restricted access 1. Platonic Philia and Political Order
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21 Recall the political life of Athens from the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War to the execution of Socrates. Democratic and oligarchic factions took turns ruling the polis, harming opponents, and enriching themselves. The leaders were notorious for power lusts, mendacity, fraud, diverting public moneys and war booty into personal fortunes and payoffs to cronies, and fanning the flames of toxic passions. Ordinary people were easily swayed by oratory that disguised the power libidos as noble ideals. These vices exacerbated a militaristic policy that arose out of popular anxiety for the safety of the city and private ambitions for profit; revived when Alcibiades deceived the Athenians about Sparta’s aims; became a rhetorically celebrated imperialistic drive to dominate ever greater portions of the world; and ended fatally. Standing in the ruins, Plato judged Athenian politics incurable (Seventh 1 Platonic Philia and Political Order James M. Rhodes 010 pt 1 (19-112) 3/20/08 12:47 PM Page 21 Letter, 326a4).1 Looking back from our age to his, an American might be tempted to think that little has changed. Plato diagnosed the disease of his civilization as an ethical failure. To treat the illness, he prescribed the practice of a philia (friendship) that inspires virtue. If it worked perfectly, this remedy would first produce small friendship circles and ultimately a just polity essentially constituted by philia. This would create necessary contexts for both the personal and political fulfillment of human nature. If the therapy could not cure the society as a whole, it still could generate friendship groups that nurtured philosophy, thus offering noble souls havens from the raging storms of evil politics and perhaps even chances to lead the best possible human lives—this depending on how one must answer Aristotle’s question about the relative merits of action and contemplation. I argue here that, if America is in the same case as Athens, we would be well advised to heed Plato’s advice. An Objection to the Thesis My suggestion will provoke an outcry. Many will deny the existence or knowability of virtue. They deserve a reply. The answer, however, would require volumes. For now, I beg leave to suppose that some insight into goodness is possible and to focus attention on the opposite objection to Plato, namely, that his idea of philia is morally reprehensible. I wish to concentrate on this charge because it resonates with a pervasive modern attitude and because it therefore has unduly biased scholars, becoming a major stumbling block to contemporary appreciation of Plato’s wisdom. Those who level the accusation are exemplified by Gregory Vlastos. In the last decades of the twentieth century, Vlastos was the acknowledged dean of American philosophy.2 His interpretations of Plato were extremely influential. In the opening lines of his well-known essay “The Individual as Object of Love in Plato,” Vlastos quotes Aristotle’s notion of philia: “Let philein [“to love,”3 as a friend or a parent loves] be defined as wishing for someone what you believe to be good things—wishing this not for your own sake but for his—and acting so far as you can to bring them about.”4 In the rest of the essay, he tries to prove that Plato fell far short of this understanding of loving. 22 T James M. Rhodes 010 pt 1 (19-112) 3/20/08 12:47 PM Page 22 Considering Plato’s concept of philia broadly, Vlastos asserts that “[a] proper study of it would have to take account of at least three things about its creator: He was a homosexual, a mystic, and a moralist .” The first of these attributes highlights the need for “a clinical study of the effect which Plato’s inversion would be likely to have on one who saw anal intercourse as ‘contrary to nature,’ a degradation not only of man’s humanity, but even of his animality.” Presuming on the study, Vlastos comments that “[t]his thought would poison for him sensual gratification with anticipatory torment and retrospective guilt. It would tend to distort his overall view of sexual fulfillment, while leaving him with raw sensitiveness to male beauty and heightening his capacity for substitute forms of erotic response.” Plato’s mystical qualities , in turn, are striking for his coldness to the Hellenic gods and his strange love for the “severely impersonal Ideas,” which make him speak “repeatedly of communion with Ideas as an act of blissful and fertile conjugal union.” Coming to Plato’s moralism...