, and third is wealth – and then are said to be ten thousand other goods: sharp sight, hearing, and good perception of all the objects of the senses; and then…to do whatever one desires; and finally the perfection of complete blessedness, which is to possess all these things and then to become immortal, as quickly as possible.
But…we say that these things, beginning with health, are all very good when possessed by just and pious men, but all very bad when possessed by unjust men. To see, to hear, to perceive, and, in general, to live as an immortal for the whole of time, while possessing all the things said to be good except for justice and the whole of virtue, is the greatest of evil. The evil gets less as the time such a man continues to live gets shorter. – (Plato, The Laws 661a-661c)
When many of them are sitting together in assemblies, courts, theaters, army camps, or in some other public gathering of the crowd, they object very loudly and excessively to some of the things that are said or done and approve others in the same way, shouting and clapping, so that the very rocks and surroundings echo the din of their praise or blame and double it. In circumstances like that, what is the effect, as they say, on a young person’s heart? What private training can hold out and not be swept away by that kind of praise or blame and be carried by the flood wherever it goes, so that he’ll say the same things are beautiful or ugly as the crowd does, follow the same pursuits as they do, and be the same sort of person as they are? – (Plato, Republic 492b-c)