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Weeds: Cultivating the Imagination in Medieval Arabic Political Philosophy

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 60, Number 3, July 1999
pp. 399-416 | 10.1353/jhi.1999.0026

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Journal of the History of Ideas 60.3 (1999) 399-416

Any reader of Plato's dialogues in their entirety feels the constant tug of two very different solar motions. In the Laws the young field-legates (agronomoi) of the city move in a twelve-month cycle through each of the divisions of the city's territory (Laws 760) in obedience to the law and the gods of the city. Socrates, too, moves through the city, questioning each citizen about the beliefs concerning the virtues implanted by the city's laws and myths. Socrates, like the field-legates, moves in "obedience" to the command of the sun-god Apollo, a command that Socrates claims to have received through the god's oracle at Delphi. To live in the light of the sun of reason is only possible within a city totally ordered in imitation of heavenly order -- so speaks the Laws. To follow the sun is to move in opposition to the shadows of artificial light that dominate all actual and even possible cities -- so speaks the Apology and, more explicitly, the Republic.

Our learned prejudices about these two solar motions lead us to divide Plato's thought into periods of composition. Socratic heliotropy belongs to the dialogues of Plato's earlier period, especially the earliest, the Apology, scholars believe; the city itself in seasonal motion belongs to the dialogues of Plato's later period, and especially the latest, his Laws. The Republic, which describes the best city as an artificially lighted cave, whose inhabitants ought nonetheless to be ruled by the philosopher-king who has, at least momentarily, seen the sun, belongs to Plato's middle period.

Whatever the merits of this family of readings as interpretations of Plato, they use a scholar's device to avoid coming to terms with a genuine tension. The two modes of solar motion represent two different modes of relating philosophy to politics, even under their modern guises of theory and practice. Either the philosopher is to bring the political into rational order, or he is to bring his own life into rational order against the disorders and deliberate confusions of the political. Either the philosopher is to weed the fields of the city of disorderly weeds, or he himself is a weed or, more politely, a wildflower, pushing up toward the sun through the broken asphalt of politics.

Plato himself seems to resolve this tension by distinguishing between the philosopher's duties in the best city and in other cities. As Socrates says in the Republic:

Observe, then, Glaucon, that we won't be doing injustice to the philosophers who grow up among us, but we will say just things to them, when we compel them to care and guard for the others. For we will say that those who are of their sort who grow up in the other cities fittingly do not share in the labors therein. For they grew in them spontaneously though the regime in each did not intend it, and the spontaneously grown has a just claim not to be eager to repay the cost of its nurture to anybody, since it owes [its] nurture to nobody. But you we reared up, just as in hives, as leaders and kings for yourselves and the rest of the city, and you have been educated better and more perfectly than those and are more able to have a share of both [philosophy and rule]. Each of you must then go down in turn to the common dwelling of the others and accustom yourself to the shadows there. For when you are accustomed, you will see in a myriad ways better than those there, and you will know the images, that they are images and of what they are images, on account of your having seen the true things that concern the beautiful, the just and the good.

Yet Plato's Socrates availed himself only partially of the just claim of the philosopher in an actual city that contributed nothing to his nurture. While Socrates took only a minimal part in the official business of the city, he never hesitated to care for and cultivate the other spontaneous growths. This...


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