We all seem to be hardwired to want answers. We started looking for a potential few nine weeks ago in our discourse and contemplation of Plato’s Republic. Each new seminar and guest lecture brought with it the hope of finally reaching a resolution, a culmination of loose ends and meandering dialectic. The expectations from the guest lecture on Monday, November 29th, were no different when Thomas Bartscherer, Assistant Professor of Literature and Director of the Language and Thinking Program at Bard College came to talk to us about Eros and Tyranny in Book IX of The Republic.
He started by telling us that he had come intending to give us a problem (one that he was uncertain had a solution). It had occurred to him on the plane journey to Berlin that The Republic had as grand an architectural structure as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony playing on his headphones. For this reason, he handed out cards with digits corresponding to each book of The Republic we had covered so far, from one through nine, written on one corner and asked everyone present to recall what we learned in the book from the prompt on our cards.
This exercise resulted in a quick run through of everything we had done and proved useful as a reference point when Bartscherer turned to the actual discussion of Book IX. We were able to note five important facts laid down by The Republic: one, that the core of the dialogue rests on the idea of the just being better than the unjust; two, that the philosopher was the most just man; three, that the tyrant was the most unjust man; four, that the dominant passion in the philosopher’s soul was Eros or desire; and five, that the dominant trait of the tyrant’s soul also seemed to be Eros.
The basic premise of the lecture was the tension between the heavenly love of the philosopher and the hellish love of the tyrant. Bartscherer goes on to day that although Socrates goes to great lengths to distinguish the characters of the tyrant and philosopher, he does not differentiate between their Eros even though he could have and still stayed consistent with his habit of refining and polishing concepts.
The lecturer took this opportunity to then discuss the stinging biting nature of love as described in The Symposium and further went on to share with the audience the connection between the drone and the philosopher, thus highlighting a significant tension that presents itself to the reader — this man, the philosopher, who ‘loves the sight of truth’, is idle, extravagant, poor and plays no substantial role in the city. The philosopher is not so very different from the drones or the tyrant.
We, the students, were asked to compare the desires and pleasures of the philosopher and the tyrant. Bartscherer walked us through the portions of the text that supported the claim that both the philosopher and the tyrant held desires that were lawless, insatiable and unnecessary, although arguably the objectives of the philosopher’s desire were different from the Eros of the tyrant.
Despite this, the emphasis remained in the similarity between the two types of Eros and it did not work to say, as Pausanius did in The Symposium, that they were just two categorically separate things. Even to argue that the object of the Eros is different is not wholly plausible because The Republic does not offer an account of how the objects might be distinguishable.
Professor Bartscherer urged us not to be satisfied with the arguments of Book IX, as Glaucon and Adeimantus seem to be, for Socrates might say that the philosopher loves the Good but then he does not follow it up with an adequate description of what the Good might be. There is a suggestion in the book that even the philosopher might not know what constitutes the Good. The tyrant on the other hand, seems to be in love with loving, to want wanting. The tyrant’s pleasure is neither of the spirited or of the appetitive part of the soul.
The lecture ended with the lecturer presenting us with various views of authorities on the subject of Eros in The Republic. Leo Strauss, for example, states that the parallel between city and soul is an abstraction and that there seems to be a tension between Eros and the city and therefore Eros and justice in the soul. David McNeill, however argues that Eros is really just Thumos in disguise, and that The Republic is based on the hypothesis that everything we might desire to know is created by our own discursive activity. The bottom line is that the idea of Eros has more subtleties and layers to it than meets the eye and we should take The Republic’s account of it with a grain of salt.