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Why Plato's Philosopher-Rulers are Good for the City

Date and Time: 
Thursday, January 30, 2020. 04:15 PM - 06:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Education, 334
Ethics and Politics, Ancient and Modern
Meeting Description: 

All EPAM sessions are pre-read. We will begin with a brief summary of the paper and comments by Grant Dowling, followed by a response from Professor Ferrari. Afterward, the floor will be open for questions.

Socrates in the Republic famously proposes that philosophers would make the best rulers. Despite how startling he takes this proposal to be, he offers strangely little argument to justify it, and much of what he does offer actually tends to undermine it. Ferrari argues that the responsibility for this is to be laid at the door of the character Socrates rather than of his author Plato, who scripts difficulties for his protagonist in this discussion in order to convey to the reader what the benefits of philosophic rule really amount to. Throughout, he traces the thread of the story that Plato writes rather than the logic of the argument that his character Socrates presents. Tracing Socrates' logic will play only an instrumental role in this task. The payoff of this unorthodox method of reading Plato is to arrive at a straightforward and, in its way, intuitive understanding of how the philosopher-rulers are good for the society that they rule. Philosopher-rulers do not apply their knowledge of the Forms to the practical running of the city, as some scholars are tempted to believe. No one has convincingly explained how this application would work, for Plato supplies too little detail on the topic. Ferrari proposes that we stop trying to make it work.  The lack of detail is deliberate, because Plato's proposal is simpler than it is usually taken to be. He believes that a city purpose-built to support the ideals of its philosophers will be the best a city can be.  Put philosophers in power, train them to keep their successor-philosophers in power, and the rest will (pretty much) take care of itself.

Professor G.R.F. Ferrari, known as "John" by his colleagues and students, is the Melpomene Distinguished Professor of Classical Languages and Literature and Professor of Classics at UC Berkeley. He works in the areas of ancient philosophy, aesthetics, Greek culture, ancient poetics and rhetoric, and philosophical aesthetics. He is the author of numerous publications, including Listening to the Cicadas: A Study of Plato's Phaedrus in 1987, and City and Soul in Plato's "Republic" in 2005. In his Guggenheim fellowship year (2008-9) he took a break from his habitual study of ancient philosophy in order to begin writing a book of contemporary philosophy entitled The Messages We Send: Social Signals and Storytelling. The project stems from a long-standing interest of his in a kind of social message-sending that falls short of full-blown communication. A connected project has appeared as an article, "The Meaninglessness of Gardens," in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. The book was published by Oxford University Press in 2017. In ancient philosophy, a substantial article on catharsis in Aristotle appeared in Phronesis in 2019, and a recent paper, "Plato the Writer," attempts to sum up the approach to reading Plato that he has developed over the years.  His current project is to write a book on the themes that crystallized in "Plato the Writer."