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Dr. Larry Arnn And Dr. Thomas West On Plato’s Republic

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HH: Back with another of the Hillsdale Dialogues. Once a week at this time, I sit down with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and one of this colleagues, in this case, Dr. Thomas West, professor of politics at Hillsdale College, to talk about one of the great texts or issues from ancient and more modern times. We are in ancient Greece, and we pick up with Plato where we left off last week. But I must confess to both Dr. West and to Dr. Arnn, I dread this conversation, and I’ll tell you why. I learned The Republic from Harvey Mansfield. I didn’t understand it then. I still barely know my way around it now. I think it’s an incredibly difficult book. And so Larry Arnn, I’m going to turn to you first and have you explain to the audience why it is so important, and its general structure, before we dive into the specifics of it.

LA: Well, it’s one of the greatest books ever written, which is, and the things that make it that is why it’s important. The book begins with, it’s a dialogue, and the characters that are in it are mainly Socrates and two of Plato’s brothers, and a friend of theirs. Maybe he’s a cousin. And it begins κατέβην χθὲς εἰς Πειραιᾶ, I know a little bit of Greek. Tom West over here knows a great deal of it. But it begins I went down to the Piraeus, that’s the seaport of Athens, a very important thing about Athens, and it’s a cosmopolitan place. And they sort of get arrested by a fellow, and the fellow makes them, and the fellow’s name sort of means war, and the fellow makes them engage in a conversation. And the conversation turns on the question what is justice, and is it good. And so the structure of the thing is a series of discussions of that, that turns into a long, big discussion. And there’s, first there’s a discussion with an old man. Then, there’s a discussion with a sophist, who’s somebody who trains the young for money, who maintains the argument that justice is whatever the strongest person says it is, or his interest, whatever his interest is. And Socrates refutes that, and then the young man, Glaucon, especially, gives Socrates a challenge, which provides the action of the book, mostly. And the challenge is show me, Socrates, that justice is good for its own sake. Show me that even if being unjust, people thought you were just, and even if being just, you got the reputation for unjust, and the rewards of being unjust, it would still be better to be just. And to that challenge, Socrates replies, well, we don’t see very well. And so if we’re like, people without sharp eyesight, and we’re trying to read little bitty letters, we should look at big letters. Blow them up. Make them bigger. And the city is the blown up or bigger version of the individual soul. And so then Socrates gets permission from the people, these young men who have been making demands on him, he gets permission to build a city in speech to make it perfect. And much of the Republic is about building that city and the kinds of cities there are. So that’s sort of the structure of the book.

HH: And it’s doggone hard to follow that over the radio, but I will say if people break it down, in the Western Civilization Reader that Hillsdale College gives to all of its freshmen, you excerpt only exclusively the Glaucon conservations. Why is that choice made?

LA: Well, I’m not sure, because I wasn’t actually in the meeting that did that. It was changed last year. But you know, Glaucon, so I’ll speculate, though, Glaucon is a young man, and he wants to know, and remember, I think what I just said is not very, or maybe Tom will take a stab at it, but I don’t think it’s very difficult. And a great starting point to remember is, is there such a thing as good? Justice stands for all of the goods, right? It’s a virtue. If there’s justice, if there’s a right way to treat other people, and be treated by them, then that means that there’s some good for us to live by. And the claim is made in the first book of the Republic that there isn’t such a good, we can do whatever we want. Just get strength and do what we want. And that’s a crisis for all of us, right?

HH: It is, as is the definition of justice, and I’ll go over to Dr. West now, because up until this present day, whether you’re talking about John Rawls or anybody else out there in the marketplace of ideas on justice, the definition argument keeps going on and on and on. Why is that so difficult to conclude?

TW: What happens in the first book of the Republic is that it comes out there’s two basic ways to think about justice. One is how do you treat other people, and is there a right way to do that. And the other is, what’s fair to yourself, or is there a good for yourself that is, is justice good for yourself? And the contradiction appears to be that if you’re doing justice in the sense of the common good, doing things for other people, how can it be good for oneself? That’s the challenge, because whenever we use the word justice, and this is what Plato’s so good at bringing out, is whenever you use a word like that, you have in mind these two things that are in some tension with each other – the common good and my own good. And what the whole book is about is trying to find out if there’s a way to make those two fit together.

HH: And overlap completely? Is that possible? Does he arrive at…

TW: It’s not.

