I’ve decided to share with readers, especially dearly loyal Athos, my review of Josh Mitchell’s Plato’s Fable: On the Mortal Condition in Shadowy Times. I had the pleasure of studying with Mitchell a few years ago. His next book is titled Tocqueville in Arabia, reflecting on the terror his students in Qatar feel about encroaching freedom and liberalization and the general questions of Islamic democracy.

In class Mitchell says his scholarship generally explores political theology in the West. By this he does not mean the liberationstyle theology of the past generation, feminist, third-word, etc. that passes in “progressive” seminaries. Rather Mitchell connects classic themes of political theory and theology, for example, by showing the influence of St. Augustine’s errancy of the soul concept on Tocqueville’s democracy. Mitchell’s extensive same-page footnotes often draw connections between philosophic writing and Biblical principles (with chapter and verse!).

For Rene Girard’s readers, this exploration of mimesis in political theory is familiar if in a distinct key. My explicit Girardian reflections appear after the review below.

Once again Professor Mitchell elucidates a central text of political theory, the caverns of the human soul, and, indeed, the trajectories of Western civilization. One cannot, however, assess the merits of this claim about PLATO’S FABLE (or previous Mitchell books) on an initial glance in the table of contents or a cursory reading. One must engage patiently with the text.

PLATO’S FABLE begins with an overview of contemporary political theory and one of its main misunderstandings — an analysis of mimesis (that is, imitation) in human life. Reason, as understood by Habermas or Rawls, doesn’t value the existence of mimesis and is blind to parts of the soul, such as honor, that are excluded from what Mitchell calls “The Fable of Liberalism.” Identity politics and methodological individualism, identified as derivatives of Hegel, Rousseau and Luther, are also shown to lack a proper, balanced concept for imitation of earthly and divine patterns.

A full account of reason and the ability to think beyond these narrow Reformation categories of human association may come through a return to Plato, Mitchell sugests. The close reading of THE REPUBLIC which follows the lively introduction is not ordered simply from start to finish. Rather, Mitchell deftly and patiently summarizes Plato’s strategies — analogy, allegory, narrative — to speak about the elements of the soul which Plato explores. Mitchell connects the central theme of THE REPUBLIC, the search for justice in the ideal city, to the ordering of the soul. Seekers of “justice” are lead astray by following various “mortal patterns” expressed by Plato’s conversation partners. After examining Plato’s interaction with Thrasymachus (“might = right”), Polemarchus and Cephalus (father and son focused on wealth), Adeimantus, and Glaucon, we begin to recognize the role of both imitation and the refusal to imitate, the predictable reasons for aping and ways new generations re-pattern, the soul in fever seeking pleasure and an enclosed soul seeking honor.

By the end of Chapter 2 one can identify the three types of souls central to Plato’s text (honor-loving, wealth-seeking, and pleasure-seeking), relate the historical and personal evolution of these types, and apply these soul-types to diverse problems of public life such as democracy-building in non-Western environs, the popularity of genealogy and the search for “roots”, the degeneration of “rights-talk” into monologues about preferences and the cost explosion of end-of-life medical treatment. Particularly clever and meaningful is Mitchell’s talk of the “true prisoner’s dilemma” to address the mortal condition. Here Plato’s analogy of the cave and contemporary game-theory or “rational-choice economics” are playfully contrasted. In this comparison, the reader is struck by the numbingly narrow terms of contemporary political science and appreciates the recovery of conceptual tools that this book offers.

As Plato’s discussants often leave unconvinced or still believing themselves correct, so, too, readers may leave unaware of essential the teaching of Mitchell and Plato. This is a shame, for at the heart of both texts rests a beautiful suggestion that readers are encouraged to glimpse and admire. Pursuit of philosophy, or the practice of “death properly understood”, harmonizes the divisions of the confused soul and brings together things human and divine. The frenetic nature of the soul in a democracy, and here Mitchell recalls his earlier work on Tocqueville, serves as an essential step in the soul’s journey, leading first to exhaustion. This exhaustion ultimately opens the possibility of receiving the gift of knowledge of The Good.

Returning to the role of imitation and the limits of reason, knowledge of The Good is considered a Divine Pattern that frees the soul from various defective mortal patterns. This central teaching — that knowledge of The Good liberates by offering a Divine model and strengthens souls for the return into the cave — cannot be proven, only verified by experience. To live justly, one cannot imitate teachers or role models. It is in this shadowy cave, elucidated by Mitchell, that we dwell.

This final line shows a difference between philosophy, properly focused on “death rightly understood”, and what I understand to be the position of Gil Baile and Athos, for whom the existence of the Catholic Church serves an exemplary positive mimetic force through the ages. I am continuing to appreciate the depth and beauty of this teaching. The Church, through the Eucharist sacrament, brings the participant into the experience of the final sacrifice, God’s own. The other sacraments are further reminders of human fidelity to the covenantal relationship. Saints stand as positive human models, as do, hopefully, the clergy.

My own sensibilities tend to value the experience of being relatively unmoored, a small vessel in the stormy ocean of liberal society. It is part of my own journey, true. Elements of Plato noted above (the soul in fever) and Tocqueville (perhaps via St. Augustine’s autobiographical theology) suggest a truer freedom awaits the restless soul those who turn for salvation from the one place that remains unconsumed, the flame of the Divine.

I have considered the era of liberal modernity to successfully harness our drive to idolatry and mimetic violence. In pop culture, passion flows to the fads of the day, only to change directions.  The Cathars and other Gnostics threatened the faithful with heresy and a total takeover of the Church.  Fans of Zach Efron will grow up and turn to Johnny Depp, and the threat to sacred institutions is quite minimal.  Meanwhile, I appreciate the dangerous “catechism” (immersed teaching) which the young in liberal society face, with the increasing options of sexual and gender fluidity appearing and rabid anti-Western self-loathing.  How many must drown in these storms in flimsy vessels before addiction and mental disorder destroy from within or forms of fascism, progressive or otherwise, direct the unmoored souls to outward violence.  I remain troubled.


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One Response to “On Plato’s REPUBLIC”

  1. Omar Says:

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