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Journal of the History of Philosophy 38.1 (2000) 1-26

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"What Will Surprise You Most":

Self-Regulating Systems and Problems of Correct Use in Plato's Republic

University of Western Ontario

1. Republic's Third Wave: "On Philosophers"

The title of this paper is taken from a line in Book VI of Plato's Republic that appears to reject not only the accounts of moral justice and other virtues argued in Book IV, but also an axiom of Plato's earlier dialogues: that the virtues are good and beneficial things. It reads: "What will surprise you most, when you hear it, is that each of the things we praised in that nature tends to corrupt the soul that has it and to drag it away from philosophy. I mean courage, moderation, and the other things we mentioned" (491b7-10). Although these other things specifically include justice, magnanimity, grace, love of truth, and a tendency to consider "the form [idea] of each thing that is" (486d10), for their part, commentators have never shown surprise at this passage; indeed they have tended either to neglect or minimize it.1 To recall the context of 491b7-10, it actually comes as a second surprise, hard on the heels of a remarkable admission by Socrates, in early Book VI. The admission came in response to Adeimantus' challenge to Socrates' attempt to show that 'Platonic' philosophers, in the famous Book V sense of those who believe in the [End Page 1] forms, will be just and virtuous people, capable of political leadership (484d8-487a5). Book VI's page 487 thus contains Adeimantus' blistering attack on Socratic method, and a counter-argument against the idea of philosopher-rulers, based on common opinions about philosophers—an argument that should give pause to those who say that Republic left elenctic method behind with Book I. It is Socrates who now faces a forceful elenchus: that is, an inconsistency between the philosopher-rulers position he has just argued and another view he himself accepts, for his reply to Adeimantus is that "they seem to speak the truth" (487d10, 489d5), and "what he says is true, that the best among the philosophers are useless to the majority" (489b2), but that "the greatest and more serious slander on philosophy . . . results from those who profess to follow the philosophic way of life," especially the "vicious" ones (489cd).

Most commentators, teachers, readers, eager to join the account of forms at the end of Book V with that of the form of the good well into Book VI, bridge over this discussion of philosophers' reputations, perhaps noting such of its features as the true pilot, the tinker, the figure in the dust storm, etc., but with little attention to argument structure.2 However, low estimate of structure in Plato's writings is usually a mistake, especially with Republic, and some commentators do make space to shape this bit of text, before getting on to what really interests them. They usually bracket the whole philosophers' reputations discussion, including 491b, as an early part of the so-called "third and greatest wave" (472a, 473c) of objections and replies, regarding the feasibility of the earlier social proposals of Republic: specifically, the objection to the possibility of philosopher-rulers. Socrates' reply to the third wave is usually taken to conclude with the transition at 502c7-503d12, which begins: "now that this difficulty has been disposed of, we must deal with what remains"—that is, with how such rulers could come about, and how they would be educated, a transitional remark that makes the gateway to the scholars' great attractor of the form of the good, with its discussions of the sun, the divided line, the cave of shadows—and few readers ever look back. Thus one recent commentator who does discuss the early part of Book VI moves on to those topics as follows: "Now that the combination of traits required in a philosopher-king has been shown to be a natural possibility...


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