HH: Okay.

TW: It can’t be done completely, but what can be done is to show that basically yes, there can be a political community in which there’s a common good, and in which the individual good is also preserved. But the way Plato goes about showing that is so peculiar and so odd, that it’s hard to get the message without really using your mind. So what Plato does is to show you a picture of an extreme society devoted totally to the common good where your own private good is forgotten about. You just totally sacrifice yourself for the good of all.

HH: And this is the city of the guardians, Dr. Larry Arnn. Can you explain to people in three or four minutes until the break what that best city looks like, that city in speech?

LA: Well, let me make it interesting. Let’s talk about sex. So when we say, you know, couples sometimes, young people say they have a platonic relationship, or sometimes old people say that, well, what happens is the private is eradicated in this supposedly perfect city. And that means that the guardian classes share children and wives, and indeed, they don’t know who they’re having relations with. And people don’t know who their parents are. And the idea is that if you do it this way, then these private attachments can give way. It’s a communist society. And it’s a totalitarian society. And everything is regulated, and everything is common property. And so if you do that, then you can have wholly the pursuit of the common good. And it’s Karl Marx, as a joke, of a kind. And it breaks down in the Republic. It doesn’t work out for a lot of reasons. And so the point of it is you go through the exercise of trying to establish perfect justice among people. And you discover that there’s some solution along the way that accommodates the common good, which is an urgent need of the individual, and natural to the individual. The classics, Plato and Aristotle, at least, they understand the human being as born with a faculty that makes them political as the same way, as much political as they are mortal and biped, right, upright walkers. And so politics is in our nature. What sense can you make of our nature if there are conflicts between our duties and obligations and goods for each other, and our own good? And the Republic explores that, as Tom says, mainly by trying to eradicate one of the goods to discover you can’t.

HH: All right, so Dr. West, people driving around here, and two minutes to the break, and they’re saying you’re losing me. I’m not getting why I should care about what the Greeks were talking about 2,500 years ago. What does it matter right now that that city did not work, that it broke down?

TW: What it shows is that if you try to organize your society around the principle of justice understood solely in light of devotion to the common good, you’re going to create a tyrannical, oppressive society in which no individual can be happy. So what Plato shows you is, the thought experiment is let’s see what such a society would look like in which there’s no private interest. Answer? Tyrannical, oppressive, bad government. On the other side would be the extreme of democracy, which is presented in the excerpt that’s in the Reader, and that would be the society in which there’s absolutely no limit at all on individual self-indulgence. So Plato makes you put those two points together. How do you create a society that pays attention to the needs of the individual, and the common good, without destroying either of the extremes?

— – –

HH: Gentlemen, we are talking about the Republic and its immediacy. Last week, Pope Francis addressed a large crowd in Italy, and denounced slave wages and greed as the source of unemployment in what many people thought was the first of what will be many attacks on capitalism. Other people say no, he’s really just attacking corporate cronyism. And it’s hard to say, yet. But Thomas West, we got off talking about any society, as Plato warned, that pursues the common good is going to run into trouble along the way. Is there a lesson in the Republic for the Pope as he critiques unemployment and slave wages and all those various issues of concern for the poor, which are of course in his province?

TW: Absolutely. In fact, it’s not well known, but Plato is the first writer that we know of who seriously studied economics, and in fact, presents the elements of economics in book two of this book. It’s true what Larry said a minute ago, the book leads to a communist society. But before it gets there, it lays out the elements of a free market society as the way to produce the goods and services needed to live. And Plato’s analysis there, Socrates says that basically, you need three things. You’ve got to have private property, division of labor, free markets, and excuse me, you need four things. Division of labor, free markets, and stable money supply and private ownership. You get that, you’ll be able to provide the needs of people. And this whole modern idea that somehow or another that private ownership is somehow the enemy of productivity and what ended up producing the things people need is refuted by Plato.

HH: Now that will…

TW: He anticipates, and actually answers, the Pope’s unfortunate understanding of economics.

HH: That will be a surprise to many people, won’t it, Larry Arnn, that Plato was defending private property?

