– This is very preliminary. I have no idea what Benardete means by this passage; I’m just toying with potential implications. –
Background Quotes from the passage I’m puzzling over:
Clineas [who believes the world is a perpetual state of war] implied that the city was the locus of self-alienation and split man permanently against himself [for man must either be obedient to the city for the sake of fighting other enemies, or follow his inner urge to dominate all]….
There would be, then, a better self and a worse self, and the worse self would be analogous to the demos and the better comparable to the rule of the wise… The victory of the worse self would seem to mean the defeat of reason by pleasure, and rather than such a victory pointing to cowardice it would imply that the loss of moderation or of self-control is the worst and most disgraceful of defeats. On the level of the self, sophrosune [roughly: moderation, but notice “soph” in there, i.e. sophia, philosophia] is at issue, on the level of the city the willingness to be killed: Clinias later admits that to succumb to pleasures is worse than to succumb to pains.
The key statement:
Man’s alienation from the city does not have the same ground as man’s enmity to himself. To resist giving up one’s own life for the sake of the city is not the same as to be a slave to pleasure. The difference can be likened to that between Socrates’ daimonion, which kept him from politics and saved his life, and Socrates’ obedience to the oracle from Apollo, which made him disregard all risks and see himself as another Achilles.
– all italicized text is from Seth Benardete, Plato’s Laws: The Discovery of Being, pgs. 12-3
Benardete is always a difficult read; I have a ton of illegible notes from the time I read his essay on the Symposium, wondering why he chose to say half the things he did. What is Benardete’s point in separating cowardice from pleasure? I think a fairer argument, regarding the text of the Laws itself, would assert that 1) Clineas likes pleasure – he does not see tyranny as being wrong in any way, and 2) cowardice and pleasure absolutely go together; the state of fear that sets the world in motion is seeking rest, perhaps a perpetual rest.
Credit Benardete for not going the easy route of #2: there actually is no Platonic support for that position. Clineas and Megillus are scared of drinking parties [symposia] because of the boldness that comes forth in using liquor (of course, they don’t really know that being scared of boldness is one ofthe driving force behind their characters). While Clineas’ character can be defined by statements 1 & 2 above, the Platonic teaching is not going that direction at all, as Clineas’ statements, brought forth by the Stranger, are alluding to something entirely different.
An adequate response to the world being a state of fear where we perpetually war has to demonstrate that man can be something better. Hence, man has to be able to take pleasure in something that doesn’t automatically destroy society. Socrates doesn’t risk his life for the city in the regular way. His impetus is from the god, Apollo. He seeks the good at all costs, presumably because there is pleasure in the good. But if we accept this schema, where pleasure and the good are tied, then pleasure is not necessarily tied to cowardice.
Which means, for us, that our materialist decadence is a funny thing – there have to be warped principles behind the decadence, probably stuff like “capitalism will make the world democratic and peaceful,” etc., which distort our seeking the good, and thus distort what we take pleasure in. In truth, we don’t take pleasure in having tons of stuff. We actually take pleasure in being Americans, and having a faith in the world that sometimes might be misplaced. It isn’t clear that Pakistan or India or China or Saudi Arabia deserve our faith in them, even as we back each of them, and wish them well. True pleasure might seek to reground exactly why we should be proud of being Americans, and how we should view the rest of the world.
But you won’t hear that sort of rhetoric by anyone in an election soon, I guarantee it.