The Philosophers and The Gentlemen

Socrates, in The Republic, defines the five essential forms of government in rank order, from most to least just: aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, tyranny. His cleverest rhetorical trick, the most famous (and probably least understood) conceit in the dialogue, is his redefinition of aristocracy by means of the radical proposal that in order to realize a truly just city in practice, philosophers would have to be forced to assume the role of kings. Through the ironic sleight of hand that almost defined political philosophy in its original, Platonic sense, Socrates sought to persuade the actual aristocrats of Athens, who were not philosophers, that philosophy was their proper calling, or at least that the philosopher was their most trustworthy friend and companion. That is, in The Republic’s account of the five regimes, aristocracy, which was a realistic practical option in ancient Greece, though not ascendant in the democratic Athens of Socrates’ time, is depicted in the manner most flattering to real aristocrats, namely as the noblest and most desirable of all forms of rule, but with the one little adjustment of identifying the lovers of wisdom, rather than the mere leisure class as such, as the definitive or ultimate exemplars of hoi aristoi, “the best men,” and hence spiritual development and reason rather than blood and birth as the proper standards of superiority.

The implications of this dialectical redefinition are remarkable. It effectively removes the actual aristocratic class from any clear place within the five types of political regimes (and analogous individuals) identified by Socrates and his interlocutors. Or rather, it offers the actual Athenian aristocrats two options with which to identify themselves, namely the first and second types, aristocracy (the philosopher-kings) and timocracy — which is to say those who live for wisdom and those who live for honor, respectively. In other words, the philosophic life or the military life: the life of spiritual independence and devotion to the true, the good, and the beautiful; or the life concerned with reputation and the appreciation of one’s deeds, which is inherently somewhat dependent on others’ perceptions. Socrates, and following him Plato and Aristotle, gambles everything on the prediction that, faced with such a choice, the gentleman class of Greece, naturally averse to the vulgar concerns of the many or the vested interests of public approval, will choose to align themselves with philosophy, the highest form of spiritual detachment, in order to be associated with an activity of the most profound nobility, rather than reduce themselves to the second-best status to which he has dialectically diminished the warrior-hero, the traditional Greek standard of manhood (and of the aristocracy).

This was the strategy for self-preservation developed by the greatest of the seminal philosophers, which by its (at least partial) success probably saved the entire endeavor, which is to say the philosophic life and the great conversation of history that it engendered, from early obliteration at the hands of either the tyrants or the ruling majorities of an ancient world which, like all worlds, innately favored piety and compliance, and therefore widely viewed genuinely independent thought as an impious and corruptive threat. For by means of this strategy, the philosophers, unpopular and dismissed by the people and the powerful at the best of times, despised and hunted at the worst, won themselves a faction of allies and defenders which, though small, was largely comprised of men of some private means and public influence.

And it is neither accidental nor incidental that the faction Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle sought to sway was the gentleman class, which is to say the men of leisure, inclined by education and ego toward “beautiful and useless” things. After all, if attaching themselves to power as such, irrespective of the spiritual conditions of that power, were the philosophers’ goal, why would they not have chosen to appeal to the democratic regime itself, aka the majority, which was the leading force in Athenian politics at the time? The reason is that there was among them an understanding that the philosophic activity, though by nature the best or even definitive human life, would for that very reason never be amenable to universalization or popular appeal. Among other inherent incompatibilities, philosophy bears the burden of being innately and irreducibly impious. Specifically, by virtue of upholding reason and the questioning spirit as the summum bonum of human life, philosophy is by definition at odds, in principle, with every existing regime, i.e., every system of government and its corresponding societal norms, since all regimes and societal norms, as a condition of their very existence and maintenance, depend on certain premises and presuppositions being accepted without question, or rather being accepted as immune to all doubt. This claim is not contradicted by the observation that pieties are sometimes altered, or even replaced by entirely new pieties, over time. On the contrary, such alterations or radical reversals only reinforce the intractability of piety, and of the philosophers’ problem. For it is clear that old certainties will sometimes be upended in favor of new certainties; but the result must and will always be certainties, end-point beliefs which one is expected to accept without question in order to be regarded as a member in good standing of one’s society.

Hence the special problem of democracy, the rule of the majority: The regime, being comprised of the most changeable faction, namely the emotional and indignant many, will be susceptible to far more frequent revolutions in its ruling opinions than other regimes, such that people in democracies who merely wish to cling to societal norms that had been deemed indispensable certainties within their own lifetimes will often, and rather suddenly, find themselves on “the wrong side of history,” as these sides are newly redefined and their new implications mass-distributed, sometimes on an annual basis. In other words, the changeable opinions of democratic “progress” will never resolve themselves into a general preference for rational doubt, for the humility of uncertainty, and for the gentility of the thinking life, but will only devolve, psychologically, into a paranoid schizophrenia of malleable and unstable absolute truths, while devolving practically into increasingly tyrannical attempts to slam the door shut on any words or choices out of step with this or that latest unquestionable certainty or ungainsayable norm. From which it follows that philosophy, were it to rely on democrats or democracy for its reputation and survival, would inevitably be reduced to continually justifying itself by catering to tribal whims or bending with social winds, lest the philosopher find himself in constant conflict with every tribe and trend, simply by virtue of his skeptical and questioning character. In other words, if philosophers depended on “the people” as their “guardians,” they would quickly be forced to serve as sophists or tract writers, or else be left to their own devices, i.e., marginalized and ignored as a prelude to being rejected and persecuted. They would become practical men, and hence non-philosophers, or hold to their principles and be suffocated or crushed by the incessant demand for “relevance,” by which is meant acquiescence to the practical preferences and goals of the day.

Thus, the Socratic philosophers, Plato and Aristotle most famously, pinned their moderate hopes for the survival of philosophy on that minority of educated, idle men who tend to be denigrated by democrats as “elitists.” To be clear, they were not hoping to convert the gentlemen in general to the philosophic life (although they may have presumed that what few converts they could find would be most likely to arise from the leisure class), but rather to encourage among them a sympathetic or appreciative view of philosophy as one of those attractive and impractical pursuits that complement or accord with a way of life which, as a matter of moral code, scorns vulgar work, material acquisitiveness, and what we moderns would call pragmatic concerns in favor of things noble and beautiful. This sympathetic view of philosophy — represented by Plato so charmingly in the person of Crito, Socrates’ long-time friend, who bribes guards in an attempt to help Socrates escape from prison, and to whom Socrates addresses his famous last words about repaying his debt to the god of medicine — would serve as a protective public shield for the philosophers themselves, while providing their activities, and especially their effects on young people, with a certain measure of respectability in the eyes of both the powerful and the people at large, this being a self-preservational good for men whose characteristic manner of living and speaking is bound, in all times and places, to be misconstrued by most and reviled by many.

If you wish to observe the meaning and wisdom of this philosophic strategy in real-world terms, along with the practical effects of the philosophers losing the companionship of the gentleman class with its love of reason’s “useless” flights, in favor of being forced to rely on the demos with its demands that reason be tethered to the usefulness of compliant piety, you need only compare what the university aspired to be, and largely was, for its first several centuries of life, to what it has succumbed to, and absolutely is, today. Or rather, compare the kind of students the university fostered and catered to then, to the kind it fosters and caters to now.

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