LA: Sure, and Tom was talking, and rightly talking about this tension between the individual good and the common good. But of course, in another way, they’re profoundly not in tension. They’re utterly not in tension, because what happens in this communist city that Plato builds is not only is the individual good destroyed, but also the common good is destroyed. And in one of the dialogues of Xenophon, you know, another student of Socrates, and also a great general, you find out that even tyrants are miserable beings, because there’s no trust in the city. They have to fear all the time. So if the point of the Pope, and you know, I’ve been guessing that the Pope would prove to be a poor economist, and he hasn’t proved anything, yet, but the thing is if there’s some oligarchy that is using political power to keep goods unto himself and deny them to others, and you know, there is some of that in the United States of America, for example, then that is unjust. And it doesn’t just harm the individual good, it harms the common good. In that sense, those two things move together. And so the Republic is, and all of Plato’s writing, are extremely instructive about the problem of utopian solutions, right?

HH: Now let me ask you both, you’re both students of the founding. Larry, your books, The Founders’ Key, Dr. West, your book, Vindicating The Founders, you both dive deep into the framing of the Constitution, and before that, the Declaration of Independence and how it all came about. Did the men who put those documents together, did they engage in the same exercise that Plato does here of debating on their way down to the sea what it is that they ought to do that will be in the best interest of the most people? Or did they have, Montesquieu had done all the hard work, and they basically adapted?

TW: Yeah, that’s basically right. Plato has a, the founders had read people like Montesquieu and Locke and others, and had gotten from them a framework for thinking about politics and how to reconcile the common good with the individual good. You might say that the political theory of Locke in the founding was the practical inference that one could draw from reading Plato if they had thought that way, which they did not. And I mean the kinds of people like Locke and others who developed those doctrines were thinking platonically in the sense of how do we deal with these basic human challenges and problems, and find a practical solution that will give you the most justice in the sense of the common good as well as allowing individuals to do what they want. And that was really an amazing achievement that they were…and that point also bears on Plato’s understanding of statesmanship, which he presents in the Republic. It turns out that to be a really good statesman, in his sense, you don’t need to be a philosopher. You don’t need to be a John Locke or a Montesquieu. What you need to have is a good, solid foundation for thinking about what’s right in society, and then acting in a prudent way on that basis. That’s what it takes…

HH: But does he not say that…

TW: That’s what our founders were able to do.

HH: Doesn’t he still say that the best life, though, is to be the philosopher and not to engage in that lower level of thinking and to be a statesman?

LA: Who’s he? You mean Plato or the founders?

HH: Plato.

LA: Well, you know, both the founders and Plato thought that the life of the mind, that John Adams has that beautiful quote which I’m unfortunately unavailable to reproduce precisely about how he studied, his father farmed so that he could study law, and he studies law so that his sons could study math and philosophy and literature. And he goes up a scale like that. And so if you, this problem of the private good in an animal, Aristotle writes that it is more gregarious, that comes from the Greek word for flock, than herd animals or even bees. We are meant to be together, because the thing that lets us see the good, we’ll talk about this when we get to Aristotle, is also the thing that lets us communicate with each other. And the driving question of the Republic is, it takes two forms. One is what is the good absolutely? Remember the young man, Glaucon, Plato’s brother. And he’s appealing to somebody. Show me how to live my life. Show me what is right. And Socrates is an antidote to the modern denial that there is any answer to that question, the modern denial being just a denial of Thrasymachus, just a repeat, an echo of the denial of the sophist, Thrasymachus. But then the second question is if there is some good to pursue, to learn to know, to live a life in pursuit of, then how can you organize society so that it permits that, and doesn’t drive out every other good?

— – –

HH: Dr. West, when we went to break, I brought up this beekeeper image that Plato uses at one point, having Socrates say look, the beekeeper, like the lawgiver, just has to cut out the drones. That is fairly sinister, isn’t it?

TW: Right, and it is, Socrates is capably, and very hard-headed and tough. He’s not unaware of the evil in human nature. At the same time, he’s very idealistic about the possibilities of the good. And that, those two things are what any sensible person, I think, has to keep in mind in thinking clearly about politics.

HH: Now I also want to, while I have you, you sent me some excellent outline of this, but in it, you raised Plato’s appreciation of feminism, and his critique of feminism. I missed that. And so would you expound on that?

