Plato’s “Republic” is set in a seaside courtyard down at the port of Piraeus. There, in the shade of an olive tree and against the lapping of an Athenian breeze, are sat Plato’s dramatis personae. Presiding at this conversation, aside from the famed philosopher and such Mediterranean amenities as the shade, sea, and sun, which are all foreign to Rochester, are intelligent names like Lysias and Glaucon, Polemarchus and Thrasymachus. In short order, the prototypical “café circle” fires the opening salvoes of an exchange to be heard ‘round the Western world — at least as its echoes are propagated across two millennia by the skulls of so many scholars and statesmen, and today by the particularly reverberative one of yours truly.
Their topic at hand is justice and its achievement by the state. It is a romantic theme typical to the candor of the Ancients, who by definition were anachronistic to nihilism, industrialization, and mass-nationalism. Spared as it was of the disillusionments that would characterize many a Lost Generation, and the broken exiles and expatriates that seem always to congregate in Paris, this school is childishly unsuspecting in its search for truth. Several pages into “Republic”, it is this primordial innocence that lends an affable charm to Thrasymachus the Sophist when, his own formulation of justice having been rather unjustly rebuffed by Socrates the sophist, he cries, “You’re being tiresome, Socrates, and taking my definition in the sense most likely to damage it.”
One sympathizes; Socrates is tiresome from the outset of the dialogue, what with that staccato skepticism that today bears his name. Truly, he was an insufferable character, the antecedent of the joke: If all the philosophers of the world were laid end to end, well that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Nonetheless, the man was a genius who bestowed upon the West an inheritance decidedly different from that passed to my own hemisphere, which was saddled with Confucius, his proverbs, and the damned four-character-idiom, which though easily stamped on the agrarian or Stakhanovite mind, mutilates the heterodox one. Being that the East was the tradition I was born into (in Japan) and raised by (in Taiwan) before quitting to a New England boarding school alongside a fair few Han-Chinese, Hanguk-in, and other Nihon-jin, permit this foreigner his distillation of Thrasymachus’s criticism down to the Confucian dictum. Let that dictum be as follows: Be charitable in argument, that victory should lend you all the more persuasion. I have committed myself to the heeding of that moral, and therefore, to the charitable treatment of my subjects, whomever they may be.
Is it not true that Western discourse has been, of late, especially in the United States, an uncharitable arena with deleterious consequences for all? That is my alien diagnosis. In my travels, never have I met a constituency of factions as dedicated to their mutual annihilation as the so-called United States. When I landed at Logan five years ago, I didn’t exactly have Dvořrak’s “New World Symphony” in mind, but I was yet naïive to the cruelty exercisable by American factionalists when offered the proverbial mouthpiece — heightened all the more by their being pleasantly American in private company. Your “moderate” laments the cleft between the aisles, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, as a “broken jawbone of our lost kingdoms.” (Strange that Americans should remain so talkative.) And East Coast punditry amounts to “observing” the degradation of Pax Americana to some dreaded Pax Alabama.
It has become a national pastime to engage in uncharitable ruination, smug hyperbole, and sneering syllogism, all at a magnitude that to me suggests more than the sweeping of details under the rug, but the sweeping of a plateau in advance and the fetishism of Armageddon. In hindsight, I owe Socrates an apology: tThe American’s enamoration with binary slander while sitting under Damoclesian swords — this is not the offspring, but more the miscarriage of that philosopher’s critical style, which was consistently preoccupied with truth, closely followed by mutual learning. A better, albeit still classical heritage for this behavior would be the insanity of hoplite warfare, of citizenry marching off with the fervid acceptance of total war. That zeal for conflict has been immortalized in Western military doctrine: Eisenhower once remarked, “Every ground commander seeks the battle of annihilation.”
Certainly, the ground commanders at the vanguard of America’s culture wars seem fond of annihilation, and to the point of parody. Even in apparent peacetime, their rhetoric is high-stakes. It is meant for times of insurrection (against some monolithic, sexist, and racist Big Bigot) or suppression (of some Soros-funded Marxist contagion, as awkward as that arrangement sounds). “Social justice warrior,” “feminazi,” and “Nazi,” not to mention the salient usage of “movement,” “crusade,” and “resistance”: This is not the lexicon of bookworms, but the pronouncements of a self-appointed angel on the massively negative-sum set piece of Tel Megiddo.
The de-escalation of these affairs cannot be solely achieved by technical optimism, the kind of look-at-the-graph-we’re-not-so-badly-off economics that is likely to be perceived as a trivialization of issues dear to the combatants, or at least perceived as the statistics of a contrarian more bent on contrarianism than sincerity. And while it is tempting to bemoan the Facebook masses, itching to rage at the shibboleth of a factional meme, the door has already closed on that one, if you are tempted to their disenfranchisement. Say hello to the age of the common man’s divine right. It is here to stay, and it is better than the divine right of kings.
But tenuously. The irony of mere citizens who have turned dreamers of a better world, is that, by virtue of curating those dreams, they cannot help but become the Curator, the Guardian, and the Authority vested with the right to destroy just as much as to create. For many Americans, this irony has bred that tiresome leftist messianism so committed to the inexorable raising of stakes, and to the vaporization of the Big Bigot, even at the cost of Armageddon, for the sake of Ideal America. For all their militancy, they never seem to have read Sun Tzu nor have heeded his warning against the total encirclement of a desperate foe. That its relentlessness has gifted its opponents a fabled Last Stand will frustrate the left well into the next decade.
Not that they are the only ones culpable for self-insistence. Returning to “Republic,” the nubility of Socrates’ ideal state — his pet state — was what seduced him to prescribe it the zealous boundaries that have historically inspired so many comparisons to totalitarianism. The same genius that precedes Smithian and Ricardian insights in suggesting division of labor and specialization of workers also seems to precede Goebbels: Socrates prohibits his Guardian class from reading certain sentimental Homeric passages and from listening to certain idyllic musical scales, for fear that they will corrupt them and lead to the demise of his paradise. In a rather fundamental way, at least among visionaries, it seems that control and construction are two sides of the same coin. One wonders the geometric feasibility of retaining one over the other.
I was once asked why I decided to come to America. My brusque response was that America will still be remembered in 1000 years. This was uncharitable, because implicit in that smug view was the suggestion that my fellow countrymen are going about their Japanese lives, paying their Japanese taxes, and raising their Japanese families in a state of ironic sarcasm. But, I do think that there is an undeniable firebrand vision within the American citizenry, and sometimes I think it makes my country seem to be an island of prevaricators and equivocators in contrast. So while I am appalled at the name-calling, the aggression, and the righteousness, and I have my reservations about treating pithy poems as charters of national policy, I cannot help but admire that soul who sees a military objective in the Statue of Liberty. I call for only the sophistication, not the tempering of this ferocity — the ferocity that is just as component in vision as it has lately been in condemnation, and which must remain terminal if the American republic is to be remembered in the far future.