Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Quickly: The Myth of Equality and Plato's Republic

Perhaps this will be the format for a number of soon-to-be blog posts, but since time is short, they will take the form of "quickly."

Every now and again Y and I see children and I comment on their aptitude and say, oh, he's part of the bronze cast, or she's silver, recalling the "myth of the metals" described at the end of Book 3 of Plato's Republic. As you shall remember, according to the myth of the metals, individuals in the community are differentiated in their education, at birth, based on the metal in their soul. Should you have gold, you shall be trained to be a guardian; silver, an auxiliary; and bronze, a craftsperson. I think this is a funny joke, but Y mentioned the other day that it made her a bit anxious.

I explained to her that Socrates proposed this myth in order to best organize the city that he and his interlocutors are describing. In other words, it is not that Socrates necessarily thinks that there is such a differentiation of individuals according to metal (or blood), but that there needs to be in order to train people properly, create the just regime, etc. As well, I mentioned, the consequence of this myth is that each occupation is treated and valued for herself insofar as they fulfill their occupation, not in relation to other occupations. Namely, that the craftsperson is judged as a craftsperson and not as a guardian. I summarized, drawing from my lectures, that this is the myth of difference.

In my lectures I counterpose this to our own myth of equality. Namely, that all people are equally capable of doing anything, via bootstraps or saving their pennies or education or whatnot. Yet it seems to me, and I didn't realize this until the conversation with Y, that the myth of equality has the unforeseen and unintended consequence of devaluing the different occupations of others. Instead, it treats only the highest, most lucrative, most powerful, occupations as those worthy of esteem. Thus, the myth of equality has the unintended consequence of making all except those who have "succeeded"--which by nature must be a limited number--failures.

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