TW: Well, as part of the thought experiment, how do you get people to totally devote themselves to the common good? Socrates suggests let’s give women the same exact opportunities in terms of jobs that men have. We’ll rank them according to their ability only, leaving aside entirely whether they’re male or female. He makes that point. But then he also goes on to say we’re going to get rid of the family. We’re going to banish, we’re going to ban marriage except as authorized by the rulers of the city in order to produce the best offspring. And so everything’s going to be set up in terms of eugenics, or in terms of, like, the way you would deal with horses, and making sure your horses come out best in terms of the reproduction of them. So the interesting point there is you can see that Socrates is in some ways very sympathetic to the feminist point of view, that women and men should have equal opportunities in the world of jobs. But then, this other point, this strange other thing, we’re not going to allow anybody to fall in love and be with the person they love. That’s the other part of Socrates’ proposal.

HH: So the inevitable consequence of gender equality is the destruction of the private family?

TW: Well, I think what Socrates is saying, and I think there’s some truth to this for our world today, is if you truly want to give men and women the exact same opportunities in the job market, you’re going to have to banish love. That’s going to get in the way. And there are all these articles out there, Hugh, right now. You see all the time, balancing, all these women talking about oh, I need to balance by career and my family.

HH: Yeah, the vice president of Facebook, yeah. She just came out with one, yeah.

TW: And what Plato said, what Socrates is saying is if you balance, that just means one or the other is going to be short-changed. You’re not going to be able to do as good a job, or you’re going to have to cut out the things that you love, and the things you want to be close to. This is part of that thought experiment thing. Socrates is saying yeah, you feminists, if you really want what you say you want, you need to banish the whole realm of love, and then men and women can really be treated the same. But then you have to ask the question, is that a good idea for human life? That’s part of the thought experiment.

LA: Hugh, can I ask Tom a question?

HH: You bet.

LA: So Tom, you happen to be married to a classics professor with whom you’ve published a book, and who has a wildly successful career. What does this, what you just said, mean for that kind of relationship?

TW: Well, it means exactly what I say. If you’re going to have a family and a career, balancing has to happen if both man and woman are going to be working. That’s the way it works. There’s going to be sacrifice. There have been many, there have been a number of years when our kids were younger when my wife took a year off, took a couple of years off. That meant that her career as a professor was not going anywhere at that time. That’s how it works. I mean, this is what people don’t want to face up to in our world today.

HH: And, go ahead, Larry.

LA: You see, if you think about it, in the nature of things, then, because you know, it just so happens that my friend, the Wests, are one of the models of a family for me, because they had one before I did, and I used to hang out with them and beat their kids all the time, and adored going there. But you have to remember that these contradictions or paradoxes, I think they’re both, they’re written in human nature, because we are just like horses and bees. We have a way of coming to be, and we have a way of decaying, and we have a death. And yet we have these immortal souls. How are you going to cope with all that, right? And efforts to make it perfect, to resolve these contradictions, involve denying some aspect of human nature, to deny the strength and force of the common good is to deny an aspect of human nature and distort the individual. To deny the claim of the individual, even the individual against family, you know, mothers and fathers say to their kids, sometimes, shut up, I’ve got to think, right? To fail to understand that is to deny an aspect of human nature.

— – –

HH: We may have to go into another week at least, postpone the cave and the myth of Er, because I am intrigued, Dr. Larry Arnn and Dr. Thomas West, as we talk about Plato’s Republic, you two are members of a community that is somewhat insular. And Larry, you are the leader of it, and Dr. West, you are a respected guardian of it as a professor. To what extent do you experiment and find these tensions that you were just talking about modeled in the Republic, Larry Arnn, in the life of Hillsdale College? What common good do you have to sacrifice in order to allow people the liberties they want? And what liberties do you have to curtail in order to advance the common good?

LA: Well, so you know, we don’t actually have, we don’t pick their spouses for them or any of that.

HH: I think actually, I’ve seen a little of that going on.

LA: Well, you know, I interfere with their romances all the time. That’s the truth. I do do that. But no, so I’ll speak from my point of view. My understanding about making a college healthy, because you start with the fact that the word college means partnership, but I guess this is in some sense a microcosm of what Plato was talking about in the Republic. The word college means partnership, and so it seems to me the vital thing is that we all agree on the worthiness of the purpose. And the college has a very old purpose. And if we’re all joined together in a community of people who have paid our respect to that, and agreed together to pursue that, then the second step is to give people latitude, because at a college, you have to argue. Everything’s an argument. And you know, Tom West and I have been arguing for, God help us, 35 years, probably, 40 years, maybe. And we’ve learned a lot from that. And so people have to have room to maneuver, right? In other words, they have to have the individual contribution they make, and so we have an expression we use sometimes, you know, of academics and civil arguments are welcome on any subject here. The institution is not to be pressed to abandon its founding commitments. So then we can work together toward a common good respecting the individual contributions that each make, must make for us to be prosperous.

