Robin J. Varma. Ruling Bodies: A Study of Coercion and Punishment in Plato’s Republic, Laws, and Gorgias. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2022.
Where does Plato fall in articulating (and defending) a politics of coercion? Michel Foucault condemned Thomas Hobbes and his mechanical outlook of philosophy and politics as paving the way for the coercive tyranny of the modern state. Hannah Arendt, however, saw the origins of coercive tyranny emanating from Plato. Another important twentieth century figure, Jürgen Habermas, also saw Hobbes as offering the slippery slope to coercive tyranny but offered a different conception of the problem than did Foucault. Who is right if we can say any of the three are right? Where, exactly, does Plato fall in the supposedly rational and justifiable argumentative use of coercion in politics?
“The following is an inquiry into how Plato theorized about coercion and punishment,” writes Robin Varma at the beginning of his great new book, Ruling Bodies. This treatment of Plato may seem like one of many treatments of Plato. Why bother? In an environment where discussions about politics, coercion, and political decay is rampant, revisiting Plato is something any worthwhile thinker should do. And beyond the fact that philosophy is “a series of footnotes to Plato,” Plato’s place in political philosophy is contentious and always shifting.
Some say Plato was a proto-socialist and utopian, a man whose conception of the ideal forms paired with the fact that he was a political philosopher first and foremost—and not a metaphysician, epistemologist, and mystic as later Neoplatonic and Christian mythologizers made him out to be—make him a forerunner to the totalitarian movements of modernity. Others say Plato was a friend of liberty, subtly exposing the brutality and cruelty of the sophists and that the philosopher’s criticism of “democracy” is premised on the injustice of democratic Athens. From this later perspective, Plato is equally important to ward off the new propagandists of democratic totalitarianism—and in the aftermath of the Cold War this is a warning worth heeding since democracy is not intrinsically good or bad as our contemporary media does in waving the magic wand of “democracy” with abracadabra magic. Furthermore, the mystic and Christianized readings of Plato do harm to Plato’s primary philosophical agenda: political philosophy. This isn’t to say Plato the metaphysician should be tossed away, but it is to say that reading Plato as he was, as a political philosopher, is paramount in any education and teaching of Plato. In short, Plato is always worth reading because Plato is—directly and indirectly—a figure whose shadow looms over the whole of the Western intellectual tradition.
What follows in Varma’s study of reason (logos) and coercion in Plato is a breathtaking analysis of the Republic, the Laws, and the Gorgias. In moving from Plato’s Republic to the Laws and then the Gorgias, Varma also implicitly organizes the book in the movement of political decline and rebirth: from noble monarchy (the Republic) to aristocracy (the Laws) and finally to democracy (the Gorgias) wherein we also see the philosopher at work within different environments but still concerned with the promotion of rationalist politics and its relationship to bodily coercion to unite the individual with the Good which is not only good for the soul but good for the whole body politic.
Plato’s tripartite psychology informs Varma’s reading of the philosophic agenda within each dialogue. Humans, according to Plato, are constituted by desire (eros), spirit (thumos), and rationality (logos). As Varma also makes clear, it is necessary to realize that Plato’s use of persuasion as the means to avoid tyranny or brutality (represented by the sophists, especially) does not necessarily the end of eros. Rather, “Reason has not cut off desire, but it has channeled desire towards a higher long-term good.” In the Republic, this is revealed through Socrates’s eloquence and persuasion, his reasoning, against the base brutality and passion (eros) of the sophists.
Through Socrates, Plato knows the sophists are concerned with power and we as readers are supposed to understand this. But at the same time, Socrates desires to teach the sophists the superiority of rationality wherein they can rule, powerfully and justly, on the behalf of others by uniting their concerns for power with the Good which produces a politics of the common good, the ideal commonwealth. The Republic offers a politics of persuasive progression to the ideal commonwealth.