HH: So let me ask Dr. West, then. Do you agree that the governance of the college is as well arranged as it could be?

TW: I would never say that. I would say that of course, as a faculty member, I reserve my right to complain and say that I could do it better if I were in charge. But on the other hand, look, Socrates makes a point in book one, which I think is just beautiful, and at the same time, a little cynical, which is if justice really is devotion to the common good, why would anyone want to do that? And his answer is there’s three reasons. One would be to get paid, the second would be to get, if you get honor, and third would to be to avoid being ruled by someone worse that it would be if you weren’t doing what you were doing. And I think there’s something to be said for that at Hillsdale College. I mean, we’re professors. We try to do what we think is right for the students. We teach them as best as we can, and we get paid. That’s a fact of life, and that’s got the imprimatur of Socrates from book one of the Republic, which seems to me, and really, that’s basically the classic argument for the free market, right? You want people to do things that are good for society.

HH: There’s also, throughout the Republic, this constant degradation of governmental form so that you can’t keep what you’ve got. Oligarchy becomes democracy, and democracy becomes tyranny. Do you worry, Larry Arnn, about what happens after you stop being president, and how you preserve that which you think you’ve built?

LA: I think of it the same way I think of the country. We have been pretty successful here.

HH: For a long time.

LA: It’s actually because Tom West is not in charge of the college. That’s a key factor.

HH: I was drinking a Coke when you said that, and it was a bad thing.

LA: The reason I came here, because you know, most of my friends, oldest friends, are people like Tom. They’re faculty members. And I’ve lived in a world where I know what faculty members think about college presidents. Why would I ever want to be that? You know, that’s what I told them when they called me about the job. But I found the way the college was founded, I discovered it when they were asking me about the job, and I fell in love with that. I’d already fallen in love with it. I just didn’t know it existed here. So what that means is just like in the nation, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and the writings of the founders, and the greatest Americans who have come later, exist. And they’re always there to be discovered. And if it’s true that they are beautiful things, beauty being the highest form of good, then they have a power to compel whenever they are used. They command. They invite. They attract. People are naturally drawn to things like that. You know, you, in asking us these questions, are treating the Republic as a very formidable thing. Don’t forget it contains many passages that are inspiring and beautiful and corrective of evil when we see it.

HH: Oh, when we come back next week to the Myth of Er, I’ve reread that many times, because that’s not hard. It’s beautiful. But I want to go back to the idea of permanence, because I am this week in Colorado. On Tuesday of this week, I was with Archbishop Aquila and Bishop Sheridan, two great Catholic leaders, and about 100 Protestant pastors. And all were agreed that this country at this time is in a pretty bad situation, Tom West. Do you agree with that? And given what you know from the Republic, is that easily reversible?

TW: It’s not, but of course, that’s politics. It’s difficult. Part of the point of the book is just to think clearly at all about the common good is really hard. One of the things that, I’d say that there are two basic points Plato’s making about the roots of government and law. One would be the culture is decisive. In other words, in the first part of the discussion of the city in speech in the Republic, there’s a lot of discussion of poetry and music. How do people’s tastes get formed? What do they see on TV or in the movies? Or what do they hear on Colbert or Jon Stewart? That’s decisive. But who forms that? Who are the gurus behind the scenes that are shaping people’s way of understanding the good and the just? That’s one part. And the other thing is who’s in government? And who rules? And what are their interests? And we see in America the people in charge of the culture are promoting a way of understanding things that is not compatible with Constitutional limited government. And on the other side, the people who are ruling have gotten, have been able to take government in a direction of promoting private interests as opposed to the common good. And so those two things have to be addressed by the statesmen, and also by the people who are shaping the culture behind the scenes.

HH: And the people who are shaping the young people, and we’ll return to that subject next week on the next Hillsdale Dialogue, as we continue in Plato adding to this conversation that of the apology. Don’t go anywhere, America, but thank you to Dr. Larry Arnn, Dr. Thomas West, both at Hillsdale College. And for all the Hillsdale Dialogues, visit, from the Iliad to where we are and beyond.

End of interview.


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