The attempt to frame rationality as the common good leads to Plato’s famous dismissive attitude of Achilles. “Homer’s glorification of Achilles made him the archetypal hero for all Athenian youth to admire and imitate—and this led to an erosion of aristocratic morals in Athens. Aristocratic men like Leontius were turning away from honor-seeking and towards the desire of the flesh…Socrates will be the anti-Achilles.” Putting aside whether Plato interpreted Homer correctly (it is my view that Homer actually deconstructs the shortcomings of the brutal vengeance, the divine wrath, of Achilles through his metamorphosis to forgiving lover by the end of the poem), what follows from Plato’s negative portrayal of Achilles is that the most brutal, and thereby unjust, men are those like “democratic” Achilles: self-centered, chasing after the flesh, and no longer concerned with the common good. Reforming the aristocrats, who will rule the polis, to be concerned with the common good and dealing with malcontents becomes the goal of Socrates in the dialogue.
This effort of transformation by persuasion culminates in the “art of bodily medicine,” the analogy in which Plato uses medicine as a means to discuss politics. This moment also culminates in the conception of coercion with the Republic. This climax of medicinal politics for the purgation of the soul ultimately mirrors Plato’s Laconophilic tendencies: euthanasia and forced abortion. To ward off the potential sickness of the just city, those souls who cannot perform their dutiful task in the collective body will be prevented from ever having a place within society less the city risk sickness,
if Socrates thinks that a man is incurably sick in the head, then he too will be medically euthanized (410a). This policy of killing incurable souls will, of course, encompass anyone who might disagree with Socrates’ understanding of justice, or be fearful of death in general, as both of these would meet his criteria of a contagious mental illness (410a). What is more striking is that Socrates aims to use coercion in small and preventable ways, which would prevent injustice from creeping into the city at all. For example, Socrates implements a forced abortion program for fetuses that were unapproved by the philosophers.
In the Republic rationality and coercion become one in the service of preventing injustice in an already just city. The use of coercion is not punitive but preventative, as per the analogy with medicine. In light of our recent dealings with COVID and all that transpired (and is still transpiring in some countries), Varma’s reflection is deeply insightful and prescient. In authoritarian regimes, which the polis in the Republic is in the sense of being guided by the sole authority of the philosopher-king, preventative harm is given rational justification which permits coercion on rationalist grounds. In achieving the perfect city, the Kallipolis, “Socrates…bring[s] the coercive power of justice over into the legislator’s art, which allowed him to use bodily coercion in a way that would prevent injustice from ever appearing in the city. Rather than waiting for men to commit injustice and then administering coercion on their body to deter others, Socrates used coercion like preventative medicine.”
But what if we do not live in the ideal city of justice? How, or why, might coercion be justified? Varma now turns to the Laws in which he deals with rationality and coercion from the purview of aristocratic or oligarchic governance—the Athenian stranger with his Cretan interlocutors. The dialogue is also dealing with the construction of the ideal city when the populace cannot be rationally persuaded to the Good. Since, in the Republic, the sophists could be persuaded to the Good, the ideal use of coercion as preventative medicine is what Socrates taught after persuading the sophists to accept the Good as conceptualized by Plato. Now, however, in the Laws, the Athenian Stranger (who resembles Socrates) has a different task at hand in a different political environment.
In this dialogue, rather than a philosopher-king the philosopher must persuade fellow “aristocrats,” leading men of political society, of the need to transform faulty and unjust laws to the Good. Varma does a splendid job drawing on and explaining Platonic imagery, for example, the climax of rational argumentation occurs at high noon when the sun (the light of philosophy and logos) is at its highest peak and the Athenian stranger is speaking as its embodied representative. Varma also draws the reader’s attention to how Plato borrows from the poets in his crafting of the imagery and rhetoric of the dialogue.
In seeking persuasion of aristocrats to a new politics, the philosopher must necessarily be an agent of change. “[T]he Athenian has come to Crete as an agent of destruction, but…he is also looking to give birth to a new philosophical order.” The dialogue between the Athenian and Kleinias rest on a matter of first principles: how is the city organized? Did the gods or man establish the laws of the city? Is the city founded on war and strife or peaceful cooperation? If moral decline is inevitable, how can a city remake itself in the aftermath of destruction (the myth of the flood)?
Because the philosopher finds himself in an aristocratic setting, he must share power as evidenced in the long-winded dialogue and back and forth between the Athenian and Kleinias (in particular); but the philosopher does so with the goal of the rational persuasion of his opponent to let go of his cherished (mythic) beliefs that are contrary to reason and embrace the rationalism of the perfect order offered by persuasive change. In the politics of aristocratic compromise, “The genesis of the city will now be a combination of the Athenian’s vision for the best regime and Kleinias’ much more conventional outlook.” Nevertheless, the Athenian has achieved his impregnation of the polity with philosophy and compromise will inevitably yield more and more to the Athenian’s original vision over time. Once accepted, change occurs generation by generation toward the ideal.
The Laws then diverges into a discussion of punishment and the use of coercion in an aristocratic political settlement. Here, unlike in the ideal republic, punishment is punitive rather than preventative. As the building of a more ideal political commonwealth is the goal in an aristocratic polity, the use of coercion can only ever be punitive on those who break laws and violate norms. These punitive actions should also be public to convey and teach the rest of the population. Coercion is justified in response to illegal or criminal activity—something that most of us today understand and probably support in varying degrees (though perhaps not to the degree that it is described in the Laws).
Thus, in the Laws, we see how coercion is accepted when persuasion reaches its limitation: the limitation of the other (Kleinias). As Varma writes, “During the construction of Magnesia, the Athenian sought to design laws that would harmonize the passion of its citizens with God without using coercion. His co-legislator, Kleinias, however, had an inner constitution that would not easily harmonize with the vision.” Because perfection is not achieved, punitive coercion is accepted when laws and customs are violated which would bring disturbance into the city and prevent the slow-growth movement toward perfection.
From the Republic to the Laws, the pursuit of the Good has led to two different justifications of the use of coercion: preventative in the already just and ideal commonwealth and punitive in a commonwealth of becoming where aristocrats share power and politically compromise with each other in building a more perfect city. Now Varma turns to reading the Gorgias and the philosopher in a democratic polity.
At face value, the Gorgias is a dialogue about oratory and rhetoric—and from Plato’s perspective the deficiency of oratory and rhetoric over the nature of the good life. A skilled rhetorician and charismatic orator, like Gorgias, need not have any substantive knowledge of any subject. By being rhetorically skilled when most people are not, the rhetorician is able to awe a crowd and often appear knowledgeable in their sight. The orator is always a demagogue in waiting. The dialogue also deals with the nature of justice and injustice, reminiscent of the Republic, wherein arguments for natural injustice and justice abound from the mouths of the speakers.
But what Varma highlights in his reading is how oratory in democracy works and how coercion is employed in a democratic polity. There are two strands of coercion revealed in the course of the dialogue. One is the coercion of fear and shame employed to keep the masses in line by those in power. For example, “The tyrant uses the fear of bodily punishment to have his audience applaud him, and his audience applauds because they are anxious and fearful of being singled out and punished for not applauding.” Further, “Shame is perhaps one reason why Gorgias keeps silent about the tyrannical line of argument.”
In a democratic tyranny, fear and shame is one means by which the population is coerced into submission. By having the polis fear and be shameful of certain conduct, they are restricted in freedom, “[T]he tyrant uses the fear of bodily punishment to keep each and every person in a state of mistrust of one another, and this is how he garners obedience over a large group.” This is how coercive tyranny operates in a democracy wherein power still resides with the people but by subjugated their power to fear and shame of punishment the population is kept in check and subjugated to the tyrant’s will.
However, after Socrates successfully disarms Gorgias and turns to probing Polus another form of coercion emerges in democracy. Socratic coercion, or benevolent coercion if we can call it that, emerges as a remedy to injustice committed in non-tyrannical democracy (Socrates’s democratic polity stands in juxtaposition to Gorgias’s). In a polity that is democratic where power resides with the people the issue of justice and injustice isn’t resolved by virtue of the polity’s political governance, people may still engage in illicit, criminal, and evil activity in a good and healthy democracy. When this occurs, how is democracy to respond?
Here, Socrates gives his famous argument over whether it is good to be punished to purge a criminal of their evil. It is better to cure the evil committed by ignorance by use of bodily punishment in order to teach that such an action is wrong rather than have a criminal get off unpunished. In democracy, the benevolent use of coercion is punitive while also instructive. The goal of bodily coercion is to remedy ignorance by teaching good and evil through the punitive act enacted on the criminal. In doing so, the criminal is reformed to know the Good and choose the Good instead of committing evil.
In democratic society, by following Varma’s line of interpretation, the philosopher is aiming to teach the population about the Good so that they may individually choose the Good which means the collective embraces the Good by their choices when aggregated together. Coercion is a means to this end. Whereas in aristocracy the philosopher only had to try and teach his fellow aristocrats who shared political power with him, in a democracy the philosopher must teach the population at large because it is in the collective demos where power rests. Unlike Callicles, the last sophist to wrestle with Socrates who slavishly subjugates himself to the demos, the philosopher stands above the demos with his noble soul and seeks to use the art of persuasion but also benevolent coercion to teach the demos about the Good.
What is clear in Plato is that coercion is justified and justifiable, both in its Platonic positivity and also in deconstructing sophist despotism—Plato’s dialogues are examinations in how coercion is employed justly (Platonic positivity) and unjustly (sophist despotism).
This returns us to Foucault, Arendt, and Habermas. Varma implicitly agrees with aspects of Foucault and Habermas and not Arendt in relation to Plato’s role in crafting the politics of contemporary tyranny; modern coercive politics are manifestations of Hobbesian materialism and not Platonic analogy. Still, Varma also makes clear that Foucault and Habermas have significant problems. Looking at Foucault, for example, the famous French postmodernist also accepts the same Hobbesian metaphysics of matter, form, and power that he critiques Hobbes as articulating in justification of sovereign power and coercion. Foucault cannot offer an escape from Hobbesian totalitarianism; he can only critique it from the inside.
Plato, ironically, is the path out of Hobbesian totalizing coercion. Plato’s justification of coercion is limited in nature: it is limited to undesirables in the Republic and it is limited to criminals and law breakers in the Laws and Gorgias wherein the demand of justice against criminal injustice is some form of coercive punishment. This is because Plato wants us to freely choose the Good, but in doing so we must also learn to know the Good. Coercion, then, is simply a means to an end—the telos of transcendental freedom. Hobbes, by contrast, and the whole of the modern New Science eliminates the possibility of Transcendental Freedom. Dominion, absolute power, over nature (including human nature which is just the material body) is the telos of modern coercive power politics.
Hobbesian coercive power and modern power politics is rooted in materialism and, in the end, absolutely and unequivocally totalizing in nature. Any sensible and honest thinker today senses and sees this problem. Varma chillingly concludes, “I have shown, in the works of Plato, the philosopher’s logos sought to bridge the passions of man with the heavenly bodies, and coercion was merely a supplementary tool to help achieve this end. When Hobbes recast the cosmos as matter, form, and power, however, the soul gets reduced to a material body [like the sophists in Plato’s dialogues], and the aim of logos was not to bridge the passions of man with the heavens but to make the body obedient to power.”
In this magisterial study of coercion and power in Plato there is a subtle but significant difference between Platonic power and modern power in their use of coercion. In the Platonic view, coercion and power is aimed at reforming souls so that they know the Good and therefore can freely choose the Good. In the modern view, which mirrors the despotism of the sophists in Plato’s dialogues, the complete domination and mutilation of the body so that it is subjugated to the sovereign individual (as Achilles does to Hector), or, more precisely, the sovereign bureaucratic state, is the aim of the use of coercive power. Modern materialist conceptions of politics will inevitably lead to totalizing tyranny because the transcendent soul and the moral order of the Good have been eliminated from political consciousness. Varma’s implication for the restoration of liberty against totalizing power entails a politics that restores the Good to political life. We are left to wonder, however, whether the democratic slaves of the totalizing state will use fear and shame to prevent that from happening to keep us subjugated to the totalizing power of the modern